An omake is a bonus item, like a toy packaged in a Happy Meal or outtakes after movie credits. My brain was still in “Writing in English” mode, so I decided to upload a few more pages before my business trip.

Country Gold
Last October, I went to my first country music concert: the 21st Annual Country Gold festival at Mount Aso, an hour east of me. The boss is 64-year old Kumamoto City native Charlie Nagatani, lead singer of Charlie and the Cannonballs, owner of Good Time Charlie’s country music bar. He is the most famous J-Country musician in the world, but it’s such a small scene that he doesn’t have his own English page on Wikipedia. One, and only one, country song is well-known here: John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road.” The narrator of that tune left his country home long ago but longs to return to where life was beautiful and real…just like most Japanese people. The anthem of the Japanese countryside, “Furusato,” has the same theme, actually.

This is the one time of year when the thousands of diehard fans in this country can get together. I reckon the people they see the other 364 days of the year don’t understand them at all. It was a delight to see so many elderly Japanese people in flannel shirts, jeans, cowboy boots, and 10-gallon hats. They even put bandanas on their dogs! Some young ladies had a square dance group, and the drunken grandpas stumbled along trying to imitate their steps. The foreigners and normally-dressed Japanese aren’t typical fans, but bluegrass makes for nice BGM. Japanese musicians sound legit, except that their accented English makes their lyrics incomprehensible to Japanese and Americans alike.

Charlie Nagatani knows people. Allison Krauss and other famous musicians have headlined in years past. Miss Montana, representative of Kumamoto’s sister state, comes to show people American beauty. This year, the world rodeo champion came and regaled us with tales of wild rides and broken bones (his Japanese interpreter left out the gruesome details). “I almost died this year, but…now I’m in Japan, so this is the greatest year of my life!” he exclaimed.

American import companies bring the goods, too. This is the place to go for American beer, barbecue, and wardrobe flair. There’s typically a hot-air balloon and a solitary horse for riding or petting. My Latina friend from Miami got on the horse last year, and everyone crowded around to snap her picture: “Wow!” they said. “A real cowgirl!”

Alas, the economic crisis reared its ugly head even here, especially because the dollar’s death-defying drop against the yen crippled the organizers’ budgets. Miss Montana took the day off this year, and so did the horse. Instead of Coors, the vendors sold Coors Light. The Japanese performers were more proficient than the American headliners, incomprehensible accents aside. To my greater disappointment, the barbecue stand didn’t have any baked beans this year. That’s when the recession became real to me. When I looked down at my $10 plate of steak, fries, mashed potatoes, and greens, without a bean to be seen, I sang the blues.

The real star, I think, is the venue, the Aspecta Outdoor Theater. It’s perfect for a fall barbecue. It’s a grassy valley surrounded by emerald mountains, with cows roaming the distant hills. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, and as the sun set behind the peaks, it bathed the musicians in gold. There’s no seating, just a slope descending gently to the stage, covered in picnic blankets as if it were the Fourth of July. What a peaceful place.

A Night at the Movies
I beheld “Avatar” in three dimensions last January, so here are a few short words about movies in Japan. Last year, I saw two movies here: “Okuribito” (Departures), a reflective masterpiece about life and death, and “Dragon Ball,” the mediocre American live-action remake of the very, very, very popular Japanese animated series about a karate kid who transforms into an insane monkey during the full moon, his monk and thief allies, and his evil alien rivals. (Somehow, it felt sillier than the source material.) “Avatar” is my only film this year, and though it was a sellout, there were ten spectators at each of the other showings I attended, even though it was the premiere weekend for “Dragon Ball” and the month “Okuribito” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film!

Half the foreign films are dubbed, half subtitled; half are released at the same time they are in America, half several months later. A chunk of the features are movie versions of long-running animated programs like Doraemon and Detective Conan. As transcendent as Japanese cinema was fifty years ago, and as great as its films can be now, there are no movie stars these days: the real glamour is in television. That’s where the hunks and pinups make their money from week to week.

I’m 45 minutes from the nearest theater. I think the base ticket price, $20, hurts the industry. Not many families of five will come out for that, especially considering the popularity of network and satellite television, video rentals, Internet, and all-powerful J-phones. The concession prices and quality are similar to America. The seat is more comfortable, and you can choose your seat assignment. You get a movie promo magazine with your ticket. Japanese filmgoers are quiet. Movie-going friends tell me they’re so concerned about disturbing other patrons that they don’t laugh out loud during comedies.

If you want to watch a movie with a hundred people, do it in America, but if you want to watch one by yourself, come to Japan.

Priests Run
All Japanese months have traditional poetic names. However, since 1873, when the government moved Japan from the traditional Chinese calendar (which started on 2/14 this year) to St. Gregory’s model, these descriptions have lost their meaning, just as the Western zodiac is now a month behind the actual location of the constellations. (So, as sensitive as you may be, you’re not really a Pisces.) The only month whose old name is still relevant is December. It’s called “Shiwasu,” meaning “priests run,” because everyone is so busy preparing for New Year’s that they’re dashing all over the place.

In America, Christmas is a family holiday and New Year’s is a date holiday; in Japan, it’s the opposite. Families gather at the home of the head of the household. New Year’s Day is celebrated with some fantastic hot meals made only during that season, including rice cakes made by hammering rice and water dough with wooden mallets; money handed out to children in red envelopes; old-school games with cards, spinning tops, and kites; temple visits; poetry about the first sun/sunrise/laugh/dream of the New Year; mountain climbs to see a beautiful first sunrise; and New Year’s Day sales, in which you buy a mystery bag from a store and then open it at home to see what kind of clearance clothes and goodies you won.

I was home during New Year’s, but I could still participate in my favorite tradition: New Year’s Cards. I was one of the few college students to send handwritten Christmas cards – if you’ve received an illegible note from me before, trust me, I was wishing good things for you. Everyone in this country sends them, though, and if you send a card to someone who didn’t write you himself, you can still expect a response in the first week. The post office delivers them on New Year’s morning, so you can start your new life with the good wishes of friends. The only people who don’t participate are those who lost a parent, grandparent, or other close family member that year; they spend the holiday quietly instead, remembering their lost loved one.

I sent thirty or forty cards last year. This year, I figured it would be the last chance for my friends and co-workers would receive a handwritten Japanese card from a foreigner, so I sent one hundred and thirty. I wrote some traditional blessings and a personal note at the end of each. When I returned to Japan to find a stack of personalized postcards as thick as the Bible on my doorstep, I felt loved. Most people print out their cards now and write personal messages in the margins. That way, they can include pictures, so I saw my co-workers’ wives and children for the first time. People typically don’t mention their personal lives at work, so when I saw the pride they took in their families, I felt very happy for them. That warmth returns every time I leaf through these cards.

This is the Year of The Tiger, so a ton of cards had cute tigers on them. And one had a tiger piloting a plane during sunset, giving a thumbs-up with the caption, “TIGER! TIGER! TIGER!” (In Japanese, that’s “TORA! TORA! TORA!”) “I thought it was an awkward thing to send to an American, too,” the loquacious teacher admitted, “But that was my format this year, and I figured you’d get what I meant!” We had a big nervous laugh together and forgot about it. A teacher I admire, the just-married tennis coach who no longer works with me, gave me a proverb I’ve used every week this year: “Jinji wo tsukushite, tenmei wo matsu.” Loosely translated, “Exhaust yourself in good works, and leave the rest up to heaven.”

This weekend, I’m going to the 21st International Japanese-English Translation Conference, hosted this year in nearby Miyazaki. Next Thursday, I’m flying to India to spend a week in Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, and Mumbai/Bombay! I hope you’re having a wonderful spring. Happy Easter!

Explore posts in the same categories: Interesting Places, Japan, Movies and TV, Music

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