Mexican Festival in Odaiba

Way back in summertime, around the same time as the Indonesian and Sri Lankan festivals, there was another festival that I felt, come rain or sleet or snow or long rides on expensive trains, I must attend: the Mexican festival.

I grew up in the American southwest, and Mexican food is near and dear to my heart. Though my childhood cheese quesadillas are a thing of the past, for me, you can’t really go wrong with beans, greens, and a tortilla. That was all I wanted from this festival… and meh, what I got was close enough.

After the long trek out to Odaiba, an area on the Tokyo waterfront and chronically expensive to get to because of the limited and pricey train lines, I arrived to find the patio area decked out with a performance space, some vendors, and some more vendors. Dancers were performing when I arrived, and kids were having a very spirited go at a pinata when I left, but other than eating and drinking and hoping something good would come on stage next, there wasn’t much to do. The whole atmosphere was more reminiscent of a spring break resort town, only the college kids failed to show (even for the Drug-on Tacos).

My veggie taco and drink combo was satisfactory, but not sufficient to fulfill my nostalgia. I would’ve needed beans, or a lot more avocado for that. The “mango juice” I ordered definitely had some Bacardi in it, but not enough that I did a spit take. And if there’s so little alcohol that I can handle it, anyone else might as well be drinking water. But it was more fun than I thought, watching a bunch of kids go to town on a pinata, bringing up fuzzy childhood memories of birthday parties or school events where we did the same.

Next time I live in a place with enough space, I am totally going to spring for a birthday pinata.

And a cactus. Definitely a cactus.

Otsuka Summer Festival

September 1st, my neighborhood had its own summer festival to bid farewell to the hot, sweltering awfulness. Or at least that’s my guess. A procession started up the street, about a mile from my house, and proceeded down toward my main station. Though the heat kept me a way from all but the really major, “I need to see this because I might not be in Japan this time next year” festivals, this one was five minutes away so I didn’t have much of an excuse.

So, after a five minute walk from my front door, through the unusual crowd at my sleepy train station, I hit the festival route. There were the standard vendors lined up and down the street, and restaurants with their doors open and little tables outside selling beer and bento take-out boxes while trying to entice people in. The edge of the street had also been cordoned off for picnickers, who’d laid out tarps and picnic dinners on the asphalt.

The festivities, which involved different troupes of performers marching down the festival route, began at five, but I didn’t go out until after the sun had set past six. It was still hot, and I was immediately sweating. I escaped the slow-moving throng on the sidewalk and hopped up on a little brick wall around a landscaped part of the sidewalk, and took pictures from there as the performers went by. This was an exercise in “how to take crappy night photos”: a streetlight was across from me, resulting in copious lensflare; it was dark and my camera is five years old; and people were moving and blurring. Still, I managed a few shots of the costumes and dances, and if nothing else I think you can appreciate the summer festival atmosphere.

I watched for about an hour, then made my way back home, to, yes, the sweet sanctuary of air conditioning. I’m a southwestern girl, I’m just not cut out for this wet heat.

Bunkyo City Culture Festival

My friend Reiko, who works for the Bunkyo City* government here in Tokyo, invited me to a culture festival they were holding around mid-February. It was, overall, a blast: “free” is very much the right price for me and my fellow students; Bunkyo is a super swank city where Tokyo University (Todai) is located, lots of richy rich Todai graduates live, and where I can only guess their taxes help pay for the very impressive government building the festival was hosted in. The entire festival was very well thought out and accommodating to foreigners, sharing different parts of traditional Japanese culture via displays and knowledgeable on-hand experts.

At Reiko’s recommendation, we arrived before noon to beat the crowds and went first to the Ikebana (flower arrangement) station. There an ikebana teacher showed us how to place the flowers following some basics of the craft’s aesthetics. This amounted to making a sort of triangle shape with the height/placement of the flowers. We were then given our flowers to wrap up and take home. Mine were tragically crushed by the end of the day, and I had to toss them – but don’t they look lovely?

EDIT: I can’t believe I forgot! While we were working on our ikebana, a reporter from a local cable channel heard we were foreigners who spoke Japanese and came to our table to chat with us. She gave me her card and said the video would be on Youtube in a week or two. I am keeping an eye out and will post as soon as it’s up.

Next we wandered downstairs and practiced some calligraphy, eventually painting our kanji of choice on our own uchiwa (a circle-shaped fan on a stick). Reema, who’s from Saudi Arabia, picked “suna” (砂/sand) for her kanji at our instructor’s recommendation, and I asked for something like sun (“hi”/日) but more complicated: so the instructor suggested the “you” (陽)from “taiyou” (太陽、also “sun”). I also recently learned from a friend that the same “you” is part of “youki” (陽気)which, when referring to a person, means she’s sparkling or energetic. Good choice, calligraphy teacher. I’m quite fond of my fan.

Later we went to the bonsai tree station, some very advanced examples which you can see above. These are all fake trees, crafted from plastic and paint, not real bonsai. We made our own mini versions by wrapping some bendy sticks in tissue and tape, painting them with brown gritty paint, and putting some green colored moss in the base. My little bonsai made it home in one piece, too, and is now keeping my fan company on my desk.

All in all a fantastic day courtesy of the Bunkyo City office. Thanks Reiko and thanks Bunkyo!

*For Japan know-it-alls: I’m aware “Bunkyo-ku” doesn’t translate neatly to “Bunkyo City” but since Japan and my point of reference, America, treat the governmental divisions of land mass quite differently, let’s just roll with it.

Yosakoi! Yosakoi!

Akiko, her husband Makoto and I walked the arduous five minutes to Otsuka Station to see the Yosakoi Festival today. Akiko told me ‘Yosakoi’ is from an old dialect and pretty much means ‘come out tonight!’ (yosa = yoru = night, koi = kuru = come). Yosakoi is a kind of dance, though based on the performances there’s plenty of variation in the steps and the accompanying costumes. There were a bazillion (and by a bazillion I mean maybe ten or fifteen) yosakoi dance troupes that came out to perform, and we stayed for about five. Waseda University had at least two, though the second Waseda group, in the green with the kitsune masks, had crazy energy and was definitely the most fun to watch.

I was standing next to an old woman (henceforth “obaachan,” aka “grandma”) who started chatting to no one in particular. She commented on how energetic the performers were, and I agreed, and, I suspect without looking at me, she replied back, and by the time she glanced over and realized I was white it was either not a problem re: her chitchatting in the first place or it was too late to politely ignore me. She was adorable though, and seemed to enjoy talking to me anyway, so I’ll go with ‘wasn’t a problem.’ It was loud and I could only hear/understand about half of what she was saying, and later when Akiko asked me what we’d been talking about I told her this.

“So what’d you say?” Akiko asked.

“I mostly kept saying ‘Is that so?’ and ‘That’s right.'” (そうですか?そうですね。)

“Oo, you’re good.”

“Small talk is universal.”

Around lunchtime we hopped on the Arakawa-sen (Arakawa Line), a rare street car line in the middle of Tokyo, and took it down to Waseda. There Akiko had found a restaurant called ‘Okinawashokudo’ (Okinawa Restaurant, essentially) that served vegan-friendly Okinawa-inspired food. Last time I went out with Akiko and Makoto (right after they’d met, and they were ten kinds of adorable then, too) they shared with me their strategy of ordering a bunch of stuff, sharing it, and ending up super full. I approve and was more than willing to participate.

While riding back Akiko pointed out a pun on an ad for gravestones:

It’s hard to read (but you can’t read Japanese anyway, right?) but it says: 墓地墓地(ぼちぼち/bochibochi)考えてみませんか?”Bochibochi” means “soon/in a little while.” “Bochi” means “grave.”

So the sign says something like, “Why don’t you think about (it) soon?”

Haha.

Seisen International Festival

Now that school has started I’m going to aim for weekly posts.

A professor invited us to a festival at his kids’ school out by Futago-tamagawa, and I and a classmate headed over on Saturday around noontime. It’s an international school, and thus an international festival. When trying to find our way there from the station, we decided on a “follow the foreigners” strategy that worked out pretty well.

So let’s be honest. Why does anyone go to these kinds of generic outdoor summertime festivals?

Food.

Since this isn’t my first time to Japan, and I’ll be here for a while, I felt perfectly okay abandoning the “try to eat Japanese food” mantra early in the game. I’m going to eat Japanese food every day for six hundred plus days. There’s no use keeping it up when surrounded by cheap, delicious international offerings.

Food was divided up into country-specific tables. Britain, America, and Canada were pretty amusing. Britain and Canada at least felt like they had picked their regional foodstuffs well: Britain had some little meat pies, Canada had maple syrup (with a little bit of pancake to go with). America was phoning it in with coffee smoothies and pork sandwiches, but I guess those two things do say “America” to me. Of course I’m biased and more prone to seeing America as lacking culture: because not only is it my culture, it’s the culture most of the rest of the world aspires to/absorbs/assimilates, so I see it as a null value instead of on par with the “other” that is everybody else.

So okay, America. Caffeine and meat sandwiches. I can see that.

My classmate and I did a circuit before I picked up a spicy lentil-filled fried bread pocket thing and she grabbed a falafel. You really can’t go wrong with fried bean bread things. We wandered around the rest of the grounds – there was a stage, where a line of kids playing the recorder gave us both flashbacks to our school days in the States, and various games and crafts that people a decade younger than we are would have been too old for so we passed. That bouncy house did look fun, though.

However. Cow milking contest? Where do you even rent these things?

We bumped into another classmate, but never did see the professor who invited us (or another that our classmate told us was roaming about, whose kids go to the same school). One more trip back to food, where I got a soft pretzel from Germany–and yes, IOM, it was disappointing, because it was cold and let’s face it I’ve just set the bar too high–and my friend got a different fried bean thing from Tanzania’s table. Then we headed back. All in all a good day: greasy foods eaten, people chatted with, vitamin D absorbed.

Now back to work.