Introducing Anpanman

Japanese popular culture. World renowned for Anime, Pokemon and Karaoke, and now, for Anpanman.

Anpanman, my favourite new pop culture phenomenon, is a superhero made of bread. His head is made from the popular treat Anpan, a bun stuffed with red bean paste.

He was created by the Japanese writer, Takashi Yanase. Takashi created him as a superhero that could also feed people after he dreamed of Anpan while serving as soldier in WWII.

He is by far the most popular children’s character in Japan, and with good reason. He and his friends – Shokupan man (white bread man), Currypan man, and Melonpannachan (Melon bread girl) save the world every episode from the evil Baikinman (germ man).

After a long day of stopping whatever Baikinman was planning, Anpanman often feeds the victims of Baikinmans crimes with pieces of his own head. Don’t worry dear friends, because as soon as Anpanman returns home, his head is replaced with a new one baked by Uncle Jam.

I recently visited the Anpanman museum in Kochi, and it was crazy. Hundreds of toddlers running around screaming ‘ANPANMAN!!’ I am bringing home one of his comics translated in English, and am so excited to share it with the uninitiated. A superhero. Made of Bread!

How to: take the JR to Tosu-Yamada, and then take the Bus to the museum. You can’t miss the bus, it is painted all over with Anpanman characters. It only leaves twice an hour, costs 600 yen and is 25 minutes long, but it’s well worth it for this hilarious slice of Japan.

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Ikebana

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging. Like many Japanese arts, it’s subtle and simple, yet somehow extremely complicated. My friends and I have been practicing Ikebana, to some degree of success, every week since we found classes in our town in February.

Every week we bike twenty minutes to our teacher’s impeccable home.  Her garden has beautiful Japanese plants and a stone path and her house is full of beautifully displayed flowers, sliding paper doors, and tatami mats. As they enter the practice room, all the participants sit seiza – the Japanese formal way to sit, kneeling with your bum on your heels, and say hello.

We pick up our flowers and spend some time cutting and arranging them before the teacher comes and rearranges them, trying to teach us about the proper angles and heights in Japanese. After the flowers are properly placed, we draw them in our notebooks and pack up.

After the flower arranging part of the evening, we have tea and sweets with our teacher. She usually has green tea and some omiyage – treats from a different area of Japan, but sometimes we have matcha and wagashi – sweets made from red bean paste to counter the bitter taste of the tea.

Then we pay, sit seiza again and say thank you, and take our flowers home to arrange them again.

It’s all very formal and ritualistic, and I manage to screw it up at least once a week, especially since I am unable to hold seiza for more than a minute. I love the flowers and the people we meet, and look forward to Ikebana every week Next week is our last Ikebana class before we go home, and I am sad to say goodbye to the sweet people and the calming hobby.

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Daijayama – Fire Spitting Dragon

This weekend, we were lucky enough to get a preview of a float from Omuta’s biggest festival – the Daijayama festival. Kids tell me it means giant snake, but in a less literal translation, it’s fire breathing dragon. It’s next weekend in Omuta, and I can’t wait!

One of my Oba-san (grandmother) friends took me to see her Karaoke teacher, who happens to make these dragons in his garage. It’s made out of Bamboo, paper mâché, and straw.  I am holding the tail and the eye, and Scott has the ear. These parts are saved after the festival and given as good luck charms to people in the community who have babies, get married or retire in the next year. It takes this guy four months to make each dragon and most of the dragon is burned after the festival, and they starts all over again the next year. Craziness!

 

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Even More Sports Day!

Sports Day: So enjoyable, I’m still writing about it a month later.

On of the more ridiculous events was Samurai Rides a horse, in which three students sport another student on their hands and shoulders, who then fights against a boy from the other team riding his own horse. Immensely dangerous, this event is banned at many schools, and is carefully supervised. I was still worried.

Another favourite was the teacher’s relay race. Teacher’s are all assigned to a team and some compete in the obstacle course. Women ran half a lap and completed three obstacles and men ran the full lap and all 6 obstacles. The teachers had to stack cans, jump rope, crawl through a tube and blow up and pop a balloon, but the best obstacle was only for the men.

They had to stick their whole face into a pan of cornstrach and search with their mouths for a piece of candy. Of course this resulted in their faces being covered in cornstarch for the rest of the race, which added to the hilarity. All day the red team had been trouncing the blue team, and the teachers race was no different. The red team anchor made up some ground and slid into the finish line.

At the end of the day, there were special routines by the team’s captains, who wore robes and danced in front of the teams stands. At the same time, the rest of the team was displaying their carefully choreographed panel routine.

At the closing ceremony, the students from the red and blue teams switched robes and danced together as a group. The day was amazing because I saw how much this tradition meant to (some of the) students. The blue team seemed genuinely happy when the red team’s inevitable win was announced, and the head student organizer cried when he gave his farewell speech.

Here’s a  video of the students singing the school song while doing another choreographed panel routine. I wish I could be here again next year!

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What’s that on your Fridge?

Purikura, or Print Club, is an extreme photo booth experience popular with high school girls and with me. Almost every girl in my school has purikura photos stuck all over their pencil cases, binders and even their rulers. Arcades, shopping malls, and even the dollar store have purikura booths and I have easily become addicted.

After you enter the booth, and deposit your 400 yen, you are given the option of making your skin darker, your eyes sparklier, and choosing the background. Each of these decisions is stressful, as the screen is in Japanese, and you are given a short time to make your choice. After taking your photos in front of a green screen, you can add writing, pictures, make up, accessories and hilarious english phrases to your pictures.

The pictures are printed off as stickers, and you can also send them to your cellphone, or add them to a display book on the machine.

I love Purikura and often coerce my friends into going with me so I can add to my excellent collection.

While I know there are a few booths in Canada, and it’s popular in other Asian countries, regular Purikura is definitely an activity I will miss when leave Japan.  However, it’s so ridiculous and Japanese, that it doesn’t really belong anywhere else.

 

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Sumo Wrestling in Fukuoka

Every year there are six grand Sumo tournaments in Japan, held in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. Each tournament lasts for 15 days, and we were lucky enough to see the second last day of the Fukuoka tournament in November.

A quintessentially Japanese experience, the sumo tournament begins at 9 and lasts until around 6, making for a very long day for the spectators. The lower ranked wrestlers compete early in the day, with the matches leading up to the grand champions in the the evening. Many attendees don’t show up until around 4, just in time to see the higher ranked wrestlers compete. We were there around 2, as we wanted to have time to explore and learn a little about Sumo. It gave us a chance to see the Sumo wrestlers walking around outside in their traditional uniforms, and marvel at their sheer size. As well we had plenty of time to buy Hello Kitty’s dressed like Sumo wrestlers, Sumo magnets, Sumo ear cleaners and other hilarious memorabilia.

As the sumo wrestlers enter the ring, they take their place around the circle and are introduced to the crowd. Wrestlers compete in two groups – east and west, and are paired off with someone else in their skill level from the opposite group. Every day they compete against a different opponent, and the scores from the tournament are added up at the end to declare the grand champion.

Each bout lasts only a few seconds, and the first wrestler to touch the ground outside the marked ring loses the match. Thought the matches were often short and anticlimactic, the mental preparation component before the bout could last up to four minutes, with each wrestler stomping his legs, shouting and throwing salt in the ring.

Sumo has faced many problems lately: allegations of match fixing prompted organizers to cancel the spring grand tournament in Osaka and attendance at tournaments is declining, as most of the fans are elderly, with few young people interested in the sport. However, I thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Fukuoka tournament, and would go again if I had a chance. One of my favourite parts was the advertising. Instead of traditional sporting event advertising of billboards or panels, Sumo wrestlers carried out banners advertising many Japanese brands, and of course, McDonalds.

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