The Normal Files

a caveat:

everything that follows is a work of fiction.

even that which has actually happened.

reality is what you can get away with

and i don’t think i could possibly get away

with you believing any of this.

if you did, you would only believe it subjectively anyway

Parks and Education

Despite reputation, a park can be the site of both recreation and education. Last weekend Maggie and I attended a small festival in honor of the blossoming of the plum trees. Japan is perhaps best known for its cherry blossoms, but lets be realistic, it is home to many kinds of fruit trees all of which bloom at some time or another. However, in the case of the plum trees that time did not correspond with the scheduled date of the plum blossom festival. This was merely a detail and everybody did their best to overlook it and have a good time anyway. 
The festivities included  some great people watching, entertainment and food. The highlights of the people watching was a child crying and walking blindly head first into a slide, a stroller filled with cats and dogs, and parade of guys playing flutes with baskets on their heads. One of these guys approached us and tried to put his basket on Maggie's head. 

The entertainment was provided by an elderly gentleman who seemed to be something like a very traditional Japanese clown. I say clown, but only for lack of a better word. The man was catering his show to children, but he had no make up, nor the silly demeanor of a clown. However his act did involve spinning tops, dancing monkeys and some kind of magic, or trickery, which I am still not so sure. 
The food was sold from tents that lined the pathways leading into the park. They sold a small variety of goods; fried octopus, fish shaped donuts, ramen, and rice crispy squares. The fried octopus looked strange as ever, the fish shaped donuts, fortunately, did not taste like fish, and the ramen looked like it would give a person with even the strongest bowels a quick and relentless case of diarrhea so we stayed away from it. 
The best looking snack at the festival was also the most exciting, mystifying and educational. Now I realize that there is nothing particularly mystifying about rice crispy squares, but when they are sold next to a large canon looking machine that explodes every twenty minutes they can be. We were attracted to the stand when we first heard a loud exploding noise and saw a cloud of smoke rise in the distance. We approached the scene quickly to investigate. What we found were three people working very nonchalantly behind a typical fare style tent. In front of the tent was a large griddle and various stacks of puffed rice snacks. To the right of the tent was the canon like machine. The eldest worker, and clearly the boss stood behind the canon drinking sake and smoking cigarettes. He wore a white glove on his left hand and I noticed that the pinky of his glove stuck up in such a way that suggested the glove was empty there. With the amount of sake he was drinking I thought he had lost the pink to the canon machine, but thinking   about it later the guy was probably Yakuza, or dishonored Yakuza as loss of a pinky finger is a sign of having dishonored the Yakuza. 
Becoming more interested in what he was doing than his pinky finger I started to pay attention to his actions. I wanted to know what the canon was for, and, as I was sure it would be awesome, I started shooting some video. It took about twenty minutes of standing around shooting video to finally figure what exactly was going on, for the sake of convenience I have edited it down to about three.

Parks and Determination

There is a river that runs through Gifu, along the side of this river runs a track where people, well, run. Along the eastern edge of this track is a smaller track where people rollerblade, play tennis and skateboard. It is a very scenic area of the track as the opposite shore butts up against a small lush mountain that is topped with a castle. As I was skating there one afternoon a Japanese man carrying stilts approached me. The stilts were not the kind a person would wear to tower over a crowd, at most they elevated their user a foot in the air. Like those pictured here, but of a more modern design.
The man asked if I could take a picture of him standing on the stilts with the castle in the background. He tells me that he wants to put the picture on facebook. He hands me his Iphone to take the picture and I see he has it set to his facebook page. I tell him that I don't think I can take the picture straight from facebook. That we will have to use the camera on the phone and he can upload it later. He seems a little confused by this so I show him the camera application on the phone. He nods happily and then tells me that we will have to take the picture quickly because he is not very good on the stilts yet. I tell him its no problem, take my position and frame up the shot.
He counts down to three, hops up onto the stilts and I hit the shutter. It doesn't work.
The delay on the Iphone camera is just a little longer than he can stay on the stilts. I tell him to try again and this time I hit the shutter just before he gets on the stilts. By the count of three he is on the stilts and the camera is in action. We get the shot, and in the timeless space of a photograph he is quite the stilt walker.  I show him the photo for his approval. He thanks me and wanders off. I get back to skateboarding.
About fifteen minutes later he returns and strikes up a conversation. He asks the usual questions; what am I doing in Japan, how long have I been here, why did I come. I chat with him happily. After a few more questions he tells me that he wants to travel to America in May or June. He wants to go to LA and from LA he wants to walk, on stilts, to Las Vegas. From LA to Las Vegas is three hundred miles. I tell him that I am quite impressed with his ambitions. He tells me he plans to practice the stilts everyday until the trip. I tell him he will have to. I then ask what kind of a record he will make of the journey. I tell him it seems like good fodder for a documentary or photo series. He tells me that he will document it all on facebook; using his Iphone on the trip he will post moments of the trip as they occur. I tell him I think this is a brilliant idea and that given the right networking he could become an international celebrity. He asks if I would be his friend on facebook and, in eager anticipation of his journey, I told him I would. He logged onto facebook, through his Iphone, and sent me a friend request.
After this he went back to wondering around and I went back to skateboarding, all the while I thought about his plan. In between tricks I would look at him in the distance, and not once did I see him practicing his stilt walking. When I got home I got on facebook and accepted his friend request. I was curious about the guy so I went to his page and started snooping. I learned that he was as new to facebook as he was to stilt walking. He had joined the network a little more than a month ago and I was his eleventh friend. I laughed at the gall of this guy. His dream was dependent on learning two things that he had only just begin to use. Yet despite everything he had going against his success I had confidence in him. He might not have been much of a stilt walker, or a very savvy social networker, but damn if he wasn't determined. 

Parks and Exhibition

In my mind the best public facility is a clean, free and accessible bathroom. Second to a clean bathroom I really appreciate a good city park. Living in Japan is then an exceptionally fortunate situation as public parks are abound and each is equipped with public toilets. The toilets are invariably clean as they are of the Japanese variety, which means they are basically holes in the ground. A hole in the ground, to a westerner, may not seem like the ideal place to poop, but because no physical contact is made with the toilet, they are far more sanitary than the western chair style toilet. My appreciation for a clean bathroom is one based in necessity, not frequent use. My appreciation for parks is the opposite a result of frequent use rather than necessity. Much of my life, I am lucky to say, has been spent in parks.
The majority of time I have spent in parks has been to skateboard, at skateparks. I also love a good swing set, jungle gym and any slide that seems particularly dangerous. Though parks that contain these kinds of things are typically catering to young children this has never stopped me from enjoying their facilities. Then there are parks, or aspects of parks, that cater to the general population, young and old. These parks contain basketball courts, fitness stations, and in Germany, ping pong tables. There are bio-parks for nature enthusiasts, zoo-parks for captivity enthusiasts, and, in Albuquerque, bum parks for drinking/sleeping enthusiasts. In Japan every park, despite its intended purpose or design, is a place people go to exhibit their enthusiasm for what ever it is they are enthused about.
To make a very broad generality, the Japanese are an incredibly focused people. In America we are proud of choice and this may lead us to be easily distracted. But, to quote on oft worshiped king, we want, no feel we deserve, to 'have it our way' regardless of the effects this has on our attention spans and decision making skills. We like to think of ourselves as renaissance people able to take on a handful of hobbies and express ourselves accurately with each. However in my own experience I have noticed that when presented with so many options I get lost. I become adrift in an ocean of possibilities and rather than pursuing my various interests I spend an obscene amount of time deliberating over which interest to pursue.
In Japan it seems that everybody has one hobby and they give into it completely. They spend every moment of free time, which in such a work-centric society is never much, pursuing this one specific interest. It may have something to do with their samurai ancestors. It is written in the Hagakure, a famous samurai manual of sorts, 'It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the way of the samurai. It is the same for anything else that is called a way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all ways and be more in accord with his own'. Of course it may also have nothing whatsoever to do with this, or it may be a result of the subconscious resonance of such thinking. I can't really say with any certainty. Whatever the reason is, the result is that most are incredibly good at what they do. Whether  or not it is necessary, whatever it is they do, they do it in public parks.
As a skateboarder I cannot skate in the privacy of my own home, I must go out in public, a park or otherwise, to find space enough skate. The same is also true for runners, jugglers, bikers, etc; many of which I have seen practiced in parks in Japan. It is not however the case for all hobbies, for example hip-hop dancing and fashion modeling. Yet the hobby I have seen both in public parks.
Hip-hop, or B-Boy dancing, is definitely the more popular of the two. It is also  one of the goofiest and most endearing things I have ever witnessed. A single teenager, or maybe a group of two or three, each wearing headphones. With no regard for the world around them, they get down. As a cultural reference I offer the scene in Napoleon Dynamite, wherein Napoleon is dancing in front of the mirror in his bedroom. Now imagine that Napoleon is a Japanese b-boy and his bedroom is a city park. If this reference doesn't help, watch this video of some kids I saw getting down in Nagoya.