Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kumamoto (熊本)

Kumamoto Castle. The young lady in the kimono is dressed up for Coming-of-Age Day.
Kumamoto wasn't always called Kumamoto. Those of you who know your kanji/hanja/hanzi might wonder if this city really is the origin of Japan's bears. Actually, its ancient name was 隈本, also read as Kumamoto, but the first character means "corner" or "shadow/shade", not "bear". The origin of shadows? Nah, it's really just a place name, probably kind of a boring one, too, because in 1607 someone thought it would be clever to change the first character to its homophone (熊, which means "bear"), and the new moniker stuck.

That someone, I believe, was Katō Kiyomasa, a daimyo (feudal lord) who ruled in Kyushu in the late 16th and early 17th century. Kiyomasa is an important figure in Kumamoto history; he is also quite the antagonist in Korean history. As a senior commander of the army, Kiyomasa led invasions of Korea during the Joseon Dynasty and captured Seoul, Busan, and Ulsan, among other cities, though the conquest was unsuccessful in the end. He was also an enemy of the Japanese Christians in his domain and brutally persecuted them not long before Christianity was banned outright.

On the other hand, Kiyomasa is responsible for expanding and completing Kumamoto Castle (begun in 1467), which is the main landmark of the city and one of the most gorgeous buildings I've ever seen. The castle keep you see today is actually a reconstruction, since the fortress was besieged during a rebellion in 1877, and the castle was burned to the ground.
Erik and me at Kumamoto-jō.
Erik and Kiyomasa of the tall hat
Walking the grounds of Kumamoto Castle, I noticed several archetypically Japanese things: koi in the river, a woman dressed in a kimono for Coming of Age Day, men in costume as ninja and soldiers for tourists' photos, beautiful artwork on sliding wooden doors inside the museum, a traditional tea ceremony room... It got me thinking about Japanese culture and its portrayal as a monolithic entity to Western eyes.

Google "Japanese culture" and you get a pretty uniform set of images: geisha, sumo wrestlers, Buddha, Shinto shrines, sushi, cherry blossoms, and more geisha. Maybe throw a little Hello Kitty and martial arts in there. (Do the same for "American culture" and you'll see a lot of flags, fast food, and bland diversity-themed stock photos.)

I wondered aloud to Erik if the historical periods in which geisha, sumo wrestlers, ninja, and samurai all came into existence were chronologically close to each other at all. These human icons are, of course, all unique and representative of Japan, but I think we should find it strange to see them juxtaposed, as we would pause at the sight of ninja prowling around a castle in 2014 on the hunt for tourists with fancy digital cameras. Remember Katy Perry's infamous yellowface performance at the American Music Awards last year? "Look at how much she loves and appreciates Japanese culture," they said. "She's dressed as a geisha. There are cherry blossoms falling from the ceiling. Her backup is doing a Chinese fan dance. Ooh, taiko drums!" All of those elements of Japanese (and Chinese) culture appropriated and smashed together to appeal to a Western audience.

Let's turn the tables: I want to see G-Dragon perform his latest hip-hop number on a stage accompanied by Asian cowboys, breakdancers with uh... braided hair extensions, and women dressed like Lady Liberty. GD's a great dancer: he can show off the Charleston, the Dougie, the New York Hustle, and eight beats of perfectly-synchronized tutting with his crew, finishing it off with a square dance as maple leaves and Wal-Mart coupons rain down from the ceiling. "Look at how much he loves and appreciates American culture!"

Erik's apple pie a la mode!
Anyway, cultures collide in odd ways. Erik's favorite dessert in Japan is not mochi or roll cakes but a new McDonald's menu item called "A la mode". It's literally a McD apple pie in a cup, topped with McD soft serve and chocolate sauce. You can obviously make this yourself at any McDonald's, but in Japan it's actually on the menu.

Back to Kumamoto, then. On my second evening in the city, we met up with a friend of Erik's and ate dinner at a great all-you-can-eat shabu shabu place, vowing to consume more than our money's worth!

We followed it up with a night of arcade games. It's been years since I've set foot in an arcade, so I hardly recognized any of the games. A lot of them looked glitzy and super high-tech, including a newfangled rhythm game called "MaiMai" that resembles a giant washing machine. Timed to music, players must tap buttons around a circular screen as colored rings reach them. It looks and feels silly at first, but once you get warmed up and choose a harder skill level, suddenly it becomes really fun. And addicting. I was sad that Dance Dance Revolution was nowhere to be found, but MaiMai more than made up for it. There was also an amazing air hockey game called "Big Bang Smash!" that unloads dozens of tiny pucks onto the court for a minute of pucking madness. It was awesome.
Big Bang Smash! Air hockey on  a sugar high!
What else is there in Kumamoto? I can't forget Kumamon (not the Digimon), Kumamoto's friendly bear mascot! Thanks to Kiyomasa, this city is able to market its namesake with Kumamon toys, Kumamon t-shirts, and Kumamon's smiling visage on everything from cookies to face towels. I don't have any great photos of or with him, even though he is everywhere in Kumamoto, but I did get a face towel... Another mascot is the adorable puppy you see below. I can't remember its name, though, or what exactly he represents. Kawaii-dom, if nothing else.
강아지 (kangaji)! こいぬ (koinu)!
And... I'll sign off with some shots of our beautiful hostel, the "Dyeing and Hostel Nakashimaya". It's part traditional dye store and part traditional inn. Its cozy rooms have tatami mats for sleeping instead of beds and trunks with heavy locks instead of lockers. The lounge area has tons of manga, stunning decor, ancient maps, and modern computers. Every inch of the hostel is exquisite and charming, every figurine placed so that everywhere you look you're reminded that you're in Japan. Even the stairwells were decorated. Again, I wonder how well all the pieces fit together chronologically... is it classy or kitschy? Well, I trust the hostel owners' taste. It was too bad we only spent one night here, but it was enough to leave a solid impression. I highly recommend it.
That's a kid's samurai costume!
Gorgeous paper art.
Oh, and here's a video of some of the arcade games. We're a long way past the days of DDR...

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