Sunday, December 19, 2004


My body must be wondering what in the hell I'm up to.

Just a week ago I was waking up at seven or so every morning to air out the buckwheat we were drying for the soba noodles, then breakfast at around eight with the Kaneko family, everybody silently slurping down their daily miso soup, roasted fish, rice and veggies. The Kaneko's younger son, Junichi, would slouch off without a word to his job at the local auto-shop, while Kaneko-san and I would settle down with cups of coffee to watch the NHK asa-dora (lit. "morning drama").

Every year Japan's public television station produces a new year long, 15 minute series that is broadcast twice a day, during breakfast and lunch, right after the news. Last year's was some kind of samurai drama, but this year's is the story of a plucky girl named Wakaba (literally "young-leaf", ugh) who moves from the boondocks of southern Kyushu to the ultra-hip city of Kobe, with its wide European style boulevards and 19th century European houses. She is pursuing her dream of creating gardens, and finds a job at a small landscaping firm, but her life is rife with drama: will her younger brother crack under the pressure of college examinations? Can she choose between the moody boyfriend she left behind in Kyushu and the handsome but snooty young garden designer? What the hell is up with her British housemate Judy who speaks nothing but alley-gutter Osaka dialect? Is the silent and mysterious master of the local bar her father who supposedly died in the Kobe earthquake or just a coincidental doppleganger?

As you may have guessed, this show is not particularly good, (well, I liked the father storyline...) but it was fascinating as a kind of cultural and political barometer of modern Japan. Almost every household watches NHK during breakfast, and many workplaces have a TV set to NHK during the lunch hour. In its own clumsy and inelegant way it is tackling some of the major issues of modern Japan: women pursuing careers in traditionally male dominated workplaces, absent fathers (either from overwork or just dissapearing), families falling apart as children move to the city, and all those weird gaijin who speak such good Japanese...

Given the scarcity of Japanese speaking foreigners on television here I found the Judy character fascinating. She looked like a Norman Rockwell drawing of a twenty year old girl: attractive in a gawky knees and elbows way, with red hair and freckles. She was mostly used for comic relief. Whenever Wakaba was facing a particular crisis, along would come Judy (accompanied by a wa-wa-wa trumpet sound) involved in yet another comic argument with Wakaba's other housemate about washing the dishes or something. While shown as emotionally volatile and unpredictable, Judy wasn't all hissy fits, they did give her a more compassionate side. Osaka dialect is considered more direct and crude than standard Japanese, and hence ripe with comic possibilities, make it the lingua franca of Japanese comedy, but it was still a shock for me to see a white girl spewing out such raw language so fluently. You know you've been here too long when you see a white gaijin on TV yelling about washing the dishes in Osaka dialect and laugh in spite of yourself. It was so stupid! Guess you had to be there.

In anycase, after our daily dose of Wakaba-and-coffee (a combination I highly recommend) we would harvest some veggies for the farmer's market, do the prep for the soba restaurant, making the dough and cutting the noodles, serve the lunch rush, take a lunch break (too late to watch Wakaba again), have tea and sweets, then get as much veggie harvesting and soba drying as possible done before sunset. Dinner at 7 with the news (Fallujah footage of US Soldiers storming into hospitals, the never ending North Korea hostage issue, the price of vegetables, 15 year old table tennis sensation Ai-chan competing in the world championships), read my Japanese mystery novel (worse than Wakaba. Much worse. The professor did it. But you knew that from like page 10), bath and in bed by 12. Up at 7.

Having come back to Tokyo I have basically turned that schedule upside down. I sit crammed in a small office with two other guys while all three of us work feverishly to get this tour guide business off the ground. We stay up til 3 or so every night, up around 11, then straight up to the office again. 5 billion cups of green tea a day. We all work and live in this little two story place, taking turns cooking, doing the dishes and the laundry. And like any good Japanese household the TV clicks on during dinner.

I don't know what it is. In the states I avoid TV like the plague, but I think TV in Japan is great. The thing is that unlike American TV Japanese TV doesn't take itself seriously at all. What with the three of us cornered around the dinner table, the TV sits at the end like a particularly erudite 5 year old, yammering on without stopping. You can turn the TV on or off at any time and be able to pick up what's going on in 3 seconds. Today there was a program where they had set up a stage and emcee in one of Tokyo's entertainment districts. The people on the show would invite totally sauced salarymen to get up and sing parodies of popular karaoke songs. You don't know comedy until you've seen a Japanese salaryman, face flush red from the alcohol and teetering back and forth, moaning out a famous karaoke song, changing the lyrics to: "I'm 500,000 yen in debt and I can't move my left knee..." Hi-larious.

I suppose I should be worried when I plop down in front of the boob tube to relax, but it's been helping the Japanese. For sure. The thing is, there is stuff that blows my mind on TV every single day. The other night there was this pastry chef contest, and the three finalists were given the theme of choosing a city and making it into a Christmas cake. Let's just say that the guy who built a cake with a three and a half foot replica of the Statue of Liberty out of white chocolate, a series of skyscrapers made out of various cake types, a highway AND a working model train with Santa on it came in last.

1 comment:

eric said...

Nice review of "Wakaba." They are actually showing it now on rerun (I missed the first round a few months back) here in California, and I actually like what I have seen so far. I'm only at the beginning though, just as she is leaving for Kobe, and discovers the "mansion" (not "manshon" heh) she'll be staying in. The girl is hot in a conservative type of way, and I'm really digging her character.