Aizu-Wakamatsu Hipsters

9NINE and Straight Arrow Motors are owned by a couple of middle-aged businessmen, who used to run men’s fashion shops together in Tokyo, selling clothes that they bought on their trips from Southern California. When the Japanese economy was booming, they could sell pieces for quite a profit margin. I’m pretty sure they had a great time, as they are incredibly into American culture. One tells me he loves Coronado, and the Spanish ladies, and I wanted to tell him, they’ll eat you alive!

What I like about hanging out with these guys is their authenticity. They’ve embraced this do-whatever-it-takes culture, which makes them street-smart and people-smart, but they also have personal pride that allows them to have long-term relationships with their customers. Their customers are a community of rag-tag townies who enjoy their fixie bikes and imported cars. Most of them are also middle-aged guys, some with families, and some who’ve been through divorces and separation from their kids, so sometimes it’s like a group of Lost Boys, who share an interest in their bikes and cars. Several of them also enjoy indoor/outdoor bouldering as well, and a few of them actually opened a bouldering cafe to introduce beginners.

Every year, they throw BBQs, drinking parties, and rides around the lake, and they invite anyone and everyone. It’s probably good business sense to have a large network, but it’s their personal policy that they stick by the products they sell you and keep their relationship with you for as long as you’re around. Many people living here in Aizu-Wakamatsu had probably come from a small town or village in the depths of the mountains. Their hometowns are pretty spread out, so it’s definitely a family affair.

As for their shop names, 9NINE, which sells stylized track bikes, comes from the number of cyclists on a track in the sport of keirin, or track bike racing.

Straight Arrow, which sells imported cars… comes from doing things in a stupid way, like how idiots go about living their lives. So it was explained to me. I have a feeling it was lost in a translation because these guys don’t seem like straight arrows to me!

Hagi: Charm

A few fun stories:

My friend and I didn’t really have a plan in Hagi besides visiting the historical sites, so we took a few side trips.

Moku: I saw a couple of older ladies in a woodworking building, cutting up some blocks of wood and was curious about what they were making. Turns out they made these fabulous wooden kids toys, using all kinds of wood that’s found in Japan. Their biggest product is a uniform-shaped frog that can be balanced and stacked into a tower. Other really cool products are uniform shaped animals that can link into a wheel shape.

tazz: This shop was in an old shopping arcade, and stood out to me because of its modern nostalgic look. They had some glass and pottery for sale, but what got my attention was the counter, which was a re-purposed giant set of drawers that used to hold stationary items. On top of the counter were some old Japanese money that we had never seen before and thought were collectors items. Unfortunately, they were not in pristine shape, so they had no value to them, but they still had the same value as when they were printed, which was around the 1950s. The dude was nice enough to let us trade our money for them, so I got 100 and 1000 yen notes.

Junior high girls: As we passed the shopping arcade, a group of junior high kids were loitering around, and seeing my white friend, greeted us with a bright “Hello!” and “Annyeong haseyo!” We chatted with them a bit about whether there was going to be a festival that day, and they said there’s a festival every Saturday until August. I got into teacher mode and made them translate Saturday and August into English. If only my kids were this friendly!

Trick art: My friend wanted to check it out, and at first, I was kinda meh about it (it was 500 yen and seemed pretty small). But I decided why not, and it was kind of a good time. We got some pretty fun pictures from it. A weird middle aged guy came in after us, acting very interested in the exhibits, and eventually came around to awkwardly interact with us. It was obvious he wanted to talk to foreigners, as he had studied English in San Francisco at one point. I suppose that’s how Japanese tourists feel when I approach them back home after they find out I’m not Japanese. I hope I am not that awkward.

Jibita: This shop gallery is super fancy and had a collection of traditional Hagi pottery, and some unique modern pieces. The owner was happy to answer our questions about Hagi pottery. For example, people often think that the triangular chip on the foot of a teacup or container is the mark of Hagi pottery (I totally thought this as well), as they are seen on almost all their pottery. Actually, the chip is a mark for craftsmen to avoid having to submit/present their wares to the daimyo, as it is seen as “defective”. They would instead sell these chipped pieces to the general public. Hagi pottery uses a clay that produces a pinkish color, and would often mix other materials into the clay to produce a fine texture, called himetsuchi 姫土 (princess earth), or a rough, grainy texture, called onitsuchi 鬼土 (demon earth). And that’s as much as I care to learn about pottery for now.

Hotori-tei (畔亭): We went to a cafe for lunch after going to the Hagi Museum. There was a Vietnamese laquer painting with inlaid shells depicting Hai Ba Trung, two of Vietnam’s famous heroines, on elephants. This made me happy.

Saitoan (彩陶庵): A very modern art and crafty store in the middle of the old samurai town. They sold these sake cups with mushroom tops in the center for 4000 yen. I really wanted one!

Hagi: Revolution

For the Ocean Day 3-day holiday, I traveled to Hagi with another ALT from Aizu-Wakamatsu who casually enjoys history, much like I do. Being from such a historic place, we wanted to see the other side of the civil war.

I admit that I  felt a bit like a traitor going to Hagi, but what good is it being one-sided?

At first glance, Hagi is just another castle town, very much like Aizu-Wakamatsu. The tourist attractions featured a castle town, a museum, and a shrine property that housed a small school that educated the revolutionaries of Japan. Their teacher was Yoshida Shouin from the samurai class who wanted to go abroad on the American black ships and learn about the west because he was so impressed by the ship technology. Unfortunately, he was denied passage, was captured upon his return, placed under house arrest.

While under house arrest and imprisonment, Shouin taught the local inmates and samurai, and inspired them to look abroad in order to catch up with the rest of the world, for the sake of the country. He saw the need to teach any willing people, regardless of their social standing or income, as long as they were determined to use their education for change.

I think that was the biggest impact I got out of Hagi. An entire shogunate government was overthrown by an educated and determined group (and using the name of the Emperor) who started a revolution, marking the end of feudalism. But it started a war, and it hurt a lot of people. They probably were considered terrorists by the previous government, but since they won, they got to write history, so they are heroes and revolutionaries.

It really makes me think about the Vietnam War. In a sense, Aizu is a much more fitting place for me to be than Hagi, as all those who left Vietnam didn’t believe the country should be governed by Communism, which was led by China and Russia at the time. But even Communism was a revolution that wanted to educate everyone, regardless of class or income.

And then it made me think how the world seems like it’s about to have a revolution. Or maybe we’re in the middle of one now. With the Internet, everyone seems to be making their own revolutions.

Probably best that I should just focus on mine!

My dad was pretty political prior to coming to America. After he was forced to escape to save his own life, the immigrant experience humbled him and frustrated him. Once he got to a place where he felt stable, he wanted to keep it that way. So when I got involved with queer issues, I’m sure that not only did it go against his beliefs, he was also afraid I was being used by those who wanted political gain. He didn’t want me being played a fool for someone else’s agenda because even though they may win, there will always be changes in power.

Makes you want to be a recluse, doesn’t it!

Bikes

Before coming to Japan, I’d went to visit a friend in New York, and joined him and his friends on a bike trip in Poughkeepsie. I needed a bike, so we went to his friend’s, a girl about my height, to borrow her single speed. It was quite a ride, with hills that challenged my body that I hadn’t been taking good care of. But I had so much fun, coasting on the empty roads and feeling the wind on my face, that I was determined to do the same in Japan. I didn’t know what kind of bike I wanted, except that it had to be light with a quick release front wheel.

When I came to Japan, the school was required to get a mama-chari for me. For a common bike, it was pretty expensive, starting at a little more than $100 for a single-gear mama-chari. I got a new mama-chari for a little only one available under $250, with 3 speeds.

I was really excited to ride a mama-chari at first. I felt like I was riding a beach cruiser, and I could get to school in the humid heat without worrying about being a sweaty mess. But it soon lost its charm. Mama-charis are built for stability, so its frames are heavy steel, their wheels are wide for traction. They are also built for moms, so when you buy them, they come standard with aluminum chain guards, which I’ve built a certain hatred towards, metal fenders, a rear upright kickstand, a rear wheel lock, a rear rack, a dynamo light on your front wheel, and a basket.

As I got stronger and more used to biking, the mama-chari felt slow and sluggish. I really wanted something light to feel that cool air in my face again, but I wasn’t ready to fork out a couple thousand dollars for a professional road bike. I am an urban girl through and through, with a taste for earthiness.

An acquaintance who knew more about bikes than I did took me to his favorite bike shops. The first sold GIANT bikes and Cannondales. Their catalog had a couple of single-speed bikes, but they seemed heavy at an average of 13kg, and expensive to boot.

And then we visited 9NINE. Oh my god, did it feel like home. While the shop interior was comforting, I had no idea what I was doing and wanted. It was intimidating, even though the store owner was really inviting. All I could say was I was just looking.

Winter came and went and I walked. When the snow melted, I was in the market again for a bike again. I happened upon the Fuji Feather on the Internet, and fell for its sexy urban marketing. I was still reluctant to get it, and searched for places where I could see and ride one in person. Getting to a bike store that had it in stock took too much time and was too much trouble and I really wanted to get started.

I decided I would buy it after making a visit to 9NINE, which I hadn’t done since the first time. In my terrible Japanese, I told the owner that I was planning to get the Feather, but wanted to see if he carried frames my size. We tested the smallest bike he had in stock, and it was still too big for me. I gave in at the point, and told the owner I would buy the Feather, and whether I could I it delivered to his store in case one had to put it together. He readily agreed.

Once I got the bike, the  owner slowly introduced me to his group of friends and invited me to their rides around Lake Inawashiro, their BBQs, and drinking parties. A lot of the guys, shy and quiet, work for the post office, and the loud ones are business owners who own an American car dealership. In the past, the bike shop owner and the car dealer used to resell fashion they bought in LA boutiques. That’s how you hustle in Japan!

Only one other person on the rides is a girl, the wife of the childhood friend of the owner. Thanks to her, I feel more relaxed around the guys, and she’s is unexpectedly fit for a nerdy sort of person, so she’s like my unofficial pace-setter.

I still take the mama-chari to the bus and train stations when I go out of town, or when I can’t carry everything in a rucksack.

On Outing Half Japanese kids

I was at a drinking party and talking about the students with some teachers. I described one to be a bit condescending, and the teacher was appreciated that I had similar thoughts. I expressed how I couldn’t understand exactly why she carried that sort of attitude, and another teacher patiently and sympathetically explained that she’s protecting herself because she’s half-Japanese.

I had no idea, but was pleasantly surprised!

As the conversation went on, I praised the school’s diversity and how the teachers seemed so good at handling the variety of students, and not just half-kids, but also Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. And not only ethnic differences, but also differences in academic levels.

But at one point, I named another student who I found out was half-Japanese through my penpal letter program. The teacher was actually surprised to hear this, and I immediately felt bad inside. Granted, I trust the teacher on matters of privacy, as well as her open-mindedness, but I couldn’t help but think I may have outed this kid.

Fit patronizing

Couldn’t watch the World Cup finals at work, so I checked out live updates instead. Tried my best to ignore the irrelevant and racist WW2 comments, but I couldn’t ignore this line from the LA Times live update:

Japan’s goal was actually scored by U.S. defender Julie Johnston, who has been brilliant in the tournament but is responsible for both Japanese scores today.

Johnston went up to try to head a ball out of danger but sent it the other way instead, with the shot spinning just outside of goalkeeper Hope Solo’s reach and into the net at the far post for an own goal.”

Whereas the Japan Times reports the play like this:

Sawa applied pressure that paid off as her marker Johnston tussled with her for the ball and inadvertently headed Miyama’s free kick into her own net seven minutes into the second half.”

There is obviously bias in both stories, but it’s really tiring to see Japan being patronized all the freaking time for their ineffectiveness. Sure, the country needs more leaders and people to take initiative, but they also respect those who do due diligence.