Kōhaku Uta Gassen 2017

Every year, NHK has this huge elaborate television production called Kōhaku Utagassen (Red-White Music Battle). It is a huge celebration of celebrities, musicians, and of course singers. It starts from the evening on the last day of the year and continues right up until the countdown for midnight, at which point the hottest boy bands in Japan tromp out on stage to do a big New Year number.

I hate it.

Most years since coming here, I’ve tried to have the TV off at midnight. This is fine when we’re at our home in Fujisawa, but on the rare occasion when we make it up to my in-laws’ in Akita, the TV on non-stop and it is awful. There isn’t much to do other than huddle around the heater in the living room close to the TV. Unlike in Hawai’i, there aren’t any fireworks or huge events unless you venture to the city hubs, so it’s hard to find reasons to distract myself.

This year I’m staying home, so no mandatory 24/7 TV required. I’m free! No garish pachinko-like sets, no abrasive and obnoxious hosts, no endless streams of idiots shouting and screaming and hitting each other. Freedom!

But I’m going to end up watching Kōhaku anyway this year, because I’ve been bitten by the enka bug.

That’s Sayuri Ishikawa, one of Japan’s most famous enka singers and the longest-running contestant on Kōhaku, singing Noto Hantō (Noto Peninsula). A few weeks ago, I just happened to stumble on some YouTube vids of her and fell for her hard. I don’t remember the last time I fell so deeply and completely in love with a singer.

I have very little experience with enka, despite being Japanese-American and having lived here in Japan for nearly a decade. My maternal grandparents, first-generation transplants from Hiroshima, sometimes listened to it on KIKU-TV when I was younger, but of course I couldn’t appreciate it as an upstart kid. I had Green Day, I had THE BACKSTREET BOYS. Who had time to listen to old fuddy-duddy music, especially when you didn’t even know the words to sing along? Never mind that, when you didn’t even understand the language being sung!

How foolish I was, how ungrateful!

After my grandparents passed, I’d also hear enka at other relatives’ houses, and it was always the worst. Slow, wavering, nasal, overbearingl and overemotional, and very Asian. It was something that clung to the inside of my ears the same way cloying incense stuck inside my nostrils. It wasn’t the cool kind of Asian that I could use as social currency, like JPop knowledge or video games or anime/manga. It was old people stuff, and who wanted to get into that?

How stupid! How arrogant!

I moved to Japan and found that most people here, thankfully, did not listen to enka, nor expect me to know anything about it. Enka peeked around the corners of my life, but it was simple to change the channel, tune it out, not listen, not look, not care. I was exposed to enka, but I was not aware of enka.

Then I found Sayuri Ishikawa, fell madly in love, and now feel nothing but white-hot shame at myself. This is the video that destroyed everything I thought I knew about enka:

She’s singing Amagi Goe (Over Mt. Amagi). Look at the way her hand lingers, listen to that deep gutteral way she digs for those notes when she says she hates you, the way she stares directly into the audience and inquisitively tilts her head as she asks you Is it all right to kill you? It’s one of the most haunting things I’ve ever heard, and combined with her downright creepy performance, this is one of the most nerve-wracking and just cool things I’ve ever seen.

I had to have more of this. From Ishikawa, I was introduced to other artists, both through YouTube recommendations and tip-offs from friends and students. It helped not just to have a better understanding of Japanese than I did when I was a little kid, but also to have been to some of the locations being sung about. (Like American country music, enka often name-checks places and locations, and a lot of songs are about longing to return to those places.) I’ve also gotten over a lot of my weird internal prejudices about old Asian music, especially as it compares with Western music.

In any case, I’m still a baby fan. I have one artist that I’ve latched onto and fixate over, and haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the genre. Music is a thing that I held very near to my heart as a high school and university concert clarinetist, but my adult life has been relatively quiet and frozen in time. I’m often too busy or too stressed out to listen to old familiars, let alone try new stuff. I spend more time in silence than I did as a youth. Enka suddenly flared up into my life and seized me the way jazz did when I was in intermediate school, the way symphony moved me in high school, the way blues singers captured my heart in university. I feel like for the first time in a while motivated to have music in my life, where once I was satisfied to waste away long, quiet days.

Enka remains to me a total enigma. I still don’t know what’s the difference between, say, modern enka and classic enka, folk songs or true enka, and I can still only rattle off a handful of singers and song titles off the top of my head. I want to make 2018 a year filled with music.

For this year’s Kōhaku, she’ll be singing Tsugaru-Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki (The winter landscape of Tsugaru Strait). I have only a little time left before she goes on, and I have to memorize all the lyrics before she takes the stage. This is it, my moment of redemption. Time to make up for a lifetime of dismissing enka.

My 2017 in books

Goodreads has this cute and also horrifying feature where it will showcase all of the books you read in a given year, plus some other stats (longest/shortest, most/least popular, etc). The main problem is that for 2017, my goal was to read 12 books, and I only barely limped across that pathetically low barrier.

(Incidentally, I had to cheat a bit. Partway through the year, I was convinced that 12 was shooting for the stars and so changed it to 10 to be more practical. Then midway through December I realized even that would mean failure, so I revised it to 9. Only after I started digging hard into novellas was I able to jump back up to 12, my original goal.)

So, 2017 was not great for reading. But hey, I guess it was better than how I did for 2016 and 2015 with five books each… yyyeah.

The thing that ended up saving me by a hair was a Humble Bundle book deal that I got on a whim a couple of months ago, and got a bunch of Tachyon eBooks for a few dollars. I’ve already cleared a couple of them (Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds and The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson, which I’ve reviewed on Goodreads). I’m also currently on Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling, which I should have knocked out sometime either today or tomorrow.

I’m thinking of rewriting my previous two reviews to be longer and, well, better, and then reposting them here. Ideally I’d like to do long-form reviews that are more than just “this book was good mmkay” but then again I also don’t want to put up additional hurdles for myself when really my goal is just to read more. HMM.

End of 2017

Being depressed means I spend a lot more time than most people working up the nerve to start my day. I don’t mean housework, though that’s a big part of it as well, but even to do the routine work to get through my morning: brush my teeth, eat breakfast, change my clothes, and so on. If I don’t have to go to work that day, I often find myself still in my pajamas in the late afternoon, starving from not having eaten anything all day. The more I think about how I’ve gotten nothing done, the more I panic, and the less likely I’ll start actually taking care of myself. It’s actual black dread to look at the clock and see that it’s already 2pm and realize I still haven’t eaten breakfast or lunch… only to glance back at the clock to see it is now 3:30, and I still haven’t even moved.

The really annoying thing is trying to get yourself out of depression. See, sometimes I’ll be in a really high, good mood, and so I’ll make a whole list of things that I’d like to get accomplished. I’ll make daily, then weekly schedules, all in the name of getting myself focused, on track, using my days off “productively,” even if by that I just mean playing a video game or reading a book. What almost always happens though is that I go overboard with my lists and schedules and planning, get exhausted just thinking about all the work I’m gonna have to do, and then collapse before I even start. This high is almost always followed by a very long period of being down, not just because of the natural cycle of depression but also because it is heartbreaking to realize that I’m never getting out of this.

Productivity apps? I’ve tried them, I’ve tried tons of them. I was a fairly regular user of Habitica until recently. But again, I’d load up on Tasks and Habits that I just couldn’t get started on, let alone finish. I was constantly getting penalized, but instead of motivating me to work harder, that just made me give up even more, resulting in a steeper climb back up just to get back to where I was. It was a mess. I’ve tried bullet journaling. I’ve tried setting weekly and daily reminders in Google Calendar. When I am down, I’m down; and after being down for a week, I lose all motivation to pick up from where I was before, no matter how great my streak had been before losing steam.

So, where does that leave me at the end of 2017?

I’m currently one week into my three-week winter holiday (which itself is a headache into itself, but I’ll get to that another day) and have been surprisingly productive. I don’t know if it’s that I’m on a high or if I’ve just been doing better recently, but it’s been nice riding this streak. For the past week, I’ve been:

  • cooking dinner every night, and practicing simple dishes that I can make regularly
  • reading a bunch of scifi and fantasy novels that I picked up in a recent Humble Bundle
  • been writing short book reviews on Goodreads to get back into the practice of writing, even if they’re just a couple of paragraphs each
  • resubscribed to JALT and been reading through the recent TLT issue
  • getting at least some of my chores done every day, and letting go when I don’t finish instead of fixating on how little I’ve got done and panicking
  • going out at least once a day, usually to go grocery shopping, a task that I don’t normally do
  • riding my stationary bike for at least a few minutes a day, with no distance meters or timers or calorie counters to put any more pressure on me
  • reactivated my Instagram account so I can keep up with old friends with silly phone pictures

It’s not been perfect, I still find myself losing entire hours without even realizing it, but overall I feel that over the past week I’ve been more aware, more present within my own body. I also still have the rather terrible habit of opening Twitter constantly, even when Twitter is already open and in front of me. I don’t want to go cold turkey on my account because it is therapeutic to write out my thoughts there, but I also don’t want it to be where my entire life gets sucked straight out of me.

I don’t really have any goals for 2018 except to try and keep this streak going for as long as possible, and to find more and better ways of handling my myriad issues. I also would like to, as I keep saying, blog more! I have a whole document full of blog ideas, but by far the hardest thing to do is to just get started. Let’s make it happen.