Monday, May 16, 2011

"Sakura Matsuri" and Other Words You'll Need to Wiki

Exfanded by Neko-chan

My college Anime Club, of which I am the VP, is known for three things: being friendly and welcoming to anyone who walks in the door; eating copious amounts of bento boxes and pizza; and liking Gurren Lagann a bit too much. We are not known for our organization and planning, and our definition of "field trip" means walking down the street to the Asian Bistro, yet this semester our club went super saiyan: we organized a button drive to raise money for Japan; we set up a cosplay photobooth at our Spring Fling; we sent a small squad of cosplayers to Anime Boston; and we sponsored our very first campus event - taking a busload of 46 students and faculty to the Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

We were to meet the bus out front of campus at 8:30 am on Sunday morning. Now I half-expected the other students to groan, seeing as most of them still perceive waking up before eleven as a Herculean feat, but they were all there at 8:15, and most of them were fully decked out in cosplay outfits or yukata. I wore my own yukata, which I had made a few days beforehand from quilting fabric, and I managed to wrangle Nathaniel [Editor's note: That's me!] into helping me tie the obi sash (which, despite our combined force powers, still came undone less than an hour into the trip). [Editor's note: Not my fault!]

Concern about the day's proceedings started when we watched the bus miss the turn into campus and continue driving down the main road in the wrong direction. It being Sunday, the dispatch office of the chartered bus company was understandably declining to answer their phones, so we simply waited and hoped that the bus driver would realize the error of his ways and return to us someday.

At almost nine o'clock we finally caught sight of the bus once more, headed this time to the wrong side of campus. Seeing that our bus driver had a bad pathfinding AI, we sent our club president on a fetch quest to retrieve the bus and bring it to the designated meeting place.

Once that crisis was averted, we loaded everyone on and finally got the Bronx. Apparently our bus driver was wearing Ozzie pants that day. Our tickets were for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Our bus contract stated we were to be dropped off at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. We verbally confirmed with him we were going to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. He decided to go to the Bronx. And when we told him to pull over he blamed us for not providing him with written directions. And although he owned a GPS, he did not have it on because he did not know how to use it. And the Five Burroughs bicycle tour was blocking off half the roads we needed to drive down. Great. So we had a student set up the GPS with the right address, and we had some of the older gentlemen on the trip provide verbal directions to bypass the road blocks, and we arrived late to the festival having gained valuable XP from learning what bus driver to NOT hire for our next trip.

Luckily, most of the major performances and entertainment did not start until later in the day, so we still had some time to wander around the garden. I made my way from the entrance to the Cherry Esplanade, where rows of sakura trees were in full bloom, and the entire area seemed coated in pink frosting. I stopped to photograph the flowers, and to simply take in the beauty of the garden, which I had never visited before.

On my way down the Esplanade, I passed a number of cosplayers from shows I had never heard of, and one of them had an impressively big sword. I think it must have been too heavy of a prop to carry around, though, because every time I passed by that area during the course of the day he was still standing there having his picture taken, and the herd of fangirls around him seemed to multiply like singers in a Morning Musume video.

My next destination was the Yoko Trading booth, where I browsed through their selection of vintage kimonos, imported fabrics, and handmade accessories. Although I could have easily bought everything on display, my wallet talked me out of it, so I decided on a single cat-shaped pin made out of vintage fabric. I would post a picture of it here, but the kawaii overload would cause a cascade error in your positronic network.

Continuing down the main path, I came upon a series of tiny greenhouses which seemingly had no entrance, but had people inside. I determined I would get to the bottom of this mystery, which mainly involved circling around them again and again in bewilderment until I finally noticed the entrance was from a below-ground tunnel branching from the main greenhouse. Entering the building, I saw that there were several displays of award winning bonsai.

Some of them were 60-75 years old, and had been tended by multiple generations, each one helping to prune and shape the curve of the plant in a new direction. Most of the plants had been named after a haiku which helped to illustrate the character of the plant's growth. I've never really been much of a bonsai person, but I appreciate art, and the presentation of these plants helped to personify them and bring out the individuality and vitality of each one, showcasing them as "living sculptures" instead of just plants.

After exfanding my views on bonsai, I met up with another club member and toured the smaller greenhouses which had previously eluded me. Each one contained plants from a controlled climate, ranging from desert to tropical. I have to admit the tropical greenhouse was my favourite, as it contained the most lavish flowers, but the other ones were equally as interesting.

There was a scratch and sniff display of edible plants, there was a plant that had leaves taller than I am, and there were plants that looked like reject concept art for Final Fantasy monsters. I couldn't help thinking of the Literal Music Video of "White Wedding" while I was in the desert greenhouse, though, as there truly was "nothing safe in this room." Most of the plants were covered in spikes, or drills, or barbed wire, or other natural defenses, and everything was shaped like a monster, a cannon ball, or a blunt weapon. It was cool in a scary kind of way, but I think I prefer plants that don't resemble random encounters.

Seeing as the greenhouses were located next to the cafe, I was understandably hungry upon exiting the building. I decided to bypass the standard menu, and head back toward the Cherry Esplanade where there was a food tent selling Japanese snacks and bento. I had had a craving for taiyaki, and had been looking forward to getting it all week, but alas there was no taiyaki to be had. Instead I had a feast of cold soba, edamame, green tea mochi, onigiri, and hanami dango.

Just as I finished eating, the Taiko drumming performance started on the stage at the front of the tent, and I tried to work my way through the crowd in order to watch the musicians and dancers. Unfortunately, the crowd was so impossible to cut through that it was worthy of Goemon's Zantetsuken, so I worked my way around to the side of the tent, instead. There were fewer people there, but the view was obscured by the hazy plastic of the plastic rain guard, making it hard to distinguish anything beyond mere silhouettes. Once I reached critical eyestrain levels, I decided to simply listen to the music from a comfortable position on the Esplanade, where a few of the other club members were already relaxing.

Following the performance, I headed off to the J-lounge Stage to see Uncle Yo perform his geek-centric stand-up comedy routine. He had some great jokes, including why Gendo is the best father in anime, why Gurren Lagann is a perfect example of the male mentality, and why Japan cannot make us thin.

After meeting up with a group of friends at the performance, we were defeated by a wandering ninja, we listened to off-key and out-of-sync singers remind us why they have day jobs, and we leafed through manga selections that made me feel old and out of touch with the current younger generation of Naruto-crazed, Poké Ball-wielding, Kingdom Hearts-playing hooligans.

Since the group was headed to the bonsai exhibit that I had already explored, I made my way to the puzzle plaza where Maki Kaji, the Godfather of Sudoku, was holding a meet-and-greet. Mr. Kaji is a master puzzle-crafter and an inventor of various math and logic games, and he is the president of Nikoli, the puzzle book company that owns the rights to Sudoku. I had a chance to use my rusty Japanese in conversation with him, although I probably sounded as coherent as Mr. Saturn, and then he signed my book of "Extreme Sudoku" puzzles.

Continuing on, I passed by a demonstrator who was showing a crowd how to fold basic origami pieces, and then wandered over toward the art exhibits to see the traditional Gyotaku fish prints, and Becky Yee's "Back to the Streets" photography series. Gyotaku are created by rubbing rice paper directly on a painted fish, which is kind of gross to me as someone who does not eat seafood and would prefer that fish be left alone; therefore I didn't spend much time looking at the prints, and instead moved on to investigate the photography.

The photographs were interesting in concept because they juxtaposed the cosplaying counterculture of Japan's youth demographic with the traditional and elderly demographic of the family-owned shopping districts. The photo shoot was intended to both reassure the older generation that a change of clothing does not necessarily reflect a loss of values, and to also remind the youth culture that the old-fashioned shopping districts are a valuable Japanese heritage that should be preserved rather than allowed to fade and decline.

Returning once again to the hub of the Esplanade, I waited outside the tent for the Samurai play to end, and then nabbed a good seat for the Minbu dance performance. The folk dancers showcased a variety of traditional cultural and religious dances that coincide with various seasons or festivals over the course of the year. It was interesting to see how they utilized subtle variations in their uniform to alter the character of each dance, such as adding a bandanna and baggy pants to indicate a farmer's clothing, or adding a longer underskirt to indicate a more formal dance.

It is also interesting to see how cultures develop an ingrained form and order to their arts. For example, the traditional Japanese clothing silhouette is comprised of a robe that is folded crosswise at the front and belted in place. Even the crow costume of the Minbu dancers maintained this silhouette, combining a fringed, beaked hat with a black, belted robe. Conversely, Western fashion is based on the tunic silhouette and the button-down shirt, and most of our traditional costuming maintains those forms.

Another example of this sort of cultural detailing is a culture's distinct way of using props and masks in their performance arts. Each culture will invariably use those same items differently. Whereas American dancers might roll a top hat down their arm to show class, or wave a fan to show femininity, or use a mask to conceal their identity or individuality, the Minbu dancers affixed bells inside their hats and used them as tambourines, attached fans to their foreheads and feet to create the illusion of fish and flowers, and held their masks like a puppet to give gestural expression to a wooden prop. I believe it is these subtle differences that truly highlight the intrinsic beauty of a culture.

After the performance I had just enough time before the bus was scheduled to leave to wander through the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, which was filled with koi, turtles, waterfalls, stone lanterns, and wooden shrines in a breathtaking combination of crisp orthagonal planning and organic natural accents. It was the highlight of my day, and I could easily have sat there for hours. I took so many pictures that I reached the memory limit on my camera and had to delete old photographs just to capture the all the shots I wanted.

I ran back to the meeting spot, and managed to sneak a quick look inside the flower arranging exhibit while we were waiting for the stragglers to gather. Luckily we had a different driver for the return trip, one who actually knew where she was going, so the only excitement on the trip home was hiking the five blocks from the garden to the bus pick-up location, and making sure everyone was accounted for and safely on board, which somehow took four of us to confirm.

Apart from our initial navigational woes, everything turned out great. The day was beautiful, the scenery was awe-inspiring, the performances were filled with talent and ingenuity, the people were insightful, the food was delicious, and we didn't leave anyone behind. Overall, our first big excursion was a triumph {note: huge success}, and the club will definitely return next year.

(Photography Sources: The Sakura Matsuri banner is the property of the BBG. The "Back to the Streets" image is the property of Becky Yee. The image of Uncle Yo is his own. The image of Maki Kaji is his own. The images of the Minbu dancers, the hanami dango, and the flower arranging exhibit are the property of their respective owners. All other images are the property of Neko-chan.)

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