Yesterday, Shinohara Sensei invited me to join his lab's Imonikai (芋に会) - which translates roughly as potato boiling party. This is a Tohoku regional tradition to usher in autumn (秋 'aki'), where people gather outside to make and share a Taro based stew. Two prefectures, Miyagi (where Sendai is) and Yamagata have competing recipes for this stew - Miyagi uses pork and carrots in a miso base where Yamagata uses beef in a soy base. Sake and beer are drunk in generous proportions.
The view from the river bank as the sun began to set:
Students cooking some 蝦 (ebi - prawns) drenched in sake:
A dish of Miyagi style stew being served up:
I also learnt the word オタク (otaku - geek). One sleeping student, passed out after too much stew and sake, had the most inventive facial graffiti administered that I've ever seen - among other things, his glasses were removed and eye balls drawn on his eyelids. His glasses were then replaced. There is a Japanese attention to detail that I really admired about this process. The end result, someone apparently passed out with their eyes wide open, was strangely disconcerting. But CS students are CS students wherever you go, it seems, and the penchant for alcohol and elaborate practical jokes knows few bounds.
The students also took me to Karaoke (usually written カラオケ - and literally means empty orche(stra)). I was worried that they were only doing so because Shinohara Sensei had asked them to, so when offered a short or long session I opted for short. That's 30 minutes, I thought, maybe an hour. No. When it comes to karaoke Japanese style, short apparently means two hours! Which was then extended by a further thirty minutes.
At the time, being suck in a little box with six male grad students singing some strange songs (more on that soon) didn't seem remotely odd, in much the same way that the induction into Scientology probably seems perfectly rational whilst you're going through it. Only as I was walking back to the hotel did it suddenly strike me that, wow, that was weird.
Karaoke in Japan is apparently not like Karaoke in Britain. For a start you do it sober, which was a shock. Secondly you do it in a small room with your friends, or even alone (hitokara - one person karaoke). Thirdly, everyone seems to volunteer quite eagerly - singing several times. Furthermore, nobody applauds. In fact there are very few outward signs of enjoyment, but it is somehow obvious that the evening is being enjoyed. Additionally, nobody's singing is mocked. Inability to remember a song might raise a chuckle - but most important seems to be the choice of song.
I was told that one of the students - your off-the-shelf, archetypal male CS student, plaid shirt, glasses and introverted even by the standers of his peer group - was well known for singing songs that were a little 'otaku'. These included "Cartoon Heroes" by Aqua (a very earnest rendition) and a song called "Butterfly".
I've been searching for a man
All across Japan
Just to find, to find my samurai
Someone who is strong
But still a little shy
Yes I need, I need my samurai
Ay, ay, ay, I'm your little butterfly
Green, black and blue,
Make the colors in the sky.
An inspired choice!
The last song was a Japanese hair-metal group - lots of fun. Everybody got to join in singing (shouting) the "YES!" and "GO!"s at the end of each line.
I opened with "Song for the Dumped" by Ben Folds Five (whose lyrics served to dispell any lingering impression that I should be treated as Sensei). I also did "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" which I think was thought to be rude at first - though my "They just'a wanna, they justa wanaaaaas!" were enthusiastic enough to be met with nods of approval. Also "Call Me" - which was though to be not rude ("Cover me with kisses baby, cover me with love" was met with a heartfelt "ahhhhh" from the other participants). And these kids today don't know Blondie, so I got extra kudos for knowing an apparently new song!
I really wish we'd had some of these guys at the UCL christmas panto - I quite fancy the idea of a Kabuki version of "Murder on the Outlook Express", or a Noh rendition of "Array Pointer and the Finkelstone".