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Saturday, April 14, 2007

JAPAN LITE

When life's a drag, wear a costume


Do you think Japanese people are too serious? Do you ever speak to someone in Japanese only to have them just stare back at you in confusion? Do you find living in Japan downright depressing sometimes? You may need help. You may be a gaijin.

Kindred souls commune on the slopes
Kindred souls commune on the slopes. PAUL HOOGLAND PHOTO

It's tough being a gaijin in Japan. I sometimes feel isolated here. It may have something to do with the small island I live on in the middle of the Inland Sea, or the limited amount of people I come in contact with on a daily basis, but I doubt it.

Or, it could be the lack of high speed Internet or the lack of convenience stores with clerks who say, "Would you like your food heated up?" but I doubt it. It has more to do with just being a gaijin.

Especially when I go to a new place, I often find it hard to get in with the local crowd. But after 14 years of living in this country, I think I've got it down. You see, now, wherever I go, I carry a cow costume.

This is a culture without Halloween, and it shows. Without one day a year when every one is allowed to dress up, you have people taking the initiative and doing it on their own, all year round: cosplay. All those French maid costumes and other things people dress up in are an indication that deep down inside everyone wants to be someone else. For a day, anyway.

Although the Japanese appear serious on the outside, they love to have fun and most importantly, they love to laugh. This is where gaijin can make a difference. Take any skill you have -- walking, riding a bike, skiing -- and do it in a costume. You'll meet all kinds of people.

When I went to Hokkaido for the winter, I wondered how I would communicate with the local Japanese people. Then, one day on the slopes, I met a Japanese couple skiing in dinosaur costumes. "Cute costumes!" I said to them, people I never would have otherwise talked to.

"Thank you," they replied, smiling.

"A special occasion?" I asked. "No, just having fun," they said.

Later on in the season, I met six skiing monkeys in the same way. "Just having fun," they said. This got me to thinking. And mooing.

The Japanese love it when gaijin participate in their local events. So the first event I participated in, in full cow regalia, was the Kutchan Yukitopia ("snow utopia") festival, a snow festival that includes pond skimming. If you don't know what pond skimming is, then just imagine cosplay on skis over a pond of icy water.

It involves going as fast as you can on skis (or snowboard) and launching yourself over a 13-meter-long man-made pond.

So popular is pond skimming that they had to limit the number of participants. Only 100 people would be permitted to hurl themselves across, or into, the water. The crazy Japanese men dressed up as everything from dinosaur to ninja and dressed down to everything from mawashi to elephant underwear. I was the only cow. Moooo.

The second event was the Top to Bottom 6K Downhill ski race held outside Sapporo at the Teine Ski Resort. Out of 250 participants, five were gaijin.

Believe me, a group of gaijin arriving at the start gate was like the Jamaican bobsled team showing up. The day after the event, their Web site enthused, "this year the race was notable for the foreigners who participated. A 75-year-old American man participated, as well as someone dressed as a yeti and someone dressed as a Holstein . . ." Moooo!

The last event was the Niseko Super Bumps contest at Grand Hirafu Ski Area, in which we had to ski down a mogul field and perform two jumps. With just 50 people, several of them from Japan's national and junior national freestyle ski teams, I was sure to win the Holstein category.

As soon as I put on my hide, however, something happened that I hadn't expected -- the cow paparazzi! Cell-phone cameras, digital cameras, SLRs, and video cameras all came out in full force. Photographers followed me around. A magazine wanted an interview. Everyone was mooing.

Gaijin always seem to take the awards. This is because almost every Japanese contest has a "special award." Needless to say, Hokkaido people seem to think cows are pretty special people. As I went up to get my award, a box of Hokkaido potatoes, the announcer said he hoped there would be many more gaijin participants in next year's Niseko Super Bumps contest. But for me, the ultimate compliment was when a Japanese person called me up asking to borrow my cow outfit.

"No problem," I said. "I have two."

So the next time you're feeling down about Japan, go spread some gaijin cheer in your neighborhood. I've got an extra cow costume should you need one. Moooo!



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