2005/08/24

Bon Dance Update

The evening finally arrived when I would get my chance to dance at an Obon festival in Japan. [See the post "Bon Odori" for background.] This dance - odori - was being held at a park just a mile and a half from the house. As a big crowd was expected and parking was limited, we rode bicycles .

We arrived about 4:30 PM, found a spot to park our bikes, and followed the stream of people headed for the dance. This park has paths wind down into a shaded ravine and along a small stream to a grass playing field where there are also permanent buildings with a souvenir shop and refreshments. The path was lined with chochin - paper lanterns - which seemed to help to get people in a festive mood.

This festival was special as it was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Kashima becoming a city and incorporating the area called Ono where we live and the event was held. This meant that the politicians would be there. The mayor gave a speech, of course. I met a local assemblyman and discovered that his daughter is married to a man who owns the small lumber yard in my neighborhood. Small town.

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The dance area was decorated with even more chochin, many of which will be used (and burned up) in a big festival at Kashima Jingu Shrine in September. There was the familiar yagura tower in the center of the dance ring, but this one was bigger than any I had seen in Hawaii and had a platform about one and a half meters wide and one meter above ground level around it where the featured dancers and taiko drums would be visible to everyone following them during the dance.

There were food booths and a large stage to one side where a karaoke contest was in progress. Those first to arrive were given a fan for the dance. Some people were in casual dress and others were in summer kimono, called yukata, or like myself, had a happi coat. One couple had even dressed their dog for the dance!

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This dog looks a lot like our Momo, but I swear it isn't her. Really.


On stage, after the karaoki contest, there were performances by local people which included a really good taiko drum club, elementary school kids dancing, traditional Japanese dances accompanied by shamisen, and even a hula club. They were all quite good and it was fun for me to recognize the hula dances and songs, even though the words were in Japanese. Hawaiian music and dance has quite a following in Japan, going back to pre-WWII days. I met a woman on Maui just before I left last year, whose daughter went on a hula dancing tour in Japan and was featured on the cover of a Japanese magazine dedicated to hula.

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In Hawaii, I was used to dancing more than a dozen different dances and tunes at each event, as the immigrants from Japan to Hawaii came from many towns, each with their own dance. I had heard that in Japan, the festivals in each location are limited to just a few dances, and I was thinking I would be disappointed by that. This night, we had three songs to dance to. The first was the traditional Kashima dance, then there was "Kashima Ondo" (ondo meaning a song with a lead singer) which was a new dance invented for the 10th anniversary celebration of the city. Finally, came Tankobushi - the coal miner's song - which is one that almost anyone who dances at bon festivals knows and is fairly easy for neophites to learn.

Happily, I was not disappointed about the lack of variety. The two songs and their steps from Kashima were new to me, so I was focused on following along and trying to learn them. Tankobushi is one I am very familiar with and provided me with a break between the others. One thing I especially enjoyed about this festival were the platform around the yagura. It was cool to have a taiko drum at each corner, and to be able to see the lead dancers well. Another thing was that the songs were all sung live, rather than being recorded as in Hawaii. As always happens with me, I just lost myself in the experience.

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Upon reflection, all my self concern about liking the Japanese version of the festival was really at odds with the spirit of the occassion. Bon Odori as a religious dance means to dance joyfully in memory of our ancestors, and to dance
joyfully means to dance without ego-calculation. Joy is something one discovers, as opposed to "fun" which is an attempt to create joy. So, to get the most of Bon Odori, dance with abandon. Just focus on the music and the dance and the people dancing with you and forget yourself. In that way, you may experience the true joy that is Bon Odori.

As the fireworks that marked the end of the event started up, we made our way to our bikes for the ride home. It was 10 PM and as we rode through the fields of sweet potatoes in the cool air, we could look back from time to time and see the colorful bursts over the tower at Hamanasu Park.

PS - My calf muscles ached for a week!

2005/08/22

Coconut Crude

One of the most important agricultural crops in the South Pacific is copra - the dried meat of coconuts. The problem has been for a very long time that the market for this crop has been uneven and often prices have been too low to justify production. That is now changing.

Coconut oil has been used for cooking and in soap for a long time. Pure coconut soap is a particularly nice product and if you haven't tried some, you are missing out. It lathers wonderfully even in hard water. But new uses are making this crop more desirable while helping island economies with a new source of income as well as saving them money by cutting imports.

The new use? Bio-diesel fuel. It turns out that oil from coconuts makes an excellent fuel for diesel engines. It burns more cleanly than its fossil counterpart, returning to the atmosphere only the carbon dioxide that the plant took out, and because of its chemical characteristics, causes less wear on engines by providing better lubrication, and gear boxes by providing more even power requiring less shifting. This has been known for twenty years or more, but now, with oil prices so high, it is being put to good use.

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World oil production of fossil fuels is peaking. The EIA (Energy Information Administration), a part of the US Department of Energy, projects world demand to exceed production in the 4th quarter of 2005 as well as the 1st and 4th quarters of 2006. In other words, world demand for oil is outstripping the supply. (If you are in the market for a gas-guzzler car, I hope you have very deep pockets.) The result is higher and higher fuel costs, which are devastating to island countries that must import oil. Oil can account for 10% of the imports for a small island nation.

Vanuatu (between Australia and Fiji) used to import fossil fuel to run their electrical generators. At the same time, they were sending their copra to Fiji to be processed into coconut oil for sale on the world market. They spent money on importing diesel oil, and more money on shipping copra to Fiji and still more money to have the copra processed. Now, Vanuatu processes its own copra into bio-diesel and uses it locally to generate electricity. In addition, it is used to power buses and taxis. The result is a huge savings, which the government passes along to the community in the form of higher prices for copra. It's a win, win, win.

The by-products are also useful, as the left over meat makes excellent animal feed and the husk, or coco fiber (called coir) is useful for making rope, brushes, charcoal for burning or for water filtration, and as a medium for growing seedlings. Audi has had a plant in Brazil for several years now, which makes floor mats and the rear decks and door panels for cars from coco fiber.

The coconut bio-diesel idea is catching on, and many countries such as the Philippines, Kiribati, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Tuvalu, are starting up mills. Another advantage is that small hand driven presses can be used to produce bio-diesel from coconut so that small communities can provide for their own energy needs.

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Coconut bio-diesel is not going to solve the energy problems of the developed countries. (Quite frankly, nothing will any time soon). But for island nations that just need small amounts for public transportation and very basic electrical generation, it promises to provide a sustainable and eco-friendly supply of fuel that will greatly reduce their dependence on outside help.

So don't be surprised if you visit the South Pacific and imagine that your taxi smells a bit like a coconut cream pie. You may be right!

2005/08/17

The Cannibals and the Missionary - The Strange Tale of Taveuni's Oldest Church

In Fiji, on the West side of the island of Taveuni, at the village of Wairiki, is the Catholic Mission Holy Cross, with a school, a seminary and an extraordinary history. The church itself was built in 1907 on a hillside overlooking Somosomo Strait. Made of stone, it has beautiful stained glass windows imported from France. The interior has no pews as the services are held in the Fijian style with the parishioners seated on woven pandanus leaf mats that cover the floor. Regardless of one's religious beliefs (or lack thereof), it is a treat to attend a mass and hear the beautiful harmony of the choir singing in Fijian.

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The origins of this church go back to 1863 when a French Marist missionary helped Taveuni in war with Tonga. The Fijian Islands were not united under one rule at that time. That the Fijian people practiced cannibalism had been well known to Europeans. The practice was done in the belief that one gained the spiritual strength of one's enemy by eating his flesh. Special four pronged forks were used as it was bad form to touch one's lips with the meat. In Hawaii in the late 1970's, I once had the unique pleasure of selling a set of Fijian cannibal forks to the actor Vincent Price who was enroute to Fiji to film an episode of a Canadian cooking show. But I digress.

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Fijian Chief With Weapon of Choice


Anyway, in the early 1860's, the Kingdom of Tonga, having conquered much of the rest of Fiji, was intent on conquering Taveuni and sent thousands of warriors in canoes to do just that. Oddly enough, the Marist priest had studied military history in Europe, and provided the Fijians with a fighting strategy that helped them turn back the Tongans just off shore of the present mission's location. The defeated warriors were reportedly cooked in "lovo" - pit ovens - and eaten with breadfruit.

As a thank you to the priest, the Fijians gave him land and laborers to help him found his mission. Many were converted to Catholicism in the following years and the practice of cannibalism came to an end on Taveuni. Today, about half of Taveuni's 14,000 residents belong to the church.

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In case you are wondering (or worrying) about the present day culinary tastes of Fijians, the last occurrence of cannibalism in Fiji was in 1867 when a chief on the island of Viti Levu killed and devoured a Wesleyan Methodist missionary, Thomas Baker. It is said that the chief had borrowed a comb from Baker without asking. Even today, island cultures do not have the same concepts of property that Westerners do and are used to sharing things. But Baker became angry and insulted the chief by pulling the comb out of his hair - a fatal case of culture clash. A descendant of the chief recounted, "We ate everything, 'even tried to eat his shoes." If you go to the Fiji National Museum in Suva today, you can see one of Baker's shoes on display. Last year, the village where this occurred invited representatives of the church in England to visit Fiji and receive a formal apology for Baker's death, 138 years ago. They felt that doing so might put them in better stead with God and improve their fortunes.

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So don't fear being invited to dinner in Fiji. You won't be the main course! But when you visit Taveuni, do take a look at Wairiki's beautiful church, and as you gaze at the lovely ocean view, think of the odd and gruesome events that led to this mission's founding.

2005/08/08

Horseback Riding - Fijian Style

Horseback riding on Taveuni? Yes! Cattle and horses (called ose in Fijian) were introduced to the Fiji Islands a century ago. During the 1930's there was even a horsetrack on Taveuni. When World War II broke out, Fiji was still under British rule, so people prepared for or went to the war and the horses were mostly let loose to become wild. Not so many years ago one might even see wild horses in Taveuni Estates.

Today, there is still a cattle ranch in Southen end of Taveuni and small butcher shop. You can order meat from them and have it delivered to you the next day. I'm not a meat eater, but I hear the steaks are excellent.

A few people still use horses for transportation on the island, and there is small ranch which offers rides up the lushly vegetated cinder cones to an elevation of one thousand feet. Bale - pronouced "bah-lay" - is the ranch owner. He offers rides at very reasonable rates. Ask him about his younger days playing on the Taveuni rugby team - he's got some great stories about Fiji's favorite sport.

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Bale leads the way


The route we took was from the ranch on the "main road" (don't expect paving in this part of the island) West, then onto to trails along small farms of yaqona (pronounced "yangona"), from which the drink kava is made, and up to an ancient cinder cone now covered with ferns and trees. The views along the way of the lush vegetation covering the volcanoes are stunning. In case you are wondering, the last known eruption on Taveuni, was about 500 years ago.

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Bale's homemade cowhide saddle with the horn in the back


The crater, or cinder cone we rode to was filled with taro plants, which is a staple food throughout the Pacific region.
At the top, nearly midway between the East and West coasts, we could see the whole of the South end of the island. The volcanic peaks to the North, vast copra plantations on either side of us, and the beautiful bright hues of Cakaulaleka reef.
In the distance to the Southeast, some of Fiji's 57 Lau Islands were visible. These small coral islands, reachable only by cargo boats which sail sporadically from Suva, looked mysterious and inviting.

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Copra plantation and Cakauleka Reef


On the way back, we took a break and Bale climbed a coconut tree and dropped a few green ones to the ground. Coconut in one hand and machette in the other, he deftley opened them with a few strokes and we were treated to a refreshing drink.

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Bale up a tree- watch for falling coconuts


The rides are 2 to 3 hours long, so if you have a free morning, why not take a ride - no experience necessary - and enjoy the sights of South Taveuni? You'll also enjoy the taxi ride from Taveuni estates which winds along high cliffs on a well maintained road (the bus service uses this route). The vegetation is rain forest most of the way and the views of crystal clear ocean and other islands is quite memorable.

2005/08/05

Dancing Trombone

Question: What do you call a trombone player with a pager?
Answer: An optomist.

Jonathon Arons is young trombonist/actor/singer/dancer from New York who has come up with a unique way to promote himself.


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Combing a bit of his trombone skills (he does sound good when he plays) with some dance and moves from karate (he holds two black belts), Arons has been doing a trombone dance on national TV shows such as NBC's "Today Show". Some video clips of him are circulating on the internet now.

Pandabonium is in no shape to do that stuff, nor even play at a professional level, but the clips remind me of when I was a high school senior and first trombone in the marching band as we played and marched in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. The front row consisted of eight trombones and we had a lot of fancy moves including twirling them in unison. It was pretty unique back then and looked awesome. (If Larry, Lynn, or our director Ken read this, email me and remind me who invented that maneuver.) It was not without risks, such as tuning slides flying off due to centrifugal force, and I wonder how many times Arons has bent his, um, instrument, doing the bone dance.

Anyway, check out the video I've linked to by clicking the post title or Arons' photo. As we say in Hawaii, "good fun". Pandabonium's advice for Jonathon? - "keep a loose slide".