Sunday, December 31, 2006

Most bestest quote of the year

From last weekend:

"So what do you do, Ted?
"I teach yoga."
"What a coincidence! I work in an Indian restaurant!"


On the turntable: Audio Active, "It's a Stony!"
On the nighttable: Elisabeth Bumiller, "May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons"

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Minus Zero

Kitayama dusted...
Daimonji traced in white...
A snowman slowly dying in the riverbed...

...remnants of last night's snow


On the turntable: The Dukes of Stratosphere, "Chips from the Chocolate Fireball"
On the nighttable: Collins&LaPierre, "Freedom at Midnight"

Friday, December 29, 2006

Japan's four seasons. Now daily!

Earlier this month I mentioned Hide-san, who recently published a children's book on Orcas. He's also working on a photo project on the cats who live in Osaka's Nagai-koen. It's amazing how they recognize him from far off, and come running for a back rub in exchange for a good pose. Besides the camera, he also carries a bottle of eye drops to ease the rampant conjunctivitis common to strays.

As we walked, we were shocked to see a sakura tree in bloom, during these waning days of December. OK, I'm really scared now.

Even more so when the snow began...


On the turntable: UNKLE, "Never Never Land"
On the nighttable: Gary Snyder, "Passage Through India"

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Recalled Ford

Of course I didn't feel the same sort of spiritual connection with Gerald Ford as I did with James Brown. But I did actually meet him once in Vail, CO, during the 1988 World Alpine Ski Championships. It was at party that had living statues and huge ice sculptures, plus some of the world's top athletes. The whole time I talked with Ford, I couldn't help think about Chevy Chase and his, "No Problem." Ford was the only president I've met.

Celebrity deaths, like plane crashes, tend to happen in threes. (Schwarzenegger got off with a broken leg.) Scared to think who may be next...


On the turntable: Gil Scott-Heron, "Pieces of a Man"
On the nighttable: Nirad C. Chaudhuri, "The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian"

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hankyu Haiku

Tip of a black boot,
spied through
the train's open doors.


On the turntable: "Afro Celt Sound System, " Sound Magic"
On the nighttable: "Traveller's Tales: India"

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Who Stole the Soul?

The world needs it more than ever...

RIP JB.



On the turntable: "James Brown's Funky Xmas"
On the nighttable: Kristal/Byrne, "CBGB"

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Adrift

Rereading Donald Richie's 1970 classic "The Inland Sea." I read it shortly after coming to Japan and then, as now, I was mesmerized. Yet this time I read the book with eyes that have seen much of the country and have pored over thousands of words in the local vernacular. It is not that I now understand the country as much as I have come to some sort of understanding. Throughout the book Richie bemoans the encroaching change, bringing as it does the imminent death of tradition. Yet 25 years after he took the voyage which gave birth to the book, I sat reading it on the edge of the Nog's own inland sea, the Nakaumi, marvelling at how much of what he wrote was still familiar in 1995. To me, there seem to have been far more changes in this decade between readings. And as these changes occur, the book moves further and further into the realm of fiction.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Perry's Black Ships may have opened Japan to the world, but it wasn't until the dawn of the twenty-first century that the black 0's and 1's of the internet opened the world to Japan.



On the turntable: Ali Farka Toure, "Niafunke"
On the nighttable: Stephen Turnbull, "Japanese Fortified Temples and Monestaries AD 710-1602"

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Osaka underground

"Do you know all the words in English?'
I was in the Indian Consulate to pick up my visa. There was a woman there, vacuuming the carpet in the lobby. This was how she started the conversation.
'Um, no. I probably know less than half."
She wrinkled her nose and walked into the hall. I too went out, heading to the elevators. When I got on, she was already there.
She didn't look Indian per-se, and I was sure she wasn't Japanese. "Where are you from?" I asked.
"Tibet'
"Ah--"
On the first floor she told me, "I have to the hoist the flag every morning and now I have to... What's the opposite word of hoist?"
"Take down?" Slight uncertainty in my intonation.
"Oh. That's easy. Do you know the word "Uber?"
"Yeah, it means, like, super. But it's German"
"What about tet-a-tet? "
"That's French. It means face to face."
"And gesundheit?"
"That's German. It means--"
"Bless you," we say in harmony.
She told me, "There was an American guy yesterday who didn't know most of these words."
"I read alot I guess."
She moved outside toward the Indian flag hanging near the corner of the building. "It was nice talking to you today. I'm Padmo."
"Ted. Good talking to you Padmo." I bring my hands to namaste, and move along the sidewalk.

My steps take me to the other end of the Indian subcontinent to a small Sri Lankan restaurant. I'd found it last Friday before the Kodo show. The owner, knowing I teach yoga in the Kyo, was surprised to see me again . He had made me a veggie curry without my asking, and seemed a little amused when I ordered beer. I ate to the songs of Billie Holliday on the speakers. He asked me a little about my visit to his country two years ago. He told me that it wasn't very safe now.

I have to hurry a little to make it back to the Kyo on time for my taiko lesson. The subway isn't crowded yet. I have to stand but I have room to read. When I hit Umeda, I pick up the pace, turning it into mindfulness training by attempting to walk in straight lines without yielding or changing my pace. At one point I decide to look past the backs of the people immediately in front of me and focus instead on the middle distance. After a few seconds of this, something feels strange. I assume it's because this isn't the usual way that one negotiates crowds, and that my eyes are rebelling. Then I realize where I am. A decade ago, CLo and I came to this place, in the depths of the subway terminal. It is essentially a huge open space, broken up by tall, white, almost Roman pillars. In our universe, there are an infinite number of points and an infinite number of lines intersecting them. What had so amazed CLo and I was that people seemed to be moving along every possible line of motion. It is a sight so seemingly impossible that it brought out laughter, then as now. A visual koan. So despite the chances of my being late, I stop and watch and marvel. It isn't everyday that the universe takes off her clothes.



On the turntable: Poe, "Haunted"
On the nighttable: Haruki Murakami, "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman"

Friday, December 22, 2006

Nation State of Decay

Bushwhacking along the deer trails around Himukai Jinja
minor trails emanating in all directions
"be careful Miki."
"daijob---bonk!"
down she goes.
Up past the buttress fortress hostess home of
a woman whose cold, black eyes
hide a colder, blacker soul.
'There's no there there."
Cross the bridge over an abandoned museum
built in the Gunkanjima school of
creeping vines and collapsing floors.
Bemoan the fate of curlicue waterslides
spiralling into bankrupcy and ruin.
Have we hiked into an Eliot poem?

In a purer land stands massive Agon-shu temples,
giving rise to kung fu chop socky illusions.
Climb the broad staired lair of evil Mr. Kwon,
whose bald headed minions fill the courtyard
holding a forest of spears.
We kick and spin and yelp and kick,
percussive symphony of
steel spearhead clangs
body cavity bass thump
woosh of sliced air
kiai fills.
Blue pajamas at the mercy of centrifugal force and gravity.

Hill of the Shogun reveals jagged-teeth cityscape,
forested slopes in filmatic glow
striped temple roof of yellow leaf and gray tile
lone orange maple defies the season.
Footfalls in black mud
down a mountain far older than man
walking a trail used
by people when people were still people.
Leading to a 1200 year old city of
machines with gears and teeth,
steam and breath,
RAM and hippocampus.
Yet we'll return to the mountains again
& a barked shin drawing blood
& a sudden cold wind raising goose flesh
& muscles screaming for lactic acid.
For it is in the failings of the body
Where we feel most human.

On the turntable: "African Angels"
On the nighttable: Kerouac/ Johnson, "Door Wide Open"

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Suddenly Last Summer Last

The walking theme which has reappeared throughout my recent posts really began during the last weekend of September. MatsuMiki and I started the weekend with one of Dana's patently fun yoga classes at Furla, then set off into the city. Miki was in high spirits, which amazed me since she'd spent the night on a bus. Her easy laugh and light chitchat carried us along until we found ourselves in front of a large temple. A festival was in full swing, and as we stood there looking, an old man came up and gave us free tickets, entitling us not only to admission, but also to soba and snowcones. Free! So we ate, sitting on the steps of the temple, trying to see who was having more fun--the kids or the drunks.
About fifty meters away was Rainy Day Cafe. Miki had wanted to surprise Yuko-san, a friend who ran this place. Unfortunately we found it closed. As we were peeking thru the glass, thumbs raised to brows, who should spot us but Yuko, who was spending the day here in order to catch up on a translation for Coyote, the magazine she works for. She invited us in for coffee. We spent a couple happy hours here, the women catching up, me browsing the amazing collection of Beat books. Yoko told me how much trouble she was having with her current translation project and handed me a piece of paper. I found that I was holding the only existing copy of an essay Gerry Lopez wrote on yoga philosophy. Great surprise for me there.
At dusk, Miki and set off toward the heart of the Yamanote. The Roppongi Hills building was our landmark, standing huge and backlit against an overcast sky, the lights of the city turning the clouds the color of antifreeze. We wove thru Aoyama cemetary and ducked under tunnels, but no matter where we stood, or which way we turned, that tower still loomed above. I flashed on a scene from the '76 version of King Kong, where Jeff Bridges heads toward the Twin Towers to save Jessica Lange. Arriving finally at Mori's folly, we met with Dylan, an artist and former roommate of Miki's back in the Kyo. She and her husband Shinobu led us away from all that neon and glass, down not exactly a hill but into what could be more considered a hole, at the bottom of which were a dozen or so house of pre-war vintage. We settled in with wine and conversation, Shinobu entertaining us with stories about noisy neighbors and thin walls. In the house next door were a middle-aged man and his hard-of-hearing mother. Dylan said that their loud arguments more than made up for the lack of television.

The next day, MatsuMiki and I continued our walk, this time thru the forests and moss-covered graveyards of Kamakura. Three bows to D.T. Suzuki, then on into the hills, dropping down to the pirate's lair of Zeniarai Benten to wash our material wealth, and on to the Daibutsu to meditate on its impermanence as we paid admission. Queueing in the rain to enter the giant statue, where once inside we found--nothing. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Back in Tokyo, we further reflected on this balance in the teahouse behind Leza's house, where we spent a rainy night. The good food and wine served as samsaric anchors for the lofty conversation in the main house.

Seeking another pendulum swing the next day at YogaFest. Inside the building there were dozens of yogis and yoginis clutching their mats and water bottles as they waited for their next workshop. There were also an equal number of fashionistas with their hard faces. They say it takes 43 muscles to frown, but only 17 to smile, so I reckon these latter folks were getting a damn good workout. After Leza's enjoyable pair yoga class we tried Miura Toshiro's workshop. I really found myself hooked on Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy.
Afterward, as we rode the Shinkansen into a sun setting on the last day of summer, I had no idea that I'd be back in Tokyo a few days later, to begin intensive training. Yoga, and lots of it, would be the theme for autumn.



On the turntable: "Africa Fete 99"
On the nighttable: John Dougill, "Kyoto"

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Architectural Dance Steps

I've mentioned in these pages that I was worried about the increase in posts about music. The fear lies in not knowing the proper steps while "dancing about architecture," a famous quip that I'd attribute to Dorothy Parker, though not without conjecture. Yet I also seem to recall Goethe's claim that architecture is frozen music, so there you go. Whatever the case, I can't write about last weekend without mentioning music.

Friday night I was in Osaka, to catch Kodo's annual year end show there. Enjoyable as always. It started out with clackers which resonated loudly thru my head to the point that the sound cleared out my sinuses. Much welcome relief after days of rain. Marcin and I sat omnipotently up in the balcony, our wisecracks drawing frightening-close comparisons with the two old codgers from the Muppet show. Many of the musical pieces tread familiar ground, though it was nice to see Yoshikazu play Odaiko again. After his long solo, as he knelt in his own sweat, back heaving, I imagined him thinking, "I'm getting too old for this shit."
Afterward, a few of us went backstage to say our hellos, then moved on to some trendy spot for a New Year's party. Later, our mad dash for trains was epic, missing the last Keihan train by five minutes, the last Hankyu by one, me humming "Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown" until stepping aboard a warm JR train filled with drunks.

Saturday, MatsuMiki and I went to visit Keith and Masumi at their new digs in rural Kyoto. Local Legend Tim was in town for the party, which included a few of the local housewives and their kids. After dinner, we started to play some acoustic versions of Keith's songs. Although I've taken loads of drumming workshops this year, I haven't played in front of an audience since June, and was looking forward to connecting musically with my friends. But before things began to really cook, one of the kids fell down, drawing blood. Game over, man.

Sunday I spent drumming, three hours on Miyake, three on Yatai. Neither of these pieces are difficult musically, but require serious demands physically, particularly the calves, shoulders, and abs.. (My arms are still heavy as I write this post.) After the workshop, I rushed over to KyoDai's Seibu Kodo for Big Frog Day. I've long wanted to see this place, the center of late '60s student riots and still beyond University control. (Back in Isla Vista, I had been equally happy to see radical bands like Public Enemy, Disposable Heroes, and Rage Against the Machine play in the former Bank of America building torched during anti-war protests in 1970.) Passing thru a torii arch painted psychedelic colors, into an open lot now in full hippie vibe. I'm sure most of the usual Kyoto longhairs were here, washing down fry bread with Chai, or buying new clothing made of hemp. Many more were inside, watching Nami-san going thru his set. I've seen Nami's gigs a dozen times and have played percussion for him occasionally. (Even Ken-chan banged away on tin cups at one show.) He seems to follow some kind of hippie underground railway, playing each town with a collective of local musicians like myself. But this was the first time I'd seen him play fully fleshed out with a large band, including a young drummer playing with what I initially thought were rather unimaginative fills. But the main difference is that he was up there and I wasn't. Another quick impression was that the young girl singing backup sounded a lot better than Isako and her Yoko Ono-esque whelps and yawps. I assumed that these backup musicians were some KyoDai students. Imagine my shock when they later came out alone to play the second set. It had been Big Frog all along. Rather than Nami opening for them, they had chosen to play together. On their own tunes, they were really incredible, no real surprise considering that they're essentially the Phish of Japan. Throughout the entire show, a couple of artists were creating their visions, spray-painting white designs on clear plastic sheets hanging behind the stage. It was like watching spiders at work. Meanwhile, the band was cranking thru some really ripping songs, and despite my extreme fatigue I still found the energy to dance, far in the back with the drunks and other casualties. A couple nice hippie touches to the show were a dog wandering the stage and yawning, plus Nami-san missing his cue to rejoin the band. He wandered onstage midsong, played a few chords before putting down his guitar, made some bizarre hand gestures, then wandered off again. (Not unlike the dog, really.) Around this point I noticed Isako, having just arrived late from a long drive down from Tottori. When it was over, we both went backstage. I really felt guilty about initially underrating the band's drummer since he turned out to be an extremely friendly and nice guy. The gang seemed to be settling in with their respective substances and I didn't want to intrude, so after a short visit with Nami, I headed back out to the friendly freak scene outside. I'm sure there were some other friends around, but I was too tired to dive in. Nor did I want to linger too long on the fringe, so I created space by heading home to a Herzog DVD and his own unique take on lovable outsiders.



On the turntable: Adjabel, "Acoustic Revolution"
On the nighttable: Kerouac, Saijo, Welch, "Trip Trap"

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Please accept this Laurel and Hardy handshake...

I'd like to humbly thank the editors of Time magazine for choosing me as "Person of the Year." Quite an Honor.



On the turntable: Francis Cabrel, "Samedi Soir Sur La Terre"
On the nighttable: Donald Richie, "The Inland Sea"

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Street Hiking

On the day Ben-chan came to town, I had to go to Osaka to get my visa to India. Since I had hours to kill before his flight, I thought I'd pass the day on foot. I ducked into a small cafe offering cheap 200 yen coffee. The cafe was called, "Days," the name referring to what was taken off my life due to all the tobacco smoke. Escaped quickly, to the fresh air sidewalks of Osaka. Walking unfixed, turning right angles at random in emulation of that Windows screensaver. I relished this feeling, of winter sun on my face and new delights before my eyes. I've spent way too much time online this year, and was happy that I'd recently begun to "boot the computer." I really miss this aimlessness, time passing by the rhythm of my footfalls rather than on second-hand ticks; chasing the spectre of that amblin' prophet, Aaron Cometbus. I used to pass whole days this way, thumbing thru second hand book shops, people watching in parks, searching for dollar Burritos and good cheap coffee in those days before Starbucks. Walk, eat , read, write. These days, I seem to do this only while abroad, hearing the slap of my boots on the pavement take on foreign sounds. I want to reclaim that feeling of seeing the famiiar made fresh every day.

And I walked on, ducking in and out of shops to chat up their young owners, stopping often to snap a photo or jot my thoughts down in my moleskin. One common denominator throughout south Osaka is the music. For a region that takes pride in being at the forefront of alternative youth culture (and Shibuya is the same way), the theme songs are certainly commercial. It takes the monicker, "R&B," label that seems to be reapplied every decade or so, replaced by posthumous labels like "soul" or "funk." But replace that "B" with "P", throw in a "C" and an "A" and you get closer to the truth.

After two lunchs and too much caffeine, clock time kicked in once again, telling me I needed to head to the airport and pick up my friend. Feet, we should do this more often.


On the turntable: Agent Orange, "Sonic Snake Session"
On the nighttable: Prince Naruhito, "The Thames and I"

Saturday, December 16, 2006

So Many Roads...

Ben-chan was in town last week. And as we do when I visit him in San Franscisco, we walked. We were once again pioneers of our route,
up to Oku-no-in,with it's gooseflesh satori waterfall,
down the Path of Philosophy to Honen-in and it's leaf forever flowing,
past Ginkakuji to my house & yard awash with yellow debris,
over Zokei mountain to a cheap curry lunch,
along Shirakawa stream to Yoshida yama, where old men stroll in deep thought thru the garden of gods,
over to Shinnyo-do where the pout of an actress clashes with trad kimono,
through the forested graves toward Kurodani's massive dark gate,
opening into Okazaki and a refuel at 58 Cafe,
then on Sanjo, Gion, Pontocho, dodging drunk holiday party conga lines,
& winding up at Hill of Tara for music and pints.

Two days later, following the tunnels of Fushimi Inari, past the runners winding up their annual 36 peak marathon. Down through the villages and remote subtemples of Tofukuji, then back into the woods again, twisting toward the open back gate of Kiyomizu, its wide trails crowded with late leaf viewers now looking downward. Along the cobbled multi-year slopes to Maruyama Park and an picture postcard English tea shop Beatrix Potter nightmare.

And, as always, superimposed upon this physical map is the map of conversation, detailed by the meanderings of our thoughts. Yet both of us, as we stand at the brink of new and unfamiliar decades of age, find that those landmarks we'd long steered by have ceased to hold true, as if the languages that they are written in have not yet been properly translated.




On the turntable: Grateful Dead, "So Many Roads"
On the nighttable: Oyama Shiro, "A Man with No Talents"


Friday, December 15, 2006

Life imitates Art Who?

Reading "Dharma Bums" again, for the fourth time. The author often gets criticized, but this book still makes my top ten. The first time I read it was during my last summer in Tucson, at a time when I'd just finished college but was not yet willing to give up the lifestyle. It was a summer of record heat waves and broken air-conditioners, forcing my housemates and I to take the party outside and play acoustic music from the roof. (That was the first time I realized I had a voice good enough to sing with.) During the day I worked as a whistle-toting rangler of poolside children, nights I waited tables. But mostly I read, getting to those things not included in the playlist for my creative writing degree, devouring the oeuvre of Kerouac, Henry Miller, Edward Abbey (then, a recently deceased Tucson native), and for some reason, Tom McGuane. "Dharma Bums" and its protagonist stayed with me.

In Santa Barbara, I took the Far Eastern-spiced Boho simplicity thing to the extreme of living in my 1973 VW bus. I was really busy taking anthro classes at the university, plus working two jobs in a fish restaurant and used book store. Figuring I spent most of my free time outside anyway, I thought I'd save on rent and help pay my way to Japan. What I didn't foresee was the rainiest winter in 50 years. Instead of passing my days on the trails or at the beach, I instead found myself holed up at the library and in various cafes around UCSB, living quite well on less than 10 bucks a day. After about four months of this, the engine of my bus caught fire an hour out of Phoenix. Back in SB, I did the couch tour awhile, eventually squatting in what had been my last house. It was here, on the steep hillsides of the Riviera that I refound the book. The utilities of the house had recently been cut off, allowing me to look at it as a cabin lifestyle--reading by candlelight, cold showers as waterfall misogi, hikes down to the city for food.

And as "Dharma Bums" led me to Japan, the book naturally followed. My beat up, page-sheared 40 cent paperback copy now haunts the shelves of the city library back in the 'Nog. Somewhere I acquired another. And so it was today, reading in the bath, thinking how cool it would be to live in Japhy's pseudo-Japanese shack in the hills of Berkeley, until I realized, Hey man, you're living in an actual Japanese house on a mountainside in Kyoto, 'in the hills back of Northern-White-Water', where Japhy was gonna go hiking.



On the turntable: Ustad Zakir Hussein, "& Maestros"
On the nighttable: Jack Kerouac, 'The Dharma Bums"

(The saxophone solo poetics playing fine lines over the raga.)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tuesday afternoon

The rain let up around lunchtime so we decided to hike after all. I met with MatsuMiki at Demachi, then biked west across town, facing peril in the form of narrow, over-trafficked streets, hood-mounted mirrors, and slow-walking grannys. My front tire went flat again, but didn't slow us down much. We arrived at Jujozan, eyeing quietly but mindfully the mamushi warning signs, and bowing hello to a couple old timers washing their muddy boots in a small stream. The path wound us up and around the 88 small temples which mimic their Shikoku counterparts. There were even "border-markers" letting us know when we were entering Tosa, for example. At each of these temples we'd stop and ring the bells, MatsuMiki taking the evens, me the odds. Many of the rope bells were now too worn to make a sound, so we'd strike the tiny bronze bowl instead, using wooden wands hand-made. Prayers were written on small cross sections of bark hanging nearby, the brush-written hiragana sounding out the Sanskrit syllables. We chanted these with hands in prayer, the sounds eventually growing familiar as dieties began to repear at various temples, their names written on wood.
Looking down from the peaks, the low clouds blotted out most of the city, except for a sea of tiled rooves, now flecked with dim lights on this dark day. It gave the illusion of a step back to a time before neon and concrete. Somewhere around temple 31, afternoon left us, so we picked up the pace, stopping only to bow and offer a simple "On" which we had by now noticed was the first syllable of each prayer. We figured that if an abbreviated "Om Namu Renge Kyo" is good enough for the Nichiren folk...
And it was like this that we walked into dusk, the light rapidly dimming into sepia. By the time we rang the bell of number 88, it was full dark. Nearby, a finger of land led to a lakeside shrine. Our god-rousing claps frightened some waterfowl, which flew off unseen into the dark.

Atop our bicycles again, we headed far to the south to Rohm's industrial park , lit once again for the holidays. The lights lined the bare branches of cherry trees, spreading like ganglia to stimulate the optical nerves of those strolling beneath. These rows of trees led us north again, pointing toward the warmth of La Jolla and a well cooked meal. Then on again, to the gaudy taishaku burst at St. Agnes school, still fireworks against the darkness of the Imperial park beyond.

Once again out of the cold, bellies full, we settled in with tea to watch the film, "Local Hero," a old favorite from way back. But midway through we began to nod, legs and heads heavy with fatigue and beer. Off to bed. Wednesday morning awaits...



On the turntable: "Costello and Nieve"
On the nighttable: Gary Snyder, "Danger on Peaks"

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

You are where you live

The lock on my front door is somewhat difficult and can seemly only be opened by me. It's as if the house is unwilling to let anyone go; the psychic manifestation of a loneliness which I have yet to sense or acknowledge.


On the turntable: This Mortal Coil, "Blood"

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

House of Leaves

This amazing novel is a real puzzle, written in a strange elliptical style, with bizarre textual layout and a multitude of footnotes and quotes. An actual labyrinth of a book. As you read, you can almost feel your fingers releasing one by one their grip on the precipice of linear reality.
In the margins of page 518 are some notes written in what looks like my brother's handwriting. But I'm sure I got this book from someone here in Japan.
Dragons await...



On the turntable: "Trance Planet"

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Ame-mura

Three punk hipsters
Stand beside Triangle Park
Waiting for the light to change



On the turntable: "Putumayo Zydeco"

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Once Upon a Time...

...there was a weekend. The weekend was just another ordinary weekend, but it started with a idea. Then the idea grew to become a plan. The plan was to go to Osaka and attend yet another publishing party. Only this time, a small group of us would be wearing kimono. Now, I've worn Japanese clothing countless times, usually samue for zen or hakama for martial arts. But I'd never worn kimono. I like the layered look that you can get with it, fashionable as well as funky. And I'd wear the style everyday if I didn't feel like such a gaijin poser. Yet MatsuMiki's logic was that since this pose is something that only gaijin can pull off, why not do it? So it was that we bought second-hand kimono at Tenjin market last week, and toted them to south Osaka to Yayoi's wickedly cool, pseudo-Santa Fe artspace.
But the rain had other ideas. After an hour or so of tea and all-around pouting, we gave up on the kimono idea and followed the twin iron rails awhile to get to the party. The event was held in honor of Hide-san's having published his most recent children's book, this one about orcas. It was a nice couple hours, where the rich conversation made up for the bland food. Since we were in Esaka, we went over to Crayon House to browse the organic foods and unusual collection of kids books. Then nearly a dozen of us packed into a grungy Chinese restaurant for a cheap supper. And back to the Kyo again, squeezed into a train of Saturday night revellers, one gender weighted down by pre-holiday shopping bags, the other by Bon-enkai booze.

The next day it was Yayoi who reversed the order by making the trek up to my place. Her husband, Yamamura Seiichi was playing a gig just down the hill from me. He is one of Kansai's best drummers and tours internationally. Tonite was the Kyoto debut of his new steel drum thing. After a quick, multi-ethnic meal of fajitas fried up in a nabe, we went to see the show. Unbelievable. Maybe one of the best gigs I've ever seen, played with mutual joy on the parts of the musicians and the crowd. I've never seen a band smile so much, or the Japanese dance so hard. Rather than the usual Milgrimesque para para moves, these guys actually began to pogo! I was off to one side of the stage, bantering with bandleader Sei-chan in my role as manzai, English teacher heckler. The band will play again March 16 at NegaPosi in Kyoto. I demand that you attend...



On the turntable: Bedrich Smetana, "Ma Vlast"
On the nighttable: Mark Z. Danielewski, "House of Leaves"

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tippin' the Hat

Leaves from
my lone gingko
litter the neighbor's roof


On the turntable: Nico, "Ape Sounds"
On the nighttable: Jack Kerouac, "Book of Blues"

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Nanzenji to Daimonji

Leaving the taishoku crowds of Nanzenji behind
we climb through the forest,
bowing to multiple figures of Fudo,
pause to look through our steamed breath
at works of man bland and grey.
Blessed by the fingers of gods,
tendrils of light poking through clouds
darkening to annoint us with showers
under which foxes marry.


On the turntable: "Buddha Chillout"
On the nighttable: J. Thomas Rimer, "Kyoto Encounters"

Friday, December 01, 2006

Three-Minute Chart Topper

The broken clock above the heads of the speakers seemed a metaphor for how slowly time was passing. I was in Tokyo for a few days, and decided to attend a publishing party of sorts. But this one had an unusual theme. Two famous writers were playing songs and talking about them. The common thread was cover songs, and these two would play the original, then a cover version that differed wildly from the first. It seemed an interesting premise, but the problem was that these guys had nothing really to say. I'd expected some background information, something along the lines of Bob Dylan's amazing "Theme Time Radio Hour" program. Instead I got dialogue like:
"Wow, that song is really great."
"Yeah."
"He has a nice voice doesn't he?"
"He sure does."
"..."

I felt like I was watching two morning DJs, but without the cowbells and mirth. Really, how much can you say about music? It's so subjective. I am afraid to write too much about it since that seems to suck all the life out. Who was it that said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"? Another problem was the choice of songs. Names like Paul Anka and Tom Jones bring to mind shaggy carpets and mirrored ceilings. The songs themselves were heavy on the strings and Moog, with overblown production. Even The Beatles classic, "Yesterday" is overproduced, if you think about it. But take away the orchestra, and Shelby Flint's cover is pure swingin' jazz cool.
This event was billed as "An Evening of Adult Music." But this "adult" music was all very commercial songs, more about marketing than art, motivated (in my mind) by balding men in wide lapels and smelly cigars. Many in the crowd seemed lost in nostalgia, being mainly of that generation that still wears watches. Throughout the two hours, these watches got more than the occasional glance. Yet I still had fun and am glad I went.


A few days later in the Kyo, I attended another publishing party, this one to promote the latest issue of Kyoto Journal. But this event was light of words and heavy on community. Friendship, unlike music is very much objective. Well, except maybe to a hermit. But can a hermit be anything but subjective?



On the turntable: "Soulin' Volume 1"

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Gravity's Rainbow

As we got deeper into November, my hillside began to experiment with red and yellow clothes. Autumn in the Kyo seems much more colorful than in the 'Nog. The thousands of tourists in town to see all this color would probably agree.
Last night while wandering Kyoto University at dusk, I came across a small canvas of yellow and couldn't resist the urge to sign it. The result was almost a reverse-image of a man's writing his name in the snow. If you don't know what I'm talking about, I suggest you listen to more Frank Zappa.

Next, on a nearby patch of grass, I performed my performance piece, "Leaf Angel."

If Basho can take his artistic name from the banana tree, I can take mine from the ginkgo. I thus carried its scent with me the rest of the night.

On the turntable: Ramblin' Jack Elliott, "Kerouac's Last Dream"
On the nighttable: Kenji Tokitsu, "Miyamoto Musashi, His Life and Writings"

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Go West

After a couple years as a practicing nomad, I thought that things would slow down after setting up my yurt in the Kyo. This fall, it doesn't seem so. Besides repeated commutes to Tokyo every few weeks for yoga training, I also took a couple trips out to Western Japan. In mid-October, I took a overnight trip to the 'Nog to visit my son Kenshiro's grave and to deal with some baggage, both figuratively and literally.
Last week, MatsuMiki and I spent the weekend in Hiroshima. Saturday afternoon we crossed over into Yamaguchi for my first ever visit to Iwakuni, drifting up and across the famous bridge like Mary Poppins, following the direction of our raised umbrellas. We carried on into the heavy seasonal rain, into the mountains to the lair of bandits. Sanzoku is a series of ramshakle buildings built along a small stream which leads to a small shrine. We settled into the loft of one of these buildings, marvelling at the dexterity of the servers who ducked under the thick roof beams taken from a tree many centuries old. We ate massive chicken haunches off the bone like 'Enry the Eighth. I was, I was.
We saved some room for sukiyaki, served up by MatsuMiki's mom back in Hiroshima. The food theme carried over to the next day, where we had a lunch date out on Nomijima, the island where MatsuMiki grew up. As the ferry cut through water both above and below decks, my thoughts were less on my stomach and more on the poetry of Donald Richie. Thus we sailed on into the realm of pirates and the Heike, their once terrifying faces now expressionless in death.


On the turntable: Bob Dylan, "Blues"
On the nighttable: John Carroll, "Lightning in the Void"

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!






On the turntable: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, "Blow in the Wind"
On the nighttable: Todd Crowell, Stephanie Forman Morimura, "Tokyo: City on the Edge"

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Suddenly Last Summer 4

Mid August. I headed out to Sado for EC. Again, many others have written on this, and I myself have said too much about Kodo already. So I won't comment on the show other than to say how visually exciting their performances have become, due no doubt to the Bando connection. Musically, the first night's Miyake was the best I've ever seen. Plus Kodo playing Ravel's Bolero as an encore? C'mon!
Like last year, I worked in the EC shop as translator, took a Miyake Daiko workshop, wandered the flea market. This year I met many young Japanese artists coming from various parts of Japan. I also spent more time wandering Ogi itself. Marcin and I found an onsen and a new place for swimming, partaking of both twice a day. (His own take on the festival is here: http://lost--in-translation.blogspot.com/2006/09/sado-2-earth-celebration.html)
On Monday, after it was all over, I helped take down the stage. Eight gruelling hours in the unrelenting sun. I was too exhausted to really enjoy the post-fest party that night. The group too seemed surprisingly mellow. Unlike the musical highs of last years, they felt that things didn't really click this time, that the audience never really cut loose. Artistic Director Kaoru Watanabe seemed especially down. I told him that the choreography of the show itself was fantasic. Then he told me all the things that should've happened but didn't, due to missed cues or whatever. Oh man! What a show that would've been. But only Kaoru got to see it.


Late August. Spent the weekend with MatsuMiki at Gallery Moon, deep in the wilds of Nara. I love this part of the world, spooky and creaky with the weight of ancient history and its ghosts. The gallery owner is MatsuMiki's friend, as is Chie, the young macrobiotic food artist who was putting on a show of her talent. Saturday night we cleaned up the gallery and the adjoining farmhouse where the following day, lunch would be served up on the beautiful pottery currently on display. After the cleanup, we seven weary bodies had a simple dinner then fell into our futons to a cicada serenade.
Just before noon the next day, the guests began to arrive. I was immediately thrust back into my former life as a waiter. What was it, serve from the right, clear from the left? Stacking incredibly rare and expensive pottery up one arm had all the thrills of an extreme sport. As I worked, I thought about how different service is in Japan compared with the West. The topic deserves a post of it's own, but it's a post that I'd find too boring to write.
At the end of the day, after clean-up, Chie drove us back to Nara city. On the way, we all talked about her next show. We began to joke about the theme--MacroDonarudo, to follow the local pronunciation. Imagine, rather than a Happy Meal, a Healthy Meal-- soy and veggies molded into the shape of burger and fries. I'm lovin' it.




August last. Day hike with friends. Again, pass the mic the MC Marcin: http://lost--in-translation.blogspot.com/2006_09_01_lost--in-translation_archive.html



On the turntable: JFA, "We Know You Suck"
On the nighttable: Hillary Raphael, "I (heart) Lord Buddha"

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

You're gettin' old when...

...the newest James Bond is younger than you.




On the turntable: Christopher Rouse, "Passion Wheels"
On the nighttable: Larry Watson, "Justice"

Friday, November 17, 2006

Suddenly last summer 3

August. Mid-Obon, MatuMiki and I took a bus north to the village of Hanase for the Matsuage Fire Festival. We walked along the river to a nice spot, then passed the time with our rice balls and ice cream. Shortly after dark, a long line of happi-clad men passed before us, holding torches high in their hands. They moved across the river and began to spread out, setting fire to hundreds of torches which had been staked into a large space that had probably once been rice paddies. When they were all lit, the entire pin-point glow silhouetted the actions of the men beyond, who were by this time surrounding a massive tower. I couldn't help but think of the title of an incredible book I'd long age read. "Fires on the Plain." It was eerily beautiful. The men then began to take some of these torches, whirl then round and round, and heave them up toward the basket which sat atop the 20m tower. These balls of fire resemble the movement of comets, and when they'd come near the basket, the crowd would grow excited, then suddenly groan as the flames fell back to earth. After about ten minutes of this, the crowd erupted as one man found his mark. The excitement grew as fireball after fireball joined the original, creating a bigger and bigger flame. It went beyond beautiful, and had all the excitement of a sporting match. After a further ten minutes this massive flaming tower began to list, then fell toward us. We were sitting a safe distance away, but when the thing hit the ground, a massive wall of flame rolled toward us like some Hollywood pyrotechnics. The heat was unreal, even on a muggy midsummer night. the crowd began to leave then, and the men of the village walked amongst us, banging a huge drum and singing in accompaniment to their proud drunken studly swagger. MatsuMiki and I stood on the bridge awhile looking out over the fields, now filling with smoke as local firemen put out the flames. We didn't speak, too much in awe of the quiet and the violence and the beauty. It's like we'd just witnessed a battle.



Through Obon, the fire theme continues. The next night, we biked the streets of Kyoto in a mad zigzag dash for the perfect vantage point from which to see each of the six hillsides aflame: the annual sendoff to ghostly Obon visitors. The okuribi is another of those things that every Kyoto blogger seems to write about, so I won't waste more bandwidth on it here. I'll simply say they we were able to catch them all, dodging cars and shadowy pedestrians adding sport to a mad sort of scavenger hunt. The reward being the fun of the ride.


On the turntable: Christpher Rouse, "Passion Wheels"
On the nighttable: Colin Reeve, "The Way of Artistry and Grace"

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Suddenly Last Night

Soul Flower Union (or at least a mini-version of them) played an acoustic gig in the Kyo, consisting solely of guitar, accordian, and piano. They played at Taku Taku, a venue with some history apparently, having hosted such major acts as Dr. John and Los Lobos. Yet it's small setting was perfect for a mellow set played to a somewhat older crowd. As the show began, I wondered if they could recreate the energy of their electric show, but the power of the songs and the lyrics, brought us higher and higher. The piano of Rikuo, the sole non SFU member, was so brilliant it was ridiculous. (Even Shinya, SFU's usual pianist, humbly said that until tonight, he'd always assumed that there were no living piano players better than himself.) Plus all the usual cover songs (Van Morrison, Curtis Mayfield, The Beatles), sing-alongs and stage banter, which this time touched on the price of veggies in Okinawa. Brilliant!


(I realize that I've been writing a fair amount on music these days, but it goes to show how starved I was for good live acts up in the 'Nog. I promise this blog will have more variety again soon.)



On the turntable: Kodo, "Mono-Prism"
On the nighttable: Alan Drysdel, "Doing Aikido"

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Halloween weekend

Last summer I got in touch with Roger Walch, in the hopes of tracking down the three films which compose his "Kyoto Trilogy." I'd thought he lived in Switzerland, but was pleasantly surprised to find that he lives here in the Kyo. Even better was that he was playing a gig in town. I was happy to go.

Let me interject quickly that this was one of my patented marathon days. In the morning, I'd had breakfast with MatsuMiki and friends, followed by a short KJ meeting. The afternoon was split between a lecture on traditional weaving in Nishijin, and a stoll around Koetsu-ji with E-Ma Eric. So by the time I got to the show, held in a small gallery, I was slightly beat. But the tone of the music was a further surprise. Simple, light trad jazz played on piano and shakuhachi.

I filled a plastic cup with red wine, found a space on the tatami, and proceeded to "get lost", using the music as my vessel, rather than chemicals ala Chet Baker. Roger was simply a master on the keyboard, as skilled there as he is as a writer and filmmaker. He's played in many bands and is at home in many styles. Tonight's set gave him space to shine, handling well even the technically difficult Monk and Miles stuff. At one point, he was walking eighths on a blues piece in 7/4. I didn't even know that that was mathematically possible.
Matsumoto Taro on shakuhachi further amazed. In the spirit of Halloween a true chameleon: playing his lines like he was on soprano sax, bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter, yet looking rockabilly in black threads and pompadour. I too play shak, and find synchronizing with other musicians on Western tunes challenging. But Taro avoided this limitation by changing flutes on every tune, choosing from a veritable forest of different lengths and pitches. And while he might unavoidably sound a bit flat on a familiar classic like, "Porkpie Hat," it still came across well. And there was no doubt of his classical Japanese music training too, especially the flurry of trills and violence on his arrangement of the "Zatoichi" theme. His zanshin at the end of each piece was so suspenseful that the audience too would join him in holding our breath.

It was still early as the gig finished, so I decided to catch Mandala at El Latino's Halloween party. They were great as usual but after the first set I felt that I needed to escape the people and the smoke. MatsuMiki and I wandered off to Kurotani, up the hill and through the graves to find a quiet spot to sit and look over the lights of the city, talking about those things that couples talk about when they are in love and that love is still new.



On the turntable: "Putumayo, Women of the World"

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Reality shows

The other day, David Byrne wrote his thoughts on the recent election and on the state of society in general. This was not so much a victory for Democrats or Liberals, but more a defeat over arrogance and mean-spiritedness.

After my son died, I spent close to a full year in "zombie-mode," functioning without really functioning. Little by little I began to wonder about the other walking wounded out there. The woman who stepped in front of us in line at the supermarket, or the guy who cut us off in his car-- who knows what's going on in their lives. Did she just lose her job? Was he returning from the doctor's office where he was given a terminal diagnosis? I'm sure that I too unwittingly did and said some lousy things both to strangers and people I care about.

Before reacting with anger, I now try to show compassion. I try to understand that not everybody is bad, or mean, or selfish. Humans basically want one thing--to be happy. That includes too the people with whom we disagree. Rather than judge, it's better to listen and try to understand the other side.
Plus, it's a helluva lot more interesting than TV.


http://journal.davidbyrne.com/2006/11/117806_election.html




On the turntable: Steve Reich, Tehillim"

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Okay, let's give it to 'em, right now!

I'd love to hear a version of "Louie Louie" sung as a duet by Louie Armstrong and Louie Prima.



On the turntable: "A Fair Forgery of Pink Floyd"
On the nighttable: Dave Lowry, "The Best of..."

Friday, November 10, 2006

No moss

This past weekend was a microcosm of my life and interests.

Thursday saw me in Tokyo at the 30th anniversary party of Printed Matter Press. Over wine and a nice buffet, I ran into a few old friends and made some new ones. Entertainment was a mixed bag of poetry and music. Some really great characters in the house, forming the cornerstone of a lively and vibrant expat subculture.

Friday morning I spent watching the koryu demos at Meiji Shrine. I go every year, more as a chance to see friends than anything else. Yet I am beginning to appreciate the demos more and more, starting to develop an awareness to the subtle differences in style between the schools. Does this reflect a maturity in my own training, or simply that things become familiar with repeated viewings?

That afternoon I spent in Ginza for my Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy training which will wind up later this month. Enjoy the group but won't miss the commute.

Saturday, early, I headed down to Okayama to take part in the Takeuchi demos. This year is the 20th anniversary of this event, so rather than being held in the usual dusty concrete thunderdome, we got to "fight" on the grass at Korakuen garden. A gorgeous day under blue skies, beauty static in the form of flowers and stone, and beauty in action in the form of swirling bodies and spinning oak.

Sunday, up to Ishikawa for the 20th anniversary concert of Honno Daiko. Just getting there took most of the day, riding a series of trains which grew smaller and smaller. A nice change from the frantic Bullet Time of the previous few days. Honno Daiko was smoking, both musically and aesthetically. (They have the taiko world's most exciting costume changes since Leonard Eto.) Incredible, effortless power coming from three women. I personally feel that aside from Kodo, this is the best Taiko group in the world. As it was a special gig, there were a few special guests, including Kodo's own Yoshikazu. Watching him and Honno Daiko's Jige Akemi play Odaiko together was magic. That ten minutes alone was worth the trip. Marcin's Nov. 9th "Lost in Translation" entry has more detailed text, plus photos, and video. So click away.

http://lost--in-translation.blogspot.com/2006/11/trip-to-ishikawa-ken-1-out-of-blue.html




On the turntable: Joe Strummer bootleg
On the nighttable: Ryu Murakami, "69"

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Can I go home yet?

Well. the news coming out of the States shows that voters have changed the channel. But when will they be enlightnened enough to turn the TV off completely?


On the turntable: {Don't know. Can't hear it due to my weeping with joy.}

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Bullet Time

Does the lack of benches on the Shinkansen platforms
Indicate a victory for the forces of speed?

!Andale!


On the turntable: Tim Ries, "The Rolling Stones Project"
On the nighttable: Hillel Wright, "Border Town"

Sunday, November 05, 2006

How do you define "Postmodern?"

riding the Bullet Train
wearing Hippie clothes
reading about Coltrane
and listening to Joy Division



On the turntable: Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra, "Boulevard de l"Independance"
On the nighttable: Eric Schlosser, "Fast Food Nation"

Friday, November 03, 2006

What Koizumi's doing with his retirement

Heading a old-timey ryu-ha is hard. It's hard work...

On the turntable: "Fine Time 2: A Tribute to New Wave"

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Far Too Many Shopping Days Left Until...

Only November 2nd,
But the Halls of Kyoto Station
Are already decked



On the turntable: Ochi Brothers, "Beating the Earth"
On the nighttable: Edward Seidensticker, "The Snake That Bowed"

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Suddenly Last Summer 2

Late September. Moving to a bigger city has given rise to many opportunities that I've long been waiting for. It was in this spirit that I finally saw my favorite Japanese band, Soul Flower Union in their hometown of Osaka.

Seeing them in the intimacy of Shinsaibashi's Club Quattro was the perfect choice. This place is well known as the Kansai stop for more alternative acts. But the faces in tonight's crowd looked like a good cross section of this working class city's working class. You know, the flared Aladdin-trouser and split-toed rubber boot set, raised on a strict diet of canned coffee, cigarettes, and combini box lunches. Some of these dudes were downright scary, all tats and towering baldness. But when the band came on, these guys boogied harder than the rest. There was no shortage of real characters in the room, like the girl whose frenzied pogo-ing never stopped, not even between songs, or two incredibly obese guys whose dance style consisted of a manic jiggling in perfect unison. During the faster numbers, the whole crowd began to jump up and down, causing all the lighting to sway. If there had been a strong quake that night, I never knew it.

What most struck me was that all these dancing thugs seemed to know all the words to every song. I don't blame them for mimicking frontman Nakagawa Takashi. I think if I were given the chance to have anybody's singing voice, it would be his, a strong blend of rough blues and sweet sentiment. The man himself seemed amused by all this. He'd strut and grimace in the ultimate rock star way, then suddenly burst into a huge ironic grin to show he wasn't caught up in all this posturing, that it's only the music and the message that matter. He constantly poked fun at himself and the band, telling self-degrading stories and acting the fool. My favorite part was when he asked the crowd if the local Tigers baseball team was winning, and somebody checked the score on their cell phone.

The band itself was a revolving door of musicians, coming on and off the stage, blazing away in their unique mix of trad-Japanese, Irish, Okinawan, Jewish, Chindon, rock, blues champloo. A weird, scary looking butoh dancer came on stage from time to time contorting his body and face to a rhythm that only he heard. This agony seems a personally expression of the cancer within his body, yet the spirit and energy he enthused will always exist.

The band and audience shared that spirit, the energy sustained for well over three hours. This had been great fun, my long overdue return to the rock and roll audience. It's been over 12 years since I saw a big rock show, the last being a series of Dead shows in Eugene, mid-94. But it made me feel a bit old when I noticed that most of tonite's crowd were now the same age as I was back then.

Sigh. Better to burn out than to fade away.

My my hey hey.



On the turntable: 登川誠仁 With ソウル・フラワー・ユニオン, "緑の沖縄"
On the nighttable: Eric Nisenson, "Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest"

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Goin' Bump in the Night

Stepping from darkness,
A pint-sized posse
Of ghosts and witches


On the turntable: "Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour #5: Coffee"
On the nighttable: "Stallion on a Frozen Lake: Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama"

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Suddenly Last Summer

Late July.
I was walking through a light mountain rain toward the Western District of Hiei-zan. I lowered my head to avoid banging it on the walkway of the twin dumbbell-shaped temples of Jogyo-do and Hokke-do, then passed into the large courtyard of Shaka-do. Finding a dry place to sit, I alternated between staring into the forest and dipping into my secondhand copy of that classic Kyoto guidebook by Gouveneur Mosher. (I was surprised to find inside a bookmark which the book's previous owner had picked up at Beijing's Pass-by Bar in 1999. I'd had lunch there a few months before.)

I was walking because I decided to blow off the lectures going on back at a lavish hotel in the Eastern District. The morning lecture had been good, covering the basic tenets of Tendai Buddhism, but the two afternoon talks were on psychology. MatsuMiki was interested but I wasn't, so after a huge macrobiotic lunch, I set off alone into the rain.

I'd been wanting to attend this event, the Kaihogyo, for about a decade, after reading about the Marathon Monks of Hiei in another classic book, this one by John Stevens. (More info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tendai_Marathon_Monks) Later that night, we would trek 40 km throught the dark behind a man who had followed this path over a 1000 times before. After a few hours sleep, we arose at 1 am and met in front of the hotel. My grogginess was beginning to clear as we knelt in prayer before Konpon-chu-do. Suddenly, we moved along the paths at a surprisingly quick pace. The rain had cleared but the clouds kept everything below the knees in darkness. I was carrying a small flashlight which I'd "borrowed" from the hotel, unplugging it from the outlet nearest the door to my room. But after the first initial descent down a long flight of stone steps wet with rain, I decided to trust my footing, rely on instinct. As this was a pilgrimage, I was channeling Thich Nhat Hahn, peace and mindfulness in every step. I did slip a few times, mainly snagging my feet on tree roots. Even those with lights slipped occasionally, shooting a kaleidoscope of flashlight beams into the trees. A lot of these pilgims were past middle age, and as I watched them slip, I began to see the nature of broken hips: of the shock at sudden loss of balance and the quick, jerky, unconscious thrust of a leg to stop the fall. The only one of us with sure footing was the monk's dog which dashed along the trail, appearing and disappearing into the dark. But then again, he had four.

During our walk, we would often stop to pray at various spots which our guide, the Gyoja, had long ago memorized. Many were temples, some were statues, but most were simply trees or stones, which could signify that this pilgrimage goes way back to more animistic times. The prayers would last only a few seconds--a rustle of beads, a few muttered words, then we'd be off again. We walked on, along the ridges, the lights of both Kyoto and Biwa's cities far below us but above the heads of people sanely sleeping away the muggy mid-summer night. Up here, the man-made concepts of time and distance meant nothing. We would finish this hike when it was finished. I liked the idea of this, of doing a task for its own sake. I was beginning to envy the monks, passing a life this way for seven years. But then it hit me. Isn't their training, as amazing as it is, merely a long, deluded attachment to the completion of it?

We had a long tea break in the far western park of the mountain. I had been chosen to ring the temple's bell for some reason, and having done that, the 60 of us began to descend east toward Biwa-ko. The sun began to rise then, giving me for the first time a clue as to the chronological time. In the dull blue light, I thought that lakeside Shiga looks a little like Hong Kong.

It was full dawn when we reached Hiyoshi Taisha and the mountain's base. We took a long break at a temple nearby for more tea and onigiri. We'd lost quite a few people on the way, but I was surprised to see one woman in her 70s who we'd met on the bus. MatsuMiki also began to talk to a smiling, almost Gollum-like 85-year-old. I wondered how they'd fare next, on an almost vertical 14-km climb back up to the temple.

Six hours after we started, MatsuMiki and I were among the first to arrive back at Enryaku-ji. There were only about 15 people present for the closing prayers. I have no idea whether the rest were still behind or had given up and were snoring comfortably in their hotel beds. As for us, we had enough time for a long bath before we took a bus back to the Kyo.

Slept most of the afternoon, then hopped a bus back to the Nog. The next morning I'd be loading a truck, saying goodbye to my home of 12 long years.


On the turntable: "Bombay Dub Orchestra"
On the nighttable: Uno Chiyo, "Confessions of Love"

Friday, October 27, 2006

Endless Summer Revisited

Last year's summer seemed to go on and on. Except for some hot flashes in August, summer barely seemed to arrive at all. Or maybe with my Kyoto move, I was too busy to notice.

But, look there, coming over the ridge of memory---


On the turntable: "Weekend Sessions 3"

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tongue Twister for Hikers

筋肉痛に気付く
Kinnikutsu ni kizuku


On the turntable: Cheikh Lo, "Lamp Fall"
On the nighttable: Randy Komisar, "The Monk and the Riddle"

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Onion-ing

Bipolar autumn weather
Makes it difficult
To pick clothes



On the turntable: "Padmasana"
On the nighttable: Hillel Wright, "Rotary Sushi"

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Warning! This post has too many metaphors...

Last week, in a surprise move, Kodo played a gig in Nara-ken. The event was Tenkyo-sai, held every year amongst the ancient burial mounds in Asuka. This festival is the showcase of Yamato Daiko, essentially their scaled down version of Earth Celebration. I'd been wanting to see Yamato for about a decade now. And I wasn't disappointed. Young taiko groups tend to overemphasize flashy movements in an attempt to hide lack of power, but Yamato has both, dynamic, well-choreographed moves and a full sound which strikes the listener in the chest where it should. Their handling of bachi is incredible, with sticking so high that it'd get you penalty time in the NHL. Over half the group is women, equal in power to the men. Strangely, they all have big boobs and even bigger hair. Essentially, they're from New Jersey. One song has them all playing shamisen, knocking hell out of the things in a frenzied jam. Another number features the two lead male players, in sort of a drum battle. During this piece, they keep rolling out bigger and bigger drums in a mockery of the arms race. Then by the end, both players begin to harmonize, finishing with a handshake. Very Japanese.

Then Kodo came on. They are currently in the midst of a full tour, and as this gig seemed a mere hiccup, we got a younger, more stripped down version of the group. But blazing just the same. While Yamato may have power, Kodo has POWER. Plus their playing had the usual finesse; move subtle, more tradition. This younger Kodo was missing all of the older, pre-apprentice program stars but one, the one I call Mohawk Boy. During one piece he was at the end of a five person drum line. The other four, all former apprentices, had identical sticking exact to the millimeter. Only he was slightly different. Marcin has a theory that Kodo's apprentice program is creating almost an assembly line of drummers, at the risk of creativity. I agree, but feel that this is making for some incredibly precise stage shows, something I've noticed over the past few years. While the live shows will get better and better, future CDs will no doubt suffer. Think Grateful Dead. (Sorry Mickey Hart, dude!) On stage or off, Kodo doesn't need the flash of the younger groups since the music is what has always driven audience emotion. (Think European film vs. Hollywood.) A testiment to drumming's shamanic role.

Prior to the fireworks show which closed the festival, the two groups combined to perform "Zoku." Here the differences were glaring. Yamato members looked like kids, jumping around, while Kodo, the elders, played solid and steady. (Or, a flashback to the 2002 Soccer World Cup: workman Germany against the "play" of Brazil.)

It's OK kids, the food is just as tasty at the small table, but the conversation doesn't resonate as long...


On the turntable: Aki Ueda, "Invisible Visions"
On the nighttable: Joseph Svinth, "Getting a Grip"

Friday, October 20, 2006

On the path...

Spent the week contemplating for the infinite time the role that my late son had in my life. During this period, coincidentally, I re-read Maugham's "The Razor's Edge."

I read it the first time not long after finishing college, at a time when I thought I wanted to be an environmental lawyer and activist (Oh the ulcer's I'd have today!). Unknown to me at the time, this book was to have a profound influence on me, fertilizing the creative seeds I'd long patronized as being mere hobbies.

The second time I read it, I'd just moved to Japan. It fed my desire for travel, of baptizing myself with foreign soil. Prior to this move, I'd been rallied by some words I'd read, though I forget the exact quote and can't properly attribute it. It was some long dead figure's call to arms: "The end of idle contemplation draws near; now is the time for action."

Reading the book once again this week, I was struck by how it has gone from being a source of motivation to almost a map of my growth as a man. The India sections talk about having "a passionate craving for Reality." In my twenties, I'd assumed this path to God was through knowledge. After coming to Asia, I thought it was through experience. Now I strongly believe that it is through love.


On the turntable: Miles Davis, "Seven Steps"

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Chicken Little Accessorizes

WANTED:

One strong umbrella
Capable of protecting against:
Chinese acid rain,
North Korean nukes,
Japanese political fallout.


On the turntable: Minoru Miki, "Eurasian Trilogy"
On the nighttable: W. Somerset Maugham, "The Razor`s Edge"

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Takuhatsu

Foghorn chorus
Of begging monks
Pulls me from my dreams


On the turntable: Rufus Wainwright, "Want One"
On the nighttable: Julia Boyd, "Hannah Riddell: An Englishwoman in Japan"

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Gardening at Night

Saw "Before Sunset" with MatsuMiki last night. In some places, the film can be challenging, even for native speakers. At one point I started to watch her watch the film, her body leaning forward, back straight, completely concentrating on both the English subtitles and the dialogue. A shiatsu practitioner, MatsuMiki is well-versed in bodywork and knows well the value of deep belly breathing. So it was funny to see the upward motion of her chest and shoulders. Engrossed to the point that she forgot how to breathe.

On the turntable: Chemical Brothers, "Singles 93-03"
On the nighttable: Phillip J. Cunningham, "Peacock Hotel"

Monday, October 09, 2006

To the east again

A month ago, I`d noticed that Tokyo, in a near unanimous showing of thick, earth-tone solidarity, had declared summer over.
Today, I saw that Fuji had already put on her white winter coat, in these early days of October.


On the turntable: Bob Dylan, "Desire"
On the nighttable: Nicolas Suino: "Budo Mind and Body"

Friday, October 06, 2006

Simply rubbish!

During my aimless meander across southern China, and again while wandering the length of Vietnam, I realized how fabulouly socialist Japan is. It could be arguably the greatest socialist state in the history of the world. In over a dozen years here, I still have little idea whether the people I meet are rich or poor, educated or not. Of course it is the central governments's job to be that animal which is more equal than others.

The washroom at Kyoto's City Hall is an especially well-known breeding place for Bolsheviks. These Big Brethren decided that from October 1st, all Kyoto residents are required to dispose of their garbage in city-issued bags. I understand the reasoning behind this, yet don't appreciate having to pay 450 yen for a mere 10. Worse, most of the bags are simply huge, with much more volume than needed. This environmentally conscious single occupant doesn't create that much trash in a month, let alone twice a week. So on the very first day of the new system, I tried use the smallest bag, but was told by nosy neighbor #1 that that particular bag was for cans and bottles only. She suggested putting the whole works into a legal yellow bag, but this would generate even more trash. So, after about ten minutes, she let me off, after I promised to bring my illegitimate trash home if the city refused it.

Two hours later, nosy neighbor #2 is standing at my door, my poor unwanted white bag in hand. I started up with my spiel again, but after a couple minutes we both lost interest. My trash is now once again steadily decomposing in my kitchen.

Few things here seem to rankle old women as much as improper waste disposal. Seemingly every foreigner has a story.
In the country of my birth, there's a saying that good fences make good neighbors. In the country where I hang my hat, bad trash policies make for bad.



On the turntable: "Miles Davis, "Live in Stockholm"
On the nighttable: S.T. Wellman, "The Mirror Stone"

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Currency of Love

About a week back, I went with MatsuMiki to have dinner at the home of friends. It was to my happy surprise that I found myself dining with the eldest Son of Soy, Rick. He composes a blog which I've been reading for well over a year and now lives just to the north of me. (Find link at left.) To the pleasant strains of Sakamoto Ryu, we dined on macrobiotic delights whipped up by his wife Mari, who works at Biotei. I recommend a visit soon. (To the cafe, not their home.)
Also in attendance was their interesting neighbor, Kitaoka-san, local tea-house architect and connoisseur of life. His knowledge expands in a myriad of directions. When he was younger, he took a long trip around the Japanese archipelago. During his travels, he soon found that he could judge the friendliness of a region based on how the local shopkeepers returned change. The kinder ones would cradle the back of your hand as they gently placed coins into your palm. Less warm were those who dropped the coins from above. In Kyoto, the mats atop the shop counters were miscolored by the fingers of those picking up their own money. Samui!


On the turntable: "Look at All the Love We Found: Tribute to Sublime"
On the nighttable: Nicholas Shrady, "Sacred Roads"

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Riverside Tai Chi

Swaying hands
Direct water
Down the Kamogawa

On the turntable: "Rough Guide to the Music of Okinawa"
On the nighttable: Russell Working, "The Irish Martyr"

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Duncando? Nuts to that!

A friend in Tokyo asked me if I knew a certain yoga teacher currently on tour in Japan. I didn’t. When I noticed that this teacher was giving a workshop here in town, I decided to check him out.

He sat in front of us a long while in meditation before removing his shirt to reveal extensive tattoos covering a fine physique. Then he began to talk, saying that today, he wasn’t going to break down poses or talk philosophy. He simply wanted to do some yoga together. I thought, "Oh great! I paid 7000 yen to do yoga in the same room with this guy." (This is an ongoing peeve I have about Ashtanga , where far too many teachers lead us through the poses without any attention to alignment.) He then went on to explain his system, a cross between yoga and martial arts. I misheard him call his style, "Yoga Garb," which seemed appropriate since I was surrounded by many of the spandex and tattoo set. He next mentioned "ahimsa" the yogic idea of non-violence. . Ahimsa as a concept extends well beyond our media defined notion of non-violence, into areas such as how you use language, and how you show respect. Yet within minutes, it became clear that he knew little about the topic. When his translator seemed to be having difficulty, he began to verbally abuse her, growing ruder and ruder to her to the point where he actually said, "Say what I say! Do your job! Go!" This lack of respect extended to how he treated the bodies of those in the workshop, pulling us suddenly into poses beyond our abilities, or even sitting on them. The poses themselves (if you can call them poses) flowed from one quick bouncy movement to the next. My joints certainly felt no ahimsa that day. Any trained yoga teacher will have a certain knowledge of anatomy. Any martial artist will have keen experience on the workings of the body, an experience rooted in the pain he feels during hard training. A joint moved suddenly and sharply will be damaged. (It ain’t socket science.) So, because I respect my own body and try to practice ahimsa toward it, I left the workshop. It was at about the point where the teacher did some flashy poses which showed his ability but had nothing to do with what we were doing. Or no, wait. It was when the dancing began. I won’t go into ego here. Or perhaps I already have.

The idea of a fusion between yoga and the martial arts intrigues me because I have a history in both disciplines. But there are solid spiritual and philosophical systems underlying both. To miss this is like eating a full meal without enjoying the flavor. Perhaps it’s best to get a proper grounding in one before starting the other. Things like "ego" and "respect" and "non-violence" are usually mentioned the first day of training.

Here in Japan, the current yoga boom is entering its third year. And as the commerce of yoga has certainly taken a foothold, we’re beginning to see more and more unseasoned teachers, some of whom are outright dangerous. When we leave a class frustrated, we’ve nullified the whole reason we went in the first place. (Though, that being said, perhaps this is the lesson after all. It’s easier to ignore the ego when it is appeased. Being unhappy is to stare it in the face.)

My friend Leza said (in print) that you can best judge a teacher by how they act off the mat. If you’re looking to do some Tae Bo aerobics with some yoga poses cobbled on, then ignore this post. If you wanna do real yoga with a quality teacher (even Ashtanga), there are plenty of people I'd be happy to introduce you too.

On the turntable: Led Zeppelin, "Physical Graffiti"

Friday, September 29, 2006

After the fall

Gingko fruit
Smashed on the sidewalk.
Autumn's olfactory "Tadaima!"


On the turntable: Peter Gabriel, "OVO"
On the nighttable: Joan Baxter, "Sword of No Blade"

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Before the Fall

Large grey monkey
Hops my neighbor's fence
To pluck figs


On the turntable: The Cure, "Staring at the Sea"

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Jung as Lifeguard

Last Thursday I took my first tabla lesson from Shen, resident of the Indo-Aussie-Nippon golden triangle. He and a santoor player called Jimi played a gig Sunday night at Ei-Un-In, a temple whose name seems lifted from the breath which usually accompanies Kegel contractions. (It was my second Indian music gig of the weekend, having seen an incredible Sarod player at Ratna cafe two nights earlier.) The virtuosity of the music was rivalled only by the still perfection of the garden behind the performers, and by the first movement of autumn playing out in the air. A magical night. During one raga, I began to hear strains of flute in my head, which I had assumed were stored in the warehouse of my mind, a bit of a piece I'd heard somewhere before. However, I later realized that I had been sitting behind Carlos Guello, local bansuri (flute) player. Ah, to bathe in the pool of collective unconsciousness...


On the turntable: Gorillaz Vs. Spacemonkeyz, "Laika Come Home"
On the nighttable: Catherine Hanrahan, "Lost Girls and Love Hotels"

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Late night Nanzenji

From my bicycle
Beckon to cat
Realize it's stone


On the turntable: "KlubbjazzMixed"
On the nighttable: David Hadju, "Positively 4th Street"

Saturday, September 16, 2006

To the east...

In Tokyo for a few days. Tokyo dresses far better than I do.


On the turntable: U2, "Under a Blood Red Sky"
On the nighttable: Taichi Yamada, "Strangers"

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Gathering moss

Just returned from the Isamu Noguchi exhibition at the Shiga Museum of Modern Art. As much as I love art, I just don`t get sculpture.

But wise MatsuMiki says that with abstract art, it doesn`t matter whether you get it or not. So in looking at Noguchi`s sculptures, I saw he was influenced by:

Jetsons` surfboards
Klingon weapons
1950s iconography (bouffants and Caddy fins)
Mr. Donuts` Pon de Ring

There was also a video of Martha Graham dancing around his sculptures, circa 1946. Amazing Japanese influence on her dancing, alternating wildly between mincing Noh steps、and flashy, spinning karate moves.

A metaphor here. While I`ve got movement down as a science, I am baffled by staying completely, silently, presently, still.


On the turntable: Kodo, "Gathering"

Friday, September 08, 2006

Wake for Pluto

As most of you know, Pluto lost it's planetary status recently. An Astronomy professor at Kyoto University (on loan from Canada) and I (simple stargazer and poet) have decided to hold a wake for poor pitiful diminished Pluto at Hill of Tara, next Sunday evening. This low-key event will begin around 7pm. Look for the Men (and Women) in Black. If you're in town, please join us.


Also...
...I have yet to write on my experiences at this year's EC, and hope to soon. Jamie over at "I'm Still in Japan" has written an excellent post that really captures the spirit of the thing. Treat yourself by clicking here.




On the turntable: "The Best Smooth Jazz...Ever!"
On the nighttable: Satish Kumar, "The Buddha and the Terrorist"

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Pagode Mandala

Eric and Rie are back in town, which means the gigs are back on. Literally the day after their return, Mandala did a one-man show at Pagode. Eric looked beat, but he seemed to enjoy himself as always. It was small intimate setting which encouraged much back and forth with the audience. When asked if the lyrics to the songs he composes are in varied languages, he replied that it is generally a lot like scat, the voice taking the part of a instrument, though some of the words are related to the fifteen languages he's been exposed to on his trips. He actually said, "My lyrics have no meaning," and I immediately thought, neither do the lyrics to most pop songs. At one point in the night, with about five or six songs looping and forming their own helix patterns of rhythm, he got up mid-song to greet a friend, toasting him with his beer. He laughed and said, "That's the great thing about looping. I can walk around, chat with friends, drink beer--and the music keeps on going."
Mandala will be playing gigs throughout Kyoto until the end of the year. Catch 'em if you can...

http://www.mandalaworldmusic.com/indexnew2.htm


On the turntable: Groove Armada, "The Best of..."

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Marquis de Sado

Mid-August, I went out to Sado again for EC. I'll write my version later, but for now, please enjoy Marcin's account. As he himself said, Kodo was so smokin' this year, his head was spinning.

http://lost--in-translation.blogspot.com/.

On the turntable: "Sound Contact from L.A."

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Short Happy Fortlife of...

Selfish, noisy cicada!
Always, "Mee, mee, mee, mee, meeeeeeeeee!"


On the turntable: REM, "Document"

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Kyoto Aikido

Up til now, I haven't written many martial arts posts, despite the fact that I spend many hours a week in such practice and it's basically the main reason I'm in Japan at all. Yesterday morning I joined the aikido class at the Budo Center. As I tower over most Japanese training partners, I'm often likely to cheat, relying on my strength far too much. For years I've been wanting to train with a woman instructor, someone to help me favor technique over muscle, to teach me all the things that make Aikido "gentle." I'm thrilled to find Okamoto Sensei. Her movements are so subtle, based quite a bit on feeling more than muscular power. Yet Okamoto Sensei has a great deal of power too, remembered all too well by aching legs as I write this.
The dojo seems split in half between foreign and Japanese members, everybody seemingly comfortable in Japanese and English, which is a treat. In three years, Okamoto sensei has done a fantastic job in creating a small multi-cultural community, and I'm happy to be the newest member.

On the turntable: "Almost Famous"

Friday, September 01, 2006

Firmly ensconced...

...in the Kyo, a month now. LL Tim and I drove down in a two-ton truck carrying, basically drums and books. Oh, and a Vespa. It was kinda fun driving this massive rig over the mountainous spine of Chugoku, and thru the dainty streeets of the ancient capital. I finally fulfilled those "BJ and the Bear" fantasies of my youth (which meant that Tim was the chimp this time. Sorry man.) , a show that made me long to be a truck driver, cruising around having adventures, a fantasy nipped in the bud when my mom told me that long distance driving would give me 'roids. (Didn't stop Kerouac and Cassidy, and come to think of it, hasn't stopped me, in constant motion for about fifteen years now, sans Kenworth.)

So, I've been following that nesting instinct, and except for a quick trip to Sado for EC, have barely left my mountainside drum museum. Since June last year, I hadn't been in the same place more than nine days, seemingly sleeping in a different bed every few days. (Emphasis on sleeping. Jeez, I'm not THAT lucky.)

After returning from Sado, I took shokai omiyage to all the neighbors. Begun the gift wars have.


On the turntable: Tom Waits, "Alice"
On the nighttable: Pete Brown, "Three Sheets to the Wind"

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Part II: Nagasaki

(The setting here is 1995, yet rewritten in 1999 to include the (then) current political activities of Nagasaki's mayor and residents.)


Compared with its counterpart in Hiroshima, Nagasaki`s Peace Museum is much smaller. But where the exhibits lack in size they make up in emotional power. Here, it is strictly about the bomb`s effects on the victims, free of any politics or moralizing. Rubble lies on display under glass. The photos are horrifying. One picture I had seen in various books. It shows a woman lying on her side on a blanket, with a look so blank it`s as if she has transcended the pain and confusion around her. The look is of a person resigned to death. It is an image that shocks me each time I see it and haunts me still.

But it`s the poems and drawings by children which tear into you the most. The stories are so sad, of losing parents, of witnessing terrible things, yet being completely incomprehensible to it all. My friend and I leave the museum in silence until she says, “My heart hurts.” We continue walking until we reach the one-legged torii, one leg of this Shinto arch blown away by the bomb. From a distance it appears perfectly solid. What a perfect metaphor for the justification for nuclear weapons: the simultaneous prevention of, and preparation for, war.

The next morning, the ninth, we follow a large crowd up a flight of stairs into the Peace Park. Out front, there are many photographs of the victims and the damage to the city. As I look at them, a news team begins filming me, making me feel incredibly uncomfortable and conspicuous. I don`t like them intruding on this private moment of mine, yet aren`t I, in looking at these pictures, currently intruding on the pain of someone else? In any case, the camera crew, in assuming I`m American, films my reaction to the photos as if courtroom footage of a man when pronounced guilty.

After passing through metal detectors, we join the crowd of twenty-eight thousand. This service begins much like Hiroshima`s did, with flower and water offerings, a speech, then the minute of silence. As in Hiroshima, the latter was as moving as it was tragic. Somewhere behind me a woman wails, a sound so mournful that tears begin to well up in my eyes. Here in Nagasaki, the schoolchildren sing of the dead , their shrill voices cutting out the sound of the cicadas as they hover above the crowd. When the politicians begin their speeches, people begin to file out. As I leave, I pour water over a black stone, then say a prayer for the dead, knowing that my thoughts can little more console the dead than can the hollow words still ringing on the mikes.
I`m still not sure what brought me to the services. An odd curiosity? A hope to feel closer to the people of my host country? Or maybe a sense of Catholic guilt and a hope for atonement for my country`s sins? Judging from the large number of foreigners with blank looks, peace activists carrying placards, neo-hippies singing, Native Americans beating drums, or Hindus bearing pictures of Gandhi, it appears that what everyone really wants to do is to look forward and do whatever`s possible prevent these memorials from spreading to other cities. The people of Nagasaki have been especially active here, Mayor Itcho Ito in particular. He traveled to New York last May and was present at the commitment by the five major nuclear-armed states to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Yet Nagasaki`s goal had always been elimination within this century, which doesn`t, at the moment of writing, appear feasible. This autumn, a group of NGO`s and citizens will gather in the city in order to continue the fight...


Meanwhile it seems most Japanese are tired of looking back and want to forget. While the hibakusha live day to day with the effects of the bomb, most Japanese don`t appear to think much about those two days in August. With recent nationalistic statements made by top politicians, with the national anthem and national flag given official status without public debate, and with the Diet preparing to reevaluate Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan at the close of the Twentieth Century is becoming more and more an unfriendly place. I sincerely hope that to the people of Japan, “Peace” means more than just a popular brand of cigarettes.

On a hill in Nagasaki is a monument dedicated to twenty-six men who were martyred for their Christian beliefs. At the beginning of this century, the Japanese revered their Emperor as divine, the latest in a long line reaching back more than two millennium to the sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Perhaps the Japanese, like the saints on the hill, were punished for this blind religious belief. In their case, however, the tragedy was multiplied ten-thousand-fold.


On the turntable: "Buddha Bar II"

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Part I: Hiroshima

In 1995, having been in Japan for less than a year, I attended the 50th anniversary ceremonies marking the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite this piece's flaws, and the naivety of the narrator, I decided to publish it here, in two parts.




Seven-thirty a.m. or so. The air is cool this morning but growing hotter. The sun hangs low and is slightly blurry over the Gembaku Dome. People are entering the Peace Park from all sides , a steady stream quiet, somewhat solemn. The only sound now is the cicadas who scream from all the trees. I`ve heard that on that infamous morning fifty years ago it had been clear as well. As we near the museum area, the crowd grows denser, so we cut through the throng amidst a sea of chairs, moving in a near-orderly fashion toward the very front, an area reserved for bomb victims and their families. I feel somewhat strange sitting up here, a lone American amongst people who have every reason to hate me. Outside this area are thousands of people: Japanese and international press, important personages, and more foreigners than I`ve ever seen in a single place in Japan. Boy and girl scouts mill around handing out programs. Young men with armbands line the perimeter, and the large presence of police represents the upper limits of Japanese body size. The Prime Minister just pulled up, lined by a dozen or so bodyguards. I`m more curious about who I can`t see, either celebrities or friends. I think the Russian ambassador is here somewhere, and I wonder about Gary Snyder, Nanao Sasaki and others dedicated to the fight against nuclear weapons. I think of my brother Kurt and his personal commitment to this fight, not to mention the thousands of others in this crowd. The sheer number here is amazing, twenty thousand? Thirty? For a group this size they`re certainly quiet. There is a sense of peace, of harmony. People seem light, but far shy of joy. A brass band tunes up with a low note which sounds ominous as it fans out over the crowd. Flower after flower is laid out and Hiroshima`s last memorial service of the century is about the begin....

Yesterday, I hadn`t felt so light. Riding the bus into the city, I`d been reading Kenzaburo Oe`s Hiroshima Notes, being convinced yet again of the living proof of such power, a power that here in Japan actually fell once, twice, unlike in America where the power is merely a threat that hangs over head as it has for the past five decades. As I flipped the pages of Oe`s book I saw more and more reason for man to hate man, innocents victimized for the tyranny of others. Would that cruel experiment a half-century ago dredge up bitter resentment by an aged keloid-bearing victim toward a young healthy American like myself? I had heard of foreigners accosted outside the Peace Museum, verbally attacked for decisions made by the fathers and grandfathers of others, and in many cases the accosted were from a country other than the one responsible. This city and its name have a way of provoking strong emotion. This time of year emotions run particularly high, and emotions, like storms must finish their course in some fashion or another. All in all, I felt great hesitation about attending. Another scenario: wouldn`t an event of this size and with this much media exposure be an excellent forum for an act of terrorism? Aum, however much defanged, still operates its businesses successfully. Various other groups have been active recently as Asia goes through her latest stage of growing pains. The worldwide attention factor at this event is huge. More reason to worry.

The bus pulled into the station and I met a few friends. After a quick lunch we wandered through a busy shopping area and Wow! the dome was before me, not ten meters away. Earlier, on the bus, I had craned my neck for a glimpse of the thing and here it was, sitting unobtrusive amidst glories of Western-style success; a mild imperfection like a mole on a model`s cheek. Its outer structure was mostly intact, a few holes here or there, but the inside was completely empty and black. Bits of debris lay on the lawn like children`s toys. The steel beams forming the dome`s shape were slightly twisted, and in one of the windows, a bit of concrete hung down like a broken tooth. I was mesmerized by the thing, tangible proof of the fear that has gripped the world for three generations. I personally have never been entirely afraid of the bomb. I guess I`ve always looked at it like cancer; if it`s going to happen to you, there`s little you can do about it. Others I know have at times been nearly encompassed by that fear. But looking at this hull I realized for the first time the true power of modern weaponry.

Passing the “eternal” flame (to be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon is destroyed), we entered the memorial area. Beyond the cenotaph, which bears the names of all known victims, was a sea of chairs, ten thousand or more, impressive in itself, and beyond this was the museum.
The Peace Museum, as it is called, is less a reminder of the bombing and more a call to halt the spread of nuclear arms. I think that a good way to go about this would be to present disturbing evidence which in turn pull at the sympathy of its viewers. As it is, of course, no one “approves” of nuclear weapons, but the American government, at least, seems to see them as preventative medicine, cauterizing an entire area rather than let “evil” spread. I think that to view the photographs of victims and to hear about the terror from their own lips could conceivably alter that kind of thinking. (It was said that for the first time, the hibakusha are finally willing to speak of their experiences. Over ninety-percent of Hiroshima`s citizens think that it`s best to tell the world what went on here, in order to prevent it from occurring again.) Perhaps a person with the right amount of power could do something to stop or slow my nation`s insane flight on the path of atomic manifest destiny. As it is, we need not physically conquer the world since we`ve already taken the hearts and minds through fear, intimidation, and consumerism.
The museum is powerful, the scale and breadth of its displays amazing. The physical debris showed the incredible power that a single bomb can possess, with melted bottles, twisted bicycles, and glass-flecked concrete. The human shadow forever indelible on the steps of a bank was terrifying, as were the permanent stains of “black rain.” Most frightening of all were the documented occasions that the US government considered using nuclear arms. Most incidences, with a little historical hindsight, seemed pretty minor, and I shudder to think of the opportunities to which the government didn`t admit. (In Oe`s book, he mentions a hypothetical scenario about a nuclear power bombing a remote African village, then covering up the traces.) Yet for all the museum`s power, in places it seems to have lost its focus. Some displays become less about presenting fact and drift into political rhetoric and propaganda-like discourse. (I`m also told that there is a serious discrepancy between the Japanese and English translations, both in content and strength of speech.) The three-dimensional exhibit of dazed bombing victims walking with skin in tatters was presented in a way half-horrifying and half-surrealistic Disney. The testimony of survivors and the photographs of victims were surely the most deeply disturbing, yet could be so much more powerful if allowed to stand alone, without such a strong accompanying moral message. The viewer can`t help but be moved.

Walking out of the museum, I was quiet a long time. A year or so before, when watching Akira Kurosawa`s “Rhapsody in August,” I thought it unrealistic for Richard Gere`s character to apologize for America`s bombing of Nagasaki. Yet here I was, telling my friend Osamu that I was ashamed to be an American after what I had just seen. He told me that he felt the same way when he traveled to China and Korea. When I asked him if he was moved by the museum he told me in typically stoic Japanese fashion that he`d seen it many times and that he`d probably be moved tomorrow during the ceremony.

My fears of bad Hiroshima vibes appear to be unfounded. The night before the ceremony, I went to my friend Osamu`s home, in a village high in the hills outside the city. There is an elementary school a block from his home, and they were holding a Bon-odori there. As we entered the yard, the abundance of stares made it obvious to me that not many foreigners are seen in this area. Buying a beer, I was given free popcorn. Throughout the night, I was chatted up by a variety of people, laughed at when I tried strange food, and was the attention of all. At one point an old woman pulled me into the center of the yard to dance. It wasn`t hard to figure out eventually, but I floundered for a while. This song, one of the most popular in Japan, was an old laborer`s song and the moves seem that of a worker—dig, dig, throw, throw, smooth, smooth, push, clap. Dancing that first time turned out to be unwise because as soon as one song finished, another woman would pull me into the circle, ever growing as people became drunker. Later, the drummer at the center of the circle called me onto the platform where I beat out a rhythm for the dancers. After talking with a few people—while helping some drunk guy eat his fish—I went back to Osamu`s home for dinner. It was really elaborate, his folks making me feel as comfortable as possible, going above and beyond as is the usual Japanese custom with guests. I spoke a lot with his mother who, like most of the old people at the dance, tried the two or three words of English that she knew. His father had worked for the Americans during the Occupation and used to teach English, so we spoke in a weird Japanese-English hybrid. A bottle of the local shochu was brought out, and in my role as guest I had no choice but to drink one after another. The drunker I became the more I lost my Japanese and my ability to use chopsticks.

This morning we awoke early. Osamu`s father moves quickly down the hill to the bus stop, showing absolutely no effect of last night`s drinking. Osamu and I follow as well as we can, our headaches intensified by the sun already hot though well before seven. We continue to follow in silence all the way to our seats in the Peace Park among the hibakusha. Osamu`s silence has little to do with his hangover. As a boy, his father had gone to school in Hiroshima. On the day of the bombing he was too ill to attend and subsequently, he was one of ten classmates who lived. Osamu is grateful that his father was here today sitting quietly beside us, and obviously Osamu himself was glad to be here as well. It seems amazing that a seemingly insignificant illness a half century ago could contribute to the existence of a young man whose friendship I deeply cherish. Osamu isn`t alone in being grateful about his father being alive for I feel that this man is one of the kindest I`ve yet to meet. How depressing to think of all the kind men who perished in the bombing and of all the children who didn`t get the opportunity to become kind men themselves. Osamu's father is testimony to that fact, sitting amidst the survivors for the fiftieth year, wearing the same green ribbon pinned to his chest.

At eight-fifteen, two children ring a large brass bell and the clock at the far end of the park begins to chime. The anti-nuke protesters on the perimeter of the crowd drop their placards and cease their chanting. The members of the Die-In drop to the ground, their contorted bodies outlined in chalk. The whole crowd of fifty-thousand is as one in a silent prayer. For the next minute, the only sound I hear is the woman next to me dabbing her eyes. Sounds of crying around me increase as two school children give a speech. Over the crowd, their immature voices are a reminder of potential never allowed to develop and of our own growth as humans, with our ability to overcome pain and sorrow, and our capability of becoming accustomed to a world filled with nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, the emotional high we all feel is quickly immersed in a morass of political speeches. One ran into another with the monotony of trying to follow the same message said a dozen different ways. The UN representative`s speech (the only one in English subsequently) was so bland and unemotional that I was embarrassed to be his fellow countryman. This same sort of neutral rhetoric is used not to question the wisdom of nuclear weapons but rather to justify their continued existence. Leave it to politicians to take the heart out of things.

After the ceremony, the crowd rushed forward to offer flowers and prayers at the cenotaph in such a mob that old people were in danger of serious injury. People lingered throughout the day, visiting the museum, folding paper cranes. The crowd thinned out considerably by evening. As is done every year, candles are floated down the Motoyasu river in honor of the dead. This year, a group was performing a play on a barge while nearby, men in small boats placed candles in multicolored bags into the river. These floated awhile, drifting single-file before being overtaken by the water. It`s unfortunate that the memorial flame won`t be snuffed out so soon....

(CONTINUED)

On the turntable: Wall Matthews, "Zen Gardens"

On the nighttable: Barbara Ehrenreich, "Nickel and Dimed"