Friday, April 28, 2006

Thank God I'm a Country Boy!

Today, the woman who runs the Chinese restaurant up the way asked if she could cut some sanshou from the tree in my yard. Later, she brought me some sweet and sour take-no-ko. I love the barter system...

On the turntable: Duke Ellington, "Early Ellington 1927-1934"

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Beijing Bicycle

The hutong were calling, so I got on a bicycle and went. Earlier that morning at the hotel, I was shown my choices of bikes: mountain, road, superior, giant. No pictures or descriptions. Mine was one of Beijing's eight million bicycles, (which outnumber cars 4 to 1) and I joined the commuters heading into the central part of the city. I followed the canals into and around the Fobbiden City, then on into the hutong, weaving between brick walls which hid courtyards and narrow passageways. I biked for hours, trying to become part of the scene. An old woman lay on a wooden cart as her equally old husband towed her, pedalling along. Unemployed men played cards. Kids yelled from doorways. Old women gossipped in the street, and a few of them used colorful new exercise equipment, pumping their legs slowly as they talked about Miss Chen and have ya seen the length of her skirts recently? Some people sat on low stools reading. In one doorway, I saw a girl sewing. I didn't take her picture because there was no need. There was eternity in that scene. Someone had been sitting in the same doorway doing the same thing since Mongol times. A couple people walked dogs. Here in China, animals are more often food than pets. I saw few dogs and no cats at all. In the hutong, one image was constant. Through a passageway, I see a single bicycle leaning against a wall, with another passage leading to the left. Again and again, block after block.

My bike also led me out onto some of the bigger streets. I saw a guy on a mountain bike wearing a cowboy hat. Outside a bridal shop, an employee stood in a white tux. Not the best choice for this polluted air. But today the sand was light. Instead, small pieces of white fluff floated and drifted everwhere. I know it is pollen, but it was if a gigantic duck had exploded high over the city. And once again, it was the signs which kept me amused. Babe Salon. Pink Mao Mao. Bling. I saw many "Sex Shops" and a "Herbal Heaven, " so a rock'n'roll joint is sure to follow. I also noticed the Chinese for Starbucks uses the star kanji.

After a lunch in the sunny courtyard of Passby Bar, I changed my hotel to Hao Yuan guesthouse. Located in the hutong, its large and classic rooms formed a figure-eight around two courtyards. I seemed to have the back courtyard to myself. My room was done in the old style, with dark wooden furniture and red fabric. It was one of the nicest places I've stayed and I didn't want to leave. I took my book and sat in the courtyard, looking at the fish and flowers and trees. Tiny birds sang in small bamboo cages. (Don't know why.) When it grew too dark to read, I got a traditional Chinese massage from a guy in a long white lab-coat. He pawed me like a cat, which I presumes brings blood to the skin's surface. It was relaxing at first, but after an hour, it felt like he was my older brother picking on me. I wanted to cry, "Mom! Make him quit it!"

I was the only diner in a small restaurant on the opposite side of the courtyard. Later I sat outside in the dark, looking at the moon. It was a warm night, and the sounds of the city were beginning to hush. It stayed awhile enjoying the quiet, fully engulfed by the city's embrace.

I left for the airport at six the next morning. My driver looked quite the hipster, in his funky clothes and cool shades. He further won me over by playing Dave Matthews on the stereo. But this was to change when he then played a CD by some clone boy band. I hate such pop pap at any time, but this early in the morning it becomes agony. Yet this driver had a few surprises. He pulled down the sun visor on the passenger side of the car, revealing a small TV screen. Alright buddy, you're cool.

There was little traffic, so I had plenty of time before my flight. There were a few small groups of Koreans about. I'd seen a lot more in town. It suddenly hit that I hadn't seen a single Japanese in Beijing. That's the first time that's ever happened. Like Germans and Australians, you seem to run into them in the most remote corners of the world. And Japanese products were scarce. Even cars. VWs, on the other hand, were thick on the ground. Nice work Koizumi. Enjoy that Yasukuni sake.

I sat with Theroux's book, occasionally looking throught the dusty air to new buildings being built across the tarmac. This visit had been good to me, much different than the last one, where I couldn't wait to leave. But has China changed, or have I? It's hard to do a true comparison. Last time I'd stayed deep in the country, in areas that get few "foreign guests." I realize that being a city, Beijing is different . But I'd been to Shanghai. Although by the time I'd gotten there, I was already pretty frazzled by seven weeks of hard travel. Just kept my head down and tried to blend, no longer finding the stares amusing. On my last trip, I think I'd been slightly intimidated by being in a communiust country for the first time. Being American, fear of the Reds is part of the mythology. (I still feel strongly that I missed out on never having gone to Eastern Europe when it was behind the Iron Curtain.) This trip, I barely acknowledged the ideology of my hosts, whereas before I'd looked for signs of it everywhere. And most important: this time, money didn't seem the be the primary focus of Chinese life, an incredibly strong impression I'd brought home. Now, I could travel more freely, be harrassed less. A trip back into the countryside should see if this change is a national trend, or just applies to moneyed Beijing. I'll brush up on my language skills in the meantime.

As my plane neared Japan, I looked down at a sea of pointillest waves. Where Chiba began, there was a massive, dense cloud which looked like a block of tofu. In Japan, there's a dish where a small living fish is slowly heated in water. It tries to escape by swimming into tofu and cool. But there it boils to death. I felt like this fish as we entered the cloud. Then I noticed what looked like lightning hitting our wing. I wasn't sure until I saw a stewardess take a phone call, then look out the window. And again, electrical lines wriggled down the wing. Our pilot then came on to confirm that we had indeed been struck twice, but we'd be OK. As the clouds thinned, they streaked the sky. I could tell their altitude by how big our shadow was as it passed across the surface of one. Then we were down.

Tokyo of course had changed little in four days. But after Beijing, to me it felt emptier. No doubt this is the first time in the history of the world that someone has thought so. In many ways Beijing is a more beautiful city than Tokyo. For all the dust and dirt, there is a greater sense of space. Tokyo, though scrubbed nearly spotless, feels more cluttered. It all comes down to a different sense of what is "clean." Some of the most spotless Japanese homes can have closets and hallways piled high with useless crap that's long outserved its impulsive purpose. Some spring cleaning is due.

On the turntable: Jerry Garcia Band, "Pure Jerry 2"

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

China's Safety Belt

Early the next morning, a mini-bus picked me up to take me to the Great Wall. As the bus drove around picking up other passengers, it dawned on me what was so different about China this time around. Back in '97, China had yet to enter the digital age. (Nor had Japan, actually.) Where I'd only seen a handful of cell phones, (and those were only in trendy Shanghai) now even cabbies would text their girlfriends as they idled in traffic. Buses carried ads for Nokia and Yahoo, the latter using the kanji for "kidnap." The signs I saw most often were for breast augmentation surgery.

Our own driver's cell repeatedly rang as he joined the long lines of traffic entering Beijing's ring roads. Not long out of the city, we stopped at a jade museum which served as a front for a large shop beyond. This was somewhat frustrating as I'd chosen this tour because it supposedly didn't stop at such places. But no reason to get upset, the day was too nice. I went out and sat in the sunshine, trying to ignore the dust and diesel fumes waltzing in my nose. No one in my group seemed too interested in buying anything, so it wasn't long before we heading further into the countryside and up the main road leading to the Ming Tombs. Built according to feng shui principles, its 7 kilometer length was shaded by fruit trees. A shepherd in a Mao suit tended his flock. A couple dromedary camels lay in the dirt, looking obstinate. Some buildings had strange numbers written on them. The main tomb, Chang Ling, had an impressive hall with tall cedar columns. The Chinese tourists seemed more interested in our small cluster of foreigners than in the exhibits themselves. A large courtyard had a few cherry trees in full bloom, their pink petals a sharp contrast to the bright green grass of the burial mound beyond. (Which had the amusing name of "Soul Tower.") A small stone structure overlooked the mound. Climbing atop it, I had great views of the mountains in the distance, traces of the Great Wall climbing along the ridge. I was amazed at how much the area resembled Arizona. I'd heard of the desertification of the area, the sand racing toward Beijing at a rate of 2km a year. And looking at these mountains, it was easy to see why. Their rocky faces had wrinkled brows; straight lines of small trees had been planted to prevent further erosion. Erosion originally caused by deforestation, of course.

We travelled across this desert landscape, passing a forlorn-looking abandoned fun park. Nearby was our lunch stop. Before eating, we had to suffer through a short tour of a cloisonne factory. I was more curious about how much these workers were being paid. Probably far less than this English speaker leading the tour. When it was finally time for lunch, our group of ten ate communally at a round table with revolving platter at center. (Is the round table not the perfect design for a socialist banquet?) Unlike backpacker tours I've done in the past, none of these more well-heeled tourists seemed to want to intermingle. I was the only one who tried to talk to these Aussies, these Mexicans, these South Africans. I did spend a long time in conversation with Ken, an Assemblyman from Maryland. A personable and bright guy, he had lots of interesting insight into China and Asia in general. He and I were also the only ones to get into the spirit of baijiu, that incredibly strong rice wine. After lunch, walking past recently abandoned tables, it was easy to see which groups had eaten where. While the foreign tourists had left mere sauce stains on the white tablecloths, the Chinese tables were littered with food that extended onto the chairs and floors. I made my way downstairs, where a Japanese-speaking salesgirl tried to sell me some traditional-looking robes. I was more interested in conversation, but as she grew more persistant, I smiled and begged off. The heavy lunch and the baijiu had made me sleepy, so I took a nice nap in the warmth of the bus. I awoke as we pulled out, passing some PSB guys doing goose-step John Cleese imitations in the parking lot. Why are the PSB always so skinny? You'd think with their authority they'd be better fed than all but the highest cadre members. Instead, they look like GIs in an old 1940's WWII film.

Finally we arrived at the Wall. The parking area was the worst of tourist hell, so I briskly made my way toward the entrance. In pictures, the Wall looks fairly flat, but there are some pretty steep parts as it snakes its way up and down the low peaks. At certain intervals, there are former guard houses, now containing touts selling their wares. There were thousands of Chinese tourists around, but I was one of the few Westerners. Despite this, I wasn't singled out or harrassed. On my last visit, hawkers were constantly trying to seperate me from my money. It had become so bad, I'd even gotten a T-shirt with the kanji for, "I want nothing," hoping to fend them off. Today, things have certainly changed.

I had recently heard that the myth of being able to see the Wall from the Moon is just a myth. Instead, I'd hoped to see the Moon from the Wall, but it was too early in the day. I strolled on, enjoying a couple hours in the sun, walking the stone hillsides. Middle-aged men wore their leisure attire of cheap sport coats over polo shirts. Old women smiled for photos. An overly dressed woman talked on her cell phone in one hand and grasped a handrail tightly in the other. Another woman was trying to prevent a young smiley guy from filming down her blouse as he stood higher up the slope. A young mother smacked the crap out of her toddler son, her arm raised well above shoulder height. I eventually came to a series of rails running down the mountain. As it was nearing the time of my bus to leave, and wanting to further explore the kitsch factor, I caught a ride on this rollercoaster down into the parking lot. People standing in front of small stalls shouted at me to buy beer or coke. I chose instead to look at the bears feeding on slop in a pen at the bottom of the tourist circus. One of the bears was frolicking in his trough, literally coating his upper body in the stuff. An attendant came over wielding a shovel, and when the bear turned its head to look, it got whacked in the face. The dude had swung really hard. All the other bears growled at the violence, and I was amazed that they didn't tear this guy apart. The beaten bear hardly looked fazed. He simply sat in a high tower, merrily licking the slop from his body. Animals seem far smarter than some humans.

Back in Beijing, we encountered a massive traffic jam. Our driver did some incredibly selfish and offensive driving to get us through. From an overpass, I saw two horse-drawn carts amidst the buses, cars, and trucks of rush hour. I thought we were soon to be home, but we stopped yet again, this time at a silk factory. I'd had enough. It was our third superfluous stop, when we were supposed to have none. We'd spent more time at those other places than at our intended destinations, and this seven hour tour had stretched to eleven. So I left, walking into the Beijing dusk. I was near the site of the future Olympic village, an area thick with cranes. Nearby was the Stadium called, "The Nest," but instead it was a Gothic mess out of Batman's worst nightmares. I wandered awhile, then caught a taxi to Xiao Wang's Home Restaurant. I'd heard that there were tables in an old converted train car, but today they were closed. So I settled into a corner table and ordered the spiciest thing on the menu, hoping to purge the dust from my sinuses. And I finally got a huge glass of Tsingtao on tap, which I'd been searching for but had eluded me until now. On the way out, an African guy offered me ganja, but I preferred a shower. It had been a long day, and the worst sort of packaged bus tour. All the start and stop and wait makes you tired, destroying an sort of momentum or enthusiasm. I was in bed by ten...

On the turntable: Miles Davis, "On the Corner"
On the nighttable: Adeline Yen Mah, "Falling Leaves"

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

China: Slight Return

A few years ago, when I heard that the 2008 Olympics were going to Beijing, my first thought was that I needed to make a trip over before they levelled the tattier parts of the city in order to impress foreign guests. My instinct proved correct. Earlier this month, I read an article which stated that the city had already razed 60% of the Hutongs, those old maze-like neighborhoods that date back 800 years to the Mongol times. So I booked a flight, and less than a week later, I went.

On arrival, I passed through a large crowd of people clamoring for space and waving placards with the names of passengers and hotels. I felt a little like a rock star. Where the crowd ended, the adventure begins. "Here we go," I thought. Within seconds , a taxi pimp approached. We haggled the price down some, but not before I was reminded of my position in this country as a foreign tourist and therefore, a mark. Driving into town, I was further thrust into the memory of my last visit to China. The scenes were the same: of traffic and dust and crowds. A bus had overturned, crushing a guardrail flat, and strewing luggage down a hillside. The passengers stood milling about, the foreign faces looking dazed, while the Chinese ones looked bored. My driver slowed a bit to join the other rubberneckers, then we headed on into the neon glow of Beijing.

Nine years back, I had meandered the Chinese countryside, trying to stick to a $15 dollar a day budget, sleeping in the cheapest of digs. This time around, my lodgings were the posh Capital Hotel, midway between Tienanmen Square and the Beijing Train Station, terminus for the Trans-Siberian Express. Sitting in the lobby of my hotel, I nursed a $5 dollar bottle of Tsingtao beer and sinking into the fatigue of a long travel day, which had culminated in a 20-minute bounce down through strong Gobi winds.

Looking from my 10th floor window the next morning, my view of the neon had been replaced by yellow sand. Back in the 'Nog, it'll occasionally dust my car or make the edges of the horizon appear hazy. Here it hung thick, and I could barely make out buildings a few blocks away. Below me, the dust coated the rooves of the building which had been part of the Foreign Legation before 1949. All the dust and the sandy sky made the whole city appear two-dimensional. My head felt about as hazy as the sky, so I went downstairs for coffee. At the buffet table, a young woman was busy loading up on rolls and bacon and dim sum, stuffing it all into a box which was beginning to round and turn gray with grease. When she could pillage no more, she walked quickly out of the cafe. The staff sat silently smiling. I had this fantasy that she was the eldest daughter of a poor neighborhood family and had set out in her best clothes to get provisions for her family. I later found out that the buffer was cheaper if you took the food up to your room. My impressions from my previous China trip dying fast, I headed out into the street in order to form new ones.

It was a short ten minute walk to Tienanmen Square. On the way I passed a few wanna-be guides and some squawking postcard salesmen (Wili Lo Man?). The two massive gates at the south end of the square were covered in scaffolding. A few gates in the Forbidden City, along with some of its buildings were also covered, with those bamboo tinker-toy spiderwebs so beloved by Chinese laborers. Looking through the yellow air, the city skyline was a forest of cranes. Beijing was in the midst of getting a facelift. It reminded me of Shanghai a decade ago. In his book, "Riding the Iron Rooster," Paul Theroux writes about a 1986 Peking, "[It was] as if someone had simply sent out a decree saying, 'Build this city.'" Now, twenty years later, the IOC had done exactly that. Perhaps I'd already come to Beijing too late.

I walked on into the Square. It was a weekday in the spring, but it seemed there were a billion Chinese here--half of them yelling at each other. A couple hundred were lining up to enter Mao's mausoleum. (Great band name, that.) I tried to join the queue, but a few people started hollering at me. Finally one said in English, "No bag," gesturing at my daypack. He pointed at another long queue across the street, presumably where I could check my pack. I simply smiled and moved on. I'll come back another time. The Chairman's not going anywhere.

I wandered about the large open space of the Square, stepping into people's photos, people stepping into mine. It was too crowded to check out of reality and reflect on the history here, including what had happened to the students in '89. (I'd been a student myself at the time, watching CNN coverage from the safety of my Tucson bed.) For incredible documentation of the event, I recommend the film, "Gate of Heavenly Peace."

My feet led me through the various arches into the Forbidden City. It was nearing lunch time, and many old-timers were sitting around with tea and lunch. Unlike recent Japanese sakura revellers and their blue tarps, the Chinese preferred to sit directly on the dusty ground. In fact, the only tarps I did see were being used in construction; those of the striped variety, familiar to me from my time in Hong Kong.

The Forbidden City too was crowded, so I decided not to linger too long in the exhibit rooms. Better to wander across the cracked stone courtyards and pick up the vibe. Here was a hall with a big chair. Here, a hall with more big chairs. Here, an even bigger chair. They looked uncomfortable and I immediately channeled my step-father saying "They look like a royal pain in the ass." All these chairs and the crowds were making me get tourist burnout pretty quickly. So, rather than be annoyed by all the tourists, I decided to watch them. The group leaders would wave their little flags, leading their charges in their identical baseball caps. One team actually had green (knock-off) Nike swooshes. Besides these groups, every school child in Beijing was here today, in their identical blue sweatsuits. I eavedropped a little. Some years ago, I'd studied Chinese for a few months and was curious how much I remembered. Surprisingly, I could still pick out certain words. But one baffled me. I heard a guide saying something like, "Staw Basch." Looking to where she was pointing I had to laugh. There's actually a Starbucks in the Forbidden City. Coffee culture is now officially everywhere.

Exiting through a side gate, I followed a small willow-lined canal into the center of the Beijing. I eventually wound up at Huang Ting restaurant. It may be in the bowels of a posh hotel; it may be made up to resemble a 1930's Hollywood version of classic China, but here I had one of the best meals of my life. The highlight of the multiple courses was a grilled pigeon, washed down with a fine Aussie Chard. I left the place slightly and merrily buzzed. And so passed the rest of the afternoon, strolling around trendy Wangfujian. I really admired the signs. The boast of "Impossible is Nothing." And my personal fave of the day, "Mr Lee--California Beef Noodle King." I wanna see his crown. There was a huge figure of a basketballer dunking a ball onto the roof of a tall sports store. (Earlier at the hotel, I'd caught part of a Houston Rockets game on satellite. With Yao Ming now in the NBA, basketball is massive in China.) I lingered awhile in the square in front of St. Joseph's Church, watching old women gossip and young toughs do stunts on their mountain bikes. In one corner of the square was a statue of the founder of this religion--himself having gotten a Mandate of Heaven 2000 years ago. On one of the small side streets, a couple cyclo drivers reclined in the saddle, playing a board game with pieces the size of jam jar lids.

Back at Tienanmen Square, I noticed an attractive girl waving at me. When I approached her, she said to me, "Sit down and rest awhile." Her boyfriend and she were students hoping to practice their English. When they found out I taught yoga, they had me repeat the word, not quite realizing it wasn't English. We also chatted in Japanese, which the girl had also studied. I probably taught her more words in that language than in my own. They in turn praised my Chinese pronunciation. And so we sat enjoying the sun which had finally burned the yellow sand from the air. A few PSB guys passed by to check us out, looking like scarecrows in their over-sized uniforms. I noticed no crow during my stay in Beijing, but these guys didn't scare me, and it wasn't until the shadows grew long and the crowd thinned that I said my goodbyes.

Heading back through the Square, slaloming around the postcard touts and the statues of Revolutionary Heroes. Two women stood on either side of a quiet tree-lined street playing badminton. Boot camp yells came from beyond a high mysterious wall. A derelict poet sat against a wall, scribbling his latest masterpiece. A few blocks on, I came across a restaurant whose name I recognized, so I sat at a formica table and was served up greasy duck and warm beer by surly waitresses. I didn't linger long. Five minutes later I walked past another restaurant with the same name, and realized that I'd just eaten at its shabbier cousin. (Pa Ti Duk?) I strolled on, each block revealing a theme--of shops standing side by side, each carrying identical goods. There were barber shops, then shoe stores, then stand-up noodle joints. Finally I came to the theatre where they had the acrobats.

I was led for some reason to the large plush velvet seats of the VIP section. Next, I was given jasmine tea and Oreos. I had this entire section to myself, making me feel like I was on a Japanese train. Nine years ago, I'd seen an acrobat show in Shanghai, which I'd later recommended to an especially liberal friend, who later retorted, "Child labor." (Well, there is that, I suppose.) Where the Shanghai show had been amazing and professional and error free, this one was amateur hour. Which added to the appeal. The choreography and grandious gestures were pure camp. Best of all was the music, which I'd classify as 1980's Suburban Mall Moog. The Asians have nearly perfected kitsch. Throughout the show, my mouth got quite a workout, alternating between slack-jawed amazement and clench-lipped stiffle of laughter. I wondered if any of these performers would appear at any Olympic ceremonies. Most were great, but a few had a ways to go. When any of the jugglers would drop something, I immediately thought, "No dinner tonite." When one girl dropped bowls on three seperate occasions, it was, "No rice 'til the weekend." With the show over, I relinquished my VIP status and left the theatre full of mirth, quickly catching a taxi in order to escape the cold wind once again blowing sand into the sky...

On the turntable: Jerry Garcia, "Garcia Plays Dylan"
On the nighttable: Paul Theroux, "Riding the Iron Rooster"

Monday, April 17, 2006

Olympics '08

In Japan, it is the sakura that are fleeting. In Beijing, it is the Hutongs.

I'm off...

On the turntable: Calexico, "Garden Ruin"
On the nighttable: "Lonely Planet: Beijing"

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Too Soon, Harvest Moon

Bright orange moon
Clashes with a checkerboard
Of green grass and pink petals.

On the turntable: Tortoise and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, "The Brave and the Bold"

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Pickled Pink

Sunday I spent most of the day at Chofukan, where we had a hanami party. Up at the mountain dojo, there was traditional Japanese singing and a couple pieces performed on koto and shakuhachi. Next up, a small group broke into pairs and performed kata. Anna and I went through some basic bo stuff. I'm still new and unsure about it all, but she praised me a bit after, especially when my bare feet slipped on the grass, but I still maintained form. Afterward, was the party itself. we sat at benches and low tables, eating densly packed bento from two-tiered bamboo boxes. I also had my first encounter with doboroku, which is some sort of unrefined sake that looks like rice gruel but packs a wicked punch. I later settled in with the more familiar blend. Every person in attendance had some sort of connection with traditional art or culture, no real surprise considering that Kancho is a true J-renaissance men. Most of the conversation throughout the day stayed in the realm of music or koryu. One of the best parties I've been to, set high in the hills above the Kyo.

After the party, Anna and I biked downtown, riding beneath the sakura lining the Kamogawa, drunkenly dodging the drunker. There was a going away party for Owen, who claimed to remember my reading at an open mic night last year. On this night, he and I did a really funny song he'd written, him on guitar, me on Pringles can. There were some amazing people about: hula dancers and Shiatsu practitioners, filmmakers and Russian economists. I biked home, head and belly full, amazed at how incredible one day can turn out to be...

On the turntable: Jefferson Airplane, "Surrealistic Pillow"
On the nighttable: Janice Valerie Young, "Sweet Daruma"

Friday, April 14, 2006

Hana Matsuri

Saturday marked the day when Buddha became enlightened. Buddhism led me to Zen which led me to Aikido, so what better way to celebrate than to attend a special training at Peter Rehse's Himeji Shodokan dojo. The three hour morning practice was split between an hour of Yoshinkan led by Michael Stuempel, an hour of Aikikai led by Peter Goldsbury, and an hour of the local brand under Sakai Sensei.

Bryan Bateman of Seishinkan in London and I took ukemi for Michael, leading us through some variations of shionage that were similar enough, though much more powerful than the Hombu versions. I'd heard lots about Michael's aikido (in the book, "Angry White Pajamas") and it was great to see (and feel) him in action.

Next up was Aikikai with Peter G. Again, I've know his rep for years and it was a pleasure to be his sole uke. His nikyo was ferocious, and being on the receiving end of kubi-nage again and again definitely kept me focused.

The Shodokan basics were as intriguing as they were when I visited this dojo three years ago. I think they'd be a worthwhile study for anyone doing any type of aikido. Sakai sensei was incredible; his movements quick, crisp, and from the hips. He is a true man of budo.

After training, we all went for lunch nearby. As all of us met and knew each other from budo forums, our conversations stayed mainly in the cyber realm. It's funny how these days, budoka often talk about the internet more than they do about budo. Ah, modern times...

On the turntable: David Grey, "The EPs 92-94"

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Falling, falling

There are sakura petals
In my rain.

On the turntable: Billie Holliday, "Lady Day"

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

After about 6 years...

...the "Fuck Damp!" graffiti is gone! In this wet San-in climate, I've always appreciated it's sentiment.

On the turntable: "Run Lola Run soundtrack"

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


I watched a homeless woman carrying her half-dozen garbage bags into a McDonalds. Curious about what would happen, I followed her in. She rummaged through the trash a bit, then finding some tasty McMorsals, she sat in one of those uncomfortable plastic seats and ate. I waited around, pretending to study the menu, hoping to see what would happen. But everyone ignored her. Despite being a full-on lunch rush, none of the workers came over to free up the table. I guess she deserves a break today.

On the turntable: The Who, "Ultimate Collection"

Monday, April 10, 2006

In the Shrill of the Night

The coming of spring brings opera season. Throughout the day, the warbler warms us up by running through her itinerary. After dark, the real show begins. The cats take their places at various locations throughout the garden and begin to tune their voices. Then the males come to center stage in pairs and work on duets which express the fullest extent of their abilities. The two of them really get into it, backs arched to heighten dramatic tension. The two voices wrap around each other, spiralling up into the quiet night. The females linger back, not coming on until a bit later. And the show ain't over 'til the fat one sings, though she really won't reach her full girth for many weeks.

On the turntable: The Kinks, "The Ultimate Collection"

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Beginner's mind

Even after twelve years in Japan, it's still possible to forget to take off the toilet slippers. And to try to hail a student driver thinking it's a taxi...

On the turntable: Gipsy Kings, "Love Songs"

Saturday, April 08, 2006


On snowy days I found it hard to concentrate on my shakuhachi lessons, my eyes constantly wandering to the house across the road. The study upstairs was laden with books, its wraparound windows revealing an elderly man happily reading as he drank his tea. How I much prefered to be there, safe in that cocoon.

During warmer weather I was more enthusiastic about my flute studies, progressing to the point where I played a few concerts. More fun for me was playing during full moon parties held with friends. Usually these were held at the castle ruins in the 'Nog, but my favorite by far happened in the Kyo, under the massive Sanmon gate of Nanzenji. As a handful of friends drank sake and read poems, I sat under a pillar a little ways off, trying to stir the trees with my notes. E-ma Mari stood further away in the dark, singing quietly to herself. I later snuck up behind her to record her singing "Amazing Grace" in Japanese.

I'd always loved this gate. Before coming to Japan, I read a scene in Mishima's "Temple of the Golden Pavillion," where standing upon this same gate, the main character witnesses through a window, a woman opening her kimono to squeeze breast milk into a cup of tea for her soldier lover soon heading off to war. This image has always stayed with me. Incredibly, the first time I stood atop Nanzenji's Sanmon, through an open window of a neighboring house, I spied a tea ceremony being performed by a woman in kimono.

On the turntable: Peter Tosh, "Scrolls of the Prophet"
On the nighttable: Nien Cheng, "Life and Death in Shanghai"

Friday, April 07, 2006

Sakura Blah!

At this time of year, every foreign blogger in Japan seems to post about cherry blossoms. I hate to submit to tired cliche, but it's unavoidable. The sakura culture offers you so much material.

Usually in the 'Nog, I'd go to a different location everyday, sitting in a prime spot with my tea and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (to further propagate the cliche), which I only read in that setting. (It's taking me years to read that book.) To avoid the crowds, I rarely go out at weekends. But I think that Morrissey was referring to Kyoto when he sang, "Everyday is like Sunday." So began my first sakura experience in the Kyo. Noticing all the bikes outside Hirano Shrine should've been my first clue. The second would be the tour guides with flags. Well, I'd been warned not to hit the famous spots. In the shrine grounds, there wasn't a bare spot of ground to be seen. I simply wanted to find a nice patch to enjoy my bento, but this was harder than I thought. A group of tatami platforms had been raised under some of the most prime trees. They were surprisingly empty. I hadn't been sitting for three minutes before a woman said that I had to pay 4000 to sit here. I asked her if I could just finish my lunch, and I'd leave within 10 minutes. Despite there being no other people, she still insisted on my paying. Yet again, rules over reality. Well, I'd been warned.

So on a spring day with weather that can only be described as glorious, I began a huge circular course around the Kyo. A zigzag zensen, if you will. From Hirano to Nijo, across town to Kiyamachi, up along the canal to Sanjo, weaving around and around Gion, cutting through Maruyama Park, past Chion-in and Shoren-in, over to Heian Jingu, past all the love hotels of Higashiyama to the Path of Philosophy, then along the Kamogawa north toward my home near Kinkaku-ji. And the crowds were consistant, hundreds of bodies per tree. Well, I'd been warned.

The peace I'd been seeking seemed elusive. Rather than get frustrated, I decide to change my focus from Cherry Blossom viewing to viewing the Cherry Blossom viewers. Revel in the subculture. In the drunks who hassled the gate-keeper at Chion-in for closing on time. In a cop yelling at a tour bus driver, "Can't you see how congested it is!" In another cop showing no emotion as an old woman gestured wildly about something. In how every square centimeter of Maruyama was covered in blue tarp, so much so that people couldn't pass between them. (I haven't seen so much blue tarp in Kansai since the Hanshin Quake of '95.) In a superfluous crossing guard telling people to cross at the crosswalk. (How many times today did he say that same line? How many times this week?) In gaudily dressed women walking their little barky dogs, which piss on tree roots to do their part for the sakura front. In the large cluster of Chinese tourists ricocheting off each other. In the strange dialect emanating from a group of oldtimers at a sidewalk cafe. And in the stylish white-clad couple in the Jaguar, driving along the canal, top-down to reveal the pink ceiling above. The ultimate metaphor.

I of course had my own part to play. Dodging the masses, who walked with eyes looking up to the petals, oblivious to my own pedalling form. Weaving to stay out of photos. (A mid-afternoon beer at Cafe 58 temporarily diminished my avoidance capabilities.) Repeated stops to dip into Sei Shonagon or my book on Dogen. (One guy snuck a photo as I read the former on a hillside near Eikan-do. I blame the beer.) And finally finding what I'd been looking for all day. Away from the crowds, a single weeping willow sakura stood in the grounds of a little non-descript temple at the city center. Dignity and independance in dazzling pink.

Aside from the famed temples of Higashiyama, the largest crowds seemed to be in Gion and Kiyamachi. If, to the Japanese, these blossoms are prized because they represent the fleeting, then what better place to see them than in these floating worlds, where value is measured in the ephemera of beauty? And if the fleeting nature of existance is so cherished, what's with all the photographs?

On the turntable: "Putamayo, Islands"
On the nighttable: Yuho Yokoi, "Zen Master Dogen"

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Yellow flowers burst from hillsides
Like splashes of lava from Kilauea

On the turntable: "Drumfunk Hooliganz 2"

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Travelling Light

During this long cold winter, I found myself watching an exorbitant amount of films. Before long, my eyes began to act like a camera, framing objects, or following lines of motion which passed before my vision. Incredibly, I've grown sensitive to changes in light. This fact became apparent with the coming of the bright days of spring. Last Sunday in the Kyo, I went to the "Light-Up" at Nijo Castle. The beams cutting through the rainy mist created unbelievably beautiful sculptures of light as they fell on dripping cherry trees and damp stone. (The crescent moon high above was of course in a class by itself.) On my return trip home Monday, I drove into a sunset which lit up the sky like yellow gauze.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Do you like Brahms?

On cold rainy days
I prefer to live
At 24 frames per second

On the turntable: Keith Jarrett Trio, "Still Live"
On the nighttable: A.S. Byatt, "Sugar"

Monday, April 03, 2006

I'll Remember April

Drove down to the Kyo this week, taking a leisurely 6 hours on the backroads. The day was open and bisected by the line which I traced with my tires. Just when I was beginning to decide that Tokyo had declared war on the countryside in the form of huge industry and construction projects, I'd get caught up the beauty of the sky and the mountains and the farmers doing their thing underneath. I brought my New Mexican musical sensibility with me, in the form of Neil Young and Johnny Cash and Ry Cooder, though the charm of the West is lost here where the trucks are small and devoid of color. Not a gun-rack to be seen.

The return trip Monday was just as pleasant, a stop for ice cream almost obligatory. In the valleys all was warm and sunny, rivers bloated by snowmelt. Up high in the mountains that same snow lingers. Up and over, high to low, repeatedly thoughout the day. The perfect metaphor for the bizarre weather of March.

On the turntable: Omara Portuondo, "Buena Vista Social Club Presents..."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Sakura Bleu!

My world has exploded into pink.
Dare I say Spring is finally here?

On the turntable: Willie Dixon, "I am the Blues"