Friday, February 27, 2009

A Thin Slice of Samsara

Saturday was one of those days that was unique, yet typical in many ways. I woke early to catch a 7am train for Osaka. I was subbing at a studio there, covering an early morning meditation class. A few others joined me in the cold of the morning, to sit and stretch and breathe all in preparation for... nothing. Despite the low numbers, I enjoyed the vibe of the class, at the peace and ease I felt in leading it. This month I've been also covering a Sivananda class twice a week, but on those days I feel somewhat at sea. Despite having both extensive training and a license in that style, I feel much more at home with my usual Iyengar. In the Sivananda class I have to leave all my tools at home, since due to protocol, I'm not supposed to adjust or use props. So instead I pace and blurt out instructions, my hands twisting and looking for something to do.

After class I set off up the shopping arcade, looking for a place to have a quick coffee. Some folks are dashing around wearing blue happi, gearing up for some sort of festival. I like Osaka, there's so much life going on here, with little of the mothball smell that can often pervade Kyoto. I find a place that offers cups for 250 yen, so I grab a seat and get a cafe au lait. The decor hasn't changed in decades, and most of the clientele were probably my age when it was built. One middle-aged guy seems to be taking his elderly mother out for breakfast, and she looks thrilled. A greasy haired loner type sits across from me and disappears into a book. I too read awhile. I check my watch from time to time, then head back outside, figuring the Indian place must be open by now. It is. I order a curry and sit in front of a poster of some curvy actress in a sari, standing beside an armor-clad actor who is a dead ringer for David Hasselhoff. A shelf nearby sells candles in the shape of seated Buddhas. The perfect expression of tapas.

After lunch, I go underground and catch the train. Back in town, I find I still have an hour to kill. It's reasonably sunny, so I sit on the banks of the Kamo, and read abit. On my iPod, the Silver Jews start up a song called "Bring on the Clouds," and so beckoned, they come. It gets chilly quickly, but I read on. There are many walkers out today, going down one bank. and presumably up the other. One guy wearing Cat in the Hat gloves asks me in polite textbook English if I could please tell him the time. This used to happen back in the 'Nog, but this is the first time I've given an impromptu English lesson here in Kyoto. I shake him off soon enough and out on the river in front of me, a beautiful mallard shakes a tail feather of his own. I go back to my book, reading about the connection between Yoga and Buddhistic Shamanism, but I'm tired of reading about Yoga and Buddhistic Shamanism. Instead, I watch the river awhile. Some young guy descends a set of stone steps to the water's edge, and due to my reading material, for a moment my eyes are tricked into believing I'm actually in Varanasi, watching someone go down the ghat to do his daily ablutions.

I bike over to the studio, change clothes, get out my mat. I'm leading a workshop on Vinyasa jump-throughs, which is far off my usual yogic radar. I haven't even done Ashtanga for years, let alone teach it. Someday I'd love to get in front of a room full of Ashtangis and put them in an hour long Tadasana, just to watch them twitch. The trick to this workshop is that I'm teaching building blocks, rather than the jump-through itself. No one is expected to master this difficult pose in a single day anyway, so I'm basically giving them months of homework. Back in my English teaching days, I'd often get students who wanted me to teach them only"English for airports" or "English for shopping." Today is like this, but I'll be teaching them skills they can use in dozens of poses, and show them the importance of creativity and control rather than the usual overemphasis on muscular power. As the sign out front says, "Yoga for Life." (Though Andrew Sensei is right in joking, "Shouldn't it be 'Yoga for Death?'" Transcendence baby.)

I'm surprised to find that one of the attendees is a guy I met at the ashram in India two years ago. We chat awhile afterward, then Miki (who assisted me) and I bike quickly down to a different studio for a workshop on Nada, the yoga of sound. Ty Burhoe is leading it, and I know him since he did the music for Tias' DVD, plus a year ago he played tabla with Shen, who was my own teacher for a very short time. Ty's workshop is good, with a light humorous touch. For the second half, his drumming is the BGM for a vigorous Vinyasa class that I hadn't expected. I'm pretty pooped at the end. After a short break, he's joined by Sarod player Steve Oda for a mellow night of ragas. I'm too tired to sit up so I slump across a bolster, pointing my legs at the musicians, wiggling my toes in time to the music as if I'm conducting it. And drift into a minor samadhi that's all mine...

On the turntable: Chet Baker, "In Tokyo"

On the nighttable: David Chadwick, "Thank You and OK!"

On the reel table: "Round Midnight" (Tavernier, 1986)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday papers: G.K. Chesterton

There is no history; there are only historians.

On the turntable: T Bone Burnett, "Tooth of Crime"
On the nighttable: David Chadwick, "Thank You and OK!"

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Keyboard Cookie Crumbs

Mapmaking is Empire's way of taking inventory.

Reading a bad book can feel like sitting in traffic.

Spy a "Duck!" moving van driving down Karasuma.  Sure hope they don't move pianos.

On the turntable:  Thievery Corporation, "Sounds from the Verve Hi-Fi"

On the nightable:  Georg Feuerstein,  "The Deeper Dimensions of Yoga"

On the reel table:  "Jeremiah Johnson"  (Pollack, 1972)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Tokai Shizen Hoedown VI

Awoke Valentine's Day to the warmth of April.  More specifically, the muggy tropical warmth of the April of Hong Kong.  We biked down the hill, jackets unzipped, hair finally freed from woolen caps, waving behind us all the way to the train station.  We were forced by JR to ride a series of trains and buses which took a ridiculous amount of time, due to their usual poor scheduling.  It amazes me how inconvenient this route is, despite being the main line between the tourist sites of Kyoto and Nara (with another, Uji, in the center), and penetrating into the heart of the suburban commuter Kansai Bermuda Triangle (if you include Osaka).    JR further showed its obliviousness to context by turning on the air conditioner, despite this being an early February morning.  A bus took us to a village whose name, Wazuka, loosely translates as "A bit."  We stood there looking up at the high mountain in front of us, ribbed with tea bushes stretching all the way up to the crest.  This tea represents about half of Uji's famous brand, and we'd need at least a cup in order to get to the top. 

The trail led up a narrow track rutted by the tires of small farm trucks.   On the crest, we had a quick lunch while sitting on a single iron rail used to transport tools up and to send freshly plucked tea leaves back down.  The descent down the other side was steep, leading eventually to a small village seated in a high valley.  This village was simply two rows of homes bisected by a single road, and to walk through it was to walk through any old Western film.  Next to a pond were a group of geese, two female, and a male who protectively challenged my approach, craning its neck and hissing.  I smiled and backed off, somewhat ashamed at ruining his date on this day reserved for lovers.  At the far end of the village, a light truck wheeled up, its elderly driver smiling at me and making conversation.  He seemed amazed to see me here, the huge smile never leaving his face.  Though we'd spend most of the day on roads, we'd see very few vehicles, and nearly all of them bore the teardrop mark of an aged driver.  We walked through rice paddies, some flecked by huge stones looking like the backs of breaching whales.   Before long another group of farm houses appeared, stretching out along this high plateau.   A sign told us that nearby were a Korean Confucian temple and the tantalizingly named "Fudo Falls," but they were far off our route today.  We did find the Pond of Benten, that muse of poets, whose festival day is traditionally in April, and today's warm weather gave us a taste.  

We descended now, dropping down for the next 2 hours, for the next 8 kilometers.  This middle portion was somewhat uninspiring, but for the occasional glimpses of mountains and mountains unfolding south toward Nara, Yoshino, and Kumano beyond.  With little to occupy us visually, we'd distract ourselves with rambling conversation.  A few words, a bit of passion, and boom! off we'd go.  We spent at least an hour debating Kipling's "East is east" quip.  At the bottom we found a busy road, then a trail which climbed up to some high marshy land.  The reeds rustled to a bossa nova rhythm, and amidst this beat we found a simple house standing where it was least likely to be found.  The owner no doubt prefers it this way, and the warm rusticity hints at a simple, satisfying life.  Where the reeds ended, more tea plantations began.  In the wooded areas between them we found a few bamboo cutter hard at work, one of them complaining to us that with the unseasonal warmth, the bamboo shoots would come early, and unless he pruned back their taller ancestors, the youngsters would never get enough space and light to survive.  A literal generation gap played out in the forest.  And we walked on into spring, with the plum blossoms being serenaded into bloom by the uguisu, tuning its rusty pipes for an early, and sudden return to the stage.

On the turntable:  "Lilliput"

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday papers: Brad Warner

"As a culture have started to drift back towards spirituality in the hopes that it might solve our troubles and bring us the fulfillment we seek. What we’ve forgotten as a culture is that spirituality already let us down. That’s why we became so materialistic in the first place."

On the turntable: Ernest Ranglin, "Gotcha"
On the reel table: "The River" (Renoir, 1951)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Accidents Will Happen

There's a certain voyeuristic delight in watching Nick Cave sing. The way the veins in his head swell with every enunciation you half expect him to have a massive aneurysm at any moment. It's a guilty, razor's edge thrill, like watching auto racing, or attending an air show.

On the turntable: Jimmy Smith, "Groovin' at Small's Paradise"
On the nighttable: David Frawley, "Yoga and Ayurveda"
On the reel table: "The Soul of a Man" (Wenders, 2003)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

North and South

Soul Flower Mononoke Summit was in town again, with Ainu musician Oki as the opening act.  I've long been wanting catch him live, after hearing his timeless beauty on "The Rough Guide to Japan" CD.  On stage he was a lone man with his thick bodied Tonkori,  cradling this bulky, 5-stringed log like a baby while finger-picking high notes with his right hand, picking the low end with his left.   The sound it made went beyond deep, to thick, to dense.  From the opening notes I was enchanted, swept away somewhat to the music native to my New Mexico home.  Other times I found myself amongst the high grass on the Siberian Steppe, the effect enhanced by the cicada-like chirping of someone's cell phone vibrating on a table nearby.  I had spent the weekend watching Scorsese's documentary series on The Blues, so there were also moments where I was on the Mississippi Delta, or in the deserts of Mali.   (Interesting how such an obscure style of music can draw comparisons from around the world.) 

To buffer his sound, he played through a series of effects. (Almost too much.  As stated by Felicity, it would've been nice to hear the same sounds that the Ainu heard 500 years ago.) Oki's singing through a delay was at times otherworldly, and more than once I found myself swaying as if in trance.  Little wonder the shamanistic influence on that region's art and culture.  Even his mukkuri, a distant relative of the polycultural mouth harp, when heard with effects, had all of the character of wind blowing through grass, vibrating in the same way that Tuvan throat-singing does.  And his heavier numbers reminded me some of the great jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, and his live solo work.  I imagine that Oki too could play a mean stand-up bass.  He'll appear again at Kyoto's Metro in early April, so catch him if you can.
Soul Flower came on next and as usual, didn't disappoint.  I've written of them many times in these pages, and won't say much again.  When Oki joined them for a couple of their numbers, he seemed somewhat lost, and was buried too deep in the mix.  But when the band backed him up on his most famous song, it was seamless, and every eye of every band member was completely on him, and in their concentration, didn't miss a single change.  Very talented bunch.  The last piece was an Okinawan classic, but here too, Oki's sound was just too thick for the light touch of island music. It was like a fallen coconut tree, caught in the surf break, crashing heavily again and again on soft, gentle sand.

(Michael over at Deep Kyoto wrote about the club and the gig, both here and here.  The latter link, to Deep Kyoto, will help ensure that you never eat at home again.)

On the turntable:  Kazumi Watanabe, "Mo Bop II"
On the nighttable:  B.K.S. Iyengar, "Light on Life"

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Sunday papers: Vivekananda

"If your freedom hurts others, you are not free."

On the turntable: Psychobaba, "Liveep"

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Sunday papers: Peter Greenaway

"Against the disk of the full moon, even white birds are black."
-A Walk Through H

On the turntable: Modern Jazz Quartet, "Collection"
On the nighttable: Donald Richie, "Ozu" -