Sunday, August 29, 2010

Half-ass book review: AHWOSG

When Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius came out, I didn't pay much attention. The title may have caused me to lump the book in with others like David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day, which, no offense to Sedaris, is not the type of book I'd pick up on my own. Don't get me wrong, when people have handed his books to me and said, read this particular chapter, I have done so and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Anyway, AHWOSG didn't really enter my consciousness until recently when two people I respect immensely demonstrated enormous love for Eggers' work. So when I spotted it on the bookshelf of the house where I am staying in Tokyo, I decided it was high time for me to read it.

I take this opportunity to gesture to one of my favorite authors, Rick Moody ("This book does not need a blurb.") when I say: This book does not need a review. Nonetheless, I offer the following:

While it is indeed heartbreaking, it is more importantly a work of staggering genius.

I am not being facetious, I am merely reporting fact.

From the acknowledgements to the blurbs on the back cover, the book is simply brilliant.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Donuts for Dinner!

I've been doing a week-long workshop with Eiko, of Eiko & Koma, at Nihon University College of Art.  I've met a lot of great people, and we've shared many a beer and much food after our workshops this week. Today, with some time to kill before a performance that we were going to see, we decided that the place to eat would be Mister Donut!
Yoko (l) and her daughter, Shiori (r), who served as my impromptu translator.  That's a mango cream donut I'm about to devour.
Yuko and I enjoy our "misdo" coffee. (That's Mister Donut to you!) 

Monday, August 23, 2010

Eating in Osaka

Osaka is famous for food. Overwhelmed by the choices and masses of people on Dotombori - think Canal Street meets Times Square - I finally settled on an okonomiyaki restaurant that seemed popular. (Osaka is famous for its okonomiyaki, which is different that Hiroshima's equally famous version.) Here's a translated approximation of my conversation with the waiter:

Me: So...I'm vegetarian. The guy outside said it would be ok to make an all-veggie okonomiyaki. Is that ok?
Waiter: So you want a pork okonomiyaki?
Me: Well, a pork okonomiyaki, but without the pork.
Waiter: just want a beer then?
Me: A beer, and okonomiyaki.
Waiter: Seafood okonomiyaki?
Me: No, no seafood, no pork [making the "X" with index fingers that in Japan means no, bad, or forbidden]
Waiter: So...just a beer?
Me: Umm.......How about a pork okonomiyaki, but without the pork. And a beer.
Waiter: OK. A pork okonomiyaki, without the pork. And a beer.
Me: Yes, thank you.

p.s. It was delicious.

Cheeztastic Breakfast Morsel

Yes, dear readers (all 4 or so of you), I will return to my reports from Japan soon. In the meantime, however, I offer you this classic song, which astounds on many levels.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Travel Lessons, New and Old

Though my time in Japan is only about half-way over, my two weeks on the road here are coming to an end when I return to Tokyo tomorrow (updates on Koya-san and Osaka coming soon). Here, in no particular order, are the travel lessons recently learned and/or reinforced.

1) Being a tourist on your own can be lonely. I have no problem traveling for research or meetings or conferences. I'm pretty good at getting myself around; sure there are some false starts in the exact wrong direction, but I'm comfortable flying alone or jumping on a new subway or navigating a new city. Having something specific to do makes me feel like I belong in a place. But wandering around like a tourist is so much easier and so much more fun when you have someone else to do it with.

2) A good meal can fix anything (see #1). Really, it's the simple things in life that make such a difference. A good meal, clean clothes, a nice place to sleep, kind people...just turns your whole day around. That and a good itunes playlist. And wifi. But really, failing all else, good food is tops.

3) Always listen to One Bag Man. A number of years ago I discovered What to Pack and it's served me well. Basically, the guy who made the list believes that you never need more than one bag for a journey of any length, and "a checked bag is a lost bag." This time, I left a few key items at home, deciding that I wouldn't need duct tape, calamine lotion, or antibacterial gel in Japan. Wrong. Nonetheless, I have been happy with my bag choice for these two weeks (see #5).

4) Make a little effort. Or: the little things really do count. This one was learned on my first trip abroad with my mom - Ireland at age 10: make an effort to fit in and people will treat you differently. It's not just language (my Japanese is still not great, but is getting better, and I can tell that people really appreciate that I'm trying), but it's subtle things about how you dress and act. Of course, no one is ever going to mistake me for Japanese, but I've seen what a difference behavior can make. I'm amazed watching tourists who have not bothered to learn how to say excuse me or thank you, or to notice that they should bow and smile to Japanese people they meet or pass by. I had an interesting experience the other day on the train to Koya-san, a trip which is not an entirely straightforward affair, and in fact I made my own small train mix-up that was easily fixed. When I got on the right train, I sat down across from an Italian man who was very loudly, in English, trying to ask a young Japanese man about getting to Koya-san (the trip involves a cable car ride at the end of the line, and the Italian man was confused about the disparity in the name of stops). I cleared up the confusion for the Italian guy, and gave a nod to the young Japanese man who nodded back with a look of thanks. This interaction led the elderly Japanese man next to me to chat with me in Japanese, and later to tell me that I needed to move forward to another car as the train was going to split and our car would not go to the end of the line. I think that if I hadn't had the earlier interaction with the two Japanese men, no one would have told me to move up. Lesson: if you make an effort, people will notice and return the favor.

5) Backpacks rock. On my second trip abroad - to the UK with my mom for two weeks at age 15 - I learned a very important lesson while carrying our suitcases up and down stairs to train platforms: never travel with a suitcase. I've been a pretty committed backpacker since. For these two weeks, I'm traveling with a Jansport laptop backpack plus a smallish shoulder bag. I just can't believe the huge suitcases I see all the European tourists lugging around (the foreign tourists are mostly French, Italian, and German). I mean, how much do you really need to take with you? Of course, they are dressed better than me, and probably have more than one pair of shoes with them (see #6). But I'd rather have a smaller, more maneuverable bag than have more outfits. I did also bring with me to Japan a carry-on sized roller bag that friends loaned me. It was the perfect size and I was so pleased with my packing job. Then the handle to pull it broke in the Tokyo airport. If I'd only had duct tape (see #3)!

6) Keens rock. I decided at the last minute to leave my other two pair of shoes in Tokyo, so I've been all Keens sandals all the time for the last two weeks. You can hike in them. You can get them wet. You can get them muddy. You can run for the train and not fall in them. You can get them on and off fairly easily for all those in and out of building times. They are sandals, and yet they protect your toes, and give you the support of tennis shoes. They can do all this and more, and the soles don't even look worn. Only down side (and this is a fairly big one): they make your feel smell really bad. This despite their "antimicrobial technology" that is supposed to fight odor. No other shoes make my feet smell like this, so it's not me, it's them. But I am willing to overlook this deficiency (in this weather everything smells anyway) because otherwise they are the perfect travel shoes.

7) Clem Snide covering a classic life on the road song rocks. Readers of my blog know how much I love Eef Barzelay and his band Clem Snide. This just makes me love him even more. And by the way, I've always shamelessly loved Journey, it's not just a Glee bandwagon thing.

Clem Snide covers Journey

Monday, August 16, 2010

Kanazawa: 21st Century Samurai

I came to Kanazawa on the advice of friends, but ended up being entirely taken with the city for unexpected reasons. First of all, the fantastic 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art - gotta love their bold name - was a fun breath of fresh air having just emerged from the 8th-18th centuries in Kyoto. 
Jan Fabre's "The Man Who Measures the Clouds" atop the museum
"Leandro's Pool"

Second, the intimate Guest House Pongyi is just great. It's the most unique of all the places I've stayed in Japan, inhabiting a small former kimono shop squeezed up against a larger building and next to a canal. The proprietor, Masaki-san, is helpful and friendly, and introduces all his guests to one another as they arrive. Traveling on one's own can get lonely, and Pongyi was the first place I've stayed where most of the other guests were traveling solo, too. Both nights I've been here, people hung out together, went to dinner, etc. Last night Masaki-san organized us all to set off sparklers along the canal and tonight he made sure that it would be ok for me to go to the public bath, which is an iffy endeavor for anyone with tattoos because they are usually forbidden due to their perceived connection with yakuza.

Kanazawa is also the site of the Myoryuji, better known by its nickname "Ninja Dera" or Ninja Temple. It actually has nothing to do with ninja, but was a temple designed for samurai protection of the territory and the nearby castle, complete with hidden staircases, traps, secret rooms, and even a hara kiri room (once you enter you can't get out!).

Kanazawa is also pleasant for strolling through the Geisha district, the Samurai district, the Kenrokuen garden, and along the canals.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A sign-obsessed temple administrator at Heian-Jingu

one reminded me of a Todd Rundgren song...

Sometimes the signs were whimsical...
some were existential...
some perhaps overstated...

and this one was downright hysterical.

Kyoto Mon Amour, part deux

I reiterate my statement from a few days ago: Kyoto is exquisite, and everyone must come here.

May I observe, however, that while there are times that sweat running down your legs may be a good thing, it is not in fact a good thing when you are jammed into a city bus full of Japanese tourists on one of the biggest travel weekends of the year in Japan. May I recommend April for the cherry blossoms or November for the fall foliage instead? You may still be jammed onto city buses then, too, but at least you won’t be sweating in air conditioning. The humidity really is that bad. I swear my shirt grew an extra four inches today.

To switch the topic away from my sweat: I admit it: I’m a total nerd. I looked online to see which temple Scarlet Johansson visited in Lost in Translation, primarily because I wanted to walk over this:

I was not disappointed. The garden at Heian-Jingu was just beautiful. As was Gingaku-ji and Nanzen-ji.

Words are just inadequate, so I’ll move on.

I had to move to a new hostel tonight (bye-bye J-Hoppers!). Turns out the “youth” hostel I’m at now is actually aimed at Japanese travelers. Plus side: traditional Japanese public baths. Down side: evidently we will be woken up at 6:40, and breakfast ends by 8. There are signs all over the building saying that the hostel will “shut up” next March. Speaking of funny signs, check out the separate post of signage at Heian-Jingu.

So it’s my last night in Kyoto, and I thought I’d revisit Biotei, the fantastic restaurant from the other night. Got all the way there, and it was closed. So I decided to revisit a café I went to yesterday, Café Bibliotic Hello! [sic], site of my consumption of a delicious plum smoothie, pale pink flecked with red. I had a lovely Pasta Genovese – basically spaghetti with pesto, green beans, potatoes – topped with fried lotus root. And an Ebisu, of course. Really, there is nothing that quenches your thirst in this weather like iced green tea or a light Japanese lager.

Significant language advance: I realized that the name of this part of town, Higashiyama, means eastern mountains. Duh.

Also, I don’t know if people are just friendlier in Kyoto, or my Japanese is getting better, or both, but I’ve had a lot more people talk to me here. Mostly it’s just pleasant chatting about where I’m from (“Karifuorniya” “ohhhhhhh”) and what I’m doing in Japan. One woman wanted to know if the Harry Potter ride was at the Universal Studios in LA, and I had to disappoint her with my lack of knowledge of theme park rides. But I was able to clarify that there are two Universal Studios parks in the US, even though I’ve never been to either one.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Kyoto Mon Amour

Tenryu-ji garden

Too tired to write anything substantial. Just this: Kyoto is really beautiful. You should be here with me.

They love their deer in Nara.
OK, this is in Nara, not Kyoto. But it's still beautiful.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Food, Glorious Food

Really, there's nothing like clean clothes and an excellent meal to turn your whole day around.

I arrived in Kyoto this afternoon determined to have a good meal, after too many days of eating onigiri from convenience stores. I combed through the LP restaurant suggestions for vegetarian restaurants, and settled on one called Biotei, an organic veg and vegan-friendly place. I arrived to find a small, wooden establishment, up a spiral staircase. It had room for maybe 15 people, including 5 counter spots facing the two cooks in the kitchen for people eating alone, like me. I settled on the vegetarian "dinner set," not even paying much attention to what was actually featured - I was that hungry! First the waitress brought me a hijiki salad with some grated carrot and daikon and then some squash in sesame oil, along with my Ebisu beer - yum! Next came my main dish, egg rolls filled with some potato mixture which the waitress directed me to dip in shoyu with some mustard mixed in. I was in heaven. And everything was brought out in beautiful pottery, and set out on a hand-woven placemat. But wait, there's more! Rice with gomashio, a peppery cabbage soup, another salad, some pickles, and tea! I couldn't even finish.

After dinner, happy, not too hot, I decided to check out the night-time illuminated temple I saw mentioned on the blackboard at my hostel. Evidently, this only happens for about 10 days each summer - perhaps like how the fountains at Versailles are only occasionally turned on, so it seemed worth the trip. LP said to take the 206 bus from Kyoto station - no problem! But they failed to mention that it's a loop route and I of course set off the wrong way. Oh well, call it a night time tour of Kyoto. I arrived at Kiyomizu-Dera on the eastern hills of the city at 9pm, with only a half an hour until closing, but I wasn't the last one rushing up. Unfortunately, my camera just can't capture night-time photos, so I can't show you exactly how magical this temple was. The red main temple buildings were lit up and glowing in the night. The leaves of the maples sparkled. In the distance, the lights of the city twinkled, with Kyoto Tower a beacon over everything else. Near the end of my exploring, I came upon the eponymous "clear water" on which the temple was founded. I joined the line of people catching the water in the (ultraviolet sterilized) dippers and running it over their hands and sipping from it, as one does at all temples.

Ah, so this is Kyoto!

Nagasaki: International City

As I leave Nagasaki on the morning of August 11, the rain that began yesterday afternoon and fell all night has cooled the city down, making this the most comfortable temperature I have felt in my more than two weeks in Japan. The dry warm days and cool nights of Los Angeles seem like just a dream at this point.

This pleasant air provides a good atmosphere for reflection on my second day in Nagasaki, which continued the theme of human international relations I alluded to previously.

I began by visiting the atomic bomb-related sites that I didn’t have time for on the 9th, beginning with the Peace Park and the Peace Statue. I was particularly interested in the Peace Symbol Zone – essentially an international sculpture park. These sculptures, gifts from foreign countries, largely contradict my previous appraisal that Hiroshima relates to the international political stage more than Nagasaki. Judging by the dates on the statues, the Zone was constructed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the countries represented here plainly illustrate the Cold War politics of the day. Strongly represented are former (and present) communist and Soviet Bloc states, including Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Cuba, China, and the USSR (which declined to provide an English translation on their statue unlike the others). For all these countries, even China which has its own contentious history with Japan and incidentally strong roots in Nagasaki, it was clearly politically advantageous to side with Nagasaki against the atomic bomb attacks, and hence against the US with whom these nations were engaged with, hmmm, an arms race that could lead to the destruction of a lot more cities. Cynical politics? Naw…Also represented are countries such as the Netherlands, Argentina, Brazil, and New Zealand, which seem to have a more humanitarian interest in building connections with Nagasaki. As I look around, I think, “OK, clearly there’s not going to be an official US statue, but surely Cambridge or Berkeley have sent something?” I was surprised, but pleased to find St. Paul, Minnesota IN THE HOUSE! Way to represent, St. Paul.

I also visited a temple gate that had been half destroyed by the bomb. One half remains standing, while the other half lays in pieces nearby. At this shrine, two massive camphor trees that had been thought destroyed by the atomic bomb actually grow and thrive 65 years later.

I spent the rest of the day in downtown Nagasaki exploring the old temples and shrines of the city. Nagasaki was THE international port in Japan, even in times when the country was supposedly closed, and thus was an important point of meeting and exchange, especially with Chinese and Dutch traders. Nagasaki was also an important point of entry for religion into Japan, including certain sects of Chinese Buddhism and Christianity (and is thus also the site of brutal crackdowns on adherents of both faiths). With limited time, I decided to visit the Chinese temples since their architecture and history are unique in Japan. There are so many layers of details and lines in these buildings – I find them very hard to look at or to photograph as a whole. Focusing in on details seems more rewarding. At the last temple I visited, it began to rain and I enjoyed just sitting and catching the breeze as the rain fell.

Incidentally, Nagasaki is an extremely well-signposted city for visitors. Addresses in Japan are not straightforward, and even the mighty Lonely Planet doesn’t give very good directions. Armed with a surprisingly good map given to me by the proprietor of my Inn (no street names, but an accurate spatial and directional representation of streets), city signs to direct me, and an easy-to-use tramway made getting around Nagasaki quite simple.

I’ll leave you here with today’s tie for most bizarre sightings:

Nagasaki, August 9, 2010

“From a blackened body came a faint voice; ‘water, water, water…’”

I arrived in Nagasaki on the afternoon of the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of that city. From the number of tourists waiting for the unreserved cars on the train, I thought there would be a crowd of visitors here, like in Hiroshima, if not the same international attention. But when I made my way to Hypocenter Park in the suburban area of Urakami, it was fairly unpopulated. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum was excellent. Maybe it was the lack of crowds, but I think it was the design of the information that was much more effecting. Someone I met in Hiroshima told me that there were more pictures taken in Nagasaki immediately after the bomb for some reason, so that there are many more pictures of dead and dying people. This was certainly my experience of the museum.

It’s very difficult to put this all in words. Do I tell you how the museum gave an excellent explanation of how the blast, the fires, and the radiation impacted the topography and people of Nagasaki, this narrow bay surrounded on three sides by mountains? Do I describe the horror of the pictures, like the one of an adolescent girl, seemingly unharmed but terrified, standing in front of a charred skeleton? Or how the evidence of the bomb on structures (here are roof tiles – see how the surfaces boiled? here is a deformed fire tower – see how its metal supports warped?) somehow provided me relief from the evidence of the bomb on humans (here are Dr. so-and-so’s glasses taken from his dead body, here is the shadow of a fire watchman coming down a ladder burnt into a wall, here are the bones of a human hand in a melted bottle). Do I tell you about the pictures and recordings and writings of the hibakusha, the survivors? Do I mention that maybe the Hiroshima museum did a better job of complicating the role of that city in the war than did the Nagasaki one? Do I tell you how the museum took me right back to the early 1980s and my acute and daily fear of nuclear war, shared by many the world over. (Do you remember, as I do, watching The Day After on TV, and how no advertisers would buy ad space once the bomb went off?) Do I describe the room that parallels the post-WWII arms race with the anti-nuclear movement, and establishes solidarity between Nagasaki and people in places where nuclear weapons are developed, tested, and dumped: the Bikini Atoll; Nevada; Hanford, WA; Ronneburg, Germany; New Mexico; Semi Palatinsk. Yes, I think I tell you about this. Whereas Hiroshima strikes me as the site that addresses the international political stage, Nagasaki seems to be the one that takes a stand with international anti-nuke movements. Whereas the much of the commentary about Hiroshima this year was about the presence of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and US Ambassador to Japan Roos, and the hopes around Obama’s anti-nuclear statements, the mood in Nagasaki is much more that it is the people of the world, not the leaders, who can and will make a world without nuclear weapons a reality.

The Nagasaki National Peace Memorial for the Atomic Bomb Victims next door to the Museum is a large but simple building, with fountains and flowing water everywhere, inside and outside the building. Here and there are writings and testimonies of survivors, as well as a registry of all the known victims of the bomb. The epigraph above was the phrase that stuck with me. The Memorial, while naming and picturing all those who died, seems specifically designed to provide solace to this one soul. “Here is the water you desired,” the building seems to say. “May you receive the comfort from it in perpetuity that you could not receive then.”

The proprietor at my inn told me that there would be a lantern ceremony along the river at 7pm, so I made my way from the museum back to Hypocenter Park, where a small crowd of maybe 200 people was gathered for speeches. Though a few foreigners dotted the crowd, it seemed mostly comprised of locals: families with children, elderly women, groups of friends, a Little League team (go Shiroyama!). As people were gathering up the prepared lanterns to carry down to the river, it started to sprinkle and I noticed the most beautiful rainbow rising up from behind the monolith that marks the hypocenter. With the rainbow to the east and the setting sun to the west, I joined the crowd, carrying lanterns. We processed in fits and starts across a busy intersection, past a sports complex where people jogged in the cooler dusk air, and where a group about the same size as ours of ladies in kimonos practiced their Bon Odori dance. This lantern floating ceremony was more organized than that in Hiroshima, where everyone put their own lantern in the water and the lanterns were then left to their own devices, some catching fire, most moving slowly down the river up against the embankment. In Nagasaki, we carried our lanterns down to the riverbank where volunteers loaded them onto structures that were strung together, and then later pulled by a boat down the river. As the lanterns disappeared in the distance, the crowd dispersed.

Saturday, August 07, 2010


Sunscreen: check.
Umbrella for use in the sun: check
Free fan advertising an arts festival in Hiroshima: check
Big-ass bottle of Pocari Sweat: check
Japanese cloth for mopping up sweat: check

With all these tools to help me deal with the sun, heat, and humidity (slightly reduced today), I set off from Hiroshima for the island of Miyajima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and site of one of the most iconic images of Japan. I arrived via train and ferry before noon at low tide, and took the "ropeway" (really a series of two cable cars) up Mt. Misen, where I hiked around (and down) for three or four hours. From the top there were amazing views of the Inland Sea. There were little shrines everywhere in the forest, tucked in little caves and in among rocks, offering shady spots of reflection and respite. Despite my best planning, I still ran out of liquids on my way down to Daisho-in Temple. Bottled cold green tea never tasted so good as when I finally got off the trail. After visiting the temple, I was still pretty hot, so I stopped for some shaved ice (kakigori). Melon seems to be a pretty popular flavor for cooling summer drinks and treats, so I went for that. Mouth frozen, body cooled, I went back outside refreshed. By that time, the tide had started to come in, so I visited the saffron-colored Itsukushima-jinja, a shinto shrine that seems to float on the water at high tide, before heading back to the mainland.

The gates of the Itsukushima-jinja at low tide

islands in the Inland Sea, seen from Mt. Misen

view of the island from Mt. Misen

The gates from within Itsukushima Shrine as the tide came in

shaved ice + melon syrup + condensed milk = refreshing kakigori goodness

Friday, August 06, 2010

Research: Not Just a Job, an Adventure!

Goda-san, the legendary dance critic,  and Mikami-san of Torifune Butoh Sha
Wednesday morning (8/4) I received an email from a butoh dancer I'd met a few days before. The email contained instructions to meet her at a particular Japan Rail line at Shinjuku at 3pm. I wasn't entirely clear what we would be going to see, but I was game, so I said sure, meet you there. I felt a little bit like I was going to a rave or on a butoh scavenger hunt.

I arrived just as the train was pulling in, so I hopped on and assumed we'd find each other on the train. Note to self: in the future specify in the plan what train car you will meet in, and also whether or not to get on the train if you don't see each other on the platform. Turns out she didn't get on the train when she didn't see me, so here I was speeding off to somewhere past Yokohama without a clear notion of where I was going or why. Luckily we were able to communicate via cell email and she told me where to get off the train and a phone number to call for Torifune Butoh Sha. Now it's starting to ring a bell, but I'm still not sure what I'm walking into.

I get off at Oiso station in Kanagawa about an hour and a half after leaving Shinjuku, and call the number Yumi gave me. A man answers and long story short, says he will come to get me. We drive a few minutes from the station down curving one-lane roads and come to a beautiful hilly, wooded setting. We walk up a curving set of stone steps and come upon an outdoor stage where a workshop is in progress. I find out later that Seisaku-san is the teacher. Mikami-san is participating and the whole group of eight dancers is throwing themselves into the exercises the teacher is giving them. (Mikami and Seisaku both worked with Hijikata and the company Hakutobu.) I don't undertand everything Seisaku's saying, but the exercises involve responding physically to impulses that go shooting through the body from different points. Half of the participants move while the other half watches. Raucous laughter of appreciation greets the movement. I enjoy what I'm watching, even if I still am not quite sure what it is I'm witnessing.

When the workshop ends, I ask a woman who is translating for one of the dancers, and she explains to me that many of the dancers are participating in a 10 day program at Torifune. They live there, dance, hike, clean, and cook together from 5am until 10pm. I'm invited to join them for dinner - simple but delicious vegetable and legume dishes spread out on tatami mats on the stage. Around this time, I spot the legendary dance critic, Goda-san, who I'd met the previous week at Die Pratze. I'd been told that Goda would be giving a talk, but I'd thought it was happening Thursday. Hmm, ok. I decide to stay for his talk, which is part philosophical musings on butoh, part history lesson on the development of the dance form, and part opinions on this dancer or that. About a half an hour into the two hour talk, a different translator shows up, and it is clear that she knows a lot about butoh. When we chat after the talk ends, it turns out that she is someone I'd been emailing with, a friend of a friend! Everything has come together. We're invited to sit with the teachers and Goda-san for more food and drink and butoh gossip and story-telling. If only my Japanese were better and I could understand every word!

It turns out Goda-san is speaking again the next night, so I repeat the whole trip again on Thursday, only this time knowing better what I was getting into. Just goes to show...sometimes the best research situations are the ones you don't plan.

Hiroshima, August 6, 2010

Today I left Tokyo for 2 weeks of research and traveling. First stop: Hiroshima for the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb.

I met up with friends Michael and Waew Dao, and we visited Hiroshima Peace Park and its various museums and memorials. I arrived too late for the big speeches and protests that mark the hour of the detonation, 8:15am, but there was still plenty to see and do. Feeling the enormity of the devastation was pretty overwhelming. It was better to walk around the park and see the memorial to Sadako surrounded by thousands of peace cranes, and the preparations for the lantern floating. We made our own and put them in the river, watching thousands of lanterns float by until sunset.

We ended the day at Okonomi-mura for the Hiroshima specialty of okonomiyaki, delicious batter and cabbage cakes with egg, bean sprouts, soba, and sauce. Delicious, especially when washed down with a cold beer!

A view of the Peace Park

The Atomic Bomb Dome

Just a few of the thousands of peace cranes
Putting my lantern in the river

Our chefs were glued to the yakyuu (baseball) game on TV: the Hiroshima Carp against the Tokyo Giants

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


A friend of mine in the US asked me to try and get her a certain Japanese CD not available online, so I thought it would be a good excuse to visit Shibuya and go record shopping. I emerged out of the labyrinth of the Shibuya metro/JR station into one of the most famous street crossings in the world. So I made my way into the Shibuya Starbucks (my Japanese teacher says it's the busiest in the world) and lined up next to all the other tourists for an elevated view of the pedestrian movements. (They filmed the crossing scene in Lost in Translation from this very spot.) Somehow the crosswalks seem smaller in real life, or maybe it just wasn't mobbed enough to really feel impressive.

#1 ongoing Japan confusion

Pushing down on the faucet handle turns the water on, lifting it turns it off, exact opposite of what I'm used to. 9 times out of 10 I still splash water everywhere when trying to turn off the tap.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


All day yesterday I was feeling a bit off. Maybe it was being woken up by that earthquake off the coast. Or the unrelenting humid heat. Whatever it was, I felt unsettled.

As I made my way to Yokohama to the Kazuo Ohno Dance Studio via a subway, a commuter rail train, a fancy mall in the middle of a commuter rail station, another subway, and a winding walk in the dark, it occurred to me that maybe what I'd been feeling all day was the anticipation of the momentous occasion of going to the Ohno studio.

I'm not a religious person, and I'm not one to lightly esteem important figures, but nonetheless, as I made my long way to the studio high in the hills of Yokohama, it did feel like I was a pilgrim of sorts. Despite its place in the Japanese avant-garde, and its iconoclastic nature, the butoh community still honors lineages, and I feel strongly connected to Ohno through mine. My first teacher, Deborah Butler/Kitsune, was a student of Doranne Crable, who herself studied with Ohno Kazuo. Moreover, my dissertation subjects, Eiko & Koma, were short-time students and long-time friends of Ohno. When he died 2 months ago after 103 years of life, I joined in celebrating his dance.

As I walked up the dark streets toward the studio, I remembered Eiko telling me about walking this same path almost 40 years ago, in the cold, in the heat, getting to the door and then sometimes turning back because she did not feel she could handle the intensity of a workshop with Ohno that particular night. Despite a seemingly helpful map (an "access" map showing landmarks and a walking path from public transportation is de rigueur in Japan), I couldn't seem to find the studio. The first person I asked sent me in the wrong direction. The second person I asked needed to get his reading glasses to see the map, but his wife knew just where I was going and decided to walk me there, saying "muzukashii, ne." "It's very difficult to find." And it's true, I wouldn't have found it without her help!

She got me to the right house, and Ohno Yoshito, Kazuo's son (in his 70s,  and an important dancer in his own right) answered the door. Turns out the studio was right next door, but since I was in the house, he asked if I wanted to meet Ohno Kazuo. "Huh?!?" I think. But then I realize that I am being shown into a room with Kazuo-sensei's picture, flowers, his wife's picture, too. I wonder if this is the room where he lay all those years, cared for by his students as his Alzheimers advanced and he retreated. I pay my quick respects and then go next door to the studio to wait for Yoshito-sensei to come start the workshop; he's just returned from a television interview and is running a little late.

I enter the studio and it's just as I've seen in pictures and on film: a long, single room; wood floors. Chairs, a kitchenette near the door. Piles of papers, costumes - the long, vintage dresses favored by Kazuo - hanging from racks. Plastic storage containers of ladies' hats, shoes. Bouquets of plastic flowers - dance props - and some bouquets of fresh flowers - memorials. In the rafters are stuffed five or six suitcases. The walls are more bare than I remember seeing in photos, but propped along the walls are many frames wrapped in fabric or bubble wrap. Perhaps they were used in last month's memorial celebration and have not yet been returned to their places on the wall. Some pictures remain on display: Ohno in one of his hats, holding a flower. The iconic image of Yoshito and Hijikata from the dance considered the first butoh performance. A portrait of the Dalai Lama. Especially moving for me is a photo of Pina Bausch kissing a bed-ridden Kazuo; these two now-gone lights of my dance world, energies locked together.

Four other students - Japanese, Japanese-French, and Taiwanese, ranging in age from 20s to 60s - are already there waiting, watching a DVD of Kazuo. I join them, taking in the space of the studio. My feet absorb the solid wooden floor. I smell the scent of vintage clothing and costumes. I feel all the bodies of all the students who have moved through this space, named and unnamed. I join with them, bringing into the space with me my dance tribe: Deborah, Ellen, Nathan, Alice, Hortense, all the others. How appropriate, then, that when Yoshito-sensei begins the workshop, he asks us to begin with what he calls a "space renshuu" or space practice. Feel the space, he says.

Throughout the workshop, he talks - in Japanese with some English thrown in - illustrating for us what he wants us to work on with words, calligraphy, a picture of a Rodin sculpture, a demonstrated movement, a textile, butoh history, articles from around the world about Kazuo's death...all manner of materials are used as inspiration. We dance to some New Age-sounding music, two versions of "Amazing Grace" (Kazuo was a Christian, Yoshito reminds us), Bach's Toccata and Fugue. We practice three types of gazes: insect eye, human eye, bird's eye. And finally we spend a lot of time dancing with flowers. Having read Kazuo Ohno's World: from without and within, the structure of the workshop is familiar to me, even though I've never before met Yoshito, let alone Kazuo.

When the workshop ends, we gather around a low table for tea and snacks that the students have brought  with them. Talk is low, cordial. I know I'm missing the train for which I printed the schedule, but can't get up to leave until the group disperses. Finally, I walk back to the train station with the others (oh, these stairs, I didn't even see them before) and hope that with all my transfers I will make the last train. (I do, just barely.)

And so the pilgrimage is cyclical. The workshop is not just the being there; it's in the getting there and the getting back, too.

Monday, August 02, 2010


This is my favorite Japanese band so far.

A Day in the Life

While in Tokyo, I'm renting a room in the Nakano Ward, near the Nakano-Sakaue Metro station. My room on the third floor in the back affords me a view of the Shinjuku skyscrapers, and a nice breeze in the evenings. Off the main roads, the residential streets narrow to one-car lanes. Pedestrians and bicyclists populate the alleys, with an occasional motorcycle or car passing by.

I generally spend my mornings writing at home. In the afternoons I venture out for errands and exploration, followed by an evening of performances, lectures, or workshops, depending on the day.


Detailed instructions on how to sort recycling and what day to put it out
The Japanese may just have surpassed the Germans in terms of their recycling endeavors.
The labels are perforated for easy removal and recycling.

Even fast food restaurants like Mos Burger  have carefully delineated slots for  different types of recycling and garbage. There's even a slot to dump ice in.
Non-recyclables are sorted into burnable and non-burnable garbage. Please note that old toy robots are burnable, while old irons are not.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Grocery Shopping at the Suu-paa

The grocery store near where I'm staying seems to pretty consistently play a muzak version of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It." Makes shopping giggle-worthy.

Today I chose things to buy based on their use of funny or bizarre English names. Like the jello dessert I bought it called "Jelly Ace." Crunky, pictured below, gave me visions of Lil Jon doing commercials for it. Imagine a crunch bar wrapped around an almond, and yo! you're crunky! Ye-ah! Whhhhat?

But White Ghana just leaves me doing that Jon Stewart bit where he rubs his eyes while making the sound of windows being cleaned, followed by a bug-eyed "whaaaaaaa?????" If you can't read the subtitle, it says "Milky Aroma with Superior Quality Flavor: New Standard Chocolate." First of all, do I really want a milky aroma in my food? But the real question is, why did the maker of this chocolate think "hmm, when I think of white chocolate, what do I think of? I know...the West African nation of GHANA. Yes, that's it, let's call our houito chocoreto 'White Ghana'." Ok, so cocoa is one Ghana's major exports, so I get the linking of chocolate and Ghana in the name. I guess no one thought through the implications of the white part. I don't even like white chocolate, but I just had to get this.


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