Sunday, December 26, 2010

Favorite Music of 2010

It's so exciting to make a year-end list full of new artists and new projects by established artists. I'm not saying these are the best albums of the year, just the ones I liked the best. 

  • Jonsi Go
  • Clem Snide Meat of Life
  • Sleigh Bells Treats
I wrote about these three albums earlier in the year, and every single one of them held up. The Jonsi album offers more up for discovery each time I listen; Clem Snide still makes me feel like I'm the only girl in the room; and the Sleigh Bells concert was the most physically exciting and aggressive I've been to since I saw Rage Against the Machine.

  • Jenny and Johnny I’m Having Fun Now
  • Best Coast Crazy for You
Two shimmering, California-esque gestures to 60s girl groups. Jenny and Johnny's (that's Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley and Jonathan Rice) up-beat sound belies the economic and emotional turmoil evident in the lyrics, while Best Coast's sung sighs for loves lost or not yet gained is no less delightful for its lack of lyrical depth. 

  • Mumford & Sons Sigh No More
This album of hopeful Americana performed by a band of Brits took a while to grow on me, but then suddenly I was hooked. 

  • A Broken Consort Crow Autumn
  • David Karsten Daniels and Fight the Big Bull I Mean to Live Here Still
I once gave my students the assignment of making a soundtrack to their lives. They all made playlists that were very of this moment - who they are right now - but it got me thinking what I want the soundtrack of my future to sound like. Neither of these albums were out when I made my list, but they would have been featured prominently had they been. I love their sound that manages to be both discordant and symphonic. 

  • LCD Soundsystem This is Happening
James Murphy is still sounding fresh and inventive four albums in.

  • John Legend and the Roots Wake Up
Oddly the only political album on my list this year, Wake Up's mines lesser-known soul music from the 60s and early 70s for social justice songs that resonate for the second decade of the 21st century.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

RIP Captain Beefheart

Blog from the Vault: Where do you stand?

Drafted but never posted in 2006: 

Within the framework of an epic, action-packed story, X-Men: The Last Stand raises issues with strong contemporary relevance: Is conformity an antidote to prejudice? Is it cowardice to give up individuality to fit in and avoid persecution? Do ends justify means? Is great power a blessing or a curse? Can you work from the inside to make change, or is an oppositional stance always better?

Desert Island Records

Here are my responses to a recent NPR Music blog, Your Island Five: The Albums You Can't Live Without.

1. Joni Mitchell Ladies of the Canyon: for comfort

2. Soundgarden Badmotorfinger: for the angry times

3. Prince and the Revolution Purple Rain: to create an instant party

4. U2 The Unforgettable Fire: to be transported by the sound of hope

5. Wilco: Summer Teeth: for the range of emotion, shared with friends
(tied with) Sleater Kinney Dig Me Out: for the voices that say as much as the words

The runners-up:
Sonic Youth Sister
Arcade Fire Funeral
Rage Against the Machine The Battle of Los Angeles
Van Morrison Astral Weeks
Blind Faith Blind Faith

Pop Culture Firsts

Inspired by a Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast

First favorite movieStar Wars
It was also the first movie I was allowed to see in the movie theater, so, yeah, holds a big place in my heart.

First album I bought with my own money: Journey Escape
I still unapologetically love Journey as readers of my blog may remember.

First adult book I read: Centennial by James Michener
Probably because I loved the 1978 TV mini-series so much.

First celebrity crush: Tom Wopat
Saw him live when I was 10 or 11 in Carousel at our local summer stock theater the summer after the first season of Dukes of Hazzard (which was also the first season I actually got to watch non-educational network TV). Pretty much about died when he strolled across the theater grounds in front of me!

Random Recommendation: The Wind That Shakes the Barley

I watched Ken Loach's 2006 film, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the other night, and found it to be a particularly potent rumination on the perils of stopping short of your ideals, especially in a pragmatic move justified as "we'll take this now and continue fighting for the rest later" (sound familiar?).

In coupling the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War,  Loach shows how a social revolution was sacrificed to a nationalist revolution that indeed led to a change in flag but not a change in fundamental structures of power. The film poses the stakes and the costs of both sticking to your principles and the practice of realpolitik.

We are living the consequences of both of these approaches today in American politics. Ideas that were once on the fringes of the right are now firmly ensconced in mainstream politics, precisely because there was a group that stubbornly persisted is promoting their once ridiculed agenda. At the same time, the left "compromised" away key principles in the name of short-term election gains. (I'm thinking here in particular of discourses of welfare reform and abortion, but it's happened in many other issues.)

What's more important? Concrete short-term change, or sticking to your guns however long it takes? Gaining access to power, or transforming the structures of power? Taking action only if it makes an impact, or dissenting no matter who sees it? What is the standard of effectiveness? These are all questions raised by the movie, and ones that I grapple with everyday.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Live for the People

And you have Fred out there rallying them, and he'd say, "All right, all right, all right, power to the people." Everybody'd say, "Power to the people." He'd say, "Now, I'm not going to die on no airplane." They'd say, "No." "I'm not going to die slipping on no ice." They'd say, "No." He'd say, "I'm going to die for the people because I'm going to live for the people." They said, "Right on." He said, "I'm going to live for the people because I love the people." And they'd say, "Right on." And he'd say, "I love the people, why?" And they'd say, "Because we're high on the people, because we're high on the people." 

And that was Fred Hampton. 

-Elaine Brown speaking in Eyes on the Prize

Monday, November 15, 2010

California Master Plan for Education

The Regents of the University of California are meeting this week to vote on an 8% increase in student fees, on top of a 33% increase just one year ago. While it's certainly important to resist this particular move, it's absolutely crucial that we understand how this fits into a pattern of divesting from public education. Below are excerpt from two different Master Plans for Education.

For comparison:
1960 fees - $120/year
2002 fees - $3,834/year
2010 fees - $10,302/year

1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education

“The Survey Team believes that the traditional policy of nearly a century of tuition-free higher education is in the best interests of  the state and should be continued. The team noted with interest an address given in May, 1958, by President James L. Morrill of the  University of Minnesota, who commented as follows on the desire of some organizations and individuals to raise tuition and fees to meet the full operating costs of public institutions of higher education:
‘This notion is, of course, an incomprehensible repudiation of the whole philosophy of a successful democracy premised upon an educated citizenry. It negates the whole concept of wide-spread educational opportunity made possible by the state university idea. It conceives college training as a personal investment for profit instead of a social investment…’1

The two governing boards reaffirm the long established principle that state colleges and the University of California shall be tuition free to all residents of the state.”2

2002 California Master Plan for Education3

“Because enrollment in postsecondary education is not a fundamental right, and because nearly all the post-secondary students are 18 years old or older, the State does not strive to meet the full costs of operations for public colleges and universities through direct General Fund appropriations. A portion of the costs of operation for colleges and universities is met from federal and private grant funds and another portion is met from fees charged to students. The State has a significant influence on the fees that are charged to students enrolling in public colleges and universities and, therefore, on the perceived accessibility and affordability of postsecondary enrollment for California’s least advantaged learners.”

1. James L. Morrill. The Place and Primacy of the State University in Public Higher Education. Transactions and Proceedings of the National Association of State Universities in the United States of America, Vol. LVI, 1958, p. 20.
2. California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, 1960-1975. Pgs 173-174.
3. Pg 81.

From Minneapolis to Seattle

Last week academic research took me to Minneapolis, and this week I'm going to Seattle for a conference. So I thought I'd take you on a musical journey to those two fine cities.

I'm not going to go for the obvious, however. Yes, I love Prince. Never really got into Husker Du or The Replacements. But I'm a huge grunge and Riot Grrrl fan, and both cities fed my musical needs in the early 90s.

Minneapolis was home to the best babydoll-dress-wearing-rockers ever: Babes in Toyland.

Though I'd love to run into rock deity Kim Thayil, I actually fantasize about being on a plane (or in a coffee shop, bookstore, etc.), looking over and noticing a tattoo of a string of elephants wrapped around a woman's bicep, and saying, "Hey, Selene Vigil! I was a big fan of your band, 7 Year Bitch!"

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Happy Happy, Joy Joy

OMG! Carrie Brownstein has a new band: Wild Flag!

Everything Old is New Again

And for the end of your election day: a 1979 performance about the then youngest California Governor ever, now the newest - and oldest - California Governor ever.

Speak up!...To the Beat!

Fuel for your election day ponderings, the mighty Sleater-Kinney:

When violence rules the world outside
And the headlines make me want to cry
It's not the time to just keep quiet
Speak up one time TO THE BEAT

Monday, November 01, 2010

Nothing's Shocking

After Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever on Saturday, we made our way over to Swingers with other DotD and Halloween revelers for a late-night snack. As we were getting ready to leave, we spotted Dave Navarro waiting - yes, waiting - for a table. He didn't seem to mind the wait, as it gave him more canoodling time with his garter-belt wearing lady sailor friend.

California Election Tally, as of November 1, 2010

I don’t know what mailing list I got on this year, but I received an unprecedented amount of unsolicited campaign materials. Some of it makes sense based on my union membership (UAW local 285), or donor history to certain non-profits. For much of it, including the amazingly persistent Meg Whitman mailings, I can only surmise that I am being targeted because of where I live, in a democratic stronghold of predominantly Latinos and African Americans.

For Meg Whitman: 9
Best headline from the 9 mailers: “Jerry Brown: Failure follows him everywhere.”*
For/against other local and statewide candidates (primarily state controller and insurance commissioner): 5
100% in support of Republican candidates
For/against propositions: 9
N.b.: no mailings received for propositions dealing with pot or state parks.
Voters’ guides: 10
Including guides for women (2), education/teachers (2), cops, small business, LGBT, “good government,” firefighters, and “jobs and the economy”; despite some of the language that could be code for conservative candidates, these all seem to be in support of the Democratic party line. The cops one is even pro-pot.
Letter from “President Obama” (DNC) reminding me to vote: 1

Phone calls:
Robo-call for Prop 19 (pot): 1
“President Obama” (DNC volunteers): 4

*As funny – and completely meaningless – as this one is, nothing comes close to the TV spot, “Job Killer Jerry Brown,” which made me laugh out loud. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

RIP Billy Ruane

Too many sad losses this year. Sigh.

Billy Ruane was a fixture of the Boston local music scene: always promoting, supporting, dancing, drinking, laughing. He was seemingly friends with everyone, ubiquitous in his black trench coat.

Read the Boston Herald's account here.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

RIP Ari Up

An original and an icon.

Update: Click here for Carrie Brownstein's blog post on the loss of Ari Up

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!"

And I only have approximately 14 hours to save Japan from the coming Hipster Invasion! Oh yes, they are coming, and they are bringing their beards, and their strollers, and their babies with impossibly hip haircuts!

Check out how the Hipsters are softening the Japanese up with this pre-invasion propaganda poster suggesting ways that the Japanese people can make room for Hipster parents and their weapon of choice, strollers, on public transportation:

The situation is dire! Hipsters loom large on the horizon! If we do not fight now, Tokyo will soon be like Brooklyn! Join me, comrades, in this righteous battle!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tokyo Giants 11 - Hiroshima Carp 6

I'm not a huge sports fan, but I'd heard that going to a baseball (yakyuu) game in Japan is quite an experience, so I asked a new Japanese friend I met at the Guest House Pongyi in Kanazawa if he'd take me to a game. Based on both our schedules, he settled on a Tokyo Giants-Hiroshima Carp game at Tokyo Dome. (He's from Yokohama, so the BayStars are his team, but they weren't playing a day we could both go.) From what I gather, the Giants are like the Japanese equivalent of the Yankees, so I was rather hoping the Carp would pull through. But I'm getting ahead of myself!

Satoshi told me in advance that people bring their own food to baseball games because it's cheaper. I didn't have time to grab food earlier in the day, so I thought I'd just pop into a convenience store near the Dome. (Convenience stores are a common source of cheap, quick meals in Japan; you can buy sushi, noodles, onigiri, all sorts of decent stuff.) I spotted a 7/11 and joined about a hundred other people in line buying snacks and beer. Food and drink in hand, I met Satoshi, and we made our way over to the Dome. 
But wait! If you're not having enough fun at the baseball game, or maybe to get your fun on before you go in, there is an amusement park at the Tokyo Dome, ferris wheel, roller coaster, these bouncing hut things, the whole works.

If you bring drinks into the stadium (alcoholic and non-alcoholic alike), they put your drinks in a little red plastic bag that signals to someone inside to funnel you into the line where someone else pours your drink(s) into a paper cup for you. This is mandatory. According to the paper cup, it's about keeping the stadium clean, but I'm not sure how generating more trash keeps the place cleaner. 

If you didn't buy your drinks outside, or don't feel like leaving your seat, no worries! There are countless young women, who I dubbed "keg girls," constantly circulating through the stadium selling many types of beer, pepsi, coke, even shots. Each keg girl sells a specific drink, easily identifiable by the color of her outfit, each one a basic variation on an old-fashioned women's softball uniform, though some girls wore shorts instead of skirts. For some reason, however, they did not favor the American ponytail-through-the-back-of-the-cap style, opting instead to fold the back of the baseball cap under and pin the whole thing to the top of their heads. The Kirin girls were especially noticeable in their florescent green outfits, moving up and down through the crowd. Then they all disappear magically in the middle of the 7th inning. 

Tokyo Dome is a covered stadium, which was kind of weird for baseball. Something else different is that the premium seats are in the outfield. This is where the hard-core fans and generators of the amazing cheers sit. (The "bleacher" seats are actually behind home plate.) There are multiple cheers for each player, some involving alternating rows or sections standing as they chant their part and then sitting as the next row takes over. It's very elaborate and completely synchronized and the chants continue as long as the player is at bat. I could tell that there was a sort of director of the chants, but I have no idea how they determined which cheer would go next, as they switched from one to the next quite instantaneously. Both teams had massive flags being waved (again, completely synchronized) and the Carp even had a pep band. The cheers actually took the place of an announcer. While following different rhythms, and some even involving melodies, they did seem to favor the three syllable format, so players with four syllable names (like the young Giants superstar Hayato Sakamoto) would be cheered on with a shortened version of their name (Sa-ka-MO! Sa-ka-MO!). Also receiving the three-syllable treatment was the star of the night, the Venezuelan hitter for the Giants Alex Ramirez (Ra-me-RAY! Ra-me-RAY!), who contributed to runs scored every time he was at bat. Justin Huber (Hyuu-bah!) of the Carp was not so lucky, striking out consistently, but the fans cheered him on nonetheless. In fact, there seems to be little to no heckling, and little to no individual yelling. It's unison or nothing. (Not that anything else could be heard above the chants.) During some changeovers, cheerleaders and mascots come running out for a few minutes of high-energy dancing and prancing.

Whenever someone hit a fly ball into the stands, a funny caution sign appeared on the jumbotron warning people about getting hit on the head with a ball. 

The Giants got off to a strong start, scoring 3 runs in the bottom of the first. Whenever the Giants scored, the fans took their official Giants orange (sweat dabbing) towels from around their necks and waved them around above their heads while singing some sort of celebratory song. The Carp matched them run for run, and the game was tied 6-all until the bottom of the 7th when the Giants scored an amazing 5 runs (Ra-me-RAY! Ra-me-RAY!) and that was pretty much all they wrote. The Carp never recovered, and at the end of almost four hours, the Giants were triumphant.

Kitteh Temple

The origin of the beckoning cat
According to a brochure I picked up, the Jisho-in Temple in Tokyo is "said to be the origin of the beckoning cat from the episode that Dokan Ota lost his way in the midst of the battle but made a narrow escape from death beckoned by the black cat."
Buddha of kittehs is sleepy.

Someone even left an offering of cat food.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Recent Memorable Moments

Sorry to neglect you, dear readers. I've been either too busy or too hot to write. So here are some recent highlights:

Robot soccer in Akihabara

Hyottoko odori (masked dance) at a shrine festival in Nakano
Yoshito Ohno dancing with a puppet of his father, the late Kazuo Ohno. The open closets contain Kazuo's costumes.
Hanging with a motley crew of crazy gaijin after a butoh show.

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


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