Sunday, September 30, 2012

Meeting Noboru Kaneko for the first time

I'm curious to know who Noboru Kaneko is and what brought him to volunteer to teach Japanese at the Takarazuka International Friendship Association.  International Friendship.  There are so many things to which one can volunteer their time in retirement and he chose this one.

His enthusiasm was endearing and he presented me with two copied pages of text with phrases for introducing oneself, stating and asking one's native country, and asking about one's career.  These were romanji versions with English translations along with them and since I've learned this much Japanese fairly well and already been practicing a fair amount of kana, it wasn't a challenge or anything new.  I'm an experienced beginner, perhaps one of the most challenging places from a which a teacher can start to teach.  I showed him the book I've been working from, which has about 60 pages of kana examples and writing that I've done, covering shopping and telling time and getting directions.  He was impressed, but somehow at the end of the lesson he still went over to the copy machine and printed the hiragana alphabet for me.  Finally, he "presento shimas" (gave me a present) of a folder in which I could keep my papers.

I left feeling very enthusiastic.  He doesn't speak any English at all.  I may speak more Japanese than he can speak English.  Just as I confidently prepare a Japanese conversation and am surprised when the other person decides to use words other than what I assigned them, I think he had alternate expectations for the hour and the course of study.  I can understand.  Familiar feelings of frustration arose when he had me read the conversations of introduction, interrupting me as I slowed to make out the superscript kana above the kanji characters.  He was very enthusiastic.  But I got a lot of value in the interim portions of the lesson, when he would ask me a question about where I'm from or how long I've been here or if I'd been to Japan before.  Armed with our respective dictionaries, we had a battle of communication, trying to learn more about one another.  At one point he asked if I had studied other languages and I told him I knew a little German and little Spanish.  He also knew a little German and from that point on in the lesson we had a Japanese lesson in German.  Apparently this was more comfortable for him.

I imagine that I'm going to learn a lot from Noboru Kaneko.  Today I learned that he is 7 years past the mandatory retirement age (I tangentially learned that companies in Japan have one), and that he used to work for a marine (?) and fire insurance company.  He is from Kyoto.  It is a wonderful opportunity to practice Japanese.  I'm not sure if it will be be my primary source of learning, though.  It wasn't really possible for him to assign me a book to purchase or homework to study.  I'm not sure how he would have been about to communicate this and I think he was surprised at how much I had done on my own, despite being a beginner.  We'll see where things are next week.

My friends has agreed to be an unofficial tutor.  She is an American and avidly studies Japanese, mastering what I consider to be an incredible amount for one year.  After our lessons we went to the bookstore and I purchased some new books from which to practice.  I'm looking forward to availing myself of so many friendly resources.  And now to study, study, study.....

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Wadayama day tour

Today the HPAC orchestra visited the small town of Wadayama to perform a concert.  Two hours northwest of our Takarazuka home, our day trip introduced us to new places and faces, foods and phenomenons.

After about an hour on the bus, we stopped for a short break....

The takoyaki man at the rest stop, yaking his tako.

Information guide for toilet stall type and availability in the women's restroom

When we arrived in Wadayama we were greeted by a billboard for our concert.  Our conductor was very intense.  

Guitar soloist (left) and conductor (right) for our concert in Wadayama

Beyond their welcoming gaze lay the gateway to autumn and to Jupiter Hall.  

The first (and only) changing leaves of Hyogo thus far
Lunch time brought about an obvious choice:

The Big Bang Family Restaurant

I wouldn't say that it is impossible to eat poorly in Japan, but I think it's a lot harder than America.  Or perhaps it's the novelty fairy painting the world like candy.  Regardless, for about $5.50 I had this delicious lunch of "egg."

Egg with onions,  herbs, spices, seaweed and fish cake over rice; and miso soup

The concert was an interesting experience, one quite foreign from the typical HPAC concert.  Normally we play to a huge sold-out hall for an audience that will clap the encores out of us, but never stand up.  Today's much smaller "Jupiter Hall" could not encourage the town fill it to one third of its capacity and this included the junior high school students with whom we shared the program.  They didn't clap long enough for the guitarist to play her encore and they stopped clapping at the end of Carmen before the orchestra could even stand up.  But perhaps this was due to some confusion because at the very end of the concert, after Bolero, they continued to clap; and although temporary and shy, two individuals rose in standing ovations.  It was really sweet to see two people in an audience of 200 do something that no one in an audience of 2,000 would brave to do.  And it was encouraging.  It's really rewarding to play for a full house and much more difficult to play for empty seats.  Should it matter?  Regardless of how it effected our performance and whether or not it should, I welcomed the warmth of the uncommon ovation.  

After a rainy bus ride home, some friends invited me to a coupon subsidized dinner of okonomiyaki.  Sometimes I regret putting that sign on my mailbox requesting relief from junk mail.  Is it really junk if it can bring about this culinary bliss?  I wish I had enough Japanese to modify the sign so that it would include incredible coupons to delicious restaurants within walking distance, but I'm afraid that by the time I acquire such linguistic acumen I will no longer be forgiven the gaijin (foreigner) transgression of such a request.  Luckily, I have wonderful friends.  

Anahid (left) and Bernice (right) enjoying okonomiyaki

Detail of a thick okonomiyaki (egg, noodle, and in this case,  seafood pancake)- Osaka style

At the moment, I am still quite full.  

Friday, September 28, 2012

Ohayo Gozaimasu

I woke up a little behind the beat this morning.  Some mornings are like that.  Maybe it was an excess of frozen seafood and soba noodles or a new angle to the sun in my room which opened my eyes a little more slowly.   Lingering conversations or dreams, it's hard to say.

Despite my tepid attitude I biked to the river to do a morning Tae Kwon Do practice.  It's been interesting to be my own teacher, especially in times like these.  In class there was a start time, and a group voice, and instructors pushing me to do more than I thought I could do physically and mentally.  At every belt test, I learned something about myself from the challenges that I overcame.  But here, a silent reflective river awaits me in the morning.  A new sort of challenge.

This morning I didn't feel moved to kihop fully.  I had a new type of practice, partially inspired by this new mood, partially so as not to disturb the dog across the way that kept barking.  While I generally don't shy from communicating with a canine friend, I decided to try a mostly silent practice.  I thought about the value of the kihop, it's something that I've thought about a lot here.  In a solo practice, why is it important to express the fullness of one's voice?

As I biked towards the hall, I remembered a previous belt test in which I witnessed a mental discipline exercise that one of the red belts had to perform.  In the plank position with his fists in two bowls of snow, he had to instruct a white belt how to do a side kick.  At the time, I just thought this was super hardcore.  I didn't realize that perhaps there was something else being taught and tested here.  Something about inner resources and limitations and offering the full extent of one's being to others.

Why do we say good morning when we see one another?  Does the sincerity with which we say it affect us?  Does it affect others?

I feel lucky to be a musician.  On days when I'm on the backside of the beat, I can go into a rehearsal and experience the expression of those around me.  And I can offer an expression to them, with all the resources that I have that day.  And somehow, they grow.   Something in the act of offering actually increases these resources.  It is a reminder that they exist, not just for those to whom they are given, but for the giver.

The people in this orchestra feel like a family.  Perhaps it's the nature of our rehearsal and performance schedule, or the fact that many of us are living in a home far away from family and friends and the comforts of our native culture.  We live together and play together, and commute by trains and bikes together.  Like family, we can't lose one another.  And maybe for this reason it feels even more personal to play music together.  It isn't instruments to which I listen or with whom I play, but people.  I hear my friends and I play with them.  I can share a voice with the same people to whom I say good morning.

Some mornings it is harder to kihop fully, harder to say hello and meet someone's eyes, harder to listen, to give and receive.  If it is harder, is it impossible?  And why does it matter?  What is the value of expression?  Why is it important and how does it affect us?  How can we share more of ourselves, more fully?  Why should we try to do this, and for whose sake?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Same River

The weather here is becoming so wonderfully beautiful.  Biking to the hall in the morning is elating, watching the morning sun on the water and flying through the air.  Why is the sun on the water so beautiful?  Today I watched it and imagined that I was in the middle of the inevitable coming winter.  The sun will still shine on the river, but will it look the same?  Will it feel the same?  I tried to imagine.  Perhaps it will be a different feeling in my shoulders, that familiar narrowing of the chest in defense against the cold.  Will I still have the time in my bones to love it?  Will the cold air rob me of that pleasure for several months?

What can hurt us?  Is it really the air that is so harmful in the winter, or is it our reaction to it?  After biking to the hall, I was in a very bluebird mood and hummed my way to the shower room.  I discovered that a very thorough Japanese janitor had beat me at my game and removed the towel, soap and razor that I had stealthily  left in one of the empty lockers.  No matter, on such a beautiful day, who needs any of these things.  In fact, isn't it such a lovely lesson to remember that we don't need them?  Perhaps I won't bring a new towel, or soap for that matter.  Somehow the weather had fortified me against irritation.

As the sun gives us fewer of its precious hours, karmically allocating them to other parts of the world, I know that it will be harder to stay fortified.  Things creep in as the air gets cooler and the days become darker.  It's a change that is so slow as to be unnoticed.  I love the seasons.  I love living each one every year.  Each has something to offer, whether it is youthfulness, contemplation or the anticipation of something new.  What will winter here be like?  It won't have the snow of Madison to augment the sun's rays, but it seems possible that I will be able to enjoy a daily bike ride for its duration.  Slowly, over the next few months, that will become a different experience.  Some days it will be a struggle with cold and wind.  Some days I will be tired, my body wanting to rest with the sun.  Somedays I will be lonely, in need of warmth to open my ribs and release my defensive shoulders.  Somedays will be unfocused, undisciplined, somedays full of doubt.  These days, these hours and minutes are there in life.  But also there are the moments of sun on welcoming water.  Perhaps I can remember it in those times, and fortify myself.  Or perhaps I can enjoy the feeling of being unfortified.  Laying down my defenses against the feelings of the winter and opening my chest to them.  Some days are easy, and some are harder.  What can we learn from those easy days?  What can we learn from the difficult ones?

I'm looking forward to the fall.  Everyone says that it is really beautiful here, and even though the air has taken on its quality, there's very little hint of the leaves departing from their summer home.  It's cool and green and I can tell that it will be a long season.  In my stomach is the same strange beautiful feeling of uncertainty that I have known my whole life.  And this year it is mixed with the uncertainty of novelty. What new things will I come to love in the coming season?  Which will challenge me?  And will I still see the river the same way every morning?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Japanese Lesson

I'm learning more and more Japanese.  Of my base knowledge of the language, I'd say I'm probably able to access about 30%, and of that I can readily use about another 30% in daily exchanges.  So I figure that if I keep increasing the base knowledge, those percentages will slowly become a larger and larger percentage of the expressive capabilities of the Japanese language.  Soon I'll be able to order sushi!

It's been an interesting process to go through.  I've read about how children start to parse the sounds and syllables of a language and I can identify with that process.  I feel as though it is taking a long time just to get accustomed to the possible sound combinations of Japanese.  What has been surprisingly helpful, and what speeds up my process of aural deciphering, is becoming more familiar with the kana syllabary (alphabets).  As I practice my workbook and become faster at reading, I'm also able to hear words and groupings of sounds more easily.  Nice to be able to bring them together, the written and the aural.  I'm hoping that the synthesis will just keep getting faster and faster.  I start lessons on Sunday!

It's so much fun to decipher this language, through phonetics and context.  And I'd like to share just a small portion of the game.  There are two large parts to written Japanese.  Kanji are the characters derived from Chinese, which are largely phonetic, but also have semantic meaning.  Kana is the completely phonetic component of written Japanese.  

For instance, the city where HPAC is located is called Nishinomiya, and in kanji it is 西宮市.   The first character is "nishi" which means,  "west."  The second character is "miya" which means "palace."  The last is the character for "city", "shi" which may or may not be used when saying the name.  The "no" between "nishi" and "miya" is a possessive particle and thus I live in the "Palace of the West (city)."  So there are both sounds and meanings to the kanji and they can be rearranged in various ways to make new meanings.  Characters can even be squished together to produce new characters.

Kana is composed of hiragana (primarily used for Japanese words) and katakana (used for words taken from other languages).  It's fun to sound out words in hiragana, but generally I'm left with a Japanese word that I don't know. It's even more fun to try to figure out words written in katakana, because they might actually be words that I can recognize.  But this is essentially the same as shopping at IKEA.  Just because you get the right sounds doesn't mean that you will understand the word.  It's a lot of fun so here are a few from my workbook decoded from the katakana and turned into "Romanji" (our familiar friendly alphabet), for you to further decipher.  Few rules: Rs are hard, similar to a "D" sound; "E" as in "egg"; "I" as "eat."  Take your time to sound out each vowel separately.  At the bottom of this post are the answers.


This says a lot about the way that Japanese hear things.  I think that they are very sensitive to vowel sounds and length.  For example, the words for beer and building are essentially the same–bidu–but for the alcohol it is biidu.  You just hold the first syllable a little longer.  So there are shadow vowels in a lot of words that just extend the length a little longer.  Verbs often end in what a western ear would hear as "s" but to the Japanese it is "su."  They hear and pronounce that extra "u,"  but it doesn't come as naturally to the western ear or tongue.  So much for our superiority complex over "r" and "l."

I hope you've enjoyed this Japanese lesson.  It's an increasingly important thing to me for survival (i.e. "I'm going to faint."  "Do I take my towel with me to the pool?") as well as being a part of the community ("How are you?"  "What did you do this weekend?"  "How is your family?"  "Did you get rid of that pigeon problem in your apartment?") so I think about it a lot and try to practice in my own introverted way.

And now here are the answers:

Department store
Ice Cream

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wherever you go....

I went to the doctor today for the first time and experienced a new way of doing medicine.  Compared with American experiences, things went more quickly, tests could be done right there in the office, medication handed out at the same location.  Things also seemed slightly less sterile, but not in a dangerous way.  Just less packaging of medical tools, a frayed towel instead of a disposable smock, the woman who took my blood didn't wear gloves, and the metal stand which held some of the equipement had rust spots on it.  But everything was clean, and everyone was wearing slippers instead of outdoor shoes.

As I had my blood drawn I felt a familiar nauseous feeling rise up inside of me.  A slight light-headedness.  The woman looked at me and I think she was asking me if I felt alright.  I just kept nodding yes.  She finished and I kept telling myself that I wasn't going to faint.  I focused on breathing and relaxing as much as possible but it was inevitable.

And suddenly I was in Japan!  Why were these Japanese women carrying me?  What was going on?  I'm in Japan?  Why am I in Japan, who are these people?  Why am I in Japan?  How did I get here?

So strange what happens when the brain doesn't have blood.  I was transported to a place more real than any I've ever experienced in waking life and to be brought out of it is so jolting.  For a brief period I was somewhere more stable than any I've been in the past few months.  I can't remember what it was, but it was very real.

It seems there is a large part of me that hasn't figured out yet that I'm here.  Part of me is still elsewhere.  In the last few days I've seen people post status updates about cold bike rides and apple orchards in Madison.  There are a lot of things that I miss about Madison.  People and places and the smell of the changing seasons.  Part of me is still there.  It is hard to track the assimilation that one has with a new place.  I'm finally finishing my last tube of American toothpaste, the floss was finished yesterday.  By what parameter can I tell that I'm here?  Fainting spells or dental hygiene or the slowly growing comfort with saying hello and asking directions?

This morning I sat by the river and noticed how beautiful it is and how wonderful the cool summer air felt.   This is the only day and place, the only moment with this feeling.  In an instant it will be different.  It's hard not to hold on to places elsewhere, places in which I have spent far more of my life, invested far more of myself, places in which I have really enjoyed the act of living.  But there is also so much here.  How much do I miss when my thoughts are elsewhere?  How much more of myself can I bring to this place if I become open to what is around me?  It is a balance to respect what the past has given me and what the present has to offer.  Hopefully I will be able to do this without another fainting spell.

Monday, September 24, 2012


It took me two hours of focused Japanese study this morning to give me the confidence not to shirk past my neighbor as he emerged from his apartment today.  It's not that I had anything to say, but somehow my kana competence endowed me with the strength to say, "Konnichi wa.  Hashime mashite, watashi wa Ahn Do Re Ah."  (Hello.  Nice to meet you, my name is Andrea).  He smiled under his breath and said, "Yoroshiku." (Nice to meet you.)  That was it.  He didn't offer his name, or ask anything.  Maybe I didn't hold my "n's" long enough, or maybe it was my American smile that gave it away:  I don't really know how to speak Japanese.   I'm grateful that he embraced my awkwardness and didn't extend.  It seemed uncharacteristically short of him, from my experience with the Japanese thus far, but because it was so painless, I'm not offended or in the least bit bothered.  In fact I've taken to imagining that he is an aikido master (or judo or kendo....)who could read my entire life in that one encounter and that over the course of the next three years as I gain his respect through diligent Japanese practice and respectful behavior, we will have more meetings on our little landing and then over tea.  I will convince him to once again start his practice and to take me on as his only student.

An alternate explanation is that he was concerned with finding an outlet for his extension cord and didn't want to be bothered with a conversation that couldn't be had.  Either way, I've managed to introduce myself and smile.  It's most of what I can do.

I reflected on linguistically truncated communication today. I realized that the most important words to know in a language when travelling are the only two that I have at all times, ready on my lips: "Excuse me/I'm sorry," and "Thank you."  Humility and gratitude.  There are so many other things that language can express, but this is the place from which I start.  I've found them helpful in any country.  What does it say about humanity that these are the first words that we need when encountering strangers in a foreign country?  Or that these are the two expressions that can get you through most things?  If we offer our humility, people tend to forgive and try to help more.  I think that the expression of gratitude has a similar effect, but does more than express something to the person to whom it is offered.  It is a reminder to the person speaking it.  It feels so good to be able to thank a person for their help, especially after asking for their forgiveness in a difficult exchange.  It keeps people closer.  It's so easy to be afraid of people with whom you cannot communicate.  There is so much room for misunderstanding and with misunderstanding often comes defensiveness, and even offensiveness.  But to be able to say, "Thank you" steps beyond these feelings.  I am so grateful for their patience and help.  It gives me a little more courage to do things unfamiliar to me; to go to the bank to set up automatic withdrawal, or to pay my utilities at the convenient store.  I apologize for my lack of understanding, for my awkwardness, and then I thank them.  Doing it alone is impossible, I need their help.  And maybe I don't understand all the steps, maybe I can't bond with small talk, and maybe I don't understand the motivations behind what they are saying or doing, but it is enough to express some basic things.

Maybe the next time I see my neighbor I will say a few more words and get a little more across to him and from him.  I'm happy to show him that I know how to say, "Sumimasen," and "Arigato gozaimas," but really our relationship is less obligatory.  These two words are wonderful words, but they can only go so far.  Language has developed such a multitude of nuanced ways to express things.  We can learn more about ourselves and others through our ability to express our ideas and emotions.  I'd just like to know who he is, what he does on the weekends, if he has children and what his wife is like.  Does he like baseball, has he live in Takarazuka his whole life or is he from another part of Japan, and what is his favorite food?  In so many words, I'd like to what it's like to be Japanese.  What it's like to be him.  Is language the thing that brings us closer to one another, or have we created a barrier with it?  I think I'm closer to the people with whom I can speak, but I also think that the moments and exchanges of greatest intimacy and understanding are the ones which extended beyond, or without, words.  Humor, pain, empathy.  Exchanges of expression, of timing, of gesture and touch.  But perhaps language is the gateway to these things.  Someday I'll have enough, I hope, that I can pass through.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hanshin Tigers!

Finally got to have a first hand experience of a Japanese baseball game.  Today at 2pm the Hanshin Tigers played the Nagoya Dragons in the Koshien Stadium.  It was an excited game, with the Dragons starting strong and the Tigers taking it in the end.  All afternoon the weather oscillated between intense sun and rain; combined I think that makes good weather.  The Japanese don't have American football and I think that perhaps they express some of football's intense fan energy during their baseball games.  There are trumpets and taiko drums which supply a constant feed of songs and rhythms to the entire stadium which echoes them by pounding plastic bats.  Every Hanshin Tiger has their own theme song as does the team.  I was told that we'll be playing their theme song later in the year.

The game moves more slowly, every pitch deliberated.  When it is time for a new pitcher, a gate in the outfield opens and an electric car drives to the mound to deliver him.  The bull pen must be elsewhere.  During the 7th inning, everyone inflates a large balloon and after the third out of the home team, they do a little balloon dance and then release them all at once into the air.  It's a pretty incredible sight.

And in the end we won!  I think this is pretty cool because the team is second to last in the league, 31.5 games from first place.  The slogan for the Hanshin Tigers used to be, "Focus on this play, this moment," but this year it's, "Go for the top!"

Really the spectacle of the crowd is more of the experience than the game itself, though that is worth it, too.  Thus, none of the pictures below feature the actual field.  But I think you'll get the idea.  

It was a little intimidating to walk into the stadium at first

Scored run for the Tigers!

The score board

The entire stadium holding up their balloons

Released into the air!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tchaikovsky Sushi

Today was the Japanese cooking concert, From Russia with Love:

A narrating nutcracker 
Sushi and the Overture to the Nutcracker Ballet
Backstage warm-ups
There are a lot of things that I don't understand and this can be added to the growing list.  Perhaps if I could speak Japanese it would make more sense.  Is it wrong to be amused by this?

Tomorrow is supposed to be the reschedule of the baseball game but thunderstorms are predicted.  It really isn't raining here that much in general, just on days when we want to see baseball.  Maybe I'll take up an interest in sumo wrestling instead.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Nishinomiya Matsuri

After one of our concerts last weekend we went to an Irish Pub in Nishinomiya.  In addition to the fun of watching our English bass trombone player instruct the Japanese tuba player on how to eat fish and chips ("just use your hands"), I also happened to pick up a well-placed English free monthly on what's going on in this area of Japan.  In "Kansai Scene" there are listings of events, language exchanges, and places to eat.  One of the events was a festival in the Nishinomiya shrine, so I convinced two of my friends to venture out on our bikes to find the place.  With not too much trouble, we found it, sans street names.

Georgi and Hui-Ju at the Nishinomiya shrine

Oddly enough, no one else was there.  As we walked through the shrine, enjoying its ponds and the gracefully sloping roofs of its building, Hui-Ju noticed a flyer which said that the festival started a day later.  It was my mistake.  Maybe I waste my ability to read English.  

Not to be deterred and full of time time time, we got on our bikes again this afternoon and enjoyed a shorter and more experienced route to the shrine.  

Honden  of the Nishinomiya shrine 

Lots of beautiful lights and people and food and games.  There was a performance before a film showing and I got to see the pedagogy of Taiko drumming.  The students first learn a dance that has the elements needed for the extremely physical drumming.  Hands raised high to hit the drums and then plunging to incredible low stances.  

Top frame is the children performing their dance and below is the experienced Taiko drum troupe that we saw in Taka-cho
It made me think about ways of teaching fundamentals to children and starting them really really early.  In the same evening we saw some very young baton twirlers.  Starting early seems like a Japanese characteristic of education.  Of course we are in the land where Suzuki (the man and the method) was born.  

As we walked out of the shrine, we passed the food venders and game booths.  Minus the carnival rides, gambling, and funnel cake, there are some things quite similar here to America.  They even had cotton candy.  But we chose to share some takoyaki- fried octopus dumplings which are a specialty of this area.  

Lower right is the octopus wrapped in a pan; above it is the cooking takoyaki, soon to be rotated in its circular cooking mold;  the woman is preparing our fresh takoyaki with sauce, mayonnaise, and bonito (fish flakes) and in the front center are completed takoyaki (five balls per carton)
various venders at the festival

I'm not sure what the significance of the festival is.  It last for a few days and there are parades and other things, which we can't attend because we have a concert (the Russian cooking televised concert!).  Perhaps its purpose was the same as festival purposes are in so many places, bringing people together.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Up Next

I didn't realize that this next concert is connected with a television network.  Nor did I realize that our arrangements of Swan Lake and the Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition dissolve into dub-step mutations by the second line.  We have another piece called, "007" or as our conductor referred to it, "zero zero seven," as well as an arrangement of Borodin's Polovetsian Dances arranged as a ballad with singer.  There are some pieces from the canonic repertoire, as well.  Because this is related to a cooking show, a chef will apparently be cooking/dancing to Tchaikovsky's Trepak from the Nutcracker.  It's all a little hazy and strange to me at this point.  I'll find out more when it actually happens on Saturday, but I think this promises to be a far more engaging pops concert than any in which I've participate thus far.

What is the role of classical music?  I wonder if this is any stranger than Greek gods dancing to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.  But I feel like this fits a more commercial role similar to  Palladio and diamond rings, or Copland's Rodeo to sell beef for dinner.  Or maybe even the pops concerts which mix Santa and baby Jesus and the symphony orchestra to legitimate the evening.  Why are backing up a cooking show?  Why does a cooking show need us?

At this point, not having had the full experience, I know that I am prematurely asking empty questions. I will sit back and wait for Saturday to come.  But in the mean time, it has made me wonder, a little more deeply, what role the world thinks that classical (i.e. art) music can play.  Is it the time that we put into practicing and rehearsing, is it the sound of orchestral instruments, the amount of focus it demands on an audience?  What is it that makes pop culture want to twist classical music into something different to serve its purposes?  What are the qualities of classical music that are so desirable and why are they so?  And what qualities does pop culture not value and why not?

I'm not sure if this concert will seem uniquely Japanese.  And I'm not sure that I will know even after the fact.  I won't be able to understand the lyrics for Pictures at an Exhibition.  I'm not sure I will really be able to understand the purpose of the whole experience.   But maybe some things are not meant to be understood.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Teaching and Learning in a New Way

This morning I woke up at 6:30 and got ready for my first Google+ hangout session with the Tae Kwon Do group in Madison.  It was the first time since June that I put on my uniform and belt and when Instructor Bissing and I finally got connected I heard the sound of the whole group and the voice of Master Alonso, all doing the warm-ups together.  Throughout the hour I was able to watch them teach one another, and to see the way that they moved, not just in the execution of their kicks and forms, but in their gestures as they explained and encouraged, as they listened and watched.  Something about balance and being grounded, about looking with both eyes, fully.  When I'm with this group, when I talk to them individually or practice with them, there is something very valuable and important about the interaction.  In some ways I've come to learn more explicitly what the lessons and values are that make it significant and give it the atmosphere that I admire.  In other ways, I still don't know what it is, and now that I'm here, I'm learning more about it as I try to become my own teacher in the same way.

After the session I biked to the hall to practice.  And in the practice room I was faced with more teachers from the past, working with me as I worked by myself in this first year of no private lessons.  I miss Vardi, and it even crossed my mind to have an internet session with him at some point.  But the tone of the group workout stayed with me and reminded me of a general tone of learning from Madison that I want to cultivate again as I start to settle into myself in this new place.  This idea of curiosity above knowledge, of novelty in the midst of daily practice, of honesty rather than defensiveness.  As I practiced, I thought of Vardi's gestures and textures and constant probing to make it more.  Never telling, always asking.  Asking out of curiosity.  Never judging, but always faithful that dissatisfaction which is aware and unafraid can bring about beautiful changes.

It felt good to be reminded of this.  Sometimes I wonder if my religion is teaching.  I realized today that apart from this being my first experience living in a new country, with all the challenges which that entails, it is also the first time since I was five years old that I am not in school.  Twenty-three years of teaching and learning and I am suddenly in a place where neither is explicitly practiced.  But I believe that teaching and learning can happen anywhere; maybe they are just different words for listening. They provide an opportunity for trust between people.  I think that finding this connection is one of my challenges here.

What can I learn from the people around me?  How can we help one another discover more about ourselves and the things that we care about?  In what way can I do this for myself?  How can I be my own teacher?  Surely school is not the only place where teaching and learning happen.  Surely we can cultivate this connection with one another and within ourselves, outside of these formal institutions and rituals.  As with "work,"  I think this is a mind-set.  And just as I'm leery of spending my life "working," so too am I leery of ever leaving behind the place of learning.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Rainy Day

Today was to be the day of the Hanshin Tigers baseball game.  I've really enjoyed watching bits of Japanese baseball on TV and was curious to know what we do with balloons and toy bats.  But I'll have to wait.  Rain gave them a night off.  Sunday, here's hoping for Sunday.

Rainy day game face
crowds retreating

On a sunnier note, I received a postcard from the Takarazuka International Friendship Association informing me of my Japanese teacher and lesson times.  It's an interesting thing in Japan, how little people use email.  I had to go to the center in person and fill out a form.  They've sent me this postcard and will faithfully be waiting for me.  No other confirmation on my end other than silence.   It's a cool feeling to have an implicit trust with someone that I haven't even yet met.  I'm really looking forward to getting started.

The beginning of a new understanding

Yesterday was a day off, and today, and tomorrow.  I'm finding that I have periods of boredom or feel obligated to structure my day productively.  I biked to the hall in the rain to practice.  On the way home I passed a groundskeeper of the river parks practicing the tin flute in his truck during his lunch break.  As I was one of the few on the path today, I felt especially lucky to have heard his rendering of Greensleeves.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Japanese Summer River

It is still very much summertime here.  It's humid and sultry and the rain kicks up the smell of dirt.  After a day of biking and exploring and doing Tae Kwon Do by the river, I'm ready for a hot bath.

But the wind was quite strong today, and thunderstorms on the way, most likely spin-offs from the typhoons in the south and in Korea.  Several rice paddies have been hacked clean and the dirt under the shortened stalks is dry.  There are many dragonflies by the river and its compatriot streams, and children play in the water, catching the flying mythical monsters with large nets.  Summer is here and summer will go.

I feel like I've arrived in a new land that has taken me back in time by several months.  Returned to me are the hours I spent in front of a computer while the sun rose and set.  I have a whole summer in which to move and explore.

I biked to the hall today and practiced and on the way home my body decided that it would rather not take the proper exit.  So I bike further along the river.  I heard a strange sound come out of the parking garage of the Pachinko parlor.  I looked up and saw a man on the top floor.  He looked down at me on my bike and I looked back at him, and then he smiled and waved as he opened his mouth to continue his vocal warm-ups.  Everyday I am grateful for instances of Japan's beautiful self-expression.

I've been wondering about something that I've started to notice now that I have a bike and ride by baseball fields and rivers and bike paths with children weaving in and out on training wheels.  Rarely do I see parents discipline their children.  How many times has a child meandered in front of my bike and the parent stares back at me in confusion?  Why do I expect them to say something to the child?  Why do I think that they need my eyes to tell them that it's alright?  Children run away from their parents or behind them and quite often I see very young children and have no idea from where their obligatory adult is keeping a watchful eye.  There is so much patience with children and mothers raising their children.  Rarely do children misbehave (I'm actually not sure I've yet to see this) and I can only recall two tantrums, one from being bumped on the head.  It's only in the last two days that I've started to explicitly notice this and perhaps I've been noticing incorrectly.  I'll keep watching and listening.

But I've also wondered what happens to this freedom as one grows up.  Where does the pressure come from to fit in?  Or is the strength of learning by example so strong the it comes from within oneself?  The implicit need to fit in.  I'm not sure what it is.  But I'm curious.

Vocal warm-ups in a Pachinko parlor parking garage, practicing a golf swing outside a shop during slow business hours, practicing saxophone by the river, interrupting my focus in a Tae Kwon Do practice to say hello–these are a small collection of observed blessings of the individuality and polite audacity of the Japanese people.  The way that they take advantage of the open space by the river to open themselves more fully in the summer sun.  It's a side of Japan that I'm happy to see and to hear.  Happy to have the summer hours to play with them a little more.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sleepy time

The sun gets up quite early here.  And it goes to bed early.  Seems appropriate for Japan, but as I try to be sympathetic to all things Japanese (or at least most of them) I find that I'm sometimes a little lopsided on sleep.

Tomorrow is the beginning of three days off.  I'm curious to know what that means and what it feels like.  Surely there will be things to do and see.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Night biking

After this afternoon's concert I went out with the cello and bass section to shabu shabu.  It's one of Japan's many experiential dishes:  a boiling pot of water (or fish broth) in the table and trays of meat and vegetables which one dips into the water to cook.  First round was beef, then pork and beef, then chicken (and beef?, but whose keeping track?);  all you can eat and drink (including alcohol) for two hours, 3000 yen per person.  Is that a good deal?  I'm still not sure (perhaps it depends on who you are) but it was an enjoyable evening and great company.  And I had a wonderful conversation with a Japanese bass player who had spent a lot of time in America and felt more comfortable there, but could speak to the feeling of being expected to be Japanese in her home country.  It aligned some of the cultural themes and challenges that I have been experiencing and I was thankful for it.  

Earlier in the day I felt my inner light flicker.  For all but a few moments I felt like a third party as I played Gershwin and Dvorak, watching the concert go by.  What is this experience and what can one do in the midst of it?  I think it is a really important question and experience.  At the end of the dinner, our guest section leader, the former principle of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra gave us advice for how to "survive orchestra rehearsals."  As we hand over our abilities to a conductor, it can be easy to loose our own artistic initiative, our own voice and inspiration.  We become one of the silent majority.  So many people here complain about the long hours of rehearsing, the repetition, the rehearsal method, the lack of control.  This is an issue I can hear not just in words, but in the sounds of the orchestra.  When I think and experience music in its pure form, without the weight of salary, it dances and sings.  But somedays it is work.  I bike to "work."  Really?  I don't ever want to work.  

I feel that we can choose this attitude to some extent, though.  Perhaps not everyday is magical, but we can cultivate an inner fire in ourselves and in each other.  My greatest recourse for action in times of being disengaged is to listen.  If we take care of one another, then there will always be a voice somewhere to which we can listen, one that will inspire us and remind us.  It will be our own voice, carried by another to whom we gave it for safe keeping.  But right now I can't hear it always.  Something in me is not in balance.  I don't know how to express it, or to share it, or to receive it.  But I also know that it is there and that it is merely a matter of constructing a way for it to come out.  I'm in a new place, one in which I feel slightly repressed in comparison to my American lifestyle.  

I remembered today that one of my reasons for coming to Japan was to encounter new challenges and to see how I identify them and react to them.  This is a process and an experience that I want to have.  For some, the primary goal here is to become a better orchestral player, or to make money, or to see Japan.  I appreciate all of these things.  But in the scope of life, one of my primary goals here is to learn something about new limitations and how I react to them.  I want to learn new challenges and find ways of playing with them.  

At intermission I made a list of things that give me inspiration or strength.  Things that I can do to remember myself in this new space, ways that I can interact with this new space.  It's an interesting exercise, one worth trying for wherever you are.  Some are temporary fixes, such as biking or or writing letters.  Others have a deeper internal structure.

In the second movement of the Gershwin Piano Concerto there is a melody that brings me outside of myself.  I can hear Bess singing it.  And it takes me home.  It reminds me of a voice in America that I love; an audacious, suffering voice that believes in the right to be heard.  And there are other voices that I love.  In the fourth movement of the New World Symphony, an unleashed joy after years of oppression.  And the second movement's brass choral canyons and deep dark caves.  

During the concert I thought about these voices and other things American.  After our dinner I said goodbye to everyone as they went to their trains and cars.  I went back to the hall and mimed my way into an after hours building to get to the parking garage for my bike.  I love biking at night.  It's impossible to see beyond three or four meters in front, and the path is still new to me.  But I went through the little streets of Nishinomiya to the river and found the way along the water, only passing two or three others on my way home.  

What is a challenge?  Sometimes seen and sometimes hidden.  

Friday, September 14, 2012


I was stunned to look up into Maestro Sado's face at the opening of the New World Symphony, yesterday.  I wanted to keep staring in the way that people are attracted to Weegee's photographs, but out of respect and shock I watched the music on my stand and absorbed the energy he was emitting.  Usually when I play a concert I feel that I have control to decide the images that I conjure.  I have some room to interpret the flow of the music as I wish.  But in this concert, Maestro Sado took control.  It was incredible and powerful, and I wished to give him my energy as much as I could.  But somehow I didn't know how to dance with him, I was so thrown off guard.

Today we played the same program in our home concert hall and once again Sado threw the force of his being into his conducting.  But today I decided to look at him and to watch him.  And I was able to alleviate the fear and look into my blind spots.  As I become more able to interact with his energy, I started to look for the personal in his conducting, something beyond the raw visceral energy that he channels so well.  He is a great conductor.  There is something very powerful in his conviction, and I'm curious to experience more sides to it.  I'm curious to hear his personal story in the way he leads an orchestra and the way that he experiences music.  I hope that he will share it and that I will have my eyes open to hear it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pre-Nagoya morning

It's freshly Thursday morning here in the land of the rising sun.  The crows are excited about the garbage, but I don't know that there are many "small unburnable" items that they can eat (today's garbage theme).  Maybe they find some way to extract the energy from batteries, I've heard they are fairly smart.

I'm headed to Nagoya today to eat hitsumabushi (a specialty eel dish of Nagoya) and play a concert.  We'll be returning to our hotel rooms late in the evening and so the reason for this early blog.  Once again, I look forward to seeing another part of Japan, and once again I look forward to staying in a hotel room with the familiar scent of the APA (Always Pleasant Amenity) chain of hotel soaps and shampoos.  It's too bad that they are always in large refillable bottles- no hotel sample sizes to scrounge.  It'll have to be a memory that stays here, waiting in hotel rooms across Japan.

I'll take pictures and be in touch soon.

Rehearsing for the first time in HPAC's Grand Hall

Have we inherited the feeling of sun on the water?  Does the power of volcanoes live in our blood, the terror of hurricanes, the sanctity of mountain air?  There is something that I feel sometimes.  I'm not sure where this feeling comes from, or why a certain chord can suddenly provoke it.  Is it the inherent beauty of these moments or the mystery in which they live that makes them incomprehensible and captivating?  It's impossible to cling to them.  They dissipate so quickly, absorbed by our bodies.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Silent Keehop

I've been moving around a lot in the past few months.  My feet have been on three different continents; my mind has defended a dissertation, relearned how to play the cello, and grappled with a new language and new customs; my body has practiced Tae Kwon Do in Scottish parks and Japanese hotels and biked through London's Hyde Park and Takarazuka's back roads;  new relationships have unfolded as old ones grow and change, saying hello to new people and feeling the distance of others.  I feel so young, trusting in the world of novelty to constantly provide an updraft of support.

At some point soon, I will make a descent as welcome as the fasten seatbelt sign after a long flight from Chicago to Tokyo.  I've finally settled in my new home and after a short day tour on Thursday (one more night in a hotel) I will be here for awhile, at least a few weeks.  Now that I have a bike, I will have the freedom to explore and set up a daily routine.  I used it yesterday to come home from HPAC, where we rehearse (about 35 minutes away) and to visit the center where we can get Japanese lessons.  I imagine these will both become another part of my routine existence.

I think I'm starting to feel the ground, bit by bit.  And I'm trying to make as smooth a landing as possible.  I'm trying to pace the speed of my curiosity with the tired that I can feel in my stomach.  Today we were released from rehearsal early again, and as I road the train back to the apartment I thought about how this afforded me the opportunity to ride my bike to the river and practice Tae Kwon Do.  But something in me felt that it was too much, that I've been pushing and moving and moving, and I decided to spend some time in my tatami room instead, just breathing and taking in the novel feeling of not having to do anything.

Earlier in rehearsal today we hit the 1pm mark again and continued to play in order to finish the movement.  I looked around me and wondered if others noticed–perhaps I'm wrong about the reading of the contract.  One of the horn players said that sometimes these things happen, along with other nonunion situations, but there is such deference to authority that no one in the group will speak up about the things that bother them.

And this made me think: what is strength?  Is it saying something or is it being aware of something but silently persevering?  What is an expression of strength?  There are soldiers who fight wars in foreign countries and there are those that must recover from their presence.  One screams and the other swallows.  Who is stronger?  Who affects more change?  How is their strength expressed and how does this influence themselves and how does it influence those around them?

As the centrifuge starts to abide and I must contend with a new form a gravity away from the comfort of spinning walls, I'm exploring new ways of finding my grounding.  This is both personal and cultural.    While I'm acutely aware of polar differences in my martial arts practice as compared with the silent composure of Japanese culture, I take comfort in the lesson of perseverance that both share.  I think that  this will challenge me to learn a new level of expression of strength, one that neither screams, nor swallows.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Nonunion union

This is not a union orchestra.  The master agreement has union style protocol, but in the end, it is not a union orchestra.  At a time when orchestras in America are struggling, with some people blaming unions and some blaming administration, it is interesting to be in a position to experience what an orchestra is like when there is no union.  This is certainly not the uncivil dictatorial style of orchestra that people fear if unions were to dissolve.  But still, it is a nonunion orchestra and sometimes we go overtime and no one says anything and sometimes the breaks are not paced according to the master agreement.

On a day with a scheduled double rehearsal, such as today, the master agreement stipulates that morning rehearsal is from 10:30am-1pm and afternoon rehearsal is from 2:15pm-4:30pm. At 1 pm Maestro Sado was still rehearsing and no one said anything.  And then he kept rehearsing and finished the piece around 1:10pm at which point he dismissed us for the day.  I'm not sure that any of the musicians were aware of this plan.

In a union orchestra we would have had to finish by 1pm to the clock's second hand.  Either this would mean that some things were not rehearsed as thoroughly, or that we would have stopped at 1pm, gone to lunch and then come back to finish for another 10-20 minutes.  I remember so many times in Madison that the clock ran out right before a cadence;  some people finished the piece, but the personnel manager was always yelling at them to stop for fear that the orchestra would have to pay overtime.

Trained in the expectations of a union orchestra and the understanding that a contract is a mutual agreement to which both sides should adhere, I'm a little confused about how I feel about such a lax and flexible practice.  In this situation, the contract says one thing, but reason and a little perseverance say another.  If you acquiesce to the group mentality, you are rewarded.  You belong among your peers and you get to have the afternoon off.  Cadences are concluded and the rehearsal is thorough and completed, albeit 10 minutes overtime.

Even harder for me to admit, however, was the fact that at about 5 minutes after the hour, I convinced myself that I must have been mistaken about the protocol for rehearsal time.  With the dissolution of my ego and my rights to my lunch break, I once again started to enjoy the work that we were doing and the group effort of learning the piece a little more thoroughly.  From 1:05pm-1:10pm, I just enjoyed the rehearsal, waiting for godot to relieve me and not really worrying about it.  And this once more made me think about the idea of learning as a group, of having a steady work ethic, of egoless perseverance, and how the right to my time off has been engrained in me from my culture.

Of course, a contract is a contract.  Our contract says that if there are going to be such changes in the daily schedule, the conductor should check with the rehearsal monitor who should notify the musicians.  So in this regard, the master agreement was breeched.  It's not that I necessarily mind going overtime.  I could rehearse longer if need be and on most days, I'd likely enjoy it.  But there are people (on some days myself included) who don't feel this way either because of injury or time obligations or any other reasons that are completely legitimate.  So how much right do we have to our own time and commitments and how much must we relinquish to the group?

I feel very American in even questioning this.  It feels wrong to me to admit that perhaps sometimes there is merit in setting aside one's personal rights and overlooking the contract for the sake of the art and for the group.  I can see this, but I can't bring myself to agree with it completely.  As I embrace the art of a tenacious work ethic and mental outlook during this time of overwhelming daily lessons, I respect its merits.  Everyday, I study Japanese.  And if I keep doing that, someday I will be able to understand it.  In the face of being tired and all the other excuses I can conjure to not study, I relinquish myself to myself for the greater good, for the long term goal.  But how does this work when there is a group of people and the decision is not so personal?  Where is the division between making a personal decision for oneself and making one for the sake of the group?  How different are these two things, and how should I feel about the "rights" not just of myself, but of my peers?  How can I speak for those who do not see these rights in the way I've been raised to see them?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Two-wheeled common denominator

Do I alter the places that I go?  How can I be sure that I'm getting a pure experience if I change them by my presence?  Or do I live as myself no matter where I am, the changing landscape simply providing a new backdrop for my videogame life?

Japan is starting to feel more and more like home.  Much to do with that is having a busy day off, like I normally would, one full of productive things (getting my bank card, online tasks, practicing Japanese and cello, doing laundry, shopping for a bike) and well as explorative socializing.  I went for a bike ride for the first time in Japan, borrowing a friend's in lieu of the one I will be purchasing tomorrow.  Four of us ventured to the Nakayama Temple in Takarazuka and then dined on conveyor belt sushi.

Along the bike path that we took to the temple

The temple was purported founded by Prince Shotoku in the 6th century but the buildings as they are today are from the 17th century.  Juichimen Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy is worshipped here and she is thought to help in the ease of childbirth.  For this reason (perhaps?) there are elevators and escalators to ease the visit for the many pregnant woman who come.

My friend Melcorka at conveyor belt sushi.   The belt moves through the entire restaurant,  a yummy train of fish and rice deliveries.  
It was great to be on a bike again, something very familiar to me.  I was reminded of solitary rides through Cincinnati's hills and along Madison's lakes while I was in high school, college, and grad school–a way of exploring and claiming independence.  And even more so I was reminded of social rides with friends in Madison, biking 15 miles for ice cream, apples, conversation, fields of butterflies, and learning more about the surroundings of the city and one another.  This is a way of exploring to which I am accustomed.  It's something that I've brought with me, just like my sense of productivity and proactive curiosity.  What would the Japanese do if they newly arrived in Japan?  How would they explore their own country?

But in the end I'm not Japanese.  Perhaps I'll come to understand a little better and have some idea of answering that question, but for now the world looks beautiful from a bike.  And it's something that Japanese people do- they bike.  Perhaps they do it to run errands and perhaps they have a slightly slower pace, but even if our motives are different, I like to think that I'm one step closer to appearing to blend in.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Tatami rooms

We had our first performance with the HPAC full orchestra today in Taka-cho, a small town in the Hyogo Prefecture.  Apparently it is typical to do nearly an entire run-through of the program for the sound check.  We touched almost every note of the concert today before we played it in the performance.  And we will play these pieces again, and possibly again.  Apparently this is also quite normal.  It made me think of Suzuki's method of repetition.  Doing things over and over and over time they become more settled and secure.  It is nice not to have to judge the success of a single performance because there will be another chance.  Steady effort.  Faith in good work.  After a concert everyone says, "Ostukaresama desu," which is a way of saying good work, nice job.  The stem word, "tsukare" actually has connotations of effort.  In essence, this phrase praises hard work.  It's not about talent, or the luck of the performance, but the work that went into it.

When we got back I spent some time studying Japanese and getting groceries before going to one of the member's apartments for a surprise party.

Perhaps there is something about tatami rooms, or paper walls, or having everyone seated on the floor around a low kotatsu table.  Maybe it's the fact that even a month later, a member's birthday wasn't going uncelebrated or that the group silences didn't feel awkward.  Perhaps it was the mix of Japanese snacks, Mexican style.  I'm not sure what it was, but there was something very warm in the gathering.  I'm really looking forward to playing with these people, to rehearsing with them more than we are accustomed, to spending time with them in a small tatami room.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Nishiwaki walk

The orchestra tends to have rehearsals from 10:30 am- 4:30 pm.  This may seem like a lot but with a 75 minute lunch break and two 20 minute breaks, it's only slightly over four hours of actual rehearsal.  The rest of our time is ours.  This leaves time for exploratory walks.

Close-up of rice, growing in its flooded field

Guard of the shrine- ready for a meal?

Japanese Cemetery

Shinto shrine in Nishiwaki; this is the hondon where the spirit is enshrined;  according to wikipedia, shrines often exist in networks which share the same spirit, and according to descriptions of shrines on wikipedia, I think this one might be to Inari (

entrance to walk up the mountain; most likely this is a shrine whose spirit is contained within the mountain and there are likely other shrines along the path; it was getting dark so I didn't go up all the way

right outside the hondon

these two pictures leading up to the shrine reminded me of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, but a little bit different; perhaps it is in their suggestive rationale; I think it's more fun not knowing what the Japanese means and I encourage you to find your own explanation

A car, a broken guardrail, a happy man emerging from the car in the tree.....and a flaming god;  apparently, according to a friend this is a shrine for drivers. Fudo-myoo is a Buddhist deity (wisdom king) who cuts through delusion, and is often the focal point in many shrines and temples

I almost bought this but think I will give my stomach a few more weeks to become slightly more adjusted
I came home and watched Japanese baseball while eating "seafood noodles,"  and renken chips.  Japanese baseball appears to be far less polished than American baseball.  Pop-up balls fall to the field and batters swing at balls that hit the dirt.  But it makes for a great game.  They even have cheerleaders and when someone gets a home run they are greeted with a giant stuffed animal (?) as they cross the plate.  Hoping to get to a live game before the season ends.

Tomorrow we have a performance of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings and Dvorak's Symphony from the New World.  It's been fun to rehearse and to hear the colors of the orchestra.  And it's been nice to explore another corner of Japan.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


Today we started a three day visit to Taka-cho, a small town about 2 hours away from Takarazuka.  We came by bus through the country hills filled with rices paddies and small homes and arrived at the hall where we'll be performing.  After our rehearsal, the people in the town held a reception at the hall which included delicious food, an amazing Taiko drum performance, and mochi making.  

the bus to Taka-cho
Verde Concert Hall in the middle of rice paddies

Taiko drumming
Pounding rice to make mochi

After taking my turn pounding the rice, I picked up the delicious fruits of our labor, seen here in the foreground

Our conductor, Maestro Sato, making mochi

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Laban in Japan

What is sincere communication?

Do I know what I'm saying when I speak and do I really listen when others speak?   Or have our words fallen into such a predictable pattern that we speak in parallel lines, never intersecting?

Tonight we had our first concert at HPAC.  It was a string chamber orchestra concert and we played in a recital hall which surrounded our tightly packed stage with a tightly packed audience.   We all entered together, rather than warming up individually on stage, and the affect was that we and the audience met each other in our entirety.  I looked out to a sea of beautiful Japanese faces, waiting to share something with us in such close proximity.

Why is music important?  What is it that makes people come to hear us and what is it that makes us want to play?

In daily conversations, there are certain words and phrases and breeches of privacy which are appropriate, and others that are not.  Are we listening, or just filling in the space?  Is it enough or do we want more?

I think that people want more.  I think they want to know one another and to be known.  But it is so confusing, all the words that define us so inaccurately.  The words that make us think that a day was good or bad, or that we or other people are one way or another.  For the sake of clarity we have created a black and white space with our words and we communicate through it, but how can this satisfy our inner needs which are far more nuanced?

I feel like most of my endeavors in life have some impetus from wanting to be closer to people.  I will always occupy my own body and be myself and nothing can physically change that fact.  I can be no other than me.  But I have always been curious about other people.  I even remember when I was very little, wanting to be another person, just out of curiosity.  What is it like?  Who are the people around us?

It is a privilege to be a musician, especially in a time when I am struggling to communicate through language with the people around me.  Language is so valuable; but in the face of the power of music, I am reminded of its shortcomings and abuses.  I want to learn Japanese, but tonight reminded me that I can cultivate a sincere communication with those who want to listen.  And I can listen to them listening.  I can listen to them wanting and needing a deeper sense of belonging than daily language can express, transcending the space between one person and another.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Night Rice Paddies

Japan is a magical place.  I don't think it will ever fully reveal itself to me.

A new friend took me on a walk to discover some open spaces in the neighborhood, something not so easy to find in Japan.  We walked through playgrounds and gardens and areas of respite, all along the reflective water and then down a little alley into the rice paddies.  Grassy stalks in water and our little path cutting through them in the night, the smell of rice unveiling.

Sometimes, in this new place, I can feel myself put up a protective wall.  I can feel myself holding on to the way that "I" am, things that I need and values by which I live.  And I've felt these clash with Japanese values or with the Japanese way of living.  These range from the personal inconveniences of 6-way garbage sorting to the feeling of relinquishing some of my personal individual expression for the sake of not offending anyone.  But as I let down the wall I see more clearly what had caused me to reflexively clinch and it invites more curiosity.  I haven't bought aluminum foil for cooking because it's too much hassle to dispose of it properly.  The same of plastic bags and paper towels.  The garbage system disincentivizes consumption and I've started to ask myself what it is that I really need, and what can I avoid consuming.  My fear of personal expression has led me to look more closely at the people around me and to see how varied they are as individuals.  I've come to appreciate the many ways that they express themselves and I look to them for encouragement in my own personal expression as I try to be respectful of the rituals and expectations of their culture.

I'm aware that I'm a child here.  A child doesn't yet know that some things are good and others are bad until someone tells them so.   As Japan slowly becomes more familiar to me, as I come to learn more verb conjugations and subway lines, I want to take the opportunity to observe what this culture prefers and how it acts without assigning a right and wrong to it.  As an outsider I have the liberty to observe without becoming immersed.  

But for this reason I wonder if I inherently relinquish my ability to ever fully touch Japan.  If I live Japan objectively, it is not a subjective experience.  The thing that clouds our own culture from ourselves is also what makes it a part of us.  I know that I'm American, but I don't know that I will ever really understand what that means or what that is.  It's just something in me.

And yet we can cultivate something without it losing its mystery.  How is this so?  We come to know another person, and we come to know that they can never be fully known to us.  We come to know a piece or a poem or a painting, and yet it is still more and more magical.  I've been a musician for over two decades and I still don't understand it.  Perhaps what there is to understand simply becomes larger the more I open myself to it.

And so I think I can try to put down the protective wall that wants to keep myself intact and keep Japan an objective magical mystery.  I think I can open myself to it more fully without the danger of either of us losing ourselves.