Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Is there a limit to the number of experiences a person can contain?  Or their depth?  How many places can one go before they cease to tug at one's identity?  How many people can one love before they cannot love any more?  Does the space for these things grow larger the more we do?  How do these changes affect the heart?

Whether it is the space travelled over the globe, or the transformations that happen within, people encounter so many things, so many places, so many relationships, so many changes.  And they experience so many challenges, most without their knowing.

And if we may not know all the personal things that challenge us, perhaps there are also such things in those around us of which we are unfamiliar. How much can a person carry?

Perhaps it is impossible to know.  Life is challenging.  Time accrues changes and tests the tenacity of the heart.  How do we treat ourselves in the midst of it?  How do we treat others?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Smiley Girl

This morning I saw a little girl, probably 5 years-old, on the sidewalk freely swinging her arms and spinning in circles.  As I came closer I saw her shirt had writing in English.  I wonder if she knew that it said, "Smiley Girl, Your special magic day."  Yes, yes indeed.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Morning Construction

I woke up this morning and recognized that I hadn't quite slept off the weariness I had taken with me to bed the night before.  Perhaps it's too much Feldenkrais, or the changing seasons, but like my arms and legs, it cannot be removed at my wishing.  I can only explore it and see how it is a part of me.  And as I made my bed, I thought of welcoming it, like welcoming the fall.  An indication and an opportunity for change, reorganization, and growth.

Right now I feel the change of seasons and am enjoying the accruing colors of fall.  I feel that a part of me is under construction, and I'm curious to see what comes of it.  What will I keep and what will be cleared?  What am I learning about the relationships that I have and the ones that I'm making?  What am I learning about teaching in the absence of it?  About communication, about people, about myself?  Things are shifting, being cleared and sowed.

Some mornings feel this way.  And then I look up and realize I'm on my bike on a corner in Japan.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

だんだん。Dandan.  Gradually.
紅葉。Kouyou.  Fall leaves.
内部。Naibu.  Inside.
春。Haru.  Spring

Saturday, October 27, 2012


Moss and tofu, two things made magical in Kyoto.

Saihõ-ji is located in southwester Kyoto and is perhaps better known as Koke-dera, or the "moss temple."  It was reputedly founded in the Nara period (710-794) but has gone through several transformations in its evolution from a royal retreat to a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple.  The moss which covers the gardens around the eastern part of the temple, likely arrived during the Meiji Era, due to insufficient funds to keep the grounds.  But it is certainly welcome and cared for now, with upwards to 120 varieties surrounding the lake.  The lake itself is in the shape of the kanji character for "heart" or "mind."

Reflect in the pond of the moss garden

moss around a tree
beginning of fall
It's a truly beautiful place, perhaps made more so by the limitations placed on tourism.  In order to enter, one must mail an application and wait for a postcard reply with the date and time that you will be permitted to enter. (Many thanks again, to friends in the orchestra organizing this.)  The time varies, so one can't assume travel plans.  The cost is more expensive than other temples at 3,000 yen (roughly $35), and once there, one is required to sit zazen, or copy a sutra.  The latter was our task.  We sat on the floor at tiny desks in a room full of other people, and traced the heart sutra with a brush and ink that we mixed in a little tray on the floor.  About halfway through our work, we stopped as monks and those able recited the sutra at a brisk and monotone pace, three times, accompanied by a seemingly unsystematic bell and a continuous drum.  

The Heart Sutra
The sutra that we copied was the Heart Sutra and I only know of its meaning through what people have told me and the internet.  It is part of the Perfection of Wisdom category of Mahayana Buddhism and apparently speaks of the emptiness of the phenomena that we perceive.  We cannot truly comprehend the reality of truth.

I copied and listened to to an incomprehensible skeleton of words.  How often do we have the opportunity?  Doing something for the sake of doing it.  No pictures allowed, no way to cheat the present moment, and the resulting gratitude for being there.

listening to a man speaking and the sound of crickets,
waiting for enlightenment
Following our walk of the gardens we took a side trip to the the Kegon-ji (Suzumushidera) or cricket temple.  Before entering these gardens we sat for a very long time in a large room of people listening to more incomprehensible words, this time reportedly about the wishes that are granted to the people who have entered (and perhaps that have bought the temple trinkets).  There was green tea and a sweet for everyone.

runner-pulled rickshaw
 We went back to the bus stop and rode to a bridge over a huge river.  We walked around for a bit and saw some of the shops and the runner-pulled rickshaws, before getting on a bus to ride across town to the Gion district where we would be having dinner.  Luckily we had plenty of time to stroll through several shrines, parks, and shops on the way, getting a taste of one of Kyoto's more famous districts.

chopstick store

lanterns at shrine

headed into the Gion District

the moon in Kyoto 
dessert shop with  suspended weight glass displays

exiting shrine to the busy streets of modern Kyoto

It was a beautiful evening to walk through the streets of Kyoto and take in some of the many colors and feelings that it could share.

And then we finally reached the time and place of our dinner reservation.   It was more than worth the 4100 yen and I think it's taught me that dining in Japan–the nature of the food, its presentation, the amount, the experience–is worth the cost.  There are always more little dishes of deliciousness on the way and all beautifully served.  It's hard to feel dissatisfied, but I think I may keep trying.

Three deliciously seasoned presentations of tofu

Steamed tofu with onions, ginger and soy sauce added to your liking;
 grilled tofu with seasoning
Each person had their own pot of steamed tofu over a flame

tempura shrimp, mushrooms, peppers, with sauce and salt seasoning

sticky (almost like mochi) rice with seasonings;
soup with fish balls and cabbage (?)

matcha, a small but thick serving, and a sticky delicious goo with soybean powder
really delicious finish to an incredible dinner

Kyoto is so beautiful.  It seems to breathe magic into the mundane.  I'm looking forward to another visit.  And most likely many more.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Getting Closer (Preamble to a Day in Kyoto)

I went to Kyoto today with several friends from the orchestra.  I'll write more about it tomorrow because there was so much to take in for one day, so many pictures to share, incredible experiences, sights, and tastes and I've returned home quite late.  But it was an incredible experience.  I really enjoyed the company and am enjoying the exploration of Japan more and more.  This morning, before we left, I went to the river to practice Tae Kwon Do and the Japanese woman that had come to speak to me two weeks ago stopped by again.  It's so wonderful to feel the door of this country slowly opening more and more, bit by bit.  As I learn more words, see more places, tastes new foods, make new friends- it's a really beautifully thing.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


The leaves are just starting to turn here, ever so gradually.  Fall is so patient, so gentle, as though waiting for us to fetch our coats and socks before arriving.  Who will go first?  Is it possible that the Japanese people have effected their climate?  Solitary striking red, subtle within a still green tree.  Orange, slowly soaking its way down the branches.  It seems as though time is withdrawing and everything is suspended in the midst of change.  How is this fall different from any other?  How is it the same?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ice Cream

I'm not the first to notice that Japan has some unfortunately delicious prepackaged ice cream.  Lingering lunch breaks invite a 120 yen surcharge from the canteen vending machine.  Creamy sweetness, appropriately portioned so as to neither zap your caloric intake for the day, nor leave you groggy for the afternoon.  A winning decision before an afternoon rehearsal or Wakuwaku concert.

Having become privy to this non-sushi splendor of the Japanese diet, it never caught my surprise to hear the universal chimes of the ice cream truck in the narrow apartment roadways.  Thankfully, it seemed, no place on earth was without the harkening music box melodies of spontaneous sweetness.  It took me back to childhood summers.  The game of hearing the coming truck, quickly convincing parents that it was necessary to donate a dollar, and catching it before the doppler effect whisked it by your front door.  Of course there was always the swimming pool, effectively making use of the 15 minute adult lap swim time to run outside the entrance to the sweet embrace of endless electronic calliope.  So many fond memories of the ice cream truck and the summer days that it symbolizes.

And so comforted to hear it's sweet strains here in Japan.  Perhaps so much so that I never bothered to notice a lack of outdoor public swimming pools, or children running to greet it.  Nor did I notice the odd hours that it kept.

Until this morning, I had an assumption about ice cream trucks in Japan, making a superlative dessert in the country accessible to children everywhere.  As I was riding my bike to the hall, around 9am, I heard it from around the corner and looked forward to my first encounter of seeing one live.  I envisioned kawaii (cute) smiley faces on dancing ice creamsicles.

What I could not have been less prepared for was the garbage truck.  Crushed, like the bags of whatever-today's-garbage-was.

Having found videos of this online, a Chinese one seems to suggest that the function of this music is to signal when people can bring out their garbage, avoiding stinky accrual on the street.  This doesn't seem to happen here, at least not in this part of Japan.  A video of a Japanese garbage truck, pink and pleasant.  They don't even really smell.

While I'm happy that the Japanese have made even garbage aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable, I have to say that a small childish part of me is slightly disappointed.  Perhaps it's best though.  At least I discovered this before running after the garbage truck with my spare change.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Monday, October 22, 2012

Discount Groceries

Apart from hovering over the bulk foods sections of grocery stores, I have a hard time remembering what I ate in my daily life in in the States.  Surely it must have been more than yogurt, muesli and mixed nuts.  Perhaps it's the cheapness of produce in America that has made me forget several food groups that were more available.  Ahh, the times when an apple was less than $2, maybe even less than 50 cents.  It's funny how new places will bring in new habits, almost without notice.  I eat a lot of kiwis now, and this evening I just ventured my first persimmon.  I also eat a lot more fresh fish and soba noodles; seaweed, sesame seeds, and soy sauce accent salads, soups and entrees, alike.  And I've taken to trying something new at every grocery excursion.  For lunch today I had a green goo sauce over my broccoli and soba noodles.  It was delicious, this green goo.  I have no idea what it was but it came from a packet, from a box, from the discount section of the grocery store- why didn't anyone else want it?  Same deal with, "Let's make dessert with milk."

"Let's make dessert with milk!"

I'm becoming experienced with discount days and discount hours.  In addition to practicing Japanese, I'm hoping to one day become a virtuoso grocery store shopper.  At the Coop across the street they ritually mark down sushi and some fish 50% at 7:50pm.  There's a rush of gaijin (foreigners) and elderly Japanese people around this time, as we compete for the cheapest and best selections.  We hover over the open fridge in a social gray zone of self-interest and communal respect:  who will make the first move?  On Mondays, the Kansai Super grocery store is 10% off and includes lots of children and bumper carts.  I've also noticed that at some point eggs are marked down by 50% but I haven't detected the pattern (I'm confident that one exists).   And, though small, there's always a rack of discount produce.  There are certain days at the Coop where you get more points for shopping which then (theoretically...) translate to coupons in the mail.  But then these days are usually scant of the day-end unwanted sushi and fish markdowns.

So one just has to learn to play the cards and keep eyes open.  Today I noticed that broccoli was 50% off before the Japanese woman next to me.  Sometimes it's better not to be able to understand all the extraneous information surrounding the important stuff.  Even if I don't read Japanese, I can still see a bargain.  And even though I might ending up getting something a little questionable, something that no one else seems to want, the experience is usually worth the yen, and may even prove to be delicious.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dancing Lines (a Kaneko morning and thoughts of home)

Today's Japanese lesson started in German.  I stared at Kaneko-san's lips trying to find a glimmer of sense, a word, a phrase, a sound to which I could cling and even half-honestly nod my head and say, "Hai."  Nothing.  Perhaps it was the accent, or my admittedly modest grasp of German.  Or maybe it was just context and expectation.  When we finally got on the same page (and how did that happen, did it ever happen?) I found myself trying to explain to him why I had attended three universities and the fact that, despite being a woman, I don't actually do a lot of shopping for clothes for which I need to understand large numbers of Japanese yen.  I pointed to the holes in my beloved 7-year-old black shirt.

I handed him my weekly "sakubun" in which I wrote about getting up in the morning, things that I did yesterday morning, or last evening, things that I do everyday, etc.  (It was the topic of a chapter in one of my books.)  "AicheePahKuuNoHohRuu....kaishyawa?" he asked.  "Hai," I answered.  ("HPAC Hall is my company," to which I bike everyday.)  We're totally on the same page.  I think he understands what Tae Kwon Do is, or at least I think he understands that I do sports.  Which is mostly true.  It's true in the same way that HPAC Hall is my company.  I think we're getting somewhere.  We're getting into some sort of rhythm of learning, even if one of us is behind the beat and the other ahead.  And even if those roles aren't really clear and seem to change from lesson to lesson, or minute to minute.  Two curved lines, dancing a parallel dance.

Just as I've come to feel a little more at home in Japan, I think I'm also coming to feel a tinge of homesickness.  Perhaps it makes sense that these two things would arrive together.  Perhaps the Russians brought it with them, tucked in their suggestion that the world is a place larger and more kaleidoscopic than I ever imagined and that home is something far more elusive than an address or nationality.  Somehow it makes sense that home resides within a person, even if that place is something  inside of them that resides on different ground than their feet.  But then what is it?  I find myself not only removed from a place that was familiar, but from a way of life.  Things are so simple here.  Unable to fully interact with my community and to take advantage of the space around me, I'm left with time.  And a question of identity.  I'm no longer a cello teacher, no longer a community organizer, no longer a student.  In the interstice of provocative cultural experiences, this time in Japan is providing me a sort of long term vacation from "myself."  What is left?  Surely we are not merely the things that we put on a CV or profile page.  Surely we are more than the things that we say, or that we think or believe.  But then who are we?  If we accept ourselves, and love ourselves, what is it that we accept and love?  And if we feel love for another person, what is it in them that we love?  Is it a body, or a mind, or an attitude, or a skill, or a mindset...?  It is an unfamiliar place to tread, as unfamiliar as the external world around me.  Who am I and who are you?  And how do we interact in a way that transcends the circumstances that define us?  Somewhere in there is home, infinitely familiar and infinitely unknowable.  Maybe it's those same curved lines, doing their parallel dance.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


It's overwhelming how diverse the world is.  There are so many languages that I don't know,  so many spoken words that I don't understand.  And each culture has their own accent.  Playing with a Russian orchestra, meant playing in a completely different style.  Deep in the string, intense vibrato, slow bow, nasal woodwind sound, bright brass, conducting that eludes a pulse.  To an outsider it's a different type of music, one with it's own cultural accent.  That things aren't together, seems to be no matter.  It's hard to understand how it works, how it holds together, but somehow it does.

And when the Russians entered through the back of the hall I suddenly felt that they were coming into my home, as though I, myself, were Japanese.  Suddenly I felt so much closer to the Japanese members of the orchestra, and so much more comfortable hearing Japanese than Russian.  I wondered if the Russians liked Japan,  and I suddenly realized the feeling behind this question that is usually directed at me when I first meet a Japanese person.   A very small part of me is starting to feel like this is my home.

The conductor, Vladimir Fedoseyev, smiled inwardly and trusted the orchestra.  He said very little, and while his beat was indecipherable (seemingly to the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, as well) the intent was unmistakable.  How does one translate the feeling of a harmony into a hand movement?

It was a novel experience in the midst of novel experiences.  I now have a desire to go to Russia to see where these people came from, these people that speak another language, and look in a different way.  They have another world, different from any I've yet seen, one with it's own explanation for things, with its own understanding of the world and people.  Even their music sounds like them.  It's familiar but colored very differently.

What does it smell like in Russia, how are things spaced, how does time feel?  Things are so different in Japan from America.  Little things in daily life, things to which I am becoming accustomed.  How many different ways can one live?

Stage set for more than 90 string players (plus the winds, brass, and percussion)

lots of bass

Russian wardrobe 

24 first violins and 15 celli
(including my stand partner in the foreground)

Vladimir Fedoseyev

Friday, October 19, 2012

Public Transit Generalizing

I'm finding new ways of not being grumpy about days when, because I have my cello or don't have my bike, I can't ride to the hall.  One of them is to appreciate a different cross-section of Japanese culture that I get to experience when I'm on the bus and train.  I really like the river people (kappa included) but there are things that one gets to see and hear on the bus that simply aren't available on the bike.  Apart from deciphering the kana on advertisements and wondering what version of thank you will be personally bestowed upon you by the bus driver, there are many things to take in from fellow commuters.  Today I noticed an interesting trend in footwear (the manner not the matter) on the the bus.

rejection of footwear
The Japanese are known to have slippers available in many establishments and perhaps it's for this reason that they are quick to wish to remove their shoes.  There are no slippers on the bus, but after years of assiduously removing footwear, it's only natural that it would happen even when slippers are not available.  Of course the above is more an example of how easy it is to make a generalization as a foreigner based on some chance coincidence, but personally being one who is quick to remove footwear, I like to feel that I have found a home to which my feet belong.

And as a group of cute children boarded the train (they were out in droves this morning), I might have thought that they all wear white hats.

group cute children
But previous experience has taught me otherwise.

cluster of cute children
So it's very tricky to make generalizations about these things.  All I can be certain of is that I enjoy removing my shoes and am happy when I see others condoning this sometimes socially questionable practice, and that the only common denominator for Japanese children riding on the trains is undeniable cuteness.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rain to Tchaikovsky

We finished yesterday's Wakuwaku concerts and a few hours later were cradled in the sound of falling rain.  A sound that condones the cessation of all activity.  I listened.  Tea and soup and quiet time away from the Radetzky March.

Tomorrow we have a rehearsal for an all-Tchaikovsky program that we will be playing on Saturday with the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, a Russian orchestra founded in 1930.  It's a side-by-side concert, which means I'll be one of 15 cellos and share a stand with one of the cellists from the TSO.  Additionally I think there are about 40 violins and probably 15-20 violas.  This is extremely large for a string section, maybe twice the normal size.  Their conductor, Vladimir Fedoseyev has been with them since 1974, nearly four decades, including the break-up of the USSR.  I don't know that I've ever worked with a Russian conductor that close to older traditions, nor can I call to mind the last time I played with an entire Russian cello section.  I'm looking forward to a unique musical experience.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

River Doll Answers

I had thought that the river doll would remain a mystery until my final farewell to Japan when all the planets would align and the answer would descend upon me from the firmament.  In a similar scenario, our dear personnel manager called after me as I left the office and invited me back in.  Inside, on a shelf near the communal laptops and printer sat a little carton with a picture of a little character.  A little character that she identified as the doll by the river.  A little character called, "Hanakappa," which she explained, is a children's cartoon show.    Below is a comparison of the character and the picture I took at the river.

Sugoi!  I was very grateful for this information.  But why did this woman leave it by the river???

"Hana" means flower (in reference to the cartoon's top), and the "kappa" is a mythical Japanese of the river!  They can be very mischievous and evil or helpful if befriended.  People may try to appease them when swimming in order to keep from drowning.  You can find out a lot of interesting things about the kappa (including their favorite sushi roll!) in this wikipedia article.

Was this a shrine of sorts to the kappa of this river?  Or perhaps this woman comes from the Saga Prefecture of the far south, where most kappa are said to live, and was homesick.  Perhaps she erected this little doll as a reminder, or perhaps to lure some of her southern river friends up to Hyogo.  I don't think there's any way for me to learn more about the reasons for its apparence or her feelings about it.  I'm content to leave those with her.  

Many questions were answered today, though many mysteries remain.  I still haven't figured out what happened to the wasabi seaweed.  But can't get too greedy–all in time.  Perhaps they'll serve it on the flight home.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Wakuwaku Breakout

In each of the Wakuwaku concerts, there is a period where we introduce the instruments of the orchestra.  Each section, or instrument, has the opportunity to play about 45 seconds of something to show the kids what the instrument sounds like.  And this can be different (or the same) for each concert.  It's a really enjoyable part of the concert, because we get to hear the creativity and talent of our compatriots and it's a chance for us to do whatever we want.  Today, the cello section played Bach in the morning, and Cee Lo Green in the afternoon.  Other selections from the various member of the orchestra have included (but are certainly not limited to) Amazing Grace, If I Were a Rich Man, O Danny Boy, second bassoon excerpts specially arranged for audition prep, A Whole New World, video game arrangements, It's Friday (that happened on Friday) and the tubist's perennial We Will Rock You, complete with a new middle section for every concert and a sincerely satirical series of kisses to the entire hall of 13-year-olds.

It's fun to hear what people come up with and it's really fun to hear how a song can traverse time and place and take on new meaning in a new context.  A trans-Atlantic slave ship captain's song has made it to Japan.  A youtube pop song virtuosically performed by two trumpet players.  A Disney hit from the horn section.  I always look forward to this part of the concert.  It's a chance for the orchestra members to take something into their own hands, sometimes with great grace and beauty, and sometimes with great humor.  All for the sake of youth, well, and maybe a bit for ourselves.

Monday, October 15, 2012

FDR in Japan

This afternoon I headed back to the river, this time with a different set of characters on the opposite river bank.  I watched as a group of teenage boys alternated between a game of makeshift baseball and a shooting game involving fake guns.  They ran through the low shrubbery and gravel, pointing their guns at one another and I became aware of a feeling of alarm inside of me as I observed this incongruous activity.  People don't have guns in Japan, there is no right to arms and gun crime is practically nonexistent.  One of the Japanese members of the orchestra has said that she is afraid to go to America for fear of being shot.

I understand.  I've gotten so used to the safety of Japan, where all forms of crime are quite low.  But I'm not afraid of being shot in America.  Perhaps I've become acquainted with the dull murmur of fear that such an event could happen.  I'm more afraid of earthquakes in Japan, something that doesn't seem to faze the Japanese.   They've become acquainted with this looming possibility in the same way I've apparently become accustomed to the presence of guns in my culture.

Fear is such a strange thing, hard to quantify and hard to qualify.  There are these outside fears, that seem reasonable to some extent, but obviously it becomes possible to manage them over time.  Are they really reasonable in the first place?  Perhaps this fear reflects more our distrust of those around us or our distrust of the certainty of even mere seconds into the future.  Someone could shoot us, the earth could give way.  So if we can manage them and temper our emotional statistical reading of our world, how much of fear is externally influenced and how much can we internally control it?

Since coming here, I'm aware of my fear of infringing on the space of others, of offending them, of being disrespectful.  And yet we all take up space – sometimes we have to bike or swim around someone, sometimes we bump into another person at the grocery store, or have to wait in line.  Perhaps I'm just nudging my way in and hoping that people can move over enough to let me sit next to them.  I think that these fears are not founded in an external place but reflect something inside of me that I'm exploring.  I'm encouraged by the friendliness of those that I regularly meet by the river or at the swimming pool.  And I'm strengthened in my own endeavors to learn the language of those around me and to step out of my comfort zone when I do in fact know how to ask where the seaweed is in the grocery store.

It can be hard to recognize that something is a source of fear.  Of all the external causes to which we can point our finger, most likely there is an internal correlate that needs our attention to help dissolve the dangers and threats of the world and its people.  Maybe we are afraid of losing something, or being lonely.  Maybe we are afraid of rejection from another person or perhaps even from ourselves.  And how does this make us act?  Do we shy away, do we put up our fists?  What do we do in the face of fear that we recognize?  Or of fear that we have yet to discover or acknowledge?  How does this effect the way that we treat other people?  How does it effect our control of our decisions and actions?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Friends at the City Pool

For some reason, the swimming pool seems to make people really friendly.  Of the five or six times that a stranger has spoken to me in English since I've been in Japan, four or five of these times have been in the four visits I've made to the city pool.  Not only this, but the people that we've met at the pool seem very interested in exchanging names, coming to concerts, learning more English.  It may also be my very friendly swimming mate who brings out the best in the Japanese people, but whatever the reason, it's become an added plus to making the 10 minute bike ride to the pool.  Between 6:30 and 8:30, one can swim for a 400 yen admission.  Included in the price are the loan of some classy green plastic slippers (which one may opt to forgo), a free shower and use of the blow dryer, and priceless exchanges in locker rooms and shared lanes.  Perhaps the winner thus far was Aoki's Argentine tango dancing as she dried her hair last Thursday.  She mentioned that she came on Sundays (nichiyoubi) as well and we wondered if we'd see her again.  This evening she happened to be right behind me in my lane and when I came to the end and paused, she stood up next to me with a huge grin, "Andorea!"  I echoed the sentiment, "Aoki!"  She reached out both hands and held mine between them.  It was as though we were best friends, reunited after a long war.

What brings this warmth to some Japanese people?  Their excitement and sincerity is contagious and beautiful.  And I wonder how often it lives in those that don't express it, or if there is a reason that certain places engender that feeling more than others.  Is it the shared water or shared skin?  Or is it just the shared lift in time that a leisurely activity brings, inspiring small talk and pursuant curiosity?

For 400 yen, I'll take it.  Nichiyoubi, mokuyoubi, any youbi.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Concert for Akuradanchi

A rehearsal and a bento box,
A concert and free beer, 
Today's performance for the Akura crowd,
Was met with mirthful cheer.  

We left our street shoes at the door,
Just socks and slippers now,
Inside the humble meeting house,
Where even the audience bow.

Mozart, Joplin, Amazing Grace,
A song from Totero,
Octets and popular Japanese tunes,
That someday I may know.

For what great purpose, what small pleasure
Had we all gathered there?
Most surely it could not be measured,
Though it graced the neighborly air.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Akuradanchi Days

Today it is chilly, fall is coming closer.  My hands smell like sand and smoke from the BBQ in the park around the corner.  A grill full of sausages, hamburgers and graced with Kobe beef, hot dog buns cut on the top to most appropriately (if not sacrilegiously) accomodate hot dogs.  A spread of snacks and and sweets including fish roe potato chips and rice crackers.  Conversations held in two first languages, and many second languages.  Will I ever understand Japanese?

Tomorrow we will perform a small chamber music concert for the people in our apartment building.  Whether this is a peace offering, a meet and greet, a gift, or some combination of these things, I'm not sure, but I'm looking forward to more formally meeting my neighbors.  An occasion apart from bowing my head as I take out my garbage and awkward encounters in the stair well.  And then we'll have a few days without obligations at the hall.  Looking forward to some time in the neighborhood.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

River Balloon Doll, Day Two

I admit that shrouded in the mystery of yesterday's river offering was a tinge of self-centered concern.  Afraid that I had offended my river partner and that this was her way of sending me some abstruse message that I cannot translate or comprehend, I pondered what I could possibly do.  I am very conscious of not offending anyone to the greatest of my ability, but I constantly feel like a child, breaking rules that I haven't yet learned.  And rules are often surprising and the communication of expectations is often less clear than I can catch.  Even if we could speak the same language,  how would it help? There is a river between us.  How could I find her to ask?  Was I offending her and should I stop practicing Tae Kwon Do?  My found freedom under this tree was not worth giving up for an unsubstantiated feeling.  But how to substantiate it one way or the other with no way to engage in a dialogue?  What to do?

Out of curiosity for her daily routine when I am not practicing Tae Kwon Do, I decided to go to the river early this morning, on my rest day, and just sit.  At first I thought I had missed her, or that she had stayed away from the rain last night.  But then, sometime around 7:45am, she appeared with her little white dog.  Rather than look at her, I continued to meditate, to maintain and respect our mutual fourth wall.  Perhaps five minutes later I wondered if she was still there and I took a break in my focus to change to walking. She was there, petting her dog, and had righted the tipped balloon doll from yesterday's wind.  And then she walked off, having stayed very little time, as usual.

It was a moment of relief for me to have had this peace with her, or some confirmation of shared respect for our mutual space.  That she could go about her activities on her own terms, whatever they may mean to her, and that they can be unhindered by my presence.  Perhaps I had made a bigger deal of the situation, but in the midst of my over-concern I think I learned a lot.  Something about persisting in your presence, but with respect.  Something about learning to carry on even, when something is frowning at you and telling you to go home.  Something about learning that this voice is actually coming from inside, and not across the river.  And then wondering where the source of that voice and feeling really lie.

After sitting for another 30 minutes, I was just getting ready to stand when a woman appeared on my left.  She had walked over to me and started to talk to me.  Of course, there was a lot of awkward non-understanding, but I love these exchanges, as uncomfortable as they are in a way.  It's a practice of opening in the midst of discomfort and connecting with someone in a very pure way.  Looking them in the eyes and telling them with your thoughts how thankful you are that they are there, talking to you.  She asked if I was practicing yoga and I said yes, for lack of a more clearly articulated rendering of my activities.  She had obviously walked along the path when I was practicing Tae Kwon Do and she kept patting her chest. "Heart," "Hope," "Dream," "Fighter."  I'm not sure the sum of these words and wish there were some verbs to help, but I'm appreciative of them, nonetheless.  We had a really friendly and warm exchange and I had her write down some of these things in kanji so that I could later look them up.  And she also wrote information about me that I had told her, so that I could study it.

Biking home with a friend today I was once again asked what my favorite thing was about Japan.  It's a large question, perhaps no real answer for it.  But I most certainly enjoy these sorts of moments.  Getting closer to something very foreign and finding it to be so familiar.  Exchanges by the river and across the river.  Bridging some gap, perhaps not with knowing or understanding, but certainly with good will.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mysterious River Offerings

Every morning around 7:30 am, a woman comes to the opposite side of the river with her little white dog.  She practices very yoga briefly and then walks back along the river, out of sight.  The first morning I saw her I was practicing Tae Kwon Do and kihopping, and I shortly discovered that her dog was quite responsive to the sound.  As much as I enjoyed having this communication, I continued with a quiet practice in order not to disturb her, and have subsequently done this whenever she arrives.  For the past week I have practiced in the afternoons and have thus not seen her, but this morning I went to the river again and as expected, she arrived around 7:30 am.  I lowered my voice and continued to practice as she moved to the spot where she prefers to stretch.  But this morning, she put in place a small blow-up doll.  I thought it was for her dog, but the dog took no interest.  I thought it was for her, but she left it after being there for less than 5 minutes.  And then it continued to stare (frown?) at me as I resumed my practice.  It was still there this afternoon when I biked home, though tossed a bit by the wind.  Why did she leave it?  Who is this character?  What does it mean??

mystery man

A further mystery of today is the location of the wasabi seaweed in the grocery that I had recently discovered and grown to love.  Has it moved to another aisle?  Have they discontinued it?  It's been a very perplexing and somewhat troubling day....

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Morning Routine (Fourth Wall)

This morning I rode my bike past an open window and heard the sound of clinking dishes.  I imagined the clearing of a breakfast table, or perhaps the setting of it.  And I felt so close.  I shared something so intimate, unintentionally.  Something that even close friends don't get to share.  Morning routines.  Rituals carried out for no one other that oneself and those with whom you live.  And the biker that happens to be passing by at just the right moment.  Do we choose how close we come to others?  How many sounds and sights offer this sort of intimacy that we just don't see?

I've been thinking a lot about the fourth wall.  I've thought about it in performances, while I practice Tae Kwon Do, when I talk to people, or when I can see that people are looking at me.  In the moment of a conversation and in the course of a relationship, between two people and between two cultures.  What is the purpose of the fourth wall?  Why does it exist and what does it allow to happen on either side of it?  People stare, people watch a concert, someone makes a mistake, someone experiences something personal and intimate.  What is afforded by heeding the fourth wall?  What can it give to both parties?  And when should we realize that it's there and have the courage to break it?

From the other side of the window I was able to share an experience, unseen, without taking away anything from its authenticity.  In this case, the wall was tangible and there was no need to make a decision about whether or not to keep it intact.  I was grateful for the hidden intimacy of a morning routine which brought me a little closer to someone in Japan.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Anticipating Wakuwaku

Today was the beginning of something epic:  the Wakuwaku Youth Concerts.  I have heard about this phenomenon since I arrived–it is the concert that we will play 40 times over the course of the year.  Our resident conductor and passionate leader in this endeavor, Chikara Iwamura, took the time at the beginning of the rehearsal to give us a perspective of the concerts.  At least 1,000 13-year-olds at every concert coming from all over the prefecture in a cultural service not offered in other Japanese prefectures to this degree.  This means at least 40,000 young teenagers (how many 13-year-olds can there be in one prefecture??). I appreciated that he took the time to mention it.  Repetition with no volition is a dreary thing, a different sort of challenge.  It's a challenge for which it is hard to rally inspiration and hidden reserve.  It's the sort of thing that puts one at risk for mental atrophy and emotional apathy.

The music for the program is not challenging and we will have plenty of opportunities to become well-acquainted with it.  Chikara Iwamura reminded us that every time we play it, it will be for a different set of 1,000 teenagers.  He is aware of the challenge.  His preparatory words reveal this.  What will he do about it?  What can we do about it?  Are there 40 different ways to play a concert?  Will we try to do even more than 1?  My guess, given the nature of orchestral playing, is that not much will change, save the instrument demonstrations over which we have control.  Apart from making new arrangements of video game songs for cello sextet for each concert, what can be done to approach this sort of challenge?  Does it count to turn off one's brain and soul in a sort of spiritual body guard fashion?

Perhaps there is a state of mind that will serve this sort of endeavor, one for which I lack much familiarity.  Perhaps finding a different theme on which to focus, personal technique, expressive parameters, etc.  Or perhaps listening to different instruments, orchestration, ear-training exercises, hypermeter, phrasing, etc.  Perhaps it is possible to find a renewed memory of the purpose of the concerts for each performance, the uniqueness of this offering to our audiences and the importance that it has for them.  To me, right now, looking forward to what this will entail, the challenge seems to be a balance of engagement versus disengagement.  In some ways, it is more challenging to engage in something that is so repetitive, and in other ways it is more challenging to disengage because of the effect that disengagement has on your mind, body, and inspirational spirit.  I confess this sort of thing is one of my greatest challenges.  I'm curious to see what it brings and what it can teach me.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Kaneko-san, week 2

It's Sunday.  Sundays are the day of my weekly meeting with the friendly, shoulder-shaking, Noboru Kaneko.  I've learned more Japanese since last week;  I understand more and can say more.  And somehow Kaneko-san had a few more English words with which to communicate (though we still had a few exchanges in German).  Have we improved that much or just gotten more used to our stilted means of communication?  I appreciate his flexibility in allowing me to pick the text book and for correcting assignments that he didn't assign.  I appreciate his smile and the way he looks over my left ear when he talks to me and how he lightly laughs whenever he reaches for his dictionary.  Perhaps this will flatten over the weeks as we start to work more,  as we try to understand one another more.  Perhaps as we become more greedy to make sense of things, we will be less allowing to let them slide in a well-meaning smile.  I hope not.  I hope we can continue to appreciate small strides towards greater clarity and not worry about that which is beyond our grasp.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

First Zazen Sitting

A new friend of mine in the orchestra practices zazen (zen meditation) and invited some of us to sit at a temple in the nearby city of Itami.  After a half-hour urban bike ride we arrived at the temple and a contemplative white dog hardly acknowledged our presence as we stepped through the front gate.  We removed out shoes, filled out a short form with our information, and gave a suggested donation of ¥300.  We were given a 30 minute tutorial on the practice and rituals of the meditation, when to bow, how to sit, how to do the walking meditation, how to think about the breath and to let go of thoughts as they come.  At 10am, a bell rung three times and we began 30 minutes of sitting.  At the end of the period, 2 bells signalled the beginning of the walking meditation, or kinhin, which lasted only briefly and a single bell ended the first half of the morning.

We took a ten minute break where we sat around a table with some others and they all had conversations in Japanese, drinking oolong tea.  A lightly pounded drum called us back to our cushions and we entered the space and began another 30 minutes of seated meditation.  Following this we went back to the table where the head abbot's son asked us to share our experience with zazen while we drank tea.  I was the only one who didn't speak much Japanese so I introduced myself and then motioned to my head and body, trying to signal that I liked the practice because it helped bring the two together.  I'm not sure anyone understood, but they were very friendly.  After sitting in silence for an hour, it was good to hear long conversations, explanations, questions and answers about the practice of zazen, all in Japanese.  I suppose it's appropriate that I couldn't understand it.  I enjoyed just watching and listening.

These pictures were taken by the temple for their facebook page, which is why I have them to post here.

Asking questions about zazen

seated meditation 
I really appreciated that my friend shared this with us.  I feel that I know very little about the practice, its tradition and its history but am very interested in learning more.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Girl on the Train

I took the bus and train to the hall this afternoon to retrieve my cello.  Normally I would bike in every day, but the office is closed so it will be easier to have it in my apartment for the weekend.

On the way back, I nudged myself next to a girl on the subway bench in order to avoid standing with my cello, fancy dress and backpack.  After a minute or two, I realized that she was upset.  Her breath was shallow and quick, her hands were tense, and she was looking down in her lap, hidden under her hat.

Is there some universal gesture, or touch, or gaze, or words, that can communicate comfort?  I've been told of the struggle that many Japanese feel, the pressure of school, the lack of forgiveness for mistakes or failure. Online articles speak of the stigmatization of depression here, that one should just pull it together and carry on with life.  Maybe I see this in the national posture, or maybe I've been primed to see it–I'm not sure.  It's seems quite believable that many people are withholding their feelings and that  living day to day is a little more of a struggle than I see in the West.  It's hard to know with different cultural expressions of feeling, but heads are bowed more often here, eyes to the ground.

Regardless of the national disposition, it has made me think about the people around me.  I respect depression and what it can teach us.  I think there is a lot of self-knowledge to gain in times that are difficult and in the ways that we find to overcome them.  And though I come from a culture that believes in individual self-expression, I respect that there are attributes to group mentality and challenges to living in such a way.

How do I play into this?  I care about the people around me.  I care about the girl sitting next to me and I care about the health of the community.  But to touch her shoulder, to say something, to look at her in any sort of way, I feel this would only cause her more pain for having failed to hide herself.  The best I can do is ignore it.  Is that true?

"We are a part of all we have met."  I've certainly carried that girl with me and she probably has no idea.  In some small way, could she carry a piece of me with her?  If so, what is it that I gave her?  Is it possible to give something to someone without speaking, without looking or touching, without acknowledging their pain or ignoring it?   Perhaps it's circumstance that limits us just as it's circumstance that can bring others to be in such a state.  Perhaps there is little that we can do but to respect our limitations in the same way that we can respect the weight that a person can carry.  But somehow I think it is helpful to be mindful in this manner.  I wish I had been more delicate in sitting down next to her.  In awareness of the disposition of others, we can extend small courtesies that make the world a little softer, and make moving forward a little more manageable.  If nothing else, then perhaps this.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Daimei no nai Ongakukai- Recorded for Japanese Television

Tonight we played a concert for "Daimei no nai Ongakukai," a  weekly music television show which stars our conductor, Maestro Sado.  Recorded for a live audience, our performance this evening covers two shows that will be aired on December 16th and 23th, Sunday mornings at 9am.

After an afternoon of a typical tech rehearsal (play 10 minutes, break for 20, play 15, break for 30....), we put on our best colored concert dresses and began the evening concert with "It's a Small World" conducted by five 6-year-olds.  Japanese children are overly cute and while backstage, my friend Christy decided to engage the young maestri.

Christy teaching young conductors about the basson

Following this endearing spectacle, we played a piece of traditional Bon dance music in which people filled the aisles and children crowded the front of the stage, hypnotically swaying their arms to a tune arranged for orchestra, taiko drum, and cow bell.  Then we played the Radetzky March by Johann Strauss followed by a reprise of Bon dance music.  It's funny to be unable to understand the dialogue which threads these things together.  I'm not sure I'd be able to write copy that sandwiched the Radetzky March between two performances of traditional Japanese dance music, but then I'm neither Japanese nor a writer.  More and more I feel that something making sense is not such an objective matter.

Following this was one of my favorite all-time gimmicks:  pull people from the audience to conduct the orchestra.  Of course the musicians all know the piece well enough that we can do this despite most curve balls that happen on the podium.  It's fun to see how people hear music and how they understand the purpose of conducting.  It's fun to see the way that they move and to hear how this effects the orchestra.  We had three (well, four) winners tonight, all enthusiastic about conducting twenty measures from the last movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony.  First was a middle school girl , who was cheerful and giggly as she spoke to the hosts, but immediately sincere and graceful as she led the orchestra.  We'd hire her.  Second up to bat was a 79-year-old, who gave several of us a scare as he patted his chest before he started.  He got slower and slower and slower as we went through the section, creating a more deliberate and laden interpretation than I ever would have imagined possible.  We all made it.  Finally was a girl  from the middle of the audience wearing green and the guy from the back of the audience, also wearing green, who mistakenly thought he had been chosen.  It would have been against the jovial nature of the evening to make him return to his seat so they both conducted us at the same time.  There was a little confusion, but that happens even when a conductor is getting paid, which is why we have a concertmaster.

While we enjoyed an extended intermission backstage, a school jazz band played several numbers and a dixieland jazz combo played and sang "Oh When the Saints Go Marching In."  Following the intermission, we performed the most interesting rendition of the last movement of Gershwin's piano concerto that I think I will ever have the privilege to hear.  The contestant was an older jazz pianist who improvised freely during composed sections and cadenzas.  Occasional memory slips and missed entrances during rehearsals  made me wonder how he had learned the piece, and while I'm familiar with the phenomenon in jazz in which players move around the beat, all the while knowing where it falls, I'm not sure if he was always aware of what the orchestra was playing.  The sound and the feel, the freeness of it and even the luxuriously paced tempo, gave it a soulful feeling, if not unpredictable, vague and slightly erratic.  

Following his inevitable encore of solo jazz improv came our equally inevitable encore of–what else could it be–the Radetzky March.  Audiences love clapping their hands, and the Radetzky March loves clapping audiences.  A match made in heaven.

Of course there was a lot of talking to make all of this last over two hours.  If any of this doesn't seem to fit together, assume that it's covered in the parts you don't understand.  That's what I do, and I don't think there is anyway it could be wrong.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Japanese biking

If it isn't obvious from some of my previous posts, I really enjoy biking.  The commute to the hall everyday has become one of my favorite times as I get to mingle with the fresh air, the sounds of the river and its wildlife, and the people that take advantage of its green banks.  I also pass through small sections of neighborhoods and occasionally get a privileged glimpse of life.  Elementary school children doing calisthenics in their dirt playground one morning and marching in a small band the next;  farmers tending to their crops, one day transplanting, the next walking on the rows to tidy them; elderly people playing croquet, children playing soccer; the occasional brave yell, "Hello!" and subsequent giggling as I pass by on my bike.

Biking in Japan is a thing unto itself, something that I feel it might be worthwhile to introduce.  Japan is a bike culture, lots of people do it and they do it in high heels and suits.  But it is different from the bike culture of Madison and perhaps of America in general.  Here, people generally bike on the sidewalk, no helmets, and speed is not in the forefront of their minds.  Everyone bikes–moms with several children in seats tucked into various places on their bikes, businessmen, well-dressed women.  I sometimes feel like a huge immature Humvee passing small elderly women.  Nearly every bike has a front and sometimes back basket which makes steering a bit unwieldy and passing a bit treacherous.   But luckily, nearly every bike has a bell.

Bikes are registered when you buy them and for about $30 you can get insurance for all repairs as well as coverage for a fair amount of the bike if it is stolen.  This registration can also be used against you if you park your bike somewhere that is forbidden.  Bike parking is quite particular–there are places you can do it and places you can't.  Sometimes there is a fee.  If you break the rules (i.e. you are foreign and clueless) you may be reprimanded with an strongly worded ticket.  I imagine that would be harsh if you could read it, but for one such as myself it is even more terrifying because I will be left to postulate the harshest language a Japanese policeman may be capable.  Right now that amounts to "Thank you."

In the areas where bike parking is sanctioned, there is nothing to which to lock your bike.  People just lock the frame to the wheel.  If someone had a large truck, a lot of audacity, and some means other than the Japanese-neglected Craigslist to sell them, they could make a killing.

bike parking in the HPAC garage

my bike, complete with basket, flip-on head lamp, bell, and blue lock;
also in this picture: the river, one of the baseball fields, and the bike path to the HPAC 
bikes in the parking space for my apartment building; example of the typical Japanese bike

a common bike lock attached to the frame which locks in the back wheel
Tonight the moon was large in the sky and the stars were out.  The sound of the friction from the front lamp has become one of the sounds that accompanies the crickets and cicadas.  I balanced between the focused beam of the light ahead of me, and the huge night sky, which seems to hold a million memories, made and still unformed.  So beautiful to be caught in this place.  Mindful and open.  Present and everywhere.  A unique space made of me and the universe.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Pia Julien

It seems that the orchestral model for classical music is being tested right now.  So many stories in the news of contract negotiations that couldn't find the proper intersection of money, time and rights.  Once again it brings the question of value to mind.  What is the value of classical music?  Why is it important? Can it serve a purpose other than background music for sushi?

This evening I enjoyed a concert of chamber music on the 9th floor of building in Kobe at Pia Julien, Tearoom and Shotbar.  It was organized by members of HPAC, and the venue is a frequent host of chamber concerts.  It was a chance for me to watch "Classical Revolution" from the outside, as neither a player nor an organizer.   And it made me think about the value of the experience, both to the audience members who paid to be there and the musicians who took away little.

How often are we given the time and the space to listen, and how often do we have a chance to hear ourselves and to cultivate what it is that we desire to communicate?  We speak so many words during the day:  what are they saying?  Perhaps it is impossible to fully communicate oneself or to fully listen to another person, to listen beyond words and gestures.  It takes a dedicated time and space, a willingness on the part of the giver, as well as the receiver.

Is this something of value?  What can we gain from it and how can it affect our lives?  How can we sustain it?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Blind Distance

Some things exist beyond circumstance.  Sometimes we are far away from a place or a person or who we are.  When we blink, do these things still exist?   And while we sleep?  Does a juggler watch every ball at every moment?

How far away is Japan?  By what factor of time and space have I removed myself from myself, from people I care about, from places in which I'm familiar?  What will transcend this distance?  I think there is something to learn of trust in this.  Even in times of being close, what gives us the trust to feel that something is real, that a person or an ideal is integral to our being?  How much of this is something that we can control, and how much of it is something that we can only observe with curiosity and humility?

In any given moment in life, we are removed from the things and the people that are a part of us.  Bow hair loosened until the next performance, the unnamed deadline that inspires the act of creation.  The person next to us, engaged in a TV show, or in the next room, having dinner.  Maybe they're driving home, or maybe they won't gather until next Saturday's brunch.   Maybe they are across an ocean, asleep while we work.  Where are they?  How do we know that they are still there?