Friday, November 30, 2012

To Osaka to Rehearse

This may have been a long day of sorts.  A certain amount of travel required to get to the rehearsal venue, a certain amount of focus to rehearse Beethoven 9 in a certain manner, a certain amount of energy and tenacity to bike home in the dark wind.  But during the walk between one train station to another this morning, I had one of those moments of being in love with being in Japan.  It happens more and more.  And walking around the park before rehearsal.  And being very confused in Starbucks several time as I just tried to get hot water and ended up ordering tea.  Posters on the train, people in the park, new ways of speaking, of eating, of living, uncertainty and unassuming possibility everywhere.

how many things can you do with a snowman? 

reading a newspaper in Osaka park
fall in the park
Osaka Castle

ramen curry, fusion cooking after returning home

Thursday, November 29, 2012

First Rehearsal for Beethoven 9

Transformed.  The 5th floor of HPAC was not the same place today.  People, people, people.  Alle menschen filled the hallways, bathroom and tiny kitchen.  The orchestra has swelled with extra players to match the volume of the 10,000 voices that will be joining us this weekend and all the extra weight meant it was a little harder to center the pitch, more difficult to feel a unified pulse with our peers on the other side of the room, and slower tempi in anticipation of a larger space.  The pocket of the rhythm target is a little larger, perhaps to be swallowed in the mass of sound.  As we took the day to waddle through Beethoven 9 backwards, a small camera crew came to document the process.  Tomorrow we meet at Osaka-Jo Hall to continue the brotherly music making.

Giant orchestra and cameraman on the balcony

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bike Ride to the End of the River

While I was working on my dissertation this summer in Madison, I religiously walked to the lake twice a day, once at lunch and once at sunset.  The openness of the water and its sound, the sky above it, unhindered by even the slightest interference of horizon, always opened my chest in a way that was much needed during those 14 hour days hunched over my computer.  And during this time I became quite an aficionado of sunsets.  I stopped taking pictures long ago, every moment surpassing the previous one and something always missed in that second that the camera opens its lens to half heartedly capture the moment.

So today, I biked further away from the hills of inland Japan and followed the river to where it opens into Osaka Bay.   On my way I joined the people of the river, doing the things that they cannot do elsewhere:  practicing recorder with music propped on bike basket and handle bar; building a fire; throwing leaves with toddler fascination;  being fed by those that dwell in one of the many tents; practicing trumpet; doing calisthenics.   And at the end of the path was the end of the sidewalk under a large bridge.  An urban meeting ground.  That place where river becomes bay become sea and the water of the earth becomes the water of the ocean connected to the tides of the moon.  I sat and enjoyed a similar but very distant feeling to the one of the lake in Madison.  A foreign familiarity.

I took the place of a golfer and as I sat there a runner came along and quickly turned back having met his destination goal.  I wanted to yell to him, "Hey wait, look, this is really cool!" But I realized that we all have other places to be eventually.  And in a few minutes I knew I'd get back on my bike and leave this water to the fickle ducks, more loyal than I.   In a few months the sun will likely set in the mouth of the river and I'll be sure to return.

cats enjoying some food left on a bench on a cold afternoon

golfer on the bay

under the bridge
rusty barnacled bike
sky, water, ducks

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Quiet Day at HPAC

On days and off days.  Quiet before a storm.  The 5th floor of HPAC, land of practice rooms, rehearsal space and offices was calm this morning and afternoon, the melodious chime of the microwave took a break from lunch, and the bustle of the office, always scheduling, always planning, stayed stacked away in untouched piles of paper.   I pulled out today's English edition of the International Herald Tribune which daily accumulates unloved in the office.  I just like to wrinkle its pages whenever I have the liberty of a slow lunch to do so.  Sometimes I grace it with some errant soy sauce from my lunch, and I beg the forgiveness of any who happen to find it tainting the lines of international news.  Hopefully they, like I, can look past it to see through the eyes of the Asian news source.  I can only imagine that a film of soy would add to the experience.

The slow pace of the day still contained the wardrobe boxes from the previous day's scurried educational outreach concert, clothes waiting for their bodies to retrieve them and relieve them of their disheveled state.  They act as place holders for business as usual, such as that is.  The day after tomorrow people will return to HPAC for the beginning of the next project when 10,000 voices will join us for a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.  We will be in a different space, a hall, or rather an "arena," in Osaka.  And during that time, without our thinking about it, HPAC will continue on without our sounds and our footsteps, accumulating untouched copies of the International Herald Tribune, never to be blessed with my soy sauce.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sazanka Tsuyu

Sazanka tsuyu, "rainy season of the camellia flower."  There is something about this rain that is different from other rain.  Maybe it's its placid persistence.  Maybe it's the way it shades the colors of fall, deep bark, glowing leaves, flowers still bloom in the roots of trees.  Occasionally more than a patter, but rarely an unwelcoming downpour, late November and early December sparkle under gray skies.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Dear Kaneko-san,
Today you asked me if I had seen the cherry blossoms.  It was only the example in my book that made me say they were beautiful- I've not yet been to Japan in the spring.  And when I tried to repeat your question back to you, to grasp the words you used, their form, their meaning, I meant only to slow down a bit, to understand a little more clearly.  Never was it my intention to stray from cherry blossoms and adjectives to the ta-form of verbs which live chapters away from here, but I thank you for the excursion as we wait for spring.

Dear Kaneko-san, where do you go during the week?  To whom do you speak and what sorts of words do you use?  Perhaps someday you will be more than an apparition and I will come to know you a little better.  Perhaps after a few seasons, a few more leaves and a few more flowers.

Until next week....

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Kuuki o Yomu

Even though I've lived here for three months, it still took me a day of gentle perseverance to access NHK radio in Japanese (hardcore perseverance just wouldn't do in Japan).  It's quite easy to get NHK radio in English, or Urdu for that matter, but for those wishing to hear those indecipherable sounds of Nihongo, a special intuition is required.  The answer lies in the belly of a red dog which contains a giant play button.  Within this happy belly are hours of streaming news coverage, sumo wrestling matches, cooking shows, and relaxation hours.  Within this belly lie the elements of nascent understanding, the sounds which over time will begin to form meaning.  Through this barrier and others I hope to start to make sense of the muffled world in which I live.  After a day of driving in a little bubble of Japanese, I feel as though the sound and rhythm of the language are with me.  I still don't understand, but I feel the vacuum waiting to be filled, as when the body knows how to do something, yet still can't do it.

It's absurd that I don't know Japanese, that I can't speak it.  I feel like a baby wanting to make these sounds, to pretend that I too can speak and that I too can understand the reason for laughter.  And like a baby I can be amused by the sound, attracted to the human voice, its intonation, the expression of the face that carries it.  But there will be no end to this search for understanding. In my own language I lack the words.  In my own language, I often don't hear what someone is really saying, the meaning and significance of what they say.  In my own language I must look more closely and more distantly than the grammar of spoken thought.  To practice in this way is to practice a new way of relating to the world, one that I can also appreciate in my native tongue.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Outreach to Awaji

Another day in Japan and an agreement to play for an outreach for HPAC took me, three quartet-mates, two members from the HPAC office and a very brave Jumbo Taxi driver two hours south to a nursing home on the small island of Awaji.  We drove on a rainy mountain highway, mist rising from the autumn leaves.

After crossing the Akashi Strait, we took a short break at a ferris wheel rest stop, and then continued into the heart of the island of Awaji towards its minami (southern) side.  As we departed from the highway, the roads connecting the patchwork of fields and towns became more twisted and less predictable (at least to those concerned with navigation).  Our tires touched far more pavement, our driver spoke to far more locals, and our eyes saw far more of the of the landscape than planned.  My camera captured so many blurry moments, trying to hold on to some of the impression that the countryside gave me, and I was reminded of my mother taking picture after picture of the open sky in Wisconsin.  Sometimes it's hard to live in such a beautiful world.

As we twisted our way towards the nursing home, I enjoyed a childlike state of ignorance and freedom.  I listened to all the other members of the car speak a mysterious language, feeling my mind make sense of sounds, parsing consonants and vowels and syllables and words into some dreamlike meaning, cloudy like the countryside, but slowly, slowly clearing.  I had no idea where we were, how we would get there or when.  Just me and a window in a Jumbo Taxi and a stream of happy voices whose meaning I could only glean by intonation and gesture.  Perhaps I could have stayed there for a lifetime, being lost in a world without a sun or meaning on a little island in Japan.

And then we were there.  We were served a lunch and given green tea.  Another performance in slippers for an appreciative elderly group wearing masks.  For our encore we had them sing Aka Tombo (Red Dragonfly) with us, a beautiful traditional song previously unknown to me.  I had a flashback to elementary school children in Madison singing Do Re Mi with our quartet–such a spiral is life.  And it is still one of my favorite things, to play with a group of singing people, to sing with a group of singing people.  I love people's voices.  And such beautiful lyrics of the fall in this song.  So nice to share it together.

On our way back we stopped by a bakery run by the nursing home which I believe is a project for their residents.  They were waiting for us with bags of baked goods and lots of smiles.  And with a more straightforward trajectory towards home, we made use of the extra time to enjoy some stops along the way that featured specialties of Awaji:  tako (octopus), onions, and senbei (rice crackers).  A gentle feast towards home.

The rainy fall hills on our way to Awaji

ferris wheel rest stop 

looking up at the giant ferris wheel,
the Akashi-Kaikyo suspension bridge in the background

lunch at the nursing home, egg soup,
rice, shrimp tempura, green tea and coffee jelly

Tamagoyaki, a specialty of the area-
delicious gooey balls of egg and octopus

at the ferris wheel rest stop
a place we had not planned to be

one of our way-finding friends
fields in Awaji

the baking crew at the Awaji bakery

receiving delicious treats: (L-R) Yoshie (our personnel manager, mother duck, and fearless leader),
Keita (violist), and Janis (violinist)

huge store of senbai, all available for curious sampling

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving in Akuradanchi

Today is Thanksgiving in America and an apartment in Akuradanchi, Takarazuka, Japan.  I'm grateful for the family and friends that I carry within me and for the ones with whom I can celebrate in person.  Grateful for the things that link my past and future, and for those that arise in the present moment.  Very grateful to be alive.

unwrapping the offerings
Ed, our delightful Englishman, wore a tie

slicing the turkey

lots of delicious food!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


After a second visit to Takeshi Okuno in Kyoto and another variety of green tea offered while I waited for him to put together the bill for the cello repair, I think this may be the perfect time and place to reawaken my love of green tea.  Perhaps I will start to the draw the water from Kyoto's mountains and purchase special tea kettles and seeping pots.  Perhaps I will get a calico cat like Okuno-san's, and call it Mikara as a nickname for Michelangelo but also to mean "three colors."  And I too will feed him little sardines.  I'll wear socks and wooden sandals and listen to Renaissance choral music at the foot of the hill next to the Golden Temple of Kyoto.  And in moments when I've set aside the focus of my craft, I'll stare into my little cup of green tea, warming my hands.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Day in Kyoto

Yesterday was a wonderful day in Kyoto.  I took a solo trip up to the city on the Hankyu rail line, where I had cozy encounters with sleepy commuters and watched their hands and eyes saccade in a different language.  I got off the train and took a crowded bus with my cello to the stop for the Golden Temple (Kinkakuji) where I exited with the other tourists and walked along a little street outside the gate towards the luthier who would fix the buzz in my instrument.  He greeted me on the street, there being no house numbers or signs in the privacy of Japanese living, and invited me inside.  Once in the antechamber, he closed the door behind me and after some moments of confusion I figured out that I was to meet him in his workshop at the top of the stairs.  I just missed the slippers, but no worries, I still received one of the most delicious cups of green tea I've ever had.  He looked at the instrument and gave me a different one from the shop to keep for a few days while he makes the repairs.  I'll go back tomorrow afternoon to exchange the cellos.

And then I headed to Kyoto station with this cello on my back and met some friends for a birthday lunch which ended up being an incredible day filled with the most amazing autumn leaves, temples, food and wonderful company.  All smiles.

Christmas in Japan (at Kyoto Station)

on the way to Hiei-zan, Enryaku-ji 

the wonderful birthday girl,  Melkorka!

one of the buildings Enryaku-ji

people were free to ring this bell and the steady slow pace of the low gong was always in the back-drop

Melkorka descending the ladder in one of the buildings

where words fail....

the view from the top of the mountain

people in line for the subway

Kiyomizudera lit at night in central Kyoto


street/alley of Japanese restaurants, looking for a good place for a birthday dinner

good friends, good food

Monday, November 19, 2012

Kyoto (home late)

An incredible day.  Very happy to be alive and here and with such wonderful people.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

my socks are gone, my socks are gone
a "lost items box" contains no "found,"
it's got a hole, from which they rolled
and landed in Bermuda sound


Tomorrow to Kyoto.  If I weather the transit of trains and bus, a buzz in my cello will hopefully get some attention from a luthier.  If not, I'll eat tofu.

There's no wrong way in Japan.  Just different ways.  And along all ways, there is good food.  If this is my last post, know that I am eating well.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Karmic Exchanges

Last night I had a dream that I opened my mailbox and it was filled with packages and letters.  And today, three surprise packages!  How does the universe work?  It seems it's always either handing out or hoarding karma.  And today it mysteriously took both my socks (perhaps in exchange for the postal gifts to come).  I just assumed it was Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet that inspired them to go sock heaven together, rather than awaiting the fate of some dryer to separate their worldly existence.  But I don't even have a dryer.  Japan is super safe for walking at night, leaving bikes unlocked and overflowing wallets on bus benches, and for socks to live a full life together.  I'm sorry to have lost them and a little confused at such an absurdity.

The lights are up in the courtyard of HPAC, exchanged for the autumn leaves.  The conductor spontaneously decided to have the violas sit on the outside of the orchestra, in exchange for the cellos.  At the end of the symphony today, he turned to the resting violin section in exchange for the basses that start the closing coda, thus ending the piece 20 measures early.  A quiet and confused ending in exchange for a loud one.  The soloist played two encores today, rather than zero.  I'm not sure where this puts today's karmic tally, or how I should carry forward.  Perhaps I'll just try to keep a closer eye on my socks in the future and enjoy my mailbox and the universe as it ebbs and flows.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Words from a Totem Animal

Today I'm feeling the challenge of straddling the distance of space and time.  A conflict between the here and now of my life, and the before and faraway that exist outside of my time in Japan.  There are things that transcend our current situation.  Sometimes we are cold, or hungry, or sick.  Sometimes single or with another person, sometimes living alone or with others, a student, employed or unemployed, rich or scrapping by, happy or discontented.  Places, things, people, states of being–so much can change.  And what carries it through?  What voice, what person, transcends these parts of life?  Can we hear it?  Or is it the search that makes it so?

I am never all of me
unto myself
and sometimes I go slowly
knowing that a sound one sound
is following me from world
to world
and that I die each time
before it reaches me

(W.S. Merwin, from "Words from a Totem Animal")

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Rehearsal Days

Our conductor, breaking the trend established so far this year, has rehearsed for nearly the entirety of the scheduled rehearsals everyday.  And today's rehearsal felt a little like tech week.  Someone was sick, everyone was tired, our conductor was a little cranky and loopy, shouting at us in Japanese from the house as he listened for balance.  For one of his clothing changes, he wore a t-shirt with a profile picture of himself.  Time seemed endless as the obligation to prepare for the concert seemed in the forefront of the maestro's mind.  It felt like the times when I was younger and did musical theatre and there was no such thing as tired, even though everyone was exhausted.  Just running on fumes.

And after orchestra rehearsal I had the pleasure of a brief hour long rehearsal for a quartet outreach concert.  Music that we might normally play at a wedding but the pleasure of matching a bow stroke and vibrato, of listening to another person's phrasing and following it, of taking the initiative to imagine musical direction and to explore different possibilities, of hearing my own sound, my own voice.  To be so tired but doing something that makes you forget it.  Hoping to have more chamber music happen soon.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Kansai Scene

There are many opportunities to practice Japanese around  HPAC and in various situations in daily living.  But as I try to find more ways to augment my learning, I've occasionally explored a website for English speakers living in this region of Japan which has classifieds for language exchange.  Ideally I could have an hour where the sole goal was to focus on the language itself, not the content being conveyed.  I've yet to find the perfect post, nor have I had the courage to place one myself.  Perhaps the time will come when I'm truly ready.  But in the meantime, there are plenty of interesting nonlinguistic propositions to read.  Kansai Scene

In the midst of apartment ads and numerous job openings for English teachers, these posting are filled with loneliness.  One person self-defined, looking for another person self-defined as such.  Race, age, often given, marital status preference sometimes included and requested, but often not really an issue.  Loneliness seems to transcend companionship.

What or who can answer loneliness?  Is it someone of a certain age, or race?  Or someone who possesses the qualities so often named in these postings?  What is it to be "open-minded," to be "smart," or "fun-loving"?  And sometimes we meet people face to face and search them in the same way.  Who are you?  Can we answer one another?   What are we asking and how are we asking it?  And how do we answer one another?

As the days get shorter and shorter I wonder if there are more postings of this nature.  Certainly in me I feel the internal rearranging of fall.  What is shifting and what sort of foundation can support it?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

New Musical Waters

Our conductor reminds me of Captain Ahab.  Maniacally he seeks the great whale of musical meaning,  pushing us, his stunned shipmates, navigating the great sea of Prokofiev.  Half-Russian, half-Japanese, he communicates in mix of Japanese, English, musical gibberish and pantomime.  I wasn't surprised to read that he had studied ballet for ten years when he was a child (something he includes in his bio).  He has a dance master approach to the orchestra–gestural, figurative, at times brash, unapologetic, tireless, and slightly eccentric.  Over the course of two rehearsals he changed into four different shirts, sporting a series of Russian style patterns to go with his rusty-colored, thick-ribbed corduroy pants. He speaks Japanese with the strength of a Russian, pushing people to play as he imagines, watching everyone closely.  He's often in the rehearsal room early to watch people or mingle with them (though rarely chat); strangely close to us yet still very distant.  I'm so curious about the world of dance and I feel like the way that he works is the closest to working with a choreographer that I've ever experienced from a conductor.  It's great to get this new perspective and have a slightly muted taste of the dance world; though as much as I idolize that world, I don't know that I would choose a life there.  So this week, a meeting of the two, and on familiar territory, such as it is.  

after-rehearsal question with the Maestro

Monday, November 12, 2012

Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet

I've been waiting a long time to play Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.  This week is the week and hopefully it won't be the last.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Rider in the Rain

It rained all day today.

I biked to my Japanese lesson.  I biked to the hall to practice.  I biked home.  Along the way a picnic under a bridge; people playing tennis, umbrellas open at the side of the court, waiting to offer a rainless walk home; a half-hearted field day.  Somedays it's sunny, and somedays it's rainy.  I remembered my mother pushing my younger brothers in the stroller when one or both of them was crying about something that couldn't be helped.  She would start singing in her beautiful soft low voice, "Rollin', rollin', rollin', though the streams are swollen, keep those doggies rollin', rawhide."  And we'd get there.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Japanese November Day

This afternoon I got on my bike with the full intention of going to the hall to practice.  I reached a red traffic light and taking the hint, decided to do something that I don't normally do: whatever I want.  With that, my bike went down a ramp and I found myself heading to a siren place that has called me from across the river every time I bike to HPAC.  It was in me to do this, to want this, but for some reason today I freed myself to go there.

Fields of beautiful purple and gold flowers; families, photographers, and painters were all gently taking it in.  Not a blossom unappreciated, a perspective unseen.  Vendors were there with snacks and a lift hoisted people to a higher view.  

I continued on, following my whim as I biked along a road that divided the beauty and recreation of the river from the houses, schools, neighborhoods, and gardens of practicality.  It wasn't long before I dove I in.

road between dividing the neighborhoods from the river
the crows, the biggest thing in Japan,
and they are always watching

homes in the neighborhood

garden plot
persimmon tree
It's hard not to take a  picture of everything.  The cars, the plants, the laundry.  It's all so different and beautiful.  But I feel like what I want to capture is the feeling of time and space and that just can't be relayed with a camera.  At least not by me with my present skills and tools.  Everything is much closer, smaller, and perhaps more deliberate.  I'm not sure that "slow" is the right word to describe the difference in the feeling; but there is more care, less rush and stress.  Perhaps I will try to better cultivate my abilities with evocative language and photography to capture it, but until then I'm afraid I will have to keep the full experience with me.  It's not out of selfishness that I do so, only inability to properly communicate it.

In a full attempt to get lost this afternoon, I took several turns into the neighborhood and found a little shopping street district.  The fa├žade of a fancy grocery store suggested that I stop and take a look so I parked my bike.
shopping district

sale rack
there's adventurous shopping, and
then there's cat food; thankful
for helpful nonverbal graphics 

found in most Japanese grocery stores, a delicious hot food takeaway section
Back on my bike, I headed in the direction of my instinct, but as the sun was setting and my orientation not as clear, I decided to ask a police officer the way.  He pointed in the opposite direction.  Hmmm.  Trumping my instinct and my shaky faith in communication, I headed to the real source of knowledge, the river.  It's impossible to be completely lost with such a source, there all the time.  I can stray from it, find it again and know where I am.  

A morning of zazen, an appreciation of the beauty of autumn's transience, and an exploratory bike ride. A day of freedom in a Japanese November.