Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Public Affair

As I returned to my bike in the HPAC garage this afternoon, I saw a couple ahead of me walk through the door to the separated bike parking area.  As I came up to the door, the woman, carrying a small dachshund, awkwardly moved into the door frame, taking a minute to move aside before letting me pass.  I expected her husband to be right behind her, perhaps they hadn't realized it was bike parking.

But he wasn't, and as I walked to my bike I realized that he was relieving himself in the corner.  Oops, misread that one.  Time to marvel at the key to my bike lock.  What a key it is.  

It's a strange thing, but for as clean as Japan is, I see public urination quite often.  Along the river, to be sure, but even in the small streets.  Probably more days than not I pass someone along the way while I'm biking.  The drains are open and perfectly able to accomodate it.  Even amenable to it.  Where are the stinky alleys of Japan?

In America, public urination is generally reserved for those who've had too much to drink or have nowhere to go.  But here it is a far more democratice practice.   And there you have it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

News in Japan

I can tell by the tone in a certain member's voice that the argument is getting heated.  ".......I understand, but......" I can only pick up little things here and there–dates, times, single words or particles.  It's the parliamentary proceedings on NHK Japanese radio.  What might be so important as to raise such passion?  Maybe a projected shortage of seaweed for the coming year, several thousand tons of azuki paste have flooded the inland sea (we must rally to gather spoons!), the cuteness index of children's hats fell dangerously low in the fourth quarter.  It's a perk of Japan that the news is always only about the things for which I'm concerned.  Mmmm, a sea of azuki soup.  I'm on my way.....

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Japanese Concert Time

This past weekend we played a concert with a wonderful Japanese soloist.  I loved the way that she sustained time and lived in a sound.  And when she had finished playing the Brahms concerto, she walked off stage, took her time and smiled, and then came back and then walked off, drank some water, laughed with the stage crew, then came back, then walked off again.  Several times this happened.  The audience, typical of a Japanese audience, remained seated and remained clapping.  No rush to get to the bathroom, no sly attempt to turn a standing ovation into a dash to the front of the bar line.  They waited for her.  Surely she must have an encore.  This is Japan.  A concert without an encore would be like ice cream without delicious.  It doesn't happen here.

And finally she delivered.  A movement of Bach for each performance, at the last concert she played two, separated by still more applause and curtain calls.  They waited for her, she waited for them.  And the hall filled with time and listening and waiting.

Would it have been different for a non-Japanese audience?  Would it have been different for a non-Japanese soloist?  Perhaps it was her unique energy that sustained their steady response.  But there is no question that it is something ubiquitous among Japanese audiences, this applause that doesn't look forward to the end, that sustains the present gratitude of the music offered.  A slow breath from which a sound is released.

Monday, February 25, 2013


The fifth floor lounge of HPAC is predominately claimed by members of the orchestra and the office staff.  However, now and again there are others–non-HPAC musicians or dancers–that take a rehearsal break on the red and black chairs, enjoying a snack and one another's company.  On rare occasion, those others are children, perhaps playing roles in a ballet or taking classes in the rehearsal rooms adjacent to the common area.

As I arrived on the fifth floor yesterday, I felt the frenzied and ecstatic energy of youth.  A dozen children in little clusters, running about, chatting and giggling–quite different from the somber lunch hours I usually enjoy with a newspaper on concert days.  As I passed one cluster of pigtails, I heard them say, "Gaikokujin deska?"  ("Is she (are you) a foreigner?")  I looked at them and smiled.  As I prepared my tea in the kitchen alcove, one brave soul, no more than 8 or 9 came over to ask me questions in perfect English- Where do you live?  What is your name?  My name is Kiko.

I was surprised how much it touched me that they should use the term "gaikokujin" and not its somewhat derogatory but not uncommon equivalent, "gaijin."  And it touched me to see their sheer excitement of having me in their country.  A very mutual feeling–welcome to the fifth floor of HPAC.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Learning Kaneko-san

I'm often not sure of an appropriate course of light conversation in my own culture and language, so far be it for me to broach certain areas of life when speaking with an older Japanese gentlemen, such as Kaneko-san.  About him I have learned that he worked in fire insurance, that he travelled to Spain and Germany, that he is from Kyoto and has lived in at least Himeji and the Kansai area.  Last week when I gave him chocolates from Hokkaido, he disclosed to me that he had visited Sapporo with his wife.  Ah, a wife.  One unasked question, answered.  And this week, after several lessons in which family is mentioned, he finally disclosed a little more.  He is very uncertain of his English, so in preparation he has lined the inside cover of his dictionary and grammar book with phrases both about himself and that could be useful in teaching.  He opened the flap.  Upside down, several entries beyond, "Do you have any questions?"  I saw the source of his arduous word-for-word copying.  I watched his pencil disclose, like a ouija board, answers to questions that I had never had the courage to impose.   "There are three people in my family  My wife is homemaker  My daughter works as a pharmacist in a hospital, I worked in a insurance company before"

In these four semi-punctuated statements is a whole life.  Long-term relationships with two people, his family (and not the one that raised him, which he did not mention); a change from one generation to another between these women, "homemaker" to "pharmacist in a hospital;" a change in the course of life, "before."

Something more personal even than the information, explicit or implied, is his handwriting.  I wish I could share it, but perhaps the long waiting before this disclosure has embedded in me a trust that I cannot break, even if it were ok with him, even though it is information that would commonly be shared in a first meeting.  The handwriting is something more.  The sound of a voice, the speed of a gesture, frozen on the page.

What and how much of it do I have to have before I can say that I know Kaneko-san?

Saturday, February 23, 2013


I don't know what I did wrong and I'm still not sure.  The only thing that I could have done was purchase my first book for learning kanji a little sooner.  Perhaps then I would have been able to read the signs telling me not to park there, or perhaps I would now be able to read the little ticket that was so carefully wire-wound around my handle bar.  At the very least, I would have made it outside before 11:40, the time of my absent offense.  But for now, I don't know what I did, or was supposed to do, or should do, other than enjoy my kanji book and look to the future.

Did I win???

Friday, February 22, 2013

Pizza Night

I am once again home a little later than usual with a very satisfied belly.  Homemade pizza with whole wheat crust (two varieties), a replay of potato mochi (the last to be made with authentic Hokkaido potatoes), a salad of spinach, strawberries, green peppers, and avocado, and dessert of two different ice creams and chocolate candied orange.  An evening of preparation and indulgence shared with three lovely friends.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

February 21st

Spring is coming.  The morning river is warmer, the sun is higher in the sky at an earlier hour.  Something is under construction, in the air and in my dreams, which seem to linger throughout the day.  I've been here for six months now and novelty has changed to something different than it once was.  I can now read kana fairly well, I'm accustomed to the garbage system, riding my bike on the lefthand side, the cuteness of Japanese children.  These things and countless others still strike me at any given moment, the chiming of the tracks for the coming train awakening me, the realization that I'm here and should ride past the mother with her child-laden bike if I'm to take advantage of the traffic crossing.  I'm here.  I'm here.

With such familiarity, there comes a new challenge in novelty, one that I remember from relocations in years past.  Something around this time of transition where I am not yet in control of my surroundings, but have grown beyond the fascination of the limitations they pose on me.  Just as in the first few weeks here, I can feel the pervasiveness of the Japanese culture; only now it has become both more real and less strikingly apparent.  I have a feeling that it has started to seep under my skin, that there is a part of me that is perhaps changing.   At times, growing is the act of dying, letting parts of us die away to be replaced by something new.  And in every new place, in every new condition, even perhaps after years of living in the same place with the same people, it is possible that the dynamics of life inflict this change upon us.  Perhaps when novelty has faded, the source of our internal change hides as well, and with such a hidden challenger we are as though blindfolded, unable to locate up or down, and perhaps even more disconcertingly, to know why we are in such a state.  

There are many things in this Japanese life that are new.  Some of these things relate to the culture, to ways of interacting socially, to the barriers of language in relating to another person and to meeting new people.   Some of these things relate to the nature of playing in an orchestra, some to the absence of explicit teaching–receiving or bestowing–for the first time that I can remember, some to the distance from my family and friends, to things familiar to my view of life and what I think it is that I value.  When I stop to reflect on the differences in this life to my life of any other year, the hidden challenges start to emerge and it seems no wonder that no matter how long I'm here, there should be periods like this.  The terrain upon which I tread is a patchwork, stable but uneven.  As many things as I can bring into the light of my awareness, I think it is likely those that remain unseen that are the cause for the internal work that I can only feel occurring.  It is harder to be patient with what we do not know and cannot see.  Perhaps this in itself is another challenge to explore.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Brahms Violin Concerto

After so many years of hearing the Brahms Violin Concerto, one of my mother's favorite pieces, I received the music this week and wondered if it was really possible that I had not yet played it.  I wonder how it will change me to finally learn the cello line, to be a part of the harmonic changes and rhythmic play that filled our house for so many years.  Such a comfort to return to it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Furusato at the Hyogo Prefectural Assembly

As with most arts organizations, but perhaps particularly the HPAC Orchestra, a great deal of our existence depends on the benevolence of politicians.  Today we warmed their meeting chamber with out presence, performing our annual Hyogo Prefectural Assembly Concert.  They sat in huge chairs behind long shared desks with their names on placards; behind them was the general public, perhaps activists scouting out questionable intonation.  We played a thirty minute program ending with Furusato (Homeland) a beautiful, simple, traditional song to which our conductor had the whole assembly sing.

It's really moving to bring music into spaces generally untouched by it.  One can imagine the sounds which normally grace the meeting chamber–voices arguing, debating, demanding, compromising; shuffling papers, pushing in and pulling out chairs, footsteps taking bodies to and from their seats.  A world of epiphenomenal sounds, unheard, buried and lost under the intention of their action.  Ears have been waiting to hear, bodies have been waiting to feel– to remember something of the act of living.  One of the members of the assembly teared-up as he sang.  Where is it, and how can it be touched?

Monday, February 18, 2013

An Offer

We spent over two hours rehearsing Schubert's 4th Symphony this afternoon with a new conductor.  We reached the double bar of the final movement 30 minutes before the end of our scheduled time, and it seemed as if we had finished our work for the day.  Then he looked at us and gently asked, "Would you like to play beautiful piece?"  Sleepy, gloomy, rainy, late-start day that it was, but how could we say no to such an offer?  The chance to rehearse longer, to make more beautiful music with one another.  I felt like Shinichi Suzuki was in the room, enticing 4 year olds to love practicing for hours.  Idealism incarnate.  Another opportunity to learn from yet another way of leading.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Return to Kaneko-san, Part II (post-script: falafel in Japan!)

This morning I returned to my dear Kaneko-san after a three week hiatus.  One week in Hokkaido, the next with Ryoko Moriyama, I wrote my explanation and apology for the absences in my sakubun.  Part essay, part letter, this weekly ritual provides perhaps the most solid basis for reliable understanding between us.  It took a little to warm-up to one another again; I spent a fair amount of time and confusion trying to understand what "shiaduai" meant before realizing he was saying "shall I."  He listened to me say there was a lot of "slowly" (yukkuri) in Hokkaido and nodded his head in confusion before I caught myself and changed it to "snow" (yuki).  We'll remember one another's pace and abilities again as we go, I'm sure.  It feels kind of good to be out of sync in a way, a reassurance of how well we had fallen in step before.

At the end of the lesson, after asking if I could have used a particle in my essay to say that I played "with" Ryoko Moriyama in the same way that I write my name "with" a ballpoint pen ( the response was an adorable apologetic laugh- the answer, no), I decided it was a good time to present my gift to him from Hokkaido, a box of chocolates.  He was very surprised and appreciative and I realized that with this gesture I had opened up the Japanese need to respond to any gift received.  He was so tickled.  "Chotto matte,"  he said as he walked away, and I waited as he had asked.  He returned with two pieces of paper.  One was an English version of how to avoid contracting the norovirus.  The other was information about a traveling exhibit of dolls from Kyoto.  What are chocolates compared with disease prevention and cultural enrichment?  I think I've been outdone and am revving up for my rebuttal.

Several hours later I had another miraculous dinner project with my empowering dinner partners.   Falafel and pita from scratch, complemented with imo mochi (little fried potato cakes) that Melkorka and I learned to make in Hokkaido.  Amazing- it can be done!

Melkorka once again works magic with the dough:
 perfectly pocketed pita


sizzling imo mochi

several hours later- ready for dinner!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto: For The First and Hundredth Time

Yesterday we learned that the violinist scheduled to play the Tchaikovsky concerto with us was ill and not going to be able to make.  Today in the dress rehearsal before the concert we met her replacement soloist, an energetic and thoroughly capable young virtuoso from Korea.  It's exciting to do a performance with only one run-through, albeit of a very familier concerto.  It sets up an atmosphere of expectation and uncertainty, the opportunity for heightened awareness when two parties must dance together as strangers.  She stepped out on stage in a shiny red dress and tore into.

And yet my attention was stolen by a dangerously cute member of the audience sitting in the front row and made suddenly visible by the shifting of the violins to make room.  She wore pink, her legs stuck straight out over the front of the seat, her mouth hung open as she stared and absorbed.  At times her mother looked over at her, watched her watching, watched her take it in, knowingly giving her this experience.  And this caring guardianship also overtook my focus more than the shiny red dress in front of me.

I remember going to Music Hall in Cincinnati with my father when I was very young.  I wore the most beautiful dress in the world and a rainbow glass-beaded tiara.  I remember sitting there and watching and listening, often falling asleep at some point and jerked awake by the applause around me.  Sometimes my feet were jittery or my tights itched.  But I also remember a concert that I don't completely remember; it being the most beautiful piece I had ever heard.  I think it must have been Yo-Yo Ma playing the Haydn D Major Cello Concerto because my father gave me this CD for my birthday that year.

It must be incredible to watch a child learn and grow from day to day.  To nurture them and discover a new way of loving.  I feel lucky to have been on a such a receiving end and I'm always touched to see this love delivered and so openly received, whether it is on a the train ride home, or biking to nursery school, or sharing an experience of music together.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Rainy River

Where are all the people of the river when it rains?  They seem to disappear.  It's a challenge to see and the fields are muddy, the water an inconvenience on clothing.  I have not been there recently due to things outside my control, schedules the river didn't know about, trips, practicalities and logistics.  I hope she can forgive me.  I didn't forget her.  I wonder if she feels lonely on these rainy mornings.  I wonder if she knows I'm there and can feel my gratitude for being in her presence.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day

Today is Valentine's Day.  I remember the years of elementary school's February 13th nightly ritual:  tearing the perforated pre-made Valentine's Day cards from Walgreen's (not a Montessori child), laboriously but lovingly writing each of the 20-plus names from my class on the cards, selecting the appropriate Snoopy character and saying that should go to each classmate, licking the self-sealing envelope, rewriting the name on the outside, and crossing it off the class list given to each of us from our teacher, no one forgotten.  The next day we would carefully decorate paper bag mailboxes for our Valentine's exchange and walk around the room, passing out our sealed Walgreen's (or Rite-Aid, etc) offerings to one another.  Sometimes candy hearts included.

In the fourth grade I went to a bigger school with a bell schedule and lost the Valentine's Day tradition.  The seasonal tastes of chocolate, candy hearts, and envelope glue faded in my memory.  Being only a mildly celebratory type, I generally haven't conceded to the commercial push of the holiday, but regardless, have been pleasantly surprised when a bouquet of flowers or the like appeared.  Perhaps a nice dinner or an outing to the theatre (emphasis on "theatre").

I imagine this is similar to many people's relation with the holiday.  In Japan it is slightly different;  Christmas is date night.  And Valentine's Day is the day when girls and women give men chocolate, a gesture which is returned a month later on White Day, where men return the advance with white chocolate.  They might also give more substantial gifts than the chocolate received (although there is some really nice chocolate out there!) so perhaps it is worth the woman's patient waiting.  I suppose the optimist envisions an investment where truffels and one month transforms into jewelry and eternal love.    It's hard to know the exchange rates these days; it's all dictated by such unknowable things as the alignment of the stars and the chocolate industry.  

Today at HPAC many people brought chocolate to share with everyone, a happy though strange mix of my elementary school days and the received male obligation of Japanese culture.  But if two disparate worlds are to meet, what better way?  I happily partook, though now I wonder what it will cost me in a month's time.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Smiling Pathetique

It's an odd thing to see a conductor smile as they start the bass section at the opening of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony.  But our conductor this week did just that.  And he smiled through much of the rehearsal of this piece, Tchaikovsky's final symphony completed just a few months before the composer committed suicide.  What is this smile?  What does it mean?  At what is it pointed?  Perhaps it is the secret to his excited energy.  Perhaps he had a special view of the work or perhaps he was tickled at our first encounter with the piece.  Maybe he was nervous.  Hard to know, but interesting to watch it.  Always a pleasure to meet a new face, a new sort of impulse of will upon the podium.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Music and Potatoes

This week's rehearsals and performances are like the horse of a different color.  Folk songs with Ryoko Moriyama one day, Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, and Vivaldi's Spring the next, and tomorrow we start an all Tchaikovsky program including the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, The Violin Concerto and the Sixth Symphony.  In order to ground myself I ate a potato from Hokkaido for dinner.  How many ways are there to cook a potato?  Tonight I boiled it and topped it with some shrimp and broccoli cooked in garlic butter.  It was a good (and big) potato and there are many more.  Many more.  Lots of colors, lots of music, lots of potatoes in this crazy life.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Part-time Gods

Today the HPAC orchestra had the pleasure of being in the presence of Ryoko Moriyama, the "Joan Baez of Japan."  She is one of those people who seems to smile with effortless joy and playfulness, a spirited youth in her mid-60s.  Fearless and innocent, for her there seems to be no such thing as a mistake or judgement.  The audience created a vacuum with their ears, listening, and she fell into it creating a mutual bed of trust and comfort.

She carries such easiness and freedom of expression in the bright lights.  Perhaps she goes back to her dressing room and becomes human again, but in that time that she is onstage she offers the world a chance to see a new way of living where there are no problems, only beautiful songs and carefree smiles.

The other night at dinner I was reminded of something I had thought about when I stayed at a Buddhist temple a month ago and watched the monks perform rituals for the benefit of the guests and others.  The way that certain people in society are assigned the task of carrying something for everyone, of representing or reminding the rest of the world of something important, but which, for whatever reason, is not practiced in daily life.  Why do people go to church, why do they go to temple, why do they go to a performance or a concert?

It seems so beautiful that individuals can carry and cultivate within them, and share with others, whatever it is that has such seemingly immense value.  Something that brings us outside of ourselves.  But how does this role emerge?  What is the burden, what is the cost, what is the benefit to both those that perform such roles and to those that witness them?  Surely we are all human.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Beloved Wife Day

Japan has a lot of holidays.  Even the Japanese don't completely keep track of them beyond the fact that they don't have to work on Monday.  This morning I rode the train with two Japanese friends and they mentioned that tomorrow is a holiday, but they couldn't say which.  One looked at her calendar.  "Oh, it's Foundation Day, so it celebrates the founding of Japan."  No big deal.  It's the day that Emperor Jimma is said to have acceded the throne in 660 BCE according to the Nihon Shoki (a history of Japan from 720 BCE) .  Granted, it's a little far removed from modern memory and relevance but I think it is meant as a day to reflect on Japan and the love for the country.  Luckily, the garbage trucks will still be collecting paper waste, which is a good thing given all the junk mail that compiles during the two weeks between this assigned collection day (blessed every-other-Mondays!)

There are also a lot of days that aren't necessarily public holidays, but are still worth noting.  These may be festivals or days of observance, one of which I was particularly happy to learn about through NHK radio (the BBC or NPR of Japan).  Beloved Wife Day is held on January 31st and around this day every year, men gather in a park in Tokyo to shout out their love for their wives in a public and televised display.  It is worth it to watch a video of some of these here.

This was both strange and touching to me.  I'm not completely sure what to make of it and I can imagine filling in the gaps of my understanding with a lot of colorful narrative that might not be entirely true.  Who are these men and what is their personal story?  The event founder said that when his first wife left him, he realized that his career-minded way of life and long hours away from home, typical of many Japanese men, had kept him from fully appreciating her and expressing this appreciation.  And this was his motivation.  And I'm sure that each person has their own story, their own reason for these out-of-the-ordinary terms of endearment.  What brings someone to do it?  How many ways are there to say "I love you?"  Add it to the list.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Birthday Reprise!

I had another birthday tonight (I must be getting old!).  The delivery of a beautiful package from home and a wonderful dinner with friends.  A smiley sort of evening, indeed.  

Surprise "Sweet Time" cake

Friday, February 8, 2013

Nation of Care Takers

Ever since I received it, I've been thinking about something my brother wrote in a letter and the accompanying gift he sent, a copy of "The Little Prince."  I hope he doesn't mind if I share it;  I feel like it shades so much of what I experience here.  It has made me notice some things and question others in a certain way; but even the questions are still unclear, something which keeps me returning to them and observing more.

He wrote: "I read this [book] because a professor whom I admire quoted it in class.  As I read it I thought often of you.  The quote the professor used was, 'Always remember you're responsible forever for what you have tamed.'  From reading your blog I imagine this idea can be applied to the people of Japan.  From your descriptions it reminds me of a nation of care takers.  I write with sincere respect."

A nation of care takers.  It's so true.  Such a wonderful way of putting it.  Everywhere I go I see care takers.  People who take care of their surroundings, who take care of those they serve, who take care of themselves and their children.  There is a certain courtesy, the expenditure of time and effort for doing things with care.  Taming the world, bringing it under some sort of control through this care.

But what does it mean to tame something?  ("You risk tears if you let yourself be tamed.") Do we decide when we tame another person?  Or when they tame us?  Do we decide when we tame the world and do we allow ourselves to be tamed by it?  What does it mean?

I'm always so touched by the gestures of courtesy.  There are so many of them.  And for whom are they practiced?  Is it only for the one that receives them?  I wonder if there is also something of an inner taming that becomes born of it.  That one may learn to tame themselves as they tame those and the world around them.  Is this true?  

Something winds its way through the fabric of the people here.  Something from which I still have much to learn.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Otaru Food Juncture

The small town of Otaru (which I left behind in Hokkaido and yesterday's morning) is known for the freshness of its seafood.  The main tourist street is full of open door fish shops, with specialties in crab and different shellfish.  In one shop, it's possible to pick up an oyster, or scallop, or sea urchin from a small petting zoo-like tank and hand it to the person behind the stove who places it above an open flame, stirs in some sauces and hands it right back.  A standing counter and chopsticks with additional wasabi pastes and soy sauces fill the center of the store.  In another shop, we watched the workers pull a huge crab from the tank and lay it on the scale.  Its arms danced in the air as it was weighed on its back, the customer pointing to the desired legs.

It's eye-opening to see and experience this juncture, a moment in the exchange of life that I rarely have the privilege to witness.  So much of the food that we eat was once alive, holds the potential to live, or was created by a living being; it's difficult to eat something for which this is not the case.  And it's difficult to fully appreciate what this means and to be more fully mindful of it, especially when we are normally so far removed from it.  Yes, it is wonderful to have the opportunity to eat the fresh seafood of Otaru, but so is it a privilege to see its origins.  That I live because of life.  That the food that I eat is full of life and makes me live.  Does it change the ecology of one's health to be reminded of this?  Is there something different about the way that people in Otaru live from the way people in packaged and fast food societies live?  It struck me so strongly that I wonder how I would change if I were closer to this reality as the people of Otaru and other societies may be.  How would it change the way that I feel about life?  How would it change about the way that I feel about the food that I eat?  About respect for these things?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Return to Takarazuka

This morning, Melkorka and I headed to the small sea-side city of Otaru, about 40 minutes north of Sapporo.  A chance to see the water and the hills of snow.  We enjoyed the local glass crafts and fresh seafood of the area and sat in an immaculate, victorian-inspired coffee shop with exclusive service from a fastidious woman and a delicious cup of Japanese green tea.  The northern light started to make long soft shadows around 1 and we parted ways, heading to the Sapporo airport shortly after.

And now we are all back in Takarazuka where this is no snow.  We've acquired some wonderful memories, a new view of Japan, and 32 potatoes dug from the snow of Niseko.  Perhaps tomorrow we will put those potatoes to good use as we relearn how to feed ourselves and reestablish our home routine, albeit with a taste of Hokkaido.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Uncut Ice

There was a new tone when the Australians got on the bus today.  How little we may know about a person or group of people in the first few moments that we meet them, and yet how much they tell us.  Something in the way that they fill the space around them, the tone of their voice, their awareness of those with whom they share their environment and the way that they express and tread upon that awareness.  After reestablishing my expectations to the Japanese tone of watching and listening, of gentle courtesy and observance of details and rules, of reservation for the sake of respect, I was strongly nudged by the strength of the Australian voices, the frequency with which they spoke, the jovial entitlement they exercised of the space around them.  Their faces were worn with wrinkles around the eyes and mouths, a group of seven in their late 40s and early 50s, familiar with sun and wine.  Knowing nothing about them, in the course of our two-hour journey to Sapporo I learned that they were dieticians or doctors, and that they read books and articles quickly in the midst of the constant distractions of the talkative among them.  Between exchanges of misunderstood Japanese words they had learned in the previous few days, they shared vague information about the thalamus and its function in diet regulation. 

And now I am in a place that I know from before, but which has taken on a new tone after time.  When I last saw the APA Hotel and the downtown streets of Sapporo, they were green and several feet larger than today.  The snow has filled their space and the cold air carries a new feeling.  I remember the wonderful friends from that summer, the quick bonds that we made in such a short and intimate time.  Perhaps it was their friendship that helped me fall in the love with Japan from the beginning.  And now to return to this place with new friends.  To walk with them in the cold, conversation and dancing used as a distraction from the lumps that used to be our feet and hands.  To see the beauty of the snow festival, the ice sculptures, to eat ramen in Ramen Alley, and amazing ice cream in the rotating restaurant above the city.  It is a new tone, full of so much from the beginning and yet still unformed. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Familiar Novelty

I started out the day in the onsen, alone except for the sounds of a man on the other side of the divide, somehow showering at the same time, going outside and returning at the same time, and leaving at the same time.   Alone and able to play in the shallow pools of water without the judgment of another adult.  Walking on my hands, twisting and turning in the weightlessness of the water.   In the outdoor onsen I sat in the falling snow, looking out over the hills feeling the chill of the air as it touch the heat of the water, my body in between.  Two extremes from which one might wish to retreat and yet here they live together on my skin.  Something about Hokkaido makes me think often of this ability to live, to live so fully, in the midst of something adverse. 

And later today I went cross-country skiing for the first time and I experienced a winter zipline for the first time.  Two completely new things for me but for which my body had some previous point of reference.  Amazing to grow older.  The backdrop of novelty. 

At lunch we played an impromtu concert in the Australian-filled dining room of the Hanazono Ski resort.  And before dinner this evening we played a concert in front of windows looking out over a huge slope with skiers and snowboarders racing to the bottom.  Both times, the hosts and audiences were so appreciative, treating us to meals, thanking us. 

I'm finding something here that is so familiar.  An integration of people with music and experience.  And yet in this new place, something so completely new.  A new culture, a new way of being curious and adventurous and open to life.  And hoping to keep this trend moving in the coming year.  To keep touching in new and familiar ways. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Birthdays.  From one year to the next, a chance to reflect on what is now, what has been and what may be.  Arriving in an anticiapated moment that has existed since the beginning.  Sometimes we are getting older and sometimes we have found new youth.  Sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, busy, or bored, well, or wanting.  All these ways and many more have existed on this day for me.

This year I am far from my hometown as I have been in many years of recent past, though never so far.  My family and old friends are miles and hours away: to them I'm still a year younger for a few hours longer.  But this year I am surrounded but such incredible luck and fortune.  I woke up this morning, a bed away from a good friend, and just before breakfast a knock on the door brought two more friends and a chorus of Happy Birthday.  We ate a huge Japanese breakfast and were driven through the upside down white horizonless world of Niseko to a place where we suited up and went snow-shoeing on a gusty plain to dig two meters in the snow for potatoes, a traditional way of storing them in Hokkaido.  We returned to the house and our hosts taught us to make potato mochi.  A delicious sandwich and a concert in a beautiful venue, followed by a superlative nabe dinner of seafood, tofu and vegetables simmered on the table in a special cream sauce.  The remainder of the sauce was mixed with rice to make a Japanese version of risotto.  Another chamber music concert in the hotel for a very warm audience, surprise sake and a super surprise birthday cake presented by my friends and Natsuko and her husband.

Some birthdays are like this.  Well, actually no, I can't remember any that were anything like this so far in this lifetime, but I suppose that's the reason for this year.  Another way of having a birthday.  I feel very fortunate to have shared it with wonderful people, enjoying music and good food and warm company together in a beautiful place of new experiences.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Arrival in Niseko

We are in a cozy winter wonderland.  Through tunnels of snow, winding through the mountains along the edges of lakes, wind blowing; the sun set so early that the true nature of the world outside this fireside oasis is invisible to us.  The meters of snow, climbing higher and higher as we went reminded us of Iceland, of Michigan, of Chicago, of Madison, of personal winters from our past, collecting in this joined experience within a shared taxi.  We arrived to a beautiful hotel, where people wear their robes and slippers to dinner, and gave a concert in front of a fireplace with candles on the mantelpiece.  Such a wonderful experience to share chamber music with this audience.  Something I've not had the pleasure of doing in Japan.  Feeling a thaw in this northern climate.

This morning, in a more southern part of Japan, we shared another, warmer taxi. We felt the cab moving in the direction of our destination but traveling streets unknown to us.  Blindly carried along a familiar cardinal direction, I wondered what it must feel like to know this place like I know my hometown. To be able to improvise directions based on the timing of traffic lights and traffic conjestion, to be given a destination and know the means by which to find it.  Such a different way of knowing a space.  The difference in the earned pleasure of this sort of familiarity and the pleasure of knowing very little.

We boarded a bus two-hour bound for the Osaka International Airport.  And again the luxury of a journey beyond our immediate control.  I stared out the window as we crossed one of the many bridges that covers the bay water, the view an open morning horizon; a moment taken from yesterday and changed into something new.  The beauty of finding a space where anything is possible.

And now we are in Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan, (planet earth) and tomorrow we will depart at 8:30am to see the winter bubble which surrounds us.  Skiing, and two concerts and plans to actually make it to the hotel onsen (collectively too late and too tired tonight).  Amazing what a day can bring....

Friday, February 1, 2013

The End of Wakuwaku; Hokkaido Tomorrow

And that's it.  An official V-I done for the Wakuwaku program of 2012-2013.  The shenanigans continued and mounted today, making for one of the most memorable and amusing string of instrument demonstrations.  A truly creative and fun bunch of people at HPAC.  Bassoons dancing in the Radetzky encore, clarinets handing out chocolate to the wind section, flutes giving roses to the clarinets, the winds raising umbrellas during the lighting and sound demonstration's "thunderstorm;"  the final resolution to the Strauss march was indeed a triumphant one.  This evening there will be a celebration at Akuradanchi in honor of the milestone.  It was a flat summit, but a summit nonetheless.

And tomorrow morning three friends and I will leave for Hokkaido to play concerts in one of the top ski destinations in the world, Niseko.  It's ironic that chamber music took me to Banff in Canada and now takes me to Niseko and I'm the furthest thing from being a skier.  But what I lack in experience I more than make up for in enthusiasm.  We're scheduled to play four concerts, go to onsen, go cross country skiing, and enjoy other activities of Niseko.  I'm really excited for the experience.  The woman with whom we have been in communication, Natsuko, has been so helpful and kind and has even set up a website.  I should still have internet while there, but in case I go amiss, no worries.  I'm just taking in the snowy scape of Japan's northern face.