Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Choir Arrives

a picture a friend took from our rehearsal this afternoon
Where is the line between audience and stage?

We welcome 10,000 Japanese people to join us in making music together.  13,000 people apply for the honor, 10,000 are chosen with a few thousand seats remaining for the"audience" who will also sing.  Several choirs will join through telecast.  They have all been rehearsing for 3 months in separate choir groupings and are well-prepared, music fully memorized, German pronunciation conquered.

In this stadium of fellow performers, for whom are we performing?  It is at once grand and intimate.  A world brought together by Beethoven and a Japanese vision.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Gratitude for Beethoven

It is an honor to play Beethoven 9 again.  Each time something new, a new awareness of something that appears as if by magic, there all along and just waiting for my ears and soul to meet it.  Different conductors, different musicians, different stages in life.  And Beethoven never heard it.

How many years of devotion does it take?  Beethoven lived in sound, and lost it.  And yet still had it inside of him.  So strong a force.  Where does it come from?  From what fountain, what need to share with the world, against all odds?

It is inspiring to be with him again.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


36 people from all over the world crammed into a little apartment in Japan to celebrate an American tradition of giving thanks.  We ate a lot of food and shared with one another the things for which we are grateful.

cutting the turkey

some new traditional Thanksgiving fare

some of the food and people

from France, her first Thanksgiving turkey cutting

more of the offerings

yorkshire pudding from our Englishmen

mashed sweet potatoes with a chopsticks

the crew taken with a friend's panoramic camera

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Eve

It is the eve of the HPAC Thanksgiving.

Several years ago a group of foreigners, including a fair representation of Americans, stumbled upon the shores of Japan.  They brought with them the tradition of relying on the goodwill of the native population to help them acclimate to an unfamiliar home.  In place of maize and wild turkeys, they found miso and seaweed.  The Japanese helped them set up their telephone service, make Shinkansen and hotel reservations online, and translated for them the ins and outs of everyday life, including important looking mailings.  The Americans were very grateful.

These foreigners brought with them the tradition of giving thanks once a year, an opportunity to reflect and eat a lot of food from the land of yore.  And some of their Japanese friends were curious about the tradition and agreed to come to the gathering and take part in the festivities, just as they had openly shared their own matsuri (festivals) and local fare.  Some of the non-Americans agreed to bring new dishes to the table, opening new traditions upon traditions to those already laid.  It was hoped and expected that the evening would be warm and full of gratitude.

One American who had purchased too many sweet potatoes in anticipation of making mashed sweet potations for the evening, thought to take a sweet potato to her Japanese teacher thus establishing a new "Thanksgiving in America" tradition of presenting one's Japanese teacher with a sweet potato on Thanksgiving.  But the ubiquity of sweet potatoes in Japan, her Japanese teacher's ability to feed herself, and the fact that this isn't actually a tradition, all deterred her from establishing the tradition.  Tomorrow she will simply sip the Japanese tea her teacher will inevitably bring her, as they look over kanji and Japanese grammar, and give thanks.  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Patience and Perseverance

A few days ago, my Tae Kwon Do Master announced that he would be testing for 6th dan alongside his own teacher who would be testing for 7th dan which carries the designation of Grand Master.  It was a humbling and inspiring announcement to hear.  I practice with their example in mind.  Where does it end, where does it begin?

Some things in life take a long time.  There are some ways of being that take a long time to develop.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sun on a Rainy Day, Starry Skies to Come

It was a rainy day today.  I biked to shodo just before the clouds broke, and biked home in their pouring.  When I arrived to the classroom, only Wada-sensei had arrived.  I found my desk, the only one with everything laid out–felt mat, brush, paper weight, paper–all borrowed from her for the time being.

She asked me how many siblings I have and we had a short exchange in Japanese about my brothers.  Maybe she was testing my Japanese or beginning a psychological profile of me to determine my capacity for following-through with the art of shodo.  I hope having two younger brothers doesn't disable me from drawing straight lines, but maybe she was looking for an explanation for the first day of class.  

Or perhaps she was just making conversation.

She started by giving me the hiragana たいよう(ta-i-yo-u, "taiyou," the Japanese word for "sun").  Appropriate for the weather.  

Wada-sensei's on the left, my final ok copy on the right,
circles (maru) indicating that those parts are good
It seems that once we bring something to her to check, she makes corrections but also gives another assignment.  Perhaps she figures that by the time we decide to bring our work to her it is time to take a break from learning from that subject.  She doesn't expect us to keep pounding away at it with correction after correction.  But I usually like to try to make the correction and get her OK.  I made a small adjustment on my hiragana for taiyou, got her approval and then set to work with the next thing she gave me, the kanji for the same word:

Wada-sensei's copy with numbers indicating the stroke order
I lost track of time.   There was a lot to digest here.  The strokes in the upper character, which I had learned and come to love last week, alluded me today.  The spacing and angles of the lower one were also tricky to manage.  I took it to her and watched her redraw the opening strokes with which I struggled, watched her stop the brush right before the end and wait, and wait, and wait, before finally completing it.  You have the time, she seemed to be telling me.  I learned a lot watching her make that stroke.

She gave me several corrections and two (2!) new sheets of assignments.  Was this her way of encouraging me to keep moving forward and obsessing a little less?  Regardless I couldn't leave the sun on a rainy.  Several more corrections from her, and then finally I got it.  She rewarded me with hana maru (flower circles) and showed the whole class of middle-aged Japanese women who enthusiastically cooed at how jouzou (skilled) I was.  It was very sweet.

Corrections, corrections and then....hana maru!

I started on the first of the next two assignments, but felt fairly complete for the time being with my sunny winnings.  Next week, on to starry (hoshi) skies (zora) (ほしぞら、星空)

the examples to follow next week

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hakuho v Harumafuji

Tonight was the final night of the November sumo tournament, the one and only night when the two top wrestlers get to fight one another.  Currently carrying the top rank of Yokozuna are two Mongolians:  Hakuho and Harumafuji.  If their names don't seem Mongolian, it's because they aren't.  The Japanese sumo tradition lovingly bequeaths them.  For the past few years, Hakuho has maintained an incredible record of having the most wins in a year.  I really enjoy watching the calm in his face before a match.

But tonight, it was not to be for Hakuho.  In the course of a sumo career it only seems natural.  As much as I enjoy his approach, it was also interesting to see him lose, the calm on his face only slightly disturbed by the disappointment.  It was a first for me.

If you're interested in seeing a sumo match, here is a link of this final match.  This is a video of the English television coverage of the final match between Hakuho and Harumafuji (with additional commentary from an American guy in the peanut gallery).  You can see the Japanese advertising, the costumed referee, the long prelude to the fight including the salt throwing, the bow dance following it, and hear some explanation of what's going on.  The actual fight starts at 4:26 and last for about 18 seconds.

Sumo Time

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Learning Kanji

It's a dangerous thing to wonder how much one needs to learn.  Turn back now should the question arise within.  The answer, though, at least according to Google (which has all the answers, even ones they shouldn't have) is about 1,000, well maybe more like 2,000, but actually, well, actually it could be a lot more depending on how you're learning.  3,000?

Kanji.  Those little characters fraught with meaning.  Put them side-by-side and fickle they become.  Each has a way it likes to be pronounced, but in the presence of certain of its friends, it might prefer to be called by a different name.  The same with its meaning.  Each is comprised of certain symbols which recur from one character to another, each carrying a shade of connotation suggesting the semantic origins of the written word.  Each must be written in a certain way, though there are general trends that become more apparent.  Which line comes first, second, last?  From which direction does the stroke originate?

As I add to my kanji repertoire, my brain becomes laden with the lines.  My essays and homework are augmented as I wonder for every word, "Can I write it in kanji?" and take the time to retrace my learning and the delicate art of drawing these figures, transforming words in my brain.  A year ago I started to learn the art of thinking in syllables and in a new graphic context.  "Iku" ("to go") became, and has now thoroughly become, "いく," so much so that it is hard for me to recognize meaning in the former.   And now the word is taking another step, slowly morphing into "行く."  My brain feels like a recent visit to the orthodontist.

But this translation of graphic meaning in my mind makes me understand why Kaneko-san seems to be able to read my essays so much more quickly now that there is kanji in them.  He doesn't even see my efforts on the page for the distance that I have come to meet him in his comfort zone.  But in the wake of my difficulties, he understands more easily.  The magic trick of meaning is emerging from a preoccupation with the silk of the top hat.

If only a kanji were a step.  One at a time, slowly but surely towards the goal I could trod.  But it would only be false hope.  A step is never complete and the world inevitably comes back on itself;  I'm chasing a goal that is as much behind me as ahead.  I think true understanding and meaning will always elude but for the enjoyment of their seeking.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Arashiyama Fall Leaves

We went to Arashiyama today, a neighborhood west of downtown Kyoto.  Japan is truly beautiful in the fall.

This is a Beautification Enforcement Area

amazake, sweet, hot fermented rice drink
Me with Ani, Simon, Christy, Nao, and Bernice

hot soup after walking in the cold

Thursday, November 21, 2013


The year is in one of its splendid moments of changing glory.  When I came to my lesson today, Fukunari-sensei told me about her recent trip to see the leaves.  She said she and her husband arrived at 8:30am to find many many people already there.  Such is the beauty of fall.  Along the same lines, I told her that tomorrow some friends of mine and I are headed to Kyoto to see the fall leaves.  It will be busy there as well, probably even more so.

I've recently been impressed with a lesson I've been learning from her teaching, the importance and comfort of showing her what I don't understand.  My whole life I've always wanted my teachers to think I understand.  Only now, after three college degrees have I figured out how wrong I was about learning!  It's not that I want to wallow in my ignorance, but there is something very relieving about trusting to someone my shortcomings, about telling her that I don't know a word, that a concept doesn't make sense.  Somehow I trust that she will be able to explain it, despite our opposing language comprehensions.  Nor do I ever feel judged regarding my intelligence, my memory, or my work ethic.

Perhaps it is my own newfound stability as a non-student in an adult life, but it has made me reflect on an important quality of the relationship between the teacher and student.  Very happy to be learning from her.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Warm Noodle Soup

It's that time of year;  I wish I could fly among the yellow leaves of the ginko trees forever.  What to do with a beautiful day?  To love it is to feel its passing.

And the same is true of a lovely evening.  A delicious dinner prepared by the perpetually smiling Bernice.  I don't know how she makes something so delicious nor how she smiles so continuously.

tantanmen prepared by Bernice with fake meatballs for me

This is Bernice.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

For the Love of Delicious

In each monthly subscription program for HPAC there is a section featuring musicians and the stories of their instruments.  Today was my turn to be interviewed and I felt prepared.  I don't really know much story to my instrument other than the way I acquired it–no Red Violin mysteries.  They asked me questions about my cello, took its picture and explained that this year they also wanted to include more information about the members as well.  Still felt ok about this.  There's a lot I don't know about myself, but I felt I should be able to handle most questions.

But then it came. A question not uncommonly asked of me and most foreigners in Japan.  I should have been ready for it.  But my guard was down:  What is your favorite Japanese food?

Might I cry with such a question.  Not only is there no answer, but the list doesn't end, the things that I will miss upon leaving.  I think people usually expect dishes for answers–okonomiyaki, sushi, udon, yakitori, ramen–and surely these things I will miss, too.  But what weighs heavily in my mind concerning my love of Japanese foods is how I will obtain my needed rations of everyday simple things when I return to the US:  miso paste, kinako powder, red bean paste, mochi, wakame (seaweed)..... These were the ones I listed, in addition to some traditional dishes.

And since that unanticipated question, more have been piling into my mind:  tsukemono (special pickles), the eggs here with their orange soft centers, furikake (the oh so many varieties of rice seasoning!), shizo seasoning (which I put in my miso soup tonight- why not, what's delicious plus delicious?), sour plums in general (a taste I didn't like when I moved here and will now miss), real wasabi, the ubiquity of sesame things, chestnut filled pastries  and persimmons.

And it's not only the foods themselves.  It's the way that they waltz into and out of your life.  A delicious thing that you find once in the grocery may not be there again.  Certain regions of Japan have things that cannot be found elsewhere.  And the pleasure of being offered something unique in beautiful packaging.  A true invitation to enjoy it while you can.   A year ago my brother and I were offered a candy on the bus (it's ok in Japan), a delicious candy, I couldn't forget it nor could I find it again until it appeared in the sweets basket while on tour.  I saved the wrapper in hopes I would one day find my Cinderella on any grocer's shelves.  Oh the joy of finding it tonight, waiting for me in the nearby market!  I trust not that it will stay, but I'm happy to have it while it's here.

And as I listed just a few of these simple things (remember this list cannot be exhausted) my interviewers suggested another I might like, a type of miso soup involving shijimi, a seashell flavoring.  No!  Oh this love and loss cannot be stopped!  I embark on a new possibility with hopeful intrepidity.

There are so many things that I will never taste.  So many delicious things.  But I'm happy to have had the interaction with these few while I'm here.  And while it hurts to think of leaving them, I will continue to enjoy them while I can, while I can.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Shodo and Sumo

Shodo morning.  Returning to river (かわ(kawa)), working through friend (ともだち(tomodachi)) and then the kanji for friend (友人(yuujin)).  Trying to embrace the curves of the と(to) and も(mo), the spacing in だ (da) and the angle of ち(chi).  Enjoying a new beautiful brush stroke that came with the kanji, the final lower right-hand finish of each character, where the brush pauses for a second before completing its stroke.  It looked like magic when my teacher did it.  A subtle curve that seemed to expand to infinity within the confines of its form.

top row かわ, from last week.  Middle row ともだち, her examples in orange, my attempts to copy in black.
After passing approval for each character she made some notes on the spacing
upon which I focused.

lite circles indicate "OK"
Shadow markings in orange show where the lines should be;
we don't have any discussion beyond approval and example

The beauty of friend.  I really enjoy this one.  I've put my example here not because it is superior to hers but because it has her circles which indicate the points of interest in the characters.  Beginnings of strokes, the body of the stroke and the ends.  Especially the final lower right end of the stroke for both characters.
Later in the day I joined some friends for a different Japanese past time, sumo.  It's tournament season and there is English broadcasting of the games by some magical feature.  Sumo is really amusing, except for the top Yokozuna (top rank) wrestler Hakuho, who seems genuine.   He's quite incredible to watch.  Only 137 pounds when he came to Japan at the age of 15 (from a family of Mongolian wrestlers) he almost wasn't accepted to training.  He's now 340 pounds and in an incredible winning streak, undefeated in the last two tournaments and also currently in this one (each tournament is 15 matches per wrestler).  In the midst of the normal staged anger of sumo, a calm of acceptance to his face before every match.

The art of perfection.  Whether it's gaining 200 pounds and throwing someone outside a ring or completing a line on a page to satisfaction.  Practice.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Filling the Time

Today most surely dovetailed with America's today which was Japan's yesterday.  I called my mother at 6:30am Japan time to wish her happy birthday.  I was hoping to Skype to see a good friend get married at 7am but the internet cannot replace being there and is most certainly less reliable.  Another feeling of being in the afterlife, unable to touch something I know is real, the sun following me in the early morning and waking the world around me.

I used the time to write my essay for Kaneko-san.  I told him about the good week I'd had.  My enjoyment of the Wakuwaku concerts,  my purchase of my ticket to America for December, new developments in chamber music at HPAC, and the fact that it was still currently my mother's birthday and that my friend was in the process of having her wedding party (even as we were conjugating verbs).  The crazy worlds of yesterday and tomorrow meeting in the now.

But before my lesson with Kaneko-san, as I sat on the first floor of the lesson building in a little alcove with tables by the grocery store revving up my Japanese brain, a middle aged woman sat down at the table next to me asking if I was a student and we chatted a bit in broken English and Japanese.  She then went on to tell me to be careful in this area.  It didn't used to be bad, she said, but recently there were these groups of women wearing all brown (even their shoes) with really made-up faces.  They were in groups of 4 or 5.  Don't get coffee with them.  Be careful.  She kept repeating these things with a very stern look on her face, once mentioning that they came from the mountains.  I wondered if she was talking about the Takarazuka Review, the all female music theater group only two blocks away.  But I don't think so.  I had a lot of curiosities about what she was saying, but chose not to pursue them which would prolong what I had determined to be an irrational conversation.  I kept saying that I understood, and then kept saying it as I packed up my things and bowed out.  I hope she can forgive me for my dishonesty.

11 am and it was time for Kaneko-san.  The start of our lessons are always a little difficult until we abandon formality and just talk, learning from one another as the need arises.  Officially, I know a lot more Japanese than he thinks I do.  (Also officially, I know a lot less Japanese than I'd like to think I do.) The redundant verb review was trying my patience a bit until he pointed out the volitional form for the word to die.  "Haha, comedy!"  he laughed, as he pointed to the word meaning "let's die."  I laughed, too.  And then we were back on track, learning and laughing our way through the hour.  We finished the three pages he had copied from my book, which constitutes about thirty percent of the lesson and said, "We're finished with chapter 4."  Alright, I thought.  Fine by me.  It's a self-study sort of book, so I find a lot more value in simply talking with him.

And then there was a flower arranging exhibit in the room next to my lesson.  Quite incredible.

In the afternoon there was a concert presented by the first year members of HPAC to the residents of Akuradanchi (which I happen to be) and so I enjoyed seeing my colleagues play and also being in the company of a happy group of our Japanese neighbors.

And on to practice followed by the denouement of the day.  Filling the time, waiting for America to catch up to today.  And now to start it all over again.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


In America, a good friend gets married today.  In Japan, I will join tomorrow morning.

It is a month before I depart for another stateside journey to California.

And around the world, it is my mother's birthday.

A good day, indeed.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Eating My Goodbyes

  A month ago my parents sent a delicious package.

The last cookie (and the crumbs of its friends) from my parents
the last of the last

Tonight marked the end of the final pumpkin-shaped Reese's and the almond butter.  Farewell dear friends. I enjoyed you the only way I knew how.