Friday, January 31, 2014


After a two-and-a-half hour quartet rehearsal today, we all reconvened in my apartment to make okonomiyaki and listen to Beethoven string quartets.  I feel like I've landed.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Late Winter Rainy Night

It was rainy today.  Because I didn't want to drip water all over Fukunari-sensei's home when I arrived this evening, I decided to leave my bike at home, opting for the bus and train way of travel to HPAC.  I wore my red rain boots and carried my green umbrella I bought with my brother one rainy day in Tokyo.

After the lesson, I stepped into the misty evening and decided to walk the 4 miles back to my apartment rather than catch another train and bus.  As I traced the pavement that I usually sped over, I could tell which restaurant made the stinky ramen smell, I noticed pine and lavender in the tired rain.  My boots gave me courage against any water underfoot, and I enjoyed slowly crossing the river from above, seeing the apartment lights reflected in the dark, placid water.  I enjoyed stopping at all the lonely alley lights, giving them company on a winter night, myself tamed by Japan but protected from its weather.

It's winter here.  It's in the air, in our minds, in our bodies and spirits.  But this morning, as my friend and I walked along the bridgeway connecting the train station to HPAC, I noticed a pink glow from the trees, something my father once pointed out to me years ago, one late winter day as we drove along the highway, looking over the horizon of trees.  The coming of spring.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

At Baton

A new week, a new conductor, another chance to watch someone walk into the orchestra arena and raise their baton over our heads.  I wonder what it feels like to take such a position of leadership.  I wonder what it feels like to rely on the goodwill of an orchestra that you've never to make a sound.  How many hours does one study in silence, in the sound inside one's head, waiting for the moment to bring it to life?  Surely it will never be exactly as imagined.  Surely those that you are leading will never have quite the same passion and determination to do it as you wish.  To always be coming up a little bit short and to be asking your own musicality, your own personal skills, the way you use your body, the way you address the people around you, to overcome some of the shortcomings of your vision.  I imagine it must be a very difficult task.  We experience similar things in chamber music but never with such a large group, never in such a one-sided endeavor.  I enjoy almost every conductor with whom I work, and have never found one that is perfect.  I don't think they exist, but each has something to offer, most of them have a great deal to offer.  I feel very fortunate to be in such a position, to observe so many people grace our musical space and lead us in a myriad of ways.  

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

String Quartet Rehearsal

Our string quartet is full of breaking barriers.  The more time we spend in a room together, the more ways we search for a sound and phrase that we desire, the more words we define in one another's language, the less we are four people.  We are so far from what we will become, still individuals, innocent of one another, but learning.  The unfolding of the process can be tiring, emotional, and very personal.  In my life, various string quartets and the people in them have given me some of my most challenging and rewarding life experiences.  I feel very lucky to be having the opportunity to grow with three other people in a similar but completely new way here.  Words must be carefully chosen, singing and gestures are often far more accurate.  Trust in the midst of not understanding, and relinquishing complete musical control at the doorstep of our ability to communicate ideas to one another.  It is a new challenge as much as it is a new opportunity.  We have many more hours ahead of us as we learn to work together, creating a way that will become uniquely ours.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Trees from the Forest

It was one of those days in shodo.  I began with two words in hiragana.  うぐいす(uguisu–a small bird, the name of which prompted the all the people in the class to start imitating its call in an attempt to define it), and  ふぶき (fubuki–the word for winter storm, something many people in America are experiencing right now).  I spent some time working through the straight lines and curves of these two.

Sensei's copies on the left, my attempts on the right
I then turned to the other assignment she had given me, kanji for forest:

Sensei's example
It's all trees, but some of the trees are a little different.  The right branches on the right trees are different from the right branches on the left trees.  The spacing and size is a little different for each of them.  A world to explore.

a few tree studies
So many trees, so many trees.  き、き、き。。。ki, ki, ki....the word for tree.  My Japanese friend laughed.  And Sensei came over to show me something.

Sensei's three diagonal lines and one horizontal line 
You have the time.  From the beginning to the end.  It is so easy to want to think about the other lines coming up, or judge the ones that already passed.  But then the present line is lost.  All lines become lost.  It's in her stroke while she makes it and how it appears on the page–time, patience, presence.

What does it mean to master something?  Is it the line or the way of the line?  Is it the sound or the way of the sound?  Is it in the things that we do, or in the way that we do them?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lesson with Kaneko-san (Welcome to HPAC Audience Members)

Last week's lesson with Kaneko-san was filled with my adventures from America.  My essay didn't have space to cover my return to Japan and so this week I gave a summary of all the musical events that had happened at HPAC.  It's been a busy month!  I wrote this in my essay and Kaneko-san laughed since that is the title of the Japanese book we're using: Japanese for Busy People.  I enjoy his sense of humor.

We covered some new vocabulary and grammar and I learned a fun new word/expression of the day: 子どもができる (kodomoga dekiru, pregnant, or literally "child able").  He also told me about an event sponsored by TIFA to go to Nakayamadera for Setsubun.  I had been wanting to celebrate the day and had been trying to think of creative party games involving masked devils and bean-throwing, but just couldn't contrive a whole evening of entertainment based on these two things.  Now I can celebrate by hanging out with Kaneko-san and throwing beans at devils on my birthday.  I'm pretty excited about this.

I gave him my essay and he read through the events of the month with interest and attention as always.  At the end of the essay, I mentioned that an interview of me had been put in the program book and so I gave him a copy.  He went through the book, page by page, looking at all the musical activities that I had just mentioned, amazed at the number of musicians in the Respighi concert (I had written that I had had to use 耳栓, mimisen, earplugs) and he was impressed by all the pictures of Sado-san.  He saw the advertisement for an upcoming outreach concert I wrote about in my essay that we are having at an art museum, the same one that I had given him a ticket for last month.  He was excited to see it and it sparked the memory of his visit there.  I was glad he had gone.

He looked at my interview and read it with great interest, making words audible that I cannot read, kanji that does not have meaning to me.  I heard in Japanese some of the things I remembered saying– about my cello, about the foods and places I like in Japan, about personal things that I enjoy doing.

I called my grandfather this past week.  We only spoke for about 7 minutes, but he said that the more immersed I can become in Japan, the happier I will be.  I've been thinking about that a lot and I think it is true.  It gives me great the pleasure to share more with Kaneko-san and the other people that I am coming to know here.  As part of the interview, the office staff asked if they could share this blog address with the members of the HPAC audience and I'm happy that they did.  It makes me happy to come closer to the people with whom I share music, just as I enjoy sharing more with Kaneko-san.

To all who come to our concerts, a very warm welcome to you here.  Know that I will always be happy to hear from you.  Thank you for having me and for our time here together.   どうもありがとうございます。

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Friday, January 24, 2014

Following the Japan Times

Ah those daily moments of respite.  In the middle of my day I have one.  I discovered it in a corner in HPAC's office:  the English newspaper.  Oh the glory of a lunch reading The Japan Times (All the News Without Fear or Favor) and the International New York Times.  Sometimes I do a word problem, sometimes I read the international news or just the Japan news or just articles of interest.  It doesn't matter to me.  I get to sit with the paper and some miso soup in the middle of the day.

I've followed not only the news in the paper, but the paper's physical location from one place in the office to another outside the office. And this week another drama occurred, that no new paper appeared in the box for several days!  And then I discovered it was being placed behind the older ones.  Today when I reached behind and discovered it wasn't there, I realized someone had put it in front again!  It has been quite a week.

But perhaps all these mysteries would be less mysterious if I could read Japanese.  Ironically, perhaps, someone has left a Japanese message on the English newspaper box.  I think it is either telling me to please do or do not do something.  I do read the paper, and I do put it back (in front or behind, depending on where I found it).  I do not throw it away, or write in it, or make origami out of it.  I enjoy my time reading it, but I also enjoy the curiosity behind its display and upkeep.  I'm happy to continue the chase in lieu of my understanding.  Until I know what this note means, I hope that I am causing no great offense in my behavior and I thank whoever it is that is providing me with such a pleasure.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Divided Language

As we started on the next chapter, Fukunari-sensei started to teach me a strong command form of verbs.  She told me that women don't use this form as it is very strong language.  My first thought reflected my western upbringing, noting the gender inequality.  I asked if a mother might ever use it to her child.  No, she said.  And she gave me another form that a mother would use.  The father would be the one to use this form and only if he was being very harsh, but not a mother.

Although part of me was upset by this inequality I realized that I didn't want this language, anyway.  Let men have it, I thought.  But this didn't feel right, either.  As much as I don't want to be endowed with using harsh language, I don't think it's fair that men are given the sole burden of carrying it.  Sometimes western feminism can seem a little one-sided.  It's not that I want something I don't have–treatment, language, roles, etc.–it's that I'm willing to share some of what I have in those terms and to take some of the responsibility.  Why should a child fear their father and run to their mother for comfort?

It's hard to know how much of these differences in behavior and language are a necessary result of biology and how much is simply passed down through customs.  Did behavior create this language difference in Japan, or does the language define the behavior?  And how does one go about shaping a greater equality?  As a human being, I don't want to use harsher language to bridge the divide, but perhaps that way of thinking comes from my experience as a woman.  How do I know that I am limited in my options if I choose to live the way I live?

It's hard to know what is the happiest way of living.  Perhaps it is a matter of reflection and dialogue with those around you.  Can I, do I want to make a different choice in the way I live?  How about the people around me?  How do we limit and help one another in the full expression of who we are, beyond our gender and cultures?

I have no idea what Fukunari-sensei thinks about these things.  But I know that the way she teaches are models for me and others that I know who have learned from her.  She only gives the message, sharing with it her tea and warm care.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Finding Unity

As a member of the Orchestral Committee, I'm a part of a team that meets with the office to discuss issues concerning the core members of HPAC.  It's a wonderful experience for me.  I get to work closely with four wonderful core members, two of whom are Japanese, and I get to sit in meetings with the office staff listening to Japanese and English translations of everything everyone says (great language practice). It is also a chance to understand a little more closely how things work at HPAC in particular, and a Japanese organization in general.

Today we were discussing some changes to our master agreement and the question of the purview of the document arose.  How much control should a contract have over one's behavior?  If one's behavior effects their performance at work, is it the prerogative of the institution to control it?  What about all the other people that must adapt and amend their own behaviors to work with it?  Do they have any recourse of action?

From a polling of most of the members of the orchestra, it seemed that all of the Japanese members were in favor of strict language to ensure that certain behavior was enforced, whereas only a majority of non-Japanese were in favor of it, not wanting words to be used against someone in certain situations where the issue might not be so clear.

And the office?  They mentioned that in Japan, it is often the case that when an agreement is put in writing, the words are very vague so that things may be determined in a more case-by-case basis.

I don't know where the cultural divide falls here.  Like so many situations I find Japan, attempts to generalize often fall short of the reality.  People from both cultures want to have a happy workplace, one in which everyone's personal behavior contributes to the good of all.  And people from both cultures want to have freedom and flexibility in the contract to avoid as much conflict as possible.

It is one of the pleasures of being on the Committee that such divides are dissolved.  The divide between the orchestra and the office, the divide between Japanese and non-Japanese members, the divide between possible and impossible.  There is something deeply rewarding about working together in such a way, about bringing everyone together to realize the similarities of our goals.  Differences give way to familiarity and we become more united in our endeavors.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Walking onto HPAC's Stage

After only one day of break, we walked back onto the stage of HPAC's large hall for another performance today.  As I stepped onto the stage, I wondered how many times I had done this until now and how many more I would do it before I leave.  It is one of those measures of time passing through a finite number of occurrences.   I will remember the pattern of the wood on the floor, the holes made by hundreds of endpin stabs, the path of walking–behind the bass section, towards the audience and then right to my seat–standing there and looking out into the audience filled with people.  How many eyes are watching, how many times will we see one another?  I don't know the number, but I won't forget.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Warm Returns

In the past course of learning Japanese, I've often felt silly trying to say anything in the language.  The ability to speak Japanese has never been a part of who I am.  Even if I thought I knew how to say something, trying to do so felt false and forced to me, as though I would be pretending to be something I'm not.   But somehow I think this is fading.  Perhaps it is the long break from study and the ignorant courage it has given me.  Perhaps it's the opportunity to be in a Japanese-speaking quartet and hear the rhythm of the language.  Perhaps it's becoming more familiar with the structure of conversations and what can be expected.  It's a gradual thing, but I always appreciate having a small feeling of understanding in places where frustration or incomprehension once lived.

And today it was a wonderful to reenter the worlds of both shodo and Kaneko-san.  When my friend and I walked into the classroom this morning, Sensei was the only one there.  She spoke in Japanese with us about the program she had attended at HPAC and about upcoming scheduling.  She told some stories about her family, and about an outing she had had to Kobe.  They started talking about Setsubun, an interesting holiday falling on my birthday in which people throw beans at people dressed as devils in order to drive evil out of their homes before the coming of spring.  Why didn't I know about this last year?  Sensei gave me my first assignment: まめ, mame, the word for bean.  I appreciated her sense of humor.

Following shodo, I biked one train station further to meet with Kaneko-san for our first lesson of the new year.  It was so good to see him.  We started the next lesson, and after two exercises he seemed to become bored with it and asked me for my essay.  I had written about my time in California and had brought my iPad to show him a map of where I had travelled as well as pictures of the things I had done.  I wrote that because I had been in America, "my Japanese bad had become," which made him laugh really hard and very sweetly.  He encouraged me saying that that happens to everyone, commending me on how good my Japanese was.  As he read the essay, he came upon name San Francisco and his face lit up trying to conjure a memory.  A song, a very old song in English....he couldn't remember.  I assumed it was "San Francisco" by Scott McKenzie, but I couldn't bring it to mind to sing it.  Luckily so, because now I will have something to bring to him next week.  I always look forward to singing with Kaneko-san.

It is such a wonderful feeling to come closer to the people of Japan.  To come closer to understanding what it is that is making them laugh, what it is that is giving them concern.  I still feel foreign from them and maybe I always will, but the closeness that seems to be possible in the midst of and despite my language ability is encouraging.  I few steps closer.  A bit of warmth on a very cold day.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Farewell To Respighi

The Roman trilogy has ended.  Festivals, fountains, and pines are resting and we have closed another chapter in our musical lives.  A score is opened and a score is closed, a sound is made and an instrument lays silent.  So many times we must begin something and end it.  So many times learning to let go and move on to another Wakuwaku week.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Quartet Lessons

This morning we began work on the second movement of Mendelssohn's String Quartet Op. 13.   We spent a fair amount of time thinking about the structure of the movement, how the fugue subject worked in the different voices, how it developed throughout the movement.  Our violinists are younger than me and the violist and are waiting to be filled with anything we can teach them in the realm of music theory, history, or string quartet playing in general.  They initiated the formation of the group for their own education and are extremely organized and hard working, open to ideas and exploring.  It is such a pleasure to be playing with them.

But it has been a long week for all of us and this compromised the preparation we were all able to do towards this second movement before meeting together.  Towards the end of rehearsal, after long formal discussions, we turned to the opening and closing sections–slow, beautiful, chorale-like bookends to the movement.  The intonation wasn't right.  We tried to hold some chords, which helped but didn't fix it.  Our first violinist asked us to play without her so she could imagine her part.  As we played, I saw her bow her head in fixed concentration trying to imagine where her pitch should fall.  We all played again.  Still not there.  Something was wrong with the balance, with overtones, with the way we were hearing the harmony.  Her endlessly ebullient character sank into frustration, something I'd not seen in her before, and I could see how deeply she cared.  We played again.  And it still wasn't quite right.  Another day, I said.  It was better and it would come as we become more familiar with the phrase and the harmony.

What a thing it is to want something, to need something.  A satisfaction unfulfilled that keeps us moving forward, keeps us from quitting.  If it were easy, I don't think I would still be playing.  If it were natural, I don't know that I would have ever become so engaged.  I know that frustration, the feeling of self-doubt.  But over the years I've become accustomed to its ebb and flow and have come to welcome it.  It tinges times of pride with humility and begs for a breakthrough in the deepest troughs.

It is one thing to question the influences of Mendelssohn, to speak of fugal subjects and finding pitches.  And it is also something to be with a person as they go through the inevitable trials of being a musician.    There is something deeply satisfying about having the dialogue of teaching and learning.  A way of seeing one's self in another's questions and of finding a larger trust in the process of life learning.  We may or may not find the right intonation, but we'll be a step closer than we were before we tried.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Day of Music and Rivers

What is the sound of the open sky?  Of night clouds dusted by a hidden moon?  Of light on water?  How does one share a feeling that cannot be expressed?

Thursday, January 16, 2014


With the tape rolling today, rehearsal became a recording session.  Sado-san took the opportunity to give soloists throughout the Respighi multiple chances to get a good take should fate not smile upon them in the three live performances.  We repeated sections over and over with intense focus, then ran larger sections, then whole piece.  After the final cutoff in the second rehearsal, something happened that's never happened before: silence.  For at least 15 seconds, no one practiced a passage again.  The brass sections declined to run through something together after rehearsal hours, the winds didn't try to tune something not to their liking.  Everyone just fell back in their seats and took a breath.

Sado-san seemed tired and yet indefatigable as usual, his steady energy hiding the amount of work coming from the podium and all that he was asking of us.  Tomorrow we will have a morning dress rehearsal and then the first concert in a series commemorating the Great Hanshin Earthquake Disaster.  It was this disaster that was the catalyst for Sado-san to help create HPAC.  I can see the energy in his rehearsals that it must have taken to organize the vision and bring it into being.

What compels us to create?  From where does this energy come?  Tomorrow will be the culmination and the continuation of a great many efforts.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Operation Respighi

It takes a lot of people to put together Respighi's Roman trilogy, our conquest of the week.  I don't know the exact number but it must be close to eighty.  There are two harps, an organ, a celeste, a piano, and a slew of percussionists and brass players we don't normally see.  There are trumpets and trombones hanging from the walls of the hall and playing from lobby.  The tech crew rivals that of any opera and the addition of a recording label crew has filled all our extraneous space with cords, cables and microphones.  They even gave us rice crackers as a thank you for their presence (or so I assume the reason to be).  When I commented to Frank, the man in charge of all the tech operations and equipment management, what an amazing task he was undergoing, he answered by letting me know that if I needed earplugs he'd be happy to get them to me.  I had already procured them the first time he made them available, though.

On top of all of this, Friday marks the anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, for which HPAC was formed as a symbol of hope in the aftermath.  Although I have no idea the extent of the ceremony that is involved, I do know that we will be performing a short pre-concert chamber music memorial concert before the orchestra performance, and that the orchestra will be performing an additional piece in commemoration on that day.  Sado-san, our conductor, has been tireless as usual in his rehearsing, managing the exact position of offstage instruments and coloring different orchestration effects from the house like a stage director during tech week.  He is precise in his conception of the sound and effect that he wants and patient in our human efforts to achieve it.  And I imagine that his time outside rehearsal is carefully divided into other publicity obligations of the week, meetings at HPAC, and his own musical preparations.

It takes a lot of energy to do what we are doing, individually and collectively.  And it is exciting to be embarking on such a large project together.  The week has been filled with many people, many sounds, and many considerations, and two more days until the culmination begins.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


If I were Linus or Charlie Brown I could just fill in the conversation to my own liking.  "Womwom....womwomwomwom."  Mmmm, yes, I'll have it with kinako powder.  "Womwom.....womwom??"  Oh, I mean only if it's available.  "Womwomwom.....womwom....wom."  Ok, I understand.  I hope you can break a 10,000 yen bill.  "Womwomwom."  Thanks I really appreciate your help with the check-up and the prescription.   I don't think I could have weighed myself  or taken my blood pressure on my own.  "Womwom...womwomwom."  Thank you!  And now that I learned to make an appointment online, we don't have to have another awkward exchange where we try to find a good date three months from now.  "Womwomwom!"  Yeah it's great!  One day I'll be able to understand more Japanese but I'm sorry that I can't promise to ever be able to fully understand the things that you say to me.  I really appreciate your patience in this awkward situation.  "Womwomwomwom.....womwomwom."  Ok, thanks again.  See you in a few months–take care!

Maybe in some after-life we can exchange our womwoms for understanding.  But for now I will just have to accept them and be at peace with the feeling of traction-less running in a dream.  I cannot understand.  It's a frustrating feeling with no solid answer.  But there is a lot to be learned from it.  Things to observe in the way I react in my confusion and frustration, things to observe in the way others react to my reactions, and a reminder that humility, a bow, or a smile often softens the exchange, brings more cooperation and more possibilities.  It doesn't solve the problem, but it makes the time together more enjoyable.  

If only the answer were kinako powder.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Coming of Age

It is Coming of Age Day in Japan, a national holiday where those who turned 20 in the previous year or will do so before April 2nd of the current one are invited to attend ceremonies to welcome them into adulthood.  Young people dress up in traditional wear  and after the ceremonies go out to parties with groups of friends.

Many cultures have rituals or rules associated with coming of age.  Confirmations, bar mitzvahs, legal ages for voting, driving, drinking, and tobacco usage.  Some correlate to a rite of passage, things that must be learned, tests that must be passed, worths that must be proven.  Some are responsibilities given with the simple accrual of age.  In Japan it is a secular observation in which local municipalities bring those who are of a certain age into the civic and community responsibilities of adulthood.

Reflecting on all the things that one passes through in life, I wonder what it means to "come of age."  By the age of 20 we can likely walk and talk, and have probably observed or experienced first-hand some of the joys and sorrows of life.  We've gone through a fair amount of schooling and have hopefully learned something from it, ready to launch into the world on our own volition.

But it seems there are many things that have not come of age by then, things which would seem to be a large part of growing up.  Marriage, children, mortgages, taking care of one's parents.  When does coming of age really happen?  Does it ever?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Japanese Lessons

Every time I return to Japan it takes a bit of time to resettle.  Part of me is still elsewhere.  One aspect of this is reinvesting in learning the language.  I was thankful that Kaneko-san understood my phone message canceling our Japanese lesson this morning and that he further understood my desire to reschedule for the following Monday.  I haven't studied vocabulary or grammar since last month, but somehow the ability to speak a little bit of Japanese has stuck to me.

And although it's been several weeks since practicing shodo, I channelled its lessons this morning while I used a recorder to practice a movement of Bach.  Every take, there was something more to be wanted–a note held too long, something not started the way I wanted, out of tune, too much time, too little time–always in a different spot.  I remembered mornings spent with the brush, page after page, always something more to be wanted, using the blank space on my best copy to practice more.  And I remembered the way my teacher would so easily mark up one of her beautiful examples, so free in letting it go.  I remembered finding the answer less in the copy she gave me than in watching her make it.  

There are many lessons hidden inside of Japan.  Soon it will be time for me to seek them again.   

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tacit Teaching

Th Japanese Self-Defense Forces concert ended shortly before I headed to the train station with my cello.  I joined crowds of people inching along the walkways around HPAC,  past the uniformed service people, taiko drummers, and costumed characters all bowing to their departing audience.

Having just missed the train, I got in line and got a seat on the next one.  As the sitting space quickly filled, a woman wearing a purple bubble coat, fanny pack, oversized backpack, camera case, two hats (one with a pom pom), surgical mask, and carrying a rain umbrella on a sunny day, squeezed in next to me.  An interesting character.  I scooted over a little to give her more space and then refocused on my Japanese vocabulary study.

It was only a few minutes later that she quickly rose to her feet, ushering an elderly woman to take her seat.  Our eyes met and I could tell she was smiling behind her surgical mask.  I was not the recipient of her awareness, courtesy, or kindness and yet being in its presence made me feel as though I was.  It made me wonder what I'm learning from the world around me.  And what am I teaching through my way of living?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Japanese Self-Defense Forces at HPAC

As I rode my bike into the HPAC parking garage this morning, I passed several people in military uniforms carrying a large stretcher loaded with stuff.  It is so common that I don't understand the things that I see in Japan that I've become accustomed to moving on with life if it doesn't seem to be an imminent threat to my survival or promise something delicious.  I parked my bike and headed into the building.

But upon arriving at the 5th floor of HPAC, my homebase, I found it to be overtaken with Japanese Self-Defense Forces.  They had infiltrated our rehearsal room and camped out (politely and considerately) in our lounge.  I bowed my head to a few as I made my way past the vending machines where they were pondering what beverage to purchase.  Checking the faces of the HPAC office members like a toddler reads their mother's expressions, I determined that there was no actual threat, that HPAC wasn't a new bunker hold in a war with North Korea illegible to me in the Japanese newspapers.  No threat and nothing delicious in the foreseeable future, I continued my trajectory to the practice room, noting the instrument cases dispersed throughout the lounge.  I gathered that they had some sort of rehearsal for the military band and that they, just like the pre-adolescent ballerinas that grace the 5th floor lounge every so often, would be gone at the end of the day.  

On the way to the recital hall, I fell in step behind several forces members heading in the same direction.  It was unexpected for them to mingle in our activities.  Perhaps something was amiss.  I noticed that the female members in front of me all had their hair neatly tucked in hair nets, some with sparkles and bows.  It was a nice touch to the uniform and helped defray my sense of alarm.  Japan technically only has Self-Defense Forces, not an army, though the lines have blurred in recent years.  Regardless, camouflage uniforms (hair accoutrements or not) stand out backstage.  

A handful of them seated themselves in the house before our dress rehearsal.  As I was tuning, our orchestra manager came over and explained that one of them was married to our flutist and that a group of them had been interested in seeing the dress rehearsal before their own rehearsal in the large concert hall.  No wars, no deportations.  Just people interested in listening to music.

How much is hidden behind a uniform?  Who are the people wearing it?  Behind my black concert attire, behind their camouflage uniforms, behind make-up and tuxedos, high heels and ties, there are people.  And yet these things with which we cover ourselves become such a definition of who we are, a label with which others may make assumptions beyond our control.  Is it our responsibility to adorn less, or look past the adornment?  Or should we accept what we see and treat the world as it is presented to us, or at least as we interpret that presentation?  I see camouflage uniforms, I walk tentatively and bow as I pass.  It seems there might be some possibilities lost in this option. 

It is a pleasure to share music with others, whether they wear our uniform or not, but there is some added enjoyment in playing for those thought to be beyond the scope of familiarity.  The world gets a little bit smaller and the illusory boundaries we create among one another seem to fade.  Perhaps there will be a point when they no longer exist and the way to create them is forgotten.    

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Visit to Asahi

I suppose one would never wish to have problems with a bike, but then it is such a pleasure to stop in at the Asahi bike shop that perhaps it wouldn't be so terrible to find something in need of being repaired.  As they fixed my chain, gear, light, and bell with their smiley, speedy service (their three "s" motto), I listened to American pop music and browsed their selection.  Happy children's helmets and designer children's bikes.  Super speedy racing bikes, and heavy cruisers with cumbersome baskets.  A whole line of different bikes with specially designed handlebars to accomodate children's seats.  A world of cute, a world of functional, a world servicing one of the most ubiquitous activities in Japan.   And of course, a world of many thank yous and bows in appreciation of my patronage of the their smiley and speedy service.   Perhaps I should have spaced out my needs more thoughtfully to ensure a near-future return visit.  But I'm sure that as my bike accrues time and miles these things will happen naturally, just as children will wear cute helmets in Japan.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Learning in Japan

In Japan, I'm learning to bike in the cold, and in the rain, and with a cello on my back.  I'm learning that sometimes the grocery store doesn't have broccoli, and sometimes I can't explain myself to the people who come to my door wanting to sell me things.  I'm learning that there are hours of life that are full without being busy:  that being engages time, just as doing does.  I'm learning that no matter where I am, life continues without me somewhere else.  Thousands of miles away, or next door.

It is a practice in flexibility.  It is a practice in letting go and holding on.  It is a practice in patience.  There is distance and time in this world.  How to cover it, how to spend it?  What is there to learn while I'm here?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Learning to Speak in Rehearsal

Our after-rehearsal quartet rehearsal started a little later than scheduled because the violinists had to go downstairs for some reason.  Language was beyond us in communicating the explanation, but when the second violinist finally sat down to rehearse, she looked at everyone in the group and said something in Japanese, and then tried to say it in English for me, "Late, you wait, I'm sorry..."  She wanted to know how to say it in English, so I said that we usually would say something like, "I'm sorry I made you wait."  It felt strange to tell her how to say something I didn't think she had any need to say so I immediately rescinded it say, "It's no problem."  I don't know why she was late, but if she had had an alternative to inconveniencing us, I'm sure she would have taken it.

The language exchange sparked the first violinist's memory.  "Ahhh!  Kasuburanca wa...lookingu....Ahhhh!  I don't remember!"  She had seen Casablanca recently and had learned a new English phrase.  Oh yeah, "'Here's looking at you, kid,'" I said, wondering what that really means and how one would translate it into Japanese.

We concluded our language exchange for the time being and began to rehearse.  After a return to the rigidity and anonymity of an orchestra rehearsal today, after three weeks of singing and playing solo music, I enjoyed the freedom of a chamber music rehearsal, of singing with one another, of playing our voices together.  And I enjoyed making sense of Japanese through context, of learning what was said about a passage after hearing it played differently the next time, of having the need to more fully convey my musical thoughts through my playing, of finding this space where words can be lost.

Monday, January 6, 2014

After a Long Night/Day of Travel

I've returned to a colder Japan.  San Diego sun is miles away and the lifestyle of constant social contact faded in the planes, buses, and trains one the way to my doorstep.  Awaiting me here were some frozen cookies and sweet potato soup, and after a visit to grocery-store-heaven I've come upon a new delicious variety of miso soup.  It's flavor, in a certain thickened concentration, has subtle undertones of Kraft macaroni and cheese.  I'm wondering if misoroni is a mistake before it happens or a stroke of genius that those before me were too afraid to touch.  I have an idea of which direction it will fall, but since I'm alone now there's no one to supervise me or suffer the consequences.  Oh the pollyanna benefits of solitude.  The measures of finding warmth on a jet-lagged winter night.  

Friday, January 3, 2014

Last Night in California

One of the interesting things about returning to America and meeting new people is having many opportunities to answer the question, "So what is it like to live in Japan?"  I find myself reflecting not only on differences between America and Japan but also on the different Americas that I know, comparing and contrasting  aspects of one culture to different parts of another.  There are so many little patches that comprise these cultures.  Some seem to lie directly on top of the others, others seem in stark contrast.  Some are the same, but expressed in such different ways that they seem completely foreign.

How do people in a culture reflect a sense of community?  How do they express a need for one another and a giving to one another?  In some cultures each person gives a lot to those around them and receives a lot.  There is an implicit trust and reliance on the people in their circle and there is an incentive to take care of that circle and make it as large as possible.  And maybe in other ways of living there is more independence, more self-reliance.  Both can give freedom and inflict restriction.

Tomorrow I return to Japan, a culture known for its sense of community.  And yet I can't imagine a more tightly knit culture than the one in which I've been living.  It will be interesting to once again become an outsider, to be self-reliant in a tightly knit world.  It's been wonderful to experience this other world, a mix of many things familiar, and yet uniquely its own.  

Hiking in California

California is blessed with beloved wilderness.  Just as the Japanese seem to respect the natural world around them, Californians seem to relish the beauty of their state.  We've been hiking three times in the past three days, and I can see the appeal of living in a place graced with not only the ocean, but many types of mountains and forests.  Spending several hours walking  and talking with different friends and family members, taking in new views of mountains and clear blue skies, seeing new trees and animals and the natural world that lived before we touched it.  

When we reached the top of the mountain yesterday and looked out over the valley, I felt the satisfaction of overcoming its elevation, in some small way conquering the mountain that stood above me.  And as we returned and encountered the man desperately looking for his wife in the fast-setting sun, I remembered that we were visitors in the grace of a force much bigger than us.  I realized a respect for the mountain, for the wilderness and the natural world to which we owe ourselves.  

It is so easy to become disconnected from this in our everyday living.  This huge presence that surrounds us and patiently supports our living.  To be immersed in nature, in whatever manner possible, can remind us of a respect for our world and how we interact with it, how we choose to live and consume what we have here.  It is so wonderful to have the opportunity to interact with this part of California, to see this part of the country.  I look forward to hiking its trails, again.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hiking for the New Year

We started hiking around 1pm, later than ideal given the early winter sunsets, but the mountains and blue skies beckoned.  Ten of us and a little chihuahua set off and after a three mile ascent, five of us remained and decided to continue further on another trail, second guessing ourselves as we assessed the setting sun.  The patches of snow and ice that we had to negotiate on the dark side of the mountain encouraged us to turn back before our goal and we stepped off the trail a few meters to see the view from the other side of the ridge.  The air was pristine and we could see for miles and miles.

As we returned to the trail juncture still 3 miles from the trailhead on the top of the mountain, a man approached us and asked if we had seen anyone walk that way.  We hadn't and he explained that his wife was missing and that she was carrying a baby.  Yes we had seen her earlier, carrying a baby on her back, pregent, and alone, but we had seen her take another trail direction.  His mother and brother were consoling another crying child nearby,  his expression was full of concern but calm in his need to stay fully focused.  We asked if we could help and he said yes.  We split up, covering several directions to look for her, agreeing to come back in half-an-hour.  

As we walked a new path, our voices called for a woman we had never met, thinking of the concern in the man's face at the possibility of losing his wife, baby, and unborn child, the sun setting more and more quickly on this national holiday.  Someone had been sent to call the ranger, but how easy would it be to reach them, to find her?  

We returned to the meeting place to find her there.  Her husband's face completely changed, unrecognizable with relief.  What do we have that we don't realize?

We all descended and arrived back at the cabin just after nightfall.  The cold and emotional strain of the day melted in several group games and singing songs.  Tomorrow to start the trails a little earlier.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year in Idyllwild

We have safely and happily arrived in the new year in a cabin in Idyllwild California.  The dry dessert around us, the cold sinking into the pines at sunset, a fire in the fireplace.  We played a long game of Trivial Pursuit found on the bookshelves of the cabin, dated from sometime in the early eighties.  We later watched the ball drop and sang songs for the first hour of the new year.  I cannot remember all the ways I have brought in all the New Years up until now, but I think I will remember this one.