Sunday, August 31, 2014

Happy Bicycle to You

I got on my bike with the intention of lazing by the river, but not two peddles  and the sound of the chain reminded me of a chore I had meant to do today:  get a tune-up before my two-year maintenance expired.  I went to Asahi bike shop and realized that my vocabulary has not taught me the words for "tune-up" and pronouncing in Japanese didn't seem to yield much either.  However, a magical wild card appeared in the form of a middle-aged customer who saw me fumbling and said in perfect English, "Perhaps I can be of some assistance."  If only I could conjure him at other junctures in my time in Japan, but I'm thankful that my bike can be the beneficiary of such sudden luck.

Instead of my lazing, I walked around the area for the thirty minutes that they were working on my bike and found a new path to the river.  I realized that perhaps two years I may have walked part of this way with Christy, my friend-to-be.  She was showing me the area, and I remember being enchanted by the smell of the rice paddies we went through, a phenomenon totally unknown to me at the time.  It has been two years since I walked that way.  What happened?  And there, beyond the rice paddies and the green park with a stream and the golf nets, was another view of the river and a new way to watch the sunset.

Will I remember to find this enchantment again?

They called my phone to tell me the bike was done.  I understood a little more than I did two years ago, but perhaps the most notable change was knowing that all I would have to say was, "Hai," and not to get too worried about the details.  All would be ok.  

I returned to the shop and the clerk had a few parts they wanted to change on the bike, one that needed to be ordered; she spoke to me in bits of English to help and we worked through the communication.  
I'll need to go back to the bike shop, and perhaps I will need to wait another thirty minutes, and perhaps I will go for another walk and find another new thing that has been there all along.  

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Two Older Japanese Gentlemen

For two hours Sakakibara-san and his friend ordered more dishes, drank beer, spoke to me in mixed English and Japanese, and I watched as their sobriety faded into sarcasm, "Yutaka is so young!"  his friend said.  They both laughed.  "Haha, yes I am 48!"–the reverse of his actual age.  "I was a very rich banker!  I own ten homes all over Japan! I own all the shrines in Japan!  They are my favorite!"  One of them watched me eat everything that was brought to the table with great interest, I suppose waiting for me to react.  He pointed to the menu and asked if I could read it, laughing.

It was a jolly time of sorts and now I have tried more Japanese foods and have been given a photo album of the Takarazuka fireworks and the TIFA concert we played this summer.  I'm happy to have them and have shared the evening.

Sakakibara-san and friend

Friday, August 29, 2014

Rainy Nights

Summer rain connects so many nights of nostalgia.  A memory held like a flash from a camera.  Tonight a long walk to a station, a dinner with two older Japanese gentlemen from the Takarazuka Friendship Association, being a foreigner in their presence.  Tonight a meeting with all the new people of HPAC, feeling the absence of one year and the very new beginning of the next.  It is a time of junctures, of a non-defined Japan; a year of possibility, of seeing things in a new way.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Quartet Days

For me, few things dissolve otherness like chamber music and teaching.  Few things require such giving and open receiving.  I have a string quartet here.  We played mock auditions for each other this morning, then ate lunch together, then had a two-hour rehearsal on the first two movements of Ravel.  Wanting to communicate, to hear a harmony the same way, to understand a sense of time, to search for anything that is less than desirable and bring it to an honest open space for improvement.  The world harbors a home of such trust and it exists independently of any particular place and time.  Regardless, I already miss them.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New Members

HPAC was teeming with introductions;  new members have arrived from overseas and were taking advantage of a break in their orientations to get some practice time.  New faces, new voices, new ways of moving, and a renewed breath of excitement for the coming year.  All were wide-eyed at the wonder of being in Japan, excited to have arrived, anticipating the opportunity to make music together.  They expressed concerns and asked questions I remember coming from my own mouth when I first arrived; they mentioned their frustration with the language and the resolution to fix the problem by studying,  they asked me if I was going to try to stay in Japan after HPAC.  Such enthusiasm and hope for this new home!  Such a strange relationship to wish to dive into something so foreign. And yet I remember it so well and can still relate to those feelings.  They are still in me.  But the time here has changed the perspective a little.  

I still study Japanese with the quest for communication and understanding, but I've also come to accept the chimera of understanding's source.  The study of Japanese and the quest to connect to the people that speak it have been a gateway to this realization in general and hopefully a liberation from the construals that I often so easily make of the world; there are many ways to connect, but never is one entitled to understanding, never can one assume to have grasped anything and certainly not anyone.

Sometimes I fantasize about continuing life in Japan.  There is no end to wanting to master the language, to find the feeling of home and belonging in this new place thousands of miles away from familiarity.  To be here is to want to keep trying to find that place, to prolong the search for it.  But with one year remaining and thousands of kanji to go, I wonder if one ever finds their place other than within.  How does one ever bridge "otherness" with the rest of the world, with the other people in it?  I think it may be in the quest to do so that it can happen.  Perhaps I have the same enthusiasm as those who have been here for less than a week, but I'm aware that it may have to suspend itself in midair, that sometimes there are no pillars of support or reason.  To continue practice for the sake of practice, to live for the sake of living, to feel the breath of others and the possibilities they bring.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Waves of Goodbyes

My friend who always called the taxi company to make a reservation for early-morning pick-ups is no longer here to do so.  And so last night I had to find the number in my phone that he had dialed six months ago, had to review the anticipated vocabulary, had to find the courage to hit the call button; and then slowly worked with the gentlemen on the other end, hoping that at 6am this morning our communication would have proven fruitful.  But like so many magical things in Japan, the taxi was there, the driver standing outside, waiting for us when we walked out the door at 5:55am.

And then another goodbye.  And another wake of a wave that is no longer here.  People leave and how do we enfold the space that they opened?  Maybe it's age, maybe it's the distance of Japan, maybe it's the time lapse such distance causes between encounters.  The ocean seems far more vast and every wave seems both more trivial to its greatness and more integral to its existence.  And together there is a rocking that comforts, that ensures an eternal return.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Return Home

I've returned to the buildings of Akuradanchi and in my absence some of my good friends have departed.  Soon (already?) their rooms will be replaced with this year's first year members.  One space to another, the shell is passed along.  Meeting new insides in a matter of days.  The walk to the supermarket today reminded me of my first fall, the red seeds of wonder in a new land.  From where does wonder come?  So many goodbyes this month and the days are getting shorter.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


This week at Affinis Music Festival has been a week of welcome, of new friends from America, Germany, and Japan, of Japanese translated into German, of chamber music and chamber orchestra, of engaging musical experiences, of new Japanese terrain.  After two years of playing in an orchestra in Japan, I admittedly sometimes feel stifled, sometimes feel alienated from the place where I live.  It can be hard to fit into a different culture, hard to navigate a world and interact with it when I don't speak or read the language, hard to feel welcome or be open to welcome after the initial welcoming period has ended, tiring to blend my voice with a hundred others and follow one artistic direction on the podium, challenging to relinquish my own identity for the sake of playing and working with others.  These are challenges that I feel in Japan, challenges I feel from playing in an orchestra, challenges of being with a small group of friends who are also feeling these challenges.  It has been reinvigorating to perform chamber music again, to have a new beginning, new introductions, new welcomes.

There is so much power in novelty.  There is certainly a great deal of value in having new experiences. But there is also the danger of relying on new experiences to escape what we have established, to break from responsibility when it is difficult for the breath of new smiling faces and new horizons of possibility.  I'm extremely grateful to have had this experience, but also grateful to return to a my home in Japan, my life in the orchestra and all the challenges that will await me there.  Perhaps with an approaching horizon for my time in Japan, the future will present a counterpoint which will bring the present into a novel sort of relief.   These periods of feeling alive, knowing that there will be an end, being aware of it, and seeing the everyday as something unique and irreplaceable; a new, old way of being.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Two Young Conductors

The musicians at the Affinis Music Festival along with members of the Yamagata Symphony became the "AIUE" Orchestra to perform a children's concert this morning.  "AIUE" seemed liked a strange name to me until someone explained that it is the first letters of the Japanese alphabet, akin to English's "ABC."

As part of the concert, the conductor invited two children to the stage to have a turn conducting part of the Prelude to Carmen, an fast, excited piece.  They stood on the side of the stage, getting a few instructions and being interviewed before their experience; both were nervous.  The boy went first and started the orchestra with a huge, slow downbeat.  Unlike these experiences I've had in America, the orchestra actually followed him.  We went along slowly for 16 measures or so, almost falling apart at one point, and not playing the final stinger until the conductor told him it wasn't finished yet.  He did it, everyone applauded him, and despite his fear and shaky ending, he bowed to the audience, then turned and bowed to the orchestra, thanking us for the experience.

The next conductor was so nervous that it seemed she was afraid to actually go through with it.  "What should we do?" the conductor asked the host of the program.  She replied to him and the little girl, "Conducting is really fun, let's all take a big breath together," and the whole audience and orchestra took a breath in and released it with her and the conductor held her hand and they walked to the podium.  As he had with the boy before her, he instructed her to say, "Would you please?" to the orchestra, and let her begin.  Despite her fear, there was a finality to all her gestures, a strong endpoint to every stroke.  There was a naturalness to her movements, something she surely had no awareness of possessing.  She finished and bowed to the audience, having overcome something terrifying.

It was a lesson in humility and gratitude in the midst of discomfort; a lesson in pushing through for the sake of what one can give to others.  I learned something from both of these children and neither knows it.  How many people do we touch even as we doubt ourselves?  And what can we give by encouraging others to overcome their fears?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Chamber Music in Yamagata

It is so invigorating to be in this new place in Japan, to be playing and performing chamber music, to be meeting new people from around the world and within this country, mixing Japanese and English, mixing different cultures. There was a thunderstorm yesterday, something that never happens in the Kansai area. Just a few steps away, just a few news words, a few new people, and life is different.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


This morning, a trip to Yamadera, meaning "Mountain Temple,"  the historic home to the Tendai sect of Buddhism.

the entrance 

close to the top

view of Yamadera

viewing point

view from the top

money growing on trees (yen wedged into the bark)
close up of money tree
more money
A beautiful 20 minute ride from Yamagata.  Yamas, yamas everywhere, stairs and views abound.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Is there such a thing as an original voice? If we search for something from within, will it come to us?  Sometimes I hear another and it inspires me to bring something forth, something that is more than myself but which can only actually be coming from within. And from where did these sources of inspiration divine themselves? Surely from another. And they? From where does it come, where is the original voice? It is within and without. If I call to it, perhaps it will hear me; perhaps it will answer in my calling, perhaps in another's.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Brahms Viola Sonatas

My body is tired after days of moving and conbeni food.  I wanted to go to a workshop today, to hear people play Brahms viola sonatas, but I was too tired and took a nap.  In a daze I awoke, and found a youtube recording of Pinchas Zukerman playing them with Daniel Barenboim.  I stared out the window and watched the sunset behind me on the mountains for an hour, waiting for time to pass, for the clouds to go by, for airplanes to be noticed by me in their solitary flights.  Watching the skies, listening, waiting for a return from Tokyo, thinking how many things in this world are wonderfully right.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Rehearsals Begin at Affinis

After a whirlwind of hiking and hospitality, of seeing many sides of Japan from trains and mountains and tables of incredible food, it's cello time again.  Today was the beginning of our rehearsals for Spohr double quartet and Stravinksy's Pulcinella Suite.  I always enjoy having a break to see the world without the backbone of music, but even more so I always enjoy returning to it again.  It's become a companion on many continents, in many ways of life, a constant through time.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Japanese Hospitality

Japanese hospitality abounds. Yesterday Hata-san–a retired Japanese profesor who Andrew met during his study in Cambridge–wanted to show us Tokyo.  He met us at our closest train station already carrying train tickets for us.  Throughout the day he treated us to street food, two lunches, two dinners, a ferry ride, and an itinerary worthy of any great date.  He paid for all the trains, all the taxies, all the entertainment.  One surprise after another from this very genki seventy-two-year-old man.

we began by going to the Sky Tree
at 10:30am, the earliest reservation we could get was 3:30

so we went to Asakusa and looked at the vendors and shrine

Tokyo Sky Tree from Asakusa

a fried red bean paste treat, street food in Asakusa
the first of many treats from Hata-san 

Andrew and Hata-san and many plastic dinner 
the wind was so strong it was unsafe to go up the Sky Tree that day
instead we went to a nearby building to see Tokyo from above

so many people live here

Hata-san took us to a restauran on the 31st floor and treated us to smoothies and a pizza

view from the restauran
we then returned to Asakusa and caught a ferry

and travelled down the Sumida River through Tokyo during sunset

our boat arrived at Odaiba where we had an Italian dinner
(with a night view of the Rainbow Bridge)

after filling ourselves with Italian food, Hata-san wanted to take us to one more restaurant in Ginza
this picture is from the taxi driving through Ginza's upscale shopping district

there was a private room waiting for us and somehow we found more room in our stomaches
for an entourage of Japanese dishes

the restaurant outside our private room

finally, we caught the train from Ginza to return to our apartment
Today Andrew and I arrived in Yamagata where I will participate in the Affinis Music Festival.  Of course there was an opening reception and as I don't drink, one of the executives took it upon himself to stock me with the amazingly delicious juices there.  Yamagata is known for its delicious fruits and  the pear juice I had at the table was certainly remarkable, but I had no expectation to walk out with any for later.  He left me, got a bag, and filled it.

my acquired juice
 There was also a performance by four maico (geisha in training).  They danced and then afterwards entertained the room, filling glasses with sake and beer, handing out and receiving business cards, taking pictures with people, and having light conversation.  I received cards from two of them as well as a name card which is supposed to bring me money if I put it in my wallet.

cards of two Yamagata maico

Throughout the evening, several brave Japanese people came over and spoke to me, allowing their conversations to slow to halt as I worked through vocabulary and grammar to express elementary ideas.  From expense, to gifts, to time, I'm feeling very welcomed by the show of generosity these few days.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


In the last 24 hours Andrew and I managed to find a way to use the internet in Tokyo.  No small task.  We went into many convenient stores, electronic shops, coffee shops, even McDonald's looking for free wifi.  In the end Starbucks was the answer but ironically, one needs the internet in order to register for the service.  I called a friend who set up the account for us and we can now access our email and the world wide web.

In the last 24 hours we also climbed Mt.Fuji.  It was an incredible experience; beautiful, tiring, cold, scary at times.  We went on a pilgrimage with thousands of others, standing in line to go up the mountain.  Children and elderly people were in the groups with us.  Our journey first took us to the the Eighth Station where we stayed for a night.  We arrived around 6:30pm, close to dark and were led through a labyrinth of bunked beds to our place.  We shared the bed space with two other Japanese hikers.  Most people went to sleep around 8pm, hoping to get up early for a hike to the summit for sunrise.  Throughout the night,  people shuffled, inhaled oxygen, and dealt with the nausea and headaches of altitude sickness.  Around 1:30am one of our bedmates came back to report that there were tons of people already on the trail.  We had planned to leave at 2:30am, overestimating the 80 minutes needed to get to the summit for a 4:45am sunrise in order to account for the crowds.  But we got up and got in line and waited in the cold misty wind for the three hours, staring above us as the trail of headlamps vanished into the the dark fog above us.  Was there an end to this mountain?  

The sun never appeared to us.  We found shelter and miso soup at the top and then wound our way down.  The experience has yet to settle for me.  At times, it was exhilarating and beautiful to share the pilgrimage, everyone pushing through together.  There was some sense of camaraderie and perhaps if we had seen a little more of the horizon in the morning, if it hadn't been so cloudy, it would have been different.  Certainly, it was beautiful.  Again?  Perhaps, perhaps.  
Mt.Fuji before we began

assessing the map

people getting ready to depart from the 5th Station

the beginning of the hike

near the 6th Station

7th Station


above the clouds

7th Station

trailing up the mountain

in our hut

hikers preparing for the night hike

headlamps up the mountain

the last picture I could take as the fog thickened

getting warm at the summit

terrain on the descent

the fuel