Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween

The sun and I took a break from our normal daily rising this morning.  He stayed behind the clouds all day, and I slept for 12 hours, only taking a break to take the burnable garbage outside when I heard the ice-cream-truck jingle of the garbage truck letting me know the time had come.  Who was I yesterday?  Did the people around me realize I had such sleep potential?  I hope the children from the Wakuwaku concerts are fully enjoying the wakuwaku energy that I gave to them.

And now I have a break to hopefully accrue a little more.  I wonder if the children might allow me to keep a little more of it for myself.  I have some practicing I'd like to do, some rehearsing, some studying.  Several projects on the horizon.  Perhaps in a few days the sun and I will return to our normal programs.

But for now, the dark hazy day and rainy evening has put me in the perfect mood.  I had toyed with the idea of buying a large bag of candy and pretending the doorbell might ring with costumed children, but it seems unlikely.  I've eaten some dark chocolate to mark the occasion, but left the pumpkin Kit-Kats on the shelf.  To all the adults partying in Osaka, and all the children braving the rain and cold to get their sugar fix, Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 30, 2014


Our perfect Wakuwaku navigator is back with us this week.  Her sing-song voice, inviting sense of drama, and gentle guidance of our new conductor through the program are all steering the Wakuwaku concerts to be the best they can be.  She patches over his forgetfulness and the occasionally rowdy audiences.  Always pleasant; like water, seemingly unbreakable.

During the breaks we usually see her with her young daughter, who must be about 3 years old.  Today however, she also had her son with her in the HPAC dining room.  He seemed to be about 5 and exhibited all the behavior one might expect from a 5-year-old boy and older brother.  Everything was a prop for mischief: the vending machines needed to have all their buttons pushed, chairs were given relief from constantly standing on four legs, little sisters were pet without permission, trays were swung around.  For an hour I noticed her balance the constant attention her daughter needed and the discipline he needed in order to stay safe and not harass other customers.  She was sitting at the table in front of me and as he rushed over to turn the change lever on one of the vending machines she looked at me, "Taihen!" "So difficult!"  She said it with humorous exasperation.  I said I had two younger brothers, so I understood.  She seemed to ask if they were just like this and I said, well they were, but now they're usually better.

Everyone was watching her and her children.  She still seemed to maintain her unperturbed countenance throughout; nothing he ever did was too far outside of bounds, well, except maybe trying to tip the chair his sister was on.  By the end of lunch she had managed to distract him and his sister with a game.  Say a word, the next person has to come up with a word that starts with its last sound.  On and on.  The magic had worked.

I remembered my mother pulling such tricks.  Remembered her counting down to some unknown punishment, (what if she had ever gotten to 0???) or suggesting something to do to distract us.  And this game, such a familiar one.  I played a version with my boyfriend to pass the time on the bus to Fuji-san this summer.  But the one I overheard today was with Japanese syllables and words I didn't know.  Everyone has times when they could use some distraction.

Just a few more things that seem to exist everywhere.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Home Keys

After a month of hiatus our quartet met again today.  Hisashiburi, it's been a long time.  And in the next month we are planning to rehearse and record Schubert's Death and the Maiden.  It's a long and challenging work and we added a few rehearsals to our schedule before the day was done.  Quartet always feels like coming home.  My only regret with this current quartet is that it is a home to which I will one day have to say goodbye.  But then maybe again another reunion.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Our Better Selves

It can be easy to underestimate the power of "cultural misunderstandings," and "language barriers."  In truth, many of them are likely subtle, but subtleties add up and they shade the space between people and groups of people.  Perhaps the best antidote to this is to always assume that the other party has the best intentions, that any perceived bad intention or offense is merely the cause of cultural misunderstandings or language barriers.  They happen all the time.  All the time.  Today one occurred that struck me as interesting.

I was backstage putting away my cello from the morning rehearsal and the host from the last week's tempura party came up to me and said in unsure English, "Please give me 500 yen for the tempura party."  This was both a cultural difference and a way of using language that sounded differently than intended.  In America, the custom that if someone hosts or treats everyone, there is an expected gift in exchange, is not common.  But in Japan I'm learning that is.  Perhaps I had been rude to not offer one; it just doesn't follow from my upbringing that I think to do so.  In America one hosts and people may bring something to share, but often that's it.  Unless there is a keg, there isn't usually a fee or compensation for the costs of the evening.  But why not?  The evening was worth far more than 500 yen for what he prepared for us, and compensation makes it easier for one to feel free to host.  It isn't such a burden on one person.

In these situations it can be easy for either party to be offended; him because I didn't offer, and me because he seemed to be demanding something I hadn't expected to owe.  It's a very small thing, and on the surface it is very easy to say, "Why yes of course!" but to still feel the twinge of difference in word choice and custom, which in a native language and culture, would be conceived quite differently.

And sometimes these instances arrive very quickly and there is no time to reflect on what is actually going on and we are left with a slight offense towards what we have learned our whole lives as being the right and good way to act.  And these offenses can build up and be poisonous, though in reality they are completely innocuous.

To be so different in this country requires more alertness in this regard.  It requires the practice of the benefit of the doubt.  And if we can consider that cultural differences and language barriers are just variations upon simple upbringing and word choice, perhaps we could derive at the need to extend this privilege even to those we think come from backgrounds far more similar to our own.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Black Belt Promotion Class

I stayed up last night to remotely attend a Tae Kwon Do class held in Madison.  It was a special class to celebrate the promotion of two members of the club to black belt, and another two to second dan.  It's a very rare occasion.  In March, those who would like to be considered to test, go to Providence, Rhode Island and do a pre-test in front of the Master who lives there.  He says if he thinks they will be ready to do the actual test in September or if he recommends that they wait another year and try again.  Those who pass the pre-test are given things to work on and think about, and return in September for the actual test.  It's several hours long, often in very hot weather in the sun; it's a test of endurance and concentration and the many other factors cultivated in training.

The test itself and the months leading up to it are certainly part of the effort of earning the black belt.  But maybe more so than this are the previous years.  I've been in the club long enough to have known three of the four people promoted this year (the other had moved away before I came to Madison).  It can take a very long time to get to this point.  One of them is my instructor, who was promoted to second dan.  I know only a bit about his path, but know that it includes overcoming some physical difficulties including a surgery at one point that forced him to stop practicing for 2 months.  The other second dan promotion has been a member of the club for awhile, and in the past 18 months has given birth and started raising her first child with her husband.  I saw her practicing when she 2 weeks past-due, modifying as needed, and shared a class with her where she held her 6-month-old as she practiced basic kicks.  The other black belt promotion I know started Tae Kwon Do when she was in college in California.  She then moved away, got married, had two children, began her career in the ministry, and started again when she moved to Madison.  It's been many years of working towards this goal.

There is more to these stories, and most people have stories like this.  The club is through a university and so everyone is a college student or former college student.  They are all experiencing the responsibilities of adulthood, moving away and returning, moving away and not returning, having children, looking for jobs.  It's a really special thing to have a group of people with this level of dedication.  To earn a black belt takes at least four years, but often it takes more than twice that.  That's just life.

It was a special thing to see this promotion.  And during and after the class one of the Masters in the club spoke about leadership; about how it is important to be a leader, even if one isn't in a top position.  Even the lower belts carry leadership; it's about seeing what is needed in a situation and carrying through with that.  This is one of the things that one learns on their way to earning the black belt.

What is a leader?  And what makes a person follow them?  There are those that demand authority; there are those that have it without seeking it.  Do we choose our leaders?  And what makes us choose them?

I remember my first Tae Kwon Do class.  It was intense in a way I had never experienced.  The warm-up routine was fast and required strength I hadn't imagined possible, everyone was shouting in Korean and kihoping, there were techniques and kicks and an order to the whole class that I didn't know.  It was a lot.  But when people came and worked with me during class, when they spoke with me before and after, there was also a calm intensity to their attention as they learned my named and observed what was needed, teaching me my first kicks and techniques.

I got sick from that first class, but I came back two weeks later.  There was something about it which made me want to follow.  As a white belt, maybe it was one thing,  and throughout time, I think everyone asks themselves why they are doing this.  How do we choose what we follow?  What makes something or someone a worthy leader?

I think there is a lot that is needed, not all of which I know.  But it's wonderful to see this step on the way, the growing of people that are in some way, leaders to those around them.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Open Days

I've had several days of very little schedule.  Just me and the day.  I was reflecting this morning on how rare this will likely be in the future, how rarely this happens in life.  Usually we have agendas, and family with whom we live; things to structure the time and our attention.  One the many things that I think I'm learning in Japan, is how to feel time in different ways.  Even without these rare strings of days with nothing, time moves differently here.  There is a difference in pace, in urgency, one that seems softer and less hurried.  I think it allows me to have a slower internal oscillation, especially on these open days.

What is it that gives this feeling of time?  Is it the constant deference to rules, to empty intersections with people who obey "Don't Walk" signs?  Is it living in a place with lots of other people and accepting that there will always be someone in your way?  Is it the awareness that another natural disaster is inevitable, only a matter of time; that nothing can be conquered?  Is it fear of being different in such a closed society that encourages one to stay in one's comfort zone, rather than pushing for something new and potentially awkward?

Time has a different texture here.  But it's so intangible.  Something that cannot be captured on a camera or recorder.  It is connected to the way people live, to their genes and culture, passed down for generations and generations.  What would it take for me to become one with another culture's time?  I feel I've come much closer, and the time of these days has been a good practice.  For the future, when times feels differently than it does now, to remember these open days of sunlight and rain.

Friday, October 24, 2014


Changes of seasons are always a challenge for me.  They are the most beautiful times of the year, fall and spring, but they are times of readjusting, of changing to a different gear, adapting to a new measure of sunlight.  I think there is something physical to this, the body preparing for winter, maybe altering its metabolism in some way.  I haven't read anything on this, but it's something that after several years of living I seem to have noticed as a general trend.  

As the body and mind readjust, I often feel a period of relative weakness, something unsettled, a foundation evolving.  This seems both physical and mental.  Sleep seems different with the changing sunrise and sunset, and sometimes I feel more tired.  The light changes; there is both less of it and the nature of its strength is different.  It can be a relief after the powerful, sometimes overwhelming light and heat of summer, but with the loss of light, life starts to recede in its annual way, and I find myself sometimes a little more reflective than focused.

What is weakness?  Our Tae Kwon Do teacher once asked us if we were strong.  It was a reflection.  He encouraged anyone who answered to themselves, no, to think again.  There are those that have a natural strength in their bodies.  Something in their genes, something in their upbringing, perhaps in their youth, that has endowed them with the ability to lift more, to move faster, to show more power.  But is it really stronger to be strong?  What is strength?

Sometimes the world seems overbearing.  Sometimes it is very, very heavy.  Impossible.  Sometimes we have to retreat, to reflect, and that's ok.  But our strength is still there.  I think it is from these times that I have the strength that I have.

The leaves are just starting to change here,  the air is still warm,  there is a long way until winter, which comes before spring.

Wrinkled Afternoon

Someone untangled one of the lonely swings and kept it company for a little while today.  The sky was blue, and the children were busy doing important things.  It's important to keep a beautiful day company.  Who knows when its loneliness will overtake it?  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Welcoming Evening

I think I got an invitation from Fukunari-sensei to go to Kyoto sometime to see the art museums with her and maybe her husband.  I'm always reticent about my understanding of things, but the idea of joining her for an excursion is truly exciting and so welcoming.

After my lesson I had an invitation to join some Japanese members of HPAC for a tempura dinner.  It was so delicious! I've had tempura at restaurants but to have fresh is amazing! Our host kept putting more things in the batter and oil--pumpkin, eggplant, corn, shrimp, fish cakes, camembert, mushrooms, mixed vegetables--I wondered what more could possibly be tempura-ed.  While we ate, they spoke in Japanese and his huge crystal clear television quietly played TV programs about food.  One program showed the harvesting and treatment of different rice farms around Japan and the price for 5 kilograms of rice from that farm (ranging from about $12 to over $100).  The next program was difficult to understand but showed a lot of delicious looking food.  There were many close-ups of the rice and glittering food and everyone exclaimed how delicious it looked, "Oishisou!"  And then we continued to eat the delicious food in front of us, spending three hours like it was nothing, our host going over to the stove, then sitting with us, then making some more.  I understood some and just enjoyed being there, like a kid, not too terribly responsible but very happy to be there.

And of course, going to a dinner somewhere necessitated bringing something.  So I tried something new I saw on the internet when I googled recipes for deviled eggs.

deviled eggs

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Limited Language Offerings

I've started writing essays for Fukunari-sensei.  My lessons with Kaneko-san are on an indefinite hiatus due to difficulty in keeping a consistent schedule and my focus with Fukunari-sensei.  But I always enjoyed the practice of writing essays, so now I do it for her.

I find myself wanting to share more with her.  Perhaps it's a trust that she will work to really understand my meaning and will accept it and help me clarify it.  I started with an essay about my travels in August, I wrote another essay about the activities I've done with the new members, last week I wrote one about my parents, and this week I will give her one about how I came to play the cello.

It's an interesting practice for me with my current level of Japanese.  I find that I'm able to say more, but don't know or trust the language or cultural understanding well enough to take the leaps that are required to be more expressive.  Sometimes the most precise language is quite non-literal, and I can't use Japanese to speak or write to a Japanese person that way, yet.  It just isn't familiar to me enough to entrust to it some of less literal topics in life.  

So I'm left with essays that would be about a 5th grade level of explanation.  And yet I'm learning a lot about myself and my family through them.  In the simple facts of each of my parents, what they do, how they came to be from their education and values in life, what they enjoy, and their personalities, I felt that I came to know them in a new way, one that I never would have articulated in English in quite the same manner.  I relived their lives in a simple grammar, like reading a haiku, and some things became so much clearer.  Too many words, too many expressions and sometimes the significance suffers.

Likewise with my essay on how I came to play the cello, simple facts from childhood through college that structured how things came to be.  Of course there is more, but these are part of the scaffolding, part of understanding myself.

I always wanted to speak another language fluently, thinking that it could bring a new way of thinking through different grammar and vocabulary.  I had never thought that perhaps the restrictions in the early stages of learning could also provide a new way of thinking and understanding.  It's encouraging to me that limitations can offer so much.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Takara no Yu

Foreigners are often a little nervous to try onsen for the first time; the idea of being without clothes with your friends and colleagues and a lot of other strangers just seems uncomfortable.  But I'm always amazed at how natural it is.  Everybody has a body and onsen makes this extremely easy to accept.  Takara no Yu, our local onsen, is one of the most amazing I've visited in Japan.  Many different pools, saunas, and now hot rocks, which I tried for the first time last night.  I had a completely different image of what lying on hot rocks was like until I got there; so I've taken some pictures from the website.  Pretty amazing.

one of four hot rock rooms, temperature ranging from 45-60 C;
everyone wears a yukata, and brings a large towel (both supplied by the onsen)
they put the large towel down on the rocks and lie for as long as they like
there are two mixed rooms and two rooms for women only
ambient music is playing as well

black tile and pink salt rock room
the special baths with gold water from iron deposits;
it's supposed to be good for skin ailments and muscle pain
indoor hot water pool
some of the many outdoor pools, great during the snow

Monday, October 20, 2014

Kanji for Wind

We live so many actions that trail by us, lost in the time that they happened.  Did they occur, did we live them, were we really there?  A sound dies away and then it is gone, and although recording can make it emerge again, it's movement, it's ephemerality, are what defines it.  So difficult to capture.  Where are our thoughts when we are cutting vegetables, taking a shower?  There and gone.  What is a thought?  From where does it come and where does it go?

I watched myself doing forms yesterday, played alone in a large hall, and felt a want of presence.

The kanji for wind took a lot of work this morning.  There is an enclosure in it that frames the rest, straight lines in several directions with different types of starts and stops, some never stopping.  I spent a long time studying it, looking at the movement on the page that Sensei had created, practicing the stroke order and spacing with a pencil, experiencing it with a brush, and then looking back on it.  Over and over, practicing presence, practicing time.  There's something religious in it, untouchable, mysterious, yet more familiar than one's self.

Top left and one below it (in orange) are Sensei's.
The top kanji of the orange one is "kaze" for "wind;"
together with the one on the bottom ("aji" for "taste"), the meaning is "flavor" (pronounced,  "fuumi").
The bottom four are the ones I showed to Sensei.
The top line set is pronounced "odoriko" which means "dancer."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Thanks Calorie Mate!

It took me five months and a moment of hungry desperation to purchase my first "Calorie Mate Nutrition Block," in Japan.  I recall that moment being wonderful, but since it was in the middle of winter after walking for a very long time and being very hungry, I still did not consider it a food choice.  However, the past few months have included some hikes and I've found myself turning to Calorie Mate several times, to the point that I now actually consider one of the tastier on-the-go food choices.  It's as astronautic as it sounds; little bricks of food, 100 calories each, with vitamins and minerals, available in chocolate, cheese, fruits, and maple flavors (and in Tokyo, potato)....until recently.  Recently a new flavor has hit the scene.  

I've noticed trends in potato chips and ice cream of creating crazier and crazier flavors.  For instance, Lay's Chicken and Waffles flavor, or any of Ben and Jerry's over-the-top mix-in combos.  But this is Japan and this is Calorie Mate.  The new flavor they've added to their line-up of chocolate, cheese, fruits, maple and potato is......plain.  Yes, the new flavor is "plain."  It is a non-flavor flavor.  Being of the maple and occasionally chocolate disposition, I was reticent to try the plain variety (dare I call it a flavor?), until this morning when hunger struck and I felt compelled.  And now my confession: just as I've come to love the nutrition blocks, I'm a fan of plain.  Maybe I've met a country that understands me.  No frills, just simple, bland, and delicious.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Good Omens

A beautiful Saturday in October is a great time to go to the river.  There seemed to be several athletic events going on this morning, lots of runners, bikers, and inline skaters.  At one point during my ride, four small objects came running down the hill towards the bike path in front me.  I slowed down to let them cross and realized they were wild boars.  This was a first.  Everyone was coming to the river today.  It was just that kind of beautiful morning.

We also had a far more successful concert today.  Coincidence?

Friday, October 17, 2014

White Belts

Today's concert was a little rocky at times.  Our conductor made the almost never made decision to cancel our GP this morning, opting instead to give us the time to rest.  The winds and brass players were especially happy not to have to play two full concerts today.  Their solos sounded great, but something about our ensemble was quite unsettled.  Perhaps it was the wrong decision for our orchestra which is used to that routine, perhaps she's not a seasoned enough conductor to hold us together in the difficult rhythms of El Salon Mexico or the mercurial rubato of the Paganini violin concerto.  Perhaps today just wasn't the day for us to have our best performance.

This morning I joined my Tae Kwon Do club via the internet as I often do and got to witness an evaluation for white belt.  Five new members to the club demonstrated what they've learned in the last few weeks in order to start the very beginning of their Tae Kwon Do journey.  At the end of class, our Master invited us to reflect for ourselves on what we had learned from that evaluation.  And I was struck by growth.  No one is ever born a black belt; at one point our Master, who is now fifth or sixth don, once tested for his white belt.  There is so much possibility within each of us from our beginnings through our whole journey.  Is there an arrival, an absolute perfection at the end?  Of course not, only tempting waves which beckon us back for more.  Sometimes there is progress, other times, hard work.  But we can decide to walk a path and grow from that decision.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Classical Music

At the end of our morning rehearsal, our conductor called out to us as we started to leave the stage.  She had forgotten to tell us that her friend from Mexico, who has been filming the rehearsals, is making a short documentary about classical music.  The idea is to introduce people to classical music, to get them excited about the art form so that it isn't just the older generation that comes to concerts.  He was hoping to have some volunteers to interview, to speak about what we think about classical music, why we love to do it.

I approached him and said I'd be happy to participate.  The whole affair was just as refreshing as having our guests this week.  The idea that we can do something to change the world, that there is something about the world that could using changing, has somehow left me since being in Japan.  And the idea that classical music needs reinvigorating is also something foreign to Japan.  The energy of this documentary project starkly contrasts with my perceived notions of acceptance and futility that help make life so peaceful here.

These encounters seem to come from another world I vaguely remember.  Their words and objectives come out from a haze, solid as a memory.  To say what it is about classical music that I enjoy, to speak of its colors and gestures and rhythms and harmonies and the way it resonates with an essential aspect of the livingness of life, is to remember something that I don't think I practice regularly as an orchestral musician.  I'm not sure why.  I spend much more time being focused on being focused.  To get overly involved in the magic of a chord, or the perfect balance of orchestration is to risk that I would fail to play my part as perfectly as possible.  But this is not the whole story of classical music, or of being an orchestral player.

But it is the tendency that seems to be bred in orchestras.  Conductors need a perfect machine to manipulate.  It is not the job of the string players to imagine their own stories and narratives; it can get in the way of the universal narrative being told by the conductor.  We must be perfect gears.  But I also think this is what is inhuman about the art form, what makes it so stiff.  The collaboration isn't a group effort.  It is possible to operate an instrument in an orchestra, rather than to express something through it.

I've really appreciated our conductor's efforts this week to involve all of us in the vivid imagination she has brought to her score study.  Music isn't just music to her, it is full of images and stories, and she's shared this with us.

Perhaps this is where the revolution in classical music needs to happen: in the way orchestras perform and the way that orchestral musicians need to think about music and orchestral playing.  We always look to administration and conductors to come up with good marketing or programming.  Or doing outreaches and exposing people to classical music in order to make them come to concerts.  But I wonder what would happen if orchestral musicians had more ownership of programming; if we made more of the musical decisions, if we were responsible for generating ideas of ways to connect with and engage an audience.

It's been fun to remember these different aspects of the classical music world this week.  And to realize that I'm a part of this world and have a voice in it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Being a Soloist

And today we met our soloist.  He wore loosely laced silver Doc Martins, skinny jeans that fell at the hips, and a punk rock t-shirt which didn't quite cover the tattoos on his arms.  His long, thick, curly, coarse black hair was tied in a high ponytail and his stature made the violin appear like a toy in his hands.  It seemed more likely that he would be working at a record shop than performing a Paganini violin concerto.  But surely enough, he is a violinist, and an incredible one.  He amazed us with his incredible technique and command of the orchestra as he moved through the requisite Paganini pyrotechnics.  It was more like a rock concert.  At the break, one of the Japanese members of the orchestra asked me, "What land does he come from?"  It was likely just her non-native English phrasing of the question, "Where is he from?", but her words highlighted the exoticism of his impact. I didn't know, but have since learned that he is Serbian.  

And again this week, the uniformity of Japan and the stereotypes of classical music are challenged.  It is so refreshing to see examples of other ways of being and contributing to this art form.  I don't think I'd realized how much I've missed that being here.  I find myself falling into the categories of right and wrong in so many areas of life, especially music, especially orchestral playing in Japan.  But there are so many other shades.  And our guests are yet another confirmation of the importance of every person in the world sharing their voice so that others can hear them and take strength in it, no matter how different they may seem to those around them.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

This Week's Conductor

Our conductor for the subscription concert this weekend is unusual in three ways: she is young (only 33), she is from Mexico, and she is a woman.  When she takes the podium, she brings these things with her and more importantly, herself.  It is always interesting to see new energy leading and working with the orchestra, but perhaps this week especially so.  I worked with Xian Zhang in my undergraduate orchestra, and was in the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra when Mei-Ann Chen conducted a concert, but apart from these two singular experiences, every other conductor has been a man.  It's just really rare in the classical music world.

It's only two rehearsals into the week, but I'm really enjoying working with her.  And the identities that threaten to define her seemed to fade during today's rehearsals.  In the eyes of the world they may be who she is, but maybe she's come to know them for long enough that she can lay them aside. Yesterday, she smiled a lot more than we are used to seeing from a conductor, but today I felt like she asked for more.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Of Loss

The rain comes down steadily, the wind of yesterday having delivered it, has now disappeared.  But here stays the rain, filling me with its sound, with its smell.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


All day the wind has been preparing for the typhoon that is supposed to come.  The office at HPAC has advised us to be careful during our commute tomorrow, and to bring in all the things from the balcony, including the rod from which we hang our laundry.  They tried to tell us this in the committee meeting the other night, and our translator stumbled over the last part.  It's true, in English we don't really have a word for that object; or rather, it's a drying machine. 

I went to the river to practice Tae Kwon Do this morning and fought with the wind for over an hour.  I came home, hungry and in need of pancakes.  I've never made pancakes in Japan, and realized that I didn't have any baking powder, and would have to use olive oil instead of butter, and soy milk instead of cow's milk.  It reminded me of the time that my brothers and I wanted to make pancakes but didn't have any flour, so we smashed up Cheerios.  The dog wouldn't come near them.  Lesson learned, but not really; always look for a solution.  Luckily, this morning my pancakes were a little flat and a little olivey, but otherwise, they filled the hole the wind had blown threw me.   It was a new beginning, one that inspired a purchase of baking powder and canola oil.  

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Even in Japan

All day I've heard the drums of some ceremony near my home.  Some celebration, some festival.  And every time they stop I get worried, remembering that old joke, "Bass solo."

Friday, October 10, 2014


After 2 years, today was my last Committee meeting.  It's time to pass on the responsibilities and involvement to other members who will be shaping the course and nature of HPAC for their coming years.  For almost as long as I've been on the Committee, I've been trying to advocate more chamber music at HPAC and today the office gave us a list of dates and asked us to pick two for core member only chamber music concerts.  It felt like a small victory and I was really proud of our team.  I was surprised by how sad I felt to tell them it was my last meeting, and how sad I was not to be a part of scheduling the next one.  It's so rewarding to build a trust with others and work towards a goal together, even if there are difficulties along the way.  I hope that the chamber music trend will continue.  At the very least, it feels good to have stuck with something in the midst of doubt–my own and others'–and in the midst of many obstacles and in the face of accrued momentum.  The office is taking a risk in doing this for us and we are forging new territory in saying we will try.  It takes time to establish something.  It's taken two years of learning to understand a place, becoming familiar with what it has to offer, how it could grow, and what can be done in the midst of the difficulties, known and unknown, that are present.

I'm sad to be leaving the work, but assured that it is time to pass it along.  It is a small sign of how hard it will be to leave this place at the end of the year.  But to feel that I've built something with those that were here with me is rewarding.  And to let it go in their hands as they see best is also rewarding.  I'll have no need to hold on to it.  It belongs to them.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Understanding Fukunari-sensei

Wakuwaku continues and in its numerous spaces and ongoing repetition, I've found a large amount of time to work on Japanese.  Today was another fruitful lesson, with far too many pieces of homework to give and receive.  And in the midst of all this, our own exchanges of increased understanding were filled with more meaning, more humor, more shared experience.  As a follow-up question to one of my reading practices, I had to write about things that I collected and somebody I knew that collected things.     I told her I like to collect maps of the places I've been; and she told me how she enjoyed watching travel programs, seeing the beautiful cities of Europe, how she'd like to visit them.  I told her that my grandfather collected rocks and geodes because his son is a geologist; and she told me that her son is also a geologist and how he loved rocks as a little boy and used to put them all over the place.

As I left, Fukunari-sensei remarked on how much studying I was doing and asked me how much time I spent everyday.  Not entirely sure and bit embarrassed I just told her that I study when I'm free and that I have a lot of free time now.  There's something really fun about studying Japanese in Japan.  I don't really have a reason to be doing it, other than for the fun of it, of learning to open my ears and simply listen, of untangling meaning, of putting together pieces of a puzzle, of encouraging incomprehension to gradually melt away.  And in the midst of all this, to be able to speak with and understand more people in the world.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mysterious Disappearance

Yesterday our Wakwaku narrator had a slight cough.  If she were human it wouldn't have bothered anyone, but her perfection made it incredibly noticeable.  She always stands on her mark on the stage, toes 1.5 inches apart, tilting her head in time with her speech, delivering her narration in a pleasant and sweetly dramatic tone, like a mother reading a story to her children.  Everything about her is gently appealing and impecable.

But yesterday she had a cough.  In between two words which always flow seamlessly together, she tilted her head to the side and cleared her throat, begging the pardon of the audience of 5th graders.  The shock through the orchestra was palpable.  We hadn't known she was capable of such a human action.

And today, she was gone.  Another woman was in her place.

I have no evidence for the causation of these events, but I've noticed some throat clearing from our conductor.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Skyping Home

This morning I got to talk to my parents, something that only happens a little less than once a week and only lasts about 25 minutes before we both exhaust all the exciting news.  It's mostly that none of us are really big story tellers or feel that there are huge events in our lives that need to be told.  I like to check on how the other members are my family are doing, try to think of something note-worthy happening in my life, and my parents will tell me things that they've done–gone to a concert, taken a drive along the river, visited friends or relatives or walked through natural parks, my father's current musical, my mother's work.  There are various things that make up lives that can be worthy of discussing, but also reactions to daily experiences; taking delight storms, or the change of the seasons, or a Haydn quartet.  These little things happen all the time, and they are an opportunity to share a similar humor with certain people close to us; a trust that something strikes us in a similar way, that we take in the world together, that something about our perception and experience of life is not so lonely.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Straight Lines in Shodō

Straight lines are so hard.   I took them apart and put them back together this morning in shodō class, blackening several pieces of scrap paper with straight lines, and had my first moment of feeling really proud of a character I had created; the first kanji in the word, "poet."  Of course the two diagonal lines in the second character still require some investigation but I'm pleased with my morning's discoveries and skill acquisition.  I'm on my way to drawing straight lines.

Sensei's on the left, mine on the right;
note the slight upward slant of the lines from left to right,
she gives a wonderful example to emulate

Sunday, October 5, 2014

TIFA Cooking Class

Today, several months of planning finally culminated in the TIFA cooking class for foreigners.  The volunteer members at the Takarazuka International Friendship Association had been planning it for at least 2 months when I received the flier with all the details about location, cost, menu items, and what to bring.  In celebration of the annual rice harvest, we made California rolls, dango (mochi with red bean paste), chikuzen (mixed stewed vegetables), and soup with hanpen (fish cake).  Somehow, as luck would have it, HPAC had no scheduled rehearsals or concerts and several of my peers joined the call to join the fun.  Despite being a bit chaotic, with all instructions given in Japanese and some of the helpers a little confused about the directions, the we managed to get some really delicious food to the table and enjoy it together.

Two women helped me and my friend Alex at our cooking station.  One of them spoke English fairly well, well enough that I didn't use any Japanese.  As we sat down for lunch, she somewhat boldly asked me why I was a vegetarian.  Luckily I had just put a piece of California roll in my mouth with too much wasabi, and the time it took me to clear it allowed me to think of my response.  I settled with, "Just a preference.  When I was a kid we didn't eat a lot of meat so it isn't something I really feel I need."  We chatted a bit more and I had the chance to learn that she had lived in England for two years of school, and then later lived in Wales for two years with her husband who was an orthopedic doctor.  She said it was difficult to live in Wales as a Japanese woman, the discrimination she had experienced there, people charging too much when she had to buy some new tires, people watching her in the store while she shopped.  She said she preferred America and I told her that even in America, in some places, this is still a problem.  When my colleague asked what she had done–in other words, her career–she looked a little puzzled, "What did I do? Nothing."  She had been a house wife, as most Japanese women are.  She mentioned that in Wales, people had commented on how much work she put into her family.  And she was puzzled by this, too.  We talked about how in the West, it is more common for women to work, that women are expected to work; and that the duties of the house are spread around to different members of the family, that this aspect of life is less centralized, and often not as well cared-for as it is in Japan.  It seems to be a very real difference between Japan, and England and America.  It was an interesting conversation, and I remember feeling strange using the word, "chores."  I came to really like this woman whose overseeing in the kitchen had felt a bit overbearing at times, whose directness had pushed her preferences upon us, who had seemed to judge me and my eating preferences.

I felt like I made a new friend.  And I also sort of know how o make a few Japanese dishes.  At least I have the recipes in fairly clear English with a Japanese version to help with grocery shopping.  Looking forward to the next TIFA event, to making new international friendships.

the room where we had our cooking class

the California rolls 

it is so hard to slice these well;
my colleague was really good at it

our two assistants

setting the table for lunch

preparing to eat


Saturday, October 4, 2014

October Kanji

I'm aware that I'm using kanji to distract me from the shorter days.  There is less light, but Japan is here for me.  Learning to sleep later, to ride the wave of doing and being in one breath, to have a day off, and let it be and become.  I can study the figures, learn the sounds and meaning that go with them, learn the way they are drawn and how I draw them.  As in America, the art of handwriting is a dying one, computers use our fingers for other things, and Japanese children spend less time learning their kanji than they once did.  But as a foreigner in Japan, learning to sink into the diminishing hours of day,  I find kanji to be a resting point, a haven, a place not without meaning, and yet which has no meaning to me.  Something slowly coming into focus, coming out of the shadows that keep getting longer.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Cello Class

After Wakuwaku concerts today, our cello section scheduled a small cello class in which we had the opportunity to play for one another and give feedback.  I'd been hoping to do this for awhile, realizing that we have some incredible resources of experience and pedagogy backgrounds among us, and that it would give an opportunity to share with one another.  We can learn so much through teaching and offering what we have learned; sometimes giving another person advice is a great way to ingrain it more clearly within oneself.  And it is also a way for us to understand one another's playing, to know where we are coming from, what sorts of things we hear and think about.  Musicians go through so many cycles of searching, of doubting and looking for answers, of trying and then trying again.  Every once in awhile the clouds clear and something beautiful happens, but it can be hard to remember how to do this alone when so much time is spent working with the orchestra.  Quite often those miraculous moments occur with 50 other people, and while there is something extremely beautiful about this, it can mask one's inability to cultivate and realize it alone, for oneself.  It's a skill that needs practice, and orchestral playing, as wonderful as it is, does not give this to string players.  It was nice to be able to play for others, to hear what they had to say.  I feel very fortunate to have such wonderful colleagues.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Job Well-Doing

I remembered my socks today, and arrived at Fukunari-sensei's door 20 minutes early to sit outside, cool off from the bike ride, and review the lesson for the day.  I had already done the next lesson in the book and recopied my essay work, reread my reading practice, and felt ready.  I hoped to prove my desire to be her student this week and walked away feeling much better than last week.  It isn't completely about learning Japanese, a large part of lesson preparation is respect.

She had graded my essay and I gave her my homework.  She praised me many times for all the good studying that I had done.  And now I'm left with a new source of motivation for next week.  To maintain this trend.  I have one year remaining in Japan and would like to be able to read the online children's newspaper with some ease by the end.  I expressed this to her today, because today was one of those days where we understood one another and I wanted to say all the things that I needed to say during the magic hour.  Of course she gave no direct answer, but to myself I say, maybe, maybe, if I just keep working.  There is no mastery, only mastering.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wakuwaku Bassoon Demos

One of the gems of Wakuwaku is not here this year: Christy and her amazing bassoon duet instrument demonstrations.  And yet, because her section mate is still here under a different type of contract, and because her replacement doesn't have the same thirst for arranging crazy, over-the-top bassoon duets, her voice lives on in Wakuwaku.  Today's arrangement of the grocery store's theme song was just as amusing, but somehow a little hollow, a little sad.

There are so many traditions that get passed along over the years.  Arrangements for Wakuwaku demonstrations, bike routes to HPAC, recommendations for taking taxis, buses, and trains to get to different places for the least money and time, advice on English-speaking doctors, restaurants with English menus.  Only being here for three years–and as foreigners, having limited resources to find new information on Japanese-only websites–we find ourselves dependent on what those before us leave behind.  And along with the tangible information, there is a trail of practice.  It's not just Christy's bassoon demonstrations that live on, it's also her energy that made them; her desire to create and do things for fun, to share with others.  There are a lot of ripples from the past that are still here; and so many of which I'm sure I'm unaware.  Who was the first to discover the local onsen, or the Indian Restaurant?  One day, years from now, people will play the bassoon duet grocery theme song and speak of a Christy only known in name.  Something remains, something continues.