Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Spooky Kabuki

Watching Kabuki was absolutely the most impressive theater experience I've ever had. In the words of Ferris Bueller, "It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend it."

English speakers were offered headphones with some translation, mostly the type of stuff you'd get from a helpful buttinski (Example: an actor recites two minutes of visibly angry dialogue and then spends ten minutes slashing opponents with a samurai sword. The translation follows, "Jirozaemon expresses outrage." Oh gee, ya think?!)

Really though, the productions were all so stunning and engrossing that I couldn't take my eyes off the stage. Watching these characters take their entrance, magnificent in full make-up and costume, was something I will never forget. Oh, I'm getting chills just thinking about it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Inn Your Dreams

We stayed in a wonderful little inn off one of the main streets in the historical district of Kyoto, Higashiyama. I loved every bit of it--from the very sweet and helpful proprietor, to the Japanese style hot tub baths, to the garden and entrance way--it was really special.

I even got to sleep on a Japanese futon (well, several actually). And was delighted to discover that the word futon is actually of Japanese origin. So I slept on the real deal.

It's actually quite wonderful. Provided you stack, like, two or three of them. Oh, and you have major jet lag.

Tea Ceremony

You can read a nice little article about the Japanese tea ceremony here. To sum it up, the tea ceremony is a real exercise in punctiliousness.

As a potter, I was most interested in the ceramic tea bowls used for the ceremony. These quirky, asymmetrical bowls just seemed really incongruous with the orderliness that characterizes the whole event. I would have expected the cups to be equally as fussy. But no, these bowls struck me as very spontaneous and free-form. They're the hippies of the tea ceremony, clearly.

Although I didn't know it at the time, when I first started learning pottery my pieces actually followed this Wabi (Wabi-cha) aesthetic style of ceramics.

Yes, many of the tea ceremony bowls look a bit like the sloppy, lopsided crapola I first produced on the potter's wheel. While I proudly gave these finished disasters to my mom, Wabi artists are selling theirs in pricey little Kyoto shops for $2,000 each.

I can appreciate the beauty in imperfection, but this leads me back to an old debate of mine (which I usually have in my head, middle of the night, half-asleep, when I think I have the world all figured out) on how Art, categorically speaking, accommodates a number of products that I wouldn't even consider good craftsmanship. Me, I have much more regard and appreciation for the skill it takes to produce the perfectly round, and charmingly detailed bowls at the right over the misshapen and hastily glazed pieces at left. But I know many potters who would prefer these imperfect, organic forms and would consider the others too sterile.

A part of me can't help but wonder if aesthetics like this really grew out of a deficit of talent. The Raku family has been renowned for their ceramics for 15 generations. Fifteen generations! Are you telling me that each and every one of them was a quality potter? Who knows? Perhaps at some point during generation five, Larry Raku wasn't too great on the wheel and total crap at glazing. But heck, it's a Raku piece. Raku means quality.

Don't get me wrong, I do like the Wabi style. Really. If for no other reason than it's gotten me to relax as a potter and resist editing my work to death.

More Wabi style (not mine):

During the cold winter months, the cups are thrown extra thick so that the tea retains heat. Whatever imperfections come out of the form and glazing process, attention must be given to ensure that the cups are pleasant to hold.

Anyway, if you don't get the chance to participate in a tea ceremony, you can always shell out $10 for a cup of coffee in Tokyo like we did. Certainly no less a cultural experience.

Umami Dearest

Having thrived on a diet of Umami, I now feel qualified in my attempt to describe this mysterious "fifth taste." Oh, and thanks Wikipedia!

Here goes. Umami's savory and hearty flavor basically comes from chemicals (amino acid) called glutamates. Glutamic acid pops up in many aged and fermented foods such as soy sauce, certain sharp and bitey cheeses, Vegemite (I'm talking to you, Sydney). As a sodium salt, monosodium glutamate, which we know as MSG, is used with a heavy hand in the food industry.

Also containing a high glutamate content are mushrooms, asparagus and tomatoes.

Umami, correct me if I'm wrong, roughly translates to good-eatin'

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Thanks in part to Hollywood and its tendency to tart up just about everything, you might be thinking that geisha are little more than high-class prostitutes. I know I did. I hadn't the foggiest idea what they did for a living, other than totter around in ridiculous shoes and act all coy and giggly.

So when you think of business men shelling out the big bucks to employ their services, it does give one pause...

Ah but not so! Before I set foot in Japan, I learned not to even suggest such a thing unless you're hurting for a long-winded, impassioned explanation. So, I'd be in big trouble if I spread that misconception. You can instead think of geisha as performance artists.

Their marketable skills include dancing...

Playing the shamassen (and some sort of cup/clapping game)...


And my favorite geisha game, Tiger.

Here the opponents stand on either side of a partition. Hidden from view, they each assume the position of a tiger, a hunter, or an old woman. When they're ready, they come out to face each other and... A) tiger kills old woman, B) hunter kills tiger, C) old woman--not kills but otherwise overpowers--the hunter (she's his mom!)

It's a bit like our Rock, Paper, Scissors, no? Except now you're using your whole body. And I imagine there's a lot more easily-triggered, flirty giggling. So, you've got your next party game! Particularly if you just want an excuse to wrestle someone to the ground.

Geisha can also be trained singers... And storytellers... And, you know, whatever... (not hookers!) All good fun.

Facelift and Train Ride in One

When the Tokaido Shinkansen took its maiden voyage in 1964, it was the world's first high speed train. It has only gotten faster with time and today it zips along at nearly 200 miles per hour. The thing handles turns like a steel roller coaster.

I did manage to keep from barfing, barely. And I'm pretty sure all my internal organs are now lined up nicely along my spine. Otherwise, great fun.

Apparently, employment with the Bullet Train is quite prestigious and sought-after. Certainly more so than, say, working for the New Jersey Transit. These elegant stewardesses served up coffee with a calm and eagerness you'd never see around here. It was as if they really and genuinely loved their jobs. I mean, LOVED their jobs. Extraordinary.

And--here's the best part--once they have pushed their coffee carts to the front of the train car and poured their last cup with that sweet sunshiny smile, they stand to face the car full of passengers, bow and exit.

Of course, nobody bows back. No, no that would be just too good. I don't think I would have recovered from witnessing such a spectacle of Japanese niceties. Fortunately, the passengers were all too absorbed in their papers, iPods and staring out the window at swirly blur that is the Japanese countryside from the Bullet Train.

Sideways Shamisen

I was so delighted with the Shamisen, the lute-like instruments you'll see in the video below (um, cock your head).

Musicians both strum and strike the body of the instrument using a plastic or turtle shell paddle. So you have percussion and string at once.


Is There a Doctor in the House?

If you have Dentophobia or Iatrophobia, Japan might not be for you. The sight of people everywhere going about their business wearing surgical masks would just give you a heart attack.

...and the same goes if you've got Xenophobia, Technophobia, and definitely Ichthyophobia. You know who you are.

But if you've got
Bacillophobia, Nosophobia, or are just a raging Maskaphile (No link. C'mon, use your Greek!) then come join the party!

Personally, I got a kick out of all the surgical masks. On every subway and on every corner, you're bound to see a handful of people looking like they've scrubbed up, ready for surgery.

At first, I thought it was simply adorable. I just wanted to pinch their masked cheeks and laugh with a haughty, "Oh you! Stop it. No, take that off. You guys are just too much."

Of course, then I thought about the New York subway, and all the germy straphangers I'm pressed up against daily. I thought about the panhandlers navigating their way through an already crowded subway car, loudly broadcasting their (perhaps contagious) ailments for sympathy and cash. I thought about the sick people, and the dirty people, and the perverts, and the deadbeats, and, yes, the coffee breath. So I found myself thinking, not for the first time since arriving in Tokyo, "Why don't we have this at home?"

Bright and Shiny Stuff

Walking around Tokyo is like being a kid again ...or, you know, a total idiot.

I had no understanding of my surroundings, but was nonetheless fascinated by the flickering images and the bright pretty colors...