Odori, a video by Kurt EasterwoodI finished the video below a few days before the March 11th earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan and has caused so much destruction and loss of life. It didn’t seem appropriate at the time to mention it.

As I’ve written about before in these pages, there is “something ethereal, something dreamlike” about the Japanese Bon Odori festival which takes place typically in August every year. No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite capture its essence in any other form than my own mental wanderings. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to try and try again.

That chronicler of so many things Japanese at the turn of the century, Lafcadio Hearn (known to those in Japan as Koizumi Yakumo), wrote a beautiful essay about the Bon Odori that perhaps comes closest to capturing how this festival makes me feel (you can find it in the collection, Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan, or here):

Under the wheeling moon, in the midst of the round, I feel as one within the circle of a charm. And verily this is enchantment; I am bewitched, bewitched by the ghostly weaving of hands, by the rhythmic gliding of feet, above all by the flitting of the marvellous sleeves– apparitional, soundless, velvety as a flitting of great tropical bats. No; nothing I ever dreamed of could be likened to this.

Even Hearn’s essay, through the voice of Akira, a young Buddhist acolyte accompanying Hearn, acknowledges that “you will see the Bon-odori danced here as it is never danced in cities–the Bon-odori of ancient days….[I]n the cities all is changed.”, and undoubtedly our local Bon Odori is even more removed from that which Hearn wrote about. It is as tacky and provincial as the cotton candy and tilt-a-whirls of my American childhood. But its charms are a part of the Japan I live in, a part of the Japan I never want to leave.

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Elliott Sharp at Pit Inn PosterI went to see Elliott Sharp and 11 other assorted Japan-based musicians perform his composition SyndaKit the other night at the Pit Inn in Shinjuku. It was a full house, testament not only to the renown of Sharp himself, but also to the impressive roster of performers sharing the stage with him.

I have to confess I was not really aware of Sharp until I came across the event’s listing online, and although I did do the requisite YouTube research (this video is a good start — he played the same instrument last night) what attracted me to the event was the chance to see all the other musicians at the same time — you know, value for the yen and all. In addition to Sharp, some of the names that popped out at me were Michiyo Yagi (koto), Kazutoki Umezu (alto sax, clarinet), Yumiko Tanaka (shamisen) and Jim O’Rourke (guitar).

Unfortunately, because I decided on the event late, I wasn’t really able to get a seat near the front (The Pit Inn actually seats people based on when they bought/reserved their ticket, a fair system I wish other venues would implement, even though in this case it meant I was sitting near the back). That meant that it was primarily an aural experience for me, and on that score it was okay, but not great.

A friend to whom I mentioned that I was going to the show emailed me that he thought that with that many musicians it must be an improvised performance. In fact if wasn’t, “SyndaKit” being the name of Sharp’s composition that the ensemble played. How it worked was that each musician had what was a slightly different sheet of music, or perhaps more accurately, a different part of the composition. After the group would do a run through (the length of each run-through seemed to be in the hands of Sharp as performer and conductor), they would pass their sheet of music on to the player beside them, who would do the same. And so it went after each “session” or section of the piece. (Things got comical later since the crammed nature of the stage meant that there wasn’t really a nice circle formed, and later the sheet passing became more of sheet exchanging and was punctuated by many “No, I’ve already done this one” comments.)

Sharp made some comment early on that we would be hearing the same piece over and over again, but that it would be different each time, and he was certainly right about that. Later, when it got really chaotic with the sheet exchanging, he commented that he didn’t want to tell the musicians but in reality the sheets were not really needed after they had done the first run through since they were playing loops. I really have no idea what that means or if it was in fact true, but I thought the increasingly chaotic nature of the sheet exchanges added a lot to the performance. One thing that was interesting was how one performer (violinist Keisuke Ohta) at a couple of different points spoke into the mic something repetitive, such as “Ikebukuro” (the name of an area in Tokyo) 20 or so times. I would love to know what the score said there — did Sharp insert something topical like a place name, or were there instructions on the score to the effect of something like “repeat over and over again the first word that comes into your head”. And why was it that with all the sheet exchanging, the same performers ended up doing the same thing during another section of the piece? Coincidence?

In the end, it was probably these questions, as fascinating as they were, that gave the performance a slightly academic or contrived air and made the evening just okay for me. Not being able to really see the musicians, and wondering how much they were playing a part rather than expressing something near and dear to them, left me feeling slightly cold and unsatisfied.

I recorded a few minutes from one of the segments on my iPhone, so you can get a taste of the music (it runs 4:51):


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Fillmore Posters
A while ago Google changed the way they displayed results of their Image Search. However, judging from various comments I’ve seen, and from browser extensions that have been developed, that quite a lot of folks hate the new look, which I like to think of as a wall of images.

I suppose this grumbling has something to do with poor internet connections and long load times — otherwise I can’t possibly see the problem. I for one, blessed with a decent cable internet connection, love the new look. Frankly I only ever used Image Search from time to time, but the new layout makes me want to use it a lot more, and even to spend idle time coming up with search terms quaranteed to produce serious visual stimulation.

The above “fillmore posters” search is one example. Another is the “blue note album covers” below.
Blue Note Records Covers

Star Craft II Korean Homepage

Uh, no, I’m not in South Korea. What’s worse is that there doesn’t seem to be any where on the page where I can change it, at least not intuitively. Clicking on the Blizzard link takes you to Blizzard’s Korean page. Of course, being popped onto a Japanese page with no recourse to “English” would have been annoying too.

UPDATE: Found via Twitter a link to US purchase page. After signing up and everything, I get this:
Star Craft Purchase Page

“Because you live in Japan we have assigned you to this game region: North America”. The whole thing is rather shocking localization failure on the part of a major entertainment powerhouse. Their system couldn’t even accept the seven-digit Japanese postal code, so let’s see if my order goes through.

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Lunch feast for English lesson

The other day I went over to the home of one of my students for a group lesson over lunch. A lesson over lunch is how this particular lesson has been carried out for over six years now — my longest standing private lesson “contract” as it were. However, the three to four students plus I usually meet (twice a month) at the same Chinese restaurant, eating lunch with general chit-chat for the first hour, and having a lesson over the second hour. But once in a while one of the students invites the group over to their house for lunch, and this was one of those occasions.

When these occasions come up, I have enough experience now to know not to eat anything for breakfast, and to tell my wife dinner won’t be necessary, since there is always an incredible amount of food, all of it delicious. And the student who prepared this particular lunch has a good friend who is vegetarian (of the strict variety, as opposed to the psuedo variety I belong to), so not only can I partake of all dishes, but she is quite creative when it comes to making things that normally would contain meat just as tasty without it.

Open sandwiches A case in point were these little open sandwiches. The ones on the far left featured a slice or raw salmon over a bed of — actually I wasn’t sure what the spread was except that the whole thing was delicious. It turned out the intention was a spread of avocado, but the avocado she had was not the best. She saved the salvagable parts, and made a spread of avocado and banana mashed together. It tasted heavenly although I kind of wish she hadn’t shared how it got that way. (By the way, the black stuff on the second row of sandwiches is caviar from Mongolia, on top of scrambled egg.)

Besides the bountiful quantity of food, the other nice and guilt-inducing aspect of these lunches is that any pretense of a lesson is dispensed with as a matter of course. Not only that, but the Japanese to English speaking ratio — not very much in favor of English at the best of times — gets heavily tilted in the Japanese direction, so it basically becomes a Japanese listening and vocabulary lesson for me.

Some of the new words I learned on this day include:

酒豪 (しゅごう, shugou) — a heavy [hard] drinker. The English seems to have a negative tone, but the Japanese is used more to convey someone who can handle their liquor well.
しょっちゅう (shocchuu) — all the time; always. It always surprises me that I can still come across for the first time such seemingly indispensible, everyday words such as this one (although, given the late 60s/early 70s age of my students, it could well be that their vocabulary features words that have gone out of favor with a younger generation).
老婆心 (ろうばしん, roubashin) — kindness, goodwill. The word is made up of the Chinese characters for old, grandmother, and heart, respectively.

The main course (which came after five different “appetizers” that would have been plenty for lunch) was a “tomato nabe”. “nabe” is basically a hotpot dish of vegetables, tofu, fish, and/or meat, and comes in many varieties. However, I had never had a tomato-based nabe before. Little did I know that later when searching Google, it apparently is quite trendy at the moment (this Japan Probe post complete with a video from Japanese TV program should get you up to speed).

From Tomato Nabe to Risotto

What we did after we had had our fill of the nabe ingredients (which included mushrooms, shrimp, red peppers, and scallops) was remove the uneaten ingredients and fill the pot with rice, parmesan cheese, a raw egg, and some parsley sprinkled on top — a kind of risotto. Not sure if that is part of the trendy tomato nabe being eaten by the young office lady set, or an added flourish from my student, but it was certainly delicious (for me, more so than the tomato nabe itself).

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