Saturday, October 27, 2007

Let's Ride the Shinkansen on a Rainy Day in Early October!

I'm going to cheat a little here. You'll understand how in a moment. Here it comes... the mighty shinkansen! That's the "bullet train" to you and me, Russ. Sixteen cars, from Hamamatsu in under two hours, or if you take the faster ones about an hour and 15 minutes. The shinkansen have been running since 1964 and there's only been one derailment.

That was during the Niigata earthquake a couple of years ago. Contrast this to America, where we can't even have a normal train go between two cities without jumping the rails and dumping toxic waste into the watertable.

This photo was taken in Hamamatsu:

We've got reserved seats, so there's no need to hurry.

I love riding the shinkansen. It often makes me sleepy, but I'm too afraid to allow myself to be lulled that way. A couple of friends of mine once fell asleep on the shinkansen coming back to Toyohashi from Osaka and ended up in Tokyo. They had to walk around the rest of the night until the first one left for points west the next morning.

This ride begins on September 30th, the day I left for Tokyo to see Melt-Banana:

The interior of the shinkansen is clean and comfortable. It reminds me of a jetliner:

And this photo was taken early the next morning, leaving Tokyo:

From Tokyo Terminal until somewhere near Atami, Japan is incredibly urbanized. Sometimes you feel a little claustrophobic:

And sometimes you travel through a vast environment of office and apartment buildings and small houses stretching from horizon to horizon. Caffeinated beverages can help you stay awake:

Eventually, you pass through a region of mountains and smaller cities. This particular October 1st the skies were dark and gray, with swiftly moving clouds. The land below looked dark and damp and cold:

The skyline is marred sometimes by forests of electrical towers:

I love sights like these- small houses clustered together on a steep hillside. Japan is one country that knows how to use its limited space efficiently. These houses look like something out of a Miyazaki Hayao animated film:

My father would've appreciated some of the agricultural vistas:

I really loved how the mountains were swimming with clouds:

This is what Japan looks like to me. I'll remember these sights as long as I live, from rushing along at impossible speeds, on that miracle of engineering... the shinkansen. I find it hard to believe my home country doesn't have one of these.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Novastorm '07: The Bankruptcying

On a gray and storm-washed day here in Hamamatsu, a strange sight: the Nova branch where I invested 13 months of my life, the lights off, a sidewalk bare of its penants. No pink bunny, no children running in madcap circles around their mothers' legs by the Starbucks.

Nova filed for bankruptcy today and shut its doors pending reorganization. I'm not sure what's going on with the 2 friends of mine who still work there. One is married and has two children, the other is unmarried as far as I know and fancy-free to come and go as she might. I also have no idea what will become of the staff I knew (assuming any of them still work there after not having been paid since July), or the students who suffered through my lousy-ass lessons.

As for me, I'm weathering the typhoons (another one approaches us as I write this) and looking forward to blue skies and smooth sailing. My boss poked his head into my classroom this afternoon and said, "You are lucky!"

Don't I know it. I got out at just the right time. My heart said "Jump!" and for once my brain agreed, so I jumped.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Novastorm '07: An Ominous Development

When four of your top execs (including one co-founder) suddenly resign, Labor Standards wants to talk to your president... and he can't be found... you know your company is in deep trouble. I've read predictions that Nova would go belly-up in November. It's looking more and more like those predictions weren't hysterical (my initial impression) but actually quite conservative.

Hmm. Well, I never claimed to be a business-financial guru. Okay, so maybe I did. But that was just to secure a multi-million dollar loan for some personal projects. And as far as the state of New York is concerned, I've made ample restitution. So let's just forget that little incident, shall we?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

At Least This Involves One of the Few Japanese Foods I Can't Abide!

A 300-year-old confectionary company has been rocked by scandals involving their falsification of production dates on their sweet bean jam products. I've eaten a very few of these treats, usually brought back from vacation trips by students at both Nova and my current school; I'm not sure if I've eaten any by this particular firm, but it's a possibility.

I don't eat them often, though. Because while it's rare for me to find a Japanese food I don't like, this is one of them. It's not that sweet bean jam is so terrible. It's just that its stickiness, its mild sweetness and curdlike consistency combine to produce in me a lack of interest.

Here I'm known as the gaijin who can eat everything. The more exotic, the less likely everyone thinks it is a foreigner can stomach it, the more I want to try it. And the more I usually like it. I've eaten soup made from fish heads, bones and skin... a feat that had an entire customer base of a sushi restaurant gaping at me with amazement and declaring, "You are Japanese!"

That's a constant refrain accompanying my culinary stunts of derring do. "You are Japanese!" Using hashi (chopsticks), "You are Japanese!" Eating natto (sticky bean stuff) and declaring it delicious, "You are Japanese!"

Raw fish? Japanese. Raw horse? Japanese. McDonald's? Japanese.

And yet I haven't quite grasped the concept of traditional Japanese sweets. To me, they seem less like desserts (which should be a reward) than something you have to endure (almost like punishments for having finished your meal!). Japanese chocolate, on the other hand, comes in a mighty array of wonderfully delicious configurations. This place is like Willy Wonka's utopian dream. Because the Japanese aren't as into sugar as say, Americans, chocolate here tends to have a truer chocolately taste, unhindered by excessive sweetness. You can savor the roast cocoa bean essence.

But sweet bean jam? What's the point of that when your country produces Melty Kiss?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Novastorm '07 Continues...

Now it looks as though the teachers' unions are getting into the act, calling for the indictment of Nova president Sahashi Nozomu. There's one line in this story that's telling:

Nova has also failed to pay wages on time to about 2,000 Japanese employees over the past three months.

It's bad enough that Nova's delaying payments to its teachers, but once again they show their willingness to really stick it to the Japanese staff. I guess I'm assuming these 2,000 Japanese employees are largely the overworked, underpaid, mostly female branch employees who come early (before the teachers) and stay late (after the teachers) every single day.

Definitely bad times for Nova teachers, staff and students. Because I have friends who are still teachers and students there, I hope Nova can pull out of this but as the situation intensifies, it's looking less likely.

On the other hand, let me tell you how lucky I feel to be working in a student-oriented setting with a family-style atmosphere. I'm as content with my own situation as I can remember being for a long time.

So much so that I recently agreed to sign up for another year, starting next March. That means I'll have those travel opportunities I was hoping for. Hong Kong and Vietnam, here I come! Also, I'll get to enjoy one more Hamamatsu Matsuri (my health was such that I couldn't really indulge in the fun last spring), another sakura season, and at least one more horrifically humid Japanese summer.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Best Melt-Banana Interview I've Ever Read...

It's from the Japan Times Online, and it explains a lot about why I'm attracted to this whole Melt-Banana phenomenon. In it, interviewer Simon Bartz talks to Yasuko (the singer) and Agata (the guitarist... bassist Rika doesn't participate in interviews) and lets them explain their new "pop" direction.

And when Melt-Banana talks about going pop, it's like Jackson Pollock claiming his later works were representational. If he ever did that, which I doubt. But is roughly in the same realm of possibility as a pop album by Melt-Banana.

This is Melt-Banana doing "pop:"

Yasuko and Agata seem to be excellent interviewees as well. To hell with sullen, ungrateful "rock royalty" with surly, belligerent responses even to simple questions. Reading these responses just affirms a lot of what I wanted to believe about them in the first place- charm, joy in making music, clear articulation of their aesthetics and goals.

Interestingly, Bartz asks them what they think of playing for 100 people in Shinjuku and 1000 people in Brighton, UK. When I saw them on September 30 of this year, in Shin-Okubo, there were a lot more than 100 people there; the show sold out and the club was absolutely packed. Granted there were 5 bands on the bill but from the audience mayhem that erupted during Melt-Banana's set, I'd say more than 100 of those people were there specifically for Yasuko and company. I don't think it's journalistically objective to build this myth of the "popular abroad/ignored at home" dichotomy.

Their sound isn't accessible for mainstream music fan, or even the listener wanting Radiohead or Coldplay. It isn't meant to be, so comparing them to more melodic acts in terms of audience turnout is a bit disingenuous, maybe a little bit of reverse-elitism common in music subcultures. Our thing is more special than your thing, those 100 fans are the cognoscenti. The same people who promote this false dichotomy would become outraged if all the Tool fans (Melt-Banana toured earlier this year with Tool) suddenly glommed on in a superficial way.

Those are not the true believers! They're not of the family.

And yet each time I've seen Melt-Banana, it's been in sold out venues. Small venues, to be sure. But packed and thronging and sweaty and full of dedicated MxBx addicts like myself. The myth-making begins? Or is well under way?

The horrific thing is, some of that same elite cadre may take the latest CD as "selling out." That's the other Faustian bargain bands make when they appeal to a hardcore subculture and maintain a personal accessibility (Rika's silence notwithstanding... although her bass does a powerful, persuasive amount of talking on its own) while creating such an idiosyncratic body of work. Any sign of growing beyond what fans have come to expect isn't seen as musical growth or evolution, but as a personal betrayal of whatever unspoken contract or manifesto exists between band and fans. The end result is musical typecasting.

In its most ridiculous form it consists of cowardly acts like Pearl Jam and Oasis releasing virtually the same album year after year. But it also consists of bands graduating from a local scene and being lambasted by those they left behind. I'm no fan of theirs, but the rise of Green Day is an example of this. You can watch "Behind the Music" or whatever documentaries there are about their early days to see this phenomenon in action. REM and Weezer both have been victimized by this mentality as well.

I'm going to bend a personal rule now and give you some advice: If Melt-Banana bring their "Bambi's Revenge" tour to a location near you, go and see them. Given their legendary status as road warriors, there's a good chance they'll be playing at a time and venue you'll find quite convenient.

Failing that, watch this (MTV-rejected) video:

It features the classic line, "I'm looking for the best American beef. Give me 50 burgers."

And failing that, enjoy my Shin-Okubo show pictures here and here.

Actually, what you want to do is open the videos in separate windows, then listen to them in the background while you look at my awesome photos. Then go see Melt-Banana live and thank me with money.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

This Would Never Have Happened in America...

Shoplifters killed a 7-11 clerk to death in Osaka. The clerk saw them stealing, then chased them out of the store and one of them stabbed him to death with a knife. This would never have happened in the States, because there the thieves would've been armed with automatic pistols and just shot the clerk to death before looting the store at will.

It's interesting that an incident like this makes the national news here in Japan because it was a murder. In America, where it's open season on convenience store clerks year-round, the only reason this might've been noteworthy is novelty factor in that it was a stabbing and not a shooting. What kind of self-respecting convenience store criminal uses a mere knife? Must be some kind of throwback day or something!

The news story also notes one of the suspects, a 19-year-old man, turned himself into police. What? Didn't he realize he was supposed to go back and brag about what he'd done to all his friends and on videotape in order to build his reputation as a local bad-ass? And then go to jail?

Japan, so advanced in many ways, lags behind in crime technology and culture.

But according to many of my students, Japan is rapidly catching up. In my Bentenjima class this week, the lesson was about precautions you should take when traveling abroad. For example, keep an eye on your bag at all times, protect your passport, stay out of Detroit, don't involve yourself in international diamond heists, avoid certain areas of both Chechnya and Baghdad. Myanmar, while featuring plenty of tourist bargains currently, is probably not someplace you want to spend your upcoming 3-day weekend.

Not too long ago, these students didn't even bother to lock their doors at night! That was unthinkable back home even when I was a sheltered suburban kid back in the oh-so-innocent 1970s. But they knew practically everyone in town so there didn't seem to be a need.

There are probably some isolated areas out in the hinterlands here where that's still true. And while crime is certainly increasing here (and there have been some horrific ones this year), it's comforting to live in a country where something like a convenience store murder makes national news because it's so rare.

As opposed to being taken for granted as just one of the hazards of the job.

Melt-Banana at Earthdom (Shin-Okubo, Tokyo), September 30, 2007: Photos!

My trip to Tokyo went exceedingly well. I found my hotel without too much trouble, and only had to contend with a wet, chilly day. Earthdom is a small place in the basement of the Lisbon Building in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo. All you have to do is cross the street outside the station and turn right, walk for about a minute and you're there. But it's an easy place to miss.

Five bands played that night. I was in front, center stage for the first band. Two drummers (one was a tall young woman in a knit cap) and a keyboardist, and stockily muscular lead singer who soon jumped into the audience, sending me in search of a safer vantage point. That set the tone for what turned out to be an action-packed night of aggressive sound and wildly gyrating people screaming nonstop.

The bands were pretty aggro, too.

Almost three hours into it and close to their scheduled starting time (this is Japan, after all), Melt-Banana took the stage.

This was the third time for me. And once again, Melt-Banana didn't disappoint. Rika laid down the bass, Agata assaulted his battered red Gibson and Yasuko yelped and barked into the microphone, moving into all the key Yasuko poses Melt-Banana fans have come to know and love.

This is my favorite photo of the night, one of the few I got that captured Agata at work, and with some kinetic visual effects around Yasuko:

I was on the Rika side of the stage, and at approximately 1 minute into the first song I got tired of having my jaw rattled by the moshers, so I forced my way back from the stage. I still managed to get a few decent shots of Rika:

But many of the photos consist mostly of Rika's head or Yasuko's bobbing over some guy's towering afro, or else this gray blob of a newsboy cap.

There was no way to approach the stage:

These people were having the time of their lives, but one of the guys there in the middle pissed me off. During the set just prior to Melt-Banana's, someone in this mob screamed: "Melt-Bananarama can fuck off! This is what it's all about here tonight!" in a slurry British accent:

Granted the previous band was pretty amazing but I cannot for the life of me understand why for most people loving one thing means hating everything else. The whole "either-or" mindset. Are we not capable of liking more than one thing at a time? Evidently certain drunk Brits aren't, but I think this is a universal fallacy and not confined to that species.

Yasuko is difficult to photograph, but you always get something interesting:

She's one of those charismatic people who does not take a bad photograph. I mean, you can certainly take a bad photo with her in it, but if you manage to get any kind of clear image of her while she's performing, you'll be amply rewarded. Her expressions, her body language were made for photography. She's striking and I never get tired of watching her when she's in action:

Rika is also photogenic. The last time I saw them play, her hair was quite a bit shorter but I'm happy she's growing it out again. Actually, her hair was one of the most thrilling visual aspects of the first Melt-Banana show I ever saw, way back in 2004 in Athens, GA, when they opened for Fantomas. Rika's wild black mane down in her face made a huge impression on me. When she gazes out from behind her ragged bangs, she's the epitome of the rock goddess. Hardcore beyond hardcore. Yet tiny!

Although whenever I try to explain her to people here, I have to resort to drawing. Without fail, the response is, "Sadako?" and a giggle. Sadako is the monstrous little girl with the long black hair from the Japanse horror film Ringu, remade in America as The Ring; her name's Samara in that version. I suppose Rika's bass-playing is monstrous. Monstrously powerful, monstrously precise, monstrously excellent:

Melt-Banana is a very visually appealing unit:

Their performances are manic. Yasuko commands attention with confidence:

But it's not chaotic. It's a controlled attack. Chaos dwells in the pit in front of the stage, where the audience becomes a swirling mass of arm and legs and flying bodies. A blurry image can sometimes express the Melt-Banana live performance better than something fully realized and static:

This show featured the standard-issue moshing, crowd surfing and stage-diving. If I were 10 or 15 years younger, I would've joined in. Some of my fondest memories are of cutting loose, heedless of possible injury down in the pit at Jonny Quest shows at the Georgia Theatre back in 1990. Those were fun until the UGA football team began showing up and teeing off on skinny mosh-boys with massive hamhock elbows and forearms.

Here's a pensive Yasuko. This is one of her signature poses:

There are not many sedate moments during a Melt-Banana performance, but somehow I managed to capture one. I think in this photo, Yasuko is waiting for whatever Agata's doing to coalesce into a song she recognizes:

Still waiting:

Oh! It's that one! Here we go:

I made some new friends at this show. During the first band's set, I went into the adjacent bar (through a soundproof door no less!) and a Japanese guy started talking to me, and after that conversation ended another guy who'd lived in South Carolina for a few years and spoke absolutely perfect English with an American accent jumped in and we hit it off. He's in a band called Kulu Kulu Garden, which you can look up on MySpace... trust me, it's worth it.

My new friend ended up on the Agata side of the stage and later told me it was one the wildest Melt-Banana shows he'd ever attended. He said Agata was going nuts on the guitar. I believe it.

Hopefully I'll get to see Melt-Banana in Tokyo again sometime next year. As fun as it is to see them... well, anywhere... seeing them in Japan is transcendent. It's actually one of the reasons I moved here- to see these kinds of avant garde sound performances here in the place where bands like Boredoms and Melt-Banana (among many others) perfected the form.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Melt-Banana at Earthdom (Shin-Okubo, Tokyo) on September 30, 2007

It's a chilly, rainy Sunday (the final day of September with October already in the air) evening in Shin-Okubo, just one stop west of Shinjuku along the Yamanote Line. You walked first in the wrong direction, bumping umbrellas with Tokyo citizens all the way, squishing in wet shoes, before doubling back to find Earthdom, a basement live house in the Lisbon Building. It's an unassuming place, the night's concert heralded by a simple sandwich board sign:

You stand at the front of the line, edging your way down the steps as more concert-goers show up. Put your wet umbrella in the convenient beer crate. You won't need it inside:

This is the door you go through. The black and white tiled floor seems like something out of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the door could open into a kitchen for all you know:

Instead, you find yourself in a dark club, about the same size as the Caledonia back in Athens, Georgia. The crowd is eclectic but skewed heavily to the punk side:

Four bands play before Melt-Banana's set. After the last group edges off the stage to cries of "Encore! Encore!" from some of the foreigners in the crowd, the stage is eerily bereft of human activity, anticipatory:

The crowd is squeezed in as tightly as possible, bodies mashed up against the railing in front of the stage:

Club employees acting as roadies come onto the stage and begin preparations. Then, Rika (the Melt-Banana bassist) emerges from the door to the right of the drums and makes her way through the snaking cords and cables to her station, stage left:

Yasuko comes out at about the same time and checks her vocals set-up. She has a hunted look on her face, probably caused by her large, intense eyes and sharply defined cheeks:

They've done this thousands of times. Rika straps on her bass, plugs in:

Agata, wearing his trademark surgical mask, begins his preparations for assaulting his guitar:

He tunes but soon enough he will be attacking his instrument with a controlled fury that defies archaic concepts such as "playing" and "music:"

Meanwhile, Rika continues her pre-flight check with practiced calm and efficiency:

As Rika adjusts her bass, Yasuko surveys the crowd. In a matter of moments, she will in an almost offhanded way incite them into frenzied activity. You wonder if this is by design or accident; is it merely the inevitable result of Melt-Banana's joyful musical aggressiveness:

Rika continues to tune as the anticipation builds. She is responsible for much of the structure of each song, along with the drummer:

Preparations approach completion. The band waits for the right moment to begin:

Rika tests her instrument:

The ultimate moment is almost at hand. It has become an almost tangible object; you may very nearly reach out and grasp it in its approach:

At this point, Yasuko steps to the microphone... 5... 4... 3... 2... 1...