Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Japanese Response to "Memoirs of a Geisha"

Sort of.

I read Arthur Golden's novel Memoirs of a Geisha and enjoyed it. It's a well-written, captivating but somewhat artificial and fairy tale view of geisha life. I even enjoyed the pretty yet shallow film, which infamously starred three ethnically Chinese actresses in the main roles; but since these three actresses are no less than Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li, I'm not about to complain about getting the chance to see them move about gracefully in gorgeous kimono to the accompaniment of a hauntingly beautiful John Williams theme. Like the novel on which it's based, the film Memoirs is an overly romantic version (and the film is an even more reductive take) of a world that's at once familiar and stereotypical to Westerners, and yet mysterious and aloof, so little known and almost universally misunderstood.

Including by none other than Roger Ebert.

It does seem strange to have so forceful an actress as Zhang Ziyi playing so helpless a character, though. Contrast her fierce Jen Yu from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Sayuri the geisha. Jen Yu makes willful, rebellious decisions (and even has to be on top during sex) that lead her to soaring, twirling, violent ecstasies and her eventual destruction, while Sayuri has so much water in her character she flows from situation to situation subject to the whims of others as much as that liquid is to gravity before achieving her heart's desire, true love. Kind of old fashioned, and kind of a comedown for someone who once played a girl who could open a can of whup ass on a whole restaurant of outlandishly named kung fu superheroes.

I can't imagine Jen Yu submitting to Dr. Crab's ministrations in the same way Sayuri does, and it's odd to see Zhang Ziyi as the personification of both characters behaving so squeamishly and coquettishly. That contrast serves to illuminate one of the misgivings I have about Memoirs as novel and film. But it's not particularly a major one and not one that prevents my enjoyment of both on other levels. Although I think the movie might work better as simply a photobook with a soundtrack CD.

Anyway, all that analysis aside, there's a new movie about geisha coming out. It's called Hannari - Geisha Modern, directed by Sohara Miyuki. You can read a review of it with a brief comparison to Memoirs at Japan Times Online. Mark Schilling, the Japan Times critic, opens his review by explaining why he bothers to write English reviews of strictly Japanese films. Actually, I don't think any justification is needed. A film critic watches films and writes reviews.

But as for me, I'm glad Schilling writes these reviews because I might otherwise never know about these movies. And while I might not see the film during its initial Japanese language only release, there's a good chance it'll be subtitled in English when it comes out on Region 2 DVD. I'm basing this guess on all the other Region 2 Japanese film DVDs I own, including Swing Girls and Battle Royale. In this case, obviously those of us with only rudimentary skills in Japanese can watch and enjoy the output of one of the most interesting and challenging film industries in the world.

And once again, the preferred term (at least in Kyoto) is geiko instead of geisha.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Chef Who Can Kick Your Ass...

Last night I met a friend for a bicycle trek to an Italian restaurant. It gets dark early here in Japan, so by 5:30pm we already had a night sky with a big orange full moon rising over the city, where off in the distance an office building displayed blinking Christmas lights along its roof. Stupidly, and thanks to my laundry cycle, I was dressed all in black like a ninja.

Black coat, black pants. My friend led us along busy streets and then along a winding course along narrow streets among small boxy houses and over a river dappled with the moon's reflection and the very few streetlights. I was probably completely invisible from behind, a stealth cyclist. Fortunately, it was warm enough that I was able to take off my jacket and display the long relatively bright color of my gray longsleeved undershirt.

We made it to the restaurant safely just about the time my ass completely fell asleep from my bicycle seat.

It's a small place, unassuming, with seating for probably no more than 24. Obviously, they're not about high volume, but while we were there all 5 of the tables became occupied by dining couples, and one party of 4. Her friends- a woman about my age and a younger guy- greeted us and we sat at the bar where there were already plates, wet naps and forks and chopsticks balanced on wine corks sliced lengthwise ready for the starving gaijin and his Nihonjin companion. And her charming black knit cap.

What really impressed me was the oven, imported from Italy. An open-faced stone oven with a fire blazing inside and shiny blue tile deco on the outside, a pipe through the wall to exhaust the smoke. My friend ordered herself a beer and iced tea for me, and we chatted in both English and Japanese. I took the opportunity to use all I've learned from my class, and she apologized every so often for not having practiced her English more. She thinks she's losing her skills, but she sounded fine to me.

We ate oysters with cheese baked on the half-shell and some other little hors d'oeuvres before the chef brought us a small margarita pizza... tomato sauce, cheese, tomatoes and spinach leaves. The crust was outstanding. Little bits of burned area for smoky taste and crispness, just the way I like it. We also had the 4-cheese pizza which was also delicious but my friend pronounced a bit too salty. It also lacks tomato sauce, which is a must for pizza as far as I'm concerned.

The other pizza choices? Well, from the menu most of them seemed to feature oysters or sardines. Raw ham was also an option I rejected. I'm sure they're all just as delicious as the selections we ate, but I just wasn't in the mood for radical experimentalism.

For dessert, I had homemade marbled cheesecake and she had some sort of green ice cream in coffee. There's a huge difference between the storebought cheesecake I'm used to and something homemade. The consistency was thicker and dryer than the machine-produced crap you buy in convenience stores, and it was very delicious. Oh yeah. I could eat an entire cheesecake, and I think the next time I go I'll see if they'll be willing to sell me one. The woman who made it asked me if my slice was too small, or if I expected American size, which to her mind is probably roughly as wide as both my hands side-to-side. I told her it was just fine.

Afterwards, the subject of one of my current heroes, Anthony Bourdain, came up. Whenever I'm trying a new restaurant, I can't help but think about Anthony Bourdain and his show No Reservations, which is a staple on Discovery Channel Japan these days. I gave a brief biography of him to my friend, and she asked her friends if they knew who he was. For the woman, Anthony Bourdain is a mystery, a chimera. But the chef nodded and said something about him in Japanese. Something nice, I'm sure, something along the lines of, "Oh yeah, I've heard of him. He's a chef, right?"

They asked if I was from New York and thinking the question was about Bourdain, at first I said yes before getting a friendly correction. Oops. No, I'm a Georgia cracker.

And we talked about language. My friend said the chef knows a bit of Italian, and within seconds we were looking at his photo album of his stint in Italy 4 years ago when he apprenticed to a real Italian chef. He joked about looking much younger in the photos, but I told him he looks the same now.

At which he laughed and pointed to his eyes, telling us there are not only wrinkles there but scars. Yes, he has a bit of calcium buildup around his brow ridges. Why? Because he trains in mixed martial arts. At that point I noticed some severe cauliflowering of his left ear, which was probably only 80% the size of his right. This led the conversation away from Italy and celebrity chefs into strictly fight talk, whereupon communication broke down almost completely because our helpful translator had no idea how to render Japanese fight jargon into English and vice versa.

We did toss out some names. Forrest Griffin (of course) and his win over Mauricio "Shogun" Hua was of interest to the chef, because he's a Shogun fan. He also namechecked Wanderlei Silva, and knew of both Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. In fact, he went on a little spiel about Couture, which my friend relayed to me in fragments before telling me, "He gave up."

Meaning the chef quit because he knew what he was saying wasn't getting across the communication gap. It made me wish my Japanese skills were better, because I'd love talking MMA with this guy. If there's one thing I admire, it's people with diverse interests... especially if they have a certain level of expertise in those fields. For example, an excellent Italian chef who trains so hard in martial arts he has the battle damage to prove it.

What are the chances someone like me, with a bit of an interest in the world of UFC and mixed martial arts, would end up in an Italian restaurant in Japan talking to someone that deeply involved? My friend learned the word "coincidence," the concept of which she was already completely aware, of course. And I learned the Japanese word for it, but only briefly because I promptly forgot.

Thinking back now, though, it's not that big a surprise. MMA fans are everywhere if you keep your ears and eyes open for the telltale signs, so this might be more of an example of confirmation bias the same way most synchronous incidents turn out to be. When you remember that Hamamatsu has one of the largest Brazilian population percentages of any major city in Japan, it becomes less surprising that I'd meet someone who's more up on Brazilian fighters than he is on the Americans.

I forgot to ask him about the Gracies!

Oh well, we'll be returning to this restaurant so there will be plenty of opportunities. And another enjoyable thing about going to places like this are you make friends with the owners and you get to see the more intimate places of this city, rather than just hanging around the train station and the obvious places. My old neighborhood of Sanaru-dai was full of secret restaurants that were mostly sonambulant in terms of customers but wide awake when it comes to delicious food and charm.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Let's Get Drunk for the Holidays!

Beaujolais Nouveau has hit Japan. This was a big enough deal that some of my students actually mentioned it to me a week or so ago in their anticipatory excitement. Now, I know next to nothing about wine and what I do know, I learned from the movie Sideways (which I highly recommend, by the way). But this Beaujolais Nouveau stuff?

The Hakone Yunessun Spa lets you swim in it. Here's a funny Keith Olbermann clip about one of the more enjoyable aspects of living in Nihon:

Grapes of bath
Grapes of bath

Yes, bath time can be family and friends fun time. Just add alcohol!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving, America!

It's that time of year. Bring on the orgiastic turkey feast and the professional football. Here in Japan, it's just another Thursday (albeit one that's unseasonably cold and windy). Tomorrow is Labor Thanksgiving Day, though, and many people I know have 3- and 4-day weekends. Still others are off tomorrow and Sunday, with Saturday as a regular workday sandwiched in there like either of my brothers' delicious leftover turkey meat between two slices of whole wheat bread, with mustard, mayonaisse and lettuce.

Also barbecue sauce for those who go in for that kind of thing.

Tomorrow, I'll celebrate with a lunchtime feast of KFC and then some Christmas shopping. Hopefully, the Colonel will be wearing his Santa outfit. I've already been serenaded by Christmas music downtown, and the decorations are all aglow.

So tuck in and have a good one.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Aww... Man... the Disneyfication of Kabuki-cho!

Japan's infamous red light district/gangster haunt is practically my second neighborhood. It's my sleazy home away from home away from home; to the horror and delight of my students and Japanese friends, I've stayed there about 14 times or more since I first came to Japan. But according to "Kabukicho Comes Clean," a recent and very interesting article in the Japan Times, it seems like the do-gooders are intent on turning it into a slick, clean corporatized non-entity. The government is cracking down on the shady doings there, and Best Western is moving in.

Good for tourists, not so great for me. My wilder days are mostly behind me now, but I still feel any fully functional society needs scuzzy, dangerous places like the old Times Square and Kabuki-cho as steam release valves. We don't need them thrown in our faces, but a little dirt on the hands and cheek add character and depth. Without them, what would our pastors and Sunday School teachers sermonize about on Sundays, and what would hypocritical politicians demonize in order to impress voters?

Also, there really needs to be a counter to the soul-crushing uniformity of McDonald's and KFC culture. Something sick and degenerate that flouts societal rules and mores in order to make us value them all the more. Someone (a famous person I'm too lazy to look up) once said something along the lines of "They've killed everything good and noble and replaced it with Wal-Mart." Perhaps they're also killing everything evil and lurid as well.

Eventually, we'll live in a Nerf-world, full of Nerf-people. Not that I'm advocating crime or the sex trade, neither of which I participate in. It's just that danger is intoxicating and enriching. Nor am I badmouthing fine Nerf products, which are fun for all. Avoid cheap imitations, though. A true Nerf football is vastly superior to foam knock-offs.

Anyway, enough contradictory pontificating and tongue-in-cheek product endorsements. Check out the article's illustration, a group of "hosts" standing in front of the big Epson building landmark I've so frequently photographed. I don't know much about host bars because I don't swing that way but it's a cool picture and illustration of a side of Japanese nightlife I haven't written much about.

I have been to a couple of hostess clubs. One was pretty tame but the other was a decadent, almost completely nude affair that left me needing a shower. Or three. And possibly a tetanus shot. And I've come to the conclusion that hostess bars don't really need my patronage. They're ridiculously expensive and somewhat demeaning. I'm glad I had the experience, but I wouldn't care to repeat it.

On the other hand, I am interested in sampling what the maid cafes are all about. From a purely sociological standpoint. Yeah. Sociology.

The film festival mentioned in the article is something I'm very much interested in, as are the fashion shows held outside the Koma Theater. To be perfectly honest, if those are indicative of a new direction for Kabuki-cho, I'm actually more likely to go there in the future!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Great Article on Akihabara...

Akihabara is a ward in Tokyo I have barely scratched the surface of, and now it's looking like this surface is simultaneously not worth scratching and also potentially disturbing if scratched. My first (so far) visit came during my New Year's jaunt. For years, I'd heard of Akihabara as "Electronic Town," the place to get all those wonky digital gadgets Japan is famous for.

In fact, the Akihabara Station features signs in English directing the tech-hungry consumotourist towards "Electronic Town." But once there, it's not all that exciting. Prices are nothing special. Maybe back in the 50s when Japanese-made goods were considered shoddy but attractive due to their transistorized size and cheapness, Akihabara was the place to find bargains. These days, it's like a place with 100 Besuto Buyus in a row.

As long as I've been here, students have told me about Akihabara's transformation into a mecca for otaku, or in English... geeks. Toy geeks, comics geeks, animation geeks, video game geeks, maid cafe geeks. While the term otaku has a somewhat negative connotation (having a member involved in a horrific murder can do that for your tribe), recent years have seen the rise of the "akiba-kei," a softer more accessible form. A lovable sort of geek that a woman sick of macho business-oriented ordinary guys might possibly date, if only she could wean him from his maid cafe obsession.

But will this be a short-lived iteration? I have no idea. I was only just reading about it in an article called "Akihabara's Awful Truths." The truths? Apparently, the akiba-kei is being driven from his Akihabara lair by encroaching corporatism. And also that Akihabara is also a center for pornography. Which comes as an unpleasant surprise to me; but then, I didn't really get to explore it all that much and I was in search of funky animation and comics related merchandise, not double-sided dildos and pictures of naked kids.

The article's by Patrick Macias, who knows more about modern Japanese pop culture than I ever will... and it makes me jealous. Well, I'm assuming he does, because not only did he write this very fascinating article, he also co-authored one of my favorite books, the concise, informative and very witty Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno. His blog is also a must-read.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Veteran's Day in Japan...

Of course the American holiday Veteran's Day isn't celebrated here in Japan. I mean, why would it be? Despite my having decided to live abroad, I still love the country of my birth (even if I don't agree with the things it does from time to time), so yesterday I honored our armed forces by watching the 1949 classic Battleground, starring Van Johnson.

Battleground is the story of a 101st Airborne infantry company involved in the defense of Bastogne. They gripe endlessly and bicker amongst themselves. But mostly they endure. They endure the weather, intermittant shellings, infrequent combat, the woundings and deaths of close friends, not knowing what country they're in (they speculate it's Luxembourg) and fear. A remarkably realistic movie considering when it was made; it still holds up quite well compared to things like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. It's certainly superior to many of the overly patriotic or sentimental flicks made during the war itself, and not as cynical as the ones made during the 50's and 60's.

Mainly, its point is war is a horrible thing that happens all too often and sucks in decent human beings.

I remember seeing this film for the first time way back in elementary school on one of my sickdays. And I recently bought it here for 500 yen, along with such masterworks as Citizen Kane, The Third Man and To Kill a Mockingbird!

Yesterday, November 11th, was also Pocky Day. Pocky is a snack consisting of thin sticks of something like pretzel-material covered on one end with chocolate or strawberry flavoring. There are many varieties of Pocky, from the standard chocolate version in a bright red box to Men's Pocky (dark, semi-bitter chocolate) to the special winter-only Pocky with fast-melting chocolate.

Pocky-maker Glico declared the holiday because the date can be written 11/11, which looks like four Pocky sticks in a row.

Unfortunately, I forgot to buy some Pocky!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

More Shinjuku Nightlife: August 2007

Everyone tells me Shinjuku- and especially Kabuki-cho- is a very dangerous place. I don't know; I'm sure it's dangerous for Japan, but compared to certain places in the United States it's a big cuddly pussycat with Christmas lights strung on it. Remember I wrote that when I'm found stabbed to death there sometime next year.

Actually, I think Osaka has more crime per capita. But with the rising and ebbing fortunes of various yakuza factions, this could change. Not that I'm a regular James Bond or a Quentin Tarantino film character, but I did have a little run-in with the men in long black coats here a couple of years ago. They were concerned I wasn't drinking enough or being entertained by nudity enough and wanted to know what they could do to rectify this situation.

Nice chaps.

Here's Shinjuku Station at twilight:

Like many train stations in Japan, it's not just a transportation hub. It's also a multi-functional entertainment destination. There are dozens of stores and restaurants inside, and along its flanks. You could have a great weekend in Shinjuku and never leave the station and its immediate environs.

This is a famous Shinjuku landmark, the big Epson sign. The first few times I came here, I tried to navigate by keeping it either on my left (going to my hotel) or my right (going to the station). Occasionally I lost it all together. Amazing, huh?

At night, Shinjuku is ablaze with electric light and sound:

I think this next photo is out of order. I'm taking you from the station to the hotel where I like to stay. But this shot is the intersection where Yasukuni-dori crosses the narrow shopping street I've walked up and down hundreds of times already. I think...

During the day, Kabuki-cho is a decent shopping spot, almost like a roofless mall. There are even old gents selling manga (normal and pornographic) on open-air tables, almost like it's a giant flea market. Store employees unload truckloads of shoes and DVDs, keeping their shops in stock and up to date. The shoppers and sightseers are a mixed bunch, skewing fairly young. But you're more likely to see professionally-clad office workers doing some lunchbreak shopping and dining as you are to see a... well... prostitute.

Night is different. The energy level spikes, but not quite to frenzied levels, unless you're hyper-sensitive to thronging humanity. And Kabuki-cho is very much about sex and pachinko. Pachinko all day and night, sex mostly at night. You're right on the borderlands of prim public Japan and the decadence of soap land. I've been approached by people of various nationalities offering to take me to places where I'd be able to watch things that I really don't want to describe here... especially since my Mom reads this.

Let's just call them "exotic" and leave it at that.

But you'll also see middle-aged couples out for dinner, or youngsters on a date. So it's not all freaky stuff. Look at the people in this photo:

Just normal people out on the town, enjoying the slightly seedy ambiance.

And more of the same:

Every once in a while, the crowds part and you're practically alone:

But you are never in the dark. Kabuki-cho at night is aglow with artificial light offering dining, massages, baths, DVDs and CDs, Internet access and practically anything else you might want on the spur of the moment. If only you can read hiragana, katakana and kanji:

And of course, pachinko. Pachinko is practically the national pasttime here for old guys, but men (and a few women, I suppose, although I've yet to see it) of all ages play pachinko. Some of these pachinko places are packed even at 9AM.

Here's one of my favorite Kabuki-cho destinations, a shabu-shabu restaurant whose name I don't know. It's a pricey place, but the food is outstanding. Even if you do have to cook most of it yourself. Shabu-shabu is a fun eating activity for friends; you sit around a steaming pot of oil and boil thin slices of red and white marbled beef:

Eventually, you reach this open plaza with bowling alleys, movie theaters and restaurants:

There's a concrete island in the center where homeless people sleep. That is, if they can. This area is as noisy as a New Year's parade every night of the week, and it goes on until after midnight. The lights stay on, too. So much so, in fact, that it's not possible to make your hotel room here as dark as you might back home.

Sometimes these three guys entertain people with their enthusiastic guitar stylings:

They weren't bad, but their reliance on sheet music kind of sucked the energy out of their performance. On the other hand, at least they can read music.

And now we're home, un-mugged, un-harassed, ready to unwind.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Here's Some Late Breaking Non-News...

I just this moment got a call from someone I know and there's the tiny-teensiest outside chance I might have a super-slight shot at an extremely low-level semi-career in Japanese comics, or maybe a freelance job or two. I have a contact here who knows a professional mangaka and she told her about my art and both the mangaka and her rep want to see what I've got.

I'll be honest- the rep part got my heart racing before common sense kicked in.

She told me there's a big comics fair in Tokyo in December, which I may not have enough money to go to, where various people are presenting their work. I guess if things are hopeful enough with this initial attempt, I'll try to get to it just to look around at least. The timing on this part isn't good.

I definitely do not want to oversell this at this point because I've done very little sequential work and even that's not only Western-format but also rough and unfinished... thumbnail stuff. I have some scripts which may even be a better tack to take, but regardless it's directly into a difficult wind, culturally and otherwise. Still, it's just a nice, practically Jungian coincidence (I just wrote a post about the either-or mentality versus Japanese comics in Western fandom and was re-reading it when she called).

Even if nothing comes of it other than, "You're good, kid, but not what we're looking for," it's still kinda fun to have piqued a pro's interest.

So keep your fingers crossed for me, but hold off on the celebrations or congratulations. Once again, it's just some very slight initial curiosity- perhaps even of the morbid type- more than anything else at this point.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Shinjuku Nightlife- August 2007

Here are more photos of Shinjuku, taken during my vacation blast there in August, 2007. I have a new digital camera, so I went nuts with it all over Tokyo, from Harajuku and Shibuya to Ikebukuro. We start our tour on the south side of Shinjuku Station:

This area is usually jumping. You can't see them in the photo, but on the right there's a Gap and large shopping center that runs several floors up the side of the building and ends in a multi-level Tower Records location. The top floor of Tower has a selection of Western magazines and artsy books, but nothing on the scale of the Shibuya Tower, which is the largest in the world.

Coming around to the Kabuki-cho side, you end up in a seedy little plaza across from Studio Alta. It's kind of shadowy despite the carnival lights across the streets. I can't imagine too many really good things happen here late at night.

This was just after sundown, and there were people just hanging out, sitting on a rail in front of the station. Maybe they were all waiting for friends for a night out. Shinjuku is definitely the place for that.

People were moving out into Shinjuku constantly, too. All around Shinjuku Station there's a massive amount of energy. Things are bustling, people are doing things and going places.

You have to dodge taxis and bicycles. Don't get hit.

Just across the street you find those electric cityscapes everyone talks about when they talk about how crazy Tokyo is. William Gibson wrote a line in Idoru about how in Shinjuku, particles of light find their way into your hotel room, even into your tightly-shut eyes. At least that's how I remember is and it's true. Only at Hotel Listel far off the main areas of Shinjuku was I able to make my room absolutely dark. In Kabuki-cho, or near the station, forget it. Get used to sleeping with a visible glow through the membranes of your eyelids.

I don't sleep really deeply in Shinjuku. It's not the result of fear, although everyone tells me Kabuki-cho is a dangerous, dangerous place (hey, I walked through the middle of a full-scale riot in Athens one night, complete with pepper spray and barking police dogs and wild-eyed shirtless guys walking around looking to start some shit), and I am a little more cautious there than I would be anywhere else... but it's worth it to partake of the energy.

Lights, lights, lights. And people.

In front of Studio Alta itself, there was almost a party atmosphere. I guess the Yukata Festival was particularly happening this year.

This next picture is one of my favorites, blurry though it is. To me, this captures the energy. I use that word a lot describing Shinjuku. Energy. Movement. Kinetics, gaudy aesthetics. As an outsider, it probably affects me differently than it would someone who lives nearby or spends their weekends here.

That's the stuff. People in motion under the artificial colorful lights.

And around the corner, people shopping for food. The atmosphere completely changed. And then changed again. Kabuki-cho is about change and transformation. Becoming a full person, becoming a drunk person, becoming a different person with every change in the light, with every sign blinking a different color, your eyes changing, your skin changing. Always changing colors. Unless you've seen it for yourself, the descriptions sound like hyperbole. I never in my life thought I'd walk around in a place this crazy and garish/beautiful at the same time. Seedy and futuristic.

Next: More Kabuki-cho. I think for my next adventure in Japan, I want to spend a tranquil few days gliding around Kyoto... Shinjuku's tranquil spiritual opposite.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Doesn't This Look Awesome?

I also posted this on my comics blog because of the cross-over appeal. Well, someone named Aimee Major Steinberger came to Japan and created an enchanting-looking, fully illustrated travel diary, which will be published by Go! Comi later this November:

The description says: Join Aimee Major Steinberger on the ultimate fangirl vacation in Japan! This rapid-fire adventure is full of everything fans dream of seeing: cosplay on the infamous Harajuku Street, fantasy restaurants, maid cafes, Tokyo's largest doll store, beautiful shrines, bookstores full of manga, outrageous all-female Takarazuka musicals, cherry festivals, hot springs, special ceremonies, and so much more!

Actually, I was sold on it as soon as I saw these charming preview images. From the 10 preview pages I saw on PW's Panel Mania, Steinberger's humorous prose (in notational style) is the perfect match for her cartoony drawings. She seems to have absorbed a massive amount of information while she was here, and now you can learn from her in turn and thoroughly enjoy your lesson. It's probably as close to actually visiting Japan as many will ever get.

It's wonderful when my own personal adventures here in Japan are amplified and reflected by someone else, especially someone with so many apparent observational and artistic gifts. I can't wait to read this, but I have to admit I'm a bit jealous I didn't do something similar during my first trip here. But it's also going to be fun to read because I've done many of the same things- the Harajuku shopping (not the cosplay... for "Harajuku Street" I'm guessing Amazon really means Takeshita-dori in Harajuku ward, though), the cherry blossom festivals, hot springs, Kyoto and more. Some of the other things she's done I haven't experienced yet, but there's still time.

Yep, I'll definitely buy this when I get back to Japan after the New Year's holidays. Thanks, Publishers Weekly!

Another Perfect Day!

You know, sometimes I like to just count up my blessings. For one, I'm living in Japan, where life is easy. Ever since I first saw Pink Lady and Jeff (evidently I was the only person in America watching and loving this show) and then Shogun (or vice versa, I can't quite remember), I had as my goal at least visiting Japan in my lifetime.

In 2003, I saw my chance. Thanks to an amazing coincidence, I'd made friends with someone I had a common connection with... a guy who was living in Japan. We came to visit for 2 weeks, my friend got a job and moved here in March the next year and I followed in April.

After a rocky beginning, it turned pretty damned good. Other than my dad's death and getting my heart broken at about the same time, life's been one interesting and engaging event after another. I had some health problems earlier this year, but by summer they were clearing up and things settled into a zone of contentment.

Sure, I miss people from back home. Family and friends, of course. I really wish some of them would invest in a plane ticket and come visit sometime. But with aviation fuel prices up there in the stratosphere, I know it's a bit much to expect. Trans-Pacific travel isn't something you do on a whim, like driving crosstown for an ice cream cone.

How good is life lately? Just yesterday, I had a random encounter with a good friend of mine, our host for our first little Japan jaunt. I was eating lunch, he stopped by to escape the rain and grab a bite to eat. We ended up talking about literature. Like me, he tends to get a little animated and talk with his hands when he's engaged in a topic he knows a lot about. And he's one of those people who knows a lot about quite a lot. I forget how many college majors he had... at the same time, I think. Major mind-power.

The bad thing about running into someone like that is, there's never enough time to finish the conversation. As soon as you both get rolling, it's time to split. All too soon I had to run back to work.

Yeah, I get to ride the local trains, the shinkansen, hit Tokyo at will, hang out with some really challenging minds and learn about the ancient and modern (and also post-modern) aspects of this infinitely fascinating culture. I've even quit drinking; it's just not necessary for me anymore.

Today was a warm, cloudy day. We've had a lot of rain lately, although fall is usually supposed to be sunny. But hey, we barely had a rainy season this year so I guess it all balances out. This might be boring to anyone reading this blog (hi, Mom!), but I'm in serious need of doing some laundry. Some people in Japan have dryers, but most rely on good ol' Mother Nature. One of my favorite sights here is when the weather's mild and people hang their futon out to air.

To me, that's a quintessential Japanese scene- a pyramidal high-rise apartment building with futon hanging off almost every balcony, like pennants for a festival or a major sporting event.

Well, I hate when things are so uneventful I have nothing of real interest to post. Tomorrow I'll try to do another big photo essay to make it up to you!

Ahhh... life is good. So very good.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Wow! This Kid is HUGE!

The Atlanta Braves signed high schooler Sekiguchi Shohei this week. Despite his never having pitched on the national stage (the championship tournaments that are almost as popular here as NCAA basketball March Madness is in the U.S.), and not having been signed professionally here in Japan he's probably worth taking a shot on...

Because he's 6'6"!

A student told me this yesterday, and mentioned the kid is 200 cm. tall. Being an American, centimeters and meters and kilograms and all that are just meaningless numbers to me. Sure, we briefly learned the metric system in elementary school but tradition won out. Consequently, I don't know how much I weigh or how tall I am or how to dress before I leave my apartment in the mornings.

So, ignorant and shortchanged as I am compared to the rest of the world (which uses this much more practical measurement system than we do in the U.S.), I had to do an online unit conversion to find out just how big this guy is. And I'm still astounded.

Anyway, I'm glad the Braves are adding to the flood of Japanese players into American baseball. Getting the most talented players from all over the world can only serve to improve the game overall. I just hope he can throw 157kph with some movement on it.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Cultural Post...

One of my favorite things to do here in Japan is read Japanese literature and Western literature about Japan. I wish I could say I was reading the Japanese books in their original language; while I speak passable basic Japanese, I remain illiterate.

It's one thing to experience these books in America. There, they tend to have this aura of exoticism. Reading them in their country of origin, I find they take on a level of immediacy that enhances the reading experience.

Currently, I'm reading Ibuse Masuji's Black Rain, the Kodansha Japan's Modern Writers edition translated by John Bester. I'm only about 3 pages into it, though, so I can't say too much about it. It's about a man who's trying desperately to get his niece married off. The tragic difficulty is she was close enough to Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, that she's considered hibakusha... an atom bomb victim. Hibakusha have- and especially during the time setting of Black Rain- faced discrimination and ostracism due to misunderstandings involving radiation exposure.

I can't imagine this book has a happy ending.

I'm also reading Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. And no, this isn't Japanese literature. It's an American novel masquerading as the personal reminiscences of Sayuri, a first rank geisha of Gion (Kyoto). I've read this before- it's more an enchanted vision of Japan, more like a fairy story than reality. This isn't a criticism, though, because the world Golden creates is engaging and vivid. Whenever I discuss it with students, I describe it as the Gone With the Wind version of Japan; a few of my students have seen Gone With the Wind and when they found out I'm from Georgia, they asked me about Tara. Sayuri is like a kinder, gentler Scarlett O'Hara, but with no less spirit and inner strength.

If you want to read about the realities of being a geiko (the correct term for what we Westerners usually call geisha... get it right, because a Nova student once harshly corrected my misconceptions on this and I'm enternally grateful to her), then I recommend Iwasaki Mineko's Geisha of Gion. Arthur Golden interviewed her as he researched Memoirs, and evidently violated her trust. So much so that she wrote her own life story as a response (and after receiving death threats for revealing the secrets of the geiko world).

Iwasaki's voice is more authentic than Sayuri's and no less involving. She was the top geiko in Japan during the 1960s and 1970s before retiring at age 29 due to the limitations of such a life. In her day, she entertained the rich and powerful of Japan, famous Hollywood directors and even had a hilarious run-in with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. This book makes the perfect companion (or counter) to Memoirs, and if you've read the novel you owe it to yourself to get the true story.

I find I really enjoy the works of the delightfully-named Banana Yoshimoto. The first I read was Kitchen (a good introductory book), but the one I love the most is Hardboiled Hard Luck, translated by Michael Emmerich. This book is made up of two novellas, both told in Yoshimoto's lovely, spare prose. Hardboiled is the story of a young woman's mystery journey in the mountains of Japan, interrupted by free-flowing reveries about her lost lover. Eventually, it turns into a surreal ghost story. Haunting and relentless.

While Banana Yoshimoto tells deceptively simple short stories with endless emotional depths, Murakami Haruki tells a long-winded but equally fascinating tale in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Okada Toru is a low-key kind of guy who loses his job, his cat and then his wife in the course of a single week. His search for his wife involves psychic phenomena, time spent at the bottom of an abandoned well, political shenanigans, WWII and a charming but twisted young girl named May Kasahara. This book is pretty heavy-duty stuff, reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon but much more accessible. As with Banana Yoshimoto, you can hardly go wrong reading Murakami Haruki.

Another Murakami, this time Murakami Ryu, wrote one of my favorite Japanese novels, 69. This is a comedic tale of about a Japanese high school boy during the eventful year of 1969. He pretends to political consciousness as a means to score with beautiful girls, listens to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, vandalizes his school and puts on a rock festival. During the course of all these misadventures, he grows maybe a little wiser... but not too much. It's not that kind of book, just a joyful blast of nostalgia and youthful energy and elation that probably- as usual- never quite leads to the great things we expect it to.

For a double shot of something equally fun, I recommend the massive, colorful The Tokyo Look Book and the much smaller and pithier Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno. The Tokyo Look Book, by anthropologist Philomeena Keet and with photos by Manabe Yuri, is a thorough guide to the current style groups preeminent in today's Japan. You learn a lot about the gyaru, the ganguro, the hime-kei, gosirori and decora girls, with lots of erudite insights but with an overall cheeky tone. Schoolgirl Inferno, by Izumi Evers, Patrick Macias and Kazumi Nonaka, is a shorter guidebook-style bit of fun, fully illustrated with hilarious fully-painted artwork. Less scholarly but no less informative, this book gives a historical overview of the evolution of Japanese style, from the wicked and violent sukeban girls of the 1970s to today's high maintenance gyaru. As a companion to The Tokyo Look Book, Schoolgirl Inferno helps give today's looks a historical perspective.

Another fascinating tome is Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America, by Tatsumi Takayuki. It's a scholarly critique of a number of Japanese and Western novels, comics and films that deal with Japanese settings, characters or themes. There's a lot of cross-cultural pollination going on between pop America and pop Japan and I think my own life fits somewhere in this reciprocal stream. At least I hope it does.

Which brings us to this, last but by no means least: Idoru by William Gibson. This is a sci-fi novel about a futuristic Tokyo, rebuilt using nanotechnology after a devastating earthquake. Idoru... well... she's a virtual reality pop idol. I think- I'm not that far along in it and the plot hasn't coalesced yet. It's a fascinating extrapolation of high-tech and cultural trends, rendered more interesting due to the number of years that have passed since its first publication. Has modern Japan matched Gibson's vision for it, or surpassed it? I guess I'll find out when I finish the book.

Generally, I eschew guidebooks when I'm travelling here in Japan. I do check for things online, but then I find them in reality, without burying my face in a book along the way. I keep my eyes and ears- and most especially my mind- open. I go where I'm moved to go and try to avoid gaijin as much as possible so I can feel I'm truly in Japan and not traveling in a bubble or having my impressions corrupted by those of others. Japan itself is my classroom, my textbook and my instructor. However, these books are just some of my cultural guidebooks, aids in exploring all the ingredients that go into the big delicious pot of nabe we call Japan.

Way to end on a mixed metaphor!

Walking in Shibuya: August 2007!

The easiest way to get to Shibuya once you're in Tokyo is to take the Yamanote Line. The Yamanote Line is a large circular train line that runs all the way around Tokyo, stopping in all the city wards along its length. I usually hop it out of Shinjuku when I'm on a Tokyo junket.

Platform 14, the Shinjuku Station. I took this photo under heatwave conditions in August, 2007. Notice the cool people in slacks and jeans. I don't know how people can dress that way without melting. I was in a t-shirt and shorts and I was oozing away like a misplaced Frosty the Snowman.

Once you're in Shibuya, go out the Hachiko exit and you're near the 109 shopping center, or Ichi Maru Kyu, or Marukyu for short. This is the spiritual center of the gyaru style. I've never been inside, but I read recently that during the New Year's sales earlier this year, the lines to get in were amazingly long. That I would've loved to have seen.

And here's the famous Shibuya scramble:

Well, approaching it. If you're a fan of Japanese comics or manga, no doubt you've seen the Shibuya scramble as a location in various stories. Along with the 109 building, it's an icon of modern pop cultural Japan.

When the lights change, it swarms with people. I once watched a live security video camera feed of this intersection. A river of people overflowing its banks, and the bravest man alive weaving through on a bicycle.

George Clooney looms over the shoppers, offering 2 hours or so of prime Hollywood slickery. To his right, the largest Starbucks I've ever seen. It's another place I've never entered. In this next shot, you can see some sensible people in shorts:

Really, I envy all the people who didn't wilt in the steambath Tokyo became that week. I had to take 3 showers a day- one in the morning, one after shopping, one before going to bed. My shorts had salty marks below the belt loops showing the high tide of my backsweat from every stint outside in the heat.

I've never been in this department store, either, but if you walked by you were briefly soothed by a blast of frosty air conditioned air:

And then I saw this person:

This comical dog was part of a parade of animals handing out fans with advertising printed on them. I don't think I got one from the dog, but I did take a couple from other street hawkers. Now I've been complaining about the heat; imagine how these people felt in their funny animal costumes. I hope they only had to do this one day at the most, and that the costumes were thoroughly dry cleaned and deodorized afterwards.

If you survived your shopping trip, you could don your swimsuit and hit the beach with your gorgeous friends:

Fun in the sun. Fun in the concrete and neon wonderland we call Tokyo.