Tuesday, March 26, 2013

As a fan of both the Beatles and Japan, I have to post my reactions to 'The day my mum looked after the Beatles' - The Japan Times

The Beatles came to Japan two years before I was born, and about forty years before I made it over here.  If you search Youtube, you can find one of their "lives" (to use the Japanese-English for music performances) in full color, in its entirety.  They run through a lot of very familiar hits in about thirty minutes, but it's slick, polished and charming.  Maybe a bit rote.  These guys had played thousands of shows by then and knew exactly what to do and when to get the maximum audience reaction.  It's quite the video document and a must-see for Beatles fans, as close as we'll ever come to seeing the Fabs in concert.

The Japan Times story, 'The day my mum looked after the Beatles' - The Japan Times, and the blog post that inspired it (linked at the end of the story) both make an equally strong impression of what it must have been like to meet them off-stage, through the eyes of a young JAL flight attendant.  The mental image of near-sighted John Lennon practically clinging to the cabin wall to find his way to the toilet sticks with me, as do Ringo Starr's curt food orders (he was apparently in a bad mood).  I also admire how our protagonist, one Satoko Kawasaki (now Condon) cheerfully admits she "lobbied" for the job.  Who can blame her?

While Mrs. Condon's recollections form an adorably personal and personable account of falling in love with Lennon and posting a love letter to Jane Asher for Paul McCartney, the article puts the Beatles' visit to Japan into historical context-- while the fans screamed and cried the way they tended to all across the globe, traditionalist elements in the government and the media were less than enthused about such antics or having the mop tops playing their decadent pop music in the hallowed Budokan.

We sometimes forget in the years since-- because the Beatles eventually won history, became part of the Establishment narrative and now draw youthful derision from rebellious contrarians who get sick of hearing how great the Beatles were and remain-- there was a time when rock music presented a real challenge to the people in charge.  When Ken Kesey saw them play the Cow Palace in San Francisco, he came away disappointed the Beatles could manipulate crowds but failed to grasp the revolutionary power they'd inadvertently generated.  Hunter S. Thompson would later wax philosophically about how you could almost see where the wave broke and washed back, the great societal sea-change unfulfilled.  He'd also sneer at Lennon's late-blooming political activism.  Now it's all ancient history, as old as the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta.

But at one point, the Beatles were dangerous.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

That was a very bad year: '95 Aum subway gas attack marked - The Japan Times

'95 Aum subway gas attack marked - The Japan Times

1995 was a tough year for Japan.  January of that year saw 6,434 people die in the Hanshin earthquake and March witnessed the Aum gas attack in Tokyo.  Only 13 died, but over 5,000 suffered injuries.  Both have left lasting impacts on the Japanese psyche.  You should learn more about it from Haruki Murakami's Underground:  The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche to learn more about it.  It's one of the most moving books I've ever read.

Murakami interviewed a number of people who were involved in the drama that day, all of whom would carry with them the after-effects for the rest of their lives.  The emotional impact comes from the ordinariness of these people, their openness about what happened to them and the varying ways in which they deal with what happened.  It's been many years since I read it, and I had not yet visited Japan at the time.  Maybe I should revisit Underground to see for myself if it affects me the same way, or if I recognize attitudes and beliefs I didn't before.

I can't think of a time where I've been on a subway or train in Tokyo and I haven't found myself thinking about Aum and Underground.  Or the possibility for some similar, chaotic mass event to recur.  Once done, a subway gassing, like a building bombing or a school shooting, begins to float around as a possibility, no longer remote but very real.  And yet we can't exist in a state of paranoia.  We can't avoid subways or airplanes forever.  Sooner or later, the need to be somewhere brings us into these zones where things happen, or might happen.  We buy our tickets and ride nevertheless.  How you view this tendency just to carry on afterwards may depend on your optimism or pessimism.

Monday, March 11, 2013

This story has a spectacular photo of Tokyo Sky Tree lost in the polluted haze

Tokyo dust storm came complete with China sand | The Japan Times

I've never been to Tokyo Sky Tree.  I prefer the old school tackiness of Tokyo Tower.  In May 2010, I climbed Tokyo Tower's steps and received a little card-- my certificate of achievement.  Then I spent some time at the wax museum where I had flashbacks to all the tawdry little wax museums I forced my parents to take me to on vacations as a kid.  I have a thing for wax museums.

Tokyo Sky Tree is an impressive sight, though.  You take certain trains in and around Tokyo and you'll see it looming behind buildings.  What's the point of Tokyo Sky Tree?  Probably just to have someplace new to go.  A gargantuan novelty.  Someone had the money to build it and so that person did.  Or persons.  A consortium, no doubt.  It takes a group of people to dream up such a useless thing and make it a big, shiny reality.  In an earthquake zone.  But I don't mean to knock Tokyo Sky Tree.  I actually admire it.  I just don't plan to go to the top anytime soon.

Tokyo is kind of my home away from home.  I've become proficient at navigating its train lines and subways.  I've seen and done just about everything you can in Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Ikebukuro and Akihabara.  Shimokitizawa (I saw Melt-Banana there the same week I climbed Tokyo Tower) beckons, though, and Kichijoji.  Lately, I'm a bit burnt out on Tokyo but all it would take is the right "live" to lure me back.  There are a lot of bands I've neglected in favor of Melt-Banana and I need to make it up to them.

It's just a bit scary seeing Tokyo this foul.  While the whole "Chinese dust" phenomenon is probably being overplayed in the Japanese media, the air lately hasn't been very kind to people with breathing problems or allergies.  Kafunshou, or hayfever, has really done a number on me this year.  I don't think I've ever been this sick for this long.  It's got me in a bad mood.  Gasping for air like a fish and having a nose that drips whenever you put your head in drawing position-- thereby negating any attempt at making art-- will do that to you.

I probably belong in the high desert of the American southwest.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The sky turned yellow Sunday...

A few years ago, during my first stint in Japan, I heard about this phenomenon and experienced it.  I have some photos somewhere of Hamamatsu with a strange yellow sky that looks more like Mars than Japan.  And here we go again:  Yellow sand, Chinese pollutants wreak havoc | The Japan Times.

Sunday, the sky over Shizuoka prefecture became a pale yellow, which persisted throughout the morning before giving way to more ordinary-seeming gray clouds.  I stayed indoors all day.  I'm experiencing the worst seasonal allergies of my life-- the pollen counts here in Japan are off the charts-- and I didn't want to exacerbate my breathing problems with fine grit and pollutants.  I still spent the day battling a tremendous sinus headache and feeling generally ill.  This may not have anything to do with the international pollutants or even with the local cedar pollen.

All I know is, the air lately is not my friend.  I'm taking prescription allergy pills and managing to hold things together, but just barely.

On the other hand, today is sunny and very pretty to look at.  Sunlight on bare tree limbs and shadows, street lights glittering.  The weather's turning warmer and spring has winter on the run.  If I can survive the pollen and sand storms I should be fine.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Authorities investigate Akita line bullet train derailment | The Japan Times

Authorities investigate Akita line bullet train derailment | The Japan Times

I firmly believe the shinkansen to be the safest way to travel in the world.  This doesn't happen often, and when it does, it seems to result from extraordinary circumstances.  The only other one I can remember during my lifetime here in Japan-- all 8 or so years of it-- happened during an earthquake.  This one was more than likely caused by that heavy snowfall.

Fortunately, no one was hurt.  Which is further testimony to the safety of these fast-movers.

One of my dreams is to take a shinkansen along the Tokaido line from point A to the farthest point B.  I don't know where the thing starts or where to find its terminus.  I just know I want to go from one to the other and see as much of Japan as I can passing by my window.  The only problem is, the shinkansen tends to lull me to sleep so I might miss a great deal of scenery.

And I'm no the only one.  Back when I was first here teaching English, a couple of my co-workers tried to take the shinkansen back from a sightseeing trip of their own.  They fell asleep somewhere after Osaka and woke up at Tokyo Terminal having passed their stop, the little town where we all lived and worked.  Since it was too late to catch another shinkansen back, they had to walk around all night before bedding down in a park for another nap.  They caught the first shinkansen back in the morning and arrived in time for work a little ragged but otherwise fine, with an amusing little tale.  Which I have just shared with you.

Since then, I've forced myself to stay awake even as the gently rocking train and its smooth gliding sounds act as lullabies to my weary mind and body.  My eyelids grow heavy and I feel myself drifting away.  A sharp slap to the face and I'm back in my seat on the shinkansen wishing I didn't have to be anywhere in particular at any particular time and I could just give into the inviting dreamland...

In short, drink more Coke or coffee before you ride the shinkansen.

Friday, March 1, 2013

First spring storm of year hits Tokyo, other parts of Japan | The Japan Times

First spring storm of year hits Tokyo, other parts of Japan | The Japan Times

Wow!  I'll say it did!  Yesterday started cloudy, pollen-y and fairly warm but ended with lashings of rain that drummed on our roof like the Hamamatsu Matsuri come two months early.  All last night and early this morning the wind made surprised gasps and never dropped below a low hum.  But at least it's sunny now.

People here love to tell me Japan has four seasons, meaning there are distinctions between each of them, especially compared to my home state of Georgia.  Especially in southwest Georgia, where we probably have two-- summer and winter, chopped into micro-seasons which the traditional season names can't quite describe.  In southwest Georgia, winter starts in December, sometimes gives way to an early spring just before Christmas, comes back in January, occasionally vanishes for a while in February, hits again in the middle of March.  Then a short spring giving way to a hot, humid summer that lasts well into September or even October.  After that, a very short fall.  As you move northwards, things become more calendar-ready.  Athens, for instance, has a long summer, but you know what season you're in as they change.  Fall and spring are especially inviting.

Here in Hamamatsu, the seasons last about two or three months each.  There are variances, of course, but they come regularly and with the same features each time.  There are names for these, but they're Japanese and while I hear them fairly often, I tend to forget them even when they'd come in handy.  Like now.  Windy winter, a brief turbulent transition to mild spring, rainy June, broiling summer, mild fall and the cycle begins again.  Included in the mix are hay fever season (right now the pollen counts are off the charts and I'm miserable), rainy season and various typhoons.  Oh yeah, and the weird yellow sky time when the wind from China blows fine desert grit all the way across the ocean and into the air here.

The strangest thing is the way the thermometer seemed to realize March had come yesterday.  Even though I had to stand outside for a long time yesterday morning, I felt pretty comfortable.  At least in my coat.  I sneezed about one thousand times.  By the time I left work in the early afternoon, I could have worn just a sweater.  Not true just a day before.

Now watch it turn freezing just to make me a liar.