April 2004 Archives

I'm Not Going To Die

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My friends have been bugging me for an update since I haven't been posting much lately. So I suppose it is appropriate for me to declare a return to health, and that I am not going to die. My horrible rash has pretty much disappeared, it was not Toxic Shock or anything fatal. I'll ascribe it to either a toxic shellfish I ate (it was delicious anyway), or perhaps to overwork from too much walking.
I have so much to post about, but I figured I should wait until I get home and can put up with photo galleries with the stories, my busted laptop is not up to the task. And my hotel's Mac is difficult to use, the Japanese keyboard has the punctuation in all the wrong places, it's OK for short posts, but for lengthy writing, it drives me crazy.
As I discussed in an earlier post, I decided to take along Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad," and his travelogues usually set the tone for my own travel writing. I got to about chapter 2, and Twain makes extensive remarks about how the burden of writing a travel diary is the worst curse one could wish upon a tourist. I'll have to dig up the exact quote, it was hilarious, and it seemed like a sensible warning. So I pretty much gave up on daily diary writing, and I even stopped reading Twain's novel. I can either focus on experiencing Japan, or on writing about it. And I have been places where no gaijin has gone before. I can't wait for this trip to end, so I can write about it all.

There Was Beer in the Soda Machine

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It's been a busy week, with too much happening to write about it now. But now it's friday night, and time to relax. One thing I noticed about this neighborhood, there are beer and sake vending machines on the street. Of course Japan is famous for liquor vending machines, but I heard they were made illegal a while ago, unless they had restricted access like inside a convenience store where the proprietors can keep the minors away from the machine. But in this neighborhood, there are still open, unrestricted liquor vending machines, they even sell liters of sake and whiskey in large bottles, which would explain the high number of drunken homeless bums in the area.
So at 9 PM I figure I'll pop across the street and buy a One-Cup sake, pop it in the microwave and have some atsukan. But when I put 200 Yen in the machine, all I get is a couple of beeps and my money back. And now I notice the sign I never bothered to read, the machine automatically turns off at 8PM. Damn.
Update: I went back in the daytime when I can read the instructions more clearly. You have to scan your Japanese driver's license and input your thumbprint. So no sake machines will work for me. Damn.


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There is no finer way to begin one's excursion in Japan than at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. It is always the first stop on my Japan itinerary. This huge complex of museums will tax the resources of even the hardiest museumgoers, each exhibit is a treasurehouse that could take a lifetime of study to fully comprehend, and there are three buildings full of exhibits.
I intended to begin my visit as I always do, purchasing sushi at the vendors near Ueno station for a lunchtime picnic, to fortify myself for the exertions of the museum. Unfortunately, the sushi vendors are all closed for reconstruction, so a beer and a few sticks of yakitori will have to suffice. As I sat in front of the museum, relaxing and munching away, I was surprised to hear three different groups of Japanese ladies stroll past, declaring "it's just like America!" Nothing could have surprised me more than such a declaration, I could not comprehend how they could think such a thing. Perhaps it was the presence of foreigners in the park? Even my own presence? But finally one group of women pointed a finger towards a group of pine trees, apparently they evoked an image of America.
I finished my picnic and walked over to a water fountain to rinse off the sticky yakitori sauce, I turned the knob but no water came out. I turned the knob the other direction, and suddenly a column of water shot out, to a height of 20 feet. From behind me, I heard the sound of dozens of girls giggling, a huge tour group of women were walking together towards the museum, arriving unseen behind me, just in time to watch my little spectacle. I finished rinsing my fingers, and with some regret, I realized my picnic had delayed me enough to put me behind the largest crowds at the exhibits.
And there is the biggest problem with Japanese museums: the people who go to see them. Japanese museumgoers are the worst museumgoers in the world. They crush together, pushing up against the glass walls that protect the exhibits from the crowds. They wear big floppy hats and fan themselves with the museum programs, blocking the view of the exhibits. They stand and stare at long scrolls, walking slowly down the cases to insure that nobody else can go past, they carefully inspect every character, in the deluded belief that they can actually read 10th century Chinese. They crowd around the display cards, paying more attention to the description of the art object than the object itself.
My sister once told me some very sensible advice about such museums, she said that when faced with an embarrassment of riches, one cannot see everything, or the really great art objects will fail to make an impression. Our memories of great works are diluted with thousands of impressions of lesser works. You must focus on the objects you really want to see, and pass by the rest without tarrying. It is better to have a few strong memories of great works, than to leave the museum with a mass of muddled memories that all merge together.
And so this is how I approached the Tokyo National Museum, and I will focus on a few highlights. The big blockbuster show was a display of shingon mandalas from Mount Koya. Many of these objects are designated as Culturally Significant Objects, as one can observe by the red legend in the corners of the display cards. I cannot begin to explain the practices of esoteric shingon except by means of a simple metaphor, it is a meditative practice analogous to solving a 9x9 Rubik's Cube in your head, and every facet of the little cubes is colored, and you have to align all the colors, even those facing the interior of the big cube. It is a recipe for madness, a massive misinterpretation of buddhism. Oh well, every religion must have its fringe crazies.
One of the strangest objects in the show was a long scroll of purple paper with writing in black ink. There were many such scrolls in this exhibit, but this one was annotated in the strangest way, it had white dots placed on top of each kanji character. There was no pattern in the white dots that I could discern, they were placed at various positions on top of the kanji, and occasionally a white kanji character was written aside the black text as an annotation, so these markings were obviously intended as an aid to the priests that read the scrolls. My educated guess is that the dots corresponded to the 9 quadrants of the shingon mandala, and were intended to remind the reader of what meditative image should be evoked as each kanji was read. My guess is probably incorrect, but life is too short to investigate such arcane matters, unless one is a priest at Mount Koyo.
But let us avert our attention from the overcrowded blockbuster exhibit, and turn to the galleries, where we can stroll in a more leisurely fashion without the jostling crowds. Each gallery contains the finest examples of Japanese art, and in considerable quantity. Here is a gallery of lacquerware, the finest collection in the world, not just one gallery, but three full galleries. Here is a collection of fine hair combs produced in the Edo era, they are in perfect condition despite their age, each one is cut with the finest teeth that would be difficult to produce even with modern technology, and there is not just one comb, there are 30 identical combs. Here is a collection of ancient paintings on silk, they are so old and faded that the images can hardly be seen, but they are all remounted in fresh silk brocade frames, just as they have been periodically restored into new frames every hundred years or so. Here is a huge gallery of Chinese bronze dating back to the Sung dynasty, oh dear, this collection isn't nearly as good as the Art Institute of Chicago. Oh well, one cannot have everything, and this is Japan, not China, so what did you expect? Here is a huge gallery of tea vessels, each object is intended for solitary contemplation during the tea ceremony, but in such quantity, they lose their impact by sheer weight of numbers. How can one experience the sublime, when the quiet whisper of a million objects combines into a deafening shout? Let us retire from these galleries, and seek a sharper focus.
I am always fascinated by evidence of the collision between Eastern and Western cultures, and there was a nice example in an exhibit of early medical textbooks illustrating the latest knowledge obtained from Dutch doctors. Another nearby gallery shows objects produced in the 15th century for Jesuit priests, one famous object is a christian altarpiece in lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a distinctively Japanese style. Nothing could more vividly demonstrate the incongruity of importing christianity to Asia, a region where the predominant religions (as well as lacquerware techniques) predate christianity by several millennium.
My particular favorite exhibit was a group of rubbings of inscriptions on Chinese stone monuments. These monuments were intended for use as a source for reproduction by taking impressions on paper, in a sense, they are the first printing presses. And some of these particular rubbings date back to 300 B.C. and are widely known as the prototypes for all kanji characters. Let me reiterate, these monuments date back thousands of years and were quite old and worn when the impressions in this exhibit were made, the rubbings are relatively modern at merely 2300 years old. It is relatively common to see these images reproduced today in kanji copybooks, and indeed, some of the stones were carved specifically to mass produce examples of finely written kanji for others to copy. But it can be heartbreaking to see such an exhibit, when some of the paper objects are mere fragments, with burned edges. We cannot possibly know what else was lost, surely there was far more to this artwork than the few square inches of unburnt paper we see today.
And as the evening approaches, I myself am feeling a little burnt at the edges. My feet are blistered, my back is aching from hauling my bag over my shoulder, I should have checked it in a coin locker. It is time to limp back to my hotel, this has been far more amusement than any one body can bear.

I'm Going To Die

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I think I'm going to die. Perhaps this is appropriate, I just found out I'm living near the old Yoshiwara. No, not the area that was infamous for the mizushobai, the OLD Yoshiwara where they dumped the bones of the condemned and untouchables.
Just as I arrived in Japan, I threw my back out from hauling my luggage around. I've been taking Alleve to reduce the pain, it helps a lot, and I when it runs out my back isn't so painful as it was, so I must be healing well. But now, my legs are going bad. Two days ago, I noticed I had a few red spots on my skin below my ankles, it didn't seem like anything to worry about. Then yesterday it was up to my ankles. Today it's up to the top of my socks, with faint streaks up to my right knee. It looks like little subcutaneous hemorrhages, but it could just be a bad rash. I'm worried that it's something serious. I can only speculate at what's causing it, there are many possible reasons I can think of.
1. I'm walking too much. I live a sedentary life and now suddenly I'm spending 5 hours a day walking.
2. The ofuro is too hot. I've been soaking my legs to relax, perhaps I should cut out the long soak.
3. I've been eating cheap, crappy food like salty instant ramen, maybe it's a reaction to MSG or maybe all that salt has shot my blood pressure to hell. That one could be serious.
4. I have a Pocari Sweat deficiency.
5. My shoes and socks are too tight.
6. I need to wash my trousers.
7. It's a simple heat rash.
8. That ridiculous old Japanese legend is true, sleeping under the breeze of a fan will suck away your life force, and if you do it long enough, you will die in your sleep.
Well, anyway, I decided that I need to take it easier. I was already taking it easier due to my sore back, but then I went out to the Ginza and realized what a crappy neighborhood I'm living in, so I decided I needed to get out to some other area of town at least once a day. But after walking for 5 hours around Shinjuku, an area I actually know rather well, I must have overtaxed myself. Before I left, I knew my health wasn't so great, and I decided that I had enough time here so that if I had to spend one full day of rest for each day on the town, it wouldn't be a huge tragedy. So tomorrow I'm going to rest all day, and see how things go. Otherwise I'll probably have to visit a doctor and have my legs checked out, and that is my absolute worst-case-scenario for a visit to Japan, dealing with a Japanese hospital. I've done that before, and it's a nightmare.


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When you are operating beyond the limits of blood, bone, and brain, and you're trying to convince yourself that your well laid plans are all working out perfectly despite sudden and overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and when you've had one drink too many, that is when mistakes will happen. But there are no accidents, everything happens for a purpose, perhaps everything turned out for the best. Let us call it an adventure, and never speak of it again.

Dutch Blue

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A few years ago I took a seminar in ukiyo-e history at my art school. One of the other students, a Chinese woman, was the star of the class, she had an MA in Art History from Beijing University and was working on a PhD. She always knew how to read all the obscure kanji seals, which was a delight to everyone, especially the professor. She spent an entire semester investigating one strange question, I tried to help her research it, but we never could find an answer. But oddly enough, this morning I turned on the TV and NHK had a 30 minute documentary about this very subject: Dutch Blue.
In Japan, a particularly intense color known as Dutch Blue or Delft Blue, is well known for its common use in ukiyo-e printmaking. But the question was posed, what is Dutch Blue, what is its chemical composition and where did it come from? Did it come from the Netherlands? We never could find out the answer.
But today's art history lecture on NHK was about Dutch and Flemish painting. Apparently the famous Vermeer painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is on display in Tokyo, and it has caused the same sensation that accompanies it everywhere it is displayed. Could the blue scarf the girl is wearing be the same Dutch Blue?
Indeed it is, but not for the reasons you might think. The NHK crew visits a traditional Dutch paint maker, and we see his ancient methods. He even lives in a windmill, using the wind-driven millstones to grind mineral pigments. But Dutch Blue is too precious to mass produce, so we see his hand-grinding apparatus, a tall copper pestle with a long shafted mortar. The paintmaker retrieves a chunk of bright blue mineral from his shelf, and at last we see what Dutch Blue is composed of: Lapis Lazuli.
Lapis is a semiprecious stone, almost the entire world's supply comes from Afghanistan and Iraq. Dutch traders brought the mineral to Europe and it was used in oil painting during the Renaissance, but due to its expense, was too precious for everyday use. But thinly applied and mixed with white, bright, luminous blue skies became a hallmark of Flemish landscape painting.
But in European painting, this color is known as ultramarine, and if the color really had come to Japan through European traders, it would probably be known by another name. That is the most interesting part of this story.
Dutch Blue is a misnomer. According to the documentary, Dutch Blue first came into widespread knowledge in Japan on imported Chinese porcelain. Most people are familiar with Ming era ceramics and their bright blue painted markings. The color really should be known as Ming Blue. But Ming Blue is not made from Lapis Lazuli, it is cobalt oxide, even though the color is extremely close to Dutch Blue.
By a historical coincidence, Ming ceramics were first imported to Japan at the same time Dutch traders came to Japan. Dutch trade goods were wildly popular, and the Ming Blue color became associated with the Dutch goods. Real Delft pottery with the distinctive cobalt blue color would not be made in Europe for nearly a hundred years after the glaze was discovered by Chinese ceramicists.
The question still remains, how did the Lapis Lazuli come to Japan? Perhaps it was brought by Dutch traders, I didn't hear anything about that in this documentary. Most water-based pigments used in nihon-ga and ukiyo-e are mineral pigments, and we now know that finely powdered Lapis Lazuli was used in these Japanese artworks. But at least now we know how Dutch Blue got its name.


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I arrived in Asakusa, and it looks like I'll have good computer access so I'll be able to blog during the trip. Maybe I'll even be able to post some pictures if I can get my laptop up and running on their network. That would be a nice switch from this little iMac/233 I'm using now.
Not much to say yet, since I've just arrived and haven't seen anything except the insides of some trains and my room. If anyone in Tokyo wants to meet up, drop me an email (look for the link on the left side of this page, just under the search box).

Innocents Abroad

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In a few short days, I will depart on a trip to Japan. It's been a long time since I traveled overseas, but now one of my good friends is getting married in Tokyo, so this seems like a good enough excuse to travel.
Preparing for a trip is always troublesome. Some people like to travel light, I like to travel heavy, packing for every possible contingency. I always feel like I will forget something, and no doubt I will. There's an old rule of thumb for travelers, "take half the clothes you'll need, and twice as much money." This works well in every place I've traveled except Japan. The premise is that you can always buy clothes in an emergency. But in Japan, it is impossible for me to buy clothing my size. Everything is too small. For example, every lodging in Japan provides a yukata (bathrobe) that is supposed to come down to your ankles, but they barely cover my knees. There's an old Japanese idiom ashi ga deru (your feet stick out) that means something that's more trouble than it's worth. So a too-short yukata is an embarassment, everyone wags their finger at your feet sticking out. I went to some trouble to purchase an extra long yukata at a shop in San Francisco that carries sizes more suitable for tall Americans, but it is still at least 6 inches too short.
So due to my 6'2" stature, I could never possibly buy clothes in Japan, I have to bring everything I might possibly want to wear under any circumstance. And it can be hard to predict those circumstances, since I have absolutely no plan whatsoever. The last time I was in Japan, my best item of clothing was a Versace T-shirt. I was surprised to discover that it was widely pirated in Japan, I saw quite a few people wearing shirts with the exact same design, except they all said "Vivace." It was especially hilarious seeing the looks on the faces of people wearing the fake shirt when they saw my real one.
Shoes are especially troublesome, I usually carry a separate bag just for shoes, since they never fit in my suitcase. And my shoes are huge, size 13EEE. Fortunately, I can pack a lot of spare odds and ends in my shoe bag, since shoes are hollow.
And of course I have to bring my favorite gadgets. I'm going to bring my old beat up laptop, which is in absolutely terrible condition and locks up intermittently. I wouldn't bring it at all, but I need somewhere to dump the pictures from my digital camera. I guess I'll bring my CD player, I wish I had an iPod. There's a lot of wasted time spent on the subways so some nice music is always vital.
But the most essential ingredient for travel is a good book to read. Last time I went to Japan, I brought "Roughing It" by Mark Twain. I decided that humor would be the best remedy for frustrating, tiresome travel delays, and this book was absolutely perfect. But the strangest thing happened as I read the book, each and every disaster that befell Twain in his travels seemed to happen to me in a similar way. I recall reading the part where Twain gets stuck for weeks in Nevada, just as I was stuck in the DFW airport for 3 days waiting for a standby seat.
This time I decided to pick up Twain's "Innocents Abroad." It's one of his famous travelogues, I haven't read it before so I have no idea what to expect. But surely this book will set the tone for my travels, just as the previous book did. I tend to get into a literary mode when I travel, I scribble in notebooks constantly, recording my impressions, and there's no better inspiration than Twain's travel episodes. And when traveling, you need to keep your sense of humor at the forefront, or you'll go crazy.
I hope to be able to write a few blog entries during my trip, but it's unlikely I'll have adequate internet access. So if I don't write anything in the next 2 weeks or so, I'll surely be bursting with stories and photos when I get back.

Fiddling While Rome Burns

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April 5 2004

On April 5, 2004, as more than a dozen Americans died in the bloody uprising in Iraq, George W. Bush decided to play baseball. Today as I prepared this photograph, CNN announced that Bush arrived in Crawford, Texas for his Easter Vacation.
Excuse me, Mr. President, Easter is 4 days away, shouldn't you be in the White House Situation Room? Don't you care that your war plan is falling apart?