Friday, January 27, 2012

Secret Garden

Near Temple Valley
I don't know which was more suspicious, me circling the same square block for the better part of an hour or the sudden appearance of a black-caped gentleman with an unsolicited offer of help. In any case, he asked and I told him exactly what I was looking for.  "I've never heard of such a place around here and I've lived in this neighborhood all my life," he uttered in English that was as impeccable as his sartorial style. 

I didn't believe him for a New York second. It had to be somewhere very close to where we were standing at that very moment. After all local singer/composer, Akeboshi (whose song, "Wind," plays at the beginning of the televised hit anime program, Naruto) had posted a picture of this elusive "secret garden" on his blog.  Not only that, I had the distinct feeling that I'd been there before and my own photographic evidence to prove it, just no memory of how I got there. So for now everybody is keeping quiet about the exact coordinates of this pleasant little plot of land, the tall, dark, well-dressed stranger I met on the road, me (because I can't remember them for the life of me), and of course Akeboshi who has made no secret about keeping it a Quiet Garden.

More from the Listening Post: Don't Look Back in Anger

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Trump Cards

An old mail box in Kawasaki

If there were a competition, Japanese New Year's postcards would trump Christmas cards hands down every time and here's why. While an Xmas card may convey a lovely message of peace and hope, the New Year's card in Japan is a little sliver of hope itself. If you doubt it, just look at the numbers. I'm talking about the numbers printed at the bottom right hand corner of practically every New Year's postcard stamped "Made in Japan." Those six little digits magically transform each card into a potentially winning lottery ticket sometime around mid-January every year. This time around one out of a million lucky New Year's card recipients will win either an-all-expenses-paid trip to some exotic overseas locale, a laptop, an LCD color TV or other great prize while a greater ratio of the less fortunate will get to claim two commemorative stamps. It's all courtesy of the Japanese Post Office, a.k.a. Japan Post, the entity that provides the card stock that makes the winning dream a reality (if you happen to get a postcard that came from any place other than the Post Office, like Hallmark, etc., you're plumb out of luck).

Both sides of a typical New Year's postcard 
Sure the sending end is definitely not as financially rewarding as the receiving end, but how often do you get the opportunity to give somebody a dream? While I may "dream of a white Christmas with every Christmas card I write," I get to share the dream of hitting the jackpot with every New Year's card I tip in the mail slot. On the flip side, should the wheel of fortune spin south and none of your numbers get picked for a prize, you're still lucky to be left with a priceless work of art to be treasured for as long as you wish.

PSST: The trick to getting New Year's post cards works pretty much the same as Christmas cards. The more you send the more you get in return but as a financial investment, it's kind of low yield.

Related post: Never Forget

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


"Oases - Every city has them, little islands of comfort tucked away in concealed corners known only to a few urban cognoscenti. I know of one in one of the most unlikely spaces you’d ever look for an oasis." 

If you want to discover the location of this little hideaway in the middle of the asphalt jungle, you'll have to get your hands on a copy of the soon-to-be-released fifteenth regular issue of Smile, Hon You're in Baltimore! There, buried in the back pages, you'll find the paper that maps out the path to this treasured island. 

It's the latest installment in my Mobtown Memoirs. Totaling two stories so far, my memoirs are about as short as my memory itself and maybe that's not such a bad thing. In any case I've decided to sandwich whatever I can piece together from the charmed life I led in Charm City between the covers of this periodical. They somehow fit in well among its "polished, professional essays; barroom sermons delivered from the sanctity of a favorite stool, the poet's fleeting sentiment captured in both word and snapshot, a slice of Baltimore as told by Baltimore, all presented with the time-honored, DIY accessibility of a limited-run, handcrafted zine." In fact it's the only place they fit in.

The Utne Reader has said, "though Smile, Hon very much inhabits its native city, the publication will appeal to anyone who is compelled by the darkly funny, serendipitous, sometimes undignified realities of urban existence." So if it's in your nature to peruse such material, pick up a copy, sit back, and smile hon because more than a place Baltimore is a state of mind. :)

More to Smile About

Click pic for larger view 
If you venture into the heart of Japan's Kawasaki City,  you're likely to stumble upon this little metal and marble oasis, a gift from the people of Baltimore to the citizens of its sister city. The massive sculpture is prominently located next to the Japan Railway Kawasaki Station and the sentiment inscribed on its accompanying plaque is hopefully just as prominently imprinted in the hearts and minds of everyone who calls either city home.

Related posts: Banana Gone Bad

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Season of Change

Another wardrobe change for Peeing Boy  

It's another year, another month, and after making my periodical pilgrimage to visit the divine little statue that stands atop the platform of Japan Railway's Hamamatsucho station in the heart of Tokyo, I'm pleased to announce, another outfit for the Peeing Boy. This month Tokyo's gray iron replica of Brussel's famed Mannekin Pis was all gussied up for the New Year's holidays. While his outfit would have also fit right in with this season's Coming of Age Day festivities, the Peeing Boy will be forever cast in our minds as a lad and never grow up.

That perennial view could also sum up the way Japan's political class see "the little people" they rule over. The complaint is that the country's leaders treat the citizenry as if they were children. In a recent New York Times articleSachiko Sato, a founder of the National Network of Parents to Protect Children from Radiation (a.k.a. Mamorukai), is quoted saying,"If the government treated us like adults, there would be no need for Mamorukai."

While a series of failures and lack of transparency in the government's testing of food produced in the region surrounding the ailing TEPCO nuclear power plant has put contaminated food in consumers hands, they have also affected people's political perspectives. According to the Times the government's response so far has "had a corrosive effect on public confidence in the food-monitoring efforts, with a growing segment of the public and even many experts coming to believe that officials have understated or even covered up the true extent of the public health risk in order to limit both the economic damage and the size of potential compensation payments." The Times article illustrates how farmers and citizens are taking it upon themselves to test food for radioactive contamination and fill the gap the government has left wide open.

Maybe it's impossible to find a silver lining in the dark atomic cloud that the leaking TEPCO plant has cast over this land but the efforts of Mamorukai and other citizens' groups provide a glimmer of hope. We're seeing a political coming of age in this time of nuclear disaster where ordinary citizens are rising to make up for the shortcomings of their leaders. Like the Arab Spring and the American Fall, maybe this too will be a season of change. 

Related posts: He's Coming 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Don't Look Back in Anger

(As seen on Slow but Steady)

We don't agree with everything British rocker, Noel Gallagher has said in the past but we'll take the advice of Yomo to Ohana(Lambswool and Flower), here seen performing the former Oasis front man's Don't Look Back in Anger. By the way, fans of Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds will be pleased to note that the rock band is currently touring Japan and will be playing Tokyo's JCB Hall tonight.

More from the Listening Post: A Musical Epiphany

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Fabric of My Life

I remember there being a lot more 
fringe 40 years ago
"I've never been so cold in my life." That's what he told me as his shivering hands brought the cup of steaming hot tea closer to his lips. Originally from the northern wilds of icy Hokkaido, he was a recent transplant to Yokohama. I was helping him brush up on his English conversation skills before the company that employed us both sent him on to a warmer climate across the seas. 

He just wasn't prepared, that was his main problem. I don't mean for his English lessons. He knew more about the ins and out of English grammar than I ever hope to. He just wasn't prepared for his move to Yokohama, where perhaps unlike his former homeland, houses and apartment buildings generally lack central heating and insulation (as far as I've seen anyway). Warm here is a relative term and depends largely on your proximity to the space heater, whether it be wall mounted or portable; gas, electric, or kerosene powered. The house I live in tends to be colder inside than it is outside in winter and the reverse in summer (one of those mysteries of the orient). Sometimes the best way to warm up on a cold January afternoon is to get out of the house. The upside is that there is no chance of milk or other perishables spoiling since every room is essentially a walk-in refrigerator.

When I pulled up stakes and moved to Japan from the more frigid zones of America, I had everything I needed thanks in part to the spouse of a US ambassador who had lived in numerous countries across the world. She doled out some excellent advise on globe trotting and more. I chalk it up to kismet that I had my car radio tuned to the talk show station on which she was being interviewed just weeks before I was about to make my own big move. She let the host of the show in on a little secret something that was her rock of stability no matter how many times she and her family had to pack up and move on to the next new post. The secret was a four-poster bed, a family heirloom  passed down for generations. It had traveled with them from their  abode somewhere in the Virginia countryside to the four corners of the earth.

"That's exactly what I'm going to do!" I shouted and began to think of possessions that would serve as my anchor as I embarked on my journey into an unknown continent. I didn't have a four-poster bed nor the means to move it half way across the earth but I could bring a blanket I thought. Lacking independent thinking skills, I couldn't imagine anything beyond the bed but it turned out to be a stroke of genius in the end.    

Before shoving off from the Port of Baltimore, I stuffed an old woolen Foxford blanket into my olive green Sunny's surplus duffel bag. I had laid beneath the comfort of that blanket my entire life and while worn it was still quite warm.

Proudly bearing its label for well 
over half a century
My Irish immigrant grandmother had brought it to the distant shores of her new home in America decades before I was ever born. Now I would be taking it a little further as I continued to weave a thread that stretched back over countless years and miles from one island nation half way around the world to another.   

It's cold  as usual and I'm feeling a little under the weather but I'll rest well tonight, blanketed in a warmth shared by generations.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Severed Ties

I had kind of a big shock to my system today. It occurred while reading a post on one of my favorite blogs that included photos of Freedom Tower, a.k.a. One World Trade Center, that is currently rising over the site where the World Trade Center (WTC) once stood in New York City. I have kind of mixed feelings about whether they should have built anything at all to fill that empty space gutted so suddenly from the heart of the city on the morning of September 11, 2001. How could you ever fill the void left on that day?

Among the jumble of emotions is also the feeling that I should be in the mix of concrete finishers and ironworkers as they create this massive structure out of thin air. I ought to be following in the footsteps of my father (dubbed "Hopalong" by his peers) who had a hand in building the WTC and my grandfather (affectionately known as "Harry the Bull") who helped erect the Empire State Building.

Building the tallest buildings in New York is almost a family tradition and I'm watching it slip from my hands with the completion of each story of this shining new tower. I think I could fit right in on the construction site. I still have one of my dad's old tools to do the job. It's these tin snips pictured here that he and his father before him (both metal lathers out of local 46 in NYC) wielded to cut wire lath and more. I've held on to them just in case a circumstance like this one arose.

There are probably a few stumbling blocks I would have to sort out before getting to work, like acquiring a union card for one. Besides that, a pair of snips might not be the most important tool for a would-be lather like me to carry on his belt. That distinction would probably belong to the pliers. That is if they still use them on the job, things in the construction trade tend to change with the passing of time. Pliers and wire are what a lather would normally use to tie together the steel reinforcing bars and other elements that keep our modern structures standing and the ceilings above our heads from falling. Left with nothing but a pair of old tin snips, all I can do is let the ties that have bound me and my forefathers together in this tradition of building become forever severed.

What would my dad say if he were alive at this moment in time? I think he would say what he always said when coming to this kind of crossroads of fate. He'd say, "Oh well, whaddya gonna do?" and then he would keep moving on.

Further interesting reading on ironworkers in NYC: A Mohawk Trail To the Skyline; Indian Ironworkers Return... (This is an OBG from the NYT and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Charlie LeDuff.) 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Layers of Illusion

"Goldfish Salvation" Riusuke Fukahori from ICN gallery on Vimeo.

The description of this video on the ICN Gallery's Vimeo channel notes that the artist's "unique style of painting uses acrylic on clear resin which is poured into containers, resulting in a three-dimensional appearance and lifelike vitality."

All we can say is wow!

Related post: Permanent

Monday, January 9, 2012

Public Eye on Corporate Crime

The Berne Declaration and Green Peace (Switzerland) are joining hands to point their fingers at corporate miscreants around the globe with their annual Public Eye Awards. The groups claim the Awards "mark a critical counterpoint to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. Organized since 2000 by Berne Declaration and Friends of the Earth (in 2009 replaced by Greenpeace), Public Eye reminds the corporate world that social and environmental misdeeds have consequences - for the affected people and territory, but also for the reputation of the offender." Open to public participation (via online voting) these "naming & shaming awards" are designed to "shine an international spotlight on corporate scandals and thereby help focused NGO campaigns succeed."

So far, local favorite, little old Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) is following on the heels of global giant Samsung in this race to be named the top corporate offender in the world. The election campaign poster selected for TEPCO features a catchy slogan that reads, "What we created we could not handle." To drive the message home the text is juxtaposed with a photo of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant cut out in the shape of Godzilla.

Roll your mouse over the interactive gadget above to learn more about the nominees or click the corresponding buttons to find out more about the Public Eye Awards as well as cast your vote.

Related post: Postponing the Inevitable

Sunday, January 8, 2012

On Track

(A Story of Spontraineous Harmony)

Maybe you've heard the story before. Two musicians, total strangers, walk into a subway car and...

Quoom (drums) with Jessica Latshaw (vocals, ukulele)

They say it could only happen in New York.
We hope they're wrong.

Related post: In Training

Friday, January 6, 2012

Have a Musical Epiphany

It's January 6th, so here's to a musical epiphany (or maybe just a musical Epiphany).

Straightener performing Six Day Wonder.

Straightener's lead vocalist (and more), Atsushi Horie, is also the one-man band known as ent

Another post of musical note: Dreams of the Awake

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Between the Lines

After trying my hand at mozi-kuji, I discovered it's kind of addictive.
Font designer, Daijiro Ohara, is taking the printed word to the cutting edge. In a recent post on his blog he shares his discovery of a new literary art form he calls "mozi-kuji." After snipping sentences from a wide range of printed sources, he asks people to randomly select two sentences cut from different books, newspapers, etc. that they then paste to a blank page. Next they try to seamlessly connect the two random thoughts with a line of their own to create something entirely new and often beautiful. 
It all goes to show you how everything is somehow connected and that bridging the gap between dissonance and harmony is often just a matter of finding the right words.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Future Is Written

At zero yen, the Future Times is "priceless."
It's all spelled out clearly in the Future Times, a new publication that has recently hit Temple Valley news stands. The newspaper, edited, published, and funded by Masafumi Goto (front man for the Japanese rock sensation, Asian Kung-Fu Generation), is designed to get people thinking about the future and making the kinds of choices in their lives that we can all live with over the long run. 

The first issue features an article on sustainable temporary housing built by the Matsuda Jutaku Sangyo construction company for those dispossessed by the catastrophic events of March 11. The residential units, boasting rooftop solar panels and more, are constructed with wood coming entirely from local forests. Although they are dubbed "temporary," the shelters can be taken by residents once they find more permanent digs and used as spare rooms, storage sheds, or whatever. While representing only a fraction of the temporary shelters now being used in Japan, these enduring organic structures have a world of possibilities to offer. There could even be a lesson here for emergency managers beyond the borders of this island nation. The shelter solution certainly seems to be a more viable alternative to the toxic plastic trailers that so many displaced persons found themselves calling home in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters in the US and perhaps elsewhere.

The Future Times is chock-full of stories of people paving the way to a brighter tomorrow as they shed light on the dark shadows hanging over our communities and global environment. While the paper is currently only available in Japanese, who knows what the future will bring? Those of us who can't make head nor tail of the text can still find ways to make good use of the Future Times,turning it into sustainable gift wrap, party hats and much much more. Like the future itself, the possibilities are endless.

Lost but Not Forever Gone
Bringing Print back from the Brink

As financial strains cause print publications to fold left and right, it's a wonder that anyone would even attempt the daunting task of publishing in print in this digital age. Goto hopes to fund publication of the Future Times in part with the help of sales from his recording, Lost, available for download on the new paper's website at whatever cost you can afford (beginning at one hundred yen, roughly one US dollar). 

Related post: Waiting for the Sun

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ringing in the New Year

Sojiji Temple, sometime after midnight January 1, 2012

In her article, Japanese New Year Preparations, Shizuko Mishima notes: "Before midnight on New Year's Eve, temple bells across Japan begin to toll slowly 108 times. It's called joya-no-kane. People welcome the new year by listening to the sound of temple bells. It is said that the temple bell tolls purify ourselves of our 108 worldly desires."

In recent years more than a few New Year's revelers have been observed making their way home toward the valley via the grounds of this temple. Passing by the bell hours after the throngs of visiting pilgrims have returned home and the monks retired to their quarters, these wayward travelers have been known to release the clanger from its shackles and toll the joya-no-kane one more time for good measure before resting their weary heads and slowly rising with the dawn of a new year.

Related post: Beating in the New Year