Saturday, March 31, 2012

In Japan Today...

...a few days ago

The Art of Bill Collecting
When was the last time you got a bill that made you smile? Illustrator Shinya Nishida has come up with a most artful way to collect from his clients that does just that every time...(read on at Japan Today).

Friday, March 30, 2012

Sharing the Vision

 "Sharing is the nature of creativity. It doesn't happen in isolation. No one creates in a vacuum. Everything comes from something else. It's a chain reaction in music, literature and more." 
                                                            -Gilberto Gil                                              Legendary jazz musician and former 
Brazilian Minister of Culture

While Gil may have had a different vision in mind, I think Conan gets it. Take a look:

Now only if the Feds would lighten up about intellectual property rights too what a happier  world this would be.

                                                     RiP! A Remix Manifesto

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Swept Away

I updated this post here.

We met once again. His eyes locked on mine for what seemed like a moment frozen in time and then with a wave of the hand he broke the spell and turned, shaking his head while whispering a well worn mantra under his breath. I’ve heard it many times before. We’ve been meeting like this for years. He knocks at the door. I answer. He slowly turns and shuffles away, out the gate and down the slope that leads to the street below. It took two or three of these biannual chance encounters before I realized he was a door-to-door broom salesman. The four-and-a-half foot whisker continually at his side is what finally clued me in.

Unlocking the mystery of who he was only made me more curious about what he did. Being a door-to-door broom salesman had to be infinitely more tougher than what I previously thought was the hardest sales job in the world (a door-to-door vacuum salesman). Not only that, his sales approach was the softest soft sell I’d ever seen. It was beyond soft sell, it was more like a “I give up, you don’t want what I got to sell anyway” sell. Then I thought maybe after getting a look at me, he just didn’t want to go through the trouble of delivering his broom pitch only to find out I didn’t understand a word of Japanese. Then that theory got swept away one day when Em, my wife, who speaks the language pretty well and has all the classic Japanese facial features to match her speech answered the door when the broom man came a knocking. She too got the wave of the hand, followed by the shaking of the head and simultaneous muttering under the breath as the old guy turned to make his exit down the slope. He is the most uncommunicative sales person I’ve ever seen. It’s a good thing he is selling a super hot product, otherwise I don’t know how he would make a living at his current profession.

Sweeping is practically a national past-time here. The rhythmic stroking of rice straws and bamboo branches against the pavement is the sound of morning in Temple Valley. In my neighborhood it's mostly old women in aprons who clear the pathways in what is part cleansing ritual, part local news network. That’s right, sweeping is not just about picking up litter. It’s also about picking up the word on the street and the broom is the medium used to do both. It’s a pretty handy tool. It’s almost magical and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Throughout history brooms have been associated with magic. Placed in just the right position,  they have been known to ward off evil, get rid of unwanted house guests and in some cases have even given people the ability to fly. Here in Temple Valley they are used everyday to purify the streets and bring people closer together to share a good story, a smile and more. It's a magical sight to behold. What’s the mystery behind these magic sticks? I know one guy who may know but he’s not talking.

Related post: Swept Away (again) 
              Foot in Mouth

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Luck of the Irish

I'll be commuting via the Tokaido line today, a 
train obviously designed with the Irish in mind.

It's St. Paddy's Day and as luck would have it I have to work, which sounds sort of unIrish, which I guess is nothing to be ashamed of but maybe nothing to be proud of either.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Signs of the Irish in Japan

Higashi Kanagawa, Yokohama
Is that a hyphen or an apostrophe?

There have been Oharas in Japan for well over a millennium. Were they part of some early Irish diaspora or are the Emerald Isle O'Haras but a branch of a tree whose roots stretch all the way back to ancient Japan? It's a riddle best left to barroom scholars to solve. One thing is abundantly clear though. The Oharas,O-Haras, or O'Haras(and O'Harrahs, etc.) have certainly left their mark on the world. So this being the eve of St. Patrick's Day when we begin to celebrate all things remotely Irishish let's lift a pint and drink to the Oharas, wherever they are, and to wherever they came from.

Related post: Dig This!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Sky Is Falling Again

I love a chilling tale, you know the kind that sends shivers down your spine. Here’s one I heard about a farmer somewhere on the eastern end of Long Island, New York. He was out working his potato fields one day when he witnessed something that would forever change his view of the world. It was the kind of occurrence he had only read about. Mostly he read about it in the headlines splashed across the tabloids that filled the rack near the cash register at his local supermarket. What he saw was an object streak across the sky and then fall to the ground with an earth-shattering thud. 

Quick as a jackrabbit he high-tailed it to the exact spot where he saw the object hit the earth. There he discovered a glimmering sky-blue crystal. It was the most beautiful gem he had ever laid eyes on. He ripped off his red plaid flannel shirt and carefully wrapped the heaven sent treasure, cradling it in his arms like a new born baby. That's when he noticed it was beginning to melt from the heat escaping his body. Before he could think of what to do next, his feet were carrying him in the direction of home where he luckily had a freezer.

Once his find was safely stored away in the frozen vault, he got on the horn to his local newspaper to report the discovery. The paper dutifully sent a reporter out to cover the sensational event that very same evening. As soon as the newspaper man laid his eyes on the unidentified frozen object, they began to twinkle as a peevish grin rippled across his face. Glancing over at the farmer the newsman proclaimed, “I know what this is. I’ve seen it before. It looks like an Icy BM.” Looking more than a bit perplexed, the farmer’s jaw dropped just a fraction as he lifted his hand to scratch the back of his head. The reporter continued, “It happens. Planes flying into New York night and day, occasionally one looses the waste water from its toilet compartment. You know they use that sanitizer that gives it that bluish tinge. It freezes in the upper atmosphere and when it drops, you get a big block of blue ice in your back yard." Then he added with a wave of his hand, "Don’t worry your secret is safe with me, I won’t print a word of it.” Both embarrassed and relieved at the same time, the farmer thanked the reporter as he left and then promptly buried the chunk of blue ice along with his flannel shirt as deep in the ground and as far away from the house as he could.

Stories of Icy BM’s are legion and they are everywhere. Over the past year or so I’ve seen a lot of this blue ice, most of it wrapped up in the newspaper.  I'm not alone either. The website tells the story of how on February 28, 2012 one of Japan’s most prestigious dailies delivered up a big scoop of blue ice. 

In its coverage of the findings of an independent commission investigating the nuclear disaster at the TEPCO nuclear power plant in Fukushima, the paper paints former PM Kan as a meddling micro manager who only exacerbated the dangers at the crippled reactor. The paper quoted a Cabinet Office-appointed advisor, Kenichi Shimomura, who was on the scene at the nuclear plant as saying Kan’s management of the disaster, in which he involved himself in the nitty gritty details (like personally ordering the mobile generators known as ground power units) “sent chills up his spine.” It was a scary a picture that showed how an overbearing lunatic catapulted the nation into the throws of catastrophe.

What’s perhaps even scarier is that the picture isn’t even near complete. Shortly after the paper hit the newsstands, the same Cabinet Office advisor whose words frame the news story began tweeting an entirely different account of the same event via Twitter. He claims his words were used out of context. Not only that, it looks like they were edited to fit a narrative scripted purely for political gain. What “sent chills up his spine” he says is the fact that while everything was falling apart around them, the so called “experts” were standing around with their hands in their pockets leaving the monumental task of reigning in the nuclear monster all in the hands of the prime minister. Those little tweets along with a recently released TEPCO memo describing events of the same day portray a capable leader taking charge of a series of events that had been left to spin out of control. Only readers of one of the nation’s most influential sources of information would never have known that after reading its account. As far as they could tell from the article, it looked like the sky was falling that day and it was all Kan’s fault.

The truth is blue ice happens to fall and it can be found in the most unlikely spots, including some of the world's most respected newspapers. The trouble is I’m just like that farmer. I see a beautiful blue chunk of ice that is from out of this world and I want to hold on to it forever. Then when I find out what it really is I try to bury it as deep as possible to hide the fact that I ever knew anything about it in the first place and avoid any embarrassment. No matter what you do with it, that blue ice stinks. We obviously have planes that can get rid of it on their own, now we just need to expose it in the media and get rid of it there too.

Related post: The Sky Is Falling

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Under the (Drum) Skin

I got hooked on this video while surfing the web the other day. If you were to take the drummer out of that sparkling yellow-sequined blazer, stick him inside a similarly hued kihachijo kimono and turn his drum kit on its side, he would be right at home on Japan's Hachijo Island (Hachijojima).

Hachijojima is an island paradise for drummers and the birthplace of the unique brand of drumming known as hachijo taiko (or hachijodaiko). The Wikipedia entry on hachijo taiko (which I actually penned a few years ago) says it is:

Two women in kihachijo kimonos play the drum 
on Hachijojima (Photo by Geomr via Wkipedia) 

"a unique style of Japanese drumming originating on Japan's Hachijo Island (Hachijojima), lying in the Pacific Ocean some 287 kilometers south of Tokyo. Hachijodaiko is an improvisational style of drumming in which the drum is positioned vertically to allow two players to hit either side at the same time. One player provides the underlying beat, or shitabyoushi, while the other builds on this rhythmical foundation with a unique and typically improvised musical composition (uebyoushi). While there are specific types of underlying bass rhythms (shitabyoushi), the accompanying player is free to express an original musical beat.

Hachijojima was once the final destination for political enemies of the ruling government, petty thieves and others banished from the mainland during the 19th century. Home to a diverse population hailing from across the Japanese archipelago the island witnessed the birth of a unique culture with the drum beat at the center of it all. 

Among the various Hachijodaiko rhythms, perhaps the most unusual is the intoxicating honbataki rhythm which is often sung to by one of the two drummers. These songs of longing and romance once served as a courtship ritual and still do today to some extent on this island where the drum is an integral part of the culture.

One of the most notable and oldest living adherents of Hachijodaiko is the nonagenarian Kumao Okuyama. Serving as a bridge to 19th century life on Hachijojima, Okuyama is regarded as a wellspring of information by ethnomusicologists and historians alike.Popular performers of Hachijodaiko include the group, Rokuninkai,who regularly appear in concerts and festivals throughout Japan. Today Hachijodaiko is no longer confined to Hachijojima but can be heard all over Japan as well as the U.S. and elsewhere due to a growing musical diaspora that stretches around the globe."

Now take a look at this Youtube video featuring a couple of traveling Rokuninkai members playing a hot number at a summer festival in that little slice of paradise in Yokohama City we call "Craineview." Jump ahead to the 5- or 6-minute mark and tell me the guy on the drum set and these two fellows aren't brothers under the skin (I guess we all are really).

That drummer is definitely at the wrong gig, he should be here:

(I didn't take this video but I did go to this festival. In reality it was every bit as dark and eventually just as blurry.)

Related post: Behind the Label

Monday, March 12, 2012

Going to Great Lengths

Costumed revelers at the Kawasaki Halloween Parade

He looks me dead in the eye, then slowly turns his hand to point the tip of his index finger straight at my heart and says, “I’m going to get it cut, just wait and see.” I shrug my shoulders and tell him, “Go ahead, you don’t scare me.” I’m not at all fazed by his threat. I’ve been hearing it ring hollow for over a year now, ever since he graduated from grade school. Since then I’ve watched my second oldest son’s hair grow from above the ears to below the shoulders and beyond with very little in the way of styling or even combing in between. It’s not like I don’t like his long locks. I used to have them myself, when I had all my hair. So I say if you have them, go ahead and grow them long. I just worry about him getting his long strands tangled in some kind of machinery at school, like the pencil sharpener, etc. I also don’t want that mop atop his pate to provoke the ire of some junior high school teacher hell bent on upholding the old dress and hygiene code. That one with the permanent crease running across his forehead who has been just dying to christen a pair of well-oiled, titanium-edged clipping shears lying somewhere in the back of his top desk drawer ever since he laid eyes on Jiro’s mane. I’m also worried that it’s these kinds of worries that are at the root of my quickening pace of hair loss.

There’s really only one thing holding Jiro back from getting a haircut - FEAR. It's not a fear of scissors or anything like that. In fact he shares the exact same fear as his six-foot, seven-inch tall big brother. Their biggest fear is sticking out. Despite setting a new scholastic hair growth record,* Jiro is afraid that if he got a haircut now, the stark before-and-after contrast would attract the notice of all the other kids in school and that would be dreadful. So for now he’s going to great lengths to go unnoticed. 

*The previous record holder was, surprisingly enough, another North American-Japanese kid who moved to Canada during the summer (hair and all).

Temple Valley Trivia:
Local legend has it that our neighborhood public junior high ("Craineview Junior High School") served as the model for the classic Japanese dramatic television series Kinpachi Sensei (although the TV drama is set somewhere in Tokyo). I've been told that the actual school today is a very different place from what it was back when Kinpachi Sensei first aired in 1979.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Foot in Mouth

I spent a month with this guy one evening.

"You should go back to your country because you do not speak Japanese and you will not like it here." Those were the first words out of his mouth after taking the seat across from mine at a tiny table tucked away in the far corner of this little out-of-the-way Italian restaurant overlooking the railroad tracks. I had never seen nor spoken to him before in my life but I knew what the problem was right away. There's a rash of it going around. Kawamura has it, Ishihara has a terminal case of it, and it reached pandemic proportions earlier this week as Rush Limbaugh came down with a recurring case. It was clearly foot-in-mouth disease.

Lucky for this descendant of some southern warrior clan I'm a doctor, a doctor of linguistics. I'm more of witch doctor of linguistics really since I don't hold an advanced degree from any recognized institution of higher learning but I prefer the term armchair linguist. Not only that, I've been bitten by the bug myself, more than once.

The real question for me as a doctor was whether this case was benign or malignant. After all English was not at all his mother tongue and what seemed a little antagonistic might have simply been the awkward first steps of an innocent second language learner. "You should go back to your country...," might have been his way of phrasing, "It must be difficult to adjust to life in a different country..." or something like that. Then again he could have just been telling me to get out. The truth is I gave up trying to figure him out shortly after the antipasto came out. I was just too busy concentrating on filling my plate. The important thing is we both survived to eat desert and while survival is one of the basic ingredients of any good meal, I have a feeling this one will repeat on me.

Stopping Leaks

This month the Peeing Boy at Tokyo's
 Hamamatsucho  Train Station stands at 
the ready in his fireman's dress
 uniform, reminding us how to 
prevent fires
When I first came to Temple Valley I used to sight old men relieving their bladders along the cement surface of the hillside walkway that leads up to my home and the homes of my neighbors. It wasn't a daily occurrence but it happened often enough that after a few months both the old guys and I were no longer startled to encounter one another on the pathway. In no time at all we were even comfortable enough to exchange greetings during their private moment in our public space.  

I haven't crossed paths with anyone peeing on the pavement in quite some time and I can't say that I miss the chance meetings. Those in the neighborhood who are more in-the-know than I say it's probably due to a local police clamp down. If what they say is true, it looks like the criminalization of public urination (or maybe simply the enforcement of existing standards/ordinances) has definitely stopped folks from taking a leak in the streets. I just wish I could say the same for leaks elsewhere.

Related story (from Kyodo): 

Contaminated water may still be leaking into Pacific

Related Post: A Season of Change

Sunday, March 4, 2012

International Style

Before    and    After

An attractive couple (center) standing on the railway station platform waiting for the next train to carry them away 

She wore a Navajo weave-inspired jacket with cowboy boots and clutched him by the dangling end of a Yasser Arrafatish scarf that hung halfway down the front of his puffy white down ski jacket as he stood there trying to warm his sandal clad feet against the raw hide of her Dan Post's

I wondered where they were headed and what they would look like when they got back, or if they were on their way home, what they looked like before they left.

Related posts: Going to Extremes
               Fashion Sense

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Art of Bill Collecting

Nishida's book of efuto
When was the last time you got a bill that made you smile? Illustrator Shinya Nishida has come up with a most artful way to collect from his clients that does just that every time. It's so ingenious that his customers actually look forward to getting a bill from him in the mail. Not only that, they save them so they can view them again and again in this clever innovation that adds whole new shades of meaning to the words "bill collector." 

Every invoice Nishida mails is enclosed in an amazing original work of art that seamlessly incorporates postage stamps into his canvas. Those two elements plus the fact that the envelope containing the bill is the artist's canvas, makes the whole package uniquely appealing. 

Dubbed efuto (literally "picture envelope"), Nishida's envelopes are actually an offshoot of the more traditional Japanese hand painted postcards known as etegami (literally "picture letter"). You can visit Nishida's blog,Nishida TV, to get a better picture of what efuto's are all about or better yet you can hire the illustrator and maybe get your very own priceless bill wrapper in the mail.

Related post: In Japan Today a Few Days Ago

Friday, March 2, 2012

In the Mail

Train-shaped mailbox at the JR Shinagawa Rail Station

A recent letter to the editor at the Japan Times (You may have read it already. It's all the buzz around the water cooler here at the TVT offices):

I stopped reading after the byline but if it's in your nature to read this sort of material, you can peruse the rest of the missive here: Scale of Deception Beyond Belief. Then don't stop there. The Japan Times is full of interesting stories, all delivered totally "without fear or flavor" (or something like that). So don't be afraid, go ahead and dig in.

Related JT letter: Hachiro's Haunting Straight Talk
Related Post: Shades of Truth

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Crossed Paths

Sojiji Temple

Related gallery photo: Crossing Paths (at the Japan Times)