J A P A N    J O U R N A L


Rob was right, if not timely. Japan is a cash and carry city. Where we expected to put everything on our credit cards, now we found we needed the cash- and had to get an advance off of the credit cards. This made a wonderful opportunity for an adventure: we decided to confront the language and cultural barriers head on and find our way around Tokyo to a machine that would take our Visa card. Fortunately, Japan is not Paris: they were very generous to "Pardon me, do you speak English?" when presented with an appropriately embarrassed tone. The kind woman on the phone directed us to the nearby Keio department store for a cash advance. It was here that our comedy began. Not spotting the Visa office, I took the "serious" stance, and decided to ask a sales attendant for assistance. This was both a good idea and a terrible mistake. I smiled and requested the Visa office. She looked perplexed, then embarrassed, then... extremely busy. Clearly she could not ignore the request, nor had she enough English to help us. So she went to a fellow sales attendant, who also had little command of the foreign language. Their manager was much more fluent when they dragged her into the fray, but was equally confused as to exactly why, as she explained to us with painstaking courtesy, the Visa company had sent us to this floor of this department store. Over the course of the ensuing twenty minutes of her frantic searching and numerous phone calls to her supervisor's supervisor, we became more and more convinced that (a) I had been overwhelmingly rude to have asked in the first place and (b) if I dared to try and leave without their finding some solution for me, I would cause an international incident. We smiled as broadly as our gums would allow and waited quietly.

Finally, the supervisor pointed us to another floor of another department store at the other end of Shinjuku station. We smiled so broadly I was relieved that I had brushed my teeth that morning, and bailed. Only on the way out did we notice the cash machines with the Visa logo on them.

The machines didn't take our Visa card, either.

A quick, very quiet search of the other store revealed similar machines, but no answers. The next stop was a pay phone to call the Visa offices again, though by now we realized that we were out of change (and one cannot charge a phone call either), pen and paper, and running out of time. Fortunately, behind us was Fuji back, who had spoken such elegant English when we cashed our traveler's' cheques. Not only did they give us a pad of their paper and lend a pen, but pointed us to a nearby office that did handle cash advances. I had thought I was a courteous person. I'm always inclined to help someone in need or lend a hand to someone bearing too heavy a weight. In Japan, I realized the truth. I'm a savage in a civilized land. Blundering yet again, we walked into the wrong office building, and asked a security guard for the correct floor. He did not chase us away, nor stab him thumb toward the correct building, but personally walked us next door. I bowed, knowing I could not adequately express my gratitude- only appropriately do so- and vowed to help someone else in need.

I had thought I lived in a country replete with culture. That evening, at the National Noh theatre, I realized again that America is myopic- or at least incredibly young. The Japanese consider Noh a young art, too- less than half a millennia old, designed to fulfill the needs of the rigid lifestyles of the 17th century Shoguns. Like opera in America, Noh appeals in this century only to a small cross-section of aesthetes, often older Japanese and debutantes. Also like Americans, the rest are missing out. The National Noh Theatre is no musty shrine to a historic art form; it is a living, breathing temple, where it seems only coincidental that every detail of the space- from the exact dimensions of the stage and the bridge approaching it, to the number and type of trees lining that bridge, to the type of wood used, to the teahouse-like "quick door," too short to walk through without kneeling- are steeped in formal tradition. Rather, it seems a brilliant example of modern architecture, combining these exterior and interior environments and turning the squareness of the performing space catty-corner to the audience. (It makes it especially poignant that the Japanese tore down a hotel designed by our Frank Lloyd Wright near the Imperial Palace to build a square, 70's-style monstrosity. It is that they do not respect the importance of the foreign architect? Or that they inherently consider the pragmatic before the artistic? Or, more likely, that they have had a clear understanding of these designs for hundreds of years, lessening the importance of our "new American vision"?)

Noh itself is drama compressed in time and action, where even the plain white masks they wear are smaller than a human face. I expected to be fascinated- passively. What I did not expect was the visceral punch of the drama. Compressed emotions are not at all flat: they are intense. When an actor does not move, it is not because he has no need to- it is because he has constricted his movements to a very small space. No- it runs deeper. Here, it was because that actor is restricted to an almost motionless state by centuries of tradition. Furthermore, when that actor does move, beginning a dance, that action is shocking in its contrast. In the past, traditional evenings of Noh included 5 or 7 Noh dramas interspersed with Kyogen. The Kyogen is a short comedy, often using slapstick. Though much more accessible, it is the disdained cousin of Noh. The styles are similar, and though Kyogen actors often act in the Noh drama, Noh actors rarely stoop to Kyogen. Unlike Kabuki, Noh performances also are unique. The actors gather only once for a quick rehearsal, but as all the blocking in each of the over 200 existing plays is fixed, no run through is required. The performance, with all of its structure, is very spontaneous- the interaction between the players and very much with the audience is unrehearsed. A particular group of actors will perform a Noh only once.

This evening's performance included a single Kyogen and Noh. The Kyogen was unusually elaborate, employing both masks and musicians as Noh does. The Noh, too, was surprisingly athletic, telling the story of a demon possession. The actor runs around the stage, leaping on and off of a platform, one of the few rare pieces of scenery- and only suggestive scenery at that- in a drama. It was even more thrilling to realize that the Noh masks in their compression restrict visibility almost entirely. It is not surprising, then, that the size of a Noh stage is fixed. The actor also uses stamping in the dance. In the National Noh Theatre, the stage sits on resonant chambers that make the small foot strikes into explosive booms.

The production of such a "slow" art form went by numbingly quickly. It was over before we realized; I was ready for another scene. And thoroughly hooked.

For contrast, and perhaps some insight into the Japanese by that contrast- we went home through Kabukijo district. Like Ginza, there was neon everywhere- but much more so. This was Tokyo's red-light district, though filled with couples and singles out on the town for a Friday night. The district is filled with clubs, prostitutes and bars hawked in many languages by many men, but also with restaurants, movie theatres and shops. Rob walked a few paced ahead, and was quickly asked if he "wanted a date." Some strange man in his 30's walked up to us, smiling, and announced in a formal British accent "You're walking into their porno district you know, that way. It's disgusting."

So we went for sushi. Rob suggested I try a specific kind, a Japanese delicacy that one cannot easily find in the States. Adventurous as always, I tried it. Adventurousness sometime pays off. But not today: it was fermented bean curd, arguably the worst thing I've ever tasted. I asked Rob, "You like this?" "Oh, heck, no! I just thought you should try it!"

Saturday 8/22- TAKIGI NOH

I took my first baby steps out alone in Tokyo this morning. I was on a mission. Reading the booklet in my new CD player, I discovered that it seemed to require a special Sony(tm) adapter to play in the car. I decided to return to Ginza, while Jen and Rob took the morning off. It was very easy. I have always heard about the complexity of the Tokyo subway system. Growing up in New York City spoiled me: Tokyo's system is more logical, with plenty of signs in Romanji to identify the stops. Ginza itself is much like New York's midtown shopping district at Fifth Avenue: very familiar territory. I made good time, and returned with several virtual reality systems, a DVD player, a flat-screen high-definition TV and numerous laser discs to add to the collection.

Then I woke up, realized I was still at the Sony building, and returned with the adapter. I did make good time though. And I'd have had a heck of a time smuggling them into my luggage.

Most of the day was spent venturing out into the suburbs with the other Musketeers, heading out to a Takigi Noh festival. Takigi is torchlight; the stage was constructed outside of an old temple for a quiet evening under the stars. Evidently, this is a big date scene for young Japanese- and it is very romantic- though, to be honest, few of them can or care to follow the drama.

We arrived early and found that we were late. Before the Noh itself was a Shinto ceremony, consecrating and purifying the stage and the grounds for the performance. To our delight, there were musicians, accompanying the priests on odd instruments including a strange, suspended cymbal and a woodwind that resembled a gothic steeple, producing unwavering clusters of high, thin pitches. Rob and I looked at each other: "Gagaku!" It was stunning, eerie music that transported you out of time altogether, both dragged to the deep past and catapulted into a strange future.

I believe that the Japanese were entirely bemused by our fascination.

The performance itself was as different from the previous night without breaking the minutiae of the long-standing traditions. Where the National Noh theatre was visceral, this was lyric. Where Friday had had specific doors for entrance and exits, here the staged was only delineated by its elevation and its bridge. There were connections, though. Both the Waki actor and the shoulder drum player were the same as the preceding night. The Kyogen was "The Owl," about a man whose brother is possessed by the spirit of a great bird, and winds up possessing both his brother and the Priest that tries to heal him. It was not as elaborate a comedy- it did not have masks and instrumentalists- but it was hysterically funny. I followed along in a translation I had brought, though hardly needed with all of the physical comedy. By the start of the Noh itself it had become too dark to read, and I experienced this Noh as another bridge in time, caught between the quietness of the play and the surrounding street noise of motorcycles and busses speeding by in the night. These were both integral parts of the experience, and valuable to a true understanding of Japan.

The lines for the bus back to the train station were long and slow- but a man with the theatre invited us into his own car and drove us there. I'm still not quite sure why: were the buses not going where we needed to be? Did he think that Americans might not be patient enough to wait, coming from our land of instant gratification? Or was this simply yet another gesture of the selfless hospitality of the Japanese?

Shinjuku station that night was filled with young men and women in Yukata, lightweight summer kimonos of an endless variety of colors. A social event, perhaps? An echo of a Japan I had not yet seen: 20th century life permeated with, and turning to face a thousand years of cultural growth. It was... heartwarming.

Sunday 8/23- KAMAKURA


Another side trip today, to a small city to the south of Tokyo. Kamakura is to Nikko as Cape Cod is to Atlantic City. Kamakura is gentle, even elegant, with many temples and shrines to visit, but little of the dazzling, baroque colors of its northern cousin. The central attraction, and our first stop that morning, is the Dibutsu- the great Buddah. The largest Bronze relief statue in the world, it was the central figure of a great temple. Many years ago, a typhoon washed away the temple, but in true Buddhist fashion the statue remained unharmed. He now sits, peacefully, gazing towards the distant ocean. The site is a peaceful place, and a great tourist attraction- home to countless "Greetings from Japan" postcards. There are enormous zori, traditional Japanese sandals, waiting nearby- scaled proportionally to his enormous size- should he 

ever get up and need them. A tribute to the Japanese sense of marketing, one may pay Y20 to walk inside the great bronze belly. It is a silly thing to do. So Jen and I did, much to Rob's bemusement. Outside, kids were running around, playing "red light, green light," and parents were enjoying the peaceful day. All of this felt a strange contrast to Christian worship, with the omnipresent image of the cross. The Buddha did not seem burdened with the cares of the world, but at utter peace.
The afternoon brought us to a great Zen temple. Zen, of course, is only one of the many Buddhist sects. The temple is, however, no monument to the past, but a living, breathing center of active worship. As we arrived, we met the head of an informal procession exiting the temple. They were all older women, dressed in matching dark kimonos. The procession stretched far back into the grounds, with hundreds of participants. Was this the end of a religious retreat? The training of disciples? The massive wooden structures inside were adorned with stripes of brightly colored cloth. It was a gentle, peaceful place- entirely as I imagined a Zen temple would seem from my stereotyped western readings. They had a pond shaped into the Japanese character for "mind," another example of the Zen Buddhists pragmatic approach to the needs of meditation.
We wandered quietly among the buildings, when suddenly a deep, resonant bell rang out. Its decay seemed to last for hours, as the sound reverberated through the open air. Then, from some distant corner of the temple complex, another bell. I peeked around the corner of the temple, and found myself face to face with a procession of Zen priests, heads shaved, dressed in ornate robes. It was an awesome feeling, where 

time has no place and no business. Smiling, the procession made its way to their devotionals, amid the exquisitely slow peel of the temple bells.

I had read Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" when I was travelling alone through Europe in college. The book is a conduit, through which a Western mind can begin to come to terms with Eastern philosophy. Even so, the book changed my life. It helped give me a perspective on the world I had never had. Since then, I read many books about Zen philosophy, and thought I had begun to understand. Then I heard the bells decay in the temple, coming from distant corners I could not see, and echoing slowly, slowly into the soft afternoon light. Then, only then, I began to understand Zen, and it is magical and beautiful. Ever the composer, I began to think about how I might use that magic in a piece of music... and I had to grin. No one could begin to understand what I had heard unless they were there. And even then, I could not really understand what they had heard. It was breathtaking.

Back to Japan Journal, part one
Back to Palestrant Music Engraving