Friday, August 31, 2007

Friday Saturday Sunday

Last year I wrote about the Matsuage Festival we attended. We learned that there was another one closer to town in Kumogahata, so it was last week that we biked for over an hour into the mountains north of the Kyo, into the fading light of day. On rubber legs we peddled, often wondering if we'd missed the village, until we saw a group of men, the older ones dressed as firemen, the younger ones in yukata. Our already weary calves nearly gave as we climbed the steep stone steps of Kounji to find....4 people. The temple was small, about the size of my old house up in the Nog. We sat awhile in the engawa, dangling our legs into the garden and looking up at the Moon swelling toward its full shape. Suddenly it hit me how much I miss the 'Nog. Not my life there so much as the size and the speed and the ease with which people smile and share. I'd been in the Kyo a year (give or take a few trips away) and found the kindness in the locals quite frosty. I didn't have moments like this one anymore, just sitting and sipping tea and talking to strangers. But strangers often don't stay strangers long and just before 8 o'clock, their numbers increased to a couple dozen, perhaps the whole village. Absent were the young men, now climbing the hillside beyond to set the festival fires alight. Miki and I were apparently the only outsiders here, the locals impressed that we'd biked all the way up from Kyoto for their tiny festival. The two of us sat in suspense of what would happen, not a Wicker Man-type suspense , but the delightful suspense of spending time with distant relatives who you don't know well , and one of them about to pull a coin or something from your ear. And just after eight, there was a glow from the trees across the valley, and a flaming kanji character was raised. Unlike Hanase's matsuage, this was more like the Kyo's okuribi, the difference being that no one knew what this year's kanji would be. And it was... 寸. Sun? None of the locals knew why, and as Miki and I later headed down the steep steps we were both silent in trying to find the answer to this koan. But our mindfulness tuned once again into present matters on the ride home, down a looooong descent on a road covered by shadows. On the especially dark bits we slowed way down, having no idea what the road surface was like, or whether stones lay there. Twice we were started by the movement of something huge: a big animal splashed loudly in the river in one place, and a few kilometers later something even bigger tore down the hillside at us. The Wicker Man, after all?

After a good nights sleep we went down to Osaka for the Kansai International Film Festival. This was a collection of works by film makers who'd spent some time in Japan. Miki I sat through four films, two by Darryl Knickrehm, the festival's organizer. One of these was a brief history of Kansai Time Out magazine. The second film I had been wanting to see for almost a decade, since the about time my son was born. "Doubles" by Regge Life was a fascinating documentary about children of mixed Japanese and American ancestry. A bonus to today's screening was an impromptu short talk by an elderly man who had been in the film and just happened to be in the audience. This former resident of Manzanar was now living in a Kyoto temple as a monk. His story could be a film of its own.
The last film we saw was Bondi Tsunami, which I had missed in the States and so was happy to see for free here. Boy, was I happy to have paid nothing. This film was billed as a "road/surf" movie but came across as a 90 minute music video (albeit for smokin' good music.) It had no real story to speak of, but what little there was could've been told in 5 minutes instead of the 1 1/2 hours (of my life) it took to unfold. It tried to land this big profound spiritual message but instead fell miserably into the trough of cliche. (Ahem.) Unfortunately this was actually one of the highlights, these recycled quotes from Dogen or Aldous Huxley, yet they had no thread or concise message. Another high point was the clever camerawork, but it took sometimes strayed into the "Hey! Check out what I can do in the editing room!" dangerzone. Afterward, Miki was nauseous from the film's 6,599,887 cuts. Nothing that some Osaka street vendor curry and ice cream couldn't fix.

Sunday, some Osaka friends came up to visit, and we all went to Maruyama Park for a music festival. There we spent a mellow day listening to an unbelievable variety of musical styles, browsing the mini-flea market (strangely, each stall hawking only a couple dozen things), and eating tasty food. There were even two women offering Thai massage. The crowd was somewhat small, maybe a few more than those who saw Spinal Tap play their first jazz fest. But the music was great. It was a delight to hear "Caravan", Ellington's jazz classic inspired by North African nomads, played on an oud. It was also the first time I've seen Seiichi, my friend and local hero, play straight percussion away from his Steel Drum Orchestra. (One of the funnest shows I've seen and playing again in Kyoto this Tuesday, September 4. Mail me if interested.) He was backing up Tanikawa Kensaku, son of famous poet Tanikawa Shuntaro. In addition to all the great music, there were the usual surreal and bizarre scenes which reaffirm my opinion that drugs aren't necessary here in Japan. (Children's TV is trippy enough.) For instance: a 40-something emcee wearing a dress made of colored newspaper adverts and giggling alot. Two guys in superhero drag, dancing and 'fighting' in front of the stage. An elderly German man in lederhosen singing one of his country's children's songs to the accompaniment of young Japanese musicians on ukuleles. Japan's best known 'saw' player. Plus Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" played on a thumb piano. Crazy, man. (What is the sound of two fingers snapping?)
Looking forward to see what they come up with next year.

On the turntable: Les Claypool, "Highball with the Devil"
On the nighttable: Mark Haddon, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"

Thursday, August 30, 2007

EC at 20

This August, I've been around, but the words haven't followed, creativity bottled up behind the stopper of analytic thought. A punishing Psych course, followed by an intensive Japanese language program takes part of the blame. Choice of reading material takes the rest--heavy on non-fiction and the fiction that there was being more of the storyteller variety, far too little wordcraft to even poke my muse, let alone rouse her.
...So here again I attempt to blow dust from my quill and begin.

Miki and I got the news late. Our overnight train to Niigata wouldn't be running. We'd bought our tickets literally hours before that region's heavy earthquake, yet hadn't made the connection until a few nights before we were supposed to depart. Luckily, we got seats on the last express heading up to Toyama, and would make due with local trains the rest of the way. We arrived in Naoetsu late, our boat not scheduled until early the next morning. Making the best of it, we laid out our bed rolls on the concrete behind the ferry terminal to pass a restless night.

The trip over to Sado was my fifth, and as usual, time was divided between dozing and feeding the gulls who would dive to take the crackers from your fingers. Once in Ogi, we found a good shady spot for the tent, grabbed our tickets, and went over to the flea market area to set up our space for Miki to do shiatsu. Suddenly, the wind kicked up, making it impossible to put up our tarp cover. Then the rain started. Miki gave up, heading off to her voice workshop; I sat on the wet grass and people-watched. Our neighbor and I got talking and decided to try again once the wind ceased. It was successful until the rain grew heavier, creating small pools on the material which would then leech through. Unless the weather was perfect, this would never work. I was frustrated, having wasted this entire first day of the festival on the fucking operation. But I perked up after having a good meal and the weather began clearing for the night's show. In line at the shrine, I again saw Taiko Tari, who I'd met in the camp area earlier that day. I'd been enjoying her blog for the last year and we'd been in contact prior to this year's EC. She and her freund Maren had promised to save us seats up front by the stage. In year's past, I'd always just turned up at the show, preferring to sit partway back in order to see the overall setup. I mean, it's an outdoor show, and there isn't really a bad seat in the whole place. I never had been able to understand why people would spend hours in line just to get the colored cards which decided the order of entry. But now, sitting literally in the front row, I recognized that yes, "Oh my God!" is in the details. To see every dance step, every subtle twist of a wrist, every change of expression. Eternal thanks Tari! In the second half, a few of the older Kodo members played the new Odaiko carved from a gnarled piece of tree trunk and prepared especially for this, the 20th Earth Celebration. I'd seen this tree two years ago during my KASA mix training. Kaoru stood in the darkness, his white-clad figure drifting up to stage out of the trees beyond, then stepping up to silence the rumble with his eerie Nohkan. And later, Yatai-bayashi with 8 drummers? C'mon!

The next morning, Miki and I met a couple of Dutch-Aussie retirees who'd been sailing the Pacific for 6 years. They invited us to have coffee on their yacht. Later, we went to join Tamango's rhythm workshop. His talk was amazing, mentioning that rhythm is always in existence but occasionally it uses us as an instrument with which to present it. (This is something I've touched on before in these pages.) He led us through some moves which are similar to how I practice drumming when I don't have a a drum kit, with claps and legslaps and heel-toe taps. At the end, someone asked how he got started and he literally danced us through 200 years of tap history, going an hour over his alotted time. Magic.
Miki spent the rest of the day doing treatments and I wandered about, saying hello to familiar faces and just simply enjoying the vibe. That night, Tari again scored us good seats from which to see one of my heroes, Zakir Hussein. His technique went beyond anything I have seen or could even imagine, and I believe I may have compared his hands to "epileptic spiders."

Sunday morning at EC is a work day for me and once again I was lingering behind the CDs in the shop. I'm supposedly there for translation help, but I spend most of my time instead discussing in Japanese the merits of various Kodo albums. In the past, it was here that I usually met with the guest artists, but this time it was merely Masuda Mio (the fado singer's) grandma. Sweet thing. Miki finished shiatsu around lunchtime so we spent the rest of the day hanging out at the fringe to see various groups (Taiko Tari's taiko troupe being one), going to the onsen, and eating local seafood. That night's show was pretty mindblowing, with all the guests sharing the stage in small permutations, them having a massive cluster jam session at the end. Kaoru, the artist director, was just beaming at the end. The main highlight for me this year, was seeing Ei-chan, a man in his forties, absolutely airborne as he'd heave his head toward the stage during "Lion." To see him keep the same passion for over twenty years brought tears. "熱き思ひ" indeed.

Monday was another workday, with flea market cleanup, and waving at the departing ship. Miki and I joined our new Aussie friends for a swim, then we headed up to Kodo Village for the after party. Ei-chan manned the BBQ again, with other Kodo members and staff hanging around. I chatted mostly with some apprentices this time, mainly with my friend Joe who is in his first year. Aside from the drumming, he's learning alot about himself and has insight at 24 that most people never seem to get. Noticibly absent this year were the other guest musicians, except for Mio who sat quietly in the dark with a couple friends. Exhausted, Miki and I went home early.

Early the next morning, we caught a ride back to Niigata city on our new friends' yacht. The wind ensured a quick ride, but the waves were somewhat high and eating was a risking undertaking. It was a joy to lounge on the deck, feeling the roll of the sea, and the sun on your face. Time was meaningless, the wind and the currents and the planet dictating our schedule. Nearing the harbor, an Italian windsurfer sailed out to chat, then we followed a high speed ferry in. We found that the quake had limited our choices of rides home, so we were forced to shell out for the Shink, first to Tokyo, then back home.

And as August now gives way to September, I read this back and reflect on the lack of art in my life. After the festival, I find I greatly miss the music, not having played a gig in over a year. And the words? They seem to have deserted me in this post. But like cliched swallows, they'll return, as the pace of life once again slows toward autumn. I remind myself that the head is not always the best pilot. Better to let it slide over to ride shotgun and give the heart the controls again.

On the turntable: Bright Eyes, "Letting off the Happiness"
On the nighttable: Haruki Murakami, "The Elephant Vanishes"

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


The Adirondack chairs I ordered back in June finally came, a fine perch from where Miki and I sipped good dry red, listened to Chet Baker blow smooth, and watched the clouds go through their burlesque routine, allowing peeks at an eclipse on the wane, maroon shadow peeling slowly across the face of the big bright late summer moon.

On the turntable: "St. Germain des Pres Cafe"
On the nighttable: James Michener, "The Drifters"