Tuesday, July 13, 2010

More Japanese Adventures Including: The Horrors of Piety-Induced Numbness and The Caper of the Stolen Heels

After our coffee, we bussed out to the Kyoto Center University of Fine Arts to meet with Fujita Sensei. On the way I fell asleep and snored with the ferocity of a hibernating grizzly bear, simultaneously mortifying my classmates and creating a great impression of Americans. At the Center, Fujita Sensei taught us how to read the different versions of chant scores ranging from 17th century versions, which were really just reminder notes that could be used once you already knew the tune, to modern notation that looked a lot like western scores with five line staff notation. We headed off to attempt the difficult task of finding Gao Hong a meal without MSG. We headed home with Gao Hong plumping up like a Ballpark frank.

The next morning we got up at 4am again to go to another morning chant with Fujita Sensei. Unfortunately our jet lag was fading and this time getting up at 4 was a bit more of a challenge. The first thing Shao Min said to me as we congregated in the hostel lobby was, "Is that a piece of dried ginger in your hand? Oh, no. . . it's just a Band-Aid." We placed our shoes in plastic bags, climbed the steps of the temple, grabbed our prayer books, and settled down with our feet tucked under our butts. The chanting was amazing just as before, but this time sitting seiza style caused a permanent numbness on the top of my foot. Apparently I pinched a nerve and even now the feeling has not completely returned. And because of the numbness I didn't notice the rest of the week that my tight shoes had forced my pinky toe under my foot so I had been walking on it causing it to turn a very nasty color. One night when I climbed barefoot to the top bunk, Shao Min exclaimed, "Is that pus?" I examined my foot and replied defensively, "No, it's just the color of my skin." Eep! From now on I'm just sitting cross legged.

After the morning service, we were given a very special tour and class. We got to see a special hidden building in "The National Treasure" which is not usually open to the public. Way to go Gao Hong's connections. Then we had a lecture on the history of chant which I began to doze through (because it was after 2PM and I had been up since 4) until we heard some very moving music samples of modern chant creations arranged for SATB choir and organ. Then we headed back to the hostel to recharge our recording equipment and transfer the files onto our computers.

Rui, a former hulusi player in our Chinese ensemble who is finishing her senior year at Waseda University in Tokyo, joined us for the rest of our time in Kyoto. Together, Rui, Shao Min and I went off to find the elusive puzzle shop again. Once we'd wandered down all the small residential side streets again, we discovered that it was closed. Shao Min, undeterred by the sign that said CLOSED, rang the bell anyway. After a minute, there was a scuffling, a bang, and an 'Ow!' We all exchanged nervous glances. But they were unwarranted because we were greeted by the puzzlemaker himself, a man in his 60s with a warm smile who wouldn't have seemed miscast as the wise, old mentor in a surfer movie.
After some exploration of his shop which was filled with all sorts of amazing gizmos, whose-its and whats-its, we walked around Kyoto some more enjoying Calpis flavored drinks and raw squid tentacles and taking pictures with anime statues. We got free dinner that night from Sparling Sensei, a professor at Carleton. It was a nice relief from the very cheap but tasty Suki Ya we had been eating at 2 to 3 times a day.

The next day, Friday, we didn't have any plans so we got to sleep in! Gao Hong and her family went off to explore which left us four kids to ourselves. We went to Gion and explored temples and got our luck and love fortunes which Rui translated for us. After Gion we took a bus to Arashi Yama to see cormorant fishing. The place was stunningly beautiful. We hiked up a mountain and played our instruments at the top and then descended to see cormorants tied to boats catch fish. There is a ring around their throats so they can't swallow them so when they catch the fish, the fisherman in the boats reel them in and grab the fish out of their throats!

On Saturday we met dragged our instruments to Sparling Sensei's friend's studio to meet with some shakuhachi players. The lead shakuhachi master played for us and then asked Gao Hong to join him. He warned that shakuhachi music comes from the heart and that their music could only work together if their hearts were aligned. They must have been because the music they improvised together was amazing! Then a second shakuhachi player joined in and another man played the didgeridoo. Then Shao Min joined with her erhu and eventually ukulele, Ava with the penny whistle, Rui with the hulusi, and me with the mandocello. At one point I established an American folk chord progression (GCGDG). The whole thing was so cool to experience. We all came from different backgrounds of music and couldn't really communicate with each other in words so we just had to listen to each other's music and make it work. And despite having instruments from Japan, China, Australia, Hawaii, America, and Ireland we all managed to play together.

After the crazy cross-cultural jam session the shakuhachi player told us more about learning his instrument from his father and the way to read the score his family had developed and gave Ava a little shakuhachi lesson. I was in the middle of testing out the didgeridoo when we found out that a professional Noh theater performer was coming. She brought her 8-year-old daughter. The daughter even performed for us after much coaxing.

We talked more about the advantages and disadvantages of heritage music performers before disbanding and heading for the Ramen floor at Kyoto station. It's an entire floor of restaurants with different types of ramen. You buy your desired dish from an automated machine and then go into the restaurant and wait for your food to come to you. Inside there are raw eggs that you can crack into your ramen.

On Sunday it was back to monk business. We left Rui in Starbucks to finish her senior thesis and Gao Hong, Ava, Shao Min and I headed via train to the countryside to see Nishimura Sensei/Priest. He lives in a remote area on the southwest side of Lake Biwa (so named because it resembles a Biwa, the Japanese version of the pipa). His house is connected to the temple he is in charge of. He drove us around the countryside and to another nearby temple. All the while, my fellow passengers and I kept expressing our willingness to spend the rest of our lives in the Japanese countryside.

At Nishimura's temple he chanted for us and gave us Buddhist percussion instruments. Then he made us play for him so we played Country Roads, which was really weird because we were in a Buddhist temple. Despite their facial expressions in the photos, they really did seem to like our music. Really!
The final highlight before leaving the countryside was eating the move-you-to-tears-delicious Japanese mandarin oranges and looking through Nishimura Sensei's photo album of his journey to America in 1961.

That night we ate really delicious octupus balls (octupus in fried batter, not their gonads) and then went to a Chinese restaurant for dumplings and Japanese beer. Finally we bid good bye to Rui who had to return to Tokyo a night earlier than us so her dad didn't find out that she was skipping classes to hang out with us.

Our final day in Japan we went to meet with a shakuhachi player at the Zen Institute. I was very glad we met with the other shakuhachi players because he was nowhere near the level of musician that the other shakuhachi players were. His embouchure was a mess and he he had an overtone when he played that he couldn't get rid of. But luckily he was a fountain of knowledge. Ava had long conversations with him in Japanese about the complex history of Buddhist music in Japan while Gao Hong, Shao Min and I nodded and smiled politely waiting for translations that never came. Later at lunch Ava recounted what she'd learned. I got to try to play the shakuhachi and discovered not only could I make a sound on it, but I also had a better tone than the monk.

The rest of the day we wandered around Kyoto feeling very sad to have to leave. Ava disappeared halfway through to help an Aussie find her hostel and Shao Min and I meandered through the underground mall. The extreme fullness of my luggage (just one backpack plus my mandocello and zhongruan) makes buying souvenirs pretty much impossible but I bought a Japanese hat anyway realizing that it could easily be clipped to the outside of my backpack between my running shoes and my laptop. Though I also made a mental note to try and not look too much like a Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Ava rejoined us after her role as a good Sameritan. We didn't have much Japanese money left so we ate our final Japanese meal at McDonald's citing some sort of we'll-eat-McDonald's-once-in-every-country type of explanation.

Just when we were leaving our hostel DISASTER STUCK!!!!!! Ava couldn't find her only pair of shoes. You see, at the hostel we all had to leave our shoes at the front door and wear slippers around. But someone had taken Ava's shoes. After a mad search involving the entire staff of the hostel and many other innocent bystanders, we left for our night bus which we couldn't miss, with Ava wearing slippers from the hostel. Ava pouted and sloshed through the rain until she suddenly screamed and pointed at a girl passing us on the street. She was wearing Ava's shoes!!!!!! Ava, with a quivering upper lip, explained the situation in Japanese, but the girl didn't speak Japanese. She said, "Sorry, I thought the shoes were for anyone to take." Umm. . . yeah, I believe that. You thought that when everyone had to leave their shoes at the front door that we would all just share and take whomever's? Gao Hong bitched her out as Ava and the girl swapped footwear in a giant puddle.

We had our Kyotan farewell at the station as we got on the night bus for Tokyo. Reflecting back on the Japanese adventures, I realized they have really exceeded my expectations. The trip has been absolutely incredible so far.

Fingers crossed for Korea!!!!!!


  1. Andrewwwwwww it's Nishimura! You've got Naramura in some places! And I did get one MSG-less dish for Gao Hong. @@ bwahhhhh. Rairaitei was a nightmare 'cause I had no idea what Gao Hong wanted exactly. ~~..."Yes, we'll have one take out." "Actually no, nevermind, sorry." "Actually..! We'll have one bowl of ramen for here." "OMG I'M SO SORRY, I DON'T KNOW WHAT MY PROFESSOR WANTS..I'M SORRY. She now doesn't want that ramen anymore."

  2. aww Ava have you or gaohong figured out how to say MSG allergy in Korean yet?