Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: October 2012

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The drums of Africa

A few days ago I wrote a post about the taiko group Kodō, and in a comment to fellow blogger Keiko-san I said that I wished I could see Kodō performing with djembe drummers from Africa. If you're interested in drumming, I've included a few videos. The first is a djembe performance by Bolokada Conde, one of the world's foremost djembefolas. (It's a very different technique with very different rhythms, more spontaneous and less disciplined, but I hope you'll like it.) The second is a lesson from a djembe teacher. The third is simply a video about Africa's natural rhythms. Watch it: it's beautiful. Now do you understand why I love drums?

Sharp eyes (or ears?) might've noticed that all these songs originated in West Africa. Africa's best music comes from its western regions. I'd like to introduce you to a few singers as well: Salif Keita and Ali Farka Touré from Mali, Youssou N'Dour from Senegal and the grande dame of African music, the gravel-and-velvet-voiced Cesaria Evora from Cape Verde.

I tried to embed videos, but Blogger tells me "video player is too small", so here's a list of hyperlinks:

Monday, 29 October 2012

The power of Kodō, live on stage

Finally, ten years after I discovered them in a CD shop in Cape Town, I saw a live performance of the taiko drumming group Kodō. It was worth a ten-year wait: it's the most perfect combination of power, rhythm, discipline and exuberance I've ever seen.

I went with fellow blogger Sarah (thanks, Sarah!) to a performance in Tsudanuma in Chiba. It was quite an adventure, due to work responsibilities and train delays.

First of all, it was on a Tuesday, which meant I had to leave work early on an afternoon when I was supposed to attend a meeting. I therefore had this conversation with the powers that be at a certain institution of higher education:

"Umm. You know I'm interested in Japanese culture, don't you?" I said.
"Yes! You know more about shrines than we do!" the powers that be said.
"No, no, no, I'm but a stupid savage. But, so, you see, there's this music concert."
"What music?"
"Oh, traditional Japanese music. This group has only one performance in Tokyo this year, and I bought tickets six months ago." (I wasn't really lying. I was just exaggerating. Kodō will have other concerts in Tokyo in December, but I swear I only discovered that at the Chiba concert.)
"But, so, you see, it's on Tuesday evening."
"Yes, in Chiba."
"Yes, so, umm, could I be excused at 4:30?"

The powers that be stared at me, confused, because it's not the done thing to leave early. I wasn't going to reveal that it was a taiko performance – I thought it safer to let them think it was arcane Heian court music with singers wailing in impenetrable language – but then I realized it was actually the perfect excuse.

"It's drums!" I said. "It's taiko drums, and you know I'm from Africa, and us Africans love drums."
"Aah, so da naaa, drums, ne?"
"Yes, Africans love drums."
"Yes, and I want to see Kodō!"
"Kodō? Aah, yes, Kodō! Yes, of course you must go!"

God bless Africa. 

So I toddled off, arrived early and wandered around trying to find the venue while waiting for Sarah. It took me a while, because I predictably got lost. Then I received an email from my companion: train delay on the Sobu Line due to a jumper. She had the two tickets with her, so her train journey turned into a James Bond chase. She made it. Ten minutes early.

I realized several things on Tuesday night: 
  1. Taiko drummers aren't only musicians. They're also athletes.
  2. Younger guys have energy, older men have finesse and endurance. The best drummer on that stage was, I suspect, the oldest. If I say old, I mean in his forties. Yay for older men!
  3. iPods and the internet have made us too used to music with bad quality. You need to be in a hall with good acoustics to experience the full impact of sound. When the odaiko (big drum) is bliksemed (see sidebar), you can feel the vibrations right into your bone marrow. It is, indeed, the heartbeat of the earth.
The show has two parts, with the latter more traditional than the former. I don't have to tell you which one I prefer, do I? The only thing I didn't like about the show was the drummers' outfits in the first part: they wore T-shirts, black jeans and black shoes. I frowned when I saw that, because it felt like West Side Story; but never mind, the drumming was 100% Japanese!

Kodō will return to Tokyo in December, with performances at the Bunkyō Civic Hall on the 22nd, 23rd and 24th. Go. You won't be sorry. More information here. (Hurry up. Tickets fly.)

PS: If you want to read more about them, try this article or their website (both in English).

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The splendour of Japan's cedars

I vaguely recall that I had a life, once upon a time, but then this thing called work happened. I did manage to escape, briefly, here. Can you identify it? (Sarah, it should be easy for you.) It's an old route that was trodden 1200 years ago by a famous priest who managed to cross a raging river with the help of a god and two snakes. It's located in a not-so-famous part of a very famous venue. Just on the other side of the hill, thousands are gawking; here, you can enjoy the splendour of centuries-old cedars in silence and solitude.

Click on the photos to see bigger versions. Story to follow. (Comments are welcome, but I might not be able to respond immediately.)

Monday, 22 October 2012

What does Japan smell like?

I was going to write another post altogether, but then a tiny orange flower interfered, and I was off on a fascinating journey into the sense of smell.

The little flower is called kinmokusei (金木) or Osmanthus fragrans. It grows on a nondescript boring tree that nobody pays any attention to. Then October arrives, and the tree produces orange flowers that have the sweetest fragrance ever. It's a flirt. It teases and seduces, dances in the air, beckons you to pursue it down narrow alleys.

Kinmokusei (金木) or Osmanthus fragrans

Kinmokusei was introduced from China in the Edo period, and although it's used as food in China (tea, jam, soup, dumplings), in Japan it's mostly associated with fragrance and with … toilets. That's because the flower is a standard ingredient in many air-freshening sprays for toilets, both private and public. I don't immediately think of a toilet when I smell kinmokusei. I think, "Autumn! Yay!"

A kinmokusei tree in Sendagi

Kinmokusei got me thinking. What does Japan smell like? So here’s my list of ten odours that I associate with Japan, in no particular order. I'm into lists of ten these days, huh?

1.  Tokyo's own fragrance

I haven't come across it anywhere else. It consists of soy sauce, exhaust fumes, whiff of sea breeze, sewers (especially when it's raining), incense, tatami, charcoal. Eau de Tokyo is all of that, intertwined, heady, home.

Incidentally, the internationally famous designer Kenzo Takada (高田賢三) created a man's fragrance called "Tokyo" a few years ago. Its fragrance notes are a combination of  (yellow) ginger, lemon, grapefuit; (red) pink pepper, bitter orange; (green) shiso, maté absolute, green tea; and (darkness) oil of guaiac, cedar, clove and nutmeg. I don't know what it smells like, and as far as I can figure out, it's not for sale anymore.

2.  Incense

This is the real deal: all-pervasive yet elusive, spicy, tangy, sweet. My favourite is sandalwood (白檀, byakudan) and anything made by Shoyeidō (松榮堂) or Kyūkyodō (鳩居堂), both in Kyoto.

3.  Yakitori

There are so many characteristic food smells in Japan, but this is my choice. Perhaps it's because I often walk through Ameyoko, where there are dozens of yakitori bars. Another typical food smell is …

4.  Tsuyu

Not rainy season, but dipping sauce for soba. It's made of dark soy sauce, mirin (sweetened sake) and dashi stock. Dashi (fish stock) itself is another typical smell of Japan.

5.  Stuffy early-morning train

Let me start off by saying that if I have to be crammed into an overcrowded train, I'd rather be in an overcrowded train in Japan than in any other country. Despite my constant kutuk-ing* about Tokyo's commuters, it remains a miracle that so many people can travel together so often without murder and mayhem. (* Kutuk is a Malaysian word that means to diss someone. Thanks, Lina!)

Having said that, morning trains have a smell of their own, and although it never smells awful, it can get very stuffy if you're travelling with older male commuters.

I was raised in a culture that has a shower in the morning. You wouldn't even think of starting a new day without water. Japan, on the other hand, believes in a bath at night. No problem with that, except that morning commuters don't always smell fresh. If it's a man who sweated and omitted various other bodily fluids throughout the night, ate natto for breakfast, had vending machine coffee and smoked a couple of cigarettes, then … oh dear.

However, I'm not complaining too loudly. Have you ever used public transport in Africa? No? Be grateful.

PS: Me? I have a shower in the morning, since it's in my DNA, but I usually have a hot bath at night as well. What can I say? I like water.

6.  Ponging late-night train

Sweat, alcohol, cigarettes, BO, bad breath, exhaustion. Depending on the station, add vomit, piss and an acrid post-sex odour.

Interestingly enough I can cope with late-night train smells better than early-morning ones, probably because I'm ever so slightly worse for wear myself after hammering English into students' heads all day.

7.  Yuzu bath salts

Japan has superb bath salts, the one better than the next, but I'm particularly fond of yuzu fragrance. Yuzu is a citrus fruit that originated in East Asia. I associate it not only with Japan, but with the onset of winter; as a matter of fact, it's an old custom to have a yuzu bath on the winter solstice (冬至, tōji).

8.  Tatami

Fresh, earthy, natural, cheerful and tranquil at the same time. I love it.

9.  Snow

This might be an odd one to include, since it's neither a fragrance nor unique to Japan, but I never experienced it in Africa, so I associate it with Japan. It's more a sensation than a fragrance, but that dry, ice-cold, cut-like-glass air that pours through your nose into your lungs … that's the smell of snow.

10.  Cigarettes

Ugh. Everywhere. I'm not an anti-smoking Nazi, promise, but Japan is incredibly lax when it comes to anti-smoking rules. Smokers may be the minority (36,6% of Japanese men and 12,1% of Japanese women according to 2010 statistics), but all of us are forced to smoke with them in restaurants where there are no proper divisions between smoking and non-smoking, and on streets where it's common to smoke despite rules that forbid it.

It's your choice to smoke. If I give you my permission, you're welcome to smoke in my presence, but don't force me to smoke with you whether I want to or not.

Oh. That makes 11, if I add kinmokusei. Oy, I teach English, not maths. Now you expect me to be able to count? May I add two more?

11 or 12.  Sulphur

Many onsen have a sulphur smell, ranging from faint to vrot (see sidebar) eggs.

12 or 13. Chlorine

Initially I thought it was my imagination, but no, Tokyo tap water does have a very strong chlorine smell. You can also smell it at sento (public baths) and onsen. Read more about it here and here.

More random fragrant observations

1. Kinmokusei is one of three famous fragrant flowers in Japan. The other two are Daphne odora (沈丁花, jinchōge) and gardenia (梔子, kuchinashi).

2. When Westerners first arrived in Japan, the Japanese were justifiably shocked by the hairy barbarians' lack of bathing and hence vile body odour. Even when properly cleansed, Westerners had a very different body odour thanks to their milk-heavy diet. The Japanese referred to Americans as bata-kusai (バタ臭い) or butter stink.

3. Here's an interesting excerpt from Wikipedia:
Kōdō (香道, the way of fragrance) is the Japanese art of appreciating fragrance, and involves using incense within a structure of codified conduct. Though it is counted as one of the three classical arts of refinement*, it is relatively unknown amongst modern Japanese people. Kōdō includes all aspects of the incense process - from the tools, which, much like tools of the tea ceremony, are valued as high art, to activities such the incense-comparing games kumikō (組香) and genjikō (源氏香).
* The other two are kadō (華道, the way of flowers or flower arranging) and chadō (茶道, the way of tea or the tea ceremony).

4. Richard Axel is a neuroscientist whose work on the olfactory system won him a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2004. He calls smell "the primary sense, the central sensual modality" that helps most animals, and that includes humans, to identify food, danger and mates. You can listen to him yourself:

5. While I was Googling for Tokyo smells, I stumbled across a blog called Everyday Life in Uptown Tokyo. He included a lovely Japanese song that refers to smells. Here's the video. If you want to read an English translation of the lyrics, you'll find it on his blog in this post.

PS: That other post that I meant to write was about a shōtengai or shopping street in Mukōjima. I'll get there. Eventually.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Wait. Be patient. It will come.

Acer palmatum in Tokyo, 21 October 2012. The leaves have only just started changing.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

A sea of trees, a world map of shrubs and ...

I never knew about this! Why didn't I know about this? Umi-no-Mori (Sea of Trees or Sea Forest) is a project designed by world-famous architect Tadao Ando, who wants to turn 88 acres of landfill (the size of a golf course) in Tokyo Bay into a forest.

He says he hopes to collect donations of ¥1000 per person from half a million people. If you want to donate, you can do it on the website hereI fully intend to visit this park as soon as possible (in other words, in November) and report in more detail, but in the meantime …

I heard about Umi-no-Mori at the 29th National Urban Greenery Fair Tokyo, which I ran into, purely by chance, in Hibiya Park. Umi-no-Mori has a special exhibition in which they're forming the map of the world with Kochia scoparia shrubs, combined with messages of encouragement for Tōhoku. Oh, yes, the quake was 18 months ago, but many Tōhoku residents are still living in temporary shelters and reconstruction will take decades. The government has not exactly been proactive: politicians are more interested in playing their little power games and bickering about their amakudari jobs.

I wrote a message in Afrikaans. I explained to the staff what it meant (basically ganbatte), and based on their grins, they were happy to include a message from exotic Africa in their collection.

Kochia scoparia is called hōkigi (ホウキギ、帚木) or broom tree in Japanese. The shrubs used to form the map of the world were donated by the Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki. I've never been there, but clearly I'll have to correct that oversight as well. It's 70 minutes from Ueno on the Limited Express Super Hitachi, and this is what awaits you when you arrive.

It was the first time I ever saw this plant, but when I got home, I started Googling … and you know what happens when I do that, don't you? I discovered that it used to be called hahakigi and that there's an old legend associated with it: it disappears when a person approaches it. The early Heian waka poet Sakanoue no Korenori (坂上是則) wrote a well-known poem about it. I've included it just for Leo, who loves reading obscure ancient texts. 


Sonohara ya
Fuseya ni ofuru
Hahakigi no
Ari to wa miete
Awanu kimi kana

Like the broom tree
Growing in Fuseya Wood
In far Sonohara
You seem there before my eyes
But still I cannot find you

The translation is from A Waka Anthology by Edwin A. Cranston.

* Edit added on Wednesday evening: I found a translation that I like more, in a book called The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of The Tale of Genji by Haruo Shirane.

You seem to be there
And yet I cannot meet you
Elusive as the broom tree
That grows in a hut
In Fuseya of Sonohara

This post is a bit more arbitrary than my usual epics, and all over the place, but the hōkigi bushes are cute and I was startled to learn about the Sea of Trees and the Greenery Fair continues in six parks until 28 October so … why you no go? Grin.

The parks are Ueno Park, Hibiya Park, Hama-rikyu-teien, Inokashira Park, Showa Kinen Park and Sea Forest. Read more here.

Bamboo sculpture at Hibiya Park's main fountain

Wise words at a garden design exhibition in Hibiya Park

Another Tōhoku element: a theatre group called Fukushima Yaetai is giving performances at Hibiya Park during the Greenery Fair.

Sloppy editing? Not on the cover!

It's a truism that copy-editors will make their biggest mistake in a 72-point headline. I certainly made a few doozies in my day; mostly in body copy, Saint Bosco be praised. I know, and I bow my head in abject shame, that I regularly make mistakes in my own posts and comments.

Yet, however and notwithstanding my acknowledgement that to err is human ... a mistake on the front page of a poetry book, in the author's name? Eish, White Pine Press!

The poet is Taneda Santōka. I wrote about him here.

Howbeit, nonetheless and despite my righteous indignation, I readily concur that it's divine to forgive, and in this particular case not too difficult. White Pine Press is a non-profit literary press, and it's made poetry from all over the world accessible to the rest of us.

It's just ... on the cover, and in the poet's name? Ouch.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Tokyo's top five gorgeous ginkgos

Tokyo is famous for its ginkgo avenues which burst into colour towards late November and early December, but the city also has magnificent individual trees that are well worth a visit.

After all, the ginkgo biloba was designated the official metropolitan tree in 1996; and the symbol of Tokyo Metropolis (東京都 Tōkyō-to) is made up of three arcs resembling a ginkgo leaf to represent the letter T for Tokyo. The tree was selected by residents, who voted as follows: ginkgo 49%, zelkova 32%, Yoshino cherry tree 19%. Read more about it here.

I've made a list of my Famous Five. I don't have autumn photos of all of them, but my intention is to do a follow-up post in December. They're listed in no particular order, except that I've saved my personal favourite for last.

The guardian of the cemetery

It's neither particularly old nor exceptionally big, but it's breathtaking in autumn. It's a massive ginkgo that stands guard in Yanaka Cemetery, its golden leaves forming a sharp contrast with the sombre granite tombstones. The cemetery has several ginkgos, but this one is the biggest. I wrote about it here.

This photo was taken a year or so ago, in late November. 

It's that big yellow spot in the middle of this Google satellite map:
"I'll risk my neck for this tree!"

It's the biggest tree in Hibiya Park, with a circumference of 7 m, and it's estimated to be 400 years old. When Hibiya Street was extended in 1901, the tree was supposed to be cut down, but park director Honda Seiroku (本多静六) had other ideas. "I will move this tree 450 m to save it," he said, "even if my head is put on a stake." It took almost a month to do it, but the tree survived. So did Mr Honda. (He's the same man who planted the Meiji Jingu forest.)

The park's website calls it the risky ginkgo in English, but I prefer its Japanese name: kubi-kake ichō (首かけイチョウ) or "risk your neck ginkgo". It's next to Matsumotoro Restaurant (日比谷松本楼).

View Larger Map

The old-timer

Actually, the oldest-timer. It's called the Sakasa-ichō (逆さイチョウ), or upside-down ginkgo, and it's the largest of its kind in Tokyo. Its trunk is 10,4 m in diameter and it's 20 m tall. It's estimated to be 750 years old. No wonder it's been declared a Natural Monument.

It stands in Azabu at Zenpuku-ji (善福寺), one of the oldest temples in Tokyo, founded in 924 by Kōbō Daishi. I wrote a post about it, which you can read here.

View Larger Map

The child-giving ginkgo

Tokyo's second-biggest ginkgo is 6,63 m in circumference, its height is 32,5 m and its branches spread 10 meter in all directions from the trunk. Ironically enough it's a male tree, in other words no foul-smelling ginkgo nuts in autumn, but its nickname is the "child-giving ginkgo" (子授けイチョウ). I have to add that I'm not 100% sure how trees are selected as the "biggest" or "second-biggest", but it's probably a combination of circumference, height and area covered by its branches. Perhaps age is also taken into account.

This ginkgo stands at Kishimojin (鬼子母神), a temple in Zōshigaya. Read my post about it here.

My favourite

It may not be the biggest in real life, but it occupies the biggest spot in my affection. I walk past this tree almost every day, and I've become rather attached to it. I use it as my gauge to determine autumn's progress: I watch carefully as the lush green leaves turn slightly dull, then start changing hesitantly and finally explode into burnished gold.

It stands on the Hongō campus of the University of Tokyo, which – by the way – has an impossibly beautiful ginkgo avenue. It's just … I don't have the words … you'll have to go there yourself.

I wrote about Tōdai's ginkgos here.

The Tōdai photos were taken in early December 2011.

View Larger Map

Below, the symbol of Tokyo Metropolis (left) and the logo of the University of Tokyo (right). Both have a ginkgo leaf in their design.


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