Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Typhoon (台風 ) 21

Japan has been battered this summer.  The Kansai region (western Japan including Kyoto and Osaka prefectures) has been the most abused.  The gods are angry for some reason - earthquakes, floods, heatwaves and typhoons.  In ancient times something would have been done to appease them.  Prayers would have been said, fires lit, dances danced, processions processed.  In modern times we just suffer the assault.  We're too wise for invocation and ritual.

Typhoon 21 (or "Jebi" in Western meteorology) was well-hyped in the media before its debut.  "The most powerful typhoon in 25 years!"  It began like any other typhoon.  Late in the morning on September 4th the winds began to blow and the rain began to fall.  It quickly grew into something more violent and frightening.

The rain stopped "falling" in the traditional, gravitational direction.  Instead it was whipped sideways in wide, vicious sheets.  This horizontal rain lashed my windows with such force it seemed to be coming from a water cannon, and the volume was so great my apartment appeared to be submerged in water, a sort of reverse aquarium.

The wind was totally indecisive, like a drunk in a brawl, lunging forward then back then right then left.  It shook not just my windows but interior walls, the whole building trembled.  We've all seen "The Wizard of Oz" and a dozen other films featuring hurricanes.  Objects unhinged from somewhere began flying past my window.  Not just leaves and twigs, not a plastic shopping bag dancing in the wind, but large debris, things normally attached to buildings, were hurtling through the silver sky like busted arrows from a crazed archer.

Outside, all around, I could hear things breaking, the sound of an impetuous, angry child on a rampage.  I waited for the roof to tear off.

This went on for several hours.  My tension grew.  I poured myself a beer.  I watched.  I listened.

Eventually things stopped flying, things stopped breaking.  The storm passed just before dusk and an eerie stillness fell across the city.  The fury and havoc of the previous hours seemed almost a dream.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Looking for Autumn

I went to Uji in search of Autumn.  I knew her number wasn't for another couple of weeks.  Still, I thought I might find her backstage preparing, warming up for the start of her show.

I walked along the river for a long time.  The water was green and cool.  But I could see only the white burn of the Summer sun across its surface.

I crossed the Amagase Bridge, wood and cable bound together in an unlikely friendship.  Autumn wasn't on the bridge.

I cut into the forest, a narrow path, muddy from a rain long forgotten.  I thought for sure I'd find her here, maybe with a large block of ice and a fan rehearsing an October breeze.  It was warm and moist in there like a kiss with the tongue after a cup of tea.  The forest was throbbing with the heat.  Autumn is a classy dame; she wouldn't stand for this vulgarity.

I left the forest and wandered back to town and the train slightly embarrassed by my foolish endeavour.  Autumn wasn't even in the theatre, let alone on stage.  An overeager fan.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

cool (涼しい)

There is no ocean in Kyoto.  There are very few swimming pools.  When siting in an air conditioned room all day begins to feel claustrophobic, the river is the best place to cool off on a hot, humid summer day.  Though swimming is discouraged, if not expressly forbidden, dipping one's toes in the cool, rushing water will garner no looks of disdain and will rejuvenate your wilting spirit.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Kabuki (歌舞伎)

Kabuki is one of those things in every Japanese guidebook.  Everyone knows the word and might be able to connect that word to images of kabuki actors on stage.  But I think few gaijin, tourist or resident, really know what kabuki is.

I got my first taste of kabuki recently when a friend of mine invited me to a performance at Shochikuza Theatre in Osaka.  I was simultaneously enthralled and baffled.

I have been to the opera in New York.  I thought this experience might function as a gauge for kabuki.  No.  It is apples and oranges.  The only thing they have in common is a stage.

Kabuki began in the dry riverbeds of the Kamo River in Kyoto in the Edo period (1603-1867).  The founder was a beautiful, slightly eccentric woman named Izumo no Okuni who performed oftentimes risqué dances and playlets there.  The original meaning of the word kabuki was "unusual" or "unconventional", and early kabuki troupes were comprised of mostly prostitutes and other social outcasts.  In an effort to halt the moral corruption of the population, in 1629 the Tokugawa shogunate banned the troupes and forbid women from appearing on stage.  This lead to all-male performers, a tradition which persists today.

We went to a matinee on a scorching hot summer afternoon.  The performance was divided into four parts - two shorter pieces (20-30 minutes each) followed by two longer ones (a little over an hour each) with a brief intermission between each one.  These were not acts, that is, four chapters of one story.  Each was its own one-act play unrelated to the others.  

As the curtain opened (not up, but across the stage) I was immediately taken by the costumes and makeup of the actors.  Each ensemble was like something from a Paris couture show, fantastic, gaudy even, the makeup fierce and exaggerated.  An impressive and unique characteristic of kabuki is the onstage costume transformations known as hayagawari.  Stagehands will suddenly appear at key moments and help the actor peel back or remove a layer of clothing to reveal another costume beneath.  There is another group of stagehands called kuroko, more shadowy and stealth, that will sneak onstage and give or take props from the actors as needed.  

The dialogue was fairly incomprehensible.  It may be something like listening to Shakespearean English, archaic and highly nuanced.  Or it could just be my poor comprehension.  But what was impossible to miss was the incredible vocal range of the actors, moving up and down from a canine growl to an adolescent squeak, from a pathetic whimper to a drunken howl.  Such powerfully expressive speech I have never seen or heard before in any language.

Even if you don't know the artist or actor, most people are familiar with the 18th Century ukiyo-e print of the kabuki actor Ōtani Oniji III by Tōshūsai Sharaku (above).  Hands splayed as if about to strangle someone, a grim scowl on his face, eyes crossed.  I always took the crossed eyes as artistic parody.  So I was surprised to see one of the leads, Matsumoto-san, at a climactic moment freeze and cross his eyes.  This is actually a famous pose in kabuki called mie.  It is accompanied by a musician just off stage striking the floor with hyoshigi (wooden clappers), first slowly then building to a crescendo.  The audience was delighted.

The audience at a kabuki performance is not entirely passive.  They will from time to time shout their approval.  This is known as kakegoe.  This is itself almost an art form, highly structured and refined.  The calls are perfectly timed and phrased and come from only seasoned veterans of kabuki theatre.  There are actually kakegoe guilds.  I had read about this before, but it was still somewhat startling and rather funny to hear; the theatre equivalent of shouting at your favorite player during a baseball game, "Come on Joe, knock it outta the park!"  

The various aspects of kabuki are innumerable, and perhaps very subtle or obscure.  It could take a lifetime of theatre-going to identify and understand them all, to become part of the kakegoe elite.  It is easy to see why in 2005, UNESCO added kabuki to the list of "intangible cultural heritage".  It really is intangible.

Monday, July 23, 2018

I ❤ Gion Matsuri

I've written about Gion Matsuri before.  Each year I grow more fond of this month-long annual festival in the heart of Kyoto.

Gion Matsuri is summer.  It is summer in Kyoto.  It is hot as hell.  It is crowded.  It is wonderfully and unassumingly exuberant, and somewhat mystifying.  Everyone dressed in yukata and geta, glistening with sweat, uchiwa waving, beating at the warm, moist air like the wings of a bug caught in a swimming pool.

It is a sort of joyous suffering, like over-drinking on a night out.  Just as you know that last drink is too much, that you'll pay for it, everyone knows Gion Matsuri takes place in the summer, and summer in Kyoto is generally brutal.  Still they come.  Not a couple hundred people, but thousands, streaming through the hot, sticky afternoons and evenings.

It is not like a large crowd packing into a stadium on a hot day to see a sporting event.  Gion Matsuri is fluid.  There is movement.  Movement spread over nearly 10 square kilometres.  Movement spread over 31 days.  There is a rhythm to the festival, a beat.  Like a piece of music, there is a pianissimo intro and outro, and a crescendo in the middle.  The soundtrack is a beautifully discordant and somber march of flutes, gongs and drums.  The tempo is like a New Orleans funeral parade that carries you along, but doesn't ask too much.  It is sedate, languid, perfectly in sync with the sultry weather.

For a gaijin Gion Matsuri feels thoroughly Japanese, authentic and undefiled.  Kyoto city is ever evolving.  I am witness to the constant and rapid changes.  Gion Matsuri functions in some way as an annual reminder of the city's past, of its roots.  The summer sun burns this into the hearts of its people, as well as the hordes of tourists, which ensures its continuation.  Long live Gion Matsuri!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The river (川)

Katsura River (桂川) 12:10 6 July 2018 

How high's the water, Mama?  Five feet high and risin'.

- Johnny Cash

I have long wondered about the not-so-pretty concrete levees that edge most every river in Japan.  The beauty of Kyoto's Kamo River that snakes through the city is significantly diminished by these man-made borders.  While nature and time have softened the hard ugliness with moss and various river grass, they do remind me of the epic eyesore built to contain the Los Angeles River in the late 1930s.  Like LA, the levees in Kyoto were built in the modern era in response to cyclical flooding.

There is a lovely promenade along both banks of the Kamo River that is popular with strolling lovers and picnickers in the spring and summer months.  This too made me wonder, why doesn't the city plant some trees?  How much more beautiful would this esplanade be with graceful tree branches shading the path.  It all seemed somehow incongruous with a city famed for its gorgeous gardens and high artistic aesthetic.  Furthermore, I couldn't imagine this thin, shallow river ever swelling to the width and height of the embankment.

Those questions were answered in a dramatic and threatening way this week.  Typhoon No. 7 rolled into town Wednesday evening and basically parked the bus.  It rained and it rained and it rained, with barely a pause.  In 24 hours Kyoto received more than 250mm (9.8 in) of rain.  The Kamo River, normally less than a meter deep, was sloshing over the top of the levee and the nice pedestrian path along the riverbank was inundated with muddy water.

Closer to home, the Katsura River had risen to 4.15 meters (13.6 ft), well above the so-called "flood precaution level" and had begun to breach its banks in places.  The riverside trails where I frequently walk had disappeared under water.  So too had the man-made waterfall that cuts across the river north of the Imperial Villa.  The famous Togetsukyo Bridge in Arashiyama was nearly submerged.  Some 40 kilometers further upstream, the Hiyoshi Dam was at capacity and discharging 900 tons of water a second.  It was incredible to see this normally placid river stretched to its full width and power.  Nature is an awesome and humbling force.  

The rain finally subsided Friday evening, and so too did the startling emergency notifications (which I can't read) squawking out on my mobile phone.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Zazen (座禅)

Early morning at Kenninji temple in Gion.  Much, much too early for the maiko who flit through the streets of this district in the evening.  A light rain falls coloring the wood and stone of the temple, the green of the gardens.

The zendo (meditation hall) is set with perfectly spaced dark green zabuton (cushions) in four neat rows on the tatami floor.  The room is mostly empty when my friend and I arrive, but quickly fills up.  I am surprised to see two children, not more than 7-years-old, with their parents.  Sitting still is an impossible task for most children.  This is clearly not their first time.  They approach the ritual with a quiet maturity well beyond their years.

A bell rings three times (shijosho).  The first of two 20-minute sessions begins.

My knowledge of zazen is rudimentary: sit, meditate.  And maybe that is all there is to it.  In most Zen Buddhist practices it is best not to overthink, not to analyze, really to not even try.  It sounds easy, but I find it rather difficult.  Instead of clearing my mind, reaching the desired mushin (no mind), I find myself thinking of zazen in a very self-conscious way: "here I am doing zazen."  I am thinking about writing about the experience.  It is annoying, this thought pattern.

There is a barefooted monk with a long, flat stick.  He walks very slowly up and down the rows, each step measured, thoughtful, like a crane negotiating a stream.  The stick he carries is called a keisaku (awakening stick).  It is used for whacking sleepy or distracted meditators.  I had read about this stick somewhere, but was a little startled by the sharp crack it makes shattering the stillness of the hall.  At first I wondered, what is this sound, where is it coming from?  Then the woman across from me bowed before the monk and pressed her hands together as in prayer, the signal to him, "My mind is preoccupied.  I've lost focus."  The stick is placed on the right shoulder and - thwack!  Then the left - thwack!  Bows are exchanged and silence returns to the room.  While this is probably just the jolt I need to break free of my self-awareness I let him pass me by each lap he makes.

In Japanese za means “sitting” and zen means “meditation”.  The impossibly difficult "full lotus" position replicates Buddha's posture.  Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, is generally credited with introducing zazen to Japan.  He layed out the principles in an instruction manual called Zazengi which emphasized the harmonizing of body, breath and mind.

The "effortless non-striving" required for proper zazen, as prescribed by Dogen, may seem unattainable to a beginner like myself, but then zazen really isn't about attaining or getting or reaching anything at all.  Trying to do zazen is really to fail.  So, another day I will attempt not to attempt zazen.

What is zazen good for?  Zazen isn't good for anything.

Sawaki Roshi (1880 - 1965) Soto Zen Buddhist priest