Sunday, 15 July 2007

Tokyo daily

Time at the lab after Mum and Dad returned to Australia started with my welcome party at which we hand-rolled tamaki sushi from beautifully prepared ingredients under the direction of the Master's student! This was a wonderfully fun way to meet people, try new adventures like natto initiation, sake and shoju traditional drinks, plenty of beer and amusing attempts to conjure rice and tuna or other fish, cucumber, tamago sweet egg, salad bits, salmon and so on into a convenient and elegant seaweed roll without spilling ingredients everywhere! Anyway, I think I passed the natto [dreaded slimy fermented soy bean] test and the food was delicious.

I visited Ikebukuro one day out of curiosity and though the commercial aspects of the neighbourhood near the station didn't grab me, the Traditional Craft Centre underneath Seibu depato was well worthwhile. A little like Fureiakan in Kyoto, it exhibited (and of course sold) works of ceramics, woodwork, lacquer-ware, dyeing, chopsticks, calligraphy brushes, carved wood, fans, baskets, washi handmade paper and so on. I bought a beautiful little handmade box that I wear around my neck purportedly from a craftsman near Nara in Hyogo Prefecture, where tropical woods growing in Southeast Asia, such as rosewood, ebony and Chinese quince are grouped together under the generic name karaki, literally Chinese trees, brought to Japan in the 8th Century and typically used now for shelving, tables, furniture-making using no nails. There were also chopsticks and shoe-horns and other accessories made from plum wood in deep reddish-purple colour and in the neighbouring Seibu department store, craftsmen made geta and dolls (pictured) customised for clients, working 'on exhibition' on the top floor.

I visited the NTT ICC, an intercommunication centre or kind of contemporary digital media art and technology museum that houses a permanent exhibition of many wel-known new media artists like ISHII Hiroshi (MIT Tangible Media Group), ITO Mariko, HASHIMOTO Kotaro "Gainer Kaidan" IAMAS PDP (Programmable Device Project), "Marshmallow Scope" IWAI Toshi, HIVE (Art archive, video and interview database), NAKAI Iori, ETO Kouichirou, KUWAKUBO Ryota, "The Secret Lives of Numbers" Golan LEVIN, "DriftNet" in a virtual CAVE by HIRAKAWA Norimichi, KAKEHI Yasuaki + NAEMURA Takeshi + MATSUSHITA Mitsunori, + NAEMURA Takeshi, Claudio PINHANEZ + Mark PODLASECK, "Juggler" 3D projection or laser imaging(?) by Gregory BARSAMIAN, "Reconfigurable House: Hacking Low Tech Architecture" Usman HAQUE + Adam SOMLAI-FISCHER, and the Anechoic Room (shut on this occasion but normally featuring Ryoji Ikeda). It is also located in the rather fascinating and extensive Tokyo Opera Building - rather remarkable though not necessarily nice feat of architectural grandeur. The purpose of the Open Space exhibition hall is "to encourage the dialogue between technology and the arts with a core theme of 'communication'", celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2007.

Kazuhiro Jo-san's Sine Wave Orchestra sine-wave producing musical instrument [A.I. Lab RCAST u-Tokyo], Toshio Iwai and his tenori-on musical LED instrument being developed with Yamaha, Juggler by Barsamian at NTT ICC

I made a presentation of research at the A.I. Lab's research seminar series, explaining the work of the KCDC and showing my recent projects and current ARC funded research activity. I have grown quite interested in the digital media work of Toshio Iwai - his beautiful Nintendo DS-lite game supposedly made entirely by him (not a development team) - programming, graphics and music. It is not a game in the conventional sense (probably why I enjoy it) but a musical improvisation romp amongst ecologies of different micro-creatures whose behaviours spawn different kinds of music that you can control to some extent or steer using the stylus on the touch-screen. He has also developed the tenori-on with Yamaha and is well-known for his Ars Eletronica Golden Nico-winning performance with Sakamoto in the 90s for a piano-driven light-show. He is featured in this month's AXIS magazine, together with the majority of the issue dedicated to the anniversary of the RCAST (Research Centre for Advanced Science and Technology, where my AI Lab is housed) and its various projects in emerging disciplines and new areas of science. Sadly, Iwai seems to be moving away from new media towards more children-oriented toys, illustration, etc. excepting the imminent release of the new Yamaha musical instrument, a LED tactile musical interface. I am sure this will be fun and unless it sounds hideous, I want to get one!

Coming up, will be the 'open house' at IAMAS in Gifu, that I intend to attend this Sunday. IAMAS (Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences) will also have a Tokyo-based showcase at Spiral (Omotesando) near the end of the month. This looks even better but it concurs exactly with the Kenshukan shakuhachi workshop in Bisei - what a dilemma! The Bisei 20th Anniversary International Shakuhachi Kenshukan weekend will consist of concerts, workshops, masterclasses and an international community of shakuhachi players from USA, Australia, Europe, etc. including Yokoyama Sensei, attending in a place far away in the mountains of Central Northern Japan.

Shakuhachi lessons at Tachikawa in Tokyo suburbs and in Chichibu (Chichibu Saitama prefecture in the mountainous countryside, 2 hours west of Tokyo) are going well. Kakizakai Sensei never runs out of wisdom and new things for me to learn and it is invaluable having high-frequency lessons concentrating on single pieces per lesson. Currently I am really trying to work on the embouchure thing that Yokoyama and his Kenshukan promote so ardently (for good reason) that produces round strong tone and flexibility for meri (lowered) pitches. Saturdays I go to the Tokyo lessons and Wednesday to Chichibu as research seminars have now ceased for the month of August for summer break. Even after practising several hours some days, the right sound is nowhere to be found. It is very difficult. The lesson in Chichibu (another tomorrow) also meant a welcome diversion into the scenic mountainous countryside by express train from Ikebukuro. The ride takes you quickly out through the sprawling suburbs to agricultural plots giving way to hillside, tea, rice and eventually mountains, occasional mining, steep embankments, mind-boggling retaining walls, groves of bamboo, rivers and steep valleys, shadowed on both sides by monster-sized mountains. Compared to Australian mountains that have lilting rounded contour often in the sandstone mountains, these were aggressively sheer rising sometimes at precipitous 80 degree angles beside the train and visibly crumbling and tumbling where mining has excavated into their sides. It is a completely different landscape from Tokyo and the Chichibu-Saitama National Park is renowned for its scenic trails and walking tours, a circuit of shrines and temples and pathways used for spiritual pilgrimages featuring many mountaintop shrines and views. I am sure that when I live there in November, I will be making a couple of these pilgrimages!

The first lesson I attended at Tachikawa had a serendipitous ending when I caught a 'mystery' bus (not the correct number but worth an experiment) and ended up in Hana-Koganei, a town that just happened to be celebrating its annual matsuri (festival) in flare, colour, noise and festivity with dancing, wheeling out huge odaiko and taiko drums into the streets that were closed for the ceremony. The striking thing about these festivals, most localities have one of some size, while Chichibu's is notoriously one of the most impressive, is that the whole community seriously engage in the activity. It must take weeks, even months for preparation. The taiko-players in Hana Koganei were professional but in many towns, the folk rehearse and prepare their playing. In this town, everybody looked harmonious in their matching outfits, some for dancers, some for carrying the portable shrine through the town, others for drumming and so on such that a real mass of colour and community was visible right down to details. People had clearly put a great deal of time into their appearances and costumes. Grandchildren, parents, grandparents were all involved, through processions, group dances, eating street food from little tents lining the side oft he village centre, painstakingly cooked skewers stretchy octopus, okonomiyaki pancakes, etc. Even family pets were dressed to comply and I was surprised by how many people brought along their dogs: why? Because it was so very loud with processional bells, gongs, transverse flutes of very bright piercing tone, maybe shinobue-like, the thundering taiko, at times concurrently and the chanting, frenzy of the cheerleaders and crowd pursuing the mobile shrine through the crowds, not to mention giggling shrieking children, the excitement of the crowd and it was generally so noisy for several hours - it must have been difficult or a little terrifying for the pets dragged along. This was my first experience of a matsuri and it was amazing to be swept up in the charged atmosphere and feel the energy of the taiko in its 'natural' or original context. It was exhilarating and really cohesive, primal.

I have also been busy preparing aspects of the semester 2 interactive sound studio, a new subject of double load, to be taught intensively in September-October but its introductory lecture just passed this week, at which all the assessment requirements, outline and details need to be completed and presented. This lecture was given by Sam Ferguson. I have put up the materials on my web site and written the assessment descriptions and criteria. Sam has also been working with the Wii as a modified controller of his multidimensional sound mixing interaction.

I visited Mr Nakajima-san and Kimura-san at the Matsumae International Foundation House, a villa in the style of a traditional 'tea-house' once owned by a Kyoto university Professor, and its surrounding beautiful garden. Mr Nakajima told me about its bandaged trees, the special moss, the water recycling and pointed out numerous details in its carefully loved garden, including a herb garden! This is in Nishi-Ogikubo near Kichijoji and the spectacular Inokashira Koen (Park).

The weekend of 22 July, I met Judith at Odawara for brunch. Judith spent 2 weeks escorting a group of Manly school students around parts of Tokyo and nearby Odawara (gateway to Hakone area). We had a nice 'catch-up' just like the days of old when we would have Sunday coffee and late breakfast in Blues Point.

During the Ubiquitous Media conference, was Ocean Day, delineated only through the oceans that fell from the sky following a tropical typhoon and the next day followed by a serious earthquake that ruptured something at a nuclear power plant in Niigata causing radioactive water to leak into the Japan Sea. Why do we have underground nuclear-active contaminants in a country beset by earthquakes?

Earthquake measurements in Japan from this useful little web site: Note: the Japanese scale is different from Richter. Today in Tokyo we felt the 3 nice and clearly and the cupboards rattled, chair swayed.

I have been engrossed in some interesting reading including the Barbara Stafford Echo Objects book,the Journal of Society Culture and Theory, the Bill Viola book, an art book on Kusama Yayoi, Kusamatrix exploring her rabit-hole post-matrix alternate reality, Aya Tokano's Tokyo Space Diary, a Zen book, and the catalogue from 'Skin + Bones' exhibition that relates to my paper with Andrew Vande Moere on foldable, wearable physical computing.

July 24 clearly marked the end of the rainy season. Kakizakai Sensei said it would be unambiguous and indeed, apart from a rainy anomalous aberration yesterday, it has been constantly hot dry (in the sense of no rain) but humid every day - somewhere in the order of 29-30 degrees, making AC-hopping a new sport.

Zenpukuji Temple garden/park

I also visited Youkobo Art Space because it is where I will stay on my AsiaLink arts residency during Dec-January during the coldest winter months. Mr and Mrs Hiroko and Tatsuhiko Murata who run it were extremely hospitable friendly people who showed me around and I met the other staff, including English-speaking Jaime (an oasis in the sometimes tough environment of being incomprehensible and uncomprehending). Founded in the 2001 as a comprehensive facility equipped with a gallery, studios and residential pace, the space was formerly a 1950s clinic, followed by a sculpture studio and animation studios during the 80s, now hosting a succession of international artists in a program for global cultural and artistic exchange.To get there, I wound a very long, hot route through the backstreets of Kichijoji, Zenpukuji Temple garden/park and eventually (after getting a bit lost in the heat and eating mulberry ice-cream), one also passes manicured gardens and elite suburbia at some times and the ramshackle bustling commercial streets and crowded older parts at others. These clustered dwellings near to the station and densely overgrown older residences are the kind of scenery that reportedly informed and inspired the illustration of TekkonKinkreet, the manga that has recently been made into an anime by Sony. The mattes in this work are stunning and in my belief it is one of the most beautiful anime, like 'Ghost in the Shell'. I enjoyed likening the resemblance of Kichijoji to the expertly executed film. Despite its radical American Directorship, it is a quintessentially very Japanese anime in its parochialism, scenery and localised plight, featuring many very traditional icons, mannerisms and expressions.

Nishi Ogikubo / Kichijoji area - the place that inspired the artist of TekkonKinkreet. Here one can see the connection. Manga images from by Taiyo Matsumoto/Shogakukan, made into a movie by Sony 2007 - compare to my photos from around the Kichijoji streets near the station.

It turned out that the very next day Mr Murata and Youkobo were hosting a photo-show by a German art-photographer who has just documented the Muenster Sculpture Festival, Dokumenta and the European art shows of summer so I was invited along, met a cool Japanese composer/interpreter who had also lived in England, Satoshi Ikeda, and afterwards we joined the Ogikubo O-bon festival prematurely (I think because the official date given is August) but on this occasion of the full moon fare-welling and sending off the passed ancestors' spirits. Beer and watermelon was all around and in a lantern lit pavilion, folks joined in singing, dancing, taiko playing and many traditional dances around and around the central raised platform attracted the community, once again, to participate in the action. together with staff of the Youkobo Art Community and current resident artists we had a great deal of fun.

On Sunday, I returned to Mori Art Centre and admired the Yayoi dotty obsession exhibition with matching lunch sets and the striking Roppongi Hills architecture and read interesting books in the design bookshop. The food was prepared to match - spotty coffee, pink dotted cakes, pastry or curry with yellow spots.

Now I had read about these specialised watermelons in a design magazine but in Shibuya yesterday I found you can actually buy one for a mere $150. For more info about this and other funny-shaped watermelons, go to PingMag

The excitement? Look at the skin! This is so thin it slices easily with a sharp Japanese knife, no difficulty at all. (And mine only cost $3 from the local grocer: it is oval-shaped).