Monday, 28 January 2008

Farewell Party with the Kakizakai family

(1) Kakizakai Sensei's mother, Emi, Megumi, Sensei [wickedly holding up the last challenge in Japanese culinary delights - a deliberate test I am sure], Haruka, Takashi (2) Kirsty, Megumi, Emi, Takashi, Kakizakai Sensei's mother, Haruka, Kakizakai Sensei.

Naturally, it was tinged with some regret that I had to pack up, clean out the caravan and organise to return to Australia but the Kakizakai family helped me feel very appreciative of the nice time I have had in Japan in the beautiful 'city' of Chichibu where I have made some deep friendships and had plenty of time to think, compose, practice. Their family has helped me and always made me feel very welcome and integrated. Megumi and I perhaps share an adventurous, independent spirit and enjoyed very much our excursions together and Kakizakai Sensei is so much more than my shakuhachi teacher. Many times they welcomed me to their dinner table and shared knowledge and friendship. I am glad Sensei is coming soon to Australia and wonder how next I can escape to Japan. Haruka, Emi and Takashi - Kakizakai Sensei's three hyperkinetic children - are also really cool with the stream of International visitors permeating their household. I hope they will maintain their eagerness to speak English and travel.

On our final evening, Megumi prepared wonderful shabu shabu ingredients for us to collaboratively cook in a huge gas-fired urn at the table, accompanied by salads and other idiomatic dishes. Their hospitality extended to a final Shika no tone lesson on the morning of my departure, lunch and a book of photo memories summarising our time together.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Tokyo Shakuhachi students' New Year Party

One of the brilliant winter joys of crisp freezing air is the the wonderful visibility of unsullied, snow-covered Fuji-san on way to Saturday Higashiyamato lessons, across the tea plantations and incongruous buildings in the western suburbs of Tokyo.

Here is (Toyomi) Takahashi-san's photo of my shakuhachi elder brothers. We went to a delicious sushi and nabe restaurant in Tachikawa, organised by Mr. Nakamura-san, explored many dishes and many kinds of Japanese liquor to see in the New Year (some what belatedly)! It was very nice to hear a little more from my friends and learn about their lives outside the shakuhachi lessons. All of them have been playing shakuhachi more than ten years, some many more than that.

From left around table: Dr. Dr. Takahashi-san, Mr. Fujita-san, Mr. Nakamura-san, Kakizakai Sensei, Kirsty desu, Mr. Okamoto-san.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Sumo and Edo-Tokyo Museum

Kakizakai Sensei took me to see the Sumo in Tokyo at the Ryoguku Kokugikan across the Sumida River in Tokyo. First, we visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum of history and culture, adjacent to the Sumo stadium. The special exhibition was the Siebold and Hokusai and Their Tradition (also Hiroshige) of woodblock printing (Japanese ukiyo-e) and painting, including works such as Hokusai's 36 views of Mount Fuji (1826-1833) and many tremendously famous works and other panels of finely detailed ink prints, hand-coloured and paintings in the iconic style, carricature faces, curly waves, glowing mountains and elegant beauties and maidens, Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川沖浪裏) that is said to have inspired Debussy's La Mer and (along with Hiroshige) influenced directly paintings by Van Gogh. The Edo-Tokyo Museum is renowned for its strikingly outlandish architecture (reminded me of Paris with its Pompidou-style escalators and monolithic proportions), housing a large-scale reconstruction of Nihonbashi bridge, a Kabuki theatre and many archaeological and historical records and remnants of the historic city, particularly as it was close to this site, traditional wooden architecture, pedestrian streets, low-rise, articles of print, swordsmanship, handcrafts, ceramics, calligraphy.

In Sumo, several aspects of the theatrics and even spiritual Shinto origins of the ring, stoicism are quintessentially Japanese. The 'ma'-like anticipation of commencing a bout, timing/knowing is remarkably like in shakuhachi playing ... an unsignalled yet 'right feeling' for timing. The same Ryoguku site has been used for Sumo for 300 years, Ryoguku Kokugikan (Grand Sumo Stadium). Etiquette in the Kokugikan requires that spectators do not go too near the ring because it is considered sacred, even after the last bout is over and the inherent Shinto spirits and ceremonies transcend in the act of throwing purifying salt about in the ring, fastidious cleaning rituals and the respectful introduction of each wrestler, a session concluding with a bow-dance (yumitori-shiki) with taiko drumming encouraging fans to come again. Early in the day, morning preliminary bouts of new Sumo trainees start, leading on to Jonokuchi-Makushita (lowest rank) and Juryo (intermediate division, at which rank and above, wrestlers are considered fully-fledged salaried Sumo professionals) and on to the senior and champion divisions that we arrived in time to watch. An event sheet describes the Sumo Banzuke tournament contenders for the day representing the opposing East (Higashi) and West (Nishi) sides. A 'season' lasts 15 days and so Sensei was keen for us to reach the last days of the season before the closing weekend (already booked out). Each day escalates from mid-level (professional) wrestlers through to grand champions at the end of the day. The day preceeding, matches/clashes are decided by a committee, designating which contestants will battle whom, often fairly evenly matched though there were some surprising bouts of 'heavyweights' vs. significantly lighter wrestlers, with 40kg weight disparities, 'David and Goliath' style. While mass is an obvious advantage in this sport, the only wrestling kind to have no weight restriction, agility can also have its advantage, resulting in a few favourable outcomes. The wrestling itself was often extremely brief, longer contests drawing roars and cheers from the crowd, much of the time was devoted to ceremonious gathering of concentration, and mind-battling, like yachts jostling for a place on the starting line, the wrestlers seemingly took their position several times at the starting location before the 'ma' felt right to physically mesh. As the standard increased, so too the suspense and tension of the commencements escalated and lengthened as visual sparring and camaraderie prevailed.

The wrestlers for the Makuuchi (Senior division) session are introduced with a ceremonial entrance and parade around the ring in traditional (expensive) aprons (kesho-mawashi) before the afternoon matches commence, forming a circle that turns to face the crowd. This is followed by the appearance of the Yokozuna Grand Champions wearing a white rope and Shinto folded design waist-piece to much audience excitement. The ring is 4.55m in diameter, prepared by wetting down the clay and sweeping it smooth and tidying with the broom between every bout. The everyday hairstyle of the Sumo is the 'topknot' and above Juryo rank, special ginko-leaf-shaped topknots are prepared by appropriate hairdressers at the stable and firmed with oil that we smelled wafting from their hair as we followed a group of wrestlers from the train. When I asked Sensei about the status and salaries of these whale-proportioned men, he wisely replied that it was small compensation for their lack of longevity and health problems associated with strange eating and sleeping patterns practised in order to build up and maintain such mass, for a career that often ends in the 30s. Bouts between well known wrestlers attract specific bout sponsorships in which the winner also picks up the award from the sponsoring company on the banners, circulated around the ring just before the match. Signs over the central ring on the roof of the shrine-like roof, reminded us that were were fortunate to have seats in a booked-out event and we can be grateful for our chairs!

We took a quick but delicious meal of giant gyoza (dumplings) in Ikebukuro before catching the return express train. With still a little time to spare, we visited the food hall of the Seibu Depaato (Department store). At first glance, it resembles David Jones foodhall - all gourmet delicacies and fresh produce. On closer inspection, it comes to life. Intrigues included live crabs wandering in wood-shavings, spanner crabs, strange molluscs who had larger bodies than the shell they inhabit, unspeakable large ocean mammals, inconceivably diverse sea creatures and fish bits, not to mention the $157 190g Wagyu gift-set if you would like to buy 4 steaks for your friend (who you like very much). Not a red-meat-eater? Maybe just a whole squid!

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Snowing: Nagatoro (Iwa-datami), Hodo-san Rou-bai En, Oku-No-In, Hodo-Jinja

Live from Chichibu! Today the snowflakes came drifting down, spiralling, and floating and at times thickly plummeting. About 15cm of snow built up in the best spots around the caravan and I enjoyed practising from inside my warm abode while looking out at the silent, peacefully gliding scenery of brilliant reflective luminosity until my lesson at 13:00. Chichibu streets were transformed as the cloud-pruned and rigourously trimmed bushes gathered caps of gleaming crystals on top and that invigorating crunching sound of snow squelched out from under my boots as I walked over to Sensei's. There was a little hint of excitement in the air as snowmen started to pop up here and there. Repeatedly fragments of movies darted through my mind, like Snow falling on Cedars (albeit set off Washington in USA) and the final scene of the first Kill Bill (in the snowy rock garden) in which the cedars and traditional Japanese trees are laden with snow to a continual flutter of falling snowflakes. The landscape is suddenly enchanted.

I was thrilled that Megumi and Kakizakai Sensei suggested that Megumi and I could go out for a drive to the Nagatoro (長瀞町 Nagatoro-machi) area. We passed Minoyama, famous for its cherry blossoms in spring and the Natural History Museum that purportedly houses a large shark-like prehistoric monster reconstructed from its teeth and a rare paleoparadoxia tabadai skeleton (an extinct marine mammal from 15 million years ago), and climbed over the slippery, snowy rocks onto the platform of Iwa-datami (長瀞の岩畳), meaning Rock Tatami or carpet of rock, indeed formed from a giant continuous rock formation from crystalline schist creating successive overlapping layers of greeny-silvery rock. This geological feature is believed to have been created in the ocean (when the area was covered by the sea) and shaped later by the river. The Nagatoro River is well known for its rapids and whitewater rafting and boating, and the entire town is designated as a prefectural nature park and preserve. Megumi and I marvelled at the perfect flower formations of the snowflakes.

Then we went to Hodo-san and Hodo-Jinja, one of the three most famous shrines of Chichibu along with Mitsumine and Chichibu Jinja. Hodo-san ropeway transports you 774ft up the mountain rise to the Rou-bai En, park of Rou-bai plants, that bear hanging golden flowers blooming in winter, here beautiful under the glistening crystals of snow against a backdrop of white haze and still falling snow, once more luscious crunching underfoot. Rou is the candle wax and Bai is Japanese plum, reflecting the lantern-like habit of the plant and glowing colour. There are also pink (or red) ones (Kou -bai). Treading in the virgin snow along the rows and rows of Rou-bai, the gentle perfume of the blossoms filled the air with a pleasantly delicate fragrance.

On the mountaintop amongst the cedars was Oku-No-In, a kind of secondary shrine to the main Hodo-Jinja downhill, this one stands on the summit in the woods, marked by a long ascending staircase and white torii, guarded by some cheerful-looking fox statues. The snow was powdery and quite deep in parts: pure. Finally, we descended the ropeway (suspended gondola) and went to the main Hodo-Jinja past some somewhat kinked and semi-frozen-looking carp and to the shrine that claims to be 1900 years old, we assumed the site not the wooden building itself. Various kami/god manifestations of Shinto spirits live here, included one in a waterhole and there is a shrine for studying, fox shrine and so on.