Master of Architecture candidate at the University of Washington. Spending October 2010 - March 2012 as a researcher at Kobe University on a Monbusho Fellowship, sponsored by the Japanese government. Researching the cultural and practical relationships between water and public space. Documenting research and reflections.

10 November 2010

Fall arrives II

The next sign of fall came last weekend, in Kyoto. Trees were changing colors and people crowded the streets admiring the clean city. When you dream of visiting me in Japan, you might think of something like Noh theatre, Kabuki, or Butoh. Then you might think, “o well, I’m sure I’ll never get to actually do that, that’s probably really expensive and difficult to organize, and besides, who really does that, anyway?” Well, in Kyoto, I found myself watching my first Noh theatre. Similar to the Setouichi Festival, I thought, “am I really doing this? How did this happen?” The play was beautiful and austere. I didn’t understand a word, but I understood everything. This paradox was made possible via my new iphone. In a noodle shop, sitting on my knees slurping soba and tempura, I searched the transcript on Google and so was able to follow along. Meanwhile, the ladies running the noodle shop tramped back and forth, yelling orders loudly up and down the stairwell, which we were sitting next to.

The play was called “Kantan.” The plot is like this: a wanderer goes to an inn and decides to sleep on an enchanted pillow that supposedly reveals the truth of the universe to the sleeper. He dreams that he is king for 50 years. Then the innkeeper wakes him up and says that his rice is ready: only 20 minutes has passed! He feels enlightened and goes home to live out his days in humble solitude. I like to call it, “the opera about the man who took a nap.”

The main character wears a wooden mask carved into the expression that best represents his age and disposition. You can see almost nothing through the mask, and must communicate the depth of your character using a minimum of props, gestures, and vocal variation. The movements of the characters were clear and moving and theatrical. It was clear that in this kind of theatre, the way that you show, for example, that your attention has been drawn from one side of the stage to another is proscribed and distinct, like a word. Another element that spoke as clear as language were the sounds the actors made with their feet. The three or four actors on the stage were accompanied by an 8-man chorus sitting on their knees on one edge of the stage, and by a 4-piece instrumentation along the back. At first, the sounds made by the musicians was so weird for the context that it was difficult not to laugh. But as the music developed, the strange beauty emerged. However, the most surprisingly communicative part was the sound of the actors feet on the stage. At certain moments of high tension, the stamping feet of an actor caused the entire stage to reverberate like a drum. That was pretty cool. 

Fall arrived in full force for me the next day, when my friend Liz and I took a hike organized by an English expat who has lived in Japan for at least a decade and who began organizing hikes two weeks after his arrival. After transferring trains four or five times, we accrued hikers until we were all together. It felt like there were fifty of us. Although at first this seemed hopeless for a good hike, by the end it was really fun. It felt like a long, interesting party where you feel equally comfortable striking up a conversation with a stranger as standing by the appetizers and taking in the scenery. The others on the hike were interesting, warm, and friendly. I think I made several friends.

At the end of the hike, we went to an onsen. It was the most beautiful (of four) that I’ve seen so far.  After our bath and long train ride home, I fell asleep for twelve hours. Fall is here.

Fall arrives I

In the last two weeks, fall has crept slowly but steadily into Kansai. In the Tales of Genji, Lady Murasaki recounts that each year brings heavy debate among gardeners and admirers comparing the separate merits of fall and spring. Although the text is one of the first pieces of literature in Japanese, fall and spring are still the favored seasons. In fact, there’s a special word that means “spring of autumn” as if spring weather were taking place in October. Especially since this year is a La Nina year, the summer is too hot, and the winter is too cold to enjoy.

As you know, the island is long and thin, and mostly made up of mountains. Grossly, the geography is homogenous in section, but varies according to latitude. Perhaps for this reason, it is with reasonable accuracy that folklore predicts a beautiful sunset brings fair weather for the following day. When sunsets are especially beautiful, the term used means “the sky is on fire.”

Like sailor lore, which says, “red sky in the morning, sailor take warning, red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” a rosy dawn also predicates afternoon rain in Japan.

The first sign of fall was the last day of the Setouichi Art Festival, which took place on the 7 islands of the Inland Sea, between Honshu (main island) and Shikoku (large island close to Kansai). The festival lasted 100 days, and inaugurated the triennale. This is the second application of art festival programming to stimulate a depressed local economy in Japan, the first being the Niigata Art Festival. Even the last weekend, whose attendance was compromised by threats of an impending typhoon, was packed. Locals expressed a mixture of interest in international and domestic visitors, enterprise in setting up short-term concessions businesses, and irritation with interruptions in daily routine. Artists ranged from starchitect pieces from Sejima, to a visit from a travelling installation whose mission it is to record the heartbeats of everyone in the world, to an old Showa-era Japanese house fitted with props and recordings to make believe a thunderstorm raged outside. 

Well, actually, on the last day of the festival, a storm was raging outside, somewhat dampening the intended contrast. The effect of a storm ravaging a small island town could be felt more intensely outside, while waiting for the ferry in the dark for an hour or two. Thanks to the above-mentioned enterprising nature of the island residents, we had plenty of beer and fresh fried octopus to keep us happy and warm. Two days later, I hear, the storm hit Seattle. So I’m not that far away after all: just two days by storm system.

Thanks for reading, if you’d like to see more pictures, please search me on facebook, my photos for this trip are available to everyone.