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.

29 March 2011

What I did on my Spring Vacation

The disaster happened, at it was at first a wave crashing on the shore, pulling away houses and people, leaving us stranded on roof or second story, burying us alive. From the south, some felt a shiver on the upper floors of a skyscraper. Someone was lunching in a Mexican restaurant and suddenly felt dizzy, disoriented. She thought maybe the margarita was a little too strong for her but then the feeling continued for one minute, then two. She made eye contact reluctantly with others at her table, recognized the expression in the worried gaze staring back at her. All over Osaka, people were doing the same.

I became aware of it gradually and immediately. Running errands with a friend, he turned to me calmly at some point and said, there’s just been an earthquake in the north. My father is trapped on a train, but it should start running soon. An earthquake. An earthquake. Was it big or small? Destructive or just exciting? I suppose it was the periodic updates about my friend’s father on the train that made the situation become real so slowly for me. Yes of course, there’s been and earthquake. But is your father o.k.?

After a few minutes, televisions were rechanneled. Websites were redirected, radios were retuned. Eyes tore from faces to screens and fastened there. For the rest of the weekend, activity was punctuated with long communal viewings of national news, and short assuring messages to friends outside. We were spectators inside Japan. But to the rest of the world, for a few minutes we too were in grave danger.

news program on the ferry demonstrating how to make a toilet from a cardboard box in an emergency

By Monday, the waters had ceased their angry swallowing of farmland in the north and they were left to face the fresh beaches, the strange flotsam of what had been daily life. A man was found far from shore sitting on what had been his roof. A woman recounted in shock the flashing loss of her daughter to the flood. Villages sheltered in gyms without fuel or heat.

The once floating and erratic count of those lost quickly stabilized, gained structure, uniformity. The daily English radio podcast recited the count like a mantra. A place name, a number; a place name, a number; place name, number; place name, number. The abstract statistics soothed the brain after the more harrowing narratives. Things were falling into a semblance of relief as far as we were concerned in the south. But from this elemental, mechanical disaster of wave action emerged a deeper problem. The words to describe the problem tapped into a century old fear, since the problem had existed as long in potential. The after math of the problem had the power to impact the entire globe. The bigness of the problem, its “when?” its “how much?” its “how long?”…these were unknowable.

The problem was this: in a large anonymous factory of energy in a rural, undefined region, the works were heating past capacity. Since the factory was producing energy and not, say, gears, the term “heating past capacity” needs some clarification. Even when the works were within capacity, the factory could not be entered, the heat could not be beheld, quite. The factory was sealed for the protection of the workers, who monitored it carefully from without. One day a balloon of white smoke was recognized on the horizon. Steam. The water used to cool the works was evaporating very quickly, too quickly. The energy company downplayed the risks. Teams from other countries made more serious assessments. What if the water used to cool the works depletes completely?
A FINE DUST of radioactive matter swirls across the sky, settling over Tokyo. Another cloud mists across an ocean to another coast far away, where home is. It was time to leave.

But where to go? Really, in the south, we were far enough away. Besides, the wind blows from south to north, pushing the dust away from us. We were as safe as anyone else. I traveled south, still in the country, but as far away as possible. I averted my eyes from the screen. I looked instead at waterfall and coastline, ancient tree and breaking wave.

Danger slipped away, like smoke. In Kobe, the stress of the unspeakable threat felt solid, present. Further south, in Kyushu, the danger sublimated. Friends and Internet neighbors swiftly checked in and fell silent. Daily life around the globe twisted away, assured that I was safe. But my daily life had torn.

As I became more safe, as the threat subdued, I became frightened. Afraid to return to daily life, to act as if everything were resolved. Something had not been resolved. I didn't want to go back. It was still time to leave.

If I think about going back in the abstract, it feels okay, I can do it. I can imagine trips I want to take, views to see, things to draw or meals to eat. I think of new friendships like spring shoots – mysterious and fresh: what will they bloom? So I make plans, confirm responsibilities, hoping that I am not misleading employers and teachers. Because when I think of literally boarding a plane in Bangkok, riding it to Osaka, deboarding, giving my return ticket to the airport bus driver, putting my key in the lock of my dorm room, and opening the door on my old life, my life in Japan, it makes my stomach turn, it is not what I want, my body rejects it. Not that Hong Kong is much better. Not that I can think of any place that I would prefer to be.

On the route home, over sea, I approached two fellow foreigners, asking if they’d seen any dolphins. I had been watching these creatures from the deck, jumping and diving. The pair had seen the dolphins. They had seen many things. It was the time for stories.

Daniel and Antonia were on vacation from Sendai. Daniel wasn’t worried about the nuclear plant. He had read a blog online that predicted the level of the plant catastrophe to be “Chernobyl to the power of 6.”

“This is of course, ridiculous,” he started in, “for several reasons.”
            1. Although there are 6 reactors at the Fukushima plant, only 4 of them are failing, and of those, 2 are already under control. So the power we’re looking at is at worse 4, not 6.
            2. If one reactor meltdown (Chernobyl) is compared to 4 reactor meltdowns (Fukushima) then the problem is multiplied, not increased exponentially.
            3. Even if we were to use powers to compare the two events, and even if we used the power of 6, this gives us 1 to the 6, which still equals 1:
            1x1x1x1x1x1 = 1 .

Daniel is an undergraduate engineering student on a year long exchange from the University of Maryland. Antonia smiles at him quietly. She shifts weight from one foot to the other. She looks tired, maybe from an elaborate and tedious experience. She’s been studying something in the borderland between linguistics and computer programming, using her post-baccalaureate year abroad to prepare for a graduate program in Germany.

To them, the earthquake felt stronger than a shiver. There was no uncanny question of perception like we had in the South, no slow awakening. But, noted Daniel, not a single building fell. The effect of the earthquake itself was actually minimal. Compared to the following tsunami. The enormous wave that crashed on the once shore flooding everything stretched inland two miles away from Daniel and Antonia’s dormitory, and then began receding.

For days and chilly nights the power shut off. The hadn’t managed to get any fuel, so they cooked over an open fire. Antonia gathered wood while Daniel coaxed the flames. It was difficult to find firewood. Not because everything was wet, but because in what was formerly a city, there wasn’t much dead wood lying around. What could have been firewood had been cleared away, disposed of. They saw some people trying to burn a telephone pole. There was nothing to cut it down to size with. The poisonous smoke was black and sickening to think of. But, as Daniel added, all the fires emitted dark, reeky smoke, seeping into clothing, settling on skin. Soon everyone was filthy, Daniel not the least, since as a busy student he hadn’t done laundry in weeks.

For food, they went to the convenience store. There wasn’t much available, but Daniel is an eagle scout and knows how to make due. They bough what they could find: eggs, green peppers, and oranges. Daniel hollowed out the peppers and oranges and skewered them. Then he cracked an egg inside one, roasting it slowly in the fire until the egg was cooked. Antonia agreed that it was quite good under the circumstances, pepper’s flavor permeating the runny egg. The oranges were less successful. As it turns out, the oil in orange rind is highly flammable, compromising the egg cooking project.

After a few days, the students country’s consulates finally started responding. Germany was first, U.S. and China were last. Germany promised one bus, then sent three when they realized how many foreign students were stranded. When the buses arrived, everyone piled on: students from Asia, the Middle East, the Americas, the German consulate didn’t make bones about nationality. Everyone who wanted to go was taken to Tokyo.

They arrived at the Westin hotel around 4 in the morning. Groggy and stinking, they were separated according to nationality then. Germans and boyfriends of Germans showered, slept under clean sheets on soft beds. Others found shelter at 24 hour Internet cafes.

Daniel called the U.S. consulate over and over, but they just took down his personal information, wished him luck, and hung up. Antonia’s parents were convinced that all of Japan had been reduced to a char, that everyone still alive had already evacuated the country. Frustrated and powerless, the pair decided to move on. They had planned to go to Kyushu during spring recess, so they went. Instead of carrying blothes and things for a week long vacation, they brought everything they could carry from their dorm rooms, uncertain if they could ever return.

When I packed for my trip, leaving from the south, I looked over my things as well. I though, what if I can’t come back? What should I bring? What if I just need to keep moving? I brought my hard drive, but left my laptop behind. But I knew that if I didn’t return, it had more to do with me than with the situation. A friend evacuating her mother from Tokyo to Seattle assured me: you can always come back. But for Daniel and Antonia, it’s a different story.

They had been travelling in the rural south without laptop or smartphone, ignoring television and radio, blocking it out, trying to calm down. But there were decisions to be made, information to send and receive, plans pending and weighing upon them. When the ferry got close to shore, the signal returned to my iPhone, and I handed it to Daniel. When he logged in, he had 25-30 new messages. One of them quieted him, made him settle back in his chair, made his face fall. One of them called him back home. Antonia drew close to him, sat on the arm of his chair. I wandered away then, leaving them. He really couldn’t return to Sendai. The game was over, and what would he do about Antonia? I watched them glumly walk outside to talk things over again.

“Thank you,” Daniel said, returning the phone.
“Thank you,” Antonia said, opening a tangerine I had left for them. They faded away into the rain when we docked.

07 March 2011

from sea to hill where the water drains

If you'd like to watch a fascinating podcast-like thing about this topic, you can!

Tsukasa Yu: "hill bath"

I visited Tsukasa Sento after aikido practice one Saturday afternoon. I arrived after eating lunch with a classmate and milling about. She showed me a tiny boutique bagel bakery around the corner from the sento. Behind the partition, I could see a woman scooping the boiled bagels from a vat of hot water, like so many fish. The bath is between Kobe and Motomachi stations, a short walk from the aikido dojo.

Aikido class was relaxed and fun. After class Sensei Nakao led a deep stretching session and I felt air rush into parts of my lungs that felt dark and cobwebbed, an empty attic space in the part of my lungs against my spine. Getting to the bath rewarded my early morning heroism in overcoming my cat-like morning laziness.

The fa├žade is solid below, but dissolves in sunlit glass bricks filling in the concrete structural frame near the top. Inside, the baths were dim, although I entered around 2:30 or 3 pm in the afternoon, because the bath infills between two buildings. Not much daylight is available, but the dimness is heightened by the frosting on the windows which filters even more light, making the space feel lazy and faded. Although I expected to see those glass bricks enclosing the outdoor bath, they must have been for decoration only. Perhaps they were a little visual pun on the notion of splashing water. 

Old naked women gathered crouched and seated at the edge of the hottest bath. Coming up the stairs, I couldn’t quietly slip in since I was walking right into their sleepy gazes. Alone, a newcomer, and a foreigner, I have to show a thick skin. Perhaps they are curious, or perhaps they fear the unknown that I somehow symbolize. Although the layout of the bath is tidy and spatially efficient, the arrival could be massaged, quieted, so the bathers are looking toward some other corner. Of course, in such a simple space, nothing could be more interesting than an unanticipated entrance.

I like the rigorous sameness of the bath’s typology. Cleaning and soaking oppose one another, the cleaning a piece of theatre for the relaxing bathers. With your back turned, you get to the business of scrubbing yourself. In the bath your eyes focus and unfocus on the bodies and rising steam and glowing windows: thoughtless and un-judging voyeur. 

The sameness tells us how to behave and lets uncontrolled local variation emerge. Such as, at this sento each bath circulates water from a wide thin cascade of water coming from above, and leaving in a gap at the edge. This gap also conveniently allows a bather to enter and exit the bath. The little unnecessary pleasure of walking through a waterfall to get into the bath seems dear and so simple. The only other excess of this sento were some artificial rocks composed in a lounge aside the outdoor bath. 

Mino Onsen Spa Garden


Tomomi and I met around 10 am to visit the onsen. It was a cloudy misty day, and we began by hiking up the path to the waterfall. Many of the cafes and businesses were closed because it was a weekday. It felt like the proprietors had slept in because of the weather, as if each had weighed the options and decided that today it wasn’t worth it. Staring at the waterfall, I thought about how falling water and burning wood are both so fascinating. I told Tomomi about my new goal to collect fire festivals this summer.

We turned back, ready to warm up at the baths. At the base of the hill, an aggressive four storey glass elevator hung off the stone cliff like a backpack, overpowering the gentle toned concrete hotel behind. Originally, the place was accessed by cable car, a much more gentle (but still kind of silly or perhaps the word is magnificent) arrival. Craning my neck, the leisure center building looked like a modular growth accumulating in horizontal strands. The basic module was a cubic matrix of board form concrete beams (meaning that the concrete is intentionally textured by the form, many pieces of wood). At the intersections of the matrix, the beams jut past a bit, terminating in short cantilevers, reminiscent of wooden temple architecture. Specifically, Tomomi notes, Kansai residents are reminded of Kiyomizu temple. (Pure Water temple...look forward to a future blog post!)

Minoo Onsen
Kiyomizu temple

This basic format gives the building its massing, since while designing the architect [Junzo Sakakura Associates (now Sakakura Associates) and Fumitaka Nishizawa] could add or subtract a module to relate program functions or to allow space for air and light to permeate an interior. After this measured and elegant architectural pattern, the leisure center was packed with every conceivable leisure oriented activity available at the time (mid-1960s). This include bowling, karaoke, bar, restaurant, snack booth, video arcade, theatre for live musical or theatrical performance (we caught the end of a short play about samurais and honor or something), concessions, pool, souvenirs, workout room, and ice skating rink.

Here's a site Tomomi found that really documents the architecture of the sento

In the baths, Tomomi guided me through etiquette. Although others have explained the protocol to me, the way people use the space actually has subtle variations, so Tomomi’s explanation added information and broadened my understanding. The main points included a raised level of modest and a variation on the order of operations involved in bathing.

My slim friend carefully removed her cloths, keeping a long, narrow ofuro towel (provided with our ~$10 admission) covering the front of her body. As we made our way through the course of baths, she delicately entered each bath by slowly gathering the towel away from the water’s surface until she was in and the towel was collapsed at the edge of the bath. It's a simple thing, and when practicing it, I felt I was showing respect to other bathers somehow by covering myself. Although this sounds self-effacing, it didn’t go as deep as that. It was more akin to a polite gesture such as averting the eyes or allowing someone to pass through a narrowed space before you. But, my natural frankness regarding my nudity in these circumstances made me impatient with the extra work it takes to perform these little modicums. I don’t have the pose for it, making me heartily respect my friend’s behaviour.

The second thing I learned from Tomomi involved the order of the baths. Here is a list comparing two methods:

Actually the two are very similar yet result in completely different experiences. The list on the left emphasizes the purification ritual at the beginning. The body must be clean before entering the bath, because it (the body) is very dirty, the logic goes. The experience is therefore divided into A. purify and B. enjoy. In the second list, the order is more integrated. The purification ritual is much less practical and more symbolic (dousing oneself with water). The baths are here for us to enjoy, but they are common, so before leaving we should rinse off the shared water. The body is primary and the baths are secondary according to this logic.
pink and grey! yes!!

this is a skylight and vent for the bath
Tomomi and Ashle with deer head