Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Oh Deer!

I think somewhere along the way I opened the floodgates on the cheesy puns and now I just can't get enough of them. Dam! (har har?)

Maybe it's just a sign of my age: The word used for puns in Japanese is 'Oyaji Gyaggu,' Oyaji meaning 'older (middle aged) man' and 'gyaggu' being the transliteration of the English word 'gag.' Yep--apparently puns are only for old farts. Looks like I'm getting a good start.

The first day of our trip was spent in Nara, best known for its deer and its buddhas. In fact, the mascot of Nara (it actually drives me a bit crazy that EVERYTHING in Japan has to have a mascot, and that this one was chosen through a national contest) is a buddha with deer antlers. Nara was the capital of Japan in the 700s before it was moved to Kyoto.
After staying the night with friends from Hiroshima who had just moved to Osaka, I got a late bus and got to Nara Station around noon . I had been told by quite a few Japanese people over the years that Nara is amazing and that its temples and antiquities far more impressive than those of Kyoto. And reading in the guidebook I saw that Nara was, in fact, home to the world's oldest wooden building, the world's largest wooden building, and the world's largest seated buddha, itself one of the world's largest bronze structures.
Sitting here now writing about the experience, I am trying my hardest to speak well of Nara, to praise it for the grandeur that so many of its places possess, but I'm finding it difficult. The forested park surrounding all of the temple areas was stunning, with the deer freely roaming about only making it more idyllic. And the massive wooden gates and temples perfectly and intricately hand-crafted (traditional Japanese building styles didn't implement the use of nails but instead crafted each piece of a building to perfectly interlock with the piece adjoining it) hundreds of years ago still standing held me in awe thinking about the immense history they represented. But Nara was so jam-packed with tourists flooding down every street and junior high students on their class trips yelling and grab-assing (such a funny phrase) that it was hard for an old curmudgeon like me to really get into the spirit of the place, or at least into the spirit I had imagined having..
In a final assessment, I will conclude that Nara was beautiful and we really did probably give it far less time and attention than we could have (only about 5 hours, a large portion of which was spent in a cafe drinking beers and having Israeli falafel while escaping the rain). I also think my current opinion is so much influenced by the magic I felt in Kyoto that there is no way this visit can compete.

To conclude, I'm going to have to end how I started and further cement my place as an old fart by saying 'Oh, Nara. Maybe next time.' (O-nara means 'fart' in Japanese).

Monday, June 28, 2010

Finally, Kyoto

After putting it off for years, I finally decided that the time was 'right' to go to Kyoto. Having lived in Japan for years now, people were always astounded to find I had never been there, as if not going were akin to not having visited Japan at all. And I think on some level that is exactly the ideal I had reserved for Kyoto: the dream Japan of mysterious gardens, mystic temples, floating-world alleys bordering geisha-filled teahouses; the concentrated center of everything that makes Japan "Japan." And in that sense, I have always held a romanticized dream of 'saving myself' for Kyoto until the perfect time. In the end, I realized I'm far too sentimental and decided ''F**k it. Let's just go.'
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 800 years and the cultural center for more than 1200. And while the capital has moved, Kyoto still retains that status: as the space age Kyoto Station surrounded by World Heritage historical sites will attest to, it remains a city of concentrated culture enough to fire any Japanophile's wet dream. 1600 temples, 400 shrines, a samurai castle, an imperial palace, beautiful gardens and kabuki house, high-class restaurants down historic alley-ways, bamboo forests, bustling modern streets lined with office buildings--you could almost say a person never need go anywhere else to get the full experience of Japan (but then maybe I'm not being fair to all the other places I've lived).

In a day and a half, I know I saw only a fraction of everything the city has to offer. But it was enough to rekindle my love affair with this country and keep alive all those (fantastic, imaginary) idealized, Romantic feelings that had begun to fade (as they should). Kyoto felt like a city of dreams, and for a dreamer like me, it was everything I'd always wanted.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Electric Moon-Gazing

What better way to start off a new blog than to review a performance of some of my favorite Hiroshima musicians at my favorite Hiroshima Venue?

Last night I went to see the Stabilo-organized event called 月を見ながらエレクトリック at Organ-za.

First up was a two-member group called Chockee.ko who were joined by a wigged and faux-bespectacled Goto Izumi decked out in nerd attire. The set started out with DJ "Chockee" starting a roaring hiss of white noise followed by a field recording of frog chirping. After a slow build of sound he slowly began to bring in beats using the classic Roland 808 sequencer, followed the Jazz guitar-wielding other member of the group (I didn't catch his name) playing Cornelius-style delayed guitar riffs. After several minutes of slowly building, Izumi joined in with improvised accordion from the back corner rounding out a sound reminiscent of Boards of Canada or the more spare side of Mogwai.

Next up was the band Master God, side project(?) of the electronic artist Hideride, whom I had met last year at Yokogawa Cinema's screening of the film "Noize." Watching them set up the stage, I felt a bit disappointed to see they were a two guitar, bass, and drums four-piece when I was there for an electronic show. But as the drummer started an (obviously Hideride-programmed) electronic glitch beat over psychadelic loops, I knew I had judged them too quickly. Hideride began a reverb-soaked delayed guitar riff as the drums and bass came in over washed-out slow-soaring female vocals eventually building towards the loud, distorted, tritone-filled crash of a full shoegaze space-out.
I love shoegaze and I love the electronics used in this music, so for me it was a good show. But, watching the band playing along with music that might as well have been on a cd definitely detracted from the live experience. Even if they had stuck a dude behind the laptop to just push stop and play while bobbing his head would have made it seem more exciting. But then I know from experience how difficult it is to translate this kind of music, so I am no one to criticize.

The next act did seem to figure out how to implement all the beats and loops and delays into a live performance, but I can't quite say it was as enjoyable.
Inoue Tsuneyoshi had a set up with lots of pedals and a midi controller all connected somehow to his electric guitar so that the guitar itself became a midi controller. Every string he played would also trigger beat loops and synths which he then modified using his pedals. The setup was fascinating, but I couldn't quite get into what he was doing. For one, his sense of rhythm was beyond me. He was either playing in very odd time signatures or else purposefully not playing in any at all. Either way, I couldn't follow.

Last up was Stabilo doing an electronic set with just his laptop. He played four or five songs not on his previous ep, which I assume were new. These songs sounded more along the lines of his performance at last years "Noize" event which implement a lot of glitch-static beats and odd rhythms with slow-building backwards guitar samples. These new songs sounded a bit less melodic than on those of his last ep, but as always, every song seemed perfectly put together and expertly processed.