Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tokyo, Japan April 5-11

I did some last minute shopping at Pudong Airport, had some delicious crab roe Chinese buns, and boarded my Delta flight for Tokyo. The flight was smooth and eventless and we even arrived 30 minutes early. I made my way through immigration and customs like I have done dozens and dozens and of times in the past. I decided not to list “tourism” as the purpose of my visit. I mean, is that really believable in the aftermath of the terrible triple tragedy that has befallen Japan? Instead I checked “other” and wrote “visiting friends.” The customs official asked me the purpose of the visit and I explained that I lived in Japan a long time and have countless numbers of friends who I wanted to pay a visit to. He let me pass with a smile, I rented a cell phone at the AU desk, withdrew some cash from an ATM, and made my way downstairs to the trains. The first thing I noticed was that the Narita Express was not running at all, and evidently the Keisei Skyliner had only resumed its normal schedule the day before. From March 11th to April 4th, the shuttle buses were the only public transportation to and from the airport. When I arrived in Ueno, the first thing I noticed at the JR station is that none of the escalators were running. At first I thought that perhaps they were broken, but when I took a closer look at the sign posted at the entrance to the escalators I realized that this is one of the ways for Tokyo to conserve energy. In addition, the lights were turned off in the Yamanote line cars. Dragging my luggage up and down the stairs I felt inconvenienced in a minor way, but it’s a small price to pay to help in the recovery efforts.
I arrived at my hotel in Kagurazaka, the Agnes Hotel and Apartments just past 3:30PM, and a clerk from the kimono cleaners was waiting for me. I unloaded my kimono, hakama, and related accessories and checked in. I’ve always wanted to stay in this hotel, a hidden gem tucked away in the backstreets of Kagurazaka. After unpacking and taking a refreshing shower, I took a walk in my old neighborhood, stopping by a number of stores to say hello to friendly faces, such as Sada. In the evening I enjoyed dinner at Arbol, down one of Kagurazaka’s most famous cobblestone streets. I’m not sure if the recent events in Japan have given the Japanese people time for reflection, or if if it is just because I’ve been in living in Shanghai, but Tokyo feels much less rushed and stressed out than it usually does. People seem to be a bit more polite than I’m accustomed to, and it is simply a shock for me to see all traffic actually stopping at stop lights and yielding to pedestrians.
Side entrance of Agnes Hotel and Apartments
On Wednesday, April 6th I had a tempura lunch with Kunihiro Ota, the President of Tamachi and enjoyed a walk around the grounds of the Prince Hotel Shinagawa while viewing the cherry blossoms.

In the afternoon I went to Jeannie Ohmae’s house for a rehearsal in preparation for the upcoming concert on April 9th. 

 (l to r) Rio Tosha, Emi Saeki, and Jeannie Ohmae

On Thursday, April 10th I walked around Kagurazaka for a better part of the afternoon and had lunch at Style ABC, where they remembered me from last summer! In the evening, I met Akiko Sakurai and Tetsuya Nozawa at Shirokane Takanawa and we spend 2-3 hours making a studio recording of Devil’s Bridge (2010) for shamisen and biwa. 

Akiko Sakurai at SRK Studio in Shirokane Takanawa
The term “Devil’s Bridge” refers to ancient bridges found in Europe that have myths or legends relating to the Devil. These legends often involve a bridge builder who makes a pact with the Devil, stipulating that the Devil would build the bridge in return for the soul of the first life to cross the bridge. Musically speaking, this piece is based on idiomatic gestures, driving rhythms, and aggressive playing techniques found in biwa repertoire such as Byakkotai and battle episodes from the Heike monogatari. Using these elements as a base, in this composition I attempted to portray the darkness of the underworld, full of blazing fire, evil, and fear.
Afterwards I treated them to dinner at a family restaurant, and then we took a taxi to Kagurazaka and found a cozy izakaya where we had another round of drinks and food. 
On Friday, April 8th, I met my Canadian composition colleague Daryl Jamieson for breakfast here at the Agnes Hotel and then we went to Meijiro Shakuhachi Shop, where I purchased a cover for my dizi.

In the afternoon I helped Jeannie transport various items over to the Suntory Blue Rose Hall. On the way back, her driver dropped me off in Ichigaya, where the cherry blossoms around Yasukuni Shrine were in full bloom. I walked along the moat back to Iidabashi and was happy to see so many young Japanese enjoying themselves, especially considering the rumors I’ve heard about “flower-viewing” picnics not being allowed in public spaces this year context of the tragedy that has befallen Japan.

Cherry blossoms along the Chuo line
After dropping off some items at my hotel, I made my way to another favorite neighborhood of mine, Azabu-jūban. I stopped in one my favorite boutique shops in all of Tokyo, Blue and White. I bought a stunning indigo-dye scarf and cotton shirt. I then made my way to Sengawa on the Inokashira line–during the rush hour peak!–and had dinner with Christopher Blasdel and Mika Kimula. Afterwards, Christopher and I went for a dip in the local sento. 
Blue and White in Azabu-jūban
On Saturday, April 9th I made my way to Jeannie Ohmae’s house at 10:00AM and we were driven to Suntory Blue Rose Hall. Jeannie celebrated her 60th birthday–an important event known as “kanreki” in Japanese–with a concert featuring works that I have composed for her and her friends. It was an all day affair. I dressed up in kimono and hakama–mercifully, professional kimono staff were on hand!–and conducted my composition Kaien (2006) for two shinobue, piano, and kotsuzumi. 

Several people commented that it was likely the first time in history that anyone has conducted in a kimono! They also performed the short version of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” for two shinobue and narrator. It was a wonderful concert, and the hall was filled with over 350 friends and family. Afterwards, there was a reception held across the way in a beautiful space with stunning views of Tokyo. This concert was the main reason I came to Tokyo this week. 

View from the reception room
I had such a wonderful trip to Tokyo. I cannot believe that I was actually thinking for a moment of canceling my trip, moreover at the height of the cherry blossom season! It will be difficult to get back on that plane to Shanghai, where the language barrier creates a constant stress in my daily life and I have very few friends, not to mention the poor air quality and fear of being run over by a car or some indescribable vehicle ignoring the traffic laws (what traffic laws!) Nevertheless, assuming I don’t extend my stay past May 21st, I only have 5-6 weeks left so I’ll try to make the most of it and concentrate on learning Chinese instruments and various composition projects. Goodbye Japan!

Well, yesterday (Aprill 11th) didn’t go quite as planned. I boarded the Keisei Skyliner at Ueno, and as soon we arrived at Nippori station, the capital was rocked by another earthquake. It took 30+ minutes for them to conduct a safety check on the line before continuing. When the train finally did start to move, it crept along at a snail’s pace. Needless to say, I arrived at the airport just 15 minutes before my plane was scheduled to depart. The train couldn’t even proceed to the terminus. All passengers had to get out at terminal 2 and take a shuttle to terminal 1. By the time I arrived at the Delta counter, it was too late. I was rebooked on the same flight the next day and had to stay the night in a hotel near the airport. It was cold and rainy last night so I had dinner in an izakaya inside the hotel. I slept very well, but shortly after getting up the hotel was rattled by another aftershock! It was one of the larger earthquakes that I’ve experienced in my life. I can’t fathom how frightening the earthquake on March 11th must have been. My flight doesn’t leave until the evening so I plan to enjoy cherry blossoms at the nearby Shinshōji temple in Narita City.

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