Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

I'm not sure if I can get on the computer downstairs for a long time, and don't really want to monopolize it anyway, so I'm typing this on my laptop and will update the blog with it. I need to get a cute, quirky USB drive while I'm here. I keep trying to steal Internet, but without success: there's a DSL modem in the room, but I don't have the LAN password and have been too shy to ask for it. Silly self.

Warning: I'm writing these entries up from what I wrote in my notebook each day. There's no particular order to them, and a lot of tl;dr. Skip what you like. :P
Where were we... Sunday.

I was so tired Saturday night that I fell asleep in my clothes, and slept the night through with the lights all blazing. I'd managed to roll off my bracelet (bit chunky jadeite bangle I got in Itaewon) and had managed to fall asleep with it planted directly under the center of my back. Ouch.
Couldn't, therefore, immediately pass an objective verdict on the comfort of the futon.
The inn was very quiet, and I was feeling a little isolated, and wished I'd talked to the Australian couple I briefly met the night before. l resolved to be more sociable in the future.
First things first: I went down to the bath, which I hadn't been able to use the night before (on account of falling asleep fully clothed, etc.). Japanese traditional baths are called onsen. It was my first time using one, and it was a conversion experience.
What you do is wash off outside the tub, rinse off all the soap, and then get into the water (which is very hot, and stays heated all the time). The tub is quite deep, and when you're in all the way the water comes up to your shoulders (or your neck, I guess, if you're smaller). Then you just sit and cook until you feel like getting out (or until the flesh melts off your bones). The baths here have sliding windows that look out on a little walled garden outside. If I knew anything about Zen meditation, I would say it was very Zen. I did try to meditate.
It was a conversion experience. I got out feeling like a happy wet noodle, and started the day cheerful and relaxed. If you will believe it, I've never once gone to the saunas in the two years I've lived in Korea. At first I was too shy-- overweight foreigner, public bathing, horror stories about rude Koreans staring and poking and making comments... After that I felt so dumb for never having gone that I just... never went. I'll go now, though. It had been too long since I'd had a proper bath.
My first order of business for Sunday (after breakfast, which ended up being at a Metro Starbucks) was to find another place to stay after my time at Sawanoya Ryokan ran out. The next ryokan on my list from the guidebook was Suzuki Ryokan, a few stops away at Nippori. I had to change from the Metro to the JR (Japan Railways) Yamanote line-- the system is much more complicated here-- but got there without a problem. This new ryokan is right by the station, and was relatively easy to find. When I got there, the lady and I had a fairly upbeat conversation in broken English and very broken Japanese (I just managed to remember the days of the week), the upshot of which was that I now have a reservation from Tuesday night through Saturday night. As the guidebook describes Suzuki as "quirky" and "weirdly charming," I am hoping that this is a good thing.
I finally made it to the Imperial Palace area around noon. There are parks all around the Palace, and I spent a good hour or so walking through them before I made my way to the East Garden (my original destination). The East Garden is the only part of the Palace that's open to the public. There's a (very) small museum right near the entrance, which was displaying Japanese artwork on the theme of seasonal flowers. Only two pieces really struck me. One was a strikingly realistic painted-ceramic sculpture by Okuda Kodo. I can't remember what flowers they were, but they almost looked alive. The other was a painting, right by the entrance, whose English name was Cockscombs (or Coxcombs, maybe). The artist was listed as Higashihara Hosen. I was completely captivated by this painting. The reds are warm and liquid and suck you in, and the painting is full of details you don't notice right away-- a bug-eaten leaf, a spotted petal, etc. It was a really simple painting-- just red and yellow flowers, with no background-- but I stared at it for a long time.
The East Garden is mostly just a small botanical garden, though it does have a few old foundations and three restored guardhouses. The only flowers that were really blooming were the hydrangeas, and those were incredible. I kept trying to take pictures of them, but couldn't capture the blue. Mom would have really liked them, I think. Along with a few other buildings (one of them having something to do with mausoleum records, I think), there's a small music hall in the garden. It's octagonal, with with pretty mosaic walls, and was apparently a present for the Empress on her 50th birthday. I kept thinking how nice it would be to get to see a show there.
I finally got out of the Garden around 3:45. I didn't feel like hanging out in the area, and I knew most of the museums in the area would be closing at five anyway, so I decided to head over to Roppongi. Roppongi, as I understand it, is half sleazy drinking area and half up-and-coming urban hub. I stopped into a bookstore and bought a Japanese dictionary on the way to Roppongi Hills, which my guidebook listed as a marvel of modern urban design. (Hey, if I'm going to get into urban planning, I might as well start paying attention.) Roppongi Hills is, indeed, a cool little area-- very self-contained and space-efficient, which apparently is the idea. Aside from the high-rises (which I actually am not sure I saw at all) there's a movie theater, a bevy of high-end shops, a statue of a giant metal spider, and an art museum. The Mori Art Museum, to be precise.


It was open until ten. What was I supposed to do? It was something like 5:30 then-- that was plenty of time to look around. I balked a bit at the price, though: 1,500 yen for a combination ticket (museum, city view, and SkyDeck), which was all they had. By that time I kind of wanted to see it, anyway, so I broke down and paid it.

It was quite misty, and the 52nd-story view was not all that impressive. It's a cool city to look on, anyway. Ordered chaos, bound by streets and highways that seem to be squeezing the city like big girdles. Most of the buildlings around the Mori tower are fairly short, which I guess makes the view seem like a higher one. I could see a few roof gardens, especially around the Roppongi Hills area, which was nice. (Everyone should have one!) I didn't want to stay there two more hours, even to see the city light up, so I moved on-- but I got a little pop-out 3-d "city viewer" to show the kindies when I get back.

The museum's featured exhibit was called "Kaleidoscopic Eye," or something, and it was all supposed to be multisensory art like the "Synaesthesia" exhibit Mom and I saw in Seoul. This one was on loan from Austria or Germany or somewhere, but a lot of the artists were English or Canadian or American. My favorite installation was "Global Domes XII," by John M. Armleder. It's a room where two rows of six big disco balls each hang from the ceiling, lit from overhead by small spotlights. The balls are spinning, and the entire room is filled with whirling flecks of light, all turning in different directions. It was like watching snow fly, or cells moving in a bloodstream, or (the title "Global" reminded me) the spirits of millions of people, all going about their daily lives in different ways without taking much notice of each other. Since the balls were lit from directly overhead, their shadows were perfect circles directly beneath them, adn they seemed to be resting on columns of air. The room was quiet, and felt like a temple. It wasn't quite an optimal installation, since the ceiling was clearly panelled and there was a covered window on one wall, but I really liked it anyway. I'd love to see more of Armleder's work.

Because so many of the artists in this exhibit were from English-speaking countries, a lot of the artwork used varying degrees of written/spoken English. There was one exhibit, for example, that was called "Y": a forked tunnel made of Christmas lights spiraling around a plywood walkway, with mirrors on two sides to confuse people. Viewers were supposed to walk through the entrance and out one of the exits, and then go back and do it again if desired. The problem was that the two exits, which were clearly marked "EXIT ONLY," were marked only in English, with no translation posted anywhere I could see. The result, most of the time, was a traffic jam.
Another artist whose work used a lot of English was Janet Cardiff. Anyone heard of her? I found her pieces really unsettling and worrying. One was newspaper articles and poems on index cards; one was a table where you moved your hand over the surface and heard a sound (just like a lot of the exhibits at the Seoul MOMA, Mom!). All the speakers played spoken-word scripts, in English. I'm not sure what the people who didn't know the language were making of the whole thing.

Matthew Ritchie, a British artist, had an installation there called "The Family Farm." It was drawings, paintings, and written words, all combined. Take away the words and the piece loses half its effectiveness. (He's definitely an artist I'd like to see more of.) Another interesting British artist was Sarah Lucas, who had a piece from a set called "Bunny Gets Snookered."

It really drove home to me the importance of the English language in modern culture. It's not just direct communication; it's reading, writing, movies, art, and everything else with an international aspect to it. I've really been reminded of how lucky I was to grow up speaking the world's current lingua franca (haha), and I really want to improve my foreign-language skills so I don't feel like soem kind of global freeloader.

There was a piece by Peter Tcherkassky called "Outer Space," which was an edited film on loop in a darkened theater-like space. It was pretty creepy: the whole point of the piece, apparently, was to convey the impression that a spirit was in the room with the viewer. I don't know if I'd credit it with that level of effectiveness, but it got me thinking. Why don't artists do haunted houses? For a "multisensory" exhibit like this it would be perfect. You could make it a challenge: who can make the most effective haunted house using only senses other than sight-- changes in air pressure, soft breathing, thumps or running feet, etc. Sometimes horror is at its scariest when it's at its most subtle. Maybe someone should do a study of haunted houses as an art form.

One of my favorite pieces was a crystal fountain flowing with diluted LSD, overhung by pitcher plants (actually, the sign said they were Nepenthes, which I guess are different). The artist was Klaus Weber, and apparently the thing was a proposal he did for a public hall somewhere. It was rejected; go figure. I liked it, anyway-- the "water" in the fountain made a beautiful sound as it hit each layer, while the plants overhead made the piece very dreamlike and ominous. There were glass walls up around the fountain, which dimmed the effect a little bit.

Two other pieces I liked were Casa con piscina, by a duo called Los Carpinteros, and Astrophotography by Cerith Wyn Evans.

On the way out, I stopped by what was possibly the most expensive museum store I'd ever been inside. Bought a postcard.

No pens were allowed inside the museum, but I sneakily took a lot of notes anyway. As you can see.



Side note: In several places so far, I've seen displays of books from the Wallpaper travel guide series. Many world capitols are represented. Seoul is not one of them. I wondered if that was a buying decision, or if the book just hasn't been made yet. I hope it's the latter, since it would be rude of Tokyo to blatantly exclude its neighbor.


I realized that night that I'd managed to go two days in Japan without eating any Japanese food. I had had: Coffee and a sandwich. A banana Curry and nan Two more bananas More coffee and another sandwich A matcha (green-tea-powder) latte. Okay, I guess that kind of counts.When I realized this, I was at the Roppongi Hard Rock Cafe, drinking a vanilla shake and eating steamed vegetables. (That place is expensive.) I resolved to at least have some ramen before the day was out.


I had expected Roppongi to be a bit like Itaewon in Seoul-- a one-street dive, kind of a ghetto for foreigners of various origins. It's actually quite different: much cleaner, with more restaurants and clubs, most with tuxedo-clad African men outside hustling for customers. It's also bordered by a quite up-market area-- Roppongi Hills, where I'd spent the evening, is right next door. Maybe Itaewon is just like itself.


Something funny that I've noticed: Certain Japanese and Korean foods are "evil twins" of each other. I stopped into a 24-hour diner on the way home Sunday evening (wanting something a bit more substantial than a milkshake and veggies) and ordered what looked like bulgogi and rice with sides of kimchi, soup, and salad. I thought I'd happened onto a cheap Korean chain restaurant. The rice was as expected, though there was a lot more of it, but the bulgogi was... oddly tangy. Silly Japanese people, I thought, don't you know that bulgogi is supposed to be sweeter? It took me a second to realize that I was, in fact, eating teriyaki. -_- The "kimchi' was actually Japanese pickled cabbage, which was flavored with ginger instead of pepper and surprisingly pleasant. The soup was good old miso. Two years ago, Korean food used to fake me out the same way.

Another side note: Eating rice with chopsticks is damned hard. It makes perfect sense to me, now, why the Koreans would want to use a spoon. One of the first things I started to miss, maybe.


There's a three-story grocery store in Nezu (and probably elsewhere) called Akafudado. It is made of win. I meant to take pictures, but forgot. What I really wanted to document there was the curry section: it took up both sides of a mid-sized aisle. If I want to eat "real" Japanese food, like "real" British food, I should really just eat a lot of curry.


Walking back to the hotel, I was struck by how many actual houses I saw. In Korea it's all high-rise apartment buildings, but I haven't seen that many of them here. Strange, actually, since I think the population density in Japan is a little higher. (I have no idea, actually; I need to look that up.)


I'm finding that I know and remember at least a bit more Japanese than I thought I did. I also gesture a lot. I've wondered a few times if people who gesture a lot when speaking in their native languages have an easier time communicating nonverbally with people who don't speak their language.

I do think I might be speaking Japanese with a slight Korean accent. I keep blending my vowels, instead of pronouncing them properly. I wonder if I also bow and gesture like a Korean. The don't-pass-things-one-handed thing, for example, is apparently not nearly as important here. I keep forgetting and doing it anyway, so I propbably look a bit strange and formal.


It's now 12:05 a.m. Thursday-- I keep falling asleep before I can update this. I bought a USB drive yesterday, so with luck I can finally start updating the blog (there's no internet at my new ryokan, and I am not dragging my laptop around Tokyo. My back and shoulders hurt enough now as it is!)

No comments:

Post a Comment