Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Monday, June 27, 2011

Moving Across the Water, Reading Llosa

Llosa has this to say about fiction: "In effect, novels lie — they can do nothing else — but that is only part of the story. The other part is that, by lying, they express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, disguised  as something that it is not. Put this way, it seems something of a rigmarole, but, in fact, it is really very simple. Men are not content with their lot and almost all of them — rich and poor, brilliant and ordinary, famous and unknown — would like a life different from that they are leading. Novels were born to placate this hunger, albeit in a distorted way. They are written and read so that human beings may have the lives that they are not prepared to do without."

The cranes sit idle on the shore. Above the tree line I can make out telephone poles — there must be a road up there. A turning. A temple. A blind dog. A dead end at a giant camphor tree.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


"They....went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return...."
                                                                                                                                    Homer, Odysseus

Monday, June 20, 2011

Some Thoughts on Murakami's Cataluña Prize Speech

Haruki Murakami recently was awarded the Cataluña International Prize. He was in Barcelona this past week to give his acceptance speech and of course, he spoke about the earthquake, its aftermath, and the issues surrounding the continued use of nuclear power.

As Echosquirrel and I had just spent an invigorating couple of hours with a new Swiss friend, drinking coffee and talking about some of the same topics the writer covers, Murakami's speech helped me understand a little better the context within which the continued use of nuclear power in this country needs to framed.

From Senrinomichi:

"In Japanese, we have the word “mujo (無常)”. It means that nothing lasts forever. Everything born into this world changes and will ultimately disappear. There is nothing eternal or immutable on which we can rely. This view of the world was derived from Buddhism, but the idea of “mujo” was burned into the spirit of Japanese people, and took root in the common ethnic consciousness."

Murakami does praise this deep-rooted sense of resignation in his fellow Japanese, but he knows too that it comes at a cost — the cost of not railing against oppression or injustice, not speaking up, not protesting wrongs.

"What I want to talk about here isn’t something like buildings or roads, which can be rebuilt, but rather about things which can’t be rebuilt easily, such as ethics or standards. Such things do not have physical shape.  Once they are broken, it’s hard to restore them, because we can’t do so with machines, labour and materials."

Murakami goes on to talk about how postwar energy policy came to be and how an over-reliance on technology has created a false sense of energy security. Murakami wants us to see that it's useless to solely blame TEPCO or the government for current failures. Japanese need to look inside as well:

"This is the collapse of the “technology” myth, of which the Japanese people had been proud, and the defeat of our Japanese ethics and norms, which had allowed such deception. We blame the electrical companies and Japanese government. This is right and necessary, but at the same time we should accuse ourselves. We are victims and assailants at the same time. We have to consider the fact seriously. If we fail to do so, we’ll make the same mistake again."

You can read the rest of Murakami's speech here. I think now is a good time to start talking. My initial reaction three months ago was silence.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Modern Update on an Old Material

Totan (トタン) or , comes from the Portuguese "tutanaga," an alloy composed of copper, zinc and nickel to which bits of iron and other metals are added. It is most likely a Chinese invention, the word coming into Portuguese via the Persian "tutia-nak," meaning "zinc oxide"— only to return east to Japan in the 15th century along with Christian missionaries.

Here's a good example of a battered old totan siding house, nicely set off by its solid-looking window frames:

And here's a revival of the theme, a few blocks away in the same town:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mosquito Bite Home Remedy

It's been raining off and on pretty heavily here the last couple of weeks, the water filling up every available depression. Wandering about the grounds of a temple in Imabari this week, I came across some little striped critters floating to the top, gulping air, and swimming back down inside what appeared to be a pedestal for a Buddha statue.
 (You have to squint to see them.)

Charmed by their swimming agility, I reported my find to Echosquirrel who informed me I had been watching mosquito larvae, not tiger shrimp.

Their charm was short-lived, however. Today, feeling a bit useless after an odd series of meetings in which I impersonated a flower, I decided to hike up behind the temple around back. After a short staring contest with an extremely long and graceful snake, and a quick peek at my secret wild boar wallow, I proceeded to enter a force field of aggressively pesky and swarming mosquitoes. By the end of my nature walk, the insides of my arms were covered with welts.

Now there is a local folk remedy for bug bites and bee stings and whatnot that I learned from this handy Foxfire-like magazine I picked up a couple of months ago in out local bookstore.

It's title is "Taking Lesson from the Farm Family in the Art of Living: Don't Buy, Don't Throw Away, Do It Yourself." Inside it's chock full of goodies, from washing with bamboo charcoal you make yourself, to implementing your own irrigation system, to building a greenhouse.

It's also nicely peppered with manga-like illustrations as well as pictures — a big help for this extremely slow reader of Japanese.

The bug bite remedy utilizes the leaves from the biwa (locquat) tree. And while we just happen to have three of those right in front of our apartment which are bearing an amazing amount of delicious fruit at the moment,
the remedy calls specifically for old leaves harvested between November and February.
I guess I'll have to wait until the winter to harvest enough leaves. Anyway, here's the instructions if you just happen to have mosquitoes and a biwa tree in your backyard.
The bottle in ④ is shōchū, a pretty potent Japanese liquer. I'm guessing the remedy works by getting you high off the vapors.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

One Man

Sometimes I don't realize the significance or irony of a photograph until well after I've taken it. The blue sign above the mirror at the top of the picture reads one man (ワンマン ) which is short for one man ressha, a local train with only one car and one conductor. I think I was more enamored of the mirror and the poles receding into the distance than the fact that there was one man walking up to the platform.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Scene in the Wrack

When I took this picture, I assumed the tube was toothpaste and so couldn't help but enjoy the ironic placement.

I think, instead, it's some kind of dental mold bonding agent which seems to me just as delicious. The black lettering on yellow background reads haga something-or-other (the writing gets lost under the rock.)

It could be hagata (歯形)which means an impression of the teeth, or dental mold; or hagayui(歯痒い)which means to be tantalized or chagrined. Both work equally well for me.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Why I Wander

Strolling about the port city of Imabari earlier this week I stumbled upon this intriguing thatched bamboo fence:
Being the curious sort, I walked around its perimeter trying to peek in. On the north side I discovered its entrance:
Ducking inside and following the path, I found it to be an old tea arbor.
Walking over to the nijiriguchi, or small entrance door, I spied some literature resting under a cutely tied rock:
Reading it, I learned that the entire structure, originally constructed in 1582, had been transported from Kyōto by a wealthy man named Kōno from Tokyo as part of the city's new art museum in the 1970s.

Here's a view of the larger room where those taking tea could look out onto the garden:
Back out near the entrance is my favorite building, a little covered outdoor meeting place:
Notice the nice, continuous piece of rock as foot rest
 and the beautiful bamboo work at the corner of the bench:
Back outside, one nice final touch was the bamboo gate:
Unfortunately, I didn't have the temerity to take a picture of the old gardener taking care of the grounds who politely answered my questions.

I guess I need to go back. Now if only they'd let me sit down inside with a cup of tea....

Friday, June 10, 2011

Some Thoughts on Frog Sex and Predation

Around this time of year the farmers start planting their rice seedlings which have been growing in neat trays inside greenhouses. In order to do that they flood the fields in just about perfect timing with the advent of the rainy season.

Now, I'm not sure where the frogs have been hiding all this time, but they are suddenly quite vocal about the surge in water. In the early evening they start up a croaking chorus which becomes a perfect sleeping accompaniment later at night.

Early this evening I was riding my bicycle back from work when, as I passed our neighbor's rectangular rice paddy, I heard the half-hearted peeping of one lone frog. No one dared to join him at that moment and so, after one or two more trailing peeps, he went quiet.

This frog's awkwardness made me think about the sexual imperative of peeping versus the steep cost of potential predation. Peep first and loudest and you might have a better chance of securing the right mate and thus passing on your genes — but peep too soon absent other peepers to help cover you, and you have a greater chance of being snatched by that skulking snake or bird.

I'm guessing that's one of the reasons that frogs chorus. It's a lot safer to be singing together than alone. If a predator touches down anywhere in the chain, the whole lot goes silent. But how does everyone know?

All right. So I got this far in my thinking and realized there was more that I didn't know than I did. So I started poking around the internet, looking at studies. Now I realize that not all frogs species are the same, but I'm guessing that the possession of frogness, like the possession of personhood (we all walk on two legs, all speak, all have opposable thumbs, etc) means that certain shared characteristics result in certain shared behaviors across frog species.

Research being carried out at Brown University by Andrea and James Simmons (you can read about it here) suggests that their species of bullfrog clusters in groups of four to six when it's time to chorus. The Simmons's hypothesis is that the frogs gang up in this way to form a kind of superfrog which can more easily attract multiple females.

"Sometimes they're polite animals who take their turns," says Andrea Simmons. "But as the season progresses, they become more and more prone to calling at the same time. This would make it hard for a female bullfrog to distinguish one male from another."

But I'm guessing that they have only half of the equation correct. To gang up in this way also confers protection. Eyes and ears in every direction.

In my mind there's a reason that as the season progresses there are fewer and fewer lone croakers — they've perished from their foolishness of singing alone.

To call out alone is to die alone. To call out together is another matter entirely.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Exalting the Useless and Derelict

On a recent trip to Takamatsu to renew my visa, I came across this old map in the window of a redecorating store:
What does it depict? A section of the town I presume, but I was more attracted by the shapes and the orientations of the writing, radiating outward from the center, than trying to decipher its historical significance.

Its artistic sensibility made me think of an old This American Life episode I had heard about mapping; how "every map is the world seen through a different lens."

In that show, Ira Glass interviews a geographer named Denis Wood who maps unconventional aspects of ordinary neighborhoods, like pumpkins on porches or "patterns of leaf light on the neighborhood."  He wants his maps, bundled together as an atlas, to be seen as a "collection of patterns of light and sound and smell and taste and communication with others."

Ira, ever the realist, points out that maps by and large are functional tools. They have a purpose. They are a way to describe the world. They get us from point A to point B.

Wood, not to be deterred, says he is on a mad search for a "poetics of cartography," that he exists "in a dream of maps" where "useless knowledge is exalted."

And that's right where I think I stand sometimes — exalting the useless and derelict.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What You Have Is All You Need

Ever wonder how to properly use the ladle that rests so invitingly on the stone basin at Japanese temples?
I have too. Here's how:
First, wash your left hand.
Then, wash your right hand.
Finally, put some water in your left hand and rinse your mouth.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Greeted by Purple Mermaids

Went out to visit one of the local islands on Saturday and were greeted by a couple of smiling mermaids as we got off the ferry.
The sign (above, left) says "Welcome to Ōshima" or, the Big Island. (Ironic as the island is fairly small — can't be more than a square kilometer, I'd say).

Well, all right, one smiling mermaid, then.

In Which I Review an American Renga (Whatever That Is)

What’s the Big Idea?

Crossing State Lines: An American Renga

Edited by Bob Holman and Carol Muske-Dukes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2011

The big idea was for a poem to be started on the East Coast in the fall and sent poet by poet, state by state, around the country, criss-crossing all fifty states, before arriving at its final destination in California on Robert Hass’s electronic doorstep sometime in the spring. Along the way, each poet who received the slowly accreting mass of words would look at the previous entry or entries and write a ten-line poem in response, or in defiance, or in whatever manner they could channel their inner Issa to carry them to whatever lonely peninsula or pine barren they were inclined to go. They would have two days to complete their lines before sending the whole thing on to the next writer.

Continue reading at Open Letters Monthly....