Tuesday, August 10, 2010

farewell to Japan

It's sadly time to say goodbye to Japan, and with it a whole lot of wonderful friends and colleagues. Our fellow artists threw us a really lovely goodbye party with some of our favorite Japanese snacks , some delicious and thoughtfully vegetarian dishes (!!) and one snack that’s pretty weird even by Japanese standards: cabbage-and-frog flavored puffs (pictured below). They tasted more like okonomiyaki to me, but sometimes it’s the concept that counts.

The party was hosted by our friend Terue at the apartment she’s been renting through the super excellent Koganecho Bazaar, an arts-centric urban revitalization project which buys out the formerly sketchy neighborhood’s brothels and other houses of ill repute and refurbishes them into affordable spaces for artist studios, artist residencies, shops for local DIY crafts, cafes and gallery space.

The former ill repute of Terue’s flat in particular was its connection to members of Aum Shinrikyo, the infamous doomsday cult responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, an attempt at speeding along the apocalypse that managed to kill 13 people and left thousands of others with temporary vision problems and other injuries. The history of the place managed to spook everyone quite a bit, especially since several members are still at large. We tried out some of their yoga moves and spent a good part of the evening googling strange youtube footage of Aum Shinriyko’s promotional anime (see video below) and energy dances.

We were given a lot of really nice going-away gifts too – a photo album of pictures from the past month, the two-toed sock version of Hokusai’s famous woodblock print, "the Great Wave of Kanagawa", a DVD of Akiko’s animation, and personalized bandage art from Terada. Some goodbyes were a bit tearful and some were accompanied by a firm agreement to stay in touch and invitations to visit each other in Chicago / other parts of Japan. With any luck, we’ll be back again soon.

I'm gearing up for my requisite week-and-a-half of horrible jet lag now, and will miss everyone a lot. Still there are a few simple things I'm really looking forward to: eating whole grain bread again, having kitchen counter space, and being able to walk down the street to the beach with my Chicago friends and neighbors. Just don't call me after 1 pm, 'cause I'll be passed out on the couch.

artists you should know about part IV: Terue Yamauchi

Terue Yamauchi creates her conceptually-based projects a variety of media, exploring (among other things) themes of landscape, scale, human interconnection and human-made spaces. Most recently she’s turned her attention toward the relationships between humans and nature, and we’re all the luckier for it.

For her latest projects, Libido (1) and Libido (2) Yamauchi investigated the lives of local slugs to make her work. Her studio hours revolve around the night schedules of her small, slimy collaborators, whom she invites via motion-sensors and beer to create silvery drawings of goo on large sheets of black paper and performances in structures she’s created. These drawings and actions are also translated other media, including an intimate video installation and a large-scale work on suspended plastic sheeting, with a composition based on overlapping tracings of the slugs’ designs.

You can see a range of Yamauchi’s work on her website HERE.

Monday, August 9, 2010

last minute getaway

Sure, there's a ton of packing to do and last-minute errands to run before heading back to the states, but when a friend's father offered to drive Andy and I for a one-day getaway to their vacation home in Hakone, we jumped at the chance.

Aside from the Japanese signage and the distinctive shape of Mount Fuji looming in the distance, Hakone looks a lot like the Swiss countryside or some other bucolic mountainous place. There’s a big windmill installed in the hillside and a gorgeous lake dotted with little swan boats. One big difference is that the landscape of this region was created by volcanos, some still active. We visited Hakone's famous Owakudani (Hell Valley), where we were treated to throngs of tourists covering their noses as we all peered through clouds of sulphurous smoke, waiting in line to buy hot eggs flash-boiled in cloudy volcanic pools. The eggshells change to a startling rich black from the minerals in the water. Supposedly eating one of these eggs will extend your life an extra seven years. They’re sold in packs of five for 500 yen, which is quite a deal for up to 35 years of extra life expectancy if you manage to eat them all yourself.

Also available there were two new flavors of softcream, which we were happy to purchase: sweet volcanic egg (delicious!) and wasabi, which had a surprising amount of kick. Another bonus of the volcanic scenery: steamy geothermically-heated onsen. Ahhhhhh.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

cooking with park chan kook

The other day we had a lovely afternoon inventing new delicacies with artist Park Chan Kook, a Korean artist whose social practice often involves inviting local people to make a meal together using improvised ingredients and tools. Each participant brought an ingredient: a bunch of bananas, a big jar of miso, a bottle of rice wine vinegar, or several bunches of greens... and then we all worked together to make the meal. It really highlighted the differences between Korean and Japanese cooking and eating styles - whereas Koreans are very comfortable with big, shared meals and experimental dishes, the Japanese typically stick to specific traditional recipes... and shared food (especially food that everyone has been touching) is a little bit squeamish-making for people here.

Still, it was a pretty good time for all, involving a lot of giggling over what to roll up in the Vietnamese spring roll wrappers and Chan's bananas fried directly on the portable burner... and some interesting jellyfish sightings in the water next to the food prep area. Since most of the "cooks" involved were artists-in-residence at BankART, our collective meal wound up being quite a lovely spread, even if not all of it was eaten.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

bus = bar

As I was first settling in at BankART, I remember being vaguely aware of the big run-down bus parked on the waterfront deck with the words “Nikka Whiskey Bus Restaurant” painted on the side. It wasn’t until a week into things that I found out there’s actually a fully-functioning, totally candlelit bar in there that’s only open late at night. The ceiling is plastered with hundreds of meishi from visitors over the years, and two small party rooms in the back. The price is steep – about $13 US for a single beer (!) though the owner did bring out small dishes of nuts, fresh fruit slices, and crackers periodically. Totally worth it once, for the atmosphere alone.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

crazy for dramacrazy

I rarely turn on the television set at home in Chicago, but whenever I'm in Japan I wind up watching television whenever I get the chance – it’s great for picking up the language and cultural nuances, and there are categories of shows that just don’t exist anywhere else. The insane game shows, the children’s programs about beetle battles, the myriad programs of hip young people moaning over delicious food... and the variety/talk shows that report on news stories or funny stunts with a panel of celebrity guests who watch along with you, their reactions visible in a little rectangle in the corner of the screen.

We just don’t have access to much of this in the US, aside from random youtube clips of the wackier stuff. So many thanks to Kianga for turning us on to Dramacrazy.net, which makes hundreds of Japanese and Korean drama shows available to a wider audience… and with English subtitles!

Among these is Kimi wa Petto (you are my Pet), a comedy-drama that Andy and I've become completely obsessed with lately.Originally broadcast in 2003, the show is based pretty directly on a very popular manga series by the same name, which friend and fellow comics enthusiast Jeff turned me on to earlier this year, available in English in the US under the title “Tramps Like Us.”

The premise is this: Tall, successful, smart and beautiful, Iwaya Sumire seems to have it all... but her stature and status make her completely intimidating to most men, including her former fiancée and her boss, who treat her like crap. Angry, depressed, and lonely, Iwaya comes home one evening to find a teenage boy passed out in a box in front of her apartment, and struck by his resemblance to her childhood pet, she takes him in and nurses him back to health. Their relationship develops into that of pet and owner, while she navigates some crazy power dynamics with her coworkers, her landlord, her therapist, and her new love interest (!)

The show funny, sexy, odd, and completely addictive. It also offers a glimpse (albeit an exaggerated one) into some of the more unpleasant gender roles that are still at play in Japan. Not all women here are content to be cute and docile, and this show pries open those stereotypes while also showing how complicated it can be to operate outside of them. See for yourself HERE: Just scroll down for links to all ten episodes...

You can start with this one:

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

trash day

Garbage disposal is something you might not think much about, but in Japan it’s quite a project. There are strict fines for improper disposal of certain materials, and instead of big public trash cans you usually have to find one of the specially separated plastic / metal / burnable waste cans next to a convenience store if you have something small to throw away.

Space is at a premium here, and instead of giant dumpsters for the garbage we wind up with at home, my neighbors and I stumble out early in the morning to tuck our little bags of trash under a big plastic net on the corner that’s let down on certain days for specific materials: Glass and dry batteries are Friday, and Wednesday is for plastics, metal cans and folded-and-bound former cardboard boxes. General ‘burnable’ garbage (foodscraps, cellophane wrappers, waste paper etc) is picked up on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Unlike in the US, you can’t just take out your giant bag of garbage the night before (or several nights before) trash day. The net on my street is let down only between 7am and 9am on the day of a pickup. A sign in my apartment building warns that this is because our neighborhood is “sensitive to the pyromaniac” but I suspect it has more to do with the giant crows who still sometimes manage to ways to drag the trash out from under the nets and make a giant mess of it on the street, causing the old woman who lives across from our trash pickup site to rush out with her broom to deal with the mess (and to regularly offer me as the resident foreigner some detailed instruction in Japanese on how to properly tuck the trash under the nets.) Sleeping in on trash day is no joke, especially in this 95-degree heat, as it means your apartment might smell like rancid fish for three days until you’re allowed to remove the offending items to the curb.

Apparently some regions of japan have as many as 44 different categories of trash / recycling disposal, all firmly enforced, with a goal of seriously reducing waste production over the next 30 years.Japan’s obsessive categorization of trash might seem a bit weird to Americans, but according to this fascinating NY Times article, it may be the look of things to come for us as well! There’s some debate about whether all the sorting (which is a fairly recent thing) actually leads these materials to different locations or not, as the country is still working out a large-scale system to deal with all its garbage. Either way, I must say it makes you really aware of how much waste you produce in a day, which is never a bad thing.