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“Tree on a Bluff”
(“Xuányá biān de shù”)
Zēng Zhuō (1922-2002)
I do not know what strange wind
blew a tree over there——
the end of a plain
on a crag overlooking the valley
It listens closely to the clamor of a far forest
and the singing of streams in the valley
It stands there alone
looking obstinate, and forlorn
Its crooked body
retains the shape of the wind
It looks ready to fall off into the valley
and yet about to spread wings and take flight……
Today I met a video game character designer named Yamazaki and his wife. We met on CouchSurfing, and agreed to meet in Ueda. While wandering around before the meeting, I came upon a shrine called Tsunashiki Tenmangu Otabisho 綱敷天満宮御旅所, or Tsunashiki Tenjinja. (It has a website here: www.tunashiki.com .) Sitting between buildings on a street next to Kappa Yokocho, Tsunashiki Shrine caught my attention because of its steep steps, and the “Otabisho” part of its name. A “tabi” is a journey in Japanese, and sure enough Tsunashiki is a shrine for ryoko anzen, or safe travels. I offered some yen and bought an omikuji. It was lucky, but recommended I hold back and not try to do too much. As for direction, anywhere south was good. As for travel, it suggested I quit. I tied up the omikuji to ward off the bad luck and bought an o-mamori charm for safe travels. Of course, I can’t quit, so I have the charm. The lesson on the back of the omikuji read something like, “The high peaks tower in the blue sky, but if you climb, there is a way up.”
I ate curry in Kappa Yokocho, got lost around Umeda walking up and down platforms through crowds and department stores, and drank some bottled ginger jujube tea. I met Yamazaki at Yodobashi camera and we tried two cafes before we found one with empty seats. He kindly treated me to coffee and we talked about Kyoto, where he attended university, learning languages, traveling in Rome and Europe, and his dream to hold an international art exhibition in London. Also, he designed two characters in the video game Street Fighter 4.
Art in the Isetan department store
We went to Isetan department store to see an art exhibition called Girlie Show. The theme was “girls,” and women artists from around Japan depicted girls in various styles on small canvasses. Prints of artworks and goods like iPhone cases were on sale, and one or two of the artists were present. We then went upstairs and saw the “Art Liberation Space” or something like that, where various works were exhibited, like ceramic cups crawling with metal insects. In the back was an exhibiton called “The Beauty Adventurers” (美の冒険者たち) if I remember correctly. The artists were students, graduates and faculty at an art college in Osaka. I enjoyed the various styles and materials and the high level of artistry in the works, and happily spent an hour with Yamazaki gazing at paintings.
Tsukemen noodles in Ueda
We met Yamazaki’s wife at Loft variety store and went to a nearby shop for tsukemen (dipped noodles), which were delicious. The roast pork on top was expecially good. The Yamazakis gave me lots of advice about Kyoto, and we talked about what we had done that day. I received advice from a pair who had studied art in Kyoto. What could be better! When I mentioned that I saw the guardian statues at Todaiji Temple in Nara, Yamazaki told me those are by a famous artist of the Edo period. I took notes on place names in Kyoto, and they kindly saw me back to the subway. The next time I see them, perhaps their first child will be born!
July 18, 2012
Back in Tokyo
Bakuro-cho, Asakusabashi, Sumidagawa, Sumida-ku, Midori-cho, Kamezawa-cho, Edo-Tokyo Museum, Tokyo Sky Tree
Seattle to Tokyo
Flew via Seattle to Tokyo, and slept an hour on a bench in the Sea-Tac airport. Started and almost finished Dazai Osamu’s novel Arrived late around 6:30PM local time. Rode the train in from Narita. The sky was fearsome bright over Narita town in the evening. Trucks rolled over a bridge and a red tower peaked over green trees before an orange sky.
Tsukemen in Asakusabashi
I slept at the Khaosan Tokyo Ninja hostel in Asakusabashi and met a guy from the Phillipines while drinking tea in the common room downstairs. I walked across the Asakusa bridge looking for the ramen place the girl at the desk recommended. I happened upon it under the rattling train and ordered tsukemen from the ticket machine ($10). I sat between two guys on lunch break and dipped the noodles a mouthful at a time. When I had eaten them all, and the pork that was roasted with a blow torch behind the counter, I filled the soup with hot water and drank some.
I walked about Bakuro-cho among little cafes and restaurants, and across the Sumida River. Next to the river was a relief of nine faces representing artists inspired by it. I passed under an overpass toward Ryogoku, and on a map was a mark for the former residence of Kobayashi Issa (a haiku poet) in Midori-cho. I didn’t find Issa’s former home, but two surveyors in blue peered into a gadget on a tripod while workers with a crane lifted a huge pipe off a barge. A highway overpass ran the whole length of the river. A little boat came in among the barges. The crane had “I will not cause an accident” (私は事故を起こしません) written on its arm. The workers guided the pipe with ropes to the artificial embankment they were building, set it down, and started cutting it with a saw. Another worker stood welding a pipe’s mouth, and the smoke plumed up toward the highway.
I walked back through Midori-cho among nondescript buildings, and then Kamezawa. Along Hokusai-dori were prints of Katsushika Hokusai’s works stuck to the lampposts, such as some of the “36 Views of Mount Fuji.” Apparently, Hokusai was born in Kamezawa. I passed kids on the street and a playground covered with kids who looked like they’d just got out of class. Across the street loomed the gray battleship-like Edo-Tokyo Museum. I walked up the wide and empty stairs and under the elephantine metal exhibition hall. The wide and flat platform looked out over Tokyo.
I bought a ticket and took the escalator up a bright red animal organ-like tube into the belly of the elephant and walked through the museum. Inside was a reproduction of the wooden Nihonbashi from 19th century, among other things. I saw lots of exhibits about Edo, from the time that the shogun turned it from a fishing village into a military headquarters, to the time it became Tokyo after the Meiji Restoration. I learned that people who were granted an audience with the shogun were called hatamoto (旗本), or “bannermen” and were provided individual residences. Other household workers in the shogunate, called gokenin (御家人) lived in communal quarters. Around 1720, there were about 5,000 bannermen, and about 17,000 household workers. Sometimes land was provided that could be used for income, but usually salaries were paid a few times a year, in rice from the shogun’s granary.
In 1854, Commodore Perry forced the shogunate into an unequal treaty with the US, and the establishment of trade relations ended the closed door policy. In the museum were drawings from news clippings depicting the fearsome American steamships. After the Meiji Restoration, there was debate about whether to establish the national capital at Kyoto, Osaka, or Edo. A “two capital” policy was favored for a while, and thus Edo’s name was changed to Tokyo, the “Eastern Capital.”
I took the train to Kuramae. Leaving the station to change trains, I passed by Kaya-dera (榧寺), a small Pure Land temple with two concrete pillars shielding a little garden, and a squat modern-make building with attached cemetery. Inside were sumptuous golden decorations at the altar. A sign showed that Hokusai once painted Kaya-dera in a painting called something like “The High Lantern at Kaya Temple” （榧寺の高燈籠） which shows some people in a boat behind the temple.
Tokyo Sky Tree
I went on to Oshiage to see the Sky Tree. Newly opened, the Sky Tree is an impressive tower that changes from a trangle shape at the bottom to a circle at the top. It looks like an old Soviet TV tower in a way, but also a bit organic in its bend. Inside the ticketing area were 12 objets d’art representing the tower, each made of a different Japanese craft, and paired with a Japanese virtue. The crafts are listed here: http://blogs.futaba-en.jp/2012/06/super-craft-tree.html (Japanese).
I walked through the “Japanese Experience Zone” (expensive mall) and took the elevator up to the Dome Garden. There, a silver dome greets the Sky Tree on one side, and the partner building on the other, whose glass reflects the Tokyo tree. Kids played on the grass by the dome, and on the other side wordless music played while people slept or lounged on wooden benches. Green plants lined the black fence, and the sky was blue with white clouds behind the Tree, and the orange sun peeked through.
Have you seen the Sky Tree? What do you think of it?
July 13, 2011 (Wednesday)
Forty-eighth day in China, third day in Dunhuang: 莫高窟 Mogao Caves
The object of any visit to Dunhuang are the Mogao Caves, the site of Buddhism’s introduction into China, and home to thousands of grottoes decorated with delicate statuary and wall paintings. We took a cab to the caves, down a dusty road just past the train station, arrayed along a rocky cliff facing a river. A Chinese guide took us to about ten caves. The caves are locked, and the inside monitored for moisture and oxygen levels. If the level is too high, the guides are advised by headset not to take tourists inside. Though statues were stolen by European, Japanese and American “explorers”, and others–including many central Buddhas–destroyed, many remaining figures are in excellent condition. The white-faced Tang dynasty statuary was especially attractive. Two caves contained giant Buddhas, each some three stories tall. One sits straight up. The shorter one in fact appears larger, as it leans over the visitors. Patches in the leg of the seated Buddha exposed Tang-era straw filling. Each successive dynasty added dirt to the floor of the Buddha’s chamber. When the original floor was uncovered, locals joked that the Buddha grew one meter.
Off one of the more famous caves, the ceiling covered in little Buddhas, sat a tiny room, once the 藏經洞 scripture depository at Mogaoku. The room once held 58,000 Buddhist scriptures. When the Hungarian scholar Aurel Stein arrived in 1907, he got them to open the room, and bought some 15,000 scriptures in various languages to take back to England (they’re now in the British Museum). A French explorer and a Japanese followed soon after. The Louvre has many of those. Japanese collectors have returned some of the manuscripts.
We snuck into a second group and got a guide who was not really a guide, but a researcher filling in. He told us (and Joy translated) more about rooms we had already visited, and took us to a few new ones, those he liked. In one, two identical paintings faced one another, each telling the story of the same Buddhist parable. Rival painters took up the same subject. When the paintings were shown, baskets for donations were placed in front of each so visitors could vote with their wallets. The blue pigments were especially bright, having been painted with a special pigment imported from Afghanistan via the Silk Road. Images from the walls of Mogaoku are iconic representations of Chinese art.
The buses and cabs had all gone, so we caught a ride with the staff from the souvenir stalls in their bus back to Dunhuang. One staffer, a woman with two kids, showed us a place for local food on a busy street. We ate donkey meat and cold noodles.
July 6, 2011 (Wed)
Forty-first day in China, ninth day in Beijng: 奥体中心 Olympic Green, 北京国家体育场 (鸟巢) Beijing National Stadium (Bird’s Nest), 北京国家游泳中心 (水立方) Beijing National Aquatics Center (Water Cube)
Still feeling sick, I slept until after 1pm and inquired at a pharmacy down the street, where I received medicine for a sore throat. I ate 过桥米线 guoqiao rice noodles, or “bridge-crossing noodles”, a Yunnan specialty that Haofan tells me gets its name from a story in which a woman carried noodles across a bridge to her husband each day. The noodles always grew cold. Hot soup is served. The noodles and many small ingredients like chicken, egg, carrot and tofu are added at the table. I took the subway to the Olympic Green. The streets are wide, straight and long. I entered the National Stadium, or the “Bird’s Nest”, used in the Olympics. Inside kids were riding Segways around the track. Most interesting was the exterior, which appears a random tangle of steel beams. In fact, the sides are identical. They surround the interior seating structure, painted red. Though events are rarely held in the stadium, tourists came in great numbers. On the Olmypic green sat a pruned hedge decorated with doves and the hammer & sickle over “90.” Tourists swarmed around the hedge, and behind stood the National Aquatics Center, or the “Water Cube.” It’s actually a cuboid, and half of the building has been turned into a cute water park. The walls are made of ultra thin material shaped like foam bubbles. Kids waded in the shallow trench beside the Cube.
On the subway I kept reading Sawaki’s descriptions of Hong Kong.
The hostel hosted a vegetarian dinner party, where I met several Chinese people, and a pair of guys from England who had just graduated high school.
June 3, 2011
Eighth day in Shanghai: 上海美术馆 [Shanghai Art Museum], Yang’s place
Slept in and checked out at noon. Ate a crepe with egg, lettuce and cucumber at a street vendor. Sat watching pedestrians passing on the crowded Nanjing East Road. Walked down to People’s Park, around the lotus pond, and through the Shanghai Art Museum. One great artwork was a 文人 wenren scroll made of silver metal, in 3D. The vertical part showed embossed mountains, and the section “unrolled” on the floor had fully 3D mountains stick out of it!
Met up with Yang at Guilin Road and saw the apartment, in an old complex of five or six story buildings. Yang said most of the people living there are old, and probably moved to Shanghai when they were young. I met his roommate (and best friend from college), Tony, from Zhejiang. We went out for Zhejiang food. Drank some 黄酒 huangjiu [yellow wine] and are meat served with bread, boiled nuts, boiled chicken, 臭豆腐 choudoufu (“stinky tofu” that smells awful and tastes… ok) and raw crab (a special food, as Chinese food is usually cooked through). So that’s what smelled so bad on Shanxi South Road, stinky tofu! How can something that smells so bad taste… so plain? Raw crab’s flavor is special. It felt a little like Japan to be eating raw food again. We washed our clothes and hung them out the window, expecting thunderstorms over the weekend.
June 2, 2011
Seventh day in Shanghai: M50创意园
I met JQ, my roommate from Inner Mongolia. From the balcony I saw kids in day care, and was treated to karaoke from an upper-floor window. Ate lunch again at the Xiaoyang shengjian place nearby: (piping hot) shengjian and seafood wonton tofu soup. Rode the subway to Shanghai huochezhan [railway station], walked along Tianmu Road, and crossed the Suzhou Creek (passed by dozens of scooters on the way) to reach M50创意园 on Moganshan Road, some old factory complex converted into art space. I visited lots of galleries and took photos, and climbed a lot of stairs. The galleries ranged from tiny rooms too small to hang all the pictures to high-ceilinged spaces with glass doors and wood floors.
In one gallery sponsored by Fudan University, I saw a show called 课间 KEJIAN [Between-class break]. In two rooms, a curved white 3D grid was projected on a screen, and a camera pointed at the audience. When something moves in front of the camera, the image would change–bulge out if you flicked your fingers, ripple if you waved an arm. Then, the grid would burst into different colors and shapes before settling down into some new base shape for you to manipulate.
On Tianmu Road I stopped for mapoqiezi fan [mapo eggplant rice] (~$3). At the hostel I met Alan, my roommate from Guangzhou, in Shanghai for work.
PS: Take a look at the pigeon coop at M50. It’s at mid-left.