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Photo: A lantern at the August 2007 Kamakura Bonbori Matsuri.

As I previously posted, I’m reading The Bridge of the Brocade Sash, about Sacheverell Sitwell’s travels in Japan in the summer and autumn of 1958.

Sitwell is both a profound observer of Japan and a complete mess, stuck in his prejudices. So are we all. I have been using this book as a bell of mindfulness. What topics Sitwell focuses on and what he excludes remind me my own blinders in life. What he disdains with a reflexive sniff reminds me of what I react to with instant emotion, missing a chance to go deeper, to understand more.

Chapters Two and Three: Tokyo with side trips to Yokohama, Kamakura, and Enoshima

Sometimes Sitwell finds just the right description for the traveler’s moments of frisson:

But the bright lights are beckoning and it is proposed we should dine out in a Japanese restaurant, a sensation so unique that later you envy yourself your first experience of it. (p. 36)

I like the feeling in that sentence, the bittersweet passing of novelty. Later, when we see with more discerning (and sometimes jaded) eyes, do we not remember fondly our beginner’s gaze?

Sometimes, however, a passage makes me close the book for a while and mull over whether I think his writing is (a) descriptive language betraying biases that highlight how societal mores have changed over 50 years, or (b) the musings of a well-read asshole in a hostess bar:

[W]e were surrounded by young women. Four or five of them came and sat down at our table, most, if not all, of them, remarkably pretty, with one in particular wearing a scarlet kimono who was pointed out as being of Polynesian type. She had somewhat of the same looks as the young girls we were to see later in Honolulu, who are of mixed Hawaiian, Japanese and Hindu-Indian blood, as seductive of appearance as the capresses of Guadaloupe and Martinique with nectarine or coppery skins as described in Lafcadio Hearn’s West Indian Diary, the more alluring for having nothing of the African negress in them, and probably among the most attractive hybrids of the human race. (p. 73)

There is, of course, an option (c): Old Sach’el entranced you with his story of the exotic beauty. I took the liberty of looking her up for you. She just turned 70, but feels great for her age, runs her own flower shop, has a son in Fujisawa who doesn’t call as often as she would like, and—this is not personal, mind you—she no longer has any interest in lighting men’s cigarettes and telling them how funny their jokes are. She thanks you for asking after her.

Let’s see what Sitwell got up to in Tokyo: his tour started with the large department stores in Ginza (he calls them “big stores” and “emporiums”): Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya, Shirokiya, Matsuya, and Daimaru. Corporate Shirokiya was dissolved in 2001, but there is a branch in Honolulu. The rest are still in business. Some trivia: in 1958, while Sitwell was checking out the Takashimaya in Ginza, Takashimaya was busy opening a new store in New York City.

He certainly enjoyed Takashimaya’s kimono and obi department:

It was no less than an intoxication to take in all these patternings for the kimono, with only the Indian sari as a possible equal, is the most beautiful of all forms of women’s clothing. My memory of the big stores in Tokyo, as also in Osaka and Nagoya, is to have been quite dazzled by the dresses. Coming out again into street one had entirely forgotten it was Sunday afternoon. (p. 36)

He also visited the basement food department (depachika) and lets loose with the Sacheverell-speak:

Here, in the manner of a museum exhibit, is a special grouping of blunt objects looking like—what, exactly? Boomerangs? But they are not of wood or stone, as those of the ‘black fellows’ in the Australian desert, or high up north in Arnhem Land where they paint themselves all over in dots and stripes […]. Not boomerangs. Or could they be Stone Age implements? Or something of the same kind as the sceptres of the Maori chieftains, but they are not made of jade? Or Indian clubs, except that these are flatter and have no handle? But they are dried bonitos, that is the answer; bonitos being sea-fish, particularly esteemed in Japan, and emblems of good luck. A present of dried bonitos, therefore, is appropriate for a marriage, and these are wedding gifts. (p. 31)

The filleted bonito is not just dried; it is boiled, dried, smoked, and cured with a mold until it is as hard as wood. Dried bonito (katsuo-bushi) continues to be given as part of the traditional wedding gifts, but today no one shaves fresh bonito flakes for the morning miso soup. [Please indulge a digression.] The cook who makes fresh dashi (broth) from freshly shaved bonito flakes (and kombu) is either an award-winning chef or an old lady in Shikoku. Most Japanese buy bonito flakes in plastic bags at the supermarket, or (more likely) they make dashi out of instant granules. At Tsukiji Fish Market, one can buy freshly shaved flakes piled loosely in wooden bins according to the quality of the katsuo-bushi. The aroma surrounding these shops is powerful, smoky, and sexy. Please stay tuned for details of my Luddite experiment in home bonito shaving. [See? He just passes right by the bonito; I’m still standing there.]

Sitwell does a coy dance, as above, on certain topics, usually food or domestic items, not quite important enough to him for serious investigation. In a later chapter, he gives us more of the same with a description of a shop in Kyoto:

[H]ere is a shop with a quantity of fascinating bales or bundles, one cannot make out what they are, but they are melon-shaped and made of rope or straw and prove, eventually, to be sake, though I never discovered how the sake was contained within the bundle—that indeed being not at all the correct term or it for they are the neatest parcels ever seen. (p. 92)

Does this wealthy aristocrat not have a tour guide? Of course he does; he doggedly investigates the intricacies of obi designs and the history of gagaku music, but lets the sake casks remain mysterious. His book, his choice. I’m guessing he was looking at either a komokaburi (cedar sake cask wrapped with a rush mat) or a melon-shaped sake tsubo (ceramic sake transport jar), also wrapped in rush. [I would have hung about longer in the sake shop.]

He appreciates Tokyo’s energy and the secrets it holds, but he complains about the layout of the museums and the fact that every single item in the National Museum isn’t displayed at once [does any museum ever display everything all at once?]. He also highlights that Tokyo—destroyed by an earthquake in 1923 and firebombed in 1945—doesn’t have much in the way of interesting architecture:

So it comes about that in this chapter on Tokyo there is little said about works of art. No city of comparable size—and in this respect we know there is no town in the world with more inhabitants—has less to show in the sphere of architecture and of works of art. (p. 42)

This may have been a frigidly fair assessment of the situation in 1958. Certainly, even today, most people don’t describe Tokyo as charming. It’s dynamic, chaotic, evolving, constantly rebuilding itself, and now chock-full of art.

He is impatient to see the Japan he thinks is more authentic than Tokyo’s chaos:

Like all huge cities [Tokyo] is a place of mysteries. It could take all of a lifetime to understand even the most simple of them, but we leave because everything that in our hearts we have come to Japan to see begins tomorrow. All indeed is almost time wasted until you reach Kyoto. (p. 74)

The passage below is my bell of mindfulness. He looks but he does not see:

The afternoon wore on, and our road came down the hills to the sea, towards Enoshima. Once, and not long ago, this had been a sacred island, like Miyajima or Matsushima, but Enoshima is now a Coney Island or Atlantic City. Thousands of Japanese and their families come out here to spend the day from Tokyo. The shore is lined for miles on end with their bathing huts and bungalows. […] Passing through the towns, sometimes, but only once in a hundred persons, there would be an old man looking as, one had hoped, most Japanese would look. The first day in the country has been a disappointment with the long and endless miles of slums on either side of Yokohama. The Japanese at the seaside were worse still. […] Was Japan to be no more than this? We had journeyed a long way in order to be reminded of things one could see in Blackpool or in Brighton. (p. 50)

A recap from Sitwell’s brain: Tokyo is crappy looking, and instead of charming pagodas, there are annoying slums outside Yokohama. To make matters worse, Japanese people insist on escaping the heat of the slums by going to the beach. These people don’t even have the decency to be upper class.

I particularly like his beach town examples: Coney Island, Atlantic City, Blackpool, and Brighton. I wonder if he objected to sunbathing on the Cap d’Antibes or in Monaco.

One evening last summer, on a beach just east of Enoshima, I watched the Zushi fireworks with a friend and her daughter. We shared the beach with thousands of people, many of the young girls in yukata, and the air was charged with festival excitement and beer. Sitwell at least might have tried getting his toes in the sand.

The poor baronet had a tough time of it on the Kanto Plain. Check back to see how he fared in Kyoto. I think we’ll find him in better spirits and ready to share his enthusiasm for Japanese ceramics, screen paintings, and temple gardens.

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Photo: Shamisen players backstage before a bunraku performance.

I was browsing Web sites/blogs about Japan and stumbled on this particular aural/visual convergence:

(1) Go to Néojaponisme’s podcast page and play the mp3 file for MR NO MUSIC podcast ONE.

I can be addicted to my well-worn musical tracks. For example, Van Morrison always lulls me back into what I consider my national park of the soul (and no, ATVs are not allowed). Today, I wore through The Box Tops’ “I Must Be the Devil.” But that podcast of music by “Japanese indie electronic artists,” assembled by someone I don’t know, found a tunnel into that little valley of my head that I thought was unmapped.

(2) While listening to the podcast, relax into Rikki Kasso’s photos at Tokyo Undressed. [Not for the kiddies and those averse to The Nude.]

I first saw these photos months ago. I found them striking, but I skittishly passed along like a driver trying not to rubberneck a traffic accident. Perhaps I was mentally filing some under “sexually objectified Japanese woman” [insert supercilious emoticon here] and hating myself for it. Today, I went back with the above soundtrack playing and the photos felt expansive.

(3) To aid the convergence, self-medicate como usted guste.

I was thinking, Too bad the laptop can’t go in the Japanese bath with me and my glass of bourbon. Mood-altering substances/techniques are as subjective as art, but humans always find something that works.

“Is there just one Sitwell? No, there are Sacheverell.”

—Ogden Nash

I just received The Bridge of the Brocade Sash as a birthday present from my father. It’s a perfectly thoughtful gift because it’s (a) an old travel book about Japan and (b) a first edition (1959) with an original dust jacket of an obscure work by Sir Sacheverell Sitwell. Old books about Japan are enormously interesting to me because they highlight the rapid transformation of Japanese society and the evolving Western attitude towards the Japanese people.

Japan has changed—the world has changed—so much since 1959, and I’m fascinated by the small, telling details.

Introduction and Chapter One

Sitwell writes in great detail about his flight from London to Copenhagen, then over the North Pole, stopping in Alaska, and on to Yokohama (the airport nearest Tokyo at that time, pre-Narita airport). He includes a description of the orange juice he was served on the plane and notes various Americanisms he sees in the Anchorage airport at 2 am: “advertisements for roadhouses serving ‘cheeseburgers’ and hot dogs.” Apparently, the terms “success stories” and “movie” were also new ones to the baronet.“We are moving at enormous speed, catching up with that fragment of a day which began at Anchorage….”

He reports it took 29 hours to reach Japan from Copenhagen. A quick look at Orbitz tells me one can do it today non-stop at enormous speed in 12 hours.

Another comment: “The trans-Polar journey is among the wonders of our age, though becoming no more of a commonplace than it is to fly higher than the summit of Mount Everest.” I envy this guy his feeling of adventure as he rides in an airplane.

But here’s some perspective about the flight Sitwell and his wife made on 19 August 1958: the first commercial trans-Polar flight was on 24 February 1957. SAS flew passengers from Copenhagen to Anchorage to Tokyo in a DC-7C (a propeller aircraft, not a jet). SAS’s website claims the trans-Polar route “shaved the flight time between Scandinavia and Japan from 50 to 32 hours.” But they had better in-flight meals back then, I know because Sitwell tells us how often and well he ate.

Sitwell was born in 1897 and, as a member of the British aristocracy, his serenely privileged and anachronistic point of view is at once grating and delightful. In the Introduction, he writes:

To my cousins Isla and Jessica Sitwell I am indebted for everything that made our stay in Japan easy and pleasant. […] It was pleasant indeed to live in a Japanese household presided over by their majordomo, Okamura-san.

Cue The Mikado for this next one on page 25:

I must have fallen asleep, myself, to be woken only a few minutes later, so it seemed by a tap on the door, by the sunlight streaming through that, and one after another, two, three, four, little figures of maids, bowing and bringing in breakfast, one of them carrying the coffee pot, another the milk and sugar, another a newspaper, and another a peach, sliced thin. Coming nearer one could see their sleek black hair and slanting eyes. So started our first morning in Japan.

Does he dare to eat a peach? Adventures with Sacheverell to be continued…

It’s a chilly evening. I’m here drinking some Knob Creek bourbon and clicking around the electronic universe. I read Bob Lefsetz’s blog “The Lefsetz Letter” and found a post about Walt Wilkins. Lefsetz writes about the state of the music industry; I read his blog from time to time to see what’s happening (or not happening) with how music is sold and promoted. Most of the posts are interesting and entertaining, but I look for his music recommendations because I’ve discovered that when he says he likes some song or musician (and usually he doesn’t just like something that he writes about, he LOVES it), I usually like it too. He likes gritty things, funny things, songs that move you, and songs that just get you all funked or mellowed out. Good music. So, tonight I bought Walt Wilkins’s Mustang Island and I’m drinking bourbon and thinking about my day. The title of this post is from the song, “If It Weren’t for You” which is my new bestest friend. Walt Wilkins’s voice is all up in the bourbon, too. But I digress…

Today I went with my Japanese teacher and her shodo (calligraphy) students (friends of mine) to see another student perform chado (tea ceremony). All these “do”s (the kanji means “road” or “way”: the way of writing, the way of tea) imply that we are never finished with learning, one just takes to the road and sees where it leads. This is a Zen concept, getting on the road, not expecting perfection yet striving to the utmost to pursue it. All Walt Whitman and open road and shit. No, Whitman isn’t Zen, that’s the bourbon talking.

We all meet up at Kamiooka station and walk over to the hall, which turns out to be a local war memorial hall. There’s a small museum on the first floor with World War II tschotkes, flags and uniforms and coins and such. I think of Carlos with longing; he would be fascinated and tell me all about each display. But the crowd itself is distracting and amazing: kimono porn. Half of the women are wearing kimono, and I have never seen so many amateurs (non-performers, non-saleswomen) in kimono in one place. The colors are subdued, which seems appropriate for the age of the crowd (mostly 50+-year-old ladies) and for autumn. My friends tell me the kimonos aren’t very fancy because one should respect the idea of wabi (simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature) when attending a tea ceremony. Of course, most of the kimono look simple, but I know they are very expensive; they are the expression of tasteful excess, or excessive taste. Anyway, it’s always cool to be the only gaijin in a crowd of Japanese women in kimonos.

Yayoi studies chado, so this is a recital of sorts for her. We file into the room with tatami mats and a corner for making tea. There are about 30 people in the room, including we six who have come specifically to see Yayoi do her thing. She looks marvelous in her kimono (I’ve only ever seen her in Western clothes), and she is excited to see us all. Her youthful excitement makes me love her. Her teacher is there, and Yayoi points me out to her (as if I don’t stand out like a giant cold sore on the face of a supermodel). The teacher looks overjoyed to see me, and I wonder, as I often do, if the Japanese are actually pleased to have a clumsy foreigner learning about their culture in the room, or if they are the best actors on the face of the earth (or something in between).

I have seen the tea ceremony performed several times before, but it is the “be in the moment” aspect, the individual person doing the actions in as mindful, and yet effortless, a manner as possible that makes it magical. Yayoi is lovely and makes it look both elegant and easy, which it is not. There’s no mystery: she makes a cup of tea. But it’s all about how she does it, how every action is perfect, unfrivolous, and expert. Actually, with 30 people in the room, she only makes a few cups of tea; the rest of us are served by assistants who make more in the back. Each cup of tea takes too freaking long for one person to wait on 30 people.

First, we are all given a little sweet bean paste flower, a little piece of art that gets our mouth full of excess sweetness; we will then crave the balance of the bitterness of the powdered green tea. Just receiving and eating the sweet involves some bowing and placing it on pieces of expensive washi paper folded in half and used as a dish. I follow my friends’ leads.

I watch Yayoi do the ceremony, and the cups of tea start coming out from the back. One beautiful assistant kneels in front of me and places the cup on the tatami. We bow to each other. I pick up the cup, hold it in my left hand and use my right to turn the cup 90 degrees two times (I am positioning the front of the cup towards me), and then drink it down in two gulps. It’s thick and slightly bitter, tastes of grassy herbs, and shoots my brain with vigorous caffeine. Then, I turn the cup again (now the “front” is facing away from me, although it’s pretty difficult to see what makes it the front or back). I place it back on the tatami and do the little “admiring the cup” motions. My friends are giving me approving murmurs from each side. I’m a good mimic.

Suddenly, Yayoi’s teacher calls out loudly to me from across the room: “DID YOU LIKE IT?” My little Zen moment ends abuptly as I realize every single person is watching me, the big barbarian, lick my chops.

Yes, yes, I liked it. Thanks.

Many years ago, when I had just left the Navy, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to “do,” I took a graduate English class at SDSU with Professor Gerald Butler. I remember the details of the class much better than I remember many events that happened at that same time because I am constantly reminded of it whenever I read a book, watch a movie, look at a piece of art, or listen to music. The lesson plan was how to evaluate literature according to four fundamental critical stances: structure, theme, aesthetics of pleasure, and a fourth, somewhat ambiguous philosophical idea about a work “interacting” with the reader.

Structure and theme, of course, are the most common ways that academia looks at literature. The pleasure-based aesthetics theory derived from Epicurus, Kant, and Santayana, among others. For the fourth idea, Dr. Butler argued that when one read great literature, the reader was forced to interact with the work in such a way that a completely different view of reality was revealed. The new view of reality could be intensely disturbing, and usually was in the best literature, but it was the interactive revelation of a unique world-view that made the work great. I’m still working out for myself what it means that a work “interacts” with me.

Tonight I watched Ikiru (directed by Akira Kurosawa) and I felt the presence of the film; as I watched it, I understood I was breathing new air. I could explain my enjoyment of the film in the way the story was told, the acting, the shots (structural criticism), or that the theme of carpe diem is an important reminder of the tenuous, ever-changing world we live in (thematic), or that a whole combination of delightful echoes resonated with me in the movie’s irony, intelligence, cultural references, and hidden meanings (pleasure). But it is something else that makes this movie great, it’s a movie that reaches out and takes you inside your own being, dares you to face the bureaucrat in your soul. What will you do with the piles of busy work you have accumulated there?

I had to watch several times the amazing scene with the lead, Takashi Shimura (he would later star as the head samurai in The Seven Samurai), singing the theme song of the movie as he sits in a Tokyo bar.

“The Gondola Song” (a song popular in Japan in 1915):

Life is brief.
Fall in love, maidens,
Before the crimson bloom fades from your lips,
Before the tides of passion cool within you,
For those of you who know no tomorrow…

Life is brief.
Fall in love, maidens,
Before the raven tresses begin to fade,
Before the flame in your hearts flicker and die,
For those to whom today will never return.

I don’t know how a person can watch this scene and not feel one’s life being towed away, given a wax and a valve adjustment, and then returned spotless and ready to drive. I don’t mean that you’ll feel a pandering sentimental catharsis, but that you will be given a metaphysical tune-up.

Another aspect of the film that I find fascinating is the relationship of the main character’s stomach cancer to the Japanese concept of hara (belly). An article from the Japan Times, “Linguists gutted by body-talk blight: Traditional expressions are dying out as thought patterns change,” discusses how Japanese used to have a whole range of body-centric phrases linked to the concept of the belly as the seat of the soul. “Used to have” because the phrases are dying out in modern Japanese.

Perhaps this connection to hara (instead of to our sentimental hearts or crazy heads) is what Professor Butler was getting at when he tried to explain the effect great art has on its audience. Maybe the metaphor of “seeing” a new world was located in the wrong body part. When a book or a movie profoundly affects me, I don’t feel I’m seeing a new world-view, but more like I’ve been punched in the belly, or that I have to hana o neru (work it over in my guts).

Ikiru joins the list of Japanese movies that have punched me right in the belly.

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