Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Taking a brief break from Japan--we shall resume tomorrow with Hiroshima and Miyajima--happy almost-ended Halloween everyone! I'm a big fan of holidays that involve neither religion nor ways we screwed over the Native Americans so it's definitely a favorite of mine. Every year since I've moved here, Wendy and I have gotten dressed up and gone to watch the parade in Greenwich Village. Of course we never get there early enough to get a good spot but it's fun anyway.

Anyone who wears a costume can walk in the parade but the organized groups and floats are definitely the best. You see everything from topless ladies wearing body paint to war protesters to people dressed up as fruit. Anyway, I'm not so good at photographing things I can barely see in the dark, but here are a few pictures anyway:
Walking to the parade.
One of the floats.
Neat--but difficult to see because I didn't aim the camera right--dragon.

Hope everyone had a great holiday!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Japan Day 6: Koyasan

You know what sucks, forgetting to buy allergy medicine when you're allergic to your pets. I think I've sneezed about 20 times in the last two minutes. Anyway . . .

Of everywhere I went in Japan, Koyasan was my favorite place. It was entirely fantastic. Many people stay overnight in one of the 110 temples in this small town, but we weren't staying and therefore only had the day. It wasn't quite enough time to see everything I would have liked to see but we did get to see quite a lot.

We got up early in the morning and caught the train there. For a change the ride was through countryside and small towns rather than cities and suburbs. At times we were going through tunnels under mountains, at times along the sides of mountains, looking over small valley towns. At least in this part of the country the mountains are rolling and soft looking, never above the tree line, and falling into successive ridges like folds of cloth. Most of the trees look to be deciduous and the forest are positively filled with Maples. In November the mountains probably look as though they're on fire. When the train passed through towns we saw gardens and rice paddies and tiny small town stations. It was an utterly picturesque ride.

At the end of the train line we had to switch to a cable car. It's not like any cable car I'd ever seen. It's built at the same angle as the tracks with broad, shallow steps inside like you'd find inside a theater. The backs of the seats are so straight it feels as though they are angled forward and the people sitting across from you are very close indeed. The ride takes about ten minutes and you end up on the decidedly chill top of a mountain. A bus then takes you down into the center of town--which is, happily, slightly warmer.

When we got to Koyasan, the first place we went was the Tokugawa Mausoleums. They're not actually particularly exciting because all the decoration is on the inside of the fenced portion in the picture below and you have to kind of peer through the slats.
The buildings within the fence are beautifully decorated and quite lavish, it's just not possible to really look closely at them or see them from the angles you'd really want to. Still, it's clear that these were constructed as memorials to important people. Anything with that much gold decor generally is.

After the slight disappointment of the mausoleum we headed to Okunoin, which is on the Eastern edge of the town, to see Koyasan's very old graveyard full of important people. Since we didn't get the audio guide we didn't know which important people those were or where they were. Didn't really matter though--it was interesting to see an old Japanese graveyard, mostly because it was beautiful.

The older section of the graveyard was filled with old growth Cedars and monuments that were entirely unlike any I'd ever seen in a Western graveyard. It would actually be really interesting to know the meaning and symbolism but even without knowing that it was a lovely place to spend time, as older graveyards so often seem to be. Only problem was that there were hordes of mosquitoes.
There was a large number of these groups.
One of several mausoleums.

Leaving Okunoin and the mosquitoes behind we walked to Kongobuji temple, which is the principal monastery and was my favorite of the temples I saw in Japan. When we entered the huge building we had to put our shoes in little cubbies--at many of the temples you visit you can't go inside so you get to keep your shoes--and then put on the slippers they provide.
My veiny old lady feet.

When we paid for our admission we were told that there was a tea service at the end of a long hall, so we went there first. The tea room was covered with tatami mats so we put our sandals on shelves just outside the door and went in bare-footed. Inside we were given a tray with slightly bitter tea and a cookie that was rather sweet. We sat on the floor and a monk came in and told us something or other than chanted a bit, while we sat there pretending we had any idea what was going on.

After the tea service we walked around the tea room to see the biggest rock garden in Japan. If I'm remembering correctly, the design is supposed to represent two dragons emerging from the clouds.
After seeing the rock garden we checked out the real highlight of the temple: its beautifully painted sliding doors. Some depict the founding of Koyasan in the 9th century, others the seasons, and so on and so forth. They were really fantastic. No pictures were allowed, and I've had no luck finding any online, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Walking on from Kongobuji, we went to see the Konpon Daito, which has lots of Buddhas inside and then walked around the grounds there, which are full of interesting buildings.

After leaving the area of the Konpon Daito we finally reached the West end of the town, marked by a giant gate called the Daimon. As we approached the sun was setting and visible directly through the center of the gate.

As it became truly dark, we took a bus up to the cable car and then, after waiting some time, the cable car back to the train to Osaka.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Japan Day 5: Minoh

Taking a break from city life we (Steph, her boyfriend Tim, and I) hopped on a train to Minoh to go to Minō Quasi-National Park. The park is known for its monkeys, but happily we didn't see any. I know that a lot of people like the idea of seeing monkeys in their natural habitat, but it's not for me. From what I've heard, the experience can be unpleasant. Anyway the idea was that we were going to go hiking, so I took my backpack, which is after all, specifically meant for hiking, and put together some pretty great gorp (although I can't take credit for it, the mixed nuts we got at the import store were just particularly tasty).

We walked for a bit along the side of a lovely stream.

Then Tim suggested we take a higher path that looked more like a hike than the stroll we were on. Although there was a bit of confusion because the signs looked like this:
Note that the sign is not, in fact, made of wood.

we eventually got to a point that had a great view and ate our lunch there.

That's Osaka in the distance; you can it see better if you enlarge.

Steph, who had a map, then navigated us back to the main path, along the side of a small temple. Given that, in addition to the many temple pictures I've already posted I have tons more, I'm not going to post any pictures of this particular temple, but here are some pictures of things around it.
A flower growing on temple grounds.
Bridge leading away from the temple.
Building on the other side of the bridge.

Leaving the temple we walked along the paved path we had started on, passing some pretty flowers on the way.

About a kilometer later, we reached the waterfall which is one of the main attractions of the park. The other--discounting the monkeys--is the fall foliage. The whole area is full of maple trees and turns bright red later in the fall. They're really big on the maples here, and also sell fried maple leaves (momijino tempura). I tried them but wasn't really a fan.

The waterfall is lovely, but no more so than any number of waterfalls I've seen in the Adirondacks or on other hiking trips. Although it is more accessible than many of them. Still it was very nice to get out of the cities for a day.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

ABT: Clear, C. to C., and From Here on Out

I'm getting fairly accustomed to sitting in the last three rows of City Center's rear mezzanine. We don't even need anyone to tell us where to go at this point because we've pretty much sat in the same seats the last three times we've been there. Which says an awful lot more about the price of the seats than it does about how much we enjoy them because they're pretty terrible.

I always feel weird writing about dance (and I promise, at some point I'll stop going on and on about this but I feel like I need to include it like a disclaimer). I go to see because I feel so unqualified to talk about it. When I write about books or even plays and art exhibits that I go to see I feel fairly capable of making statements about them. I at least know what I've seen or read, whereas when I'm watching dance I always feel like I think I see something, or I might see something, but I never feel particularly confident about it.

Anyway, just like Wednesday night, the show opened with Clear. The difference being that it featured Jose Manuel Carreño and Paloma Herrera instead of Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes. I liked Cornejo better than Carreño in this piece. Somehow he seemed more invested in the piece and also more fluid. Carreño was somehow more distant and stiff seeming at times, although certainly not always.

There are a number of things I don't understand about this piece. Why are the at times awkward and even vaguely absurd arm movements there? It makes the piece seem showier and less interesting. And what is the purpose of the one woman in the otherwise homosocial milieu? If the dance is about her and the central male figure then what is the purpose of all the other men who periodically interact with her? If it's about the men then what is her purpose? Or is there no purpose or point? It's totally possible that there's something there which I'm not getting. But I'm definitely not getting it. That said, it's fun to watch, and I very much enjoyed the duet with Hammoudi and Hoven on both nights.

The second piece was the world premier of Jorma Elo's C. to C. (Close to Chuck) which is a rather clever name given that it's based on the life of Chuck Close. The music was by Philip Glass, whose music I generally like and the primary parts were danced by Marcelo Gomes and Julie Kent.

It began with five people, three men and two women, standing on the stage wearing stiff floor length skirts and jacket like things (if I'm remembering correctly) in dim lighting. A third woman, also in a stiff skirt came and took the jackets. This left the men bare chested, while the top half of the women's clothing was largely semi-transparent with a cross-shaped swath of black material. When the dancers turned the shiny inside of the skirts was visible.

When the dancers began to move it was stiffly, almost robotically, and often only one of two moved at once, while the others stood still. Eventually they got rid of the skirts (off stage) and returned with the women in leotards (what had before seemed to be the top half) and the men in black tights that were semi-transparent on the outside of the leg.

I'm so bad at remembering sequences, so bear with me here, but at some point everyone left the stage except for Gomes. He stood alone in the middle of the stage with his back oddly contorted. He then began to dance, at times looking as though he was not in control of his extremities, particularly his hands. The movement seemed tortured. I took this part to be symbolic of the spinal aneurysm that robbed Close of the use of his hands and legs and the physical and emotional pain that must have come with it. Gomes was fantastic in this section.

Kent then came back on stage and she and Gomes danced together with what was the most fluid seeming movement of the piece up to that point. Perhaps him learning to live and paint again post-paralysis? After their pas de deux (I think that would be the correct term here?) the rest of the dancers took the stage as well and now their dancing seemed to me to be filled with joy. Herman Cornejo seemed to me to embody this particularly well. The overcoming of obstacles, conquering of adversity, realization that life goes on after tragedy? Even the discovery of something new--like Close's current style of painting--out of the wreckage of the old? In the end though, the stiff movement came back, and here I thought that maybe there was a reminder that we cannot go back and what is done can't be undone.

I really loved the whole piece. I don't know enough about the idiom to judge the choreography as such, but I was continuously interested in what was happening on stage and, more importantly, I thought that the dancers were wonderfully expressive of the emotional content. I felt that, in both the music and the dance, it was a truly moving tribute to Close.

As an aside, while I certainly have liked Gomes's dancing in other things, I really loved his dancing in this.

I suppose it's only fair to note that that the elderly gentlemen sitting next to us liked it rather less than I did, saying it was their "least favorite Jorma." I'm sure it comes as no shock to you to hear that I've never seen anything choreographed by Elo before.

Wendy liked it after the beginning but said that she really prefers the tutus and the pretty dancing and stories. I, meanwhile, am finding that I really don't. I just remain unconvinced that dance, which I think can express ideas and emotion brilliantly, is the best way of conveying a narrative. I don't know--I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

And to just add one more note, I really liked that Close was actually involved in this work and came out for the bows. At least in the rear mezzanine, it was when he came out that everyone stood up.

The third and final ballet of the evening was From Here on Out choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, which had it's premier on Friday and is danced to a commissioned score by Nico Muhly, something that has been presented as a big deal. David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy were dancing the leads tonight. On the whole it rather reminded me of some of Wheeldon's work that I saw when we went to see Morphoses, except it has more lateral movement (a good thing) and less invention (not such a good thing) then what I saw there.

The title seems to imply some kind of prescriptive for the future--from here on out it will be this way, from here on out you should do this, etc.--but I wasn't sure how that related to what I was watching on stage. It was interesting in parts and less interesting in others. On the balance I enjoyed watching it, but unlike with C. to C. I don't have much interest in watching it again. I thought that Murphy was lovely but not, I thought, particularly expressive and Hallberg didn't have much to do but was enjoyable to watch anyway. I wasn't a fan of the purple unitards. Beyond that I find myself with not all that much to say about it. The much-talked-up score was fine and had a lot of energy, but didn't speak to me in any particular way either.

Japan Day 4: Nara

Nara isn't a particularly big place but it spent a brief period as the first permanent capital of Japan which means, surprise surprise, lots of temples and shrines. Both of the places we were going to see were world heritage sites, but the city also has quite a few world heritage sites we didn't see. Theoretically, the buildings are very old but in reality, because they're made of wood they've been burned down and rebuilt fairly often.

There is a huge park in Nara and everything we were planning to see is within it. There are hundreds of deer wandering around the park and you can buy these cracker-like things to feed them but we chose not to. I'm sure they get plenty of food anyway. Anyway, the first thing we did was walk straight through the park to Kasuga Taisha shrine. The shrine is famous for it's many lanterns--both the stone ones lining the approach and the metal ones within. Twice a year there are festivals where they light all the lanterns, but they were pretty neat unlit as well.
Not a great picture but you can see all the lanterns lining the path, going off into the distance.

Inside the shrine.
And yet more lanterns.

From the shrine we walked to Todaiji Temple which is, the literature tells us, the largest wooden structure in the world. As you approach the temple there are some mostly schlocky gift shops and more deer than ever.
Gate with deer.
The main hall, or Daibutsuden.

Todaiji is famous not only for it's size, but for the Daibutsu, or giant bronze statue of Buddha. (making the Daibutsuden "the hall of the Great Buddha").
The Buddha is massive (15 meters in height, with fingers the size of a human) and I don't think you can get a good idea of it from my rather poor picture, so here it is featured in a video. The golden statue in the video is Kokuuzo-bosatsu. The video also shows you a small segment of the horde of schoolchildren that we were wading through in Todaiji.

Taking pictures within the dark and cavernous temple was difficult, and while I tried to take photos of some of the large statuary, they really didn't come out well. Here's one that is decent though and it gives you an idea of what several of the statues looked like.

One of the pillars holding up the daibutsuden has a hole in it that is supposed to be the size of Buddha's nose. If you can crawl through the fairly small hole, you are theoretically guaranteed a place in heaven. I didn't get a chance to crawl through because there was an incredibly long line of schoolchildren going through, but so it goes.

The following statue was just outside the temple. It's the image of one of Buddha's disciples. If you rub a part of the statue and then the corresponding part of your own body any ailment you have there is supposed to disappear.
Binzuru (Pindola Bharadvaja)

And after seeing all that we walked the mile or so back to the train station and headed back to Osaka.

Friday, October 26, 2007

ABT: Clear, Leaves are Fading, and Fancy Free

What's the movie where that one character is always saying, "busy, busy, busy!"? I feel like it's a Disney movie or something. I don't know. That's been me this week. Wednesday I went to the ballet with Kir, Jenny, and Wendy (more on that below) and Thursday Wendy and I met our across the hall neighbor for the first time. He's lived there for about a year, but we weren't even sure what he looked like, which is so very New York, but not in a good way. Hey, I grew up in the suburbs, I'm used to the whole chatting with the neighbors thing. Anyway, he had a few friends over and invited us to come over and drink port and eat with various cheeses and such with them--seems like a nice guy. I'm pretty sure he's also the only other person on our floor who is under the age of seventy.

Then today I went up to a bar on the Upper East Side and met Jenny and some of her friends there to watch the Sabres game. So it's all been fun stuff, but I'm such a homebody that I find it exhausting. And on a sidenote, the whole having a life thing is really interfering with my blogging. I'm going to stay pretty busy through the weekend I think, but after that things should lighten up. Who knows, I might even get to catch up on some of my reading. I'm in the middle of a couple interesting books right now, and recently finished a couple other books that I'd like to write about. But anyway...

Wednesday I met Kir after work and the two of us walked over to a Japanese restaurant on 49th between 6th and 7th, where we met Wendy and Jenny for dinner. It was one of those places where the food is really cheap and they give you enough to feed an army. From there we walked up to City Center in the rain--which I normally don't mind, but it's been the nasty, drizzly kind of rain for the most part.

I really enjoyed everything we saw on Wednesday, although I feel like I missed bits of Clear and would need to see it again. Which I will, tomorrow, so it's a good thing I'm interested in watching it more than once. I'm not sure exactly what it's trying to say although I certainly get the impression that there's an emotion or idea there that it's trying to express.

I'm sure that I could do with seeing Leaves are Fading again as well--which I won't--but I did think that it's meaning was much more apparent and clearly expressed in the choreography. The Dvorak music it's set to is absolutely beautiful and the dancing, which is a meditation on love and memory and aging and the passing of time--or at least that's what I thought it was--fits it perfectly. I saw Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes (they're pictured above in the photo I stole from ABT's Web site) in this and thought that Kent was particularly beautiful. Everything about the role seems well-suited to her. Gomes was also a pleasure to watch. If you'd like to see the pas de deux they performed, you can see different dancers doing it here (embedding is disabled). Really quite lovely.

The final piece of the evening was Fancy Free which just seemed like a lot of fun not only for the audience but for the dancers as well. I mean, for all I know they loathe dancing it but they certianly managed to seem like they were having fun. The only choreography of Robbins that I'd seen previously was West Side Story and I really enjoyed watching Fancy Free because you can definitely see that Broadway/Musical Theater sensibility in it. It also seemed so quintessentially 40s with it's sailor costumes and gags. Which is neat because I quite like musicals and such from that era. Watching, it was like watching a musical except one where the story is told through the dancing/movement alone. As someone who has really never danced or used any non-verbal communication I think it's fascinating to see how people are doing that. I love it.

Tomorrow Wendy and I are going to see Clear again and the new Millepied and Elo works. Hopefully it's as enjoyable as Wednesday was.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Japan Day 3: Kyoto

On Wednesday--this is way back on the 3rd now--we took a train to Kyoto for a day of heavy duty temple and shrine seeing. As I start talking about seeing all these temples, let me just state that the Buddhist temples have clearly got getting money from visitors, whether Buddhist or otherwise, down to a science. I'm not criticizing because it doesn't bother me. I'm just noting that they know how to get their money.

When we arrived in Kyoto we hopped onto a very crowded bus and took the longest ride ever--i.e. about an hour--to Kinkakuji. Steph, who makes a fantastic tour guide, says that this is the most popular temple with foreigners. I assume because it's flashy and gold (and rather prettier than it looks in this rather dull picture).
You walk around the pond on a path stopping to see various items of interest. For example, bowls like in the photo below. The idea is that if you can throw a coin into the bowl you'll have good luck. Right. Granted, I threw a coin anyway, but "good luck?" I suspect that might equate to "grounds upkeep."

After Kinkakuji we took a shorter bus ride to Imperial Palace Park, but couldn't see much. Mainly just that the largely invisible imperial palace is very big. So we walked around, looked at the walls, saw some fish and ducks in a little park, and then hopped back on a bus to go to Kiyomizu Temple.
Kiyomizu is fantastic. It was also very crowded--positively crawling with students. Probably because you can buy charms for good luck on things like exams and love. In the same section as they sell these charms, there are also two stones set some distance apart. If you can walk from one to the other with your eyes closed, you will have good luck in love. If you fail, you will have to wait a long time for love. Anyway, it's a pretty neat place with lots to look at, so here are some pictures:
Dippers for rinsing hands and mouth.
I have no idea who this guy is.
Little plaques on which you can write wishes. After purchasing the plaque, of course.
Like candles in a church!

Little BuddhasA snail checking out some flowers.

After Kiyomizu, I was able to buy souvenirs at a couple of the many gift shops lining the street leading up to the temple. From there we wandered through the old, winding streets of Gion (a district in Kyoto). Apparently this is the area where you can occasionally still see geisha, but I didn't. It was nice though, because there were these great old wooden building--the kind that have courtyards with trees growing in them and visible over the tops of the walls. There was one area that had a lot of these interesting looking things, although I have no idea what they are:

From Gion, we took a subway to Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is, again, very neat. I quite like the dogs at shinto shrines, and Fushimi Inari was the first place where I saw bundles of 1000 cranes.
The real attraction at Fushimi Inari though is the long line of gates leading up away from the shrine. It was dark by the time we got there and quiet because it was almost empty. The gates start out large, but soon change to smaller gates that are closer together.
The flash makes everything look all brightly lit in those pictures though, which wasn't really the case. It was actually fairly eerie. To give you a better idea of what it actually looked like I give you this video which, though slightly dark, is much closer to the reality. Unfortunately it's sideways for most of the video before I think to flip it right side up. This is because a) I'm an idiot and b) I had never used the video feature before. Oh well. You'll still get the picture.

Our final stop was back in Gion, where we had dinner and then went to see what is supposed to be the loveliest night spot in Kyoto. It's a tree-lined road that has a little stream--a tributary of the big river running through the city--running alongside it. The stream is crossed by many small bridges leading to restaurants and other buildings.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Japan Day 2: Osaka Castle, Temples, a Graveyard, and Okonomiyaki

My second day in Japan, Stephanie took me to see Osaka Castle. It's in a lovely park. The first thing you see, castle-wise, is the outer moat.
Then you walk through a giant gate, turn left, and walk through another giant gate.
Second gate with omnipresent schoolchildren.

There's still a great deal of space within the gates and we wandered around, looking at a small temple with a rock garden, taking pictures with those 2 dimensional figures that have holes where their faces should be so you can stick your head there, and eating lunch.

And after seeing that, we went to the main attraction.
The first thing you do upon entering Osaka Castle is go up to the observation level where you can get a 360 degree view of the city. That level also has these beautiful black and gold decorations:
Apparently it's what the castle used to look like.

Inside is a museum devoted to the history of the castle. Particularly that of original builder Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his resistance toward the shogunate. The museum has the neatest dioramas I've ever seen. Basically they have these three dimensional dioramas within which there are transparent video or projection screens (I'm not sure which). On the screens they show actors portraying various events. Each diorama lights up in sequence as you go around the room. Of course this doesn't photograph very well, but the picture below should give you some idea of what I'm talking about. I loved these things.
Beyond the dioramas they have letters from Hideyoshi, decorative items from the castle, armor, mock-ups of battles and various other things.
Part of a tiger that used to decorate the exterior of the castle.

Steph had a private lesson to teach, so I was on my own for the afternoon. I took the subway back to her neighborhood and then checked out a small shrine and graveyard before going to see the huge temple across the street from her house. Shittenoji was essentially the first of a great many temples I saw while in Japan, but was actually rather different than many of them because it feels more like a working temple than a tourist attraction.
Just one part of the giant temple.
Dippers to rinse your hands and mouth (I felt that rinsing my hands was enough).

In the evening we went to eat an Osaka specialty called okonomiyaki. It's basically cabbage, egg, some kind of sauce, and I don't know what else. You can request certain things be put in it. Steph and I had it with cow meat because we wanted to stick with something she recognized the kanji for. There's a grill at each table and they cook it right in front of you.
Fussy eater or not, all that cabbage can't be too bad
Okonomiyaki once cooked . . . we skipped the fish flakes and mayo.

We also got yakisoba which I liked rather better than the okonomiyaki.

Unfortunately, we hadn't realized what was going to be in it since there were no pictures or English menus here, and this place didn't have the ubiquitous fake food either. So there were some leftovers.
Still, by my standards it was a pretty adventurous day.