Tokyo no Ongaku o Kikoemasu!
Previous Letter | Next Letter | Japan Snapshots | Japan Letter Index | Home Page | contact
 February 3, 1999

I'm finally starting to feel like I've made some good progress in getting settled in here in Tokyo. I had a bit of a rough time the first few weeks because I became very ill with some kind of bug that I think is still going around. My illness seemed to be initiated by a long evening out with some new music people at an electronic music concert followed by several hours at a very smokey restaurant which made me feel quite conjested and weak. By morning I was very ill and stayed that way for several days.

I am doing much better now. My neighbors (Jean and Daniella) have been a very kind welcoming party for me. Jean took me on a walk through a really nice part of my neighborhood, revealing a section I had been unaware of. There was a beautiful Japanese garden, a temple, and a shopping area with many designer boutiques and little places to eat, as well as the video rental place, for which I now have a card. I was still somewhat ill that day, but the walk made me feel much better. Also Daniella, invited me to a wild fashion show sponsored by a school where she teaches French. It started with very adventurous and bizarre designs by the students, some of which more resembled costumes for some kind of wild theatre than streetwear. The later part of the show was a series of designs by professional, famous Japanese designers who, I guessed, were graduates of the school. These included some very attractive, and classic designs that were reminiscent of such designers as Issei Miyaki and Kenzo.

That same evening I went to dinner with Rick Dyck and some of his Symphony friends. I sat next to the charming and handsome new director of the Shinsei Symphony. He is a lovely French man named Pascal Verrot who lives most of the year in Lyon with his family, but comes here to direct the symphony. Crazy how artists commute! Is this similar to when Lucky Mosko was living in LA, directing an ensemble in SF and teaching part time in Chicago?

Anyway, the dinner was at a wonderful restaurant run by a guy from the South of France who converted a house into this charming place. After we ate several delicous courses, Rick insisted that everyone retire to the other room and listen to "In Tymes of Olde" and "Addiction…" on From A to Z. They seemed to enjoy it. I promised I'd produce more, newer work while here in Japan.

I've attended a number of events in my first few weeks here:

I've been twice to hear the Shinsei Symphony at Suntory Hall, which is as conservative in it's choice of repertoire as the Blomstedt-era SF Symphony was. (One evening was Rachmaninof, Saint-Saens, & Tchaikovsky concertos, the other evening waltzes (mostly Strauss including a Die Fledermaus medley) and a little Mozart. But, Mr. Verrot is a lively and engaging conductor, and commanded several encores in the waltz concert.

By contrast, the first event I attended here in Tokyo was much more adventurous. It was an electronic music concert held at ICC (Intercommunication Center) that included works by Otomo Yoshihide and several others. Some of the artsists worked with audio sampling and sequencing software on G3 Powerbooks, and in one case with processors and vinyl LPs. All of the works were fairly ambient in nature, but one was incredibly loud for my taste with too much overwhelming high frequency sound. A few of the artists also worked with video images on multiple monitors around the perimeter of the space.

I also attended a concert at the Kirin Headquarters (sponsered by Kirin-Seagram) at the foot of Mount Fuji. Unfortunately, it was very foggy and I couldn't see Fugi-san at all! The concert was shakuhachi player (Aki Nakamura) and two kotoists (Yagi Michiyo, and another woman who's name- only in kanji on the program- escapes me at the moment). The nicest pieces were a solo by the Nakamura-san emulating the sounds of the Japanese tsuru (crane), and a trio by a composer named Jioji Sawada. Many of the other works were a bit to pretty/poppy for my taste. It was nice meeting the musicians, however, and Michiyo-san gave me a copy of her koto improv CD on Zorn's Tzadik label. I later listened and liked most of the music on the CD more than I liked the performance.

I've also attended a Gamelan concert at International house, visited the Zojoji Temple, and saw a sculpture exhibit by Yuko Hishiyama in the stylish part of my neighborhood. The sculpture exhibit was actually in a designer clothing store (Yohji Yamamoto), and the figures where amazing, larger-than-life, "Urban Dwellers" fashioned from aluminum mesh. The faces on these figures were amazing and full of life! The clothing (also mesh) was made to resemble designs by Yamamoto, but the figures were not the typical waiflike willowy fashion models. They were large, bulbous, ample figures with aged-looking visages. I was very taken in by this show.

It's amazing how expensive things can be here. The concert at Fuji, for example was "free", but the train and taxi fares I paid to get there added up to almost 8000 yen (so the concert wound up costing me almost $80! I've been trying to include a lot of fresh fruit in my diet, but a package of 4 oranges can cost between 600 and 800 Yen! (about $6 or $8). The other day, I paid Y700 for a package of dental floss! Yikes! One thing I've been told by other people who have come here is that it takes several weeks but, eventually, you learn to stop doing that yen to dollars conversion in your head and just accept the prices as they are. I'm working towards thinking that way. "800 yen is 800 yen and that's the cost of a basket of strawberries. Take it or leave it!"

Another difficulty that a gaijin such as my self encounters here is finding clothing and shoes that fit. I've seen many beautiful shoe stores, but typically they don't have my size. It turns out that my size is just one size over the largest size usually available. Occasionally I find one or two pairs that might just fit me, but its slim pickings. I kind of need to find a pair of shoes here, because the shoes I brought with me are mostly sort of high-top, lace-up boot styles. This was a grave mistake. You have to remove your shoes sometimes several times a day. This means I spend an inordinate amount of time lacing and unlacing my shoes. I have one pair of shoes that zip, but they have a bit of a heel, so I don't like wearing them daily. I'm on a quest for a handsome, flat, comfortable, affordable pair of shoes or low boots with zipper or elastic closure. I have yet to find them! I have seen numerous, inexpensive pairs of the trendy Japanese style which is enormous shoes that look almost like clown shoes with incredibly big rounded platforms. Unfortunately, I think they look rather silly on me and, ironically, although there is more than ample room in them width-wise, they are of course always a little too short for my feet! Ah well…

I'm learning to get around on the Japanese subway and rail systems. The trains are extremely efficient and priced sort of in the BART kind of range. My Japanese is improving slightly, but I think I want to take some classes here. I have the embarrassing problem that my pronunciation is quite good. If I speak just a little, people have the impression that I am fluent and then expect me to understand what they are saying. Then they are puzzled when I say "Wakarimasen! Wakarimasen!" (I don't understand) to everything they say. My landlord is convinced that I speak Japanese, and now calls me and talks and talks. Once she came over and almost wouldn't leave! I say that I don't understand (in my perfect diction), and she repeats or rephrases whatever she said slowly and patiently. She is so funny! She reminds me a bit of my Mother.

I am trying to set up a lecture performance in Kobe, and I plan to do a presentation at International House. I'm also looking into doing a performance at ICC. But I've decided that my main mission while here will be to attend as many performances and exhibits (both traditional and contemporary/experimental) as possible, and to learn the language and collect some great samples of the rich sound culture here. There are so many sounds in Tokyo, its astounding. Big crows perch everywhere and cry out with amazingly human-sounding caws. A variety of other smaller birds roost and call out as well. But the most overwhelmingly noticeable sounds are the constant human-made soundtrack to the city's daily doings.

Everything talks in Tokyo. Trucks turning or backing up on the street have a high pitched female voice announcing their intentions instead of a beeping sound. Busses have a recorded voice announcing the upcoming stop and asking you to watch your step as you exit. Even my smoke/gas alarm talks if it goes off. Instead of the ear-piercing squeal of our smoke alarms, a polite woman announces something like "Danger, gas!" or "Danger, Smoke!" repeatedly. It's kind of hilarious. Also, at 5pm every day, a little musicbox-like synthesized melody is broadcast throughout my neighborhood as sort of a curfew for the children- warning that it will soon be dark and they should go home. I also hear something that sounds like Buddhist chanting being broadcast at certain times. There is also the constant sound of people on the phone. Everyone (literally everyone) on the streets of Tokyo is on the phone! They walk briskly holding tiny hand-held phones that look like toy phones to the ears. And on the train, there's always a woman behind you saying "Hai! Hai! Hai! Hai! Hai!" or "Eh! Eh! Eh! Eh! Eh! Eh!", but when you turn around, there is no-one with her! The most amusing sound might be the JR trains. They play a different melody for each station that warns that the train doors are about to close. I think our funny caliope-like music on airport shuttles (like the ones in Denver and Seattle that take you to your concourse) must have been inspired by these Japanese train songs. They are all sort of very souped up pop arrangements of cute little melodies but played in mono-timbral bell-like synthesizer voices, and they last about 10 or 15 seconds. Some of them are quite complex and quickly go through kind of an introduction and then a little development and then a truncated sort of cadence.

Ok, last story for this particular Japan Letter:

I saw the most astounding thing when I first arrived. First some background: The road workers here wear these really great uniforms. It's kind of a yellow or tan blousy shirt and pants. The shirt is tucked into the belted pants, and the pants blouse out and then are cinched into cloth boots with soft rubber souls. I think they look absolutely great walking around in these things. (The look a bit like "Le Petit Prince".) You often see groups of them operating cranes and jackhammers and such, just like road workers do. And sometimes some of them are stationed at the beginning of the construction holding short Darth Vader/Donald Swearingen-style glowing batons which they use to wave people around the danger area. Anyway, one day as I was approaching an intersection where work was being done, I saw such a man waving his baton to direct people to the left of where the work was being done. I thought to myself, "My, his arm must get tired! He seems so stiff and he waves that thing so relentlessly!" Then, when I got closer, I realized that the worker I was looking at was not a man, but a mannequin of sorts! He was a life-size robot, dressed just like the other workers, waving a baton in the same way I'd seen human ones do it! That's Tokyo!


Previous Letter | Next Letter | Japan Snapshots | Japan Letter Index | Home Page | contact