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May – July 2013 – random activities

Wow! I did many random activities during this time period. Enjoy!

May 19 – Some festival in Asakusa
So Asakusa is home to the most visited, touristy temple in all of Tokyo. Ai heard about this festival around the temple, so we went!

Many people! You can see the mikoshi (festival float that a group of people carries around on their shoulders) in the background. Somehow, it’s able to make its way through the throngs!

Mikoshi close up. There were several mikoshi going around that day. I’m actually really unsure about how the whole system works…

Big gate across the courtyard from Asakusa temple! I didn’t get a picture of the actual temple, but this gate is pretty good, I think.

Big lantern above the entrance to the temple.

There’s a taiko group called Nihon Taiko Dojo, and their teacher is really famous, and lots of famous American taiko players have come to Japan and studied with him. However, this taiko dojo never does performances, except for once at year…at this festival! I didn’t even know they were playing when I came. I am lucky!

After the taiko performance, there was a “short” Noh play. There are two famous traditional styles of Japanese theater: Noh and Kabuki. Noh is the older, less exciting, and more tedious of the two. This short play was actually about 45 minutes and consisted of about 30 seconds of story: old guy makes moonshine, moonshine attracts monster, old man flees, monster drinks moonshine, monster falls asleep, samurai comes, samurai fights monster, and…after this part Ai and I decided to take off, since we had been standing for about 40 minutes. I think it was almost over, and I assume the ending consisted of the samurai winning and everyone celebrating. There was also a female character, but she did nothing. She came out, sat down, and didn’t move for most of the play. At one exciting point, she scampers off the stage when the monster/samurai fight gets too exciting for her sit-and-do-nothing demeanor. You can actually see her blurrily running away in the above picture. Despite testing my patience, this WAS pretty cool to watch. The costumes were neat, and the music was so minimalistic and interesting. There were only three musicians: a shime-daiko player (a small, rope-tightened drum played with sticks), a noh-kan player (which is a kind of high pitched, transverse flute), and a tsuzumi player (which is a small, hour-glass shaped drum the player hits with their hand, often while wailing in a falsetto. This instrumentalist is sort of like the conductor of the group of Noh musicians in that he/she leads the music). It was impressive to see the variety of sounds and moods these three musicians could conjure, and that they were playing throughout the performance with no help from sheet music. Wish I had had a bit more patience to see it through to the end.

Monks carrying a drum, beating it regularly to lead the way for the mikoshi.

I believe this is a maiko, which is like an apprentice geisha.

I think Ai mentioned this was the biggest, most important float. The float-carriers were going nuts, jumping up and down and shaking it. I saw a dad try putting his young son on the float, and he immediately turned bright red and started crying. Fun!

June 2 – Rose Garden
There’s a really famous rose garden near my apartment! Since roses bloom twice per year, it’s open for about three weeks in the spring and fall. I went with Ai and we glowered at the flowers! (by glower, I mean smile happily).




June 24 – Kamakura
Wow! I loved this place! I’m going to post a bunch of pictures. This is a nice town in Kanagawa prefecture that’s west of Yokohama and next to the ocean. There’s a famous hollow bronze buddha here that was built in 1252, but whose surrounding temple got destroyed several times in the following centuries because of tsunamis and taiphoons, so eventually the good folk of Kamakura decided that their enormous bronze creation didn’t need to be sheltered, and its been sitting out in the sun since 1495. I visited this statue, went for a hike, and checked out a big ol’ shrine called Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. Pictures!


Inside buddha! Looking up at his head.

Enjoying ourselves in Buddha’s womb!



I came across a cave that had been turned into a shrine of some sort.


I think I like it here.

Really pretty temple!

Really pretty bell!

Looking along the path leading to the enormous shrine.

At the bottom of the stairs….

At the top of the stairs!

Cool old tree that just wishes it could fall over and be done with it all.

June 30 – Sankeien garden
This nice garden in Yokohama was owned by some wealthy guy about a century ago, who was so wealthy and insane that he bought buildings, and had them brought to his garden. So now you can see all sorts of old, traditional Japanese homes and buildings here as you stroll around.




July 8 – Amaterasu
As you may know, I love the taiko group Kodo. This taiko group recently chose Kabuki extraordinaire Tamasaburo Bando as their artistic director. Bando has a flair for flamboyance that I have been reserved about accepting. Besides the florescent and sparkly clothes he likes to adorn the Kodo players with, his artistic choices have not, in my humble opinion, been made with keen sensitivity towards the musical aspect of Kodo. The shows are good and dramatic, but I can’t help but feel there is a lot more Kodo could do that would be more musically pleasing if maybe Bando would hand over more control of the musical decisions to others. It seems to me the pieces he puts his hands on are fine, but they often leave me cold. This was especially true of their DVD “Dadan”. However, I went to a Kodo performance that Bando directed last December, called “Legend”, and actually really enjoyed it. Looking at the program, he only wrote one of the pieces, and helped write another piece, and the show as a whole turned out really well. I could tell he pulled in the reigns on his tendency to be flamboyant, and the more traditional outfits and overall feeling of the show was quite satisfying. I almost appreciated his flair.

SO, come this past July, and a production called Amaterasu is playing all month in Tokyo. I’m not sure what to call it, because it’s part play, part concert. It’s the retelling of the Japanese legend of the goddess Amaterasu, with Bando playing the leading role of Amaterasu, and various Kodo members filling in other parts. As backing music, Bando uses Kodo on stage in an exciting sort of interaction between musicians and the players.

Before I realized that this cool thing was happening, ALL the shows I could attend were sold out. Luckily, they had a handful of same day, standing tickets available for each performance that were only about half the price of the cheapest seated tickets. So I made my way to Akasaka in Tokyo (not to be confused with Asakusa, which is the place with the famous temple I went to before) and got in line nice and early to get tickets!

To make a long story long, I was able to acquire a ticket and get into the theater and stand at the very back along with 11 other cheapo-s. They had a handrail against the back of the last row of seats, and they partitioned off person-sized sections with tape along the handrail, and gave each section a number. I was number 5, I believe, which was pretty good.

So the show features Kodo playing all the instruments. For the first number, they had drums on the left side of the stage, and melodic instruments on the right side of the stage. Everyone would also sing at times, too. The Kodo players aren’t world-class at non-drum instruments, and it kind of showed, but at the same time it was cool knowing that all the music was managed by this one group. It definitely felt like they were all a single unit. But I was kind of happy to see that after the first number, there was a definite focus on them playing the drums.

While Kodo is playing this first number, Bando wafts onto the stage and makes some meaningful movements, and we’re introduced to the main characters in this first half. The first half’s plot line is basically there’s Amaterasu, and then there’s also this bad guy who’s dressed in indigo, and they have a fight. Amaterasu loses, and his opponent seems to go crazy at the end, I’m not sure. But gee golly, it was so cool! They had these enormous, colored sheets of cloth that Kodo members would grab and manipulate to emphasize the movements and power of these two characters. In one particularly dramatic part, Amaterasu and the bad guy are face face, and the center of their respectively colored clothes are put across their chests, and the ends brought out and back under their armpits and spread out, and the kodo members are holding the pieces of cloth out and shaking them to get a quick, rippling effect, and as the two characters are spinning around, the members holding the cloth overtake the other color and make their side bigger or smaller to show their struggle. Coolest cloth battle ever!

The beginning of the second half starts in a sort of cave or something, and there’s a kind of loose story of these sort of spirits coming together and playing taiko, and it’s basically a Kodo concert for the first half hour as they play a bunch of their standard pieces. Then a new character comes out, a LADY lady, as opposed to a MAN lady (*Bando*), and she dances sexily and sinfully. But Amaterasu comes out and helps her out somehow, and if I remember right, the ending has Amaterasu and the reformed LADY lady standing on the stage, looking around meaningfully as the lights on stage become bright in contrast to the cave setting from before, while Kodo plays their piece Ibuki, which is really pretty and flute-y. With the music, the ending is really powerful and satisfying.

I feel like this is the sort production that Bando really excels at. This was so, so good and gripping when the focus isn’t on the music, but on the theater piece as a whole, which is what Bando’s background lends itself to. I really trust him in this setting in a way I never trusted him with a Kodo concert.

Anyway, after the concert, I walked around the neighborhood and took some pictures!


Ultraman! He is the most ultra of men.


Disneyland! – 5/3/2013

One more small post.  I totally went to Disneyland here in Tokyo!  I literally spent all day there and saw many, many shows and went on a few rides.  I got to go with a coworker who used to work for Disney, so I momentarily got swept away in the Disney magic and got to appreciate it like a true Disney fan would.

Crowds of people at 7:30, lining up before the park opens.

Crowds of people at 7:30, lining up before the park opens.



Star Tours.

Star Tours.



Super Duper Jumping Time!  I had to see this show because of the name.  It was pretty strange, though...

Super Duper Jumping Time! I had to see this show because of the name. It was pretty strange, though…

One of the shows I went to was called Super Duper Jumping Time. It was basically all the costume characters putting on a weird puppet show about cheering up a couple of frogs. It was fun to hear the characters talk in Japanese with goofy voices.


The first parade.  So many people!

The first parade. So many people!

Electric parade.  This is the Genie from Aladdin.  This was one of the newest floats, and would disappear and sparkle and rainbow-ize and flash and it just blew my mind to bits.

Electric parade. This is the Genie from Aladdin. This was one of the newest floats, and would disappear and sparkle and rainbow-ize and flash and it just blew my mind to bits.

Waiting for Pooh's Honey Hunt.

Waiting for Pooh’s Honey Hunt.

One thing I never appreciated about Disneyland before that my coworker told me is that you’re not supposed to think of the rides as “rides”, but as “attractions”. The goal is to immerse you in the situation, so you feel like you’re in the movie and part of the “magic”. When I attempted to don this attitude, I actually kind of got into it and really enjoyed just being in the park. Even waiting in lines was ok, because of the way the cues were set up to begin immersing you in the story before you get on the “attraction”.

Night castle.

Night castle.

Disney is so wicked popular here, that they have a second Disney theme park next to Disneyland called Disneysea, which is geared more towards adults. I will hopefully get there before my summer is over!

Nikko trip – 4/30-5/2/2013

Wow!  Long time no share things that I’ve done.  Here I am to rectify this, starting with an awesome, short trip I took to Nikko this last Spring.  Nikko is a small, but very historical and famous city north of Tokyo.  It’s home to the Toshogu Shrine, where Tokugawa Ieyasu is enshrined.  Tokugawa fought for power, and once he achieved it around 1600, Japan saw a long period of peace.  He’s considered one of the most important figures in Japanese history (yay rudimentary knowledge of Japanese history!).  The Toshogu Shrine is really super cool and famous, but nearby Nikko is a great national park up in the mountains that I got to visit as well.

On my first day, I had a few hours of daylight left after I reached Nikko, so I went to a place called Tobu World Square, which is home to all sorts of impressive, giant models of famous structures from around the world.  It sounds nerdy and kind of lame, but it was actually wicked awesome. Here are some pictures!

The Twin Towers next to the Sky Tree?  Only in Nikko!

The Twin Towers next to the Sky Tree? Only in Nikko!

IMG_0763 IMG_0771

Filming "The Last Emperor" at the Forbidden Palace.

Filming “The Last Emperor” at the Forbidden Palace.


film crew

film crew

Photo recommendation.

Photo recommendation.

I oblige!

I oblige!

Next, I walked along a river that cuts through the city, and saw some cool stairs!



The last picture was taken from the gray square in the middle of the bridge.

The last picture was taken from the gray square in the middle of the bridge.

Afterwards, I headed to the hostel and spent a relaxing evening talking with the owner and one of the guests. The next day, I got up early, went to the station, and got a bus pass for Nikko National Park! First stop, Kegon falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in Japan! It was quite nice.


Just above Kegon Falls is Lake Chuzenji, and next to the lake is the impressive, volcanic-looking Mt. Nantai. My original plan was to hike this mountain, but it would take all day, leave me exhaused, and be even colder than it already was at the top, so I decided against hiking it and to spread out my sightseeing.

Lake Chuzenji

Lake Chuzenji

Mt. Nantai

Mt. Nantai

If you head along the lake, then turn and go around Mt Nantai, you will come to Senjougahara field, where some famous samurai battle happened long ago. Neat! I hiked through the field, up to Yumoto where I got to experience one of their famous hot springs, then I hiked back through the field and along a river that had some cool waterfalls. Pictures!

Beginning of the hike! The woods just next to the field.

Senjougahara field!
Senjougahara field!


Crazy looking waterfall.

Crazy looking waterfall.

Looking across the lake to Yumoto, where I got in a hot spring.

Looking across the lake to Yumoto, where I got in a hot spring.

Cool light on the way back!

Cool light on the way back!




That was a long hike which I did very fast so I could see everything before the buses stopped running. Exhausted, I caught the bus back to Nikko. There was just a bit of sunlight left when I got to the hostel, where I met a new guest who spoke really good English, and we walked around the neighborhood to see some of the sights together.

The next day, I packed up my stuff and headed for Toshogu Shrine. Toshogu Shrine itself is just one building, but the area around the shrine is littered with temples and other shrines and pagodas and whatzits and whoozas and what have you. You could totally spend the better part of the day just wandering around and getting hungry, which I did!

Big Torii gate next to an enormous tree.

Big Torii gate next to an enormous tree.


I loved how these super fancy buildings were tucked right into the forest

Toshogu Shrine. I loved how these super fancy buildings were tucked right into the forest

Funny monkeys.

Funny monkeys.

Good job, roofers!  The shrine was actually being renovated when I was there, so you can see some unpainted bits.  Luckily, they were only renovating a small bit, so I got to basically get the normal Toshogu experience.

Good job, roofers! The shrine was actually being renovated when I was there, so you can see some unpainted bits. Luckily, they were only renovating a small bit, so I got to basically get the normal Toshogu experience.

Cool trail behind the shrine.

Cool trail behind the shrine.

After I saw the main complex of buildings, I took this trail up a hill behind the shrine to escape the crowds a bit. I got to see some quaint, small, historical spots, and tried my hand at the “throw a rock through the small hoop at the top of the Torii Gate for good luck” game. But since I was carrying my backpack and was getting super hungry, I somewhat grumpily rushed along the trail so I could get back to town and eat something.  I got a kind of omlette rice ball with spicy rice at a gas station near the station and shamelessly stuffed my face as I walked through the crowds back to the station.

On my way back to Tokyo, I stopped in the city and went to a famous restaurant one of the other hostel-goers told me about the night before called Nikko Coffee. Despite being near impossible to find, it was excellent! Really yummy coffee, and I got an excellent pork-crepe with veggies thingie.

Having an extra hour before the train came, I wandered around the city a bit and found this neat street with lots of trees. I got on a bridge over the street and took this picture.

Kind of cool.

Kind of cool.

That’s it! I got on the train and went back to enjoy the rest of my Golden week. Bye, Nikko!

Bye, Stephen!

Bye, Stephen!

Japanese doings backlog pt. 2/2 – March 2013-May 2013

Here is part two of my backlog dealy.

March 10 – Natural History Museum in Ueno – This museum was awesome!  They had so many exhibits!  There were dinosaur fossils which were the actual fossils, not plaster copies, and were so heavy they needed to use thick steel supports to hold them up.  One room had ocean animal fossils bisecting the room, and on one side you could see examples of these ocean animals evolving into mammals, and the other side you could see examples of them evolving into reptiles.  There was a big room for human evolution, a large collection of meteorites, and much more!  But my favorite was this room that had around 200 stuffed mammals and birds.  Some of them were acquired from the zoo that is about a 3 minute walk from the museum, and others were acquired by this old-timey hunter, who would go around the world and kill water buffalo and orangutangs and such when that kind of thing was still done by sophisticated dum-dums.  And outside was a 1:1 scale replica of a blue whale, one of only…3 (? or 5? I forget the number.  But it’s quite low!) in the world!  I spent a good 3 hours there, but still didn’t get to see everything.  Must return!


March 17 – Snowboard + Let’s American Party – I went snowboarding for my first time ever in Japan!  Ai went with me to Nagano .  After a 30 minute lesson where I learned how to slowly go down a hill without dying, I took to the slopes!  I sure was awful, but it was fun.  I foolishly took no photos…but after returning to Tokyo, we went to TGI Fridays in Japan, where the place mats made me weep with merriment.


March 24 – My first cherry blossoms – For about a week and a half, the cherry blossoms bloom and boggle everyone’s brains.  Mine was no exception.



March 25 – Enoshima + Aquarium + more Cherry Blossoms – Enoshima is a small island southwest of Tokyo.  You can traverse all over the island and explore the various shrines and shops.  There’s a nice garden on top with a lighthouse called the “sea candle” or somesuch which you can ascend to enjoy the surrounding view.  I got up very early and really enjoyed wandering around the island before it got at all crowded.  Afterwards, I went to a nearby aquarium.  They had this really wonderful, massive tank with lots of manta rays and various fish, and there was a large school of fish that swarmed and shifted around that was really beautiful to watch.  I also got to see lots of cuttlefish, jellyfish, crabs, and penguins.  After the aquarium, I walked along the beach for a while, then I visited a fairly new park that had a creek running through it with cherry tree lined paths along each side.  It was lovely, but the cherry trees were very young and didn’t bloom as radiantly as I had seen at other places.  Then I headed back to my station and went to a nearby park to look at cherry blossoms before it got dark.  Picture time!


March 28 – Cherry tree at night – There’s a canal that runs from the station I work at to the next station over, and it’s lined with cherry trees.  After work a few times during the week, I took a stroll along the canal before heading home.


April 8 – Yokohama Adventure – Having not really explored Yokohama, I decided to take a day where I just wandered like crazy around the town.  I got off at Yokohama station, and began my journey walking through the Minato Mirai section of town, which was designed to be a sort of city of the future.  It was pretty cool, but it kind of felt like it was still incomplete, and there weren’t many people around, and there weren’t many features to add warmth to the neighborhood, and I didn’t really like being there much…but the buildings were really cool, and there was a pretty nice park by the ocean.  I continued wandering, past these historic 100 year old red brick warehouses, until I reached an older part of town which felt much more comfortable.  After a stroll through another nice sea-side park, I headed up hill through a neighborhood to this old cemetery for foreigners.  Yokohama was one of the first cities in Japan to open its ports to the outside world, so it’s a fairly international place.  Then I wandered back through the neighborhood, grabbed a cherry blossom doughnut, and checked out Chinatown for a bit before heading home.


April 14 – Chiba Adventure – For my first trip east of Tokyo, I went to the Hoki Museum, which is this really cool museum of realist paintings (those paintings where the artist painstakingly tries to make it look like a photograph).  The building was so, so cool, being a series of long, slightly curved corridors stacked on top of each other.  And the paintings were unbelievable.  Then I wandered through this massive park next to the museum.  In one part of the park, there was a path that was lined with different trees from around Chiba with plaques and explanations of them.  It felt like a tree museum of sorts.  Then I headed back to Chiba station where I walked over to Chiba shrine to collect some Chiba chi.  It kind of worked.  Then, while heading home on the train, I decided to stop by Tokyo station, and I enjoyed a long walk through the area around the station, going by the Emperor’s palace, through Hibiya Park, and through Ginza, before deciding I was quite tired and headed home.


May 4 – Sagamiko Lake – I came to this lake with Ai and enjoyed the greenliness of spring.


May 5 – Mount Mitake – I came to this mountain with Ai, but unfortunately it was a national holiday and was quite crowded.  But still nice!  We cheated and took the cable car to the top and explored around, then hiked down through a nice forest with 350 year old cedars (of which I took no pictures).


May 12 – Horse Races – I went to the Tokyo Racecourse yesterday, which is the biggest racecourse in Japan.  This week is one of the biggest weeks for horse racing in Japan, and it was really crowded.  I bet a total of 3000 yen over 5 races, but only won 340 yen…I need more practice!  I was really amazed at just how fast the horses run.  They do not look so fast on tv.  The horses were also just really beautiful to look at.


Well, that’s it!  I took a trip to Nikko last week which I will post about later.  Now that I’m just about caught up, I will try to post more regularly in the future so I don’t have to make these massive posts.  I’m having a lot of fun in Japan and am experiencing a lot, and I feel like I don’t have enough free time to both enjoy Japan as much as I have been and get sufficient rest.  But it’s worth it!

Japanese doings backlog pt. 1/2 – Nov 2012-Feb 2013

Ooh!  I have not been filling everyone in with what I’ve been doing.  I’m sorry!  This post is the first of two posts to catch up on the memorably things I’ve done that I took pictures of.  Enjoy!

Nov 26 – Science Museum in Odaiba – This museum was…kind of boring.  But the building was really cool, and there was this awesome sphere made up of a bunch of tiny screens that showed the earth rotating around.


Dec 2 – Ghibli Museum – There was a really pretty park you walk through to get to the museum.  The museum building was really cool, with lots of secret passageways and things to explore.  There’s also a really good short film that is only showed at the museum about sumo wrestling mice.  And on top of the museum is a garden with a nice robot. Fuuuuun!



Dec 10 – weird enormous empty stone building – In the name of adventure, I went wandering around Gaienmae station in Tokyo and came across this building that freaked me out.  I expected mummies to emerge and ruin Tokyo.



Dec 16 – Hakone – Ai and I went to Hakone, which is about 1.5 hrs west of Tokyo.  I got my first view of Mt. Fuji while riding the cable car to this nice lake, which we hiked to the other side of.  Half way around the lake, we went up another cable car to the top of a mountain.



       Pirate ship coming out of my ear.


Jan 14 – Snow Day – This was the only time it snowed enough for the snow to stick to the ground this winter.  Since it happened on a weekend, I went to a nearby park to frolic!


Feb 3 – Art and Music exhibit – This was a really cool exhibit at…some modern art museum in Tokyo.  The exhibits were works of visual art that somehow involved music.  For example, the first room had a shallow, circular pool with various sized ceramic bowls floating in it, and a jet gently propelled them across the pool and back around the sides, all the while knocking into each other pleasantly.  My favorite work/piece/thing was a record player that played the cross section of a tree.  A laser detector of some sort read the tree lines, and interpreted them into notes played on a piano.  So the piece started slow at the outer edge of the tree where the lines were far apart, and as it moved to the center it gradually became a flurry of notes as the tree lines got closer and closer together.  Coolest exhibit ever!  I was so happy to have gone. 


Feb 13 – Mount Oyama – A nice mountain only about 45 minutes from my house by train.  It’s famous for its steep, jagged trail, and the surrounding area is known for its tops and tofu.  I got an awesome tofu feast with five different types of tofu after the hike!


Feb 17 – View of Tokyo from the Mori Building in Roppongi – There’s a lovely modern art museum on the 52nd floor of the Mori Building, and included in the admission price is a 360 degree view of Tokyo.  I arrived just before sunset and I got to see Tokyo light up!


There you go!  3 months of weekend activities.  I sure have had a nice time.  Stay tuned for more stuffffff!

Kodo Conert (pt. 2) – 1/21/2013 (12/23/2012)

Ok! Here is my critique of the second half of the concert.  I wish I had done this earlier, as the details keep getting hazier and hazier, but I will try to remember the important points.

The first piece of the 2nd half was a piece called “Onidaiko”, which featured two dancers with crazy demon masks.  I honestly don’t remember much about this piece, besides the crazy way they would suddenly jerk their heads to the side.  It looked somewhat unhuman and…great!  Toward the end of the song, they were hitting the drums with their fists, and eventually they took off their masks, and the song somehow transitioned into the next song.  Somehow!  I think flutes were involved?

The next song was super cool!  Called “Tsukimachi”, it translates as “waiting for the moon”.  This piece is based on the famous “Hachijo Daiko” from Hachijo island.  But their incarnation was more true to the original style than the Hachijo that Kenshin Taiko plays.  This piece was written by Tamasaburo Bando and Shogo Yoshii.  It had Bando’s hallmark of being a little too sprawling, but I could get over it because I really liked the piece!  Yay them!  I can’t remember why…hmm…maybe this blog post is going to be short…maybe because all the parts kind of connected a bit better, and there was so much fun energy!

Oh yeah, gripe time.  So I liked the piece, but unfortunately it featured everyone wearing these bright, cellophane-looking, different colored pants.  I didn’t like them because I don’t like different things!  But at least it was introduced well, because before the piece, some people came out and were wearing traditional clothes in the style that these rainbow pants were to be worn in.  And I admired that it was the ONLY piece that I noticed had weird outfits, which I thought showed a lot of restraint on the part of Bando, who historically goes bananas with glitter and bling and hair gel and fabulous outfits.  TOO fabulous.   So I wanted to mention that all the outfits in this concert were very tasteful, and even if I didn’t care for the brightly colored pants in this one song, I still really enjoyed the piece. 

My other gripe!  I thought it would have been obvious!  It kind of shocked me that they didn’t do anything about it.  At one part during the very substantial “Tsukimachi”, these folks with little wooden Buddhist clackity-clack things came out (I think of them as Buddhis claves), which was cool and they did some nice things with them, except one thing: playing in unison!  They were playing in unison as background for a solo, and it was just too loud and piercing and really unpleasant and I couldn’t quite tell what the soloist was playing.  It would have been so easy to fix.  Just have them play quieter, or have only one or two play the background.  Problem solved!

But things I liked: this piece had lots of ladies playing taiko!  They came out and would take front and center and play these really graceful solos in these beautiful kimonos that was just terrific after all the heavy, wide-stanced men had been playing so intensely.  But the energy was still so well maintained.

The other big, big thing I liked about this song was it was the first time we got to see the famous Yoshikazu Fujimoto!  So this guy is about 60 and has been playing taiko since he was just a young scamp, and the way he played was just beyond belief.  Before he came out, everyone had been playing very seriously and hard and with pristine form, and then Fujimoto literally comes dancing out, stomping around as he gets ready to play, and he takes on a solo with this wild, monkey-like form.  He had such great energy and presence, he seemed to fill up the entire stage.  As soon as I saw him, I realized “so THIS is why he’s so famous!”  This piece also saw the return of Eichi Saito, and I remember watching him during the climactic finale of the piece, and how he played so energetically, but also with a lot of maturity and grace.  It was very non-pretentious, and focused, and…so nice!  I loved watching him play.

So the next piece was the famous O-daiko solo.  For this concert, instead of having one soloist go all out for 15 some-odd minutes, we were treated to I think 5 shorter solos.  And the first up was Fujimoto!  His solo was my favorite.  The way he played was like there was a near tangible feeling between him and the drum.  The way he stomped, hissed, and yelled through his solo, and played with just everything he could…so dramatic!  So exciting!  It’s everything I love so much about taiko!  The quote that came to mind was “this one goes up to 11”. 

The rest of the solos were quite nice, with little flutey interludes between them.  Although some of the other solos were more powerful than Fujimoto’s, and of course they were amazing, but they just didn’t match what Fujimoto put into his solo. 

Finally, the last piece was Yatai Bayashi.  My favorite!  They arranged it a bit different from usual, where they only had two drums for people to sit at instead of three, and there were four drums on odaiko stands on the sides.  I was skeptical when I first saw it, but I ended up actually really liking this arrangement!  I was worried when the sit-down drummers would play, there wouldn’t be enough sound, but the four side drums were mixed in well to give more shape to the sound.  It really worked out well, and the sit-down drummers played as hard and intensely as they could (as they should for Yatai), and…yeah, I was very satisfied!

Then there was a fun encore with okedaikos (lighter taikos that the players can carry and dance around with) that I remember almost nothing about.  And then I clapped and left.  What a good, good concert!

Kodo Concert (pt. 1) – 1/4/2013 (12/23/2012)

So I cooked myself dinner and am ready to continue my bloggery.  Meal!IMG_0067

So I noticed I’ve been making the same meal whenever I cook – a sort of vegetable stir fry (with tofu or bacon if I’m feeling fancy), finished with some eggs scrambled into it for that protein, and served with rice for them grains.  Tonight I’m having it with some of the green tea I bought in Kyoto.  It’s a perfect meal because it’s loaded with veggies, it’s delicious and filling, I can make it in about 20 minutes using one frying pan and leaving a minimum amount of dishes to wash, the ingredients are cheap and plentiful, and there’s an enormous variety of veggies and seasonings to put in so I can feel somewhat creative.  I just feel like a bum when I eat at my computer like this, but there’s not really anywhere else to eat unless I stand and eat in my kitchen, which is kind of sad… Anyway, on to my blog post.

I wasn’t going to keep writing tonight, but this is a topic I’ve been dying to write about because it fills and delights my heart and mind – Kodo!  The famous taiko group who live on Sado island.  I got to see them live on the 23rd last month (shoot, last YEAR!) with Ai.  I have seen them once before live in LA two years ago, and both performances have been highlights in my life, truly transcendent musical experiences, so please forgive me for gushing.  This is something I’m really, really into.

I was somewhat apprehensive before the concert, because Kodo recently named a new artistic director for the group, a famed Kabuki actor named Tamasaburo Bando.  His previous endeavors with Kodo have left me feeling conflicted.  On the one hand, Kodo constantly excels as a group of performers and are a delight to watch; but on the other hand, Bando seemed to approach Kodo in a slightly egotistical way, his “artistic direction” seemed kind of confused, and the pieces he helped write left me cold.  Having him in charge of a group I held so dear made me nervous, and although the concert wasn’t perfect, I feel more comfortable having him at the helm after seeing it.

The concert consisted of seven pieces, and lasted about two hours with an intermission.  The first song was a new piece written by Bando called “Kaden”.  The piece started, and within 30 seconds I thought “oh no, I don’t like this…”.  My problem with Bando’s pieces is that they repeat and ramble without going anywhere interesting and without saying much.  Being an amateur composer myself, I feel I can say his pieces feel amateurish, kind of like composition exercises.  “Kaden” is set up with two circles of drums, with three players inside each circle.  It starts off kind of low and mild, and although I appreciated him using odd time signatures, it felt like he was using odd time signatures for the sake of using odd time signatures.  The music itself felt obvious and labored.  I thought, “the stuff he’s writing still stinks.  He hasn’t improved!”

Then Kodo came along and saved the day!  Because luckily, Bando decided to have a long series of solos, so the performers could really shine.  And shine they did.  We were treated to the performer’s creativity and technique honed to the highest level.  After all the players solo, it was mixed up with some written bits, improvised bits, even flute bits and dance bits, and went on for quite a while.  “Mixed up” is a very good way to describe the part after the solos, and I feel this part of the piece jumped around too much.  I appreciated the thought and time that went into it, but I wanted just a bit more unity in the piece.  For example, there was this cool part where the players would jump up dramatically and come down to play at the front drum, and they would switch out rapidly for these short solos.  It was so, so cool, and an awesome idea, and he only did it once in this super long piece.  He didn’t even play with this idea of performers switching around in a quick way.  There were lots of times when I felt that way: musical moments I wished were expanded, cool choreography that was ripe for developing.  I felt the piece was somewhat haphazardly constructed in an effort to make it appear complicated, smart and creative.  I also got this feeling from the set up of the drums.  They were set up in two circles, and the different sizes of drums were arranged quite randomly and unevenly.  Which is fine, I’m ok with asymmetry.  But the randomness of the set up seemed to enhance the confusion of the piece itself.

So the first song was definitely the low point of the show, and in all honesty it wasn’t that low because Kodo is awesome and it’s terrific to just hear them play.  The rest of the show was utterly amazing (with a few gripes).  The second piece was an old Kodo favorite called “Monochrome”.  This minimalistic piece was written by an actual legit composer named Maki Ishii in 1977, and uses seven shimes (small, high pitched taiko).  I love this piece because the emphasis is really placed on relishing the sound of the drums.  It starts with a single drum playing a straight beat, and each drum adds on, and then there’s a terrific, slow crescendo until all the players are playing in unison as hard as they can.  It is such a treat to hear live in a giant hall with great acoustics.  They come back down, and begin to mix the straight beat with rolls (roll=play as fast as you can), which they randomly spike with crescendo-decrescendo hills.  The hills become more frequent until it sounds like a million insects buzzing around your head.  It’s the most amazing sound, and it left me literally breathless.

The piece works its way down, and there’s a quiet, moody section with a tam-tam being played infrequently somewhere off-stage (kind of wanted to see it played on stage, oh well).  The random rhythms grow in energy as the tam-tam gets played quicker and quicker, and four of the players (typically only three!  They changed it, hoping I would notice) switch over to the deeper, heavier sounding, big nagado taiko, and as the tam-tam accelerates and crescendos to a climax, the nagados start playing a heavy, intense straight beat.  The shimes slowly convert from a random beat to the straight beat of the nagados, and the nagados play like a fugue, so the second nagado is eight beats behind the first nagado, and the third nagado is eight beats behind the second nagado (maybe not eight beats, I don’t know, just to give an example).  The rhythm the nagados play avoids repetition, but since they stay with the beat, we get a tremendous, exhilarating layering of rhythms, not to mention the sound of the drums themselves is larger than life.  I was gripping my seat and tensing my leg for this section, it was so intense!  Probably my favorite part of the whole show.

The third piece was “Ibuki”, a piece that makes heavy use of the shinobue (Japanese transverse flute).  This piece was written back in 1996 by Motofumi Yamaguchi, the resident flute extraordinaire at Kodo.  Apparently, Ibuki means “to release breath”, and according to the program notes, the piece is “an homage to all living things”.  A small pet peeve of mine is when composers try to do something so vague and general like that, like naming a piece “Calm” or “Happiness”, as if to say, “yeah, I was just trying to convey the idea of happiness with this piece.  That’s what the piece means, is it basically means you listen to it and you feel happy”.  Argh!  So dumb!  And the taiko world seems to be riddled with these sorts of pieces.  Give it at least a bit of context.  “An homage to all living things”?  How do you even do that, and what does it really mean?  For me, it just doesn’t translate to music.  It’s not how music works, you just can’t do that.  I don’t know, I can’t quite explain it, except that it bugs me!  But the piece is great, so whatever.

What it is is four flutes are the center of the piece, backed up by a big taiko and a chappa player (chappa=hand cymbals).  I’ve never seen the piece performed before, but I could only ever hear 3 flute parts on recordings, so it kind of surprised me to see 4 players.  Maybe they’re switching it up from 3 to 4 like they did with “Monochrome”?  I don’t know the details, not that it matters, I just like numbers.  Anyway, I love this piece, but the performance wasn’t mind blowing like I expected it to be.  Motofumi Yamaguchi is definitely a legendary shinobue player, but Kodo is a taiko group, not a shinobue group, and it really showed here.  Yamaguchi didn’t perform, if he did it would have been more impressive.  But it sounded like there were four taiko players who played shinobue on the side, instead of four shinobue players.  And when one or two of them would solo, I could tell they are able to get a great sound, but it wasn’t a magical mixture (magical mixture?) of flute tones like it was on the CD, something was just….kind of off.  Sorry I’m short on explanations, I only got to see them play it once and it’s tricky to remember the details….maybe it was a balance problem.  Maybe it was one or two strong players with one or two weaker players, maybe they tried doubling up one of the flute parts so it was louder, maybe they were just nervous and not super confident about their fluting.  Irregardless, it was very, very pretty, and not as distasteful as “Kaden”.  Ooh, and it was the first time we got to see Eiichi Saito!  He is one of the four Kodo members who are still in the group that were with Kodo when it began in 1981!  I’ve seen him in all their videos and his drumming has always impressed me as being very authentic and joyful.  He played a supporting part in this piece on the big taiko, but he got to shine more later on in the show.  This is one of the reasons I was so excited about this performance, because it would include Saito and one of the other original Kodo members, the legendary Yoshikazu Fujimoto!  I don’t believe those two tour any more, so this may have been my only chance to see them live.

So that concluded the first half of the show.  I got to enjoy a short intermission where I took a look at a small exhibit about the apprentice center and pick up a pamphlet about it.  This post is really turning into a beast of a post, but there is much to say!  And it’s refreshing to get to talk and think about music.  I will stop here for now and continue with part 2 over the weekend.