Sunday, October 21, 2007

Japanese Bunraku Returns!

Bunraku performers and fans gather after some late night Japanese beer following the show.

On Friday some friends and I went to see an authentic Japanese Bunraku theatre performance in Little Tokyo. Apparently, this is the first time in 20 years that an official Japanese troupe has toured in the U.S. I was happy to see it was a full house and not just puppeteers, although my friend Sam had rallied a lot of us puppeteers and got us a discount. He also acted as translator after the show when two of the performers and a few fans went out for drinks afterwards.

The staging and sets were gorgeous. A huge curtain with silk-like metallic decoration opened to reveal Japanese landscapes including a temple wall, a precipice and the Underworld itself. I particularly liked the use of a real tree, which moved organically. Above the stage, a large screen showing English supertitles. To the right, the narrator and the musicians playing shamisen (guitar-like instruments played with a big wedge pick).

What was the show like? Well, writing about a puppetry performance is a bit futile in my opinion. The whole point is to fall for the magic moment where your mind thinks that there's a living thing on stage, despite the fact that it's actually a doll with three people behind it. One great thing about this show is that the director of the theatre presented and translated a demonstration by the performers, explaining how the puppets work, what the narrator does, what the musicians do to enhance the story. This was brilliant and really made the show itself accessible to everyone. Also, in part of the show, a musician puppet came out playing a shamisen. This puppet's performance matched the music and the fingering of the real musician pretty much exactly! Great attention to detail. (When have you ever seen an animation or a puppet performance of a character playing a musical instrument where the fingering was accurate??)

The troupe and bunraku puppetry itself originate in Osaka, Japan. The government subsidizes the troupe almost entirely. Apparently, it's not especially popular in Osaka itself (indeed, my friends there hadn't even heard of it), but the shows in Tokyo are often sold out.

I asked them (over some Sapporo) how old the stories were and whether new ones were being written. They said that the most recent one was 130 years-old, but the ones considered "classics" are 300 years old. There are some new ones out there they said, but by the way they shook their heads disapprovingly, it was clear these were inferior to the classics.

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posted by Brian at 10:07 AM 0 comments links to this post

Monday, July 09, 2007

High-speed Osaka Tour

Roughly a year ago, I met a young Japanese man here (Mr. Takuya) in Los Angeles, who upon finding out I would be in Japan, invited me to dinner in his city, Osaka. Because I left Kyoto late, and because the rendezvous point I arranged through his friend over the phone (since she spoke better English) was farther than anticipated (via train) from my hotel, I was about an hour later than we had intended. Oops. Fortunately, the three ladies waiting for me spotted me instantly (not too many Americans, I guess). We then all piled into Mr. Takuya's car waiting outside.

We did a quick driving tour around Osaka. The conversation that evening was quite humorous given the language barrier, but everyone had little electronic dictionaries. This made it work well enough. Mr. Takuya drove, while I chatted with the ladies in the back seat. They told me they were students (from Tokyo, Hokkaido, and Kyoto), who had failed their Japanese entrance exams, so they were all studying together in Osaka. They pointed out various Osakan landmarks and I tried to catch a glimpse of them between buildings and trees in the way.

Unfortunately, my batteries gave out (as they had been doing a lot -- my camera only likes Nimh) and was only able to capture a few shots. Here is a tiny bit of Osakan architecture (probably not its finest) as we drove along:

Then we headed to the famous Dotombori district, filled with restaurants and things to do at night. I had hoped we might go to a Teppanyaki steakhouse restaurant, a favorite example of which is the Osaka Grill in San Francisco (a more refined version of the popular Benihana chain). Many of these restaurants had long waits, so we opted for a Okonomiyaki place (which I had never tried before).

Here are most of us (minus the photographer) in front:

Unlike the teppanyaki steakhouses I've been to, this type of place has you cook everything yourself sitting near the floor in a small private room with a phone to call the waiters with. (Okonomiyaki translates roughly to "grill whatever you want, the way you want.") There were no English menus anywhere, so my hosts picked the food choices. The raw ingredients arrived in bowls. Meats, chopped yams, onions, raw eggs, rice sheets, octopus, dried fish flakes, mayonaise... Other stuff... I have no idea really. The ladies took over immediately, stirring, mixing, combining and then pouring onto the hot grill at our low-flying table.

At one point, we talked about how Osakans and Tokyoites don't always like each other. I asked why. There was a pause, then a lot of typing on personal dictionaries. Mr. Takuya turned his screen towards me and it read "not on same wave length". A-ha!

After eating, we walked around the district. I saw a strange Ferris wheel-like ride thing built into the side of a building, with each car lit up with neon lights in the shape of a buddha(!) Also saw a place to eat fugu (the poisonous pufferfish), which had a nicely illuminated tank of large deadly fishes swimming and quietly daring people to come inside and eat them. We found a temple and each got fortunes written on paper. Apparently mine was very good. One of theirs suggested bad health, another a bad marriage ahead. I was supposed to keep mine, but they took theirs, folded them up origami-style, then attached them to the wooden structure of the temple itself, amidst hundreds if not thousands of other presumably bad fortunes. (What happens when the Temple gets filled up with bad fortunes? Misfortunate leaks out into the city? Yikes!)

Finally, we said goodbye to the ladies and Mr. Takuya took me to visit his Uncle's exotic sushi restaurant, where a whole family party (great aunt, uncle, aunt, friends) had already gathered after hours and eaten. I'm not sure that they were all that interested in meeting a tired American who spoke no Japanese, but Mr. Takuya's Uncle gave us some very good bonito tuna at least.

Then we bid farewell and headed to Takuya's apartment where I met his girlfriend, a friendly Korean woman. She also had a dictionary computer and practiced her English with me. Meanwhile, Mr. Takuya demonstrated his various electronic toys, including a miniature helicopter that floated around the apartment, and a remote-controlled matchbox car. Despite it being about midnight at this point and my consciousness fading, Mr. Takuya decided we should go see the 24-hour electronics shopping store so he could buy me a Gameboy Micro before I left. How generous!

One side note: Japanese GPS is way ahead of ours. Instead of typing in my hotel's address (which I didn't have with me), he was able to type in the hotel phone number and voila! There it was on the map. Coolness.

UPDATE: You can learn how to cook okinomiyaki at home!

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Kyoto: Sunshine & Temples

Weather-wise, Japan was sunny for me on the days I left each city. Kyoto rained enough for me to buy an umbrella. Since temples and rain didn't make for exciting photo opportunities, I delayed my train trip to Osaka to check out Nijo Castle (which is not really a castle in the European sense):

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Kyoto: Eclectic Shops

You can certainly find American chains in Japan. I spotted KFC, Starbucks, McDonald's, Wendy's, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf -- even a Tully's! But my new favorite coffee chain, sadly not available in the States: Caffe Veloce...

It's inexpensive, has great interior design, good service, and this really cool giant slow-spinning globe with counter seating around it. Mesmerizing!

Then there are the weird, found-only-in-Kyoto places. Like this Octopus Ball shop:

Or my personal favorite, a Captain Santa store! (With his side-kick reindeer... )

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Kyoto's Surreal Nightscape

Kyoto at night feels straight out of Miyazaki's Spirited Away where you could swear there are gods coming out to frolick and get some teppenyaki or a sento bath.

There's a skinny, long alley-way called Pochonko where the short buildings gang up on you from the sides and the signs appear to float, inviting you in to miniature pubs, restaurants, and "massage parlors." Like in Tokyo, establishments are perfectly happy to be up on the 4th floor or higher, enticing litttle nooks reachable only by stairs. Enticing, certainly, but with few English characters to guide me, I just plowed forward through the glowing squares.

Occasionally I would see signs with English characters (How can you resist a pretty place with alchohol with mushrooms for company?):

One extremely rainy night, me and my new umbrella (probably made in China, but I'm assuming it speaks Japanese) ventured out in search of a small late-night Gyoza dumplings place. Naturally I took a wrong turn somewhere and it took far longer than it was supposed to but eventually found it:

Once inside, all I had to do was utter one word to the Japanese-only folks there. "Gyoza!" "Hai!" they said. The menu had only a list of things to drink (beer). At this place, they come in lots of 10 (although I'd say they're about half-size). I ordered 30. Mmmm.

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posted by Brian at 1:55 PM 0 comments links to this post

Kyoto Overview

Kyoto is a cute little city with a river, canals, old buildings and lots of people walking and riding bicycles. In fact, at night the young men drive their girlfriends who stand on the fender (sometimes holding umbrellas):

Here's a typical old street in Kyoto, which at night would likely be filled with slow-moving miniature taxi cabs:

Kyoto still has many temples. Some are isolated, up in the mountains away from evidence of the modern world, while most are like this one. Right next to a laundrymat, a Coke machine, power lines, and probably has a worker's motorcycle parked in front:

This is an arcade street, almost exactly like the ones in Tokyo or Osaka. It's a covered street of shops. Some touristy. Some farmer's market-like. Sometimes commercial -- Wendy's, Sharkey's Pizza (Wha? That's a Los Angeles chain).

My first night there, I went out to get a bite to eat but forgot my camera (Doh!) I walked along the river, discovering that couples were sitting along the cobblestone bank. How romantic! But the intriguing thing to me was that they were all spaced exactly equidistant from each other, perhaps 15 feet or so. That's what I call precision! Many of the restaurants have patio decks that go out onto the bank.

Many strange eating places. Starbucks. I also found a Gyo Koku, a Japanese charcoal grill place that has opened up at many Los Angeles-area locations. Annoyingly, it is actually cheaper in Kyoto! I had drinks at an English pub, an African-themed club, and had some donburi (rice with a heavy curry stew).

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Tokyo: Miscellaneous Things to See

I had a very rushed view of Tokyo. With no guide other than my book, and only two days, I went on a few chaotic train ride quests for locations and places. Thus, my photo collage of Tokyo is random and spartan compared to that of Shanghai.

Here's the obligatory swan in front of the Imperial Palace:

Here's an office of Bandai, makers of famous Japanese toy robots, which can be seen along the Tokyo River Cruise:

Here's an izakaya, located under a street bridge downtown. (I like how Tokyo utilizes places we would otherwise block off with barbed wire) If it weren't for the phone number, I would have had no idea it was the place I was looking for. An Izakaya is a Japanese pub with food. There used to be one in West Hollywood that a co-worker told me about the week it was closing. After trying it, we vowed to go there every night till it closed because it was so amazing! Unfortunately, no izakaya I tried in Japan matched that place, but this one wasn't bad. The owner is a British bloke from Lester. He gave me a free glass of sweet potato soszhu:

This building along the river was designed by somebody famous. Supposedly, the shape is a flame, but somehow I don't think that's the first thing that will poop, er pop into your head:

This is a shinkansen bullet train that I took from Tokyo to Kyoto. Unfortunately, during the journey I completely missed the view of Mt. Fuji because my assigned seat was on the wrong side of the train! However, my iPod did conjure up some funny and sublime music choices. Fozzie Bear's rendition of "America," for instance:

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posted by Brian at 1:27 PM 0 comments links to this post

Tokyo: Kite Museum

Kites are cool. Aerial illustrations. In some cases, they're practically aerial puppets (telling rather minimalist stories, mind you). So when I read in my Lonely Planet there was a Kite Museum in Tokyo, it became a quest to find it.

Unfortunately, I spent more time taking trains and locating it than I did inside it, because it's very very small. Not quite two rooms, jam-packed from floor to ceiling like someone's attic with kites.

Perhaps an English-speaking guide would have made it more enjoyable, or a less claustrophobia-inducing layout. So I wouldn't recommend going out of your way like I did, but if you happen to be in the right part of Tokyo and have time, check it out.

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posted by Brian at 12:59 PM 0 comments links to this post

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Tokyo: Puppet House

This is the reason why I don't like organised tours when traveling. What tour would take you to a little store of marionettes in downtown Tokyo? Fortunately for me, the Puppet House (Japanese-only website) was mentioned in my Lonely Planet travel guide.

Upstairs is a small room filled with hand-carved marionettes and finger puppets from the Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States.

Almost all are performable; however, co-owner Takuro Fukazawa explained to me that many are too small for an audience beyond yourself. "Personal puppetry," he calls it. Either way, the puppets are gorgeous, moving or not. He pulled out a "simple" marionette, showing me how to make it walk with balance. Then he handed over the controls to me. Ooops! Well, in my hands, the puppet character exhibited all sorts things: "anti-gravity," "drunkenness"... perhaps "epilepsy." Certainly not balance.

Had I the money and display space I would have bought several beautiful puppets I saw there. Fortunately, you can order them through their website, although it's Japanese-only. I recommend a visit!

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posted by Brian at 8:45 AM 0 comments links to this post

Tokyo: Studio Ghibli

My primary reason for going to Tokyo, other than to see the damage from 40 years of Godzilla rampages, was to see the Studio Ghibli museum. Studio Ghibli is the company home of the works of master animator, Hirao Miyazaki. Indeed, his most famous works are portrayed here in exhibits, most obviously My Neighbor Totoro and Castle in the Sky. I probably should have disobeyed all the "Please don't photograph" signs, but it's actually a rather difficult museum to shoot. Lots of fun hidden passageways, stained glass windows, spiral staircases, atriums, patios, grottos, rooms filled with artwork samples & classic literature recreating the sort Miyazaki would have worked in, a giant soft "cat bus" for kids to jump on... Photos of the inside would not do it justice.

When you arrive via Studio Ghibli bus from the Mataka train station & hand in your ticket voucher, they give you a ticket which is actually 3 animation film frames from a Studio Ghibli film. Neat! Use this ticket to watch the film screening, which in my case was a new episode of Totoro. Brilliant!

Here's the unassuming main gate (Look closely, you can see Totoro and his friends):

One of the many caged spiral staircases. This one is the only way up to see the giant robot from Castle in the Sky:

I almost left the museum prematurely looking for this guy. From the photos, it seemed like he'd be out in the park surrounding the museum. But no -- he's part of the rooftop garden! Luckily, the museum guard took pity on me and let me back in for photos. Here he is in a rare moment alone:

And here he is with me, to show scale and my enthusiasm for having made it to one of the meccas of Geekdom:

If you intend to go, make certain you get your ticket before you leave for Japan! There's no way in otherwise. If you live in the United States, you can buy them here for a specific date.

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posted by Brian at 5:04 AM 0 comments links to this post

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Interesting Chinese & Japanese Signage Examples

I was strolling along in Kyoto, looking for temples and a ramen place when I encountered this ominous sign:

Poor kiddies! Look out! There's a giant hand demon with long black fingernails right above you! The sign seems to suggest threats like this can be prevented.

(UPDATE: Actually, this is a sign with a serious message. According to my friend Sam, it's a campaign alerting parents to "Protect your children from strangers." Sad that this is a problem in Kyoto, which felt very safe to me.)

Given this sign found in its pricey but good subway system, Kyoto is home to many Ewoks:

Did not see any riding the train, however. To be honest, I don't know if this is Japanese for "love" or "hate" or "honk for". So it could be this is signage from bitter Stormtroopers now living in Japan.

Then there was this sign in Hong Kong:

How can I do that? My half drunk bottle of Watson's Water is considered a terrorist weapon on local and domestic flights these days. Although I can (and have) certainly brought quite a bit of junk home. Wrinkled subway maps. Museum & zoo tickets.

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posted by Brian at 6:38 AM 0 comments links to this post

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Asia Travelogue coming soon...

2 countries.
6 cities.
11+ train systems.
8 hotels.
3 currencies.
2 temples.
4 museums.
1 theme park
2 hotel rooms not wide enough to open suitcase
50+ gyoza (eaten).
1 Peking Duck (eaten).
Dozens of doomed live shrimp (eaten)
1 frozen alligator in a Guangzhou grocery market (NOT eaten).
6 exotic Chinese herbal medicines.
1,237 Japanese thank you's...

It's the T.I. Super-genius Asia Tour!

I am back from weeks in Asia now, decompressing. My head & stomach are resynchronizing to my body. My brain is adjusting to a dehomogenous society.

But very soon you'll start seeing entries and photos (some from my 35mm, some from my Sony U30 spy camera).

Stay tuned!

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posted by Brian at 11:09 PM 0 comments links to this post

Thursday, May 31, 2007

T.I. Super-genius Goes to China & Japan!

Yes, fellow intermittent genii, I will be venturing to China and Japan next week. We'll see how well the infamous blog-hostile Chinese firewall impacts my ability to record my travels. While the interface will be inaccessible over there, I may be able to email myself entries and if I'm feeling really ambitious, write a script to publish my email to blogger. Or wait till I get to Japan, where it should be doable.

Sadly, yours truly knows hardly any Chinese or Japanese. Fortunately, the flight over is about 14 hours, which means I could listen to my 3 hour in-flight Japanese audiobook maybe four times over, given enough free caffeinated beverages. Ah, but it will have to compete with any in-flight entertainment that ANA Nippon Airlines has to offer, my Playstation Portable, chatty seat mates, and unconsciousness.

If any readers have ideas for what to see or do near Shanghai, Guangzhou, and/or Tokyo, feel free to comment. Already bought my ticket to the Studio Ghibli (Totoro!!) musuem, and a Japan Rail Pass.

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posted by Brian at 5:05 PM 1 comments links to this post