Friday, April 26, 2013

Been back for a couple of weeks from another successful couple of weeks in Tokyo. This was really a perfect trip this time around: Trevor logged a lot of training time and I got to meet some of the wonderful British Budo folks he met last year, and there was also plenty of time to see our friends and family, and take in a lot of what Japan has to offer -- which is, namely for me:

Excellent food...

(Serious damage being done with friends at all you can eat yakiniku, Akihabara)

And great people...

(Jeebus, just look at that mass of people! [Takeshita Street, Harajuku])

"But saudade!" you exclaim, "I know you've been going to Japan for many years now, but surely you're not so jaded yet that there must be more to visiting than just food and crowds of people-watching?"

I mean, I guess.


I have covered many of the things I love about Japan over the last 7 (!!!) years I have blogged here; my friends have been nearly regaled to death for almost 20. So, you'll have to forgive me if I come across as jaded, which is lame. It's more that I don't want to bore you! Japan, my friends, is super interesting (settle in for the long haul if you ask me sometime about growing pains and tenability around rigid societal constructs there, which is endlessly fascinating to me); more important though, is that IT IS TOTALLY RAD.

Lemme see...something somewhat new to blog about (and, more importantly, give an excuse to put up pictures)...

Okay, so, the gorgeous natural environment (can be) a big winner. Even though I find Japan's reverence of nature juxtaposed with their almost fanatical desire to control and politically monetize it somewhat off-putting, I also tend to waffle and find their control fascinating. From bonsai to parking space-sized park retreats in the middle of highrises to lining rivers with concrete to ostensibly control their flow, it always makes for an interesting environment.

For the last few years I have visited during cherry blossom season. The impermanence of cherry blossoms -- they only bloom for a couple of weeks and then they are gone -- represent the intense and ephemeral qualities of life. All of Japan takes time out for hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, for that short time. We usually go to Inokashira Koen, in Kichijoji, but alas, there were few blossoms left this time around. But spring had definitely sprung.

Architecture, too, is a wonderful thing to behold in Japan. While there are plenty of plain Soviet-style concrete block buildings jutting about, and often it seems there are no zoning laws so you're left with a sort of weird jumble in high density, suburban, and mixed-use areas alike, there also seems to be gorgeous traditional architecture and exciting and innovative new architecture everywhere you turn.

My particular passion is that old-school, proletariat spirit, or shitamachi. While I crave the pounded dirt-floored homes still in use in the more rural areas of Japan, I spend most of my time on the city now, so the tiny, tin-sided, home/business mixed use buildings dating from the early 20th century to post-war tend to be my jam. These are in Shinjuku bordering a park and the pleasure district. Lying somewhere between old and new, I love this shitamachi spirit and seek it out anywhere I can.

These newer, but still old-school, passageways in Nezu -- just a hop, skip, and jump from the museums and shopping in Ueno -- were also lovely to behold.

And finally, no shitamachi-style trek is complete without visits to the old-school drinking establishments, or nomiya, that are centered around shitamachi areas like Asakusa and Ueno. This alleyway was tucked away in a tiny corner of Shinjuku, just bordering the highrises and fancy bars and clubs of Kabuchicho.


Architecturally, the new and old can be blended seamlessly as well. This is the new gorgeous Asakusa Cultural Center, by Kengo Kuma and Associates, Tokyo.

Beautifully lit up at night, I was still sad it was closed in the evening. I usually go to Asakusa in the evening to avoid the temple crowds and get my old-school outdoor nomiya on, and I had no idea this had just been completed. Next time I am going inside!

Then there's what lies in-between all the glass and steel in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world. Trevor and I happened upon a building removal site in Shinjuku. Wild what lurks beneath, and it ain't all that sophisticated.

But even though you've got some serious analog shizz happening right behind and below the bright lights of the big city, I would be remiss if I didn't mention this other wonderful thing about Japan: the amazing attention to quality, detail, and service. This is in addition to how people are in general helpful and polite, even if they aren't working and supposed to help you; get them drinking, and normally shy Japanese will love you like a brother.

Coming from a place like the Wild West, it can seem almost criminal how well-done and polite even the most simple of things are created and transacted.

So my insanely delicious, healthy, and perfectly presented matcha latte kind of brings me full circle. I always appreciate Japan, and there is always something wonderful to experience and behold there, but really, it is all about the food...

(my udon and umeshu at the gorgeous Maenohara Onsen, Shimura-Sakaue)

And the people...

Ja mata, Nihon.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Early evening, walking in windy San Francisco, I saw these big, beautiful flags and I was moved to take a photograph.

I'm sure it's funny to some for me to follow a post about the ridiculousness of both 'Accidental Racist' and the Confederate Flag as a misunderstood symbol with a shot of California's and the United States' respectively. But as infuriating and sometimes scary they can be in their own ways, I truly love my state and my country.

I've never been much for nationalism -- or, more commonly, nationalism veiled as patriotism -- or, ugh, patriotism conflated with religious zealotry, but I am patriotic. I do, however, cringe when any crowd begins shouting "USA! USA!" (Ha, years ago I had a Facebook friend seriously use that response as a way to shut me down for calling him out about falsely claiming Obama had ordered folks to call the White House Xmas tree a "holiday tree.") It always makes me uncomfortable when this happens because I feel a crowd shouting this has more creep toward nationalism than actual patriotic love. Love allows for weakness and mistakes as well as strength.

I prefer this as my love song to my great state and country:

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Monday, April 22, 2013

A little late to the party, but this is oh so good.

Stephen Colbert Spoofs 'Accidental Racist'

If you haven't heard the original 'Accidental Racist' I think that really, it's not necessary: Colbert covers the salient points. I also think David Graham at The Atlantic does a bang up job of laying down how offensive, and in many ways, damaging, this song is.

It really hits home here:

It's pretty insane to compare an inoffensive piece of headgear to a flag that represents a treasonous secession movement devoting to maintaining the practice of slavery. It's even more insane to compare jewelry to, you know, slave shackles.

The deeply offensive gold chains and iron chains thing aside, we're also talking about a flag that represents a movement devoted to maintaining the practice of slavery and comparing it to a 'do-rag' -- a piece of clothing that has been given connotations of offense by, well, racists. The flag, however, remains what it is. I get that these guys probably had good intentions, but good intentions aren't enough when it comes to learning how not to be entitled. This song does not much more than bolster white privilege and white entitlement around racism.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and inevitable fallout for the Muslim community (and the poor Czechs!) I've been thinking a lot about "accidental racism" and white privilege. I read two great pieces on this recently.

For anyone who struggles with the idea of white privilege, this:

The Saudi Marathon Man

Why the search, the interrogation, the dogs, the bomb squad, and the injured [Saudi Arabian] man’s name tweeted out, attached to the word “suspect”? After the bombs went off, people were running in every direction—so was the young man. Many, like him, were wounded; many of them were saved by the unflinching kindness of strangers, who carried them or stopped the bleeding with their own hands and improvised tourniquets...In the midst of that, according to a CBS News report, a bystander saw the young man running, badly hurt, rushed to him, and then “tackled him,” bringing him down. People thought he looked suspicious.
What made them suspect him? He was running—so was everyone. The police reportedly thought he smelled like explosives; his wounds might have suggested why. He said something about thinking there would be a second bomb—as there was, and often is, to target responders. If that was the reason he gave for running, it was a sensible one. He asked if anyone was dead—a question people were screaming. And he was from Saudi Arabia, which is around where the logic stops. Was it just the way he looked, or did he, in the chaos, maybe call for God with a name that someone found strange?
And this one, which while written from the perspective of a Swede, had so many hallmarks of my own tiny town American childhood that I could recall my Japanese mother's pride, shame, and anger at the hands of "accidental racists" like it was yesterday:

Sweden's Closet Racists

Being 6 years old and walking toward passport control with Dad, who has sweaty hands, who clears his throat, who fixes his hair and shines up his shoes on the backs of his knees. All the pink-colored people are let by. But our dad is stopped. And we think, maybe it was by chance, until we see the same scene repeated year after year.

Being 7 and starting school and being told about society by a dad who was terrified even then that his outsiderness would be inherited by his children. He says, “When you look like we do, you must always be a thousand times better than everyone else if you don’t want to be refused.”

I remember my mother's bewilderment -- then fear when security arrived, then shaking rage when she realized what was happening -- when a department store in my hometown wouldn't take her check; the check with her strange and difficult-to-pronounce name printed in script below my white father's, the check accompanied by a military ID ("it's from the US government, it's better than a driver's license," my non-driving mother repeated over and over, in vain). They demanded that my father be there, in person, for them to honor the check. I remember her shame and defeat, and moreover I remember my embarrassment at yet another thing that set me apart from my white peers -- an embarrassment only rivaled by my shame now in looking back on my childhood lack of perspective and support for my mother.
When someone wears a Confederate Flag in spite of the fact that it is first and foremost a symbol of whites owning human beings, and then has the nerve to tell me that foundational symbolism isn't intended -- it's only "accidentally racist" and purely on me -- privilege is the first thing that goes through my mind.

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Saturday, April 06, 2013