Archive for the 'travel' Category

Kumamoto Summer: The Complete Series!

Ten years ago, after graduating with a useless Master’s Degree in Japanese Studies, I panicked and fled the country for a wild and woolly trip around the world.

Five years later, after graduating with a largely useless Master’s of Fine Arts in Film and Video, I again panicked and fled the country. This time, I went to Kumamoto, to work at a Japanese production company and live with my then girlfriend and her family. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Over the three so months I was there in 2003, I shot two commercials that aired on Japanese TV (you can see them here and here), read Gravity’s Rainbow, and suffered a low level headache from speaking Japanese pretty much 24/7.

I documented my time there on my first blog Broad Spectrum Antibiotics and now I’m reposting them, cleaned up and with lots of pictures and links, on WITMOT. You can read the first entry here.

Additional material: I also posted blogs entries from my first visit to Kumamoto here. And you can look at more pics of Kumamoto that I took here.

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Existential World Tour: the Complete Series!

Back in 1998, after I graduated from U of Michigan with a Master’s Degree in Japanese Studies that I knew would prove to be worthless, I panicked. I wanted to go back to Japan, but I really did not want to teach English again. I taught it for two years between 1994 and ’96 and I felt my brain softening a little more with each day I worked there. The few job leads that I had in Japan fell through and suddenly I had no clue what I was going to do with my life. The future looked confusing and uncertain and I was overwhelmed. So I did what any red-blooded lad hailing from the stout state of Ohio might: I sold my car and traveled around the world. Along the way, I wrote a series of mass emails detailing my adventures with included climbing Himalayas, getting chased by a Rhino and getting naked with a room full of Russians. I thought of them as a sort of proto-blog though blogs were at that point a good five years away. So now, ten years later, I finally have these missives in a blog format. You can read the first entry here.

I also have pictures from my Existential World Tour to Taiwan, Nepal, Russia, and Berlin.

Tokyo — You Can’t Go Home Again

Omotesando circa 1974I’m in Tokyo now watching a TV show with some Japanese starlet in Peruvian jungle suffering through a meal of turtle penis.

Every time I go to Tokyo there is some new building or development being thrown up. The other day I dropped by Roppongi Hills — a shiny new complex with a huge movie theater, a sundry of overpriced shops and an impressive collection of bad public art. This being summer vacation, the place was packed with family’s and young couples snapping photos with their cell phones left and right. The place looked like it would be more a home in West LA and I soon left feeling like I had seen the place before. Instead I sought out some of the bars where I danced all night in when I lived in Ibaraki eight years ago. My favorite bar had since been turned into a Starbucks. Tokyo has been wrecked and built up so many times, and each new building is more ridiculous and inhuman that the last, giving the place increasingly a feel of a dystopian sci-fi flick, that part of me simply wants to say: build more. Make Tokyo more gigantic and bizarre. But then yesterday, while R and I were looking for an over-priced macrobiotic restaurant along Omotesanto — Tokyo’s answer to the Champs Elysee — we noticed that the famed Dojunkai Apartment complex had been demolished. The Dojunkai apartments was one of first examples of Bauhaus architecture in Japan which somehow survived the 1923 Kanto earthquake and US Air force in 1945. They were elegant and gave the whole area a certain charm. In its place I sure they’re going to throw up some shiny glass box featuring another fuckin’ Starbucks.

Speaking of times gone by, the other day I ventured up to Ibaraki for the day. I first went to Tsuchiura, located on the far finger of Lake Kasumigaura. It was where my friend Ted lived and where I frequently went to escape from the tedium of Ogawa machi — small farming berg where I was placed. The place was more depressing than when I visited two years ago. The shopping mall where Ted and I bought used CDs and drank beer was a ghost town and all of the old department stores have gone belly up. There is a new department store monstrosity that opened up about five years back across from the train station. My friend Yuki predicted that it would go belly up too in a couple of years. Yuki and I spent most of the day catching up over okonomiyaki at one of the few stores still open in that shopping mall.

I told her about working at BIG and R and we talked about our mutual distaste for George W. Bush. She told me about her dumb job and her cat Godzilla who is getting on in years. We gossiped about mutual friends. One is working in a wedding salon as a hairdresser and another has expanded to an alarming girth. Yuki also told me about a dream she had in which she was along with Ted helping me move from my apartment in LA, which was literally on the beach. When the moving guys showed up they brought out a vast array of exotic vacuum machines to clean my house. I was apparently wildly fascinated by them and kept pestering the moving guys with questions. Eventually, they mentioned that they had a vacuum cleaner shaped like a dog. After repeatedly pleading with them, they grudgingly brought the thing out of their van. It was only a beat up plastic toy dog and clearly in no way a vacuum cleaner. I was very disappointed. It was good talking to Yuki. The more my Japanese improves the more I realize that I actually have something to talk about with her, which I’ve sadly learned isn’t always the case.

Speaking of that, for dinner I jogged up to Mito where I briefly saw Ikuko, an ex-girlfriend of mine. I met her at the used-clothing shop she opened up two years ago. The store itself is roughly the size of my bathroom in LA but the location was pretty good and her wares were cool if pricey. She introduced me to her ferret-faced boyfriend who scowled at me for twenty minutes as she closed up shop and then hopped in his Jeep Cherokee and left. We ate dinner at a Thai restaurant that her brother opened, talked about old times and R and ferret-face, and then I grabbed the last train back to Tokyo, which for some reason is at the appalling early time of 9:30pm. On the way back, the train stopped for an hour at the station closest to Ogawa-machi. Something was messed up because of the heavy rain and freakishly cold weather the area is experiencing. Across from me sat a young mother who passed the time staring into her cell phone and whacking her spastic child who was terrorizing the train car.

Anyway, it’s only a few days before my grudging return to the US of A whereupon I’m going to have to find a job fast or move into a cardboard box.

Kumamoto — Sayonara

I’m in my last few days of living here in Kumamoto. On Tuesday or so, R and I are heading to the bright lights and big-city bustle of Tokyo where R is finally going to shoot the bulk of her thesis. Yesterday, before Chakko returned to Fukuoka with her mom — R’s aunt — she gave me a picture book that cataloged every weird ghost and spirit in Japanese mythology including a ghost for umbrellas that have been around too long, a disembodied horse leg that whacks unsuspecting victims in the head, and a truly bizarre ghost called a meoshiri which has a big round eye in its backside. In return, I gave her a couple tapes of my movies. Chakko also has a four-year daughter named Sakura who is the most relaxed, poised four-year old I’ve ever met. R’s mom tells me that kid’s preternaturally good disposition is because all the brown rice Chakko when she was pregnant with her.

Anyway, during some of the slow days at BIG — when everyone was planning shoots instead of doing them — I sometimes would take the company digital camera in hand and troll the city looking for things to shoot. The dangerous thing about digital cameras is that there are no worries about taking a bad picture. If you don’t like it, erase it. I ended up taking something like 400 pictures of things like street lamps, vending machines and ugly buildings. I don’t know why, but when it comes to photography I’m really not all that interested in shooting people; it’s architecture and physical space that really does it for me. I’ll spare you those pics, but I assembled a few photos that would give you, the loyal reader, a sense of my life here in Kumamoto. First the touristy stuff·

This here’s Kumamoto castle. As I noted earlier in this blog, this castle was used in Kurosawa Akira’s Kagemusha. The original burned down in 1868 during a final desperate stand against the Meiji restoration. The battle was famously bloody ending with much mirth for the victors and beheadings for the vanquished. The castle’s painstakingly detailed reconstruction in the 1960s is limited to the exterior. The inside looks like an East German municipal hall. But the really remarkable thing about this castle is that stone wall in the foreground, which is original. They were designed so that a gullible invading army might be able to scale half way up the wall before it curves up at a deceptively steep angle leaving flailing soldiers open for all sorts of missiles, boiling oil and the like. The castle apparently took 20 years to build and when it was done, warlord Kato Kiyomasa killed the architect and everyone involved with project to keep them from leaking its weaknesses to enemies. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before Halliburton adopts a similar policy.

This is the international headquarters of BIG. Actually, BIG takes up only part of the second floor — next to an acupuncturist — and part of the third. The landlord lives on the fourth floor with a dog that yaps incessantly.

And here’s a shot of me that Horita took during the Anesis shoot in June. That’s Miyazaki in the background checking his cell phone and that guy in the back is Fujita, Yamano-san’s assistant. I think Yamano was off smoking a cigarette or something. We were all waiting for the sun to set. That intense expression on my face is not because of my concern for anything going on in the shoot, but rather a profound concern that I would make an ass of myself from some half-understood command.

Alas, I have no still shots of the Touro maidens from my Yamaga shoot, but I do have this reasonably scenic shot of the town. Along with hot springs and pink clad women with funny lanterns on their heads, Yamaga is famous for making shochu and most of the buildings on this stretch of road are actually old distilleries.

Closer to home, this is Hachi, the Sumi’s emotionally needy dog. R’s parents are more camera-shy than she is, if that’s possible. But I was allowed to shoot pictures of Hachi with impunity. He doesn’t really bark so much as howl as if your were removing his hind leg with a butter knife. This is especially the case when he senses the slightest whiff of abandonment, such as going to the store or the bathroom. Today, I went shooting a bit in the morning with R’s camera. When I return, Hachi wouldn’t stop smelling my feet. He wouldn’t wait until I sat down either so I kept tripping over him. Anyway, strange dog.

You can see more pics of Kumamoto, mostly of the grim architectural variety, here.

Kumamoto — Gerogerigegege and the Island Beauty

Hey gang. Yes, I’ve been an errant blogger as of late and to my legions of loyal readers, I bid you a heartfelt apology. Today was clear and not the blazing inferno it has been for much of the week. On Wednesday or so, the temperature here in Kumamoto was the same as Santa Clarita, that high desert suburban armpit where I call home, only Santa Clarita doesn’t have 85% humidity. Just walking from the tram to my office at 9:30 in the morning caused me to sweat through my shirt. Quite unseemly.

Today while eating dinner with R in front of the TV, I saw a show that featured an old man making out with a Boston terrier; a contest that pitted a group of comedians against a sumo wrestler (they lost); a guy who put crabs in his mouth to see what would happen (answer: excruciating pain); a wrestling match between bikini idols; and an Andy Kaufman-like Japanese comedian who was arrested for streaking in Pyongyang. The other day I saw a trivia show that included such morsels of information as very single member of the 1998 Yugoslavian soccer team had a name that ended in “-vic,” that spiders get drunk on coffee, and that if one where to buy every single item in a train station kiosk shop the total price is ¥940,000 (about $75,000). They arrived at that figure by actually going out to a kiosk in Ebisu station and buying every damned thing. The expression of the woman behind the counter was priceless. Sure, Japanese TV is mostly crap, but at least it’s memorable crap.

Anyway, today R and I spent most of the day hanging out with Chakko — R’s cousin. In a family that includes a Communist and a rock star, Chakko stands out as an eccentric. She is one of the few people I’ve met who seems utterly impervious to social expectations. She doesn’t give a wit to fashion, she speaks unselfconsciously in a thick Kyushu accent even though she lives currently in Kyoto and she refers to herself using ore, the coarse masculine word for “I.” She dropped out of art school a while back (she’s a very talented draftsman) and is now taking a stab at filmmaking. Yesterday, she showed us one of her videos, which was a portrait of her friend who makes pictures with his own bodily excretions. It was pretty harrowing to watch, but had a certain style to it. She’d fit right into CalArts. She also told me about a Gerogerigegege concert she witnessed a few years back. I became aware of Gerogerigegege when my friend Ted lent me an album called Tokyo Anal Dynamite — which is either the most God-awful album or the most brilliant album I’ve ever heard. I haven’t figured out which. Anyway, for the concert Gerogerigegege, who is apparently very fat, stood stark naked on stage shouting “Ecstasy” over and over again for a full hour. R, Chakko and I lamented that there this sort of weirdo decadence was hard to find in the states.

On Friday, a huge typhoon blasted through. Friday was also my final day working at BIG, which is ironic because my first day at BIG also had a huge typhoon rolling through town. It was a teary-eyed departure filled with promises to stay in touch and to work with each other again. Actually, Horita liked my work so much that I am the official head of the BIG Los Angeles office. I doubt this is going to lead to much actual work, but who knows. The night before there was a big blow-out party on my behalf at a recently opened hip nightspot build in a refurnished traditional house. Hereâs a picture of the gathering below:

The lanky white guy in middle is me. Going clock-wise, the guy in the greenish shirt is Fukushima-san. He’s a producer and was out for most of the day, so I really didn’t know him all that well. The guy with the glasses giving the requisite peace sign to the camera is Miyazaki-san. He’s the guy who I dragged all over hither and yon for my shoot and who likes to eat grilled tripe. Next is Oshima-san who was my producer for my Yamaga shoot, and finally there’s Horita-san’s wife Naomi who is in some convoluted way related to R’s dad.

Anyway, several pitchers of beer and several plates of sushi later they presented be with a going-away gift — the entire set of manga called Monster by a manga artist that Miyazaki and I both like. Then Horita-san ordered a local shochu made from potatoes called Island Beauty.

“You might not like it,” he warned, “it kinda stinks.” Indeed, it did have a strong though not unpleasant odor and did taste a bit like natto. That was the first cup, of course. By the fourth or fifth cup, I wouldn’t have cared if it tasted like Tom DeLay‘s jockey shorts.

Here’s a shot of Horita after two or three glasses of the stuff. Around this time, he said (translating roughly), “Y’know Jon, you have a really serious face and when I first met you I thought you were this real straight arrow guy who likes to study a lot. But somewhere along the lines, I realized that you’re a really weird American.” He then said that my Japanese was really cute and sometimes really funny. I found this a little disconcerting because most of the time I wasn’t really trying to be funny. As the night progressed, Oshima and Miyazaki made fun of the size of Horita’s head. Miyazaki and I complained about George Bush and the idiots in government on both sides of the Pacific.

And of course, lots and lots of silly and rather embarrassing pictures were taken with the company digital camera. Friday morning, most members of the BIG crew were staggering around in a post-Island Beauty haze.

Kumamoto — DARPA-tastic

At work today, I was merrily reading about the myriad of corporate interests plotting again Tyrone Sloproth in Gravity’s Rainbow, when I noticed that the single aging computer that’s connected to the web was free. After briefly checking my mail, I happened upon a startlingly bizarre news story that seemed like a continuation of Pynchon’s tome. Apparently John Poindexter at the Total Information Awareness agency (recently renamed the slightly less Orwellian Terror Information Awareness agency) has unveiled the Pentagon Terror Market Program. No, it’s not a correspondence course for the School of the Americas, it’s a surreal free-marketeer attempt to make (more) money off of mayhem in the Middle East. A quote:

Traders would buy and sell futures contracts ” just like energy traders do now in betting on the future price of oil. But the contracts in this case would be based on what might happen in the Middle East in terms of economics, civil and military affairs or specific events, such as terrorist attacks. Holders of a futures contract that came true would collect the proceeds of traders who put money into the market but predicted wrong.” (Quoted from an AP news story. The links has gone dead.)

Not only does this seem like something that’s in ridiculously bad taste, but it seems largely irrelevant to, y’know, finding and capturing terrorists. That is until the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency released a statement on Monday that justified the project in pseudo-mystical terms that Pynchon would surely adore.

“DARPA said markets could reveal Îdispersed and even hidden information. Futures markets have proven themselves to be good at predicting such things as elections results; they are often better than expert opinions.” (Quoted from same dead link)

I’m gathering that DARPA is also organizing a crack team of tarot card readers too. You can read the projects strangely laconic web site here.

In other news, Oshima and I went up to Yamaga to present my promo. Three or four middle-aged men grunted their approval and that was about that. Afterwards, Oshima and I ate at one of her favorite takoyaki joints.

Also, I saw on TV the other day that there is a new freshly scrubbed pop-starlet named You. One at imagine spontaneous Abbott and Costello routines popping during the most inappropriate occasions·

A: Hello, thanks for coming to the Strom Thurmond funeral service. May I ask your name?

You: I’m You.

A: No, you’re not. I’m me. You’re you.

You: Right. I’m You

A: No·. (usw.)

Kumamoto — Shooting, Editing, and Drinking with Models.

It’s noisy here in the Sumi residence in the morning. Around five or six in the morning, these mutant-sized crows start cackling at each other. Then some other bird — R told me the name in Japanese but I haven’t a clue what’s it called in English — starts making this weird whooping sound. And then the lions, tigers and bear in the adjacent zoo start roaring and growling. In response, the dogs in the neighborhood start barking. And finally, just as I begin to adjust to the rising noise level and return to a fitful sleep, the cicadas kick in. One of these bugs makes quite a racket; a swarm of them creates a deafening wail that is routinely used in Japanese movies to depict homicidal insanity. While half-asleep this morning, I had the distinct sense this insect cry was actually the sound of my own brain being grilled over a hibachi.

I guess such gruesome imagery is fitting cuz it’s wicked hot here. Yesterday, I managed to prod Miyazaki-san into helping me with a shoot of my own. Anyone familiar with my films Tokai or Beautiful People will probably gather what I was shooting this go around — static pictures of creepily banal architecture. It also gave me the chance to play with R’s sexy new Panasonic DVX-100. For those of you who don’t wax poetic about lines of resolution or image compression, I spare you the details. But the DVX-100 is a pretty cool camera.

Perhaps it was the omnipresent whine of the cicadas that reminded me of my own cooking brain or maybe it was the fact that the back of my neck had turned beet red but two hours into the shoot I went out and bought a ¥500 hat. I don’t wear many hats. I’m not a “hat person.” But I dig this hat. One could say that the hat makes me look remarkably like Jean-Luc Goddard during his cameo in Breathless. One could also that the hat makes me look uncannily like my grandfather Crow who wore a similar hat while gardening. Whatever, the hat protected my head and looked pretty good doing it.

The shoot itself proved to be less than successful, thanks to the heat coupled with some less than satisfactory light. Basically, Miyazaki and I shot for a couple hours then cooled off for a bit, usually at one of Kumamoto’s fine eating establishments. First we stopped by Mister Donuts (which was in an American-sized mall called You Me Town where incidentally I also bought my cool new hat); later we ate soba at a local noodle shop; then around three or so we ate at Mos Burger, which is probably the tastiest fast food joint I’ve ever eaten at; and then finally weary and sunburned, we ate yakiniku in one of Miyazaki favorite haunts which was packed full for some reason with spastic toddlers.

Basically, yakuniku is a platter of raw meat that you grill yourself. Miyazaki, who I think goes to this place something like every week, didn’t even look at the menu when he ordered for the two of us. Soon after, plate upon plate of meat arrived at our table, each more gruesome-looking than the last. When a plate full of raw tripe, intestines, kidneys, and livers arrived, I was dreading that next plate might have nothing but eyeballs and testicles. Though Miyazaki gently mocked my American culinary prudery, I was too tired to rise to the challenge. I stuck with the cuts of meat found on the exterior of the cow and ordered another beer as he merrily munched on charred tripe.

Anyway, most of the week was spent edited that promo for Yamaga. I managed to dredge up some taiko music that not only perfectly fit the length of the piece but also gave it a sense of drama and mystery. Once the timing was set, which took some doing, I had a blast trying out all these effects and techniques I’ve never had reason to use before. I’ll spare the grizzly details, but by Thursday I felt I had edited together a pretty hip little piece. Of course, on Friday after three days of editing, Oshima finally managed to get a hold of the TV station that was going to air the promo and was told that the promo had to be 42 seconds and not 45 as we were originally told. After uttering a number of curses in two languages, I rearranged some shots, tossed a few more and managed to pull something together that was pretty good but not as kick-ass as the 45-second directors cut.

You can see the director’s cut here:

Fortunately, the day ended with me pleasantly inebriated and chatting with models. Yamano-san, who was the cameraman for a shoot I was on in June, was throwing his famous annual summer festival party and all attendants were required to sport festival wear — either yukatas or happi coats. Oshima, who was the other representative for BIG, managed to dig up a shockingly gaudy happi for me to wear — it looked more like a soccer uniform than a piece of traditional Japanese garb. As we were driving to the party, she told me that Yamano’s wife was a hairdresser so I would be able rub elbows with both film and fashion related people. Basically, the beautiful people of Kumamoto, as such. Oshima and Yamano whisked me around and introduced me to lots people including a commercial director who lived in Australia and who spoke pretty good English, a film enthusiast with a moustache whose name I never really caught, and a pair of models named Misa and Maki. Unlike their American counterparts, these models weren’t tall, gaunt or hollow-cheeked. Instead, they looked like Japanese versions of the girl-next-door albeit with preternaturally good skin. They both thought it was cool that I lived in Los Angeles (compared to the blank stares I got when I said I was from Ohio eight years ago in Ibaraki) and they complained about modeling in Kyushu. I hoped that they would dish out about a seedy-side of Kumamoto filled with drugs, violence and red velour but sadly none was forth coming. Later, I talked to local TV reporter about New York City. She later proceeded to get rip-roarin’ drunk and talk on and on to Yamano-san’s wife about hair care tips. Of course, I was enjoying a bit of the drink myself. Eager to rid myself of the day’s stresses and annoyances, I made a beeline for the beer tap and made several return visits while stuffing myself with yakitori, grilled shrimp and edamame. Yamano soon started filling my glass with Shoju – a rice alcohol somewhere between sake and kerosene. Around midnight, when I spotted Oshima looking bored — she doesn’t drink because of migraines — I bayed the models and all farewell and went home in my happi coat.


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