Posts Tagged 'travel'

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.

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.

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 — Fun with Editing

If I wrote this missive yesterday, I would have said something like the rainy season is basically over and I’m spending most of the day feeling my sweat pool in my socks. My sweat may be still pooling in my socks, but it’s raining outside something fierce. The backyard, as such, of the Sumi’s is flooded and the tram has shut down. It seems that R and I are stuck in the house for the day. Despite the rain, there’s some sort of awful karaoke contest going on right now in the neighboring zoo. Someone is doing his best to bludgeon “Let It Be.” I’m trying to ignore it, listening to The Red Hot Chili Peppers of all things. Yesterday, R and her cousin’s daughter and I were rooting around in Sumi’s storage room, where I discovered R’s college CD collection. Apparently, she listened to exactly the same stuff I did back then. There are lots of Dinosaur Jr., Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth albums here, and even a Nirvana disc too. Of course, after our respective college careers our musical tastes radically diverged. I started listening to Japanese neo-lounge and she started listening to stuff that sounds like surgery without anesthetic.

R’s mom just brought in a slice of melon. Yesterday, we started an English conversation class with Mrs. Sumi and one of her old friends. Even though the lesson seemed painfully self-conscious at the time, both women seemed to really enjoy learning English. Mrs. Sumi is now waltzing about the house tossing out English phrases to me and to R, who’s really embarrassed about the whole thing.

Anyway, the week started off slowly. Most of the planned shoots have been done for the immediate short term and most of the staff at BIG was busying themselves for the next spate of shoots next week. On top of that, Ruriko was off for a few days with her aunt and her cousin Chakko to the dubiously named Jigoku Onsen (Hell Hot Spring) over by Mt. Aso.

I had little to do but study Kanji and read Pynchon. I just got up to the part where Tyrone Slothrop pied a racist US army major from a hot air balloon when R’s dad called me up to go hang out. When I arrived at his office, there was a guy with a punch perm and lots of gold jewelry, sucking on a toothpick seated on the couch. I forgot his name but apparently he was the event coordinator for a traveling comedy show that Mr. Sumi was promoting for Kumamoto. When we were introduced he almost immediately asked me where my ancestors were from. When I responded, “England and Scotland mostly.”

He said, “Good. Like Bush.” When we went out to eat yakitori together, he talked about the wonders of his hometown Osaka, how he would never visit America because there are too many guns, and how the Chinese were always dishonest. He asked me what I thought of Bush, I said that he was an idiot and only interested in helping the rich (which, by the way, is not a particularly controversial opinion in Japan) he seemed vaguely disappointed. When I refused to agree with him that the Hispanics were mucking up America, he seemed more disappointed. Then, as we were all getting chummy, he mentioned that he would never let his daughter marry a foreigner. Later, Mr. Sumi and I parted ways with Mr. Punchperm guy and obliquely ridiculed the guy at a bar with only six seats and wall full of expensive bourbon. As I think about that night, I sort of think that Mr. Sumi intentionally invited me along that night to rile up Mr. Punchperm, who he spent three long nights wining and dining and listening to his racist platitudes.

On Wednesday after a fair amount of prodding, Horita-san let me take a crack at editing that Gambaru Zo ad that I shot last week. Aside from Horita, there are two other BIG directors I deal with regularly. One is Miyazaki-san, who is really sharp. When he mentioned that his favorite author was Abe Kobo and that he was looking to read some American books, I recommended Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. He immediately bought it and then lent me the first volume from his favorite comic book series 20th Century Boys. I’ve read about half of it and in spite of the fact that’s it’s peppered with Tokyo slang I’m finding it really addictive.

The other director is Oshima-san, who I think is still a bit cowed by my foreign presence. She was assigned to help me with the editing. When I banged out a version of the 15-spot that I thought was pretty good, she didnât say anything but clearly she thought that something was wrong. When Horita saw it, he said that the version was decently edited but wrong for the concept of the campaign and offered a few suggestions. The following day, I re-edited the spot and Oshima was quiet in that something’s-wrong-but-I’m-too-shy-to-tell-you-what sort of way. After about a half hour, she gets Miyazaki who tells me that there’s supposed to be text in the spot too. OK, that’s the first I’ve heard of that. Together with Miyazaki and Oshima, we eventually hashed together a commercial that not only features most of my editing choices, and a lot of my photography, but also a half-second shot of the back of my head. Anyway, assuming the TV high mucky-mucks like the piece, it should be airing in the next week or so.

It’s a little sobering to think that after all the pain, effort, and money that I spent on my films while in Cal Arts, this 15 second piece that took two and a half days to throw together will be seen by more people than all the others combined.

You can watch the final result here: .

Kumamoto — The Film Geek

Boy, it’s hot and humid today. I think that the rainy season is beginning to loosen it death-grip on the skies. Yesterday, R and I did what we usually do during the weekends — take the tram into town and hang out. Last week, we bought a book listing all of Kumamoto’s numerous coffee shops and have since been exploring. There’s a few Japanese-themed shops, complete with tatami mats and green tea; several generically hip shops featuring Ikea-esque furniture and some tastefully displayed artifacts from the 1970s; numerous really dull shops catering to housewives with sweet-toothes (sweet teeth?); and at least one Chinese coffee shop; not to mention the dozen or so Starbucks and Starbucks-clones dotting the town.

Yesterday, I suppose I was in sort of a pissy mood, largely because it took R and hour and half to get ready to go out. After I needled R a bit, her mom burst in with some brown rice muffins and a can of organic apple juice. Whenever men get grumpy, Mrs. Sumi later told R, give them food. As much as I’d like to dispute her logic, I must admit I did shut up and gobble down the muffins. And I was less grumpy afterwards. I’m somewhat appalled at my own complete lack of guile.

Anyway, we spent much of the time in Shimotori, one of two shopping streets downtown. R bought a book on Zen, and I bought a compilation CD of old Stax soul tunes. We were hanging out at a coffee shop called Hands talking about kanji when the cell phone went off. (Oh yeah, it’s really easy to rent a cell phone here. Of course, my cell is about as basic as you can get, with none of the cool extras like net access, MP3 players or video players.) R’s parents were in the neighborhood and asked us over to her dad’s office. Soon afterwards we went to another coffee shop run by a friend of her dad. Did I mention that R’s dad knows everyone in this town?

The proprietor who is named Sonomura-san not only owns the shop — decorated with various items of film memorabilia — and is a film history lecturer at Kumamoto University, but is also a film critic who shows up on TV now and then. Soon after we ordered, he came right over to us and launched into a discussion about how he recently visited Ozu‘s and Mizoguchi‘s graves located in Kamakura and Kyoto respectively. We talked some and I mentioned that I was not only a fan of Ozu and Mizoguchi but also of Naruse Mikio (at least what I’ve seen a little of his work). Sonomura nearly wept with delight that a foreigner — and a relatively young one at that — heard of Naruse. The conversation quickly descended into an all out geek-fest. He knew the names all of the characters in Seven Samurai, the names and years of all the movies Hara Setsuko appeared in, and intimate details of director Keisuke Kinoshita‘s life story. The whole time he was unrelentingly staring at me. Ruriko and her family might as well as not have existed. Fortunately, I knew enough about Japanese cinema to sound somewhat intelligent. After an hour or so, we managed to disengage. While I respect and admire his passion for Japanese cinema (I’m sure I’ve bored people with my interest in the same) I did sort of feel like I was on the receiving end of a fire hose for an hour. Later that night, we went to a video store and rented one of the Kinoshita films that Sonomura recommended.

Kumamoto –TV and ¥100 Shops

I just spent the last two or so hours watching Japanese TV. One program featured a segment that pulled drunken salarymen off the street after the bars closed and put them in a sort of ad hoc quiz show. At one point an announcer drilled a fat guy who had downed eight beers that night about the origin of turmeric. The fat guy retorted that his house burned down a few days before and he didn’t have a place to sleep.

On the news, the big story was that family of four in Fukuoka was mysterious murdered and their bodies were dumped in the ocean. The other big story was that soccer player and Sting impersonator David Beckham stopped by Japan to shoot a commercial where he was beset upon by half the female population of Tokyo. The announcers all clucked about how cool he looked and about how much then looked forward to watching his commercial. The other day, on an Entertainment Tonight like show I saw a PR puff piece about a Canon digital camera commercial that was in production. It strikes me as depressingly inevitable that there would be hype about something that is supposed to hype something else.

Today was another low-key sort of day. The highpoint was probably going to a massive ¥100 (85 cents) shop. I when there to pick up a Japanese style notebook so I could practice Kanji but they sold everything there: Potato chips, photo albums, underwear, plush toys, Halloween masks, ashtrays, cocktail glasses, electrical cords, Japanese-English dictionaries, soda and (Japan being Japan) cheesecake DVDs all for ¥100.

Then R and I went to a Starbucks knockoff downtown (there are, by the way, three — count ’em three — Starbucks in a two block radius of downtown) where I read an article about the parallels between the Iraq war and Frank Herbert’s Dune in the latest issue of The Believer. As I looked up from my magazine, I realized that every single table in the shop was populated with women in their early 30s who were either studying English or composing email messages on their cell phones.

Kumamoto — First Days

It’s a lazy Saturday morning here in Kumamoto. I’m sitting on a tatami mat next to a shoji screen. It’s hot and cloyingly humid and the smell of soumen is emanating from the kitchen. It would all feel very Japanese if it weren’t for the sound of lion roars and monkey squeals. R’s house abuts the Kumamoto zoo.

Anyway, I started work at a small production company that in spite of (or perhaps because of) its size is called BIG. It’s located on two floors of a narrow office building adjacent from the Kumamoto city central police station, which looks less like an example of municipal architecture and more like it ought to be ferrying Darth Vader to the Death Star. Down the street is a store called “Sweet Camel” which advertises that it sells “Jeans for Aggressive Women.” On Thursday, the day I started working at BIG, a typhoon blew in from the Sea of China. My boss, Horita san, who looks vaguely like Beat Takeshi and who worked on the set of Kurosawa Akira‘s Ran when it was shot near Kumamoto, seemed eager to show me off to his business associates. As I struggled to follow one guy, who was discussing in heavily accented Japanese his plans to hire the handicapped, I became increasingly worried that the building would blow over from the gusts of wind. The floor shook, the windows rattled and stuff (hopefully not asbestos) rained down from the tiles above. And everyone largely ignored the whole thing. I tried to look attentive, by staring at the guy’s lips and not at the trees branches, bits of garage and small children flying past the window.

Spring Break ’03 Part 6 — The Long Return Home

I’m bleary-eyed and back in the US of A. Today, apart from the continued illegal war, and a frightening virus sweeping through China, I learned that Hong Kong actor/pop star Leslie Cheung committed suicide today. This sad news made a weird connection with me because the Reuters article [now, sadly, offline] about the incident indirectly quotes the Barnes and Noble web site, which features a bio written by yours truly, back when I was working for allmovie.com. I guess this is an example of the decline of journalistic standards.

Anyway, R and I spent the remainder of my time in Tokyo around Ueno. It’s cherry blossom season there, so we went to Ueno park and looked at the blossoms and thought about the transcience of life. We then looked at the drunk middle-aged men gathered under the trees in the traditional picnic party/drinking marathon on a blue tarp known as Hana-mi and we thought that we should leave.

I bought some pants at the last minute at a store called Muji, which is like Ikea, Trader Joe’s, the Michael Graves section of Target and an slightly more interesting Gap rolled into one. It’s great. Contrary to popular opinion, Japan is becoming a reasonably affordable place for clothes, if you have the right body-shape. Since I’m build like a tall (if hairy) Japanese — Gap clothes look weird and billowy on me as if even pants with a 31″ waists have legs the width of cheese wheels — this place is great.

Somehow in the bizarre logic of time-zones, I arrived in Los Angeles seven hours before I took off from Tokyo. I departed from Narita at around 7pm 3/31/03 only to arrive at noon the same day. Needless to say, my body clock is still higglety-pigglety. The same sextet of loud UCSB college girls sat in from of me who same in front of me on the way over. They all filled out there sweatpants like overstuffed sausage skins as they read People magazine and brayed loudly about boys, partying and tennis. Girls gone Wild in Tokyo. Still nothing short of a projectile vomiting toddler could be worse than the Texan frat boy I sat next to that last time I ventured over the Pacific. For the entire ten hour flight, he proselytized to the guy sitting next to him about the virtues of fundamentalist Christianity and right wing politics. I was hoping the plane would crash just so I wouldn’t have to listen to the guy.

When I arrived, my heart swelled when I learned that I had seven messages on my cell phone’s voice mail. Friends and family wished me a safe return, I thought? A possible job offer to pull me out of my art school penury? No. It was some stoner who thought I was Raymond and, like, was waiting for me on the “second level.”

Anyway, I’m going to start seriously working on this autobiographical essay film that I’ve been thinking about for years and for which I shot 8 hours of footage in Japan. Instead of standard shots of scenic wonders and family, or even trains — of which I shot 14 hours when I was in Tokyo in 2001 — I shot a lot of semi-abstract images of light and reflections. I have no idea if any of them will look good or not, but I might post a few samples.

Spring Break ’03 Part 4 – Last Day in Kumamoto

Hello all. We made it to Tokyo and I’m now sitting in R’s brother’s humble pad located in Kita-senju, which is the northeast corner of this sprawling city. In spite of the crowds, the cramped living conditions, and the cost, I really like Tokyo.

The day before yesterday, R and I meandered around the shopping district of Kumamoto. Compared to Tokyo, Kumamoto has a relaxed — R would say lackadaisical — pace and an artsy-craftsy sort of favor. Or at least that was the case in the shopping district, which featured boutique after boutique featuring Indian wrap-around skirts, hemp bracelets, and a variety of hipster updates of traditional Japanese crafts. Kumamoto also boasts a thick accent roughly equivalent to a Scottish burr, which R and Yo-chan (R’s brother delight in teaching me).

For lunch, R’s mom took us to a really good soba restaurant (soba being a specialty there) set in a beautiful old house complete with a courtyard garden. There’s probably not a single nail in this building, R’s mom commented. Then she took us to a nearby antique shop/coffee shop/ two-hundred plus year old tavern located right on one of the canals that rib the city. The antique collection was impressive — featuring a lot of European stained glass for some reason — but the building was out of this world. In the old days, customers arrived to the place by the canal. The dock and boarding room were still beautifully in tact. Why aren’t more old buildings preserved like this in Japan?

Later, after eating at an Indian themed coffee shop, which seemed to be a center for the local Kumamoto peace movement, we went back to the hotel where I was treated to a reality TV show where a team of young (18-20 yr old) hostesses talked shit about a team of older (28-30) hostesses. A cat-fight ensued in a wrestling ring and the loser of the match suffered the indignity of getting pied. It’s only a matter of time before FOX starts airing its own version.


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