Thursday, April 09, 2009

Walk to Defeat ALS: Chicago Walk - Saturday, June 6th 2009

The prodigal son has returned from travels across the vast desert of silicon valley(not literally). Yes, I have been sailing the seas of the Internet, caught up in status updates, picture uploads, grade school classmates, and even in virtual contact with many of you fine folks on this rather archaic(haha!) e-mail list.
Sorry for dropping off and leaving you all hanging on the next adventures of Steve and Erin in Japan.
It's weird, what once was so foreign and new, can easily transform into your "normal" life. So goes our status these past many months still here in Japan. And, just as soon as all seems normal, we are ready to flip our lives upside down once again by returning back to our home sweet home!

Yeah, if you haven't heard, this is our last year in Japan.
We'll be returning to the good ole USA at the end of this summer!

What times we've had here in Japan! We sure will miss it, but in the same breath we are happy to come back to friends and family who we've missed so very much. And, let's not forget about Chicago pizza, hot dogs, Lake Michigan, cheap concerts, cheap movies, and the mass of the population speaking a language you can understand.

One thing that I am grateful to come home to is to see my family. I have been missing them so very much. I did have the great opportunity to travel to the Philippines this past January and meet my cousins, aunts, uncles, and extended family there, which was such an unbelievable experience!(you'll have to read the blog for that story)
But, I am most looking forward to seeing my mom back in Cal City.
While living here in Japan, my mother was diagnosed with ALS. It's been torture for me to know this and not be able to be there to help out. Though, my brothers and sisters and family friends have been utterly supportive and doing an amazing job taking care of my folks. My mother, as humble as she is, has the strength of a lion in her heart, and her unwavering devotion to prayer and spiritual guidance will get her through the challenges that come with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

To do my part in supporting my family and my mom, I've joined my sister's team for the Chicago Walk to Defeat ALS. Though, I cannot be there in June for the walk, I've registered as a virtual walker and am taking donations for this cause. Please check out my personal page here,

I know times are tough back home, and money's tight. But if you can find it, any amount would be greatly and graciously appreciated, to show support for my mom, my family, and all those who have been affected by this disease. Please take the time to visit the page and read a little more about my mom and ALS. And, please spread the love and pass this link onto anyone and everyone.

You know, usually I ask and thank you all for your support you've given me throughout my musical career and personal endeavors, but this time I ask for your attention to support my mother, Soly Munoz, and her fight against ALS.

Thanks everyone! Sending you all the love from Japan!

Peace and love,


Monday, September 01, 2008

Climbing Mount Fuji

Four days into my week-long workshop I was teaching at in Shizuoka Prefecture(which kisses the Southern side of Mount Fuji), I finally had a chance to breathe and reposition my focus on figuring out plans on how to make my way to Gogomae, the fifth station on the Yoshidaguchi Trail at Fujisan where I was to meet Erin, Doc, and his friend Dane, at which point we were to begin our ascent of Japan's most famous mountain, Mt. Fuji. Things before this point has been a whirl, with little time to research let alone plan and prepare for the climb of Fujisan(mountains take the formal ending of "-san", just as you'd use when speaking formally to a person, ie. Yamamoto-san, Munoz-san, Daniel-san, etc.) I had left most of that up to our friend Doc, who took the reigns in organizing this adventure, which served duel duties as his birthday present to himself, and to Erin who had a bit more time to burn this summer, compared to my hectic schedule of teaching engagements.

So, as I sat at my computer that night in my hotel room, I began my research with a train route search to the station which Erin e-mailed to me, which we would meet to catch a bus together to the fifth station. The route comes up, and I'm floored with first, the cost, then second, the time. Here, I thought, I can see Fuji from my hotel window, how can it cost me like 7,000yen(about $70) and take four hours?! This can't be right. I was struck with confusion. I did a bit more researching and learned that I was on the wrong side of the mountain! Well, at least the wrong side to meet at the planned meeting point with Erin and the others. Doh! Hadn't planned for that. That's what you get for growing up in the Midwest with flat lands and hills(and sand dunes in Indiana and Michigan), you don't think of mountains as massive three-dimensional earthen structures that you just can't pop over in a car or bus, or on a day hike with your cub scout troop. Chalk one up to ignorance. So, my mind is flashing options, cost and time-effective solutions, all pulsing with a new fire of stress I've created for myself. I frantically e-mail a flurry of correspondences with Erin, which probably wasn't the best thing to do(since she had her own planning to consider and prepare for), and eventually settle into the task of figuring this out.
With the help of my friend and co-teacher/worker, Nami, I asked her to help me find a more direct route to the station from where we were at. The train route I looked up earlier, because of the railway, had to take me East to Shibuya in Tokyo, then back West to the Northeastern side of Fujisan. We found a bus that was a fraction of the cost and time of the train... hurray! With plans finally set, I finished up the last days of the workshop, had our show, and decided to stay at the hotel one more night to leave in the morning to meet Erin. Poor Erin, she had to take a night bus from Nara to Tokyo(about 6hrs), then a train to the station, Kawaguchiko, where we were to meet at(2hrs), then the bus we would catch to the fifth station on Fujisan(1.5 hrs), then we would start our climb. Upon finally seeing each other after a week of me in Shizuoka, she was bright eyed and pretty cheering(despite the hell ride of night bus she took, broken chair and noisy kids).

We took the bus to the fifth station, a common starting place for climbers(especially amateurs like ourselves). We picked up any last minute supplies, our traditional hexagonal Fujisan walking staffs, and began our hike just before 5pm. The plan was to hike to the past the eighth station, where Doc had booked a place for us at a "hotel", where we would eat and rest for a bit, then wake up early to finish the climb to the top and catch the sunrise. I say "hotel" because, really, it was pretty much a bunk room, with rows of sleeping bags packed like sardines on two levels.
So, off we went. In my pack I had: 1.5 liters of water, cold weather clothes, rain gear, a couple flash lights, some snack foods, a can of oxygen, my camera, an umbrella, my Gerber multi-tool.

The first bit was only a slight incline up a well defined path. We ascended easily and after an hour or so we reached this station hut, where we got our first of several brands on our walking staffs. It's a cool way to adorn your wooden staff, though, at 200yen a pop sure adds up. But, I'm glad I got most of them. Some of the brands indicate the elevation, which I thought was really cool.

We continued our climb and felt the sun set, stopping at each hut to brand our staffs and take a breather. We were above the clouds at this point, and night was falling around us. We put on our headlamps, and
kept on truckin' in the dark. We also met a cool girl from Australia, Lucy, who was climbing by herself and we invited to join us. She's an actress currently living in China(or Korea?) The higher we hiked, the more rocky the terrain became and now we had to, at times, maneuver our way up and between rocks and boulders; in the dark, none the less! The air was definitely thinner up there, and the climate was cold and windy, a far cry from the summer sun and humidity we left at the station we started from. We got the eighth station, but were informed that the place we had booked was still about an hour and half up! Doc and Dane hauled ahead of us, and Erin, Lucy, and I steadily walked in the dark, in mostly silence, passing other climbers, pacing ourselves and our breathing, stopping once and awhile to suck up some pure oxygen and take a drink of water. On our way, we had also met another climber, Johann from France, who joined us. He's a young archaeologist on vacation in Japan with a 1yr daughter and wife who stayed back in the hotel while he was climbing. Randomly, to our surprise in conversation, we learned that he happened to stay with a mutual acquaintance while he and his family stayed around Kansai.

So, we finally made it to our hut-tel by 10pm. We were just about 15mins behind Doc and Dane, who were getting ready to eat our modest dinner of curry, rice, and hamburg. *yes, I meant hamburg, not hamburger. In Japan, a beef patty, usually served on a hot iron skillet is called a hamburg steak or just hamburg, and the latter, hamburger, refers to the thing you get at Micky D's. Though, they'd pronounce it as, "ham-baa-ga" at "mac-u-do-na-ru".... seriously.

After our dinner, we were asked what time we wanted to get up. It was suggested if we wanted to see the sunrise, we should make our way by 1:30am. Not much time to sleep, so we got in our sardine bags and tried to rest for a few hours. It was the most expensive "floor" I slept on, but I did manage to get a bit of sleep. I can't say that was the case with Erin or Doc, but the rest was welcomed.

We got up, geared up, and readied our selves for the final kilometers to the top. As we stepped out of the door, we were greeted by a cavalcade of climbers, all packed and foreheads illuminated by headlamps, crowded front to back like rush hour on the Dan Ryan, focused on seeing the sunrise from the top of Fujisan. We merged into the crowd, and step by step, drudged our way to the top. It was cold and slow, crowded and congested like the morning commuter trains. It took us about three hours to climb those last few kilometers to the top. Thankfully, I was warned that it would be like this, cold and crowded, so it didn't bother me so much. Again, Doc and Dane made it to the top first, and Erin and I stuck together and reached the top together, hand in hand.
Despite the headache I had been nursing for most of the way up(probably mild altitude sickness), I was happy we got to the top, safe and sound, together. We did see the sunrise.

You know all those people we climbed up with, they were all there too... and then some. It was quite cold up there, and Doc and Dane were freezing. I luckily had extra clothes, so we huddled for a few pics, got our staffs stamped, and began our way down the treacherous path. I say treacherous because we had been warned by friends who had climbed and descended Fuji before that the way down is the worst part of the Fuji experience... and they were right.

Imagine sliding down a decent incline with loose rocks and red gravel underfoot tripping and you and providing uncertain ground for your footing. The landscape looked like what you'd see in pictures of Mars. Add to that, groups of other people all negotiating their way down at the same time, the fatigue of the climb you just did up the mountain, and the rapidly changing climate once again. I took a more daring technique and let gravity do most of the work for me, as I skipped and skidded down the path, weaving around people and wearing out the bottoms of my shoes in the process. This was going well for me, expending less energy than trying to fight my way down, but I kept tabs on Erin's slow progress down. She's got pretty bad knees, so she couldn't foot "ski" down the rocky path like me, instead, taking it one step at a time. To lighten her load, I took on her backpack(along with mine) at about a quarter of the way down. This act of kindness did have me alter my descending technique, since my weight distribution was now uneven and top heavy. I continued my way down, a bit slower now and the fatigue was really coming on. I took a few breaks and even managed to take a 15-20min nap, but I tried to stay on course and eventually made it to where we started at the fifth station just before noon. Erin had met up with Lucy, our friend from Australia who we climbed up with, whom she came down with for the last part of the descent. Doc and Dean had already made it down before us, and, tired and exhausted caught a bus and train back.

All in all the climb of Fujisan was a thrilling and great challenge for me. Even before we got to Japan, I had talked to my brother Francis about his climb of Fuji, and also our neighbor, Julius, who climbed the mountain a long, long time ago. It's one thing I really wanted to do in Japan while we were here, and I finally accomplished it. I'm so, so proud of Erin for doing it too. She had reservations about joining the trip, and even the days before the climb I had e-mailed her my concerns if she was up for it. I'm thankful that we reached the top together and came down unscathed other than sore bodies for several days afterwards. Fujisan is the highest and most famous mountain in Japan at 3,776 meters.

Check this link for complete album of pics on Facebook,

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

International Arts and Culture Fest 2008

A few weekends ago I had a performance with a few friends for this International Arts and Culture Fest, hosted by the city of Kawanishi and JET Programme(the company Erin teaches for). I took part in this event last year as well, with some dear friends who no longer live in Japan. So, this year, was a new "band" we put together to perform 4 songs.

The players were Jack G. on electric guitar and backing vocals,
Gillian H. on piano, guitar, mandolin(and bass drum), and backing vocals,
Craig S. on lead vocals and acoustic guitar,
and me on bass, mandolin, harmonica, bass drum, piano, and backing vocals.
*pics taken by Arthur Lim Banes

So, my very good friend Chetan from Cape Town South Africa, took this candid shot of me while we were playing our last number, Let it Bleed by the Stones.
I vaugely remember being in eye shot of Craig, and, as we slowly built up the intensity of the song, I gave him a look and stuck out my tounge in a fun, carefree gesture, as I'm often moved act while performing. You can see Gillian in the foreground concentrating on playing the mando and bass drum simultaneously, a feat that's not very easy to do, especially if you haven't really played much mandolin or drums for that matter. This girl is a natural musician.

So, our whole set:
I Don't Like Mondays by The Boomtown Rats; Gillian on Piano, Craig lead Vox, me on bass, and Jack and me on backing Vox
Karma Police by Radiohead; Gillian on Piano, Craig lead Vox and acoustic guitar, Jack on lead/noise electric guitar, Me on bass and backing vocals
Black Country Woman by Led Zeppelin; Craig on Vox and open G acoustic guitar, Gillian on acoustic guitar, Jack on lead electric guitar, me on mandolin, harmonica, bass drum
Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones; Craig on lead Vox and acoustic guitar, Jack on lead electric guitar, Gillian on mandolin, bass drum and backing vocals, and me on piano and shouting

*pics taken by Chetan Rama and backstage pics by Josy Audigier
It was a great performance and a lot of fun to share music with these guys. Unfortunately, Craig will be returning back home to Vancouver at the end of the summer, but Jack and Gillian will still be here to make more music. I'm glad we had the chance to all play together.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Mr. Potato Man visits Osaka

So, this past weekend was sparked by an opportunity to play my music for an event at Mad Kafe in Amemura at moment's notice, and ended in a surreal progression of events due to sharin' good music, meeting cool people, drinking too many energy drinks mixed with alcohol, dancing, lack of sleep, rain, acting, and in the end, talking to a potato.

I had played at Mad Kafe once before, with some other friends of mine who set up this show. Pauley and boys of KJ rockin the place out last December, shortly after I came back from our visit in the States. I remember, though, I had a bad first gig there because my sound was for shit and I wasn't gettin' the vibe, so I never expected to come back. Just chalk one up, I thought, but out of the blue the other week I got a contact from the owner of Mad Kafe to see if I wanted to join in on a live event that was happening the upcoming weekend. After a bit of pondering, I agreed, and hoped to redeem myself from my first appearance there.(note, I don't think I played a horrible show the first time, 'cause people were digging it, the negative vibes is just me criticizing myself) Now, whenever I have a gig in Osaka, there comes the inevitable decision of whether or not I can or should pull and all-nighter(since trains stop running by around midnight: our last train to go back home being 11:32pm) Throwing caution to the wind, and it being warm weather, I decided that I'd party all night. One deciding factor was that I had to be back in Osaka on Sunday morning for a film shoot, where I was asked to be an extra before hand by a good friend of mine. So, with plans for Sunday, I figured staying up in Osaka all night till Sunday morning would be the best, and most interesting, course of action.

I got to Mad Kafe about 8:30pm, located in Amemura, a central hub of nightlife in Osaka named after I guess the "American" style which permeates the stores, bars, and shops there. It's short for American village; mura means village in Japanese. They were setting up the sound, and I noticed a drum set, two guitar amps, a few mics on stands, and a highway of cables. Yay, I thought, maybe I'll play some drums tonight too. It's not very often I get to these days in Japan, for lack of space as well as the noise factor. The headlining band, 1★狂 / ICHI BANG BOSHI CREW, came in about a half hour later and did their sound check. The whole night was to be arranged around their set, which didn't start till 1am, so I asked Will, the owner, whenever is cool with me. There were also to be various DJs of various styles spinning all night(and eventually morning) in between live acts. I was the first live act to play, my set started at 11pm for about a 30min-40min.

I did a live looping set with my guitar, vocal, portable drum machine, and also jumped on the drum set. It was a great set, I thought, the highlight for me being an improvised jam that was a mix of Middle Eastern, Indian raga style and surf music. Don't ask me where that came from, my fingers just decided that's what they wanted to play. Wish I had a vid or recording of that. Since this small club was geared for dance music, the system was bass heavy, which is not very friendly to acoustic instruments, but I took advantage of this feedback phenomenon and shaped some rather metallic, pulsing sounds through out my set and integrated those into the soundscapes I was creating. I watched the people there, it wasn't a full room yet, eyes watching me, some heads bopping, phones taking pics, and after each song... silence. I think they didn't know how to react to what I was doin' because I probably looked like a man possessed, but after a few seconds cheering and applauding would ensue. So, that was a good sign. Closed the set with an accapella version of Redemption Song I've been known to do, while beating out a rhythm on my guitar. The sound in the room was real nice.

I packed up my gear, and headed out to catch a subway train down to Tennoji. I wanted to catch a friend's band who were playing at Tin's Hall, and also get my pay from my last gig.(I had to leave so quickly last time I played at Tin's, I forgot to get paid!) I was also courting the idea of possibly playing a set at Tin's tonight too, if possible, so I took my guitar with me just in case. I left Mad Kafe a bit after 12am, and got to Tin's just in time to catch the tail end of the last song. Rising Sons are a power trio and perform all their own original material. Nice sounds. I hung out for a bit, talking to the drummer and his brother, ordered a hamburger and drink a few drinks, then talked to the lead singer, Danny, for a bit. Since we're both musicians with our own gigs, we rarely get to see one another because of conflicting schedules, but it was nice to be able to chat with him. He decided to come back with me to Mad Kafe and join in a jam session. We left Tin's around 2am, walked in the rain to catch a taxi back to Amemura.

When we got there another live band was playing; piano, vocals, drums and bass called The Geminaic. Kinda singer songwriter type of music. Then this cat Dan Kane joined them, doin' a few bluesy numbers. He had really good voice, played acoustic, and blew a pretty good harp. I was getting antsy, so I asked Danny if I could borrow his Strat(I only had my acoustic guitar) so I could join in and jam with them. He said go right a head, and I waited to catch the eye of Dan the singer, to see if it was okay if I could jump in with them. Got the green light, so I plugged in Danny's guitar to an amp and we did a few tunes. His Strat was real nice, but his strings were heavier than I'm use to. Good sounds though, and the people were diggin' the music.

After that jam, Dan stayed on and did a few solo original songs. On this last song, a cover that I can't remember at the moment, the piano player joined in, and I grabbed my sticks and brushes and jumped on the drum set. Good times. I stayed behind the drum set and we played a bit more, then it was just me and piano player, Derron, and Danny jumped in and starting playing bass. We got a sorta Medeski, Martin, and Wood groove going on, but I'm so outta practice on the drums my endurance is lacking. I kept it was tight as I could, no doubt. Then, the original Japanese bass player guy grabbed the bass, and Danny picked up the acoustic guitar, and Dan the singer rocked the vocals. It was good jam session, especially since it was the first time we all played together. We didn't even know each other's names at that point.

We got the crowd cookin' and decided to hand it off to the next DJ. Finally, introductions were made, drinks were drunk, and the music pumped on and the room was dancin'. My friend Louis, who also lives in my neighborhood of Goido, showed up with a few friends of his. We happened to take the same train into the city, and I told him where I'd be playing and to stop by. We all danced and drank and had good ole time. Consequently, last time I hung out with Louis in Osaka all night was the night of the yakuza incident which I posted awhile back, Kicked in the by Yakuza.

Hours zipped by like minutes in the non-stop music, as the DJs handed off each set to the next DJ like relay runners passing a baton in a race. Even Will the owner pumped the grooves at one point, bringing the Chicago house flava into the mix. It's an environment I haven't recently found myself in, dance clubs, that is. Not that I don't like dancing or dance clubs, just never went to them on a regular basis. There were those off nights in my younger days we'd head up to Chicago to clubbing. It was great to see people dancing and letting loose, voyeurs and exhibitionists mingling in the electricity generated by bodies jumping, shaking, slithering, and twisting to an ever increasing tempo. I traded my beers for energy drinks, which kept me going strong as the evening progressed to dawn, and dawn turned to morning; all hidden from our senses in this little club, with no windows or clocks. At one point, a few of us were chillin' in the lobby area, taking a break from dancing, and one girl insisted that we NOT tell her what time it was after some else asked the question. You think if Cinderella didn't know it was close to midnight, she could've stayed later and wouldn't have had to go through all the trouble to get the prince? I looked at my watch, nearly 6am. Still over two hours before my meeting at 8:30 for the film shoot. Louie was pretty wasted at this point, but had a trio of very nice English girls taking care of him. The girl who didn't want to know what time is was kept telling Louis she was a Russian spy, or some other kinda of nonsense... hahaha. I went back in, got another drink and talked with Dan the singer for awhile about music. And the DJs played on.

Before I knew it, I checked my watch again and it was 8am. The crowd had dwindled to about half a dozen, but still goin' strong. The music was ever more intense and the DJ was also free styling over the heavy, heavy beats, steadily flowin' a blur of indecipherable words and phrases. It was quite impressive. A Japanese couple, who I noticed had been there for a good portion of the evening, had been trolling the scene for what I deduced a late night lover to take home with them. I didn't know if they were looking for a boy or girl, I wasn't sure, but I saw them leave with a young, Middle Eastern looking guy, that morning. I caught Louis attention, as he was nearly falling asleep on one of the speakers, and told him that I was heading out. He left with me and we headed to the nearest subway station, and was pondering the notion of joining in as an movie extra, but by the time we got Shinsaibashi Station he decided it would be best to just chill out and sleep in one spot. So I left him there just outside of the staton, where he picked a quiet, unobtrusive spot on the sidewalk to sleep. He does this quite well, sleeping in public. It's kinda like his super power. And, fortunately, in Japan it's safe for such behavior. Not many people, other than homeless or drunk people, do it, but it's reassuring to know you can be fairly safe in public slumber.

I got to Fukushima Station, which is just West of Umeda, around 8:45am. I was late, but Shizuka and a guy from the film crew where waiting patiently for me. That short subway ride seemed to drain me, or maybe it was the sun, or all those energy drinks were crashing my will. Whatever it was, the world had that haze you get when you've pushed your body to its limits, everything looked softer and the sounds around you are muted, and your body is a heavy bag of sand. I jumped in the waiting car, and we drove a few blocks to the wine bar cafe where the shoot was taking place.

I met some of the crew, a few other actors, and was briefed on a scene I would take part in. I was to play a chef's assistant, so they gave me a costume(chef's jacket) and informed me that I had a line... well, sorta. I was supposed to mumble "Bochi bochi" over again five times, like I was trying to find the meaning. Which, honestly, is not far off. It means something like, "so so" in Kansai-ben. And, my character, Mike, is supposed to be kinda daydreaming and talking to himself while peeling a potato. Then, they told me to talk to the potato. Mixed with my smoldering fatigue and melting delirium from a night of dancing and music, talking to a potato seemed quite the right thing to do. I guess I nailed it... I honestly don't remember.

I took a very brief nap on a couch, maybe like 15min-20min, and woke up remembering that I had invited a bunch of people to come to the set to also be extras. Erin was suppose to arrive at 1pm with Doc and Emily. I was told my friend Genny was already at the station. So, Shizuka and I walked back to the station and waited around, then went to a nearby deli to get a bite. Erin and crew met up with us, and we were off back to the cafe for the party scene. We walked in the rain and it felt good to me.

The next few hours were spent sitting at made up tables as if we were at a party. It was still very surreal, with all the directions in Japanese, and the crew buzzing around with lights and cameras and mics and big pieces of styrofoam to deflect and control the lighting. My directions were simple, keep day dreaming about the potato... which I did. I was so engrossed in my potato dreams that I made a face with the potato wedges, a mound of mashed potatoes on my plate, and halved cherry tomatoes on the table. Apparently, the director was inspired by the honest channeling of my delirious state of mind into my character that, at the end, he had me talk to my potato based face plate for an improvised shot. Oh, potato man, where are you from?

We left the shoot around 5pm. So, let's see, I worked Saturday afternoon, starting at 2pm. After work, came home to get my gear and went to Mad Kafe by 8:30pm... 12 hours later, I was on a train to Fukushima for the shoot which all ended by 5pm. I think I was up for around 30-35hours. Not my record, but who's counting? I had a good time exploring the Osaka night life, sharing good music, dancing, meeting cool people, and have my debut on film. Even though I'm not as young as I used to be, it's still nice to know I can be from time to time(it just takes me much longer to recuperate).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Myspace Music Blog: Working on a new song

Thursday, April 17, 2008

New Song in the works
Current mood: hopeful
Category: Music

So, here's a new song I just wrote a few days ago. This is just the basic structure, which I'll properly record very soon with a bit more arrangement added. For some reason, I seem to gravitate towards writing sad sounding songs whenever I pick up my mandolin. Go figure. But I think the lyrics are hopeful.

It's a song for my mother, who, since we moved to Japan has been fighting a physical disorder, which has not quite been diagnosed 100% as to what it exactly is, but it's caused her to loose control of her mouth and tongue, making her speech and breathing difficult. And, the killer, is that she can't sing like she used to. Which truly breaks my heart because she has the most beautiful voice, one of only a few in the world that can truly bring me to tears. This is a voice that I grew up with, sang to me as a child, taught me my first words, and introduced me to singing. This song is for her and for anyone that feels like they don't have a voice, whether that's literally or figuratively.

New Song

This song also has a part of me in it too. This past winter was a rough one for me, and I've heard from a lot of people across the board the same sentiment about the dreadful winter of '07. I was trying to figure out what I'm doing, trying to write(unsuccessfully), and be productive. But, nothing came out this winter. It was a lesson relearned in how not to try to force your art. It'll come when it comes, the only thing you can do is be prepared for her when she shows up. We're always waiting for something, right? Just gotta make the most of the time in between those moments. So, I've felt like I lost my voice as well. She came back with this song and a bunch of other ideas in the works.

Here's the lyrics(currently):
Eyes to see and ears to hear
The sounds and sights I love so dear
But when my mouth can't open right
The fear inside me seals the light

Away, my voice (has taken leave)(like fallen leaves)
And all those songs I used to sing
Songbird please fly back to me

Perched upon a magnolia tree
I wait for Spring to bring relief
Deep inside my heart I sing for joy
But fate has cause to kill the noise

And a burden that I feared to bear
Sinking down a riverbed
Friends and family remind me so
The voice inside is not yet dead

The voice inside me is not yet dead
I sing for love, I sing for joy

Monday, March 10, 2008

Exploring Kyoto, Part 2 of 3: Kyudo, Ancient Art of Archery

So, about a week later after Ohara, Erin knew about this annual national Kyudo event taking place in Kyoto at Sanjusangendo, one of my most favorite temples I've visited in Japan(I think I've been there four or five times now). This historic temple has been the site of this yearly archery event, where all of Japan's Kyudoist(practitioners of Japanese archery) come for a day-long competition and celebration of this ancient martial art.

Erin had studied Kyudo in Chicago, before we moved to Japan; so, she's got the experience and understanding of this subtle yet powerful martial art. She started her practice of Kyudo again here in Japan with our friend Doc, also a JET teacher. He, along with our Japanese friend Yoshi, came with us to enjoy this special event.

Kyudo is highly tied to the Japanese philosophical and spiritual practice of Zen, a mindful awareness of the present. There's much more that goes into Zen, but that should be enough to get the gist. Zen is practiced and perfected in not just Japanese martial arts such as Kyudo, Aikido, Judo, Kendo, and many others, but also in everyday "ceremonies" such as Ikebana Kado(the art of flower arranging), Sado(the art of preparing, presenting, and drinking tea), and Shodo(the art of Japanese calligraphy). In particular, Kyudo emphasizes the perfection of form and control through the practice of posture and a particular procedure of motions, after that, which is mastered in both mind and body, comes a moment of beauty and enlightenment, to be pursued with every draw of the bow. At least, that's how I see(even though I never tried myself). It's a very dedicated art, and often referred to as the "purest of all martial arts."

On this particular day, January 13, 2008, over two thousand Kyudo practitioners came from all over Japan to take part in the Toshiya Kyudo Competition, and annual New Year's event held at Sanjusangendo. It was a crisp, windy day, and the sun peaked out now and again through the clouds to warm up the crowds and competitors. Every Kyudoist was given just two shots, and the ages ranged from the old to the young. A row of nine or so archers would line up at the mark with their bows(yumi) and two arrows(ya). They'd all set up and when they were ready, would take their shots at the target, about 60 meters away. This day also coincided with the Japanese national holiday called Seijin no Hi, Coming of Age Day, which is the marked celebration for the young adults of Japan turning the legal age of 20, the age at which they are allowed to legally drink, smoke, and vote(in no particular order). So, at this event there were droves of young Japanese folks dressed to the nines in their best kimonos to shoot arrows and look good doin' it, celebrating their coming of age.

Erin and Doc ran into their Kyudo sensei(teacher) who was preparing to take his shots. The two girls in this picture are also students of the same teacher, and they study at the same Kyudo dojo where Doc and Erin were studying.

It was pretty crowded, so everyone was jocking to get a good look at the competitions going on. We also took some time to stroll through the wonderful temple of Sanjusangendo, and also to visit the outdoor food vendors for some hot goodies to warm us up. Here's our friend Yoshi eating the classic takoyaki, fried octopus filled balls of goodness. Really, they are very delicious! There were many other food vendors, which is quite typical for any Japanese matsuri(festival).

"Men and women take part in the Zen archery contest at Sanjusangendo. This extraordinary building, apart from being the longest wooden structure in the world at 118m (nearly 400ft) has inspired samurai to demonstrate their prowess since 1573. The Toshiya contest features over 2,000 experienced archers and young people who are celebrating their coming of age at the beginning of the new year. Competitors need to hit a target only 50 to 100cm in diameter (20–40in) 60m (200ft) away."-

"The contest has its origins in the Edo period (1600-1867) when samurai warriors competed by shooting arrows down the 120-meter long, narrow hall. The contest, organized by the Kyoto Prefecture Archery Federation and the temple, is held each year in conjunction with the Coming-of-Age Day."-

This Taishoya Competition was a excellent experience and a wonderful way to observe a tradition of Japan that is uniquely Japanese. Sure, there's archery throughout the world and in countless cultures, used in hunting, war, competition, and showmanship(wasn't there a story about William Tell shooting an apple on the top of his son's head? whoops, that was a crossbow shot. None-the-less, look at the legend of Robin Hood, that Kostner was one hip shot!). But, like many things either adopted or originated here in Japan, the people and the culture strive for this impossible perfection; and on this day it was pursued through Kyudo. It is in the striving that beauty is glimpsed through the gestures and actions of a true master, and sought after by the students of any particular discipline. The look of concentration and determination that each and every Kyudoist wore on his and her face was focused, but calm, stoic but humble, and undeniably Japanese. This aspect of Japanese culture and life will always and forever amaze me.

In this shot here, I luckily captured this archer's arrow in mid-flight, just after we released. I didn't notice it until I got home, downloaded all my pics onto my computer, and got a closer look. In these last pics too, you can see just how long the bow is that's used in Kyudo.

As things were winding down, we left to get something to eat. And, on a spur of the moment, we decided to find a sento(bath house) that Erin and I had been to last summer to take a bath, relax, and warm ourselves after a day in the chilly winds. We found the neighborhood sento and soaked in the warm waters of the baths, as well as the heat of the sauna(my favorite since our trip to Thailand). Afterwards, we had planned to go to this great little Mexican joint Erin and I also discovered in the summer, though, it was closed, so we opted for some traditional Japanese ramen.

If you probably don't know(I know I sure didn't until I came here to Japan), that ramen in the States, you know, that cheap, prepackaged instant college food staple, is a mere glimpse of a shadow of what REAL ramen is like. Real ramen is served, as we had it here in Kyoto and elsewhere throughout Japan, in large bowls filled with the fresh, homemade, hand-cut noodles, that are drowned in a tasty broth(each broth is distinct depending on regional tastes and flavors, as well as the specialty of that particular ramen shop), some vegetables like bean sprouts, green onions, maybe daikon, and various types of meat or seafood, depending on what you order. It is the quintessential Japanese comfort food.
For the complete set of the photos taken, check out my album on Facebook: