Whenever the Barn Swallows swoop past my head for the first time in the year I know that Spring has returned for sure. On my way along the river to the sports club yesterday the liquid chortling and twittering of this first harbinger of Spring spun out of the grey, rainy air like cotton candy, a taste of what was to come. The next moment the daredevil eye drop of its lean, indigo and rust body, wings cutting the air like scissors, flashed past my head and dove to within a finger’s breadth above the water’s surface. It banked and disappeared in the bend of the river.
All the along the river birds were preparing for the Spring Bash, everyone breaking off into pairs. The pairs of Green Winged Teals kicked the water in tiny sambas, the males complete in their Mardi Gras emerald green mask. A female Carrion Crow (similar to the American Common Crow, and smaller than the more numerous and Raven-like Jungle Crows) chuckled as she tenderly tended her new nest of twigs, in clear view among the bare branches of a Beech tree. A pair of Common Kingfishers, both flashing metallic turquoise, perched beyond sight of one another, but staying close to the tiny nest burrow in the mud embankment and keeping to their customary solitary habits in spite of pairing. White Wagtails square danced among the rocks while Spot Billed Ducks tangoed amidst the watery grasses. A Great Cormorant, dressed like a blackjack, flamencoed right through the crowd, unable to make quick turns. And in the champagne cloud of blossoming Cherry trees a contingent of White Eyes turned minuets, their wispy chirps giving voice to the Cherry trees’ ardor.
And off to the side, hunched like an old man, stood a Little Egret, his yellow feet in odd contrast to the swirling grey water and cold rocks. The wind stirred the billowy fronds of his coattails and, almost dejected, he pulled his long neck further into his shoulders and eyed the darker depths of the water for morsels. While everyone else danced, calling up sunshine that still didn’t have the strength to break the hold of Winter, the Egret remained a realist, looking at the present with still and uncompromising eyes. I crouched down along the bank of the river and tried to mimic his immovable spirit, but like all humans my mind wandered and took off with the dancers. Soon I was up and walking again, off to other, more pressing matters.
One thing I’ve been missing is that sense of raw expectation that infuses wild places, that prescience exuding from the interaction between unseen, but watchful presences, where even the wind takes on the personality of a living entity. In the city this only rarely manifests itself and it is a rare gift when it happens.
Lately I’ve taken to running to my sports club and then walking home, both along the banks of the Noh River, which runs northwest and southeast through the western half of Tokyo. Though most of the river has been encased in a concrete cast, earthen banks, resembling European towpaths, run along the sides, with stairs leading down to them for those who want to walk their dog, watch birds, or just go for a run. Hardy grasses, reeds, and scattered trees flourish where the water stills or doesn’t often reach, and among them all sorts of wildlife, mostly birds, carry out their lives. When you walk along the banks, down below the busy passage of the human world above, you get an almost palpable feeling that the awareness of the creatures around you arises out of a connection to a past memory that characterized the whole landscape all around you in years gone by. It is their world you have entered, and with each skittish creature waddling away or bursting into the air you further sense your disengagement from the symbiosis of the organic world.
It was raining when I started home from the sports club the other day. The first rain since the start of winter and a much needed slaking of the soil’s thirst. The workout with weights and the long push with the stairmaster, and afterwards the solitary soak in the great Japanese bath, left my muscles radiating with heat and, in spite of the chill of the wind and the rain, walking along the path stirred up exhilaration. The air smelled green with new leaves and bitter with earth. The wind scythed in the sky, muscling at invisible impedances, bullroaring, knocking, bellowing. Shivers of wavelets raced across the river’s surface, as if invisible wings were darting by.
There is an old cherry tree leaning out across one section of the river and that day its branches carrying the first knots of swelling blossom buds. I stopped and just stood there, letting the rain drop its curtain of silence all around me, while I watched nothing in particular. Some Spot-billed Ducks. a pair of newly arrived Green-Winged Teals, a stately Intermediate Egret, and a self-conscious Great Cormorant splashed in the grey water, each in their own world, watchful. A bare bank of clay, into which a Common Kingfisher, brilliant turquoise in the sun, had burrowed, stood unmoving, no hint of any life.
And that was it. Just me in that place with the wind blowing, rain pattering on my head, and birds minding their own business. No grand adventures or dramatic international crises. Just me and the river. But it was enough… For that small instant I felt connected to everything and whole. Completely empty of myself. It was an echo of the world as it wants to be.
The magnolia outside my window is bursting forth with clouds of white blossums. This is the fourth time to witness the joy of its vitality, though, in typical Japanese gardening mentality, the gardeners have chopped it down to but a fraction of its former glory. It is a pruning philosophy that I can’t understand; most of the time trees in Japanese gardens are so manicured of their natural form and grace that half the year the trees stand around like dejected sticks. A huge zelkova along the way to work, last year towering 30 meters over the corner, with a massive umbrella of swaying leaves, was lopped of all its branches a few days ago, so that now it looks like a naked pair of legs sticking out of the sidewalk. This kind of chopping up occurs all over Japan, and while I appreciate a well done traditional Japanese garden, I also think there is a time and place for the gardening practices to be employed. When you randomly reduce an entire neighborhood to matchsticks, not only do you get a pretty stark looking place, but you rob people and the soil of shade. Tokyo, without all the trees it once had, must surely have heated up quite a bit since neighborhoods went concrete. And besides, I just love the sound of wind in the leaves.
For all that, nature is popping up everywhere. The barrel cactus on my window sill started flowering for the first time since I got it 8 years ago. Twenty buds a’ringing the crown of the bulb. The flower is supposed to turn bright magenta, but perhaps the cactus is testing my ability to appreciate things that cook slowly.
On the trains passengers sit with tears in their eyes and white cotton face masks while suffering under the pall of Japanese cedar and cypress pollen. It sounds like a chorus as one person lets go a volley of sneezes, and is promptly backed up by another person across the car, and repeated further down the train in rapid succession.
Yearly the hay fever epidemic grows worse, all due the thoughtless plans of the government right after the war, when they decided, in an effort to reestablish the country’s lumber sources, to plant the entire country’s denuded hills and mountains with one vast crop of cedar and cypress. No thought was given to the effects this would have on the future, in terms of allergies; loss of topsoil (cedar and cypress, while able to cling to the steep, rocky slopes of Japan, put down shallow roots and fail to hold the soil down), with the resulting landslides, mudslides, and silting up of the rivers; and devastation to the endemic animals and plants. Now, forty years later, the trees have matured, and while most of Japan’s wood is raped from other countries, the cedars and cypress have started to reproduce in one giant, pollen exchanging orgy. When I lived in Shizuoka Prefecture umber clouds of pollen would writhe through the air like swarms of locusts, all being blown, gathering in size as the swarms from other prefectures accumulated, toward the catchall basin of the Kanto Plain, which Tokyo has basically overrun.
My hay fever isn’t so bad, but I know many who hate Spring because of it. What a strange world when all the life around us is hopping for joy at the coming of warm weather and rebirth, while so many of us cover ourselves up in misery.
But I intend to enjoy this Spring. My body agrees. I feel like dancing! Like dashing along the river. Like climbing a tree, or singing at the top of my lungs!
In fact, I think that’s what I’ll go do right now. I’ll leave it to your imagination which one I decide to do!
Last winter view of Mt. Fuji from Mount Takao, before the spring haze sets in.
I want to apologize to everyone for not being around for such a long time. I mean to write every day, but recently I got involved with a huge project designing the international brochure for Keio Plaza Hotel. For those of you who don’t know what the Keio Plaza Hotel is, just try picturing yourself doing the brochure for the entire chain of the Ritz… and then having it be the first time to do such a big project. While it is exciting and certainly a lot of fun to be given basically free rein to come up with a completely new concept for the hotel (it’s hard imagining that I will be responsible in part for the image that the hotel projects to all international visitors who come to Tokyo and stay at the hotel!), and that I basically have a budget to make most graphic designers drool, I must say that the pressure is enough to whiten a few more areas of my goatee.
The first night after I met with the hotel public relations team and descended from the dizzying heights of the Imperial Suite (the hotel is one of the biggest and tallest buildings in Japan) down into the restaurants, passing some 1,450 rooms and 27 restaurants, my brain was so frazzled by the sheer complexity and numerousness of services and facilities that I went into a panic. I lay in bed awash with too many images and sensory overload, and with the looming tower of the hotel glaring down at me, demanding to know how I, this little blip of a graphic designer, would dare to presume to grasp the concept of such a giant entity. Somewhere around 3:00 in the morning I thought my sense of self was going to go nova, and I entertained the thought of just giving up, no matter the shame, embarrassment, and inconvenience I would cause to those I was working with.
But then it occurred to me, damn, this is just a silly little pamphlet, not the actual planning of the hotel itself! And then I thought, it is only a hotel, not some baby whose life was in my hands. Just a hotel.
And that’s when, for the first time in my life when facing what I imagined was a truly big personal crisis, I consciously seemed to wrap my mind around a concept that seemed bigger than I could grasp. I realized that that’s how ideas work and how a single mind could handle seemingly overwhelming situations if the mind itself is given enough leeway. I conjured up the image of my hand wrapping around the hotel and squeezing it down to size. And it worked! The moment the hotel became this little idea and the strength of the idea of simplicity stepped in, suddenly my whole body let go of the tension and I could feel myself breathing easier. Within ten minutes I was fast asleep, the exploratory half of my mind free to roam the cosmos of invention.
I hope I can learn a lesson from what happened and use it for how I deal with my life in general. Perhaps until now I’ve always imagined my life is being somehow much bigger than my spirit, but I wonder if what I can imagine and what my trail though the years actually is are not actually the same thing. It is certainly something to ponder.
In an effort to establish this site in its originally intended full complement of daily impressions, stories, essays, photos, drawings, information libraries, and cartoons, I have started putting up a few of the cartoons that I’ve drawn. Here are a few first examples. Still have some learning to do with scanning line art…
Also, I am considering revamping my Harubaru* Far and Wide website into a community style site. At the moment it is a blog of an imaginary boy who goes to live on an imaginary island named Wake Isle, and I want to continue with that idea, but I was thinking of possibly changing it into a community weblog wherein a number of authorized blog writers and artists each take on their own imaginary characters who each live on their own imaginary island within an imaginary “Archipelago”. The categories of the weblog would be divided into each imaginary individual, but the daily “blog” entries would appear on the main weblog page. I was thinking that a community blog might work better because of the interaction between these imaginary characters, but also because each blogger involved would not have to take on the burden of keeping a daily run of writing… the complement of a few writers together would allow the blog to run continuously.
I’m hoping to establish a kind of dialog between these imaginary characters, writing about their respective islands, all through a fictional setup… each island can have its own setup, however far you want to take your imaginations, as long as the stories stay clean and within the context of the Archipelago world.
I’ll have to redesign the main page, and the main control of the website logistics would remain with me (since I’m paying for the hosting), but I would like to work with a number of people who might be interested in joining in on this effort. Mind you, I’ll have to limit the number of people who join and also have the last say in who can join, but I promise not to be too unreasonable about the choices I make.
Anyone interested? Any ideas (from those not interested, too)?
The window has been beckoning more persistently these last few weeks. I pull the curtain open and find myself confronted by the sky, by unfettered clouds journeying past my eyes towards the back of my mind, by birds momentarily netted in the up reaching fingers of the magnolia (its huge buds close on to bursting into Spring), by clouds of gnats dancing in invisible columns of warm air, and by ideas of light creeping across the ground or walls of the surrounding houses, like fish at the bottom of a fickle pool of photographic film. I always start toward these fancies, feeling the thrumming of open time infusing my lungs, drawing near the window pane till my breath fogs up the glass, but something always interrupts… the hum of the computer, the phone ringing, that shaking in my finger or foot, telling me to make the moment real, take responsibility for it, hurry up and bite in.
And so I turn away and settle back in the chair, forcing my mind into concrete abstractions. Projects must get done. Money must be squabbled up. Joy must be set aside in favor of goods passing through the door, to laden the table. Come evening, when the dealing ought to balance into an agreement with rest, the tasks ahead demand preparation. And so the mind folds in upon itself, fatigue lapping up old heat, boring into past promises, and trembling even in sleep.
In the middle of the night I sometimes sit gazing at my hands and feet, or pass my fingers over my eyes, trying to remember what they are for, or how they came to be.
And when the nights are cold, like tonight, I sip mugs of steaming tea, coaxing my muscles to recall the heat of days spent walking. I murmur the names of trees or mountains, attempting to fix the water within the memory of things far older and stiller than I am. They exist outside the doorway. And they will never come inside, even when invited, much preferring the cold to boxes.
Funny how those without arms or legs or eyes know better than to limit their movement.
So I wait for morning, hoping that with the first light I will drag myself out of bed, no matter how frigid the air, and step outside, for a walk. For a spell away from captivity. Out among the fancies, where my hair is as wild as the wind.
For almost a year now I’ve been lurking within the frame of this computer screen scratching words across the light, but only distantly associated with others who have come by this site to read or converse. On Wednesday, however, Steve, of OnMyMind, and I had a chance to meet in Omote Sando (the chic neighborhood of Tokyo where all the coffee shops and people dressed in the latest fashions come together) and have coffee. I was running late from a hectic preparation for a big graphic design project I am working on, and then further delayed because of a huge fist fight between two young men on the Inokashira line, both of them bloodying each other’s faces and screaming with such vehemence that the train conductor refused to open the train door until some security guards could be found.
So I arrived about 15 minutes late, hoping that Steve wouldn’t be too put off by his first impression of me. But he was downright easygoing, with a warm smile and a backpack full of newly purchased English books, which he had bought that morning while wandering through bookstores downtown (Steve lives in the boonies of Shimane Prefecture, where English books are as rare as Spoonbill Cranes). I was still pretty stressed out because of the work and so it took a bit of wandering the sidewalks, searching for (and getting lost) a certain Italian coffee shop that I had been to a number of times about five years before, before I could settle down enough to relax into conversation with Steve. Not finding the coffee shop we decided on Starbucks, mainly because, as Steve hinted, it offered a large coffee (and for me, the attraction of a smoke free place to sit… Japanese restaurants and coffee shops could probably serve well as mosquito eradication testing chambers or mountain whiteout conditions simulation rooms).
The delightful thing about talking to Steve was the sheer variety of subjects we touched on. If I had any worries that we would focus only on blogging, the liquid shifting from blogging to teaching to books to computers (especially, oh joy! Macs!) to American and Japanese politics to white water rafting and backpacking to marriage, children, and living out in the country as opposed to living in the city, quickly dispelled them. Steve, with his connection to country living, far from the excitement of the big city, talked of coming back to live in Tokyo, while I, with my yearning for mountains and walks free from crowds, talked of moving back to the country. Somehow I think we understood a sort of compromise. Both lifestyles have their attractions.
All in all it was an engaging first meeting, and my first through this blog. So I guess real things do come out of blogs, not just talk. And all of you out there are really real, not just some pigment of my fantasies.
Thanks, Steve! Looking forward to seeing you again.
Lately I can’t shake the feeling that we are witnessing the end of our world. Too much seems to be unhinging and the very fragility of the mechanism kicking into play. Look at the strange weather, the nutty lopsidedness of our world politics, the unscrupulousness of big business, the obliteration of other creatures, the greater and greater focus on having more and more, and the constant, constant bad news. CNN seems to think the world consists of the American election campaign… For a four-year presidency, doesn’t it seem a little counterproductive and not a little dangerous to be spending a whole year exclusively focusing on winning the next election? Isn’t the leader supposed to be working on more important issues?
When I heard the report about the Pentagon predicting that by 2006 the first big effects of global warming will cause massive worldwide environmental catastrophes, all I could think was that the American government is weighing the wrong dangers. Iraq is nothing compared to the peril of our planet’s environmental collapse. What are we thinking? Why is it so hard for us to pay heed to the health and stability of our world? Is it the very nature of our inhabiting the sphere rather than looking down at it that makes it impossible for us to see it other than immensely big and inexhaustible? If so, then we are no different from mice in an overcrowded box.
On my way by train to a one day hike of Mount Takao west of Tokyo yesterday, I watched a mentally handicapped young man shuttle back and forth between train doors, excitedly pointing at passing trains and views of the scenery flicking by. His clear enjoyment of the world he was witnessing drew my attention throughout the 50 minute ride, and no one else on the train payed so much homage to the wonder and beauty of existing in this jewel of a world we live in. I wondered why it was that a man who supposedly understood less than the rest of us, could appreciate without prejudice what all of us are blessed with. Why is wonder necessarily the domain of the childlike?
It is what we are taught and the way we learn to see that instills the kernel of insight into our world and how we choose to interact with it. On my way home from the mountain, stepping up to the ticket vending machine at the train station, a Japanese boy of about 5 or 6 was sitting on the counter in front of the machine. I leaned in to buy a ticket and he, suddenly realizing that I was a foreigner appearing right beside to him, almost toppled off the counter. His eyes went wide as he exclaimed, “Whoa!”, an involuntary, ingrained reaction to foreigners that everyone around him has always taught him is the only reaction to foreigners that a Japanese should have. It was his education of the world and likely to follow him throughout his life. I laughed at the sheer irony of this boy and the earlier young man, that they should both carry such young minds, but be so different in their clarity.
Such a prejudice toward the world grows in many forms. Without being able to distinguish the structure and mechanism that keeps it all running there is no way for us to overcome our folly in destroying the very thing that sustains us.
I look out my window and it is all there, the world, our home, the mirage of our existence. The picture is getting cloudy, though. Soon there may be no more eyes to see it all.