Sunday, August 16, 2015
"Art must take reality by surprise. It takes those moments which are for us merely a moment, plus a moment, plus another moment, and arbitrarily transforms them into a special series of moments held together by a major emotion."
On the turntable: "Putumayo Presents Paris Cafe"
Sunday, August 09, 2015
Saturday, August 08, 2015
I looked over the long rolling expanse of neatly trimmed grass, caring not a whit that it was now a golf course. I was alone on the veranda of the Chateaux d'Augerville , allowing the coffee to bring heat into my body, surprised at the morning chill. Above me, the soft light brought color into the trees.
The sleepiness of this Sunday morning carried me along, as did the car through the open farmlands that would have been at home in the American Midwest. I had a quick ironic smile as I passed through the village of Dimancheville, where little moved but the birds. I imagined the Catholic inhabitants sitting idly in their homes, living the mantra of "never on Sunday."
The land stretched on, then began to rise and take on additional color. This was Burgundy again, and the tendrils of vineyards looked ready to reclaim all before them. (And metaphorically that might be true.) Only the chapels and abbeys stood safe, perched as they were at the great heights of the hilltops. We chose to take the backroads on this our return journey, bringing us into closer contact with the landscape. At this closer range, we were charmed with the region's beauty, and began to talk excitedly of a return visit to deepen our acquaintance.
As for tonight, we'd stay at the Chateaux d'Ige, nestled deep in a valley outside Mâcon. Our room was atop the spiraling stone staircase in the turret of this old fortress, though the view from our window showed little to protect outside of seemingly infinite rows of that tantalizing grape. The bells in the church tower began to chime, as if counting down toward a time when we could try out some of the region's famed Pouilly Fuisse. Most of our waking hours, we passed outdoors, either reading out on the lawn, or dining beside a Japanese garden that was more Monet than Mirei.
The following morning we took a brief drive through Mâcon, impressed with the line-up of buildings along its river. Within the spiderweb of narrow streets we found the famous Maison de Bois built entirely of wood, and within its roots we grabbed a take away coffee for the short drive to Lyon.
The caffeine began to rush through our systems as the traffic did just the opposite. Moments after entering the auto-route, we came to a complete halt due an accident up ahead. We tuned into traffic information on the radio, and at each repeat mention of the snarl, the number of kilometers blocked up was increased by three. This was the main north-south artery in the country, and as such, France had had a stroke. As if mocking the situation, just to our left, the Saône flowed cheerily on.
We arrived in Lyon 90 minutes later than planned for our meeting with my old college friend roommate. An incidental Facebook post a few days before had alerted my friend Derek to the fact that I was in Europe, and we soon realized that we'd both be in Lyon on the same day. He didn't mind our late arrival, being both jet-lagged and aiming for a low-key day since he would be representing the U.S. in the decathlon at the World Masters Athletics competition over the next few days. As it was, it was nice to spend a couple of hours together, strolling the lesser streets of the old city, catching up on eight years.
It took LYL and I a little bit of time to escape Lyon's clutches, and once free, we made our way toward the Alps. We paralleled them awhile before turning directly in after realizing that we'd chosen the wrong auto-route south. It was a fortuitous mistake as the detour would take us through some spectacular scenery, including an incredible descent down a series of serpentine turns that dropped us a thousand meters down the mountain face. The valleys which followed brought further delight, and it was easy to imagine that Napoleon too had been equally impressed by the Vercours landscape during his return from exile along these same roads. Though the man may have had other things on his mind at the time.
Bicycling the old Napoleon road seemed to be a popular summer pastime, and I too could see myself strolling these 300+ kilometers, as the River Durance brought me within nodding distance of a series of picturesque towns lined up between Sisteron and Digne. It was due to the combination of such beauty and my growing fatigue that we decided to stop over for the night and enjoy the drive for another day. We found an old silkworm farm to put us up, grabbing the last room at short notice though sadly on a day when its famous chef had a night off. A meal had a short drive away proved to be sufficient, and before long we drifted to well-deserved sleep beneath a bizarre choice of wallpaper that depicted a 1940s Manhattan skyline.
I awoke to the last efforts of a morning rainfall, which ceased the moment we entered Provence, as befitting the season. The heat never led up as we climbed and climbed, twisting and winding through the Gorges of Verdon. A village in the middle was perfectly placed for lunch, then we were back into the hills again, through villages and town of no known fame, yet each one absolutely perfect. They were sleepy in the midday, making even a coffee stop a formidable task. And at 4 p.m. they awoke again, and at 4:05, freshly caffeinated, so did I.
The roads grew smaller and smaller, until we were alone on the road, shaded by the increasing olive and fruit groves. The asphalt dropped away with the centuries to eventually become a dirt path, until it too thinned to enter a familiar gate that drew us in.
On the turntable: "Groovy Instrumentals"
On the nighttable: Francoise Sagan, "Bonjour Tristesse"
Friday, August 07, 2015
They've fenced in Antoine St. Exupery's airfield. I came past on a summer's evening last year, on the way to a memorable meal at Auberge La Môle (Though in Provence, all meals are memorable). The new stone wall would not have contained the wandering spirit of St. Ex, which often took flight from the dirt strip beyond, a spirit eventually lost to the waters just south of here. As for my own wandering spirit, it would have to find satisfisfaction in keeping between the lines of a road stretching itself east along the Côte d'Azur.
The twisting road unwound itself at the old Greek trading post of Hyéres, the olive trees falling away as the auto-route took me through a landscape reminiscent of the work of Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keeffe, rocky arid mounts rising toward the flawless blue sky of July, though here ancient fortified villages have replaced the stone spires. Cezanne found great delight in this earth, in Montagne Ste-Victoire in particular, at whose foot lies the grave of Picasso, a man greatly inspired by his predecessor.
Amidst this dry landscape there were fountains, drawing from the same spring that the Romans had used to soothe their battle-wounds. The picturesque city/town of Aix-en-Provence has grown up around them, water gushing from each square, interconnected by narrow lanes choked today with the pressing bodies of tourists. They meandered and dawdled, their steps taking them in unpredictable arcs, bisected by the lightning-fast straight courses traced by instrument-laden buskers moving as if late for work. We escaped them and the heat for a meal in a small bistro, cooling our heels upon the colored tile. Afterwards, LYL led me around the twisting maze of the city where she once attended university. All roads lead to the Cours Mirabeau, where we sat for a coffee in the Deux Garçons, myself imaging what native sons Cezanne and Zola would have talked about when they took their positions beneath large, intricately framed mirrors. Probably commenting on the passersby, as did we.
The location of our hotel above the Cours Mirabelle ensured a poor night's sleep, mostly by the street cleaning crews at work in the soft light of daybreak. But it also created a pleasant opportunity for a tourist-free retracing of steps through the city at dawn. Afterwards, we drove into the greener and more fertile rolling of hills that is the Rhône Valley. It was the dreaded first weekend of the month-long summer holiday, and it seemed like all of France was on the move. Or not, as the snail-pace of the auto-route allowed us a bit too much time to ponder the ugly architecture of the up-and-coming Confluence, where the Rhône and the Saône joined together after caressing the contours of Lyon. It was refreshing to walk these streets at a pace slightly quicker than which we had driven, in a proper French city, along broad boulevards framed by tall 17th and 18th Century facades whose glassy street level floors were devoted to 21st Century capitalism.
Lyon is both famous and infamous for the deliciousness of its food, and our steps seemed to take us from table to table. In between we wandered gingerly over the cobblestones of the old town, where the tourists were protected by machine-gun toting soldiers whose armored bodies looked as if they have arrived from a century all their own. We left all of them when we crossed over to an affordable-looking artistic quarter marked by a series of murals standing above the river. Beyond the photogenic Robert Bresson primary school to Place de la Comedie, marked by a grand fountain designed by Bartholdi, looking nearly as grand as the Statue of Liberty that he had designed a decade earlier. As we were admiring her waters, we were politely asked to step back so that a film crew could shoot what might go on to be the latest hit in Bollywood.
That evening we ate in a culinary school set up by renowned chef Paul Bocuse, housed conveniently on the ground floor of our hotel facing the Place Bellecour. As I sat at my window-side table, I noticed that I was drawing a fair bit of attention from passersby, who would either stare, or give me a thumbs up. This would be repeated throughout our travels over the next few days, making me begin to wonder what French celebrity they were mistaking me for.
Another early start, from one wine producing region to another. But Burgundy would wait for another day, and before long its vineyard studded hills would flatten out as we drew closer to Paris. We would stop fifty kilometers short, at Fontainebleau, to stretch our legs amongst the Chateau's 1900 rooms. Napoleon and Louis XIV had slept here, in one or two of them, built over a series of centuries. Whomever the Emperor, he must have had a hard time sleeping beneath the busy patterns of wood, and stone, and tapestry. After two decades amongst the Zen aesthetic of Japan, I found it all headache inducing after awhile. So the chateau's vast open grounds were a relief and a delight, a series of simple demarcated right angles looking quite...Zen.
We ourselves slept at another Chateau that night, preempted by a stop at the midway point between them for a party which had served as the catalyst for the entire road trip. LYL's friend was holding the party for her daughter's 40th birthday, and as the light was softening from the day, we found ourselves on the lawn of an old longére French house which stretched across what would be a full city block. We sipped from glasses of vin blanc while listening to a guitar driven chamber orchestra playing through their repertoire of 1950s light jazz. A quintet of Moroccans served up an assembly line couscous, as a lamb spun lazily over an open fire behind. As our host had once been an Ambassador, we were in a rather colorful and diverse crowd of expats from whatever their country of origin. No one was where they had once belonged, as if a jigsaw puzzle had been spilled across the grass. I had the best of conversations, I had the worst of conversations, and after one too many of the latter, LYL discreetly pulled me away in the direction of the car.
Not long afterward we pulled up before our chateau, our shadows elongating toward its well-lit facade. I half imagined that it truly was ours, with the staff waiting inside to bid us goodnight and to count down the hours until the first coffee of dawn.
On the turntable: "Colors of the World"
On the nighttable: Colette, "Break of Day"
Sunday, August 02, 2015
Saturday, July 25, 2015
Days amongst the waters had spoiled me, had created a space within for quiet to fill. It was little wonder that I felt so cooped up in Marugame, liked its eponymous turtle, forced into a cramped shell of industrial and visual blight. The sea was a five minute walk away, but I couldn't see it. All that was revealed to me through my hotel window was power lines, a mish-mash of roofs and building styles, and the towers and cranes and smokestacks of the petroleum works somewhere out there by the water. This northern shore of Shikoku was a horror show, a succubus that even the stake of the Seto Ohashi Bridge couldn't kill.
Yet even this landscape took on a certain charm as the stratus clouds striated the light of evening light into one of the most beautiful sunsets I'd seen in a long while. And this light of dawn too, is soft enough to shear away the hard edges of the city, as I walk through the morning cool to the ferry port. I stand at the water's edge and watch the boat to Hiroshima go. I had originally planned to spend the morning out there, not to the city with a famously tragic history but to an island with the same name. Upon closer look, the island had seemed to be little more than a quarry, though its high peak of over 300 meters would have offered a wonderful view. But the five-hour return hike put me off. Instead, I catch the 6 a.m. boat to neighboring Honjima, intending a leisurely bicycle ride around its shores, watching the life come into the day.
Unlike the previous mornings, I am most certainly the only tourist on board. The other half-dozen others are workmen, heading over to work on some sort of project (which I would later see is restoration on the elementary school (an optimistic undertaking on an island of 625 people)). First thing I do when disembarking is to bid an old woman standing onshore a good morning. Rather than return it, she simply brushes me off and tells me to go inside the tourist office. When foreigners begin to learn Japanese, they learn that good morning is ohayō gozaimasu. But in looking closer, you'll notice that the root word is hayai, meaning early. The nuance here is that in greeting someone this way, you are essentially complimenting them on how early they've gotten up, in order to get a jump on a day of hard work. So it is a common mistake to use this ohayō at 10 a.m., which tends to get you a look that accuses, "Are you calling me lazy?"
I begin to ride, the sun at my back. A few people are busy near the water's edge, fishermen, either just going out or just returning. They smile at me as I go past, animated faces that are little more than crags carved deep into thick brown skin. Beyond the village I am alone, as I make my way up the first of many steep hills. Island roads tend to be built high above the sea so as not to be washed away. This makes for challenging bicycle rides, especially in the summer when the pristine beaches taunt from far below and far out of reach. Somehow, an entire army of crabs has made their way to these heights, their ranks divided into an array of sizes and colors. The only true commonality is their down-turned claws, as if expressing an eagerness to play the piano.
Where the road levels out I come to one of Honjima's highlights, the Meotokura, which is a unusually built double storehouse. I wonder at what might be inside, as there are no apparent homes that I can see. Not far away is perhaps this island's premier tourist site, a movie location for a film set in yet another schoolhouse, whose name "Kikansha Sensei" is perhaps more familiar than the island on which it was shot. I am surprised at how decrepit the place looks, a far cry from Shodōshima's pride in its cinematic history. It is as if it hasn't been touched in the 12 years since the filming. Then I notice some simple displays about the school's history, and read that the building itself fell in a typhoon only 6 weeks after the cameras stopped rolling. Photographs show islanders rebuilding the school, simply for the benefit of people like me who happen to drop by.
After days of rain, the morning continues to impress. In the early sunshine, the sea looks stretched taut all the way across to the shores of Honshu. The island cats too appear to be enjoying it, and I am forced to slalom around their laissez-faire dozing in the sun. I imagine the only thing that makes them move quickly is the sound of the engines of the fishing boats returning with the day's catch. Out on a nearby sea wall, a cormorant leisurely shakes its wings as if fanning itself in the heat. Just beyond the village, a trio of nutria display a similar slowness, wriggling their backsides as they walk up the road, completely unperturbed by my form pedaling past.
People begin to appear now, breakfast consumed, work calling. About a half dozen old women are busy amongst a cluster of graves, perhaps starting their cleaning before the ancestors return for Obon a few weeks on. I will see another graveyard a little later, the graves hardly there, just small piles of stones more often seen in the hard earth of Mexico. Just as I am wondering if this village is poor, an ancient granny pushes her cart from out of a field and gives me three freshly picked tomatoes. Not all wealth is measured in money.
I've come three quarters of the way around the island to Kasashima, but it is still too early for the tourist sites to open. So I sit out by the water and read. It dawns on me at some point that in four days not once have I touched her waters. But the concrete around me, and the residue of trash puts me off somehow. This particular island is too close to all that industry, to all those chemical plants of Shikoku. But we still romanticize it. Even the massive Seto Ohashi Bridge whose shadow falls close to this island had started out as a dream. I image the locals here looking out their windows every morning to watch the ten-year progress on the bridge, finally breathing a sigh of relief as the silhouettes of the first vehicles went across. And over on Honshu, the ferris wheel of Washuzan's amusement park survey's all.
Nine o'clock finally turns up for work, and I enter the first of three villages houses that are open to the public. The village itself is very old and picturesque; not the twisted maze of the usual island fishing village, but one a product of bureaucratic planning that the Edo period did so well. But nothing ever goes according to plan. The caretaker of the first house opens a sliding screen to reveal a hidden storehouse beyond, but then apologizes for having lost the key.
Not far away stands the center of that bureaucracy, in the form of the old administrative office. This island had been the headquarters of the Shiwaku Suigun, those highest caliber of naval officers who were not only fierce fighters but also master navigators and shipbuilders. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was quick to enlist them for his invasion of Korea, and nearly 400 years later, they were the first Japanese to travel across the Pacific. It looks as if the pirates of these islands have been civilized after all.
And it goes a long way to explaining the behavior of the woman this morning at the pier. Residents of towns that grow in the shadow of castles or other forms of authority would inevitably be a bit standoffish, a bit suspicious of outsiders. And their descendants would carry this behavior forward. The woman who had come across as gruff had in fact taken a moment to assist me, to direct me toward those who would best be able to help. She had cared enough to do that. I can't say the same for those with whom I ride on the train back in the direction of home, each of whom is dozing, reading, playing with their phones. Each encased in their own protective bubble, defending that island that is themselves. And while with The Inland Sea Donald Richie goes a long way to show that there is no such thing as anonymity in Japan, even beginning the book using a classical Chinese epigram that states literally that no man is an island. But oh how hard we continue to try.
On the turntable: "The Art of Recording"
On the nighttable: John Szwed, "The Man who Recorded the World"
Friday, July 24, 2015
Shodōshima greeted me with a rainbow, and now sees me off with rain. This area supposedly gets the least amount of rainfall in Japan, but I had seen my share. Perhaps it is the early hour, or the bad night's sleep, but the noise of the ferry terminal is getting to me, raucous as a nightclub. There is a group of middle school kids preparing to board, all dressed in sweatsuits for some sort of athletic event. Judging from the bags they carry, quite a few sports will be represented. The sheer racket they are making can probably be explained as nervous excitement. Only the shaven headed kendo players are still, with quiet thoughtful countenances below shaven heads.
I step outside to escape the noise, and am surprised that they all follow. There are a few teachers about, none of which are enforcing any sort of order, least of all a rather butch looking woman who I take to be a PE coach, who rocks back and forth from foot to foot as she eats a hurried breakfast. It is a recent (and ever-ready) media trend to bemoan the falling morals of youth, but it appears to me that the role models themselves have also slipped.
On board, the smokers immediately fire up, in an isolated corner that is hardly isolated. I am momentarily surprised by the presence of an ashtray mounted between the urinals, something I haven't seen in a long while. In it, two cigarettes are slowly dying. As are old customs apparently, in these remote corners of Japan.
I disembark in Takamatsu, and head for another ship at an adjacent pier. A small, two storied vessel, it is the type of boat I most associate with the Inland Sea, and the type on which Richie would have used on his own journey. The newer ships are either large ferries laden with a highway of vehicles, or those small water taxis that rush from harbor to harbor in a way that must make the old people here reassess their centuries-old concept of time.
We pull out and slowly rock our way back in the direction from which I came. Just as I am thinking that the large steel cranes on the docks look like giraffes, a boat passes by with the model of an actually giraffe on its stern, for no particular reason. And I smile, as one of my favorite things about this country is that incongruity never fails to be congruous.
We land in Megijima, and board the bus that is waiting. It has only one stop, which is the Oni caves atop the island's perfectly conical peak. On board, I notice a woman who has a hair clip shaped as a feather. But that is last I will see of angels today, as I head into the lair of demons.
The momotaro legend is one well known, and for some unknown reason the locals decided that the island on which he did battle with the oni was this one, despite historical truths such as their cave lair was in fact a former mining operation. I am fascinated by the legends of the oni, and my own pet theory is that these large, hairy, ferociously jabbering men were in fact Koreans who had made their way southeast from the coastal Izumo area. (The valleys between are filled with oni stories.) If there had in fact been people hiding in these caves, they were more likely to have been pirates, who over the centuries had commanded an area stretching across to China. Documents show that the Chinese had ofttimes petitioned Japanese rulers to keep these wakō pirates in check, and it is believed that Buddhism itself was exported to Japan as a way to civilize its people.
Whatever the case, the caves are fun, the highest form of kitsch. Within are concrete oni of various size and color, a trunk overflowing with gold, and good old Momotaro himself preparing for battle. And in the center of it all a small Buddhist altar, sitting with a quiet dignity.
In one of the best quotes from The Inland Sea, Richie writes, "I heard the cicadas the moment they ceased." I share a similar epiphany, for it is only when leaving the refreshing cool of the caves that I notice the morning's high humidity. It sits heavy upon all after the previous day's rain, and as the moisture rises into the air to form a milky white, I am once more robbed of my view. The summit of this island peak is enshrouded, rendering meaningless the signs point at adjacent islands. Only bits of Takamatsu are visible, looking from this height like a dwarf Hong Kong.
I return to sea level and walk through the village. All is completely deserted. Aside from a pair of men working in the ferry terminal, I don't see anyone moving out here. What I do see are a lot of houses in various states of decay, many demoted to hold tools and decades of detritus. One villa along the shore has a facade of Greek columns, many of them broken like a mouth of jagged teeth. This is flanked by a handful of minshuku, all devoid of any life. The only hint that they are still being used are the white plastic chairs bowing forward as if in apology. It looks like a beach town would in the winter, but here we are in mid-July. It could be that it is a week-day, or it could be the weather, but this whole place is devoid of life. This Megijima, whose name can be badly translated as 'Female Tree,' looks withered and beaten by blight. I decide then to take the next boat and see how her male counterpart is faring.
Ogijima has much more of a lived-in feel. Schoolkids swim in the school pool, and the senior citizen center is the center of the action, with grannies gossiping over tea and one old-timer getting his hair cut. The cicadas too are screaming lustily at the top of their lungs. The newfangled visitor center has been built as a concrete island topped by the swoops and swirls of roman lettering. Within, I find some English information written by the middle school kids of the island. Sadly the school had graduated its last class last year. Most active of all are the cats, who can be seen all over the place in various states of inactivity.
I make my way through the zigzag of narrow lanes to reach the shrine fittingly situated at the top of the hill above the village. I am about to ring the bell and pay my respects when I notice a young woman in a tartan skirt kneeling in front of the shrine, head bowed. In Japan, the gods are petitioned with prayer. When I come across a scene like this, I always wonder what it is people are looking for. But this being a shrine to the god of childbirth, it is easy to guess.
I continue to amble. Here is the island village of my imagination, one seen in numerous films, the whole community clustered together in a single cove, apart from the wild of mountainous forest and the distracting calm of beach. The distinction here though are the art projects that have been erected in some of the abandoned homes. Sadly, as at Megijima earlier, many of them are closed.
The few that I do stumble upon are delightful. Within a small simple kura, and inside I find what looks like a lit up Christmas tree, but without the tree. Dozens of jars hang with lights built into their lids, illuminating objects within. Most appear related to childhood -- shuttlecocks, toys, photographs-- and I imagine that each of the 188 islanders have contributed something. Around the corner I find a large porcelain object looping and curling, a bit of drifting seaweed beckoning the waters visible through the window beyond. Most interesting to me is another kura from whose rafters hang a series of bamboo figures that twirl and clack and make music. The whole thing is synchronized, to create a musical soundscape like that of a bamboo grove with perfect pitch. It is this that makes me, finally, for the first time this morning, sit completely still.
Each of these installations is manned by a single person, each a young and fresh-faced bohemian. Tellingly, none are actually from this island, and none are even artists themselves. This is a part time job for them, commuting as they do from Takamatsu forty nautical minutes away. I think that the owners of these buildings must be thrilled that they have been given new life, a way to inspire other than in the beauty of decay. And the young people who look after them are filled with enthusiasm and life themselves. One was extremely genki, a term that stymies even the most talented translator. Lively, peppy, vigorous, vivacious. All these apply, and then again, don't. Genki is a nuanced word that the Japanese language is so filled with, one that can only be felt and inferred, through recognition rather than understanding.
I return to the port, hire a bicycle, and ride above the jagged shoreline. After looking at so many art installations the past three days I am beginning to see patterns in the natural world that look man-made. The rocks look too perfect to have been created by chance. The path brings me out to an old lighthouse that had been been a film location for "Times of Joy and Sorrow," by Kinoshita Keisuke, director of Shodōshima's 24 Eyes. A small museum here deals both with the lighthouse and the film and before long my stomach tells me that it is time to go.
I return the bicycle to a old woman who multitasks and makes me a plate of Hayashi Rice. As she cooks I try to get her story, but she is less forthcoming than the young commuters from Shikoku. I do find out that she also is from there, near Temple 88 of that island's famed pilgrimage. I imagine that she came here in order to get married, and most likely, this island is where she will pass the rest of her days. As for me, I'll be gone within the hour.
On the turntable: "Stolen Moments: Red Hot and Cool"
On the nighttable: George Meegan, "The Longest Walk"