Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The New Moody "Release"

Okay, by popular demand, I'll post some sample tracks from my newly-completed homegrown CD. I was actually planning to wait until after I had sent copies to certain people, meanwhile giving some more samples of my earlier work. Indeed, those CDs are going into the mail as we speak. However, since people are saying they're more interested in hearing my latest work (and the whole idea of getting requests is going straight to my head ;-) ), I'll go ahead and post this now.

taste of the truth

The new album is called A Taste of the Truth. I knew Open Halls would be a very hard act to follow, and it was. My guitar playing was at a sort of peak when I made that latter album, and I was worried what effect both the half-year "vacation" that followed and the much slower pace of songwriting and recording after that would have on it. As it turned out, I became pretty rusty. Listening to the 16 tracks on A Taste of the Truth you can probably hear my playing ability coming and going. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's only sort of there..and that's after the many retakes that certain parts in certain songs required. I was getting pretty frustrated for a while until I started putting some quality time into practicing. I had far worse luck with my voice. For a number of reasons, my throat tends to be raw and sore a lot...and the doctor says there's not a whole lot I can do about it. It seems to be getting progressively worse, too. Sometimes I waited till my voice was in good shape before recording vocal tracks. Sometimes I got tired of waiting and just did it anyway, letting the occasional huskiness and shakiness stick. The good side is that I gave a bit more attention to other instruments in my collection, such as my harmonicas. I also put a lot more effort into the songwriting.

Open Halls was unusual in that, unlike most of my albums, it didn't really have any kind of underlying theme (other than the focus on the guitar playing). A Taste of the Truth goes back to my usual conceptual thinking, this time dealing with the dual and sometimes contradictory realities of my "real life" and my "cyberlife" and significant events (and people) in both.

"A Taste of the Truth" - The title track is the second song on the album. I was reading (former Rolling Stones bassist) Bill Wyman's autobiography when I made this. I went back to my "Purple Era" technique of a guitar-based tune with sequencer loop rhythmical backing, but I was using mainly vintage amp models. It all starts with the "Yamacaster" going through a 1960s Fender Bassman, which is what Keith Richards used on a lot of the early Stones tunes that were recorded in the U.S.. (If I'd only had my new Telecaster then...ARRRGH...) The lyrics are based on one current and one former coworker at Ye Olde AcademyTM, both of whom are in dire need of a good dose of reality.

"Stand Our Ground" - Here's one of the acoustic-based tunes. I used a Fishman clip-on pickup on my acoustic guitar. (Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull uses one of those. I wonder if he has the same trouble I do with that crappy built-in cable...) I'm not sure exactly what inspired this, but it seems to be the blows to and changes in my ideals that happened as a result of my expanding blogging.

"Hero of the Masses" - Dedicated with love to Mr. O (the English teacher...not to be confused with Mr. Ogawa the music teacher). If you think I'm exaggerating, at least a third of the lyrics are actual quotes (sometimes translated from the Japanese), and much if not most of the rest is paraphrased from things he actually said. I wrote this tune on the piano and practiced it like crazy, but I didn't have a lot of faith in my ability to play it consistently, so I cheated and programmed it. (The other voice you hear is a characterization of Mr. U, the chief of our English department. Those two men loathe each other.)

"Day Whatever" - I once read that Bill Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins used a Mesa Boogie quad recto amp boosted with a Big Muff fuzzbox on the Siamese Dream album. Well, I had a Boogie dual recto and Big Muff in my PODxt, so I dialed them up, and voila! There was that really intense, aggressive sound. I recorded the rhythm guitar and bass lines, and that's when I realized it actually reminded me a lot of My Bloody Valentine during their You Made Me Realise / Feed Me With Your Kiss era. Naturally, I immediately imagined an MBV-style wailing guitar over the top, so I immediately added one (though with quite a different sound and style from what Kevin Shields/Belinda Butcher used...a lot of which was actually samplers anyway). I also modeled my vocal style a bit after Kevin Shields', though you can actually understand what I'm saying. Also, unlike MBV, I'm not singing about sex, drugs, or suicide; rather, my topic is an all too typical day in the life...

"This Breath of Life" - Well, if you can get past that loooonnnng introduction, this tune is a nice bit of electronica. However, believe it or not, it's not programmed. I started programming it on three different occasions and just couldn't keep my mind on it, so I gave up and played all the parts manually. That naturally means there are some human imperfections here and there. The drums were the only part that I tweaked; I recorded them in real time on the synth and quantized the track to make sure they stayed on beat. The lyrics were "ghost written", a technique I hadn't used since the Spinning Flow album. That means that I meditated for a while and then quickly sketched down the lyrics without really thinking about them. The words just came from the little voice in the back of my mind. (I sometimes come up with the most interesting stuff that way. I'm just thankful that they've all been reasonably coherent thus far; I don't yet have songs about "muffin mix on your thirteenth pantleg", or something like that.)

Okay, that's five sample tracks out of sixteen on the album. Enjoy (if possible), and give me your feedback. If you'd like a copy of the album, let me know!

(All songs on this and my other albums are protected by copyright. Listen if you like, but please don't steal my music!)

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Out on the Tail of the Dog

Ah...finally...a Saturday in which I didn't have to work! It was the first this month! Wouldn't you know it, after all those surprise squalls of the night before, the weather today decided to be calm, clear, and warm that flies and honeybees came out. Well, I wasn't about to spend a day like this cooped up at home, so the kids and I finished all the day's chores (and studies) quickly in the morning. As it turned out, however, my wife did have to work, and she wound up not being able to come home at noon like she'd hoped. That left just the three of us with the afternoon to play with, which may actually have been a very good thing. You see, it allowed us to spend the day somewhere besides a shopping mall for a change.

So, where did we go? I'm glad you asked! We went somewhere I and my wife used to visit a lot before we got married but hadn't been to in years. My daughter had only the faintest recollection of it, and my son had never been there at all. I'm talking about Inubosaki (lit. "Cape Dogtail") on the coast of the sleepy (many would say "dying") fishing city of Choshi. Getting there was a bit of a drive, but the normally chilly, wind-blasted cape turned out to be just as mild as Namegata had been. The park next to the lighthouse turned out to be crowded, too, so I parked over at the nearby beach, and we hiked up.

There was a film crew at work as we walked by. I don't know what it was for, but they had all kinds of cameras, portable mikes, and light reflectors set up, they were herding people around them asking them to be quiet, and a director was barking orders. From what I could see, they were filming an area of rocks in which a group of children was playing around a seated couple. A TV drama perhaps? Or a movie? Who knows? (Hear that sneezing gaijin in the background? It's me!) We went around it, hoofed our way up the stairs leading to the top of the cape, and hiked down to the rocks on the other side.


The kids sure seemed happy to be there even without any video games.


The cape is famous for its bizarrely-shaped rocks. I'm not sure exactly what kind of rock it is (granite?), but it's a bit different from the basalt headlands of Oregon.


It's hard to tell from this picture, but the sea was rough and churning and dancing among the rocks. (I had a hard time convincing my son not to stand too dangerously close to the frothing surf!)


Here's a view looking back up toward the lighthouse. Why am I being reminded of a set from Star Trek TOS ?

Across the street from the park was a big, pink building that was the Marine Park Aquarium. We decided to go in. It turned out that the facility was managed by the Minstry of Education and Technology, which explained why the place was generally faded, rusty, and smelled bad. (It rather reminded me of the public senior high schools where I used to work...) The exhibits seemed a bit lacking, especially considering the outrageously expensive admission fee, but there were still some interesting things to see (and it kept the kids entertained). There was one pleasant surprise in the form of a dolphin show in a (somewhat dilapidated-looking) pool behind the building. It wasn't a big facility, but that allowed the (small) audience to sit right up next to it and get a view of the dolphins that was far more up close and intimate than at Kamogawa Sea World or other big aquariums I've visited. The show, narrated (via a crackling PA system) by the trainer himself as he performed it, was also surprisingly entertaining.


The trainer also kept things going a bit after the show ended so people could come up, ask questions, and get a closer look. The dolphins seemed only too happy to oblige.


Smile! No, not you!!!!!!


Here's a view from the top of the Marine Park Aquarium toward the end of the cape, including the little tourist resort and the lighthouse.


And here's the view looking in the opposite direction. My son's video game addiction finally got to him, so he got his "fix" with the pay binoculars. *sigh*

Another reason I wanted to go to Choshi was to look for soy sauce. You see, soy sauce is a local specialty, and there are a number of small, local producers. One of them was named on a recent, famous gourmet TV program as the third best in the country. It costs about 10,000 yen (a little less than $100) a bottle, but I wanted to try it. Alas, the Marine Park gift shop didn't have it, and the big gift store in the Inubosaki tourist resort was closing when we left the aquarium and walked back there. I wound up getting a bottle of a much cheaper but still very famous local brand of soy sauce that is low salt to boot.

The drive home was long and slow thanks to traffic, but we still made it back in time for dinner. We'd gotten our exercise for the day, and the curry rice my wife made went down well.

Now...what to do tomorrow...

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A Member of the Club...But Not By Choice

Recently we've been having classic Kanto Plain winter weather, i.e. cold and bone dry. The forecast called for a bit of rain on Sunday, but otherwise all clear.

I guess one of the weather demons bumped a switch or something. This evening, totally out of the blue (no pun intended), it just started pouring down rain. It squalled on and off for a couple of hours, and then it cleared up again. Now the stars are out as clear and beautiful as ever (considering the haze content of the air around here). Not only that, but going outside gives another fringe benefit: the wonderful smell of freshly-fallen rain.

If only it weren't so cold. I just hope it doesn't turn to black ice tomorrow morning...


Well, I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. Google decided to take off the gloves and start throwing sucker punches. For months now every log-on to the Blogger dashboard to write a new post earned me a sales pitch, first for "beta", and then for "new Blogger". I carefully ignored both of them. Tonight, however, I wasn't given a choice. When I logged on to write this post I was told to click an "accept terms of service" box and log in again. It was the only option available (besides leaving the site). Going through with it brought me to a page in which I was told either to log in to my Google account or create one. I logged into the one I made a few weeks ago, and a dialog opened saying my blog sites were being converted.

I guess I'm on "new Blogger" now whether I like it or not...and I have to start learning my way around all over again. Oh, well. I was thinking of making the switch sooner or later anyway. Still, it's the principle of the thing. I don't really like having this "choice" forced upon me without any prior warning.

(Was there any prior warning...?)

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

An Introduction to Moody Music

Alright, alright...I hear you. As the “blog family” has increased, so have the calls for me to make my homegrown music available, particularly online. Okay, I’ll bow to the pressure and try putting some samples here so people can check it out.

WARNING: The linked tracks are all in mp3 format, and most if not all of them are more than 2.5 mb in size.

My recording “career” started in 1983 when my friend Pa’ve asked me to be his guinea pig for his studio recording class in college. I invited some musician friends of mine to help, and we recorded one of my compositions in the college studio (on a 4-track reel-to-reel recorder) with Pa’ve serving as engineer and producer. It was a good experience, but the results have since (thankfully) vanished into the mists of time. Later, in 1988, Pa’ve came to visit me together with the 4-track cassette recorder he had recently bought, and together we produced a cassette tape demo including three of my songs and one that we’d co-written. It seems laughably bad now, but it was a lot of fun to make, and it convinced me that I needed my own home studio. That was my first priority when I came to Japan and started my teaching career back in 1990. Since then, I have produced what now amounts to twenty CD albums of original material.

Keep in mind that these are, at best, demos. Although I have been hired to do session work for some people including a few professional recording artists, on my own I am strictly a hobbyist. These songs were all written, performed, engineered, and produced (and copyrighted, make no mistake) by me at home. Certainly, the quality of my work has improved a lot over the years as I have gained experience and equipment, but I don’t claim to be a professional recording artist (yet), and I make no guarantees. Listen to these tracks at your own risk.

It’s hard to decide where to begin. There’s no way for me to represent all my work in one go, and I wouldn’t want to! My earlier recordings, all carried out on limited, analog equipment with little gear and know-how, seem pretty embarrassing now but still fun to listen to. On the other hand, if I want to make even a halfway good impression, it would be best for me to start with my more recent works. My music can probably be classified into six distinct periods (or eras), so I’ll start with the latest one (2002 till the present). If people want me to, I’ll work backward from there later.

(Incidentally, the "KM" logo is taken from the initials of my real name.)

Spinning Flow

spinning flow

The period from 1996 to 2001 was one of great turbulence and upheaval in my life, reflected all too well in the four albums I collectively call the “Purple Era”. This album, completed in 2002, was the escape from that, ushering in the current, as yet unnamed period. The “Purple Era” was the sound of someone sitting in a closed room screaming while peering out at the world through the crack in the curtains. In Spinning Flow our hero(?) is still feeling rather churned up inside, but at least he is outside breathing the air and swimming in the water again.

“Roundabout Me” - One beautiful, sunny day as I was driving home from Ye Olde AcademyTM I saw an old man riding a bicycle down a narrow, country road with a big smile on his face. I wondered what sort of tune he might be humming. This lyric-less “song” was the result. The singing is kept very loose and casual by design. Imagine other people coming out of their homes, rice fields, etc. to join the old man’s song as he rides by. (Singing off-key with myself was kind of fun, actually…)

”Bond” - This song was an anniversary present for my wife. It’s not my best singing (some have suggested I should have used a lower octave), but several people have said they like this one, the most important being my wife! The music is partly programmed, partly played by hand.

”(Zenzen) Wakannai!” - The title means, “I don’t understand (at all)!” This is probably my biggest hit to date. Based on a true incident that happened during one of my team-taught lessons, it was originally recorded back in December of 1990. That old version included stupid-sounding, direct-lined guitars, even more stupid-sounding Casio drums, hideous sound quality, sloppy execution, and a lead solo played with numb fingers (since I had no way to heat my flat at the time). Bootleg recordings of it continued to circulate among JET Program expats for years after I’d left that program. This was the long-awaited remake, and it is MUCH better. (I don’t know if tapes of the old one are still going around. If so, I REALLY want to replace them with this version!)

”Wanting” - This tune was actually some last-minute space filler I whipped up and stuck in so the album wouldn’t be quite so short. It also served to help me vent a bit of pent-up frustration. I wrote and recorded it in about two hours. One person has told me they hate this song, but many others have named it as a favorite, so here it is.

View from the Tower


During the period from 2000 to 2002 I wrote and recorded a lot of material in quick succession. (I also composed and arranged quite a number of things for other people.) By the time Spinning Flow was finished I was pretty much exhausted. Finally, after many months, I dusted off my gear and started playing with it again, recording a couple of tunes inspired by events in my life at the time. As I continued practicing and experimenting, it looked as though the next album was in danger of being terribly cynical; the song inspirations were coming mainly from problem students (and teachers) at work. I squashed that idea like a cockroach. Some song ideas were dumped, others were rewritten. I also dug up some ideas I’d had in mind for a long time, and the result was an album whose principal theme was my own sci-fi/fantasy writing. View from the Tower, finished in early 2004, is kind of a strange work, perhaps difficult for some people to fathom, but I’m rather proud of it.

”My Mask” - Ah…a moody acoustic number! I always like making these, and I wonder why I don’t do it more often. This song is about a significant background character in my sci-fi/fantasy story setting. She’s a talented and famously benign (but very sheltered and repressed) princess, loved by her people (and scorned by her fellow nobles), but she’s actually quite cruel to the people around her because she doesn’t want them to know how messed up she really is inside. I have performed this song live a number of times.

”Beyanam” - Yes, I do make instrumentals sometimes. (Considering my voice keeps getting worse, perhaps I should do more of them…) This is actually a remake; the original version was recorded back in the late 90s, and it featured a wind synth melody (I never quite liked) and some rather sloppy keyboard playing. This time I used a real sax and cleaned up the ensemble work. The tune is meant to describe a scene from one of my stories. (I won’t bother explaining it here, but it involves the princess from “My Mask”, and it’s kind of romantic.)

”The Firstborn” - The main work on View from the Tower is a seven-part rock opera entitled The Chronicles of Ôus-Gal’ad. It is, well, the Creation story of an alien culture. (Yes, you read that right.) In a nutshell, the living spirit of a heavily-forested planet has evolved into a single, giant consciousness. One day it makes contact with beings from the stars, who convince it to seek a material form so they can interact. The three main aspects of its personality, Bann (the animal self), Gôth (the spiritual self), and Gl’iem (the rational self), each manifest into a separate male-female couple, the Firstborn. Everything goes downhill from there… This tune, the fourth movement of the work, introduces the three couples.

”Mama (Do You Care About Me?)” - This is one of the first tunes I recorded for this album, when it was in danger of being dominated by tales of woe inspired by problem students. Guess what inspired this one! (I come across some pretty dysfunctional families in this job…whew…) This seems to be the most-liked song on the album, though I don’t know why. Incidentally, the high strumming you hear during the refrain is a charango in the right ear and a mandolin in the left.

Open Halls

open halls

I bought my Line 6 PODxt guitar processor while I was working on View from the Tower. After the album was finished, I just spent a lot of time playing around with my new “toy”. Virtually all my attention was going into my guitars, so my playing ability seemed to improve considerably. I never intended to make any real songs, and I certainly didn’t put any effort whatsoever into songwriting, but some of the ideas that came out of my experiments went on disk, and next thing I knew I had another album. That was Open Halls. It was finished in 2004, only a few months after View from the Tower, but it is perhaps my most successful work to date in terms of feedback from listeners. Naturally, it is a very “rocking”, guitar driven, and upbeat work.

”Open Halls” - The title track from the album started out as a joke. I was parodying “pop metal”. I started out by playing (what I thought was) a very cliché riff on my SG through a digital model of a (1980s) Marshall JCM-800 amp boosted by a Rat distortion pedal to the point of insanity. This is then blasted with pure fuzz from my Strat going through a cranked-up (1990s) Boogie dual recto amp (again, a digital model, not the real thing). Then I turned silly into ridiculous by playing the first solo on the SG through a (1960s) Vox amp (i.e. George Harrison) and the second on the Strat through a Soldano (i.e. Eric Clapton). The lyrics are a bit esoteric but very serious, inspired by a really cool Hawaiian girl I met, and who wound up psychoanalyzing me, as I walked through the open halls of Himeji Castle (which, incidentally, is what’s on the cover photo of the album).

”In Your Ranks” - This song was inspired by a former student who was also in the music club. She seemed like a quiet, insecure wall flower when she first joined. A few months later she threw her mask off, went crazy, and practically reinvented our whole music club (for the better, actually)! The music and lyrics reflect that. She was a bit of a handful at times, but I think we all miss that girl.

”What’s On It?” - What? Sonnet?!? That’s right. Sonnets set to music. This song starts with just my jangly “Yamacaster” guitar going through a Matchless Chieftain amp. Then it builds…and builds….

”Why These Tears?” - Can you tell that I’m a schoolteacher? This is probably the only song on the album that I actually put effort into writing instead of just going with whatever came out. It was inspired by two student musicians who suddenly came and tearfully apologized to me for not having played perfectly. I was confused, because I thought they’d done a wonderful job. Kids… Many people have told me they really like this song, so here it is.

Okay…I’ll let you digest these for a bit, and then I’ll post some tunes from my latest album. Either that or I’ll start going chronologically backwards (heh heh heh heh…).

(All rights reserved. All songs are protected by applicable copyright laws. If you want to listen, cool, but please don't steal my music!)

Monday, January 22, 2007

So Sad...

Our supermarket is called Seimiya,
And it has its own shopping mall.
Among the shops there is Fujiya,
A delight for one and all.

So cheery and bright was this little store,
Whose fare was pies, cookies, and cake,
Ice cream, candy, boxes of sweets galore,
Heaven that the bakers there make.

I often went there if I had an excuse,
Some little thing to celebrate.
Its cheery store front was so hard to refuse,
And we all loved whatever we ate.

It wasn't just me; all the people in town
Would go there to get sweet, little gifts,
All the wonderful things that could wipe any frown
And give any dark spirit a lift.

But alas, someone found that the top management
Had been making a horrid mistake,
Telling stores to use expired ingredients
When they made their cookies and cake.

The managers said that they saw nothing wrong;
They thought chocolate would last a long time.
But the government would not accept such a song,
And they said it would count as a crime.

It didn't stop there; the problem was far worse,
And it all seemed like someone's bad dream,
For Fujiya's past-date ingredient curse
Also included butter and cream!

The managers said, "We'll take all the blame!"
The government said, "You're damned right!"
And now there is dirt on Fujiya's name,
And in the store there is no light.

It took many decades for this chain to grow
And make everyone fall for its spark.
It took only a week for that spark to go.
Now the shop sits there, shuttered and dark.


Corporate corruption can be such a sad thing...

Friday, January 19, 2007

Okay, you guys... it is:

the tie

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

And Another One...

Today was the day of the first rehearsal of the Seishin Flying Eggheads (unexpected fanfare, student arrangement) for 2007, the Year of the Boar. As expected, it was rather hectic. The schedule headaches brought about by our last principal (in order to promote "balance" in the students' lives, i.e. give them more time to play with their cell phones and video games) mean that we can usually only manage four full-band rehearsals per month. To make matters worse, the increased daily class load brought about by the elimination of Saturday classes a few years ago thanks to the Ministry of Education and Technology (in order to give the students more "social time", i.e. still more time to play with their cell phones and video games...though we still have "Saturday seminars", just not regular classes!) means that each rehearsal is scarcely an hour in length.

Four hours of rehearsal per month. Any decent American high school stage band would consider that a joke, but that's what the Eggheads have to work with, and somehow we make it fall into place. Still, considering we have a Saturday Afternoon Concert coming up in a few weeks followed by the Big Regular Concert (full-instrument fanfare...oops, who played that bad note?) in a couple of months, and the student leaders want us to play completely different programs in each, we have our work cut out for us. I was already feeling the stress when I climbed into the director's saddle.

Actually, the rehearsal went rather well. We went over the tunes for the Saturday Afternoon Concert, and the kids were in the groove for the most part. Most of them were familiar with three of the four tunes we worked on, so it was just a matter of remembering and bringing the chops online. The fourth tune was new, but it was an easy arrangement (and needed a bit of rearranging to make it less boring), so it wasn't so tough. Still, I was reluctant to end at closing time, as usual, so we went a few minutes over. As usual. There were no complaints. There never are.

Actually, one of the many notable features of this year's Flying Eggheads is that they really get into it, far more than in past years. Several of the members always hang out and jam on their own for at least another half hour after we finish. Today was no different, and it definitely lifted my spirits even higher. I was feeling pretty good when I gathered up my stuff and went back downstairs to the music office.

I couldn't hear them clearly, but I still noticed that the kids seemed to be jamming on a tune that wasn't one of the ones we'd practiced. In fact, I didn't really recognize it at all. I didn't pay it any mind. Pretty soon I was engrossed in a discussion with Mr. Ogawa about upcoming plans. At least I was until our lead tenor sax player, a chronically timid 9th grader, suddenly came into the room with a strange look on her face, took my hand, and said nervously, "Sensei, are you busy? Something's up. Can you come back upstairs for a minute?"

The poor girl was trembling, and her hand was ice cold as she led me back up the stairs to the auditorium, assuring me desperately that there was nothing suspicious going on, which made me suspicious.

Entering the auditorium, I saw a number of the Eggheads standing in a circle around the drummer, instruments out. That's not really unusual because, as I said, they always jam for a while after rehearsal. However, this time it was just all the 9th grade members, which was unusual. I wondered if perhaps they wanted me to give them some instruction on their ad-lib solos. I was mistaken. The drummer counted off, and the 9th graders launched into a clever sort of Dixieland-style version of "Happy Birthday to You" that they'd only just arranged.

I thought I was going to cry. When they handed me the present (a somewhat expensive, brand-name necktie complete with a saxophone tie pin!) I most definitely had watery eyes and wasn't sure what to say. After all, though the kids celebrate Mr. Ogawa's birthday every year (with much fanfare and theatrics), it was only the second time in eleven years that anyone in the music club had ever acknowledged my birthday. (Of course, I'm getting to the point where I almost wish they wouldn't, but I'm not complaining!)

A Telecaster from the wife and a birthday serenade from the 9th grade members of the Seishin Flying Eggheads? How did I get to be so lucky this year?

...especially since that famous shrine in Odawara City warned me that this year would be the start of a three-year period of exceptionally bad luck? (Then again, Kashima Shrine said it would be a lucky year for me, so there!)

Friday, January 12, 2007

An Unexpected Gift

Those of you that have been visiting (or lurking around) this blog for at least the past year may remember this picture I posted back in February of last year showing the "altar" in my bedroom/studio:

I call it my "altar" because, in addition to a large percentage of my musical instrument collection and related maintenance gear, it houses my aromatherapy collection (incense, essential oils, and scented candles), my tarot cards, and the overwhelming majority of my literary and artistic productions. Not only that, but the corner it occupies faces east, just like a Shinto shrine. You might say a lot of my personal energy is focused here.

2006 altar2

This is what it looks like now. Notice anything different? Well, the calendar has changed, and the items on the shelves have been moved around a little bit. The orange bag (containing saxophone reeds and guitar strings) hanging behind the flute case in the first picture is missing in the second. There is also a new, (plastic) Japanese flute in the hanging flute collection, one of my Christmas presents from my wife. I'll give you a hint: the most significant change is in the middle of the photo.

I have always referred to the black Yamaha RTX-102 guitar as my "Yamacaster" because it is (loosely) based on the Fender Telecaster design. It was the first electric guitar I bought after coming to Japan. I got it at the time mainly because I hadn't built up my bank account yet, and it was almost ridiculously cheap (clearance priced at 70% off the list price, which was already relatively low). I also liked the way it felt and played compared with other budget-priced models. For the record, I never intended to stick with it; my plan was to ditch it and buy a better guitar as soon as I was comfortable with my savings. As it turned out, I stuck with it for more than 16 years.

The fact was that the Yamacaster really grew on me. When I bought it it came equipped with 10-guage strings (most electrics use lighter 9-guage types), and the action was set a bit heavy. I actually appreciated that. It gave it a solidity that almost approached that of an acoustic guitar. I could bang on that thing hard, and it would respond sweetly without the detuning and twanging that can tend to happen. Especially considering the price, it also had surprisingly good machine heads that kept the guitar in tune even on the few occasions when I used that (better avoided) tremolo system. Of course, the heavy action and a few other issues meant that it wasn't really suitable for lead, so I soon supplemented it with a Fender Stratocaster (eventually replaced with a Fender Stratocaster HSS w/ locking tremolo and supplemented with an Epiphone SG), but it continued to be my principal rhythm workhorse clear up until the end of 2006.

Nevertheless, I was never entirely satisfied with it. Like most Yamaha guitars, it had a beautiful clean sound, especially on the neck pickup. However, it didn't really have a whole lot of oomph. If I gave it a moderate to fair amount of overdrive, perhaps with a bit of chorus thrown in for effect (hyuk!), it gave me a lively, jangly sound which I used a lot...maybe even too much. (In fact, anyone familiar with my recordings may well call that sound "too recognizable". Come to think of it, some have...) However, if I tried to use it with really hard drive and/or distortion what I got tended to be either really muddy or really thin and tinny, leading me to press one of my "lead" guitars into the "rhythm" role temporarily. I toyed with the idea of replacing one or both of the pickups, and then I began seriously considering getting a new guitar. The only problem was convincing myself to do it, especially since I don't play rock guitar as much as I used to.

I pretty much ruled out getting a new guitar, at least for the time being. However, Shimokura Music opened a branch outlet at a department store in Narita that specializes in used gear. I started browsing around there a lot. There were a lot of axes there that were very tempting, but the one that wound up catching my eye was a very new-looking Fender Telecaster whose price was about two-thirds that of a new one. I was still hard pressed to convince myself to get it, but the coming of my birthday in early January made it a lot easier. I have a habit of buying myself a present, and I figured the used "Telly" would be a lot cheaper than the car navigation system I bought last year! When my wife asked for us to go to that department store in Narita so she could complete her birthday shopping for me, I considered it a done deal. We had to split up anyway, and I figured it was as good a time as any.

Imagine my surprise when my wife came around via a different route and intercepted me at the music shop! I was even more surprised when she named a maximum price and told me to pick the guitar I wanted! I looked around a bit and did some serious drooling (especially at that 5-string bass), but I really did want that Telecaster, so I headed for its aisle to find it gone. I searched around in vain. Someone else had grabbed it first. I started to rethink my strategy, but then I noticed another Telecaster hanging behind the front counter with an even lower price on it. I asked the dealer for the story on it, and he told me that it had only just been brought in. The store people hadn't even had a chance to look at it yet.

So I looked at it for them. Whoever had it before did not take care of it. There was plenty of corrosion on the chrome parts, and it had some serious dust bunnies around the bridge and treble pickup. The bridge was also out of adjustment. However, when I plugged it into a Marshall JCM-800 and played that thing...
ME: "Can you adjust the bridge for me?"
Clerk: "You mean 'harmonic octave tuning'?"
ME: "Yeah, whatever."
CLerk: "Certainly."
ME: "Sold."

So now I have a new guitar, my surprise birthday present from my wife! (She'd once said something akin to hell freezing over before she'd get one of those for me, but anyway...) I have cleaned and polished it, fiddled a bit more with the bridge myself, and am generally enjoying it. I haven't recorded with it yet. (It just missed appearing on my just-finished latest [demo] album.) I will, though. Bet on it. I haven't gotten rid of the Yamacaster, though; I have only mothballed it. It and the Telecaster are surprisingly different animals despite their similar design. The Telecaster is definitely grittier, more bluesy and more rocking. Much more oomph. However, I may still want the Yamacaster's beautiful clean sound or that jangle (even if some people are fed up with it), so it'll stay in its case in the corner for the time being.

The only problem is that now I've lost the color coordination! All my electrics plus the bass used to be black and/or white! Now one of them has a natural wood tone! Oh, well. At least now I have a Fender-Fender-Fender/Epiphone-Epiphone full house! (Hey, patterns are important, don't you know?)
(I know, I know..."Shut up and play your guitar...")

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Man's Home Is His Shiro (城)

There is a popular saying here in Japan that, if a man wants the best in life, he should have a Japanese wife, Chinese food, and an American house. Indeed, like so many things here in the Land of the Rising Sun, house design has become increasingly based on the American model. The traditional layout of a large, central chamber divided into compartments by fusuma (襖 - sliding partitions, usually made of painted or printed wood or cardboard in a wood frame), surrounded by shouji (障子 – sliding screens made of wood-framed paper), and ringed by a wide corridor that can be fully opened to the outside is giving way to the more familiar, Western idea of fixed, hard-walled construction. The shouji and fully-opening outer corridor once served as environmental control, but air conditioners have made them unnecessary. Now solid walls with insulation are becoming the norm, as are Western-style hinged doors that latch. Traditional sleeping mats and zabuton (座布団 – seat cushions placed directly on the floor) are also giving way to Western-style beds and chairs, leading to the customary tatami (畳 - woven grass mat) floors being increasingly replaced with carpeting. In terms of basic design, Japanese houses are clearly becoming more and more similar to their American counterparts. However, the Japanese identity has far from disappeared; on the contrary, it is still readily visible.

When entering even a very modern Japanese home, one is bound to find a space just inside the door, usually of the same material as that just outside (i.e. cement, stone, or brick in most cases), which is where the shoes are removed and kept. This space, referred to as the genkan (玄関 – usually translated as simply “front door”), is actually considered “outside”, and an arriving guest will often simply walk into it and announce his presence in the traditional manner even after ringing the doorbell. The genkan is usually followed by a step which marks the border between “inside” and “outside”.

A typical genkan in a modern home

As I said before, tiled or carpeted floors are fast becoming the norm in Japan, but most modern houses still have at least one washitsu (和室 – literally “Japanese room”) with tatami floors, a low table, which may be a kotatsu (火燵 – a traditional heated, foot-warming table), surrounded by zabuton, and a tokonoma (床の間 – decorative alcove). I mentioned in an earlier post that the tokonoma in my house is crammed full of dolls and souvenirs. That is unusual. Usually the décor of a tokonoma is quite simple and elegant, such as a kakejiku (掛け軸 – hanging scroll) and either a vase of arranged flowers or a bonsai miniature tree. It goes without saying that the atmosphere of the washitsu is very much a traditional, Japanese one.

A tatami-floored washitsu with a tokonoma visible in the background.

Religion is an endangered species in Japan, but most houses still include a kamidana (神棚 – household Shinto shrine) and butsudan (仏壇 – Buddhist altar). The kamidana normally resembles a miniature shrine building, and, like a shrine, it usually faces east. It is considered the living space of the household guardian spirits. It is also where the good luck talismans for the year, purchased at a shrine during the New Year holidays, are usually placed. The butsudan, on the other hand, serves mainly as a memorial for dead ancestors. It may or may not contain a figurine of Buddha and/or Kannon (the bodhisattva of mercy), but it will most likely have memorial plaques if not photographs of deceased family members. More pious (or traditionally-minded) families will quite often first place gifts they’ve received on or near the butsudan so that the ancestors get “first dibs”. Also, while one doesn’t usually pay much deference to the kamidana, it is normal to place incense in the butsudan and even pray to it. (More pious individuals, such as my in-laws, even talk to their ancestors on occasion via the butsudan, informing them of important events.) Even if most Japanese nowadays call themselves “skeptical” if not atheist, the ancient religious customs are still very much the norm in the modern household.

A kamidana. This one is actually rather small.

This butsudan, on the other hand, is a rather nice one.

My own home is a rather interesting case. When my in-laws had it built about fifty years ago, they never really intended to use it beyond just the upstairs bedrooms since they ate and spent their free time with my mother-in-law’s parents over in the main house. It was first built in the traditional style, but not quite complete. The outer corridor originally wrapped around three sides. No need was seen for a genkan, since guests invariably went to the main house, so now my family is forced to use the roofed back porch as such (and our shoes often wind up very wet if it rains). Over time, as my wife grew up (and my father-in-law became more ambitious and self-obsessed), one section of the corridor was converted into an extra bedroom (now used by my kids) and a study, and the most visible section of outer doors was walled over in a decorative style. The tatami floors were all carpeted over. The tokonoma, as I mentioned before, is in an upstairs room since that was all my in-laws originally intended to use (and also because there’s no room for it elsewhere). Since the butsudan in the main house has the family memorials, there’s no need for one in mine, but we do have a cute, little kamidana on the east wall of the kitchen. We are now in the process of having the house enlarged and, in many ways, modernized. When the work is completed, hopefully this year, the Japanese-style layout will be gone. The kids will have separate bedrooms, and both the kitchen and living room will be larger. Generally speaking, the house will be much more Westernized.

But at least we’ll have a real genkan.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

2006-7: A Christmas Chronology, pt. IV

January 2-3
So here I am taking a big risk by putting up a new post before anyone commented on the last one! Oh, well...I seem to be killing off my audience anyway, so I might as well get to the point.

My family never does its hatsunode (first prayers for the new year) on the 1st because Kashima Shrine (not to mention every other major shrine or temple in the country) tends to look like this. We usually wait till the 2nd so that the crowds can thin out a bit.

Unfortunately, we never made it on the 2nd. We'd planned to go, and the in-laws had set their own schedules so they could go with us, but my wife suddenly decided to spend all day having our kids work on drills and school-related stuff. She was being particularly strict, and both kids were in tears for a while. Meanwhile, I worked on putting together the latest homegrown album I've just finished. Then we did a bit more cleaning, adding even more to the wall of garbage bags.

We went to Kashima Shrine on the 3rd, instead. As always, I avoided the crowds and parking fees by going to the shrine's back door. The little parking lot down there quite often has spaces available, and even if it doesn't there are lots of little back roads and empty lots nearby that provide convenient (and free) parking. Getting up to the shrine itself from there requires a bit of a climb up a steep hill, but I'd rather deal with that than the mess at the main entrance.

Kashima Hatsunode 2007-1

Since we came in through the back door, we came to the inner shrine first. As you can see, there was quite a line of people waiting to pray, but nothing like what it no doubt was on the 1st. The inner shrine is smaller, simpler, and less famous than the outer one. It is also older and more sacred.

Kashima Hatsunode 2007-2

On our way down the avenue leading to the outer shrine. Naturally, most of the traffic is heading in the opposite direction. The lane is lined with giant trees, mostly sugi (Japanese cedar) and hinoki (Japanese cypress), and there is forest all around. The air in there is really clean and fragrant even with all that mass of humanity.

Kashima Hatsunode 2007-4

Here you can see the crowd of worshippers lined up in front of the outer shrine. There is a huge, double offering box set up so that a whole bunch of people can pray at the same time. The line is still backed up, but at least the square isn't totally jammed full. You can also see the famous, red mon, or Chinese gate, which is actually unusual for a Shinto shrine. It is actually an example of Buddhist architecture and a relic of the time when Kashima Shrine served as a Zen monastery. (Can you see my daughter in the picture?)

Kashima Hatsunode 2007-5

The next item on the agenda is to burn last year's talismans and buy new ones. I'm dead serious. Not far from the outer shrine is a large, sunken fire pit into which people toss their charms and daruma from the previous year so that their spirits can be released and renewed. Then they purchase replacements. The daruma, which are actually Buddhist, have to be obtained at tent stalls just outside the shrine. Charms and talismans, however, are bought at this building, which is opposite the outer shrine. The employees are acolytes of the shrine, all of them local teenagers. (Some of them are my students. One of the ones in the picture is my wife's former student who apparently moved.) Yes, it's quite a money-making racket, but it's harmless and it helps support the shrine. Besides, it's tradition! (I won't tell you how much I spent there. Actually, it was a bit less than last year.)

Kashima Hatsunode 2007-6

Next on the agenda is spending even more money...this time on omikuji, or fortunes for the new year. Just for fun, everyone in my family bought one (100 yen each...about $0.80). Guess what? We all got the same result! I wonder what the odds are for that; there are many possibilities!

I tried to get a good picture of the colorful inner sanctum of the outer shrine, its design a hallmark of the era in which it was built. However, not only was the scenic path blocked off, but when I set up for a shot a strong breeze kicked up all of a sudden, lifting up a curtain which then blocked my view. I took the shots anyway when the wind subsided for a bit, dropping the curtain briefly, but they're not worth posting here.

Kashima Hatsunode 2007-9Kashima Hatsunode 2007-10

Next we made our way back down the hill to the rear entrance. (If you look at the first pic, you can see my wife and daughter walking up ahead of the other people.)

Kashima Hatsunode 2007-11Kashima Hatsunode 2007-12

The rear area of the shrine is a little park whose main feature is Miterashi-no-Ike (御手洗池 - lit. "Hand-Washing Pond"), a pond fed by a natural spring (in the background of the first pic above) whose waters are believed to be both healthy and filled with spiritual energy. Many people bottle the water and take it home. The pond itself is crystal clear, and the way it refracts water makes it hard to guage its depth. It is said that, if people of different sizes bathe in it, they all appear to be the same height. I don't know about that, but I do know it looks a lot shallower than it really is! The carp that swim in it seem happy, too.

Kashima Hatsunode 2007-13

Kashima Hatsunode 2007-AKashima Hatsunode 2007-C

The runoff from Miterashi-no-Ike forms to shallower, decorative ponds in a beautiful garden. There was an old man sitting in the shelter playing traditional tunes on an old-style flute. It definitely added to the atmosphere. Very Japanese...and what more would you want at an ancient and historically famous Shinto shrine during the New Year celebrations?

The Moodies at Kashima Jingu 2007

As we were leaving, we suddenly ran into a whole bunch of people we knew. First there was two members of the Kashima Philharmonic supporters' club followed by a whole mass of 11th grade students from Ye Olde AcademyTM followed by one of the instructors from my kids' traditional Japanese dance troupe. One of them inevitably offered to take a picture of us, so here it is. I end my Christmas/New Year Chronology by blowing my anonymity and showing you all the sad truth.

Happy New Year, everybody! May 2007 treat us all well!

2006: A Christmas Chronology, pt. III

December 29-31
I think I need to shorten these diary posts a bit. Otherwise I might lose my audience completely!

Anyway, even with all those Christmastime music club activities, this was still the first winter "vacation" in years which wasn't wiped out by either my wife's tennis club or my traveling back to Oregon. That left us with three full days before the end of 2006. Guess how family spent them? That's right! NEW YEAR CLEANING!!!!!! (diminished 7th chord)

Yes, it's the tradition in Japan to do the "spring cleaning" at the end of December so that the new year starts out with a renewed house. It makes perfect sense, but lately we've been forced to try to squeeze in as much as possible with the limited time and manpower available. This time we had a bit more to play with, so we spent the 29th, 30th, and 31st going over just about everything. For my part I mainly pulled all that heavy furniture out of the way and cleaned behind it. I also did some maintenance work here and there. By far my most time-consuming chore, however, was cleaning out my home's tokonoma, or decorative alcove. Most Japanese homes have one, usually in or near the living room, and it is usually decorated with a wall hanging and either a vase of arranged flowers or a bonsai (miniature) tree. I don't know why, but ours is in the upstairs bedroom, and the in-laws filled it with heirlooms, mainly traditional dolls that have been in the family for a long time and are quite valuable. My family decided to keep it that way, adding a few dolls of our own.


My wife doesn't seem to care about it very much, but I always give it lots of tender loving care. During the new year cleaning I gently remove everything, clean out the alcove, dust off each individual item, and replace it. It's time consuming and also kind of weird. It is often said in Japan that statues and dolls can serve as a means for spirits to enter this world (which is why there are Buddhist statues). I don't know if that's true or not, but I do know it's always a lot colder in that alcove than in the surrounding room despite the thicker walls, and the air is both prickly and full of strange vibes. I take my time and treat each object with care, but I'm always thankful to get done and get out of there.

Meanwhile, my wife spent the whole time going through every drawer and every cabinet in the house, weeding out junk. It was the first time she'd really done that for ages, and all those expired food items, faded or moldy clothes, old papers and magazines, and broken toys amounted to what was literally a whole wall of garbage bags. That presented a problem. We knew hauling it out to the neighborhood dumpster would be a major undertaking. We also knew dad-in-law would interfere.

You have to understand: my father-in-law is the type who doesn't believe in throwing things away. He feels it's wasteful to toss out anything that might have a potential use sometime in the distant future. His house, his storage shed, and his greenhouse are all piled high with useless junk, but he not only refuses to get rid of any of it, but insists that we remove useful items to make room for it. He gets upset if he catches us trying to haul out any broken appliances or unwearable clothes of our own, and he'll occassionally dig such things out of our garbage cans if he sees them...and then insist we get rid of things we actually use to make room for the junk! On the other hand, when it comes to items that clearly have no further use, he insists on burning it all in the firepit in the middle of his garden. (Believe me, there are times when the fumes from burning plastic get pretty overwhelming. Mmmm...dioxin!)

Needless to say, we didn't want to deal with that, so we did our best despite the odds to keep that wall of garbage bags concealed from him...and distracted him enough for him to forget all about it when he finally saw it.

On the night of the 31st, after the kids had gone to bed, my wife and I quietly celebrated the coming of the New Year by enjoying some of the Christmas presents she'd given me, specifically the bottle of 1990 Italian reserve wine and caviar. We killed off the caviar quickly (great on Ritz crackers!) and followed it with a can of sardines (also great on Ritz crackers with a spot of mustard!). After that, I gave in to temptation, and my wife actually allowed me to eat some of my blue cheese without complaining about the smell. (Actually, she succumbed to the wine rather quickly. One full glass put her to sleep with very red ears and nose.) I wound up eating...and drinking...a lot more than I probably should have that night, but whatever. It was too good to waste.

January 1st
Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu! (i.e. Happy New Year!)
The first morning of the New Year always means two things. First there is breakfast together with the in-laws, in which we toast the new year with rice wine and enjoy seasonal dishes with mochi (cakes of pounded rice, served in soup). Then there is the kinjoukai (近所会 - literally "neighborhood association"). Every household in our neighborhood is required to send one representative, usually the breadwinning man of the house, and they have a brief meeting followed by lots of drinking. Those can be fun, but they can also be dangerous.

A few years ago at the kinjoukai I decided to try drinking traditional rice wine instead of the usual beer. Everything was fine until someone started slipping some shochu (a schnapps-like liquor, often 100 proof or more, usually made from either turnips or plums) into my cup. Thinking it was still rice wine, I slogged it down merrily. I wound up staggering home supported by two people (which I vaguely remember), spending several hours in the bathroom heaving (which I thankfully don't remember), and finally waking up at nine o' clock at night. I don't have to tell you how I felt all day the next day. That was a few years ago, but it apparently cemented my reputation. This year they tried to get me to drink like a fish again, but my stomach intervened. Maybe it was all that wine, caviar, sardines, blue cheese, and Ritz crackers from the night before, but after the first glass of beer I started feeling sick. After the second I was fighting to keep my sashimi inside me. After carefully sipping my way through the third (with the chairman holding a bottle of shochu in front of me and eagerly saying, "Let's go,") I gave up and left early. They were disappointed, but this year's kinjoukai seemed unusually dead for some reason anyway. It was probably for the better.

Narita-san Temple in the city of Narita

I rested for a while, and then we went shopping in Narita. I was worried about the inevitable traffic of people going to the Narita-San temple complex for hatsunode (prayers for the New Year, the only time many if not most Japanese go to a temple except for funerals), especially with my wife driving my car (just for good measure, since DUI is the latest government/police witch-hunt). It turned out to be an easy drive, and finding parking wasn't difficult, but the malls were crowded with good reason. All the shops were offering New Year clearance specials, often up to 50% off. Since my wife was mainly birthday shopping for me, I went off on my own, bought some more CDs I probably didn't need (but were on sale), had a "holiday blend" coffee at Starbucks, sat outside and watched the colorful mass of people going about, and enjoyed some time just to relax. After that we went to a different mall, got a few household items, had dinner at a pretty good, little pasta restaurant, and then I drove us home.

What did I do after I got back? I caught up on some of my blogging, of course! Of course, I did that only after we'd done some more new year cleaning...

And that was how I spent New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

2006: A Christmas Chronology, pt. II

December 26th
Well, Mr. Ogawa managed to preempt the day before Christmas, so how about the day after, as well? AND the next one, too? This time it was for the All-Japan Selected High School Orchestra Festival (fanfare of dubious intonation).

This is actually a very prestigious event, at least in theory. Basically, the Japan Youth Orchestra Federation and certain members of the Imperial Family get together and invite certain senior high school orchestras from around the country to come together, perform, judge each other, and listen to critiques from a panel of judges (though it's not really a competition). In the very beginning it was only a one-day event with less than a dozen participating groups. This year there were more than three dozen orchestras arriving, so they divided them into two separate events (A group and B group) spanning three days. It was to be the fifteenth such Festival. I'm proud to say it was also the thirteenth time in a row that the orchestra of Ye Olde AcademyTM was invited.

I went along with the orchestra to the Festival almost every year from their third appearance till the tenth. Unfortunately, when Mr. Karatsu became the music club's third director four years ago I saw both my role and my rank within the group decline rapidly as his improved. During the orchestra's ninth showing at the Festival both he and I attended, and he had almost nothing to do. During the tenth showing it was I who was largely left standing in the corner like a spare tire. Two years ago a visit to Oregon prevented me from being there. Last year Mr. Ogawa told me I wasn't needed.

Frankly, I couldn't help wondering why Mssr. Maestro Ogawa wanted me to be there this year. It would appear that he mainly just wanted me to chaperone one of the buses so he could come to the event on his own. Oh, well. There are always benefits to being there, so I wasn't complaining despite it all.

Nihon Seinen Kan

The Festival always takes place at the Nihon Seinen Kan (日本青年館 - Japan Youth Hall), a publicly-subsidized convention center in Tokyo with an attached hotel, a performance hall, and quite a number of rooms. It was barely big enough back when just over a dozen orchestras were participating. The event quickly outgrew the venue, but that didn't stop them both from holding it at the same place year after year and increasing the number of "selected" orchestras every time. I could scarcely imagine what it was going to be like with 30+ youth orchestras of various sizes and levels trying to share that same space. I figured the best option would be to find a safe corner and stay there, but whatever.

My family, who were irritated at my going, managed to see to it that I showed up at the Academy just five minutes before the buses were due to leave. That set Mr. Karatsu into a near panic, but he still had the decency to treat me with respect and make sure we shared the duties as equally as possible under the circumstances (i.e. he had plenty of advance instruction from Mr. Ogawa as to what was going on, whereas I'd hardly been told spit). The bus ride itself started out uneventful, particularly since the students ignored me almost completely. (Heck, at first they even forgot to leave me an open seat!) Then the heavens opened up, and we were hit with a raging downpour. To add insult to injury, the entire Tokyo expressway network was solidly jammed up. It didn't take long for us to realize that there was no way we would be arriving in time for the opening ceremony.

The 11th grade student leaders started to panic, so I did my best to keep them calm. It didn't help that it was still gushing when we arrived. I helped unload the kids' luggage so they could stay under their umbrellas, which meant I wound up thoroughly soaked. We had a bit of time before rehearsal, so after we'd deposited our gear in our assigned storage room I let the kids go off to the hall and made my way to the convention hall's cafe for a late (and overpriced) lunch. After that I just hung out till it was time for the kids to prepare for battle.

We ran into trouble immediately. The Festival has always had a strict rule about keeping the instruments silent except in designated areas. It is not allowed to play in the storage rooms, let alone the hallways. Well, as soon as the kids went into the storage room to get their gear out the cello section immediately launched into a loud tuning and warm-up session. Mr. Karatsu ordered them to stop, and they ignored him. I ordered them to stop twice, and they ignored me both times. Finally I walked around and barked the order to stop directly in the face of each individual cellist, but most of them still ignored me...including the new 7th grader in the section, who was obediently following his seniors' example. As we then walked from the storage room to the rehearsal hall one of the (dumber) 11th grade violinists suddenly started serenading passersby...and got all "What did I do??!?" when Mr. Karatsu got on her case.

(It's times like these that I really wish I still had the legal right to smack certain kids upside the head, but I don't, so I can't.)

At the rehearsal hall we met Mr. Ogawa, who had only a few brusque words for Mr. Karatsu and ignored me completely. We also met a couple of our regular guest clinicians, Ms. I the violinist and Mr. T the contrabassist. They are both outstanding, professional musicians and great people to boot. Since the rehearsal hall was both extremely small and extremely hot, Mr. Karatsu and I thankfully stayed out in the hall and chatted with the clinicians. It was then that the next scheduled orchestra in line showed up almost half an hour early and started pestering us to hurry up and let them use the rehearsal room. We politely told them to go stuff themselves. (I wish. No, actually, we asked one of the event officials to tell them to go stuff themselves. They finally withdrew...whining all the way.)

As we went backstage some of our kids were so nervous they were crying. I'd understand that a bit more if it weren't for the fact that almost all of the wailing ones were 11th graders who had already participated in that same Festival several times! Oh, well. I did my best to help them calm down. We watched the orchestra who was on before us (and Mr. Ogawa finally acknowledged my existence). Then it was our own curtain time. The kids performed Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" from La Giaconda and Dukas' "The Sorceror's Apprentice", in that order. There was a bit of a flub in the flutes at the beginning of "Dance of the Hours" and a couple of minor trumpet splats in the middle of "The Sorceror's Apprentice", but otherwise I thought the kids did a supurb job. Musically, it was a very high-level performance. Not all of them thought so, though, as there was even more weeping and wailing afterward.

After that we went back to the storage room so the kids could put their instruments away, and then we split up. Most of the kids immediately went back to the hall to watch the remaining performances, but I stayed put, drank a latte, and kept an eye on things till it was over. That was when the real fun began.

Mr. Ogawa had to accompany the students to a mixer event with some of the other orchestras, but he had made a reservation for us at his favorite, little (TINY, more like) French restaurant in Shinjuku. Mr. Karatsu and I, Mr. T, Ms. I, and two alumni made our way there by taking taxis to the general vicinity and then getting out and the still-driving rain. (Wouldn't you know it, I was the only one without an umbrella, but my concert program at least kept my head dry...) Yes, Canard is one of the smallest gourmet restaurants I've ever seen (maximum capacity 18 customers packed in like sardines), but it is good. Its two chefs, both Frenchmen, are apparently well known in Tokyo. Their fare tends to come in small portions, unfortunately, but it is both delicious and pleasing to the eye. We enjoyed it while helping the restaurant clear what Christmas hadn't already wiped out of their wine selection. That helped cushion the blow of the price, and we were all feeling quite warm and happy when we went back out into the rain to head for our various destinations.

Mr. Karatsu, one of the alums, and I went to the hotel where our group was staying. We checked in, dropped off our luggage, and went to the Mini Stop convenience store across the street, where Mr. Ogawa had told us he was coming for his dinner. I went ahead and bought some shampoo and a pocket umbrella while we were waiting, and when Mssr. Maestro Ogawa dragged himself in a little later we had a good chat over coffee while he ate his packaged meal. The rain had gotten even worse, but at least now I had an umbrella to protect me during the 30 meter walk back to the hotel.

The room was nice, I enjoyed a good, warm shower, the bed was comfortable, and I didn't sleep a wink.

December 27th
I arrived at the dining hall just five minutes late for breakfast, but there was no space available for me at our group's tables, so I made one. The buffet mainly consisted of eggs and sausage, so I just ate rice and salad. The bus ride back to the convention center was quiet and uneventful.

Day two of the A group Festival kicked off with an important, regular feature, the joint concert. Participants in this event used to be selected by audition, but someone apparently decided that was too unfair. To be more PC, they asked each participating orchestra to send a number of participants based on its size, and the part selection was allocated in the order of the orchestra's appearance on the program. Naturally, the smaller, less-capable groups, who got first dibs, tended to send wind players, while the higher-level groups sent strings. Consequently, when the joint group performed selections from Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition the strings sounded excellent, but the winds...didn't. (Frankly, I think all that "fairness" stuff wound up ruining the performance, but at least no one's feelings were hurt!) After that was a joint string orchestra, which played a couple of Mozart selections, and they were MUCH better. After that were the last few performances of the A group, all of them very large orchestras.

One thing both Mr. Ogawa and I noticed this year was that the overall level of the event had notably improved. Certainly, some orchestras were better than others, and certain groups have always been either strong or weak, but there were none of the embarrassingly bad performances that had come to be such a regular feature in recent years. This year even the weak orchestras did a reasonably good job. Yes, there were some predictable disasters, i.e. groups attempting pieces that were clearly over their heads, (a problem when directors put their dreams ahead of reality, )but even those were pulled off well enough to merit respect rather than sympathy. And that last performance, which was by the largest and strongest group by far, Makahari Sougou (which has a music major program, so it should be that way, )was spectacular. We especially appreciated their rendition of a medley from the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, complete with students and the conductor doing an Oompah Loompah dance in the middle!

It was so impressive and so energizing that we didn't mind the (rambling and horribly boring) closing speeches that followed.

Our plan was to have lunch there at the center and then watch the first few performances of the B group event before leaving, but we ran into a snag. One of the B group orchestras that used our same storage room suddenly decided they needed more than their allotted share of tables so they could prepare some kind of awards for their members, so they politely demanded we move our stuff. (Actually, they had started moving our stuff themselves when Mr. Karatsu and I came in and politely demanded to know what the hell they were doing.) We came to a compromise, moved our stuff around, and settled it all peacefully.

I stayed behind and stood guard just in case when Mr. Karatsu and the others went back to the hall. Two lattes and one accidentally-purchased strawberry milk later (Thank God for vending machines!?) I saw our buses roll in, so I went to the hall to inform the others.

The load-up and return went smoothly and easily, but I noticed something strange. All of a sudden not only Mr. Karatsu but also the 11th grade student leaders were acknowledging my existence! In fact, they were acting like I was in charge! What a concept! It had been a few years, but I assumed the role (which doesn't really take much during a return trip) and rode the lead bus, chatting with students all the way. No fuss, no mess, no problems.

Back at Ye Olde Academy, I stayed long enough to make sure the gear was put away and all the younger members safely on their way home. Then Mr. Karatsu and I summoned the lead cellist to the office and gave her a firm dressing down. (Actually, I demanded an explanation for her section's behavior, and all she would say was something like, "Maybe they all thought that was what I wanted." Umm...weren't you supposed to be in charge? Weren't you also right there doing the same thing right along with them?!? "Maybe they all though that was what I wanted." *sigh*)

At least we got lots of very positive comments, even from (maybe even "especially from") almighty Makahari Sougou. I'd say it was a successful outing.

Tomorrow the New Year cleaning begins...much too late...