Monday, April 30, 2012

Japan Trip Tips: Prepare To Go To Tokyo

Flying laser kitty visits Japan. Via.

When Japan Society announced it would give away a trip to Tokyo as part of the spring membership drive, the rush of entries was incredible. After processing over 4,000 applications, a winner was chosen today at random [right column], and the lucky Nina Hazen will receive round-trip tickets for two courtesy of United Airlines and three nights in a deluxe suite at The Capitol Hotel Tokyu.

For the first-time traveler—a person who may never have dreamed of going to Japan—how does one prepare to go to Tokyo?

Help abounds online. Tokyo’s official tourism site has some amazing resources on visiting the city, and the national tourism site covers the country as a whole equally well.

For hip goings on each week, Time Out Tokyo lists everything from the local music scene to the latest restaurants and gallery openings. CNNGo’s comprehensive Tokyo Insiders Guide explores the best eats (Japan leads the world with the most Michelin 3-star restaurants) and attractions, including the top five museums. The site also humorously (and mostly helpfully) lists the “50 reasons Tokyo is the world's greatest city”. Lonely Planet highlights which seasons are the best times to visit, and Fodors has some helpful cost saving tips.

Sometimes important-yet-culturally-subtle travel tips are missing from mainstream guides, so we asked Japan Society staff members what their top tips are for first-time Tokyo goers:

✈ You’ll find ATMs everywhere, but they may not accept foreign bank cards. Be sure you take some Yen with you, so you do not have trouble getting cash right away. If you're in a pinch, look for ATMs with the U.S. postal logo. They accept American bank cards and there is usually no fee beyond the regular bank transaction fee. Also, don’t spend all your money on vending machine and conbini (convenience store) drinks. You will find yourself out of cash sooner than you think.

Bring lots of new and clean socks! It is customary in Japan to remove shoes when entering a room, but there are not always slippers available.

Even though you may not be visiting for business purposes, bring a bunch of business cards. Everyone you meet will want to exchange cards, even if they know they will never see you again.

Don’t forget a hand towel and pocket packs of facial tissues. Japan is a famously clean country, but most public restrooms don’t have paper towels or toilet paper. Everyone in Japan knows to bring supplies when out and about, but this tip doesn’t often make it into the guide books. In shopping areas, you will probably find people handing out promotional tissues with advertisements on them. Take them!

There is no need to bring pajamas because whether you are staying at a traditional inn (ryokan) or a commercial hotel, the room will come with yukata (thin, comfortable kimono-style robe) for men and women to wear when getting ready for bed.

Likewise, you don’t have to bring your toothbrush or toothpaste. Hotels, no matter if ritzy or more economic, always provide these for free.

When shopping, try to make it to the depāto (department store) basement, which is filled with luxurious food vendors. Be sure to try  fresh fruit in Japan. It is über expensive, but super delicious. And pick up some Japanese Kit Kats. There are over 200 different exotic flavors to try from  cantaloupe to ginger ale to wasabi.

While Tokyo is typically the prime destination in Japan, visit other cities to get a better sense of the country. Consider a daytrip to Kyoto, which is steeped in Japanese history; Osaka, a mecca for street food; or Hakone, known for their onsen (hot springs).

Other daytrips can include a spectacularly beautiful mountain hike at Takao-san (an hour away from Shinjuku station on the Keio line) with endless mountain staircases for hardcore hikers and easier paved paths for casual walkers; the Indian cuisine in the Waseda/Takadanobaba area is a must—try the restaurant Daruma for its to-die-for nan and happy atmosphere; or take a trip on the Arakawa line—the last remaining street car in Tokyo.

Finally, Japan Society President, Motoatsu Sakurai says:
Take an enthusiasm to experience an incredibly vibrant and engaging culture. In addition to the sights of Japan, be open to meeting the people and sharing stories. This is especially true after the tsunami and earthquake that devastated the northeast coast last year. People are very thankful for the thoughts and generous support from America and people around the world and want to share their thanks. For this very reason, visiting Japan is one of the best ways to help it recover.
Ambassador Sakurai also notes, “Just as important as what people take to Japan is what people bring back. In addition to an experience unlike any other, I also recommend bringing back Pocky. Anyone who knows me knows it has been a good meeting when I share Pocky from my most recent trip to Japan.”

--JS Staff

UPDATED 5/1/2012.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Seeding Japanese Culture One Commission At A Time

Shadows of commissions past: (l-r) Other Here, Partch, Dogugaeshi.

Japan Society stirs New York City's proverbial melting pot not only through regular whisks of Japanese culture, but also by piecing together completely new stews through commissioning American, Japanese and artists around the world to create new works.

Since the inception of the Performing Arts Program in 1953, the Society has presented nearly 650 performing arts events (approximately 2000 individual performances). Some twenty of these have been wholly original works created in recent years. Japan Society Artistic Director Yoko Shioya, who heads up the Performing Arts Program, explains:
Over the past decade, Japan Society has continued its efforts to commission non-Japanese artists to create works which are somehow related to Japan – whether they are based on Japanese literature; incorporate the stylized forms of Japanese performing arts; draw inspiration from Japan’s unique culture; include a collaboration with artists from Japan; or utilize Japanese traditional art forms or techniques.
Playing a more dynamic role than typical of the commissioning process, the Society goes beyond pledging kick-start money. It provides consultation for the artists in order to aid the art-making process by coordinating with residency partners and collaborators, helping clear Japanese copyrights, and providing means of practicing traditional performance techniques, for example. Through the active “seeding” of Japan-related creativity in the U.S., the hope is that the artist’s vision is allowed to grow beyond what was initially conceived. These performances go on to successfully tour throughout the U.S. and sometimes internationally with a lot of care taken to pair the shows with suitable presenters.

Since its inception, the Performing Arts Program commissioned a number of smaller scale works. After receiving an Endowment from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in the early 00s, commissions increased in scale and regularity.

Highlights include Basil Twist’s screen door puppetry spectacle Dogugaeshi, which received the prestigious Bessie Award and New York Innovative Award, and has been remounted several times since its 2004 premiere, including in Japan and most recently at D.C.'s National Cherry Blossom Festival centennial anniversary; Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury, the second-only full production since its 1969 premiere, featuring Partch’s mammoth musical instrument inventions (you can play electronic versions here); and Big Dance Theater’s fantastical The Other Here, which launched Japan Society’s centennial celebration in 2007.

A Global “(glowing)” Dance Of Darkness

Opening today, Japan Society’s latest commission (glowing) is by renowned New York-based choreographer Kota Yamazaki and his company Fluid hug-hug. Breaking tradition, the commission is for a Japanese artist, yet the scope of the work is truly global, blending Japanese, African and Western aesthetics, as beautifully illustrated by the piece's trailer:

Inspired by novelist Junichiro Tanizaki’s In’ei Raisan (In Praise of Shadows), Yamazaki uses the slow and deliberate Japanese form of contemporary dance known as butoh to express the novel’s idea of the subtle beauty found in the recesses of darkness and shadows. Taking butoh to another level, elements of African dance are introduced by dancers Marie Agnes Gomis of Senegal and Shiferaw Tariku of Ethiopia who are joined by Japanese and American dancers to round out the cast of six. Architect Robert Kocik, trained in traditional Japanese carpentry, is responsible for the scenery while lighting designer Kathy Kaufmann replicates the descriptions of a dimly lit Japanese house interior described in In Praise of Shadows. Koji Setoh composed the original score and sounds for the show.

As Yamazaki’s triumphant return to butoh—Japan’s dance of darkness—something he trained for many years in but distanced himself for a while, he seeks new discoveries through its comparison to African dance and exploration within profound Japanese architectural aesthetics. As the name of his company suggests, Yamazaki seeks a fluidity like water in the movement as well as between people of different cultures in order to smoothly and creatively exchange ideas.

Having premiered at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), a co-commissioner for the piece, and with stops in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, (glowing) was called a “spare, contemplative and strangely beautiful work” by the Albany Times Union. The tour concludes at Japan Society on Friday, April 27, and Saturday, April 28, at 7:30 pm. Observation seats are still available for the Saturday movement workshop from 1:00-4:00 pm.

--Sean Tomizawa 

UPDATED 5/1/12

Friday, April 13, 2012

J-Camera: The Making Of Mini-Masterpiece

Gearing up for vacation these days means packing your digital SLR, sleek-and-pink point-and-shoot, HD video camera, smart phone, all of the cords and chargers and computers that make them functional, and perhaps, for safety, a travel diary and/or sketch pad. Before you’re out the door with money/tickets/passport in hand, you’ve probably snapped half-a-dozen artfully Instagram-ed shots, capturing minutes of minutia before the real adventure begins.

Preparing for j-CATION 2012: Sakura, Ben Warren, video producer for Japan Society, took many more than a half a dozen pictures. He took about 3,600.

Ben wanted to do something extra special to raise awareness for the Society’s cherry blossom themed all-day culture festival, and what better way to capture the fleeting, fluttering flurry of falling sakura, than the painstaking picture-perfect craft of stop motion animation?

The resulting two-and-a-half minute short film is a fantastical living travel diary, drawing inspiration from Japanese culture from past to current pop trends.

Weeks ago Ben (who is also the mastermind behind the very first j-CATION’s flying laser kitty promo video--in which he has a cameo), and a team of amateur animators, including several enthusiastic Japan Society interns and one friend, began the estimated 70-hour project. The idea bloomed from the sakura theme into five distinct segments using a variety of mixed media: paper, fabric, paint, toys, food and their containers, buttons and art objects galore.

The animation opens with a string of lit lanterns parting to reveal a “j-CATON 2012” travel diary. The book unfolds, an acorn drops, and sesame seads burst from green yarn grass to form a sakura tree. A close up of a branch shows blossoming pink construction paper petals torn into the wind, making surprise appearances throughout the video.

In a short, delicate interlude, a cup of green tea dances and swirls atop antiqued calligraphy scrolls. The middle mouthwatering section centers around a brimming bento box (crafted from wrappers of the candy and food that kept the animators going). After marching to their designated compartments, the feast wraps itself in a furoshiki from Japan Society’s 2007 centennial celebration, and is whisked away by a pair of chopsticks.

Next, a wistful, watercolor ‘floating world’ style painting brushes and bubbles to life with familiar classic Japanese art iconography—a sea escape scene at the base of Mt. Fuji capturing the timeless battle between fisherman and giant carp (to create the water effect, the dozens and dozens of waves were individually finger painted in each frame--24 frames per second for 12 seconds).

Finally, after an origami explosion of stars, a flight of chirpy birds over fluffy cotton ball clouds, and stately strut of cranes, day dips into night while a family sits beneath a sakura tree to revel in a traditional night time cherry blossom viewing party.

A simple story, exquisitely executed, masterfully mirroring the j-CATION experience.

QUIZ: Ben and crew referenced dozens of ancient and contemporary Japanese elements. Can you name them all? Answers after the laser kitty photo.

--Shannon Jowett

In order of appearance: washi, maneki-neko, origami, sakura, hanami, shodo, ocha, miruku, sushi, Yakult, UCC Coffee, Fibe Mini, wagashi, ukiyo-e, bijinga, obento, Pocky, taiyaki , furoshiki, waribashi, kaiga, hanko, Fuji-san, mizuumi, Kitaro, gyosen, koi, tsuru, kappa, Kitty-chan, yozakura. Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Be Aware Of ‘Mono No Aware’

Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees. © Geiensha Company, Toho Co., Ltd

The speed at which cherry blossom petals fall is five centimeters per second, according to the titular anime. The time to enjoy the seasonal explosion of pink and white flora from above certainly feels just as short. With an ultra-finite blooming spam, the life cycle of sakura (cherry blossoms) provides a perfect metaphor for the Japanese aesthetic concept of mono no aware.

In a similar vein of the more straightforward Latin saying memento mori, mono no aware is a wistful reminder to appreciate the ephemeral beauty that all things—blossoms, the seasons, our lives—come to pass. This awareness of the transience in everyday life originates from Motoori Norinaga, an Edo period scholar, and his literary criticism of The Tale of Genji and the venerable collection of Japanese poetry known as the Man’yoshu.

While the depiction of the profoundness and beauty of mono no aware stems from classic literature and art, it can be seen in recent media such as manga, anime and cinema. (It has caught on outside of Japan as well: Irish artist Doreen Kennedy’s 2010 photographic installation pays homage to sakura by propping up prints around a field and also attaching some of them to a growing tree.)

Japan Society’s As Cherry Blossoms Fall: Films & Scenes of Sakura film series, which starts up again this weekend after a week’s hiatus, projects mono no aware through epic, often bloodless samurai action tales, and stories of courageous, lovelorn courtesans.

Several spins on samurai lore include Hirokazu Koreeda’s Hana: The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai (April 6), a darkly humorous questioning of the role of the samurai and their bushido code of honor in the face of honorable revenge; Chushingura (April 7), one of the most famous cinematic retellings of a historical event The 47 Loyal Ronin, in which a group of samurai avenge their master’s death; Kenji Mizumi’s action-packed epic Shinsengumi Chronicles: I Want to Die a Samurai (April 7); and a nod to the Japanese salaryman, or office worker, Abacus and Sword (April 8), which eschews bloodshed for a samurai’s arithmetic skills to defend both lord and family.

Based on the popular manga, Sakuran (April 7—see the trailer below) is a lavish and vibrant period piece with gorgeous costumes and candy-colored sets. The story follows a spunky Edo-period girl, who climbs to the position of oiran (head courtesan) after failing to escape a brothel. In the bewitching horror fantasy Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees (April 8), an Edo period man takes drastic measures to prove his love for a woman he meets in an enchanted forest.

The series concludes at the April 14 j-CATION all-day culture festival with the genre favorite Killing in Yoshiwara A.K.A. Heroes of the Red-Light District. Tickets are $12/$9 Japan Society members, seniors & students, except Abacus and Sword, which is free courtesy of The Japan Foundation, and Killing in Yoshiwara, included in the $10 j-CATION admission price.

--Sean Tomizawa