May 28, 2008

More Movie Blogging: Bond in Japan

Following up the Lost in Translation post, I decided to do the same thing with a somewhat less, shall we say, intellectually demanding movie. You Only Live Twice is the fifth Sean Connery James Bond movie, and the central gimmick of the movie (and it is full of gimmicks) is that it is set in Japan. I'd seen it before, in college, but I didn't remember it very well because my friends and I were drinking whilst watching it and commenting a la MST3K the whole time. I remembered that there were ninjas, and that's about it.

I have a difficult time categorizing the James Bond movies, in a lot of ways. On one hand, they're totally awesome- unrealistic swirls of gadgets and girls, orchestras of explosions, bullets and double-entendres. On the other hand, they're kind of a guilty pleasure for aesthetic and political reasons. And, as much as I'd want to be as suave as Bond, when it really comes down to it he's kind of a stuck-up priss. Think about it- would Bond be at all fun to have over to your place for game night? He'd just want to play baccarat the whole time, and would be fussy about the preparation/temperature of the various beverages.

I went into You Only Live Twice hoping for something of a massacre. I was perversely hoping for a wildly off the mark description of Japan and Japanese culture, a politically incorrect feast of inaccuracies. Almost. What I'd totally forgotten, though, is that the movie is absurd on other levels as well. My notes:

-In the opening bit Bond says Chinese girls taste different than other girls. I was instantly reminded of Shanghai's tastable smog.

-Ah, the Bond title sequences- a highlight of the series. The Nancy Sinatra title song is a bit better than the previous ones, I think, and the shots of the Asian women and volcanoes give a fairly obvious "Wow, this is all Oriental and shit!" feel.

-Holy crap! The screenplay is by Roald Dahl! Roald frikken' Dahl! Wow! He's my favorite dirty old children's author! Apparently he wrote not only kids books, dirty stories, ghostly tales and ribald nursery rhymes, but also a Bond movie. How awesome is that?

-The fake funeral and subsequent submarine setup at the start of the film are so ridiculous that the Austin Powers series seems superfluous. At this point, the Bond series seems to be its own parody, but I don't think it was ever intended to be all that serious anyhow.

-Bond says he doesn't need a Japanese phrasebook because he took a class on "Oriental languages" at Cambridge. Never minding the fact that Japanese is pretty singular as far as languages go. I guess I never need a German phrasebook, what with me being a teacher of Occidental languages and all.

-The first shot we see of Tokyo is a neon billboard for Asahi beer. Not too unrealistic, I guess. Advertisements for the stuff are pretty ubiquitous. It's kind of like the Budweiser of Japan, really, except that Asahi is palatable.

-Tokyo in the sixties. An older student of mine told me about Japan in the sixties, and he mentioned that it was fairly exciting, as the country was climbing out of the desolation of WWII, and finally, finally becoming a major world power again. It must have been amazing, all that development and rebirth- makes me think of China's position today.

-Bond goes to a Sumo match. Still haven't done that yet, but it's on the To Do list.

-I suppose the music is supposed to sound all "Asian" and such. It doesn't sound all that Japanese, really, but I sort of dig it for what it is.

-A continuity error: Bond says that he's never been to Japan before, but in From Russia With Love he mentions going to Tokyo.

-A big Japanese dude is attacking Bond with a katana. His form sucks. Bond totally KOed him with a Buddhist statue. It's like clocking someone with a crucifix! Huzzah!

-Now there appear to be a bunch of Japanese security guards with guns. I'm not sure about the sixties, but that wouldn't happen now. Guns are banned here. They'd have stun rods, at best.

-I've lost track of the plot already. Probably because there isn't much of one. Bond just fell down a trapdoor into a secret lair- this movie is utterly absurd.

-The head of the Japanese intelligence agency ("Tiger" is his nickname) apparently has a private train. This movie is utterly, utterly absurd.

-Bond says that sake is best served at 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Whatever.

-Tiger tells Bond that Moneypenny wants him because of his chest hair. Sean Connery does manage to look good whilst hairy. As a somewhat furry male, I can appreciate this. Then he quotes some made-up sounding Japanese proverb: "Bird not make nest in bare tree." Why the hell did he say it like that? It's not like he has a problem dropping articles.

-Tiger also calls one of his girls "sexiful." Often when my students invent words, they're so colorful I wish they were real ones. I wish "sexiful" was a real word.

-There's Tokyo Tower! Woo!

-Connery's pronunciation of Japanese words and names leaves much to be desired.

-There's a crane shot of Bond running from some sailor thugs on a rooftop at the Tokyo docks. I like crane shots a lot. This one is only okay, but still kind of nifty.

-Bond just magically seduced the evil chick. It was not convincing. Nevertheless, I wish I could do that.

-Bond just karate chopped a board in half! What can't this chest-hair possessing man not do!

-For the first half, this is easily the most absurd Bond movie. Then Q shows up, and makes it even more absurd. But, Q rocks, so it's okay. He gives Bond a miniature gun-laden helicopter, which is perhaps the most ridiculous Bond gadget yet. It's only slightly less goofy than the jet pack at the beginning of Thunderball.

-So, SPECTRE has a spacecraft that it uses to steal other, smaller spacecraft, which it subsequently hides within a secret Japanese volcano base. You'd think the nearby residents would notice all the spaceships constantly coming in to and going out of volcanoes. Now I'm just downright impressed with the audacity of this movie's absurdity.

-Blofeld just fed the evil chick to piranas. He must have a long line of applicants, what with all the SPECTRE members he's poisoned, set on fire, and fed to carnivorous fish over the course of the last few movies.

-An aerial shot of Himeji castle! I've totally been there! Himeji-jo has been in lots of movies, what with being big and impressive and all. I'm pretty sure that every time a director wants a Japanese castle in their movie, they get a few shots of Himeji.

-Ninjas! Tiger, the kimono-wearing head of the Japanese intelligence agency, has ninjas! So, I guess James Bond is going to team up with ninjas and attack the secret volcano base to solve the mystery of the missing spaceships. This sounds like something from fan fiction.

-Apparently Himeji in this movie is supposed to be a stand in for Tiger's ninja training school. They are very loud ninjas. A guy with a katana just hacked up some wooden posts and a straw dummy, then he flailed his sword around and screamed at the camera. His form sucked.

-Another katana guy. He subdued a bunch of dudes in a training battle. He's actually cool.

-Bond is going to "become a Japanese" and "become a ninja." Oh god...

-Bond is getting made up in order to pass as an Asian. I completely forgot about this, but the first time I saw this movie, I was drinking a lot. When all the makeup and stuff is done, Connery doesn't look the least bit Japanese. He looks like Sean Connery.

-An assassin just tried to poison Bond, but ended up killing the Japanese Bond girl instead. That sucks. She was way less annoying than the previous Bond girls.

-More ninjas. Being a ninja, according to You Only Live Twice, seems to be mainly yelling. Also, a guy just busted up a watermelon with his fist.

-Apparently as part of his cover, Bond has to go through the charade of passing as Japanese, and this includes having a Japanese wife. What the hell? Connery continues to look obviously non-Japanese.

-Bond and his "wife" seem to be getting along. 007 is breaking into the secret volcano base now. He just happened to have a special suction cup climbing suit on him so he can make like Spider Man on the walls. At first I was a little put out by this movie's absurdity, but now I just want more. I want it to be as ridiculous as possible.

-We finally get to see Blofeld's face in this movie. He's an ugly dude. Also, he'd sort of a unintimidating. Being short and having a high voice doesn't help his evil overlord image.

-Ninjas are storming the secret volcano base. Again, they are very loud ninjas.

-Blofeld just killed one of his underlings for no discernible reason.

-Okay the movie's over. Ninjas storm the base, shit blows up, Blofeld escapes, and the SPECTRE's volcano base explodes in a torrent of lava.

The movie was a bit of a disappointment for me- I wanted to watch it because I wanted to see lots of absurd depictions of Japan. There were a bit, but the Japanese absurdity was overshadowed by the general absurdity of the movie. This is a movie that includes space-based thievery, miniature helicopters, cigarette rockets, fake funerals, volcano lairs, secret, private trains, and pools of piranas. The politically incorrect cultural absurdity ultimately got buried under all of the gadgetry and genre ridiculousness.

I wonder how much of it came from Roald Dahl. The movie apparently has very little to do with the book upon which it's based, and I can imagine Mr. Dahl inventing all kinds of bizarre things (like carnivorous spaceships) with that wonderful, twisted mind of his. I wonder if he put it in just for laughs, throwing in the trapdoors and piranas just because he thought it was ridiculous. At least, I hope that's what happened.

A larger issue, though, is that I'm generally curious about how Japan is portrayed by and for Westerners. I've been away for a while, and I don't think I have a clear view, anymore, of this country's place in Western pop culture. It certainly does have a place- people think of Godzilla, manga, anime, and, of course, ninjas, all through a weirdly distorted lens. I've forgotten what the lens looks like, what the distortion looks like. Lover of pop culture that I am, I want to take another look at it with more accurate eyes.

May 22, 2008

The Inevitable Post About Lost in Translation

Before I left for Japan, I watched Lost in Translation and loved it. After a year and a half of living in Japan and six months in the Tokyo area, I decided to give the movie another viewing. It's still good. What follows is a live blogging of sorts of me pausing the movie, writing something, and then unpausing:

-The film opens with Bob Harris (Bill Murray) staring in awe at Tokyo as he rides in the back of a cab. The cramped, huge neon walls are overpowering to him, and they are meant to be overpowering to us as viewers, as well. I can relate. When I first came to Tokyo, I shared that feeling of awe. I'm still in awe at it, really. But it's not alien. Murray sees it all as an alien landscape and it's shot as such. Even for many Japanese, Tokyo is an alien landscape. But it's amusing to see the place where I hang out presented in such a way.

-Murray in the elevator with the bored, tired, gray-suited salarymen is perfect in it's iconic-ness. There are plenty of times where I've been surrounded by gray-faced guys, all wearing suits, who are shorter than me.

-From her faxes, Bob's wife seems fairly passive-aggressive. I can't really blame him too much for cheating on her.

-Scarlett Johansson is cute as hell. Makes me wish she was in more good movies.

-Their hotel rooms are bigger than my apartment.

-Bill Murray's shower is short. When I first saw the movie, I thought that was exaggeration for comic effect. Now, I know that it's not.

-Oh, the infamous director/translator scene. I thought that knowing a bit of Japanese would make this scene more grating. Just the opposite, in fact. I've been told that what the director is actually telling Bob is that he wants him to imagine that he's in his house, he's with a good friend, and they're up very late. It's been a long day, they're having a quiet drink, and are letting all of the tension of the day go. At least that's what a friend of mine told me. The translator in this scene sort of comes across as a sadist, since she's obviously frustrating both the director and actor. Now I sort of want to try Suntory whiskey.

-Johansson is looking bewildered at the Tokyo train map. I've been there. There's a guy looking at pervy comics on the train! Happens every day.

-Charlotte (Johansson) says on the phone that she went to a shrine. She didn't. In the previous scene she's at a Buddhist temple. Shrines are Shinto.

-I forgot about the "Lip my stockings!" bit. I wouldn't have thought it funny two years ago, but now that Japan has turned me into a hollibre lascist, I can't help but laugh at L&R jokes.

-Charlotte is in Shibuya. Again, it's weird but fun to see my weekend meeting grounds portrayed as a psychedelic existential wonderground. Sure, Shibuya is precisely that, but it's sort of thrilling to think I hang out there! The crazy place with overabunance of overstimulation! That's where I do stuff!

-Bob comes across like kind of an ass with the photographer, and not too good at talking to people who have limited English skill. But, talking with folks who know only a bit of English is a skill in and of itself, and has to be learned. I remember learning how to do it, and the my own frustration at the process. I can summon up a little sympathy for Murray here, even amidst his ass-ness.

-The photographer tells Murray to act like 007 for the ad shoot, and says that prefers Roger Moore to Sean Connery. Didn't he like You Only Live Twice? It was the Bond in Japan movie, and it was a Connery film.

-It's sort of grating that the film goes out of its way to portray Charlotte's husband as whiny and stupid. He doesn't seem like a bad guy, per se, but his mispronounced and inappropriate "mushi-mushi" is hard to take. (Johansson kind of acts like a bitch to him, though, and in the next scene the self-help book she's listening to sounds like so much pablum, so she's not exactly a blameless wronged woman.) Same thing with the actress, Johansson's husband's friend, in the next scene. Coppola might as well have painted "This Character Is Stupid" on their foreheads and been done with it.

-I liked the ikebana scene. I've had plenty of moments where I literally didn't know how to talk to someone, yet they were friendly, helped me out, and showed me how to do something. The brief moment where the middle aged lady hands Johansson a flower stalk was really sweet, and reminded me of those moments where nothing is lost in translation, because you don't need translation.

-The taiko game that Johansson sees in the noisy arcade is actually a lot of fun. You get to bang on shit while listening to music, and I've honestly worked up a sweat and gotten blisters on that thing. The guitar game is less fun, I think. It's frustrating because actual guitar skills don't seem to play into it at all. The guy in the background with the light gun is overdoing it a little- his gun is recoiling. I've played plenty of shooter games, and none of the guns have kick to them, what with not being real guns and all.

-Are people really as dumb as Charlotte's husband and his friends? Please tell me no. Johansson, though, continues to appear on camera without pants. This pleases me.

-What does she want? What on earth does Charlotte want from her husband? Sure, he's kind of dumb, but where on earth does her dissatisfaction come from? Does she even know? Probably not. Painful to watch, really.

-Once Murray and Johansson get to the club with all of its attendant pyrotechnics and people, the movie does nicely convey the wonderful feeling that is an escape from ennui. Murray and Johansson have been puttering around their hotel for most of the movie, and Tokyo has, for the most part, been viewed from through their windows. They've been surrounded by the biggest city on earth, yet they've not done much with it.

-When I've felt depressed or whatever, it's remarkable how something as simple as going out can help out. Or, simply taking advantage of what's been there all the time. In the club, the characters discover that their ennui has been self-imposed, that escape has been available and outside their windows the whole time, and that they are allowed to be free of their unease. At least that's my reading on it. They cease grasping at their negativity and grasp the world around them instead. I'd call that a healthy and informed existential decision.

-I've never gotten chased out of a place and been pursued by a guy with a toy gun, but it looks like a lot of fun.

-I want the soundtrack to this movie. Especially if it has Bill Murray's karaoke rendition of What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding? The karaoke room they have looks ridiculously nice and expensive- I'd love to belt out some Elvis Costello in there.

-Tokyo Tower! Rainbow Bridge! Woo! Tokyo's neon lights are beautiful. They are hectic, chaotic, and consummeristic, yes, but flares of beauty nonetheless.

-Bob's call to his wife is painful. He obviously found joy in his new environment, found something with a spark of life, and wants to share it with the woman he loves. She could care less. Poor guy.

-The old guy (and the two ladies cracking up) in the hospital scene are obviously having fun at Murray's expense. Bob seems to be a good sport about it, and take it in stride. The old guy, by the way, is simply asking him how long he's been in Japan. Yes, stuff like this has happened to me. It's unlikely that the hospital wouldn't have an English speaking doctor for Charlotte, though. That part seemed a bit contrived.

-Cant' speak to the veracity of the strip club scene. I also can't say I'm not curious about them.

-Large, obnoxious trucks that roll through Shibuya carrying billboards and yelling ads- Yes, those are real.

-"The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you." Bob says this after Charlotte asks if "it gets easier." I appreciate this comment.

-I may be reading too much into this, but the two character's positions on the bed while they talk mirror their personalities and needs. Charlotte clings to a pillow, curls up, and looks for definition and safety. Bob splays out and turns his head away slightly, emphasizing that he wishes to know and care for himself, his body language mirroring his comment from a few moments ago.

-Fuji! For the second time in the movie, actually. It has to be damn clear to see it that well. Kyoto seems to be unusually empty when Charlotte visits, especially with the wide shot of the Heian shrine. But, I can appreciate what Coppola is trying to do, letting her character be alone and find herself amidst things of beauty. I regularly visit the normally busy Naritasan at night, so I can understand the feeling that she's going for, that feeling of discovery when you happen upon something larger than yourself, yet you are alone with it.

-Bob continues to suck at using simple English, but I can continue to relate. He also happens upon an obnoxious speaker truck for a Japanese politician. Yes, they are really like that and yes, they are annoying. Even Japanese people find them sort of insufferable.

-The TV program that Murray appears on is a real one, hosted by a real Japanese comedian who supposedly based his schtick and character on flamboyantly gay westerners. The same comedian, Takashi Fujii, is also something of a J-Pop star and appears in other shows, according to the ever-helpful Wikipedia. Yeah, Japanese TV is pretty much like this.

-It's interesting that Coppola paints the hotel singer, also, as sort of obnoxious. Bob again talks with his wife and fails to make an connection, and his morning with the singer seems to be somewhat empty and even irritating. Coupled with the "lip my stockings" woman from earlier, as well as the unsatisfying pieces of meat that are the strippers, all of the women that Bob interacts with come up profoundly short. Except for Charlotte. It seems that Coppola is saying that a truly good partner is one with whom you can share existential dilemmas with.

-Okay, I got a bit choked up at the end. Murray passes by the Tokyo cityscape, and we know that in a very real way the city has been good to him, and he's leaving it behind. When he says "okay," to the cab driver, we know that he's doing something difficult. He's leaving behind Charlotte and Japan, leaving behind an experience that has profoundly changed him. He's going to miss the place, and miss it badly, when he leaves. I got choked up in a sort of recognition, because I'm going to feel the same way whenever I leave. I don't know when that's going to be yet, but leaving behind a place of insight, leaving behind Japan, is going to hurt. It will be good, yes, but the ending of the movie just drove home how damn much I'm going to miss this place.

I didn't really expect it, but I actually liked the movie far more after I watched it the second time. I say this because the whole movie is about culture shock, the pain and awkwardness of adaptation, and the thrill and weirdness of being in a foreign environment. Sure, it's odd to see one's own neighborhood presented as that foreign environment, but I was able to relate extraordinarily well to the two characters. Their experience of otherness is something that had me thinking "Wow! That's totally me! Woo!" throughout the movie.

Something else that I thought about the movie, though, was what it says about relationships. I got a very strong message from the film that love relationships, for all their wonderfulness, are not existential panaceas. In so much pop culture and and whatnot, the appearance of beginning of a loving relationship is seen as, well, a "happy ending." The two lovers confess their love, kiss, and that's it. The end. Life is complete. It's the Disney princess view of the universe.

Lost in Translation acts as a rebuttal to that view. As apparently childish as the abovementioned Disney princess view of life and love is, it's a perniciously common outlook, and needs to be smacked around a bit.

Bob and Charlotte are not solutions for each other. They don't "complete" each other, and their encounter does not act as a cessation of personal struggles. They do help ease each others pain, but their departure at the end of the movie, particularly Bob's reflectiveness in the taxi, establishes that their issues are still individual issues, that they must still work on things internally. What I loved about the movie, is that Bob and Charlotte are excellent partners for each other because they walk along side each other, they each attempt to understand the other and make each other better as individuals. This is a very different view of loving relationships than the Disney princess view- instead, a relationship is composed of two already complete units who aide and struggle alongside each other.

Lastly, any discussion of the film would be incomplete without addressing the movie's supposed racism. As someone who lives in Japan, I can say that Lost in Translation is pretty spot-on for the most part. Yes, the director scene is over the top, but if a Japanese director were to make a movie about, say, two Japanese people experiencing New York as a foreign environment, and New York in that movie was portrayed as Tokyo is in Lost in Translation, I'd be fine with that. In fact, I want to see a movie like that. Japan and the Japanese are portrayed specifically as foreign, but they're not portrayed negatively. As I already mentioned, the experience of foreignness is a very real and important one, and in my own life I've come to see interaction with the unfamiliar as something of real value.

Anyway, I'm hoping Coppola makes another good movie. The Virgin Suicides was also quite good, but I heard that Marie Antoinette left something to be desired. Here's hoping she can pull it off again.

A Question For You...

I'm contemplating changing the name and URL of this blog. I've outgrown the title, I think. Actually, I doubt that I was ever as caustic or mercenary as the title suggests.

So, I want to ask you guys who read this thing-

1- Should I change the name of this blog, or just live with what I decided on a year and a half ago? Or, would this just mess up people's links and RSS feeds?

2- If I do change the name, what should it be? I'm open to suggestions.

Looking forward to your input.

May 12, 2008

Tokyo on Any Given Sunday

I get off at Tokyo station and look around for the logo, I know it's on a building somewhere, and get turned around for a few minutes because of all the construction. They're restoring the Marunouchi side of the station, the nice looking side, and I lost my bearings for a moment amidst all the white walls of construction.

There it is, a big M. I'd gone in the wrong direction. I turn around, head past the same stretch of construction, find the building with the big M on the side, and go upstairs to Maruzen, a store that I know has foreign books aplenty. I went there in Okayama, but haven't been to one in Tokyo. Other foreign stores, yes, but not yet Maruzen.

The inside is crowded and slick, like some kind of hybrid of a Barnes and Noble and a Fry's. The foreign books are upstairs, up four narrow escalators, up on the same floor where there's an overpriced cafe and a gallery of sorts, and the place is awash with foreigners like me and Japanese thumbing through TOEIC study guides. A few parents have kids with them, and I wonder if they have aspirations of making their offspring bilingual.

I wander about and take it all in, browse, consider some new magazines, and buy two books. I catch an express Chuo line at Tokyo, and get to Shinjuku in less than twenty minutes. The Yamanote line takes me one stop to Harajuku from there. It's sunday, and I wonder who will be out in Harajuku.

Not much of anyone. There are a few Free Hug people, a few people dressed up, but for the most part, there's not much of anything or anyone by the main expanse near Harajuku station. It's gray and threatening rain. Perhaps the goths are scared of rain.

At the entrance to Yoyogi Park, the Tokyo Rockabilly Club is doing what they do every Sunday- gyrating, breakdancing, showing off their moves and leather pants. As usual, they're being photographed and filmed. I respect these guys' tenacity and dedication. I respect that they're weird and tatooed in a country where it means something to be weird and tatooed.

Into Yoyogi park, the bands are spaced out. Every hundred feet or so, drum sets and guitars. One singer is wearing this green plaid suit that made me wish I had a camera, but I didn't have a camera. Instead I could only admire the perfect ska look this guy was pulling off, even though none of the rest of the band was dressed up, even though their music sounded nothing like ska. But this guy could have been in the Specials or the Toasters. I want a suit like that, but I'm not punk-skinny enough to pull it off. This dude was punk-skinny. Drugs are hard to come by in Japan, and it's amazing that he got that way without heroin.

Bands, bands, bands, each demanding and getting, for a song or two, my attention. One of them had a chick drummer. I kind of have a thing for chick drummers. Can't really explain it. I don't care if Janet Weiss is forty or fifty or however old she is, but she's the ultimate chick drummer and that makes her hot regardless of age.

One band didn't have a drummer, or guitarist, or singer, or anything. They had amps, though, and they had an air drummer, two air guitarists, and a lip syncher. And, they air drummed, air guitared, and lip synched damn well. Not because they were skilled, because they weren't, but, but because they gave a shit and enjoyed the hell out of what they were doing. They jumped around the played the fuck out of their nonexistent air instruments. They got a huge crowd, charming just about everyone with their lack of talent and excess of enthusiasm. They had lots of girls watching them, and I thought "These guys could very well get laid by not playing the guitar." If they did, that would be damn impressive.

Turns out there was a gigantic Thai festival going on that day. It looked cool, so I went in. At the entrance there were a whole bunch of people holding pictures of corpses and devastation. I wondered if they were protesters or something. I stopped for a moment, and tried to read their signs, which were all in Japanese. It's hard reading a foreign language when someone is waving it about and you can't get a good look at it, but I was able to recognize a few katakana words, and realized that they were collecting money for relief for the cyclone that hit Burma.

Going in, the whole place was a panoply of spicy smells, with all manner of curry and noodles being proffered by myriad stalls. I had a bite to eat, walked about, and looked into some of the shops selling batik and whatnot, and eventually found the main stage. I got myself an Asahi from one of the everpresent beer vendors, walked up a street bridge so I could get a look at the stage, and watched for a bit.

A solitary pop singer (whom I assume was Thai, since she was sining in a language that wasn't Japanese) was dancing about and singing to a backing tape. In her thigh-high boots and leopard print cape thing, she looked sort of like a dominatrix/superhero hybrid, but was somehow unthreatening. I guess she seemed unthreatening because she was all alone on the stage with her backing tape, and was trying, trying to get the crowd into it. I suppose that she didn't speak Japanese, because in between songs she talked to the crowd in English. She tried to encourage people to dance. She asked the crowd if they could dance, and said "raise your hand if you can dance." A few hands went up. She said that the people who could dance should dance. The pop singer went into a a song, and no one really danced. I felt bad for her. She was trying. She was really trying to get that sort of performance-energy going. She had a huge stage and sexy thigh-highs, and couldn't get it going. Elsewhere in the park, the guys without instruments were succeeding wildly at charming passers-by, and the pop singer's efforts were frustrated. The energy wasn't there. The energy was in the crowded stalls where people were ordering noodles and in the park with the ska-looking guy, and in the hands of the guys who didn't hold instruments, but it wasn't on the huge stage. There was no way that crowd would have started dancing, not even if they were encouraged to do it in Japanese.

Then I noticed that the guy in front of me had a rabbit. He was cradling it in his arms, just like it was a baby, and had dressed it in this little silk rabbit-shirt thing. He and a girl were trying to feed it a carrot. The thing was white and furry, and for all the world they looked like a mother and father fawning over and feeding a newborn. But the newborn was furry, white, red-eyed, and twitched its ears as it ate the carrot. The fact that it was wearing a silk shirt made the rabbit look all the more like a kid. Like a practice kid or something. They were feeding it the carrot just like you'd give a bottle to a baby. I was a little weirded out.

Continuing through the park the Thai festival thinned out and the park gave way to the usual Sunday crowd of drummers and tap dancers that populate Tokyo's weird, green living room every Sunday. The big clock said I had somewhere to be. It said I had twenty minutes until I was supposed to meet people in Shibuya. I was enjoying myself, with all the bands and the dancers and even the creepy rabbit guy, but I figured that I'd do what the clock said, move on to Shibuya.

Walking towards the station saw a pretty impressive goth girl. She looked like a pile of pink silk, like she was wearing eight dresses at once. Her whole form was a mountain of ribbons, bows, lace, and frills, all varying shades of pink and white, and her face was obscured by several bonnet/hat things that were pinned all over her hair. The whole form of her looked like some silken lump, as if Louis XIV had dressed up Jabba the Hutt. She didn't look good or attractive or any of that, but she was interesting and grabbed my attention. She must have been sweating horribly in that pile of clothing.

Met people in Shibuya, outside of the station, and we went to this basement type place and saw a metal show. They frisked up before going into the club. I thought that was cute- it's like they were trying to be really, really hardcore. We go in, the place is crowded, dark, and smoky, and we get drinks. I bum a smoke from someone and think to myself that I should really stop bumming smokes from people, but it's such an easy way to be social and start up conversations. I don't smoke, actually. Used to. but I don't, really, anymore.

Then a friend of mine and I notice that there are a bunch of kids up front. Before the show starts, the uncreative DJ is playing American radio songs from a few years ago fairly loudly, and there's a bunch of random psychedelic stuff being projected on a few screens. And, there are a bunch of kids jumping up and down, kid-dancing, right in the front. Who the hell brings a gaggle of kids to a dark, smoky, booze-filled club where they frisk you before you go in? The kids seemed to be having fun, though, jumping up and down while the DJ was spinning Limp Bizkit. Back in Portland, if I remember correctly, you'd get jeered by disproving hipsters if you played Limp Bizkit in a club. Here, I guess, no one cares about that.

The band starts up, and I think, what the hell, I'll go to the front and rock out. I'm up there with a friend of mine, another six foot tall white dude, and we end up slamming into each other and chest bumping while the band chugs away. This scraggly Japanese dude joins in, and we have a good, rocking, violent time of it. One of the singers (there were three singers) who looks like an emo/goth type says "I love you guys!" in English, so we say "We love you too!" in English right back at him, and the crowd seems to appreciate that. The band rocked. I'd seen them once before, and they were okay the first time. They were on this time. Really on. I was covered in stinky metal-sweat by the end of it.

Tokyo. An awesome place. An awesome place to wander about and ride trains in, to explore and see and peer into. At times it seems a random mess of chaos. At times it seems a giant, robotic machine. I guess both descriptions are right. On Sundays it's a riot, if go to the right places, a city bursting with things that are just downright wild and interesting. I couldn't live my life here- too overstimulating, too much. But for now, the rush of myriad sight and noise is awesome to behold.

May 11, 2008

Xian and Huashan: In and Around the Ancient Capital

China, as you may have noticed, gave me a lot to think about. Don't worry- this is my last post about it.

Xian was the ancient capital of China, and is one of the few cities that still has a fair amount of old architecture about, in particular, a bit over fourteen kilometers of really impressive city walls. The city itself is accessible and nicely walkable, with all kinds of nifty things to see inside the main downtown area. The city is also home to the terracotta warriors, the immense clay army that was unearthed in the seventies.

I don't have any mind-splitting revelations to share about the city other than to recommend it as a travel spot. In the city center one can see the twin structures of the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, two wonderful older buildings. In each, we managed to take in some performances of Chinese classical music. In the Bell Tower there was a bell, zither, chime, and flute show, and in the Drum Tower (as one would imagine) we saw a percussion performance. Both were impressive.

We also walked around the city's walls, tried Tai Chi (which is harder than it looks), saw a Taoist temple, went clubbing, and strolled about Xi'an's Muslim quarter where we saw the city's large Great Mosque. The place was quite serene, and it was fascinating to see the various stone tablets that were a mix of Chinese and Arabic.

And speaking of stone tablets, I went to a rather nice stone tablet museum, and saw what was billed as the world's heaviest library (at least according to Lonely Planet). The place was nice, and included the breadth of what are considered the "must haves" of Chinese literature. There was Confucius, of course, and Mencius and a big stony copy of the I-Ching (complete with carved hexagrams). There were temple records, monks' narratives, historical records of China's interaction with foreigners (including Nestorian Christians- that was interesting). There were lots of commentaries and additions to Confucius, as well as plenty of poetry. Most interesting, there was a huge, stone dictionary, thought to be one of the first.

Walking about, I thought that the stone tablets were really cool looking, but really impractical. Like, if you wanted to look up a word, would you have to go to the big, stony dictionary and walk up to the place where it was? So, I was perplexed by their impracticality until I came to the middle of the museum, where one of the staffers had spread a scroll over a tablet, and was dabbing it with ink.

Then I realized they were essentially medieval printing presses. A scroll was spread over the stone and the paper was hammered flat onto the tablet so that the paper sunk slightly into the depressions, i.e., the carved characters. The printer then struck the whole thing with flat, hammer-like tool that had been covered in ink. The end result was that the characters were uninked, and stood out in white, and the rest of the page was black. Sort of like making a rubbing of a tombstone. It was interesting go from seeing the tablets as something interesting, but impractical, to then realizing that they were actually immensely practical. They were used for mass production of scrolls.

I walked around a bit more, trying to recognize familiar characters on the rocky surfaces. Every so often I'd see one. It also occurred to me there that the Chinese language has been deliberately changed in the 20th century. In an attempt to cultivate literacy, the government simplified many of the characters, making contemporary characters quite different from the old style writing that is still in use in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. Several people were milling about trying to read the things- one father appeared to be quizzing his daughter on the characters, and they both laughed in the face of the linguistic challenge.

We headed out and saw the famed and vaunted terracotta warriors, which were really not all that exciting. They were impressive, to be sure, but they weren't exciting. What was sort of odd, really, was that they were, as Kori said, "a fantastic waste of wealth." The first Qin emperor, the man for whom China is named, had them built for his tomb, the army with which he hoped to conquer the battlefields of the afterlife.

The construction of the army took thousands of people, tons of clay, gallons of paint, and years of effort. The whole thing was an immense undertaking of engineering and aesthetics, and when it was all finished the fruits of so many people's labors and the purchase of so much money was put into the ground and covered with dirt. The achievement was literally buried, serving no one.

The stony soldiers seemed the ultimate in decadence. The Roman emperors might have wasted money on feasts and orgies, but at least they had fun with their wealth. The Pharohs spent the gold of their treasuries and the lives of their citizens to make the pyramids, but at least those were something that all could see, that broadcasts their decadent achievement across the skyline. Louis XIV built Versailles, but at least all could see and perversely admire his gilded wealth.

The Qin emperor, though, bested them all. His immense, kiln-fired army was something that his corpse alone was intended to appreciate, mouldering inside his slave-dug palace of a tomb. Such opulence and selfishness, I think, hasn't really been matched throughout history.

Then, there was Huashan.

Huashan is billed as one of China's Five Sacred Mountains, and it was the literal high point of our trip.

(Oh god, I just made an elevation pun. If I were really, sorry, I'd delete it. But I'm not sorry. I'm just going to let it sit there, taunting you.)

Arriving at the base of the mountain at around eleven, I was already a bit tired. Along a few nifty people we'd met at our hostel, we intended to walk all night to the summit, and watch the sunrise, a rather popular thing to do. So popular, in fact, that the place was rather crowded that night with lots of shouting, grunting, climbing people, and various water/food stands around the way.

It was fairly boring for the first hour and a half. The sky was pretty (it had been a while since I'd gotten a good look at the stars) and the air was nice, but it wasn't particularly exciting. That all changed, once the nice, level paths of the mountain turned into these rocky staircase/ladder things with chains to hold onto the side. I felt myself waking up, energized and interested in it all. Then my energy flagged, then I was interested again.

One of our travel companions mentioned that at one of the more arduous bits of elevation gain, there were lots of people cursing in different languages. Apparently there was cursing in a few Chinese dialects, two people with us from Europe were cursing in their languages, and I was saying "motherfucker" with just about every step up the thing. It was awesome.

A detail of note about the mountain- the whole thing was covered in locks and red strips of fabric. The locks, apparently, have different sorts of messages written on them, and people buy them from vendors and leave them on the mountain as token of good luck and whatnot. The result being that several areas are festooned in metal and red, which is quite the cool effect.

So, we continued up various stairs, ladders, chains, paths, etc., until we got to the top a bit after four in the morning. At that point, my various muscles and body parts were quivering in interesting ways. We rested, and waited for the sunrise. It was really sort of anticlimactic. First there was some smog. Then there was bright smog. Then the bright smog had a little circular thing in it. But, the sunrise wasn't the point of the trip. The trip was the point of the trip.

Going down I felt a sort of high and awakeness. All of my tiredness was gone, for the time being, and I was sort of active and relaxed at the same time. We ignored the cable car which would have taken us to the base of the mountain, and instead made our way down on foot.

Descending was fascinating. During the night, we were not able to see much except the path in front of us. We weren't able to see, for instance, the huge drops, cliff sides, narrow paths, and immense steepnesses around us. So, as we went down, we thought to ourselves "Holy shit- we climbed that?" Personally, I'm sort of afraid of heights, but this particular excursion seemed to help a lot with that. I knew already that I was perfectly capable of climbing up the various ladders and stairs, so down wouldn't be a problem, right? In any case, confronting my own fear was a lot of fun, and the view on the way down was stunning.

We got back, and were too tired to sleep, too hungry to eat.

And that's it. I did have another day on my own in Shanghai, after that, and Kori went to Guilin for a few days. In Shanghai, I walked about, went to the Shanghai Museum (which had an ancient Olympics exhibit in addition to the obvious Chinese art), and did a bit of shopping. I'd recommend China. Obviously, your experience and such will vary, but I personally found it to be the most eye-opening trip I'd ever taken. I'd never been to a developing country before, and before this I'd only ever been to the U.S., Canada, and Japan.

I already have a great deal of wanderlust (that's how I ended up in Japan in the first place) but now I'm pretty determined to travel more. Later this year- Korea.

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Shanghai: Pictures of Dynamism

So here, finally, are some pictures of Shanghai (see below). The smog was fairly incredible on our first day, as you can see. The bamboo is from a park we found in downtown Shanghai, and the traditional architecture is from a touristy shopping area in old Shanghai. There are a few pictures of the quite agreeable French Concession, and some night pictures of Shanghai's lit up downtown.

The reality of China's development didn't really hit me until I was walking about at night. Seeing the giant Gucci ads lit up in moneyed splendor, the neon of consumption glowing in the dark while red flags hung from every other lamppost was fairly incredible. It could have been Tokyo's Ginza or Chicago's Magnificent Mile. It could have been anywhere in the world where bills disappear into registers and luxuries are fitted into shopping bags. I don't mean that as a bag thing, at all. I'm all for the preservation of culture and whatnot, but the fact that those red flags were no longer a barrier to Pizza Hut and Dolce and Gabana gave me a weird sense of hope.

Let's face be honest here- We all, on a certain level, like consumer culture. We benefit from it, enjoy it, and pour money into it. As much as liberals like myself complain about it, I don't think that consumption is a bad thing. I think an excess of it is, and in America we see that all to often. But then, an excess of anything is a bad thing.

The point is, though, why shouldn't the Chinese enjoy what we enjoy? Westerners are all too happy to drink up Starbucks, and why shouldn't the Chinese have the same privileges? Who are we to deny them that or claim that the trade with or development of China is a form of destruction? There is far more to China than its government, and if the people there can't vote, then at least they should be able to get a latte and go to Hooters.

China does need to democratize. Unquestionably. The fact that over a billion people live in a totalitarian society is a travesty, but at least its a totalitarian society that has changed for the better. It's not like North Korea, a place defined by static. China, and particularly Shanghai, seems defined by dynamism. If the society, government, and nation can accept malls and McDonald's, then I'm hopeful for other changes.

Anyway, a few pictures. Right now, Kori (who gets more vacation days than me) is still in China in the south. But, if you want to see some really excellent pictures check out her blog, as she got herself a big, sexy camera before our trip.

I can't decide whether I take pictures because I think of them as worthwhile in and of themselves, or as illustration for what I write. Oh, the aesthetic ponderings.

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May 8, 2008

Shanghai: "I am not now, nor have I ever been..."

Yes, that's a statue of Marx and Engels. It's in a rather nice park in Shanghai which we found around dusk. There were several old people doing Tai Chi, and it was threatening to rain, though it never did. A younger me would have called them heroes. Now, they seem to be only stone-carved failed romantics.

Back in high school, at the beginning of my political development, I got this notion that Communism was sort of cool. I think that lots of young liberals go through this. They are fascinated with the easy solutions that Marxism seems to offer, with the stark alternative that it gives in the face of American style capitalism. In my particular case, I remember that Portland schools were going through a spate of trouble. A series of ballot initiatives had cut property taxes, thus defunding education throughout the city. Teachers were laid off, programs were cut. I gave up playing the trombone (which I'd done in middle school) because my high school had cut its music program. My father, a teacher, was able to inform me about all sorts of very unjust cuts that happened throughout the district.

At fifteen years old, this was one of the first issues that effected me personally that I knew about. I already knew about nuclear weapons and global warming, but the directness of school funding was something new to me. I got angry. Very angry. I got angry at all of the people who could be so completely heartless as to cut property taxes. How could they? How could they be so selfish, so short-sighted? How could they be such, such...

(I searched for the word...)


How could they be such pigs. Selfish, awful, capitalist pigs. Pigs who want to take away my school, my teachers. Pigs who took away my trombone. Pigs who took away my father's coworkers. Pigs who did it to enrich themselves. If this was fruits of capitalism, I thought, then to hell with it as a system. Tax those fuckers. Take from them. Dismantle the estates. Break them apart. Give me my school back. Give me my trombone. Let my father's coworkers back in. If capitalism cannot offer those things, than surely, surely (so my angry young mind thought) than surely its opposite can.

Peace, land, bread.

I marched in a few different demonstrations throughout the city, and thought that our shouting and waving would change something. I likened it to revolutionary fervor, thought of myself as one of those lantern-jawed peasants following Lenin. No, I thought of myself as Lenin. He seemed to be able to turn personal anger, personal charisma, into waves of people and change. I wanted that power. I wanted to do what the Communist kitsch said Lenin could do. I wanted my emotions to break apart the estates, to give everyone peace, land, and bread.

Of course, intellectually, I knew that all sorts of awful things had happened in the Soviet Union, but I made the mental excuse of blaming them on Stalin. Stalin was never ideological. Stalin was about Stalin. Stalin would have been awful no matter what politics he employed. He was a corruption, an traitor, a distorter. I thought of the kitschy purity of Lenin, and imagined that as an ideal. If only Trotsky had succeeded Lenin, I thought. If only that madman Stalin hadn't ruined everything. But it would have been bad any way. Lenin was not a democrat, neither was Trotsky. There would have been corruption suppression no matter what.

Despite my mental excuses, blaming everything on Stalin, I continued to have a sort of Communist-lite streak throughout high school and college. My freshman year, I had a poster of Che on my dorm room wall. I'm not sure if that was meant ironically or not.

It was all a young man's attempt at radical chic. I wanted to be edgy, interesting, and passionate. Like so many others like me, I incorporated red stars and Mr. Guevara into that. There was a reason that Rage Against the Machine were so popular. I was part of that reason. I began to drift away from it in college. As a political science and philosophy student, I had to read more Marx then I really cared to, and thought that a lot of the systems he constructed were interesting, but not the most accurate.

Despite that, my attitude about "pigs" persisted. Cut up the swine, I thought. Bring to heel the rich, the corporations, the bloated oligarchs who are ruining America. Crush their gilded culture, and god damn anyone who tries to sell me anything. Money, the getting of money, the pursuit of money, the attraction to profit, the desire enrich oneself in any way, was a filthy, sick thing. Better to die for others than live for yourself.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. But you get the idea: High school/college student liberal pretension, passion, and anger taken a little to far. Throw in my antireligious attitudes with that, and you've got the makings of an unreasonable young man.

My ideas have been changing for years. I'd thrown out the Che poster years ago, and at my current job I primarily teach, but I also sell things. I ask students whether or not they want to continue with lessons after their contracts are finished, and I also recommend textbooks to people. Initially, I thought that it was extremely awful that I'd ever ask students to spend money. I got over it, but that's another post.

Fast forward, years later, to the crowded streets of Shanghai. (This post is about being in China, remember?)

Everywhere, on the main tourist and commercial thruways, on the Bund, on street corners, people tried to acquire our money. Beggars did. Scammers did. But, most of all, hawkers did.

"Bag? Watch?" They said.

There they were, approaching us, using a handful of English expressions. Sometimes they held out a handful of watches. Sometimes it was simply a card with photographs of merchandise. Sometimes it was nothing at all, simply the cry of “Bag! Watch!”

"No thank you."

"T shirt? DVD?"

And so on. In the busiest areas, I'd put them at about three or so minutes apart. Walking by any shop, eager salespeople would try to get us to come inside.

Initially, I responded quite badly to this. I loathed it, in fact. I wished that the hawkers would shut the hell up. The latent anti-selling sentiments in me fired up. These people shamelessly attempting to get money by selling me (probably fake) stuff. God damn anyone who tried to sell me anything. Money, the getting of money, the pursuit of money, the attraction to profit, the desire enrich oneself in any way, is a filthy, sick thing. So said the unreasonable young man, still buried a big in my mind.

I talked about this with Kori. My emotional gut reaction, my gut reaction that had been shaped by years of radical chic and anticapitalism, my gut reaction that wanted to cut up the estates and tax the rich into oblivion, my gut reaction had came into being from attending Nader rallies and hanging out at radical bookstores in Portland, my gut reaction said this: The seller is a predator. They who would separate a person from their resources is a wolf. The companies, powers, and salesmen in this world are something to be on guard against.

Do I believe this? No. But I felt it. It's really annoying to feel things that one does not believe. It bugs the shit out of Kori. I try to, as much as possible, feel the things that I believe, not otherwise. It's difficult, but I consistently succeed at this.

"How disempowering for you you as a buyer," she replied.

I hadn't really thought of it like that.

When you grow up and shape your politics as devoutly anticapitalist, you don't think about buyers having any power. You don't imagine the spending of money as any kind of act of influence. Money, you think, is taken from the masses, not given by the masses. Money must be held onto. Money is the most coveted part of you, and must be protected.

How disempowering for us as buyers.

Her response prompted a great deal of introspection. These people were not pigs. They were not predators. These were people in a developing country, one that had been ravaged by Communism and suppression. Shanghai was allowed to develop in a fairly capitalist manner, and it had made the city rich. They were trying, as best they could, to make their own lives better amidst all the wealth that was around them, and would probably remain beyond them.

And, one of the most obvious signs of wealth around them, was us. Two white people, two obvious foreigners, traveling in China. Kori and I both make middle class Tokyo salaries, enough money to have fun on a consistent basis in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Enough money to travel to China.

These people would have been idiots not to approach us. We were the ones who could most easily afford their merchandise. Their prices, even if they were inflated, even if they were expensive by Chinese standards, were ridiculously cheap compared to what we would have paid in Tokyo. I bought two shirts in China, and paid less than ten dollars for each one.

Really, I was the one who was in charge in these interactions. I was the one with the money, I was the one who made the decisions about where it went. I was not being preyed upon, rather, I was being courted, and I was perfectly able to say "no," when I wanted to. After a while, these people just seemed desperate, and I tried to feel a bit of compassion for them even as they annoyed me, even as I turned them down.

The models of anticapitalism, anti-selling, anti-money that I'd had as an unreasonable young man seemed quite silly at that point. There, walking through a country that is still nominally communist, I made peace with the fact that I don't really mind capitalism at all.

The truth is, I like to buy things. I like it when things are sold cleverly or well. I like to spend money. I enjoy a lot of the stuff that supposed "pigs" would.

Now, I do generally dislike consumerism, and I'm in favor of stuff like socialized medicine and adequate funding for public works. I don't mind taxing the rich more than the middle class, and I still consider myself to be quite liberal. But, I'm not ideological anymore. The unreasonable young man is gone. The last bits of him, with red flags blowing in the wind, were left in China.

Kori asked me what Marx would have thought of the Soviet Union or China. I thought about it, and said that I thought he'd have been appalled. Marx was a privileged man, and had some fairly muddy ideas about human nature. He was a romantic and a philosopher, and I think his heart was in the right place. His philosophy was appealing because ultimately, it's rather simple. I think that calling Marx "wrong" misses the point. I prefer to think of him as clouded by emotion and shortsighted.

I wonder how the man carved into that statue would have reacted to the hawkers on the streets of Shanghai. I imagine him dismissing them as petty bourgeois or clouded by false consciousness. I can't imagine him seeing them as they are: People trying as best they can to get by.

It's a curious experience, moderating and changing one's mind. There's a sort of high to it, though, a sort of liberation. Why tie myself to, or apologize for, things I don't believe? The strictures of ideology are something that I'm happy to have left upon the streets of Shanghai.

May 7, 2008

Zhouzhuang: Floating Temples and the Laughing Buddhas

The following day Kori and I made our way to Zhouzhuang, a river village about an hour away from Shanghai. We'd arranged to join a tour with our hostel, and it was nice to have transportation taken care of, but following around a tour guide who didn't speak English in a crowded area wasn't the most fun thing in the world. She showed us some interesting historical buildings, but we had far more fun (and saw cooler stuff) when we walked about on our own.

There was a French family there who didn't speak any Mandarin, and I was a bit glad that we weren't the only oblivious foreigners.

In the back of the village we found a rather impressive array of temples. They were built on the water and seemingly floating, connected by bridges and walkways. It was precisely the sort of thing that you'd put on a postcard advertising China. I was impressed.

Walking about, we unexpectedly happened upon a giant Buddha statue. My impulse was to call it a "Daibutsu," but that's a Japanese term. I sort of like devotional art, to tell the truth. I like finding the signifiers and repeated images that show up- the Amida Buddha (who's at Kamakura) usually has his hands folded a certain way when seated, for example. Sort of like how the Old Testament Joseph is usually depicted wearing his nattily colored coat. I like noticing that kind of stuff.

Anyhow, I got a huge kick out of the temples on the water. Later, our bus drove us to a park where there was both this creepy/cool side room with various statues of Taoist deities, and two larger temples that featured some extremely fat Buddha statues. The yellow paint was peeling, and the smoke of the candles added to the already dusty sunlight. In the leaves and the bright heat, it was quite serene.

I was sort of curious about this. Most Buddhas are portrayed as ethereal and skinny looking, but every so often you see one with a huge gut, man boobs, and in the midst of a belly laugh. He looks more likely to chomp down on buffalo wings and watch football than meditate. You'd think that Buddhism, being into the whole "self-denial" thing, would frown on the acquisition of man-boobs.

Anyway, I had no idea where the image came from until just now when I searched for "laughing Buddha" on Wikipedia and found this. I also wondered about the possible interactions between Taoism and Buddhism in China. The temples were really close to each other, so I wondered about crossover. People frequent both Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples here in Japan, so I wonder about a sort of equivalent syncretism in China.

You may have noticed by now that I've developed an interest in Asian religion. It was sort of inevitable, really. I studied philosophy in college and am generally interested in belief systems, even those that I don't subscribe to. The sheer panoply of stuff that I've never heard of in Asia, the gods, holy figures, and other such phenomena that I don't know about is a veritable toy box. I have a whole new continent's worth of mythology and philosophy to find out about. Pretty sweet.

Anyway, here are some pictures of the village, surrounding town, and the temples on the water.

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May 4, 2008

Shanghai: First Impressions of the Middle Kingdom

For Japan's spring holidays, Kori and I went to China. I'm still in China as I write this, actually, at a hostel in Xian. This is just my first post about the trip.

The street near our hostel was a well-used one. It seemed to be near a residential district and a local shopping area. The initial impression that I got was one that was in accord with my preconceived notions about what China would be like: Old motorbikes with bits and things tied to the back, vendors of street food with their stalls awash in smoke. A grey sense of smog, myriad smells mixing. And everywhere, the sound of car horns punctuating itself through a wall of ambient noise.

This was the China that I (I'm reluctant to admit) imagined. I imagined poverty, disorder, and an assault of sounds and smells. I imagined crumbling, Maoist era apartments and faceless bits of Communist style architecture. I knew, of course, that this was not all that China had to offer. I knew that the decimation of the Cultural Revolution was something of the past, that China is rapidly climbing out of poverty, that it is "Communist" now mostly in a nominal sense. But nevertheless, my expectations persisted, a bit. And, walking out on that first Shanghai morning, they were confirmed, a bit.

China is still, it seems, full of poverty and smoke. There are indeed crumbling apartments and Communist monuments. But I'd find far more than just that.

We made our way to the downtown area and began to stroll around a bit. Here, my preconceived notions began to fall apart. Of course, I knew that Shanghai was a rapidly developing city and filled with all kinds of consumerism. The main boulevard from People's Square was lined with all manner of stores and buyables, the trappings of capitalism extending outward from a park with an obviously Communist moniker.

Walking about, I was impressed by the number of hawkers and scammers who approached us. I'm going to talk about the hawkers specifically in my next post. The scammers, though, I was sort of surprised by. Not because they existed (Kori and I had done a bit of research beforehand on common scams in China), but because they were all running the same scam. Groups of young people would approach us and, in English, say hello, ask where we were from, and then announced that they were art students.

To the best of my knowledge, here's how the scam works: Seemingly friendly young people walk up to tourists, tell them that they're art students and are having an "exhibition." If you go along with them, they take you to a room where they show you some cheap reproductions, and then essentially hold you captive while they force you to buy a reproduction for some ridiculous amount of money.

This sounds like a viable scam, really. A few of the "students" really did seem like they were just being friendly, and had I not been acquainted with the scam ahead of time, I may very well have wound up in a dicey situation. One instance really surprised me: We'd gone into a department store to use the bathrooms. I was waiting on a bench for Kori when this girl started talking to me and about a minute later metioned that "art student" thing. I was surprised that even at department store bathrooms, these people are at work. I guess it makes sense- bathrooms are a high-traffic area. But again, I was seriously surprised that they all seemed to be running the same game. Surely enterprising scammers could think up something else.

We walked about, made our way to the Bund and back to People's Square, and I had bubble tea for the second time in my life and decided that, this time, I liked it. Inevitably, we couldn't help but compare the place to Tokyo. Shanghai is another large Asian city, and seeing the familiar, semi-readable Chinese characters on everything made the signage and labels of the place seem a bit less foreign. The city, though, seemed far more relaxed than Tokyo. Few places, can hope to match the hectic spirit of Japan's capital, and that's probably a good thing. The whole place was louder, dirtier, and for those odd reasons, seemingly calmer than Tokyo.

I can understand (sort of) why some Japanese claim that they dislike China. I don't want to give their ethnocentricism, however mild a form it might take, any credence, but Shanghai seemed like precisely that place that would intimidate and muddle many of the people I've met back in Japan. Kori told me that one of her friends called it the "home-schooled country," and I think that's amusingly accurate. Japanese seem very comfortable and safe inside Japan, where their own rules and language rule the day. The outside, though, is often referred to as dangerous or intimidating. And, it is. Shanghai did seem dangerous, and did intimidate me. But I liked that. Living in Narita is very comfortable, and sometimes I feel like I'm going a little soft. Being in Shanghai jolted me out of that, and I liked it. Stepping among dirt and noise and contradictions reminded me that I'm not soft, that I don't need or want to be coddled.

One of my favorite quotes (if you'll permit me a geeky moment) is from Star Trek. Q says at one point, "It's not safe out there, Jean-Luc. It's wondrous." Being away from the hyperconvenient, sometimes mechanistically orderly world of Japan, I was reminded how much I value that sentiment.

I'm not able to upload pictures right now, but those will be forthcoming, as will more about the trip.