Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Magic bits of Bamboo

"So," asked the little boy's mother "how much did you get for the cow?"

"Well," the little boy was very excited. "I met a man on the way to the market, and I traded him the cow for these magic bits of bamboo!"

Whats to say, really :)

I suppose I could tell you that the smaller flute is my normal flute, and is a 1.8 shaku (a shaku is an old japanese unit of measurement similar to a foot) long, and its base note is D above middle C. The new, long flute is a 2.4 shaku, and is A below middle C.

While travelling around on my 2-week tour - which I havent properly blogged yet - I made my way high up into the mountains of Nagano, and stayed with a flutemaker called Tom Deaver. I have been looking for a long flute for a while, and we talked flutes, played music together, and I tried a bunch of his works-in-progress. He asked me what my budget was, and I told him. He responded fairly bluntly that he would rather considerably more. We left it at that, and had a really good evening.

In the morning, as I was about to hop on my bike for what turned out to be one of the most wonderful day's rides of my trip - down the mountains, through stunning scenery - he said he would keep working on the flutes (he wasnt happy with the balance) and send them to Kakizakai when he was done, for me to try.

Many weeks went past in a pretty amazing way, I came back to Chichibu, studied more, travelled again, tried lots of flutes from different makers. While out on my week long trip with Andrew and Nobuko, an email from Kaikizakai arrives, telling me that Tom has visited, and left a flute for me to try...

So, as soon as I'm back, I'm around at Kakizakai's, and here is this flute - one that I tried in an unfinished state while at Toms. At the time, I really liked the sound, but found the hole positions uncomfortable. But having played a bunch of long flutes since then, and changed the style of my hand positions, it was now perfectly comfortable, and sounded even better. Bronwyn can get a huge sound out of it - which is fantastic, as it gives me something to aim for, and also means that I cant blame the instrument if I'm having a bad day :)

I ask what price Tom wanted, knowing already that I would pay whatever he asked, and that it would be a lot more than I could probably afford, and he names the exact amount that I told Tom was my budget originally.

So I feel extremely lucky to have both an exceptional instrument, and a connection with its maker. This kind of personal connection and relationship with the people that make the things I use, the clothes I wear, the music I listen to - is becoming more and more important to me, and it is, I think, by far the most rewarding and wonderful way to do things...

Friday, November 25, 2005

Warning: This Box of Plastic may contain traces of Chocolate!

Things tend towards being overpackaged in Japan. I think possibly as a result of the Japanese axiom : Clean=Beautiful. This is literal. The word for Beautiful, Pretty, Nice is Kirei. This is also the word for Clean.

If you buy something - say, some chocolate - you get: Chocolate pieces, individually wrapped in plastic, inside a box, which is wrapped in plastic. This is then put into another plastic bag, unless you resist mightily. You are a space alien if this doesnt make complete and obvious sense.

This is a Gross Generalisation, which I wouldnt normally make, except that the sheer amount of packaging I am being bombarded with is getting me down just a little.

Maybe I just need a haircut...

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Panoramic fun and games

No particular topic for today, except that while over here, ive been having fun making panoramas. A lot of things just don't fit into the viewfinder of a camera, so stitching multiple shots together can sometimes give a better sense of size and scale. And its also just a lot of fun! Cant afford a bug-eye 15mm lens? No worries. take a series of shots and then use something like Autostitch to simulate one...

At the top is the shinkansen platform at Nagoya station. Just above is the first of the big bridges I rode my bike across while traversing the inland sea (Full story of that in a future entry). Below is another of these mammoth bridges.

Ive used panoramas in previous entries - koto-in, the alpine route, etc. Some panoramas are obvious, but others can be quite subtle. Here is a shot of my favourite buddha-in-a-cave on top of a mountain. It is a composite of just two shots, and some clever photoshop clone-tool work to fill in the black gap at the edge. Normally, I'd just crop, but in this case it would have destroyed the composition.

Here is an interesting one. This is a stitch of six separate photos of a mural in a subway in Takamatsu. The tricky thing about this one, is that when you take a series of shots for a panorama, you usually stand in one place and just rotate while taking shots. In this case, however, that wasnt possible, since the mural was along one wall of a subway tunnel. I also wanted to preserve the mural without too much distortion, so i just walked along the length of it, taking shots of the panels. Autostitch was still able to handle this - in theory, this is no different from a bunch of shots taken from a single virtual point a long way away, with a telephoto lens.

The one below, taken in Shirakawago, is unusual in that it isnt just a horizontally linear series of photos. its a whole bunch of shots, 14, in fact, in two strips of 7, one catching the top of the island and the sky, the other the bottom and the river. Looks like something out of Riven or Myst...

I could go on, but I really ought to do some flute practice. So just one last panorama. :)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Temple #32

Chichibu is in a river valley, surrounded by impressive mountains. Very much like the Blue mountains, except the people live in the valley, not on the tops. The tops are too pointy, and as Ive said before, the forest tends to eat anything that stands still. There are 34 temples dedicated to Kannon (Quan Yin in Chinese), the god/ess of compassion, dotted in and around Chichibu, and Number 32 is one of the most beautiful. This is (IMHO) directly related to it being one of the most remote and hard to get to.

So it was on the bike, in search of. I'd visited once before with Megumi and some of the shakuhachi crew (photo at right), so I knew where it was. Kind of. First attempt saw me ride off somewhere completely different.

A lovely ride, but no temple.

Another day, another attempt - but this time, I had a map. The aim was to be up there mid afternoon, and stay for sunset.

The Love Bike has undergone extensive modification during my time here, from innocent little commuter cycle, to hardcore child-eating monster. Note the chunky downhill mountain bike cranks, sporting a very creative chainring setup. The big ring is in the middle position, but using the original middle chainring (and some extra washers) as a spacer to try and achieve the correct offset. Vaaaast improvement. longer cranks now mean much more cranking power, and the bigger chainring means a serious top speed boost. A new seat, and decent brakes also help. Not shown in this photo are the in-wheel coloured light effect units it now sports.

All this adds up to the bike being much more fun to ride, especially in the mountains. So, off to Temple #32, Hōshō-ji. It was on the other side of a pretty serious ridge, and the new bike setup really proved itself on the climb. The downhill run on the other side was a hoot! I did take note as I whizzed down, that the amount of fun I was having would be directly proportional to the amount of effort required to return home...

So, I duly arrived at Hōshō-ji, chained up the bike where it wouldnt bite passers by, and headed up.

The temple itself is on the side of a mountain, in a number of parts. The main hall is not far up from the entrance. From there you follow the gulley up to a smaller temple, tucked partly into a rock overhang. The wood on the floor and beams was polished smooth from years of use. Very beautiful, secluded and peaceful.

On the path just underneath this building was the first of my three favourite statues in Japan.

From here, the path winds up a gulley, through dense forest - it felt very much like some walks in the Blue Mountains. It goes up a long way, and eventually you pop out onto a large rocky outcrop, right up on top of the mountain, with spectacular panoramic views of densely forested mountains and valleys, with bits of town visible off in the distance.

The path forks here, and I took the upward fork first. This path leads to a near vertical cliff face, with stone footholds chiselled in, and a chain dangling down from somewhere above.

On top, you find youself in the company of a life size bronze buddha, tucked into a tiny cave right on the very top of the mountain. It looks like its been there for a long time. Since before helicopters and airlifting anyway. Gives one food for thought. This is the second of my three favourite statues.We had lunch together on top of the mountain, and I played a bit of shakuhachi. No complaints from my lunch partner, so I guess it wasn't too bad. He seemed to be into collecting beads, mobile phone danglies and other interesting bits and pieces, so I made a teeny paper crane from the foil wrapping of a biscuit I had with me, and attached it to the bundle.

The only other person I met since leaving the main temple down below was a Japanese pilgrim, doing his circuit of the 34 temples (this is usually done over a period of weeks, in stages). He was rather surprised to find me sitting up on top having lunch with my friend, but didnt seem to mind.

Down the chain, and back to the junction. It was getting pretty close to sunset by the time I got to where I was going, which was the prow of section of cliff that jutted right out over the valley. I played some more shakuhachi, a piece called San-ya (Three Valleys), which seemed appropriate, and which echoed nicely off down the valley.

I wasnt entirely alone though - I was in the company of the third of my favourite statues, some images of which I managed to capture, right on sunset...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

More Autumn

Remember this shot from the Kyoto entry a while back? Slightly more colourful this time around. I wish i could go back again in about 2 weeks or so. And then again in winter... and spring...

Last entry saw us staying at Watanabe Onsen in Toyohashi.

The finest onsen west of Fuji, Watanabe Onsen's cooked breakfasts were very special times - though on one occasion, I decided to eat leftover handrolled sushi from the night before - something Nobuko's mum, Hamako, found a bit strange, but I had no problem dealing with :)

Evenings at the Onsen were even better - dinner, then waiting for the bathtub to sing its "I'm ready, and my temerature has stabilised at 42 degrees" song, a wonderful soak in the healthy, lifegiving water, followed by a relaxing massage in the Massage-O-Matic Chair (which put anything I've seen in Australia to shame, including many human masseurs).

Watanabe Onsen's heating needs are taken care of by a Mark IV Ion Plasmacluster, whose radiant blue glow we all bathed happily in.

One of my missions while in Japan was to obtain a pair of kimono for two young friends, and Hamako proved to be an extremely willing and helpful resource - taking us all to the local department store, and getting the kimono department jumping to assist us. It was decided that yukatta (summer kimono) would be the go, and after examining every suitable sized yukatta in the store, two were purchased, along with simple obi (waist belts). Above and beyond the call of duty, Hamako then proceeded to tailor the kimono to the exact measurements provided, and turned the rather plain obi into something special, by tying appropriate bows and knots, and stitching them so they wouldnt come undone. I have complete instructional video footage of how to dress, and tie the obi properly. I wont provide photos, as the friends in question may just happen to read this, and I wouldnt want to spoil the surprise.

Instead, heres a picture of a gorgeous Autumn kimono we saw on the next part of our voyage, which saw me return to Kyoto.

We had some kind of deal that enabled us to stay in a rather nice hotel in Kyoto for very little money. The only catch was that Nobuko had to pretend to be her sister, which was fine, but Andrew doesnt look terribly much like a Japanese husband, and I look even less like Japanese Granddad. So we waited outside while she checked in.

We visited a kimono museum, which was also a studio where they dyed and hand-painted kimono silk. Watching the painters paint extraordinarily beautiful and delicate designs onto hand dyed silk, with rock steady hands and extraordinary accuracy was really special.

From there, we checked out the Nishijin Textile Centre, where we got to see people weaving silk on 150 year old Jaquard looms, and met a very friendly fellow, whose business is painting the family crests onto kimonos.

We chatted to him for ages, and he ended up doing designs for us on bits of scrap silk. He uses incredibly fine brushes, scarcely more than a hair, and has the steadiest hands ive ever seen. As he pointed out, when painting a crest onto someones mega-yen hand made kimono, you only get one chance, and it has to be perfect. He painted Andrew a very cool butterfly design, and I got him to paint my little cloud logo.

Next day, we headed straight for Koto-in. The grounds of Daitokuji were extremely quiet - much more than when I was there last time - a real bonus. Koto-in was cemented as my favourite place in Japan. The wonderful trees and beautiful buildings I've already shown plenty of, but here are a few of the other reasons...

Ahh ok, I couldnt resist just a few more trees and buldings...

Kyoto was a bit of a gift shopping bonanza this time, with Nobuko and I proving to be dangerous company for each other, while Andrew observed with amusement. Lacquered bowls, a hand-felted bag, wooden things, ceramics, fabric, books, magazines. The familiar cry of "Argh! How am I going to get all this home!"

After Kyoto, it was back to Toyohashi for the night, and then A&N wanted to show me a little of Nagoya, where they lived and worked before coming back to Australia. I really liked the feel of Nagoya, possibly because I was in good company with local knowledge, but even so, it seemed to be a nice city.

We found a wonderful bookshop, called Mountain-Route, which appears to be part of a small chain of maybe half a dozen shops in Japan. It was a wonderful place though - full of life and the effort of the staff (and patrons) to make it something more than your average bookshop. the place was laid out beautifully, with nooks to sit and read (there was even a teeny room under the stairs, no more than a metre an a bit high, complete with bookshelves and cushions. Their stock seemed very carefully selected, by people with very interesting taste, and consisted mostly of wonderful kids books, art books, poetry, and art-picture-story books for kids and adults. A lot of very accessable but incredibly deep and moving works. I bought a few books that seemed to be perfect for various people, but really didnt want to leave the shop. They had a 'tree' with flat perspex branch/shelves, and when you bought a book, you got to write something on a coloured leaf and add it to the tree. the perspex shelves meant the colours of the leaves were visible, and you could also read what people had written (tho mostly in Japanese, of course)

King Kong in a baseball cap above wasnt part of anything - just a weird bit of public sculpture, or obscure advertising maybe. Not uncommon in Japan. King Kong, I mean. Or obscure advertising for that matter... Take the Zen Mall in Harajuku (Tokyo) for instance...

After wandering around Nagoya a bit, it was dinner time, and Andrew had major plans for visiting a strange Nagoya chicken-wing chain, run by some crazy guy who in Australia would be on telly advertising two dollar shops.

The wings were seriously addicive however. Some of A&N's friends from Nagoya came along, but I had to leave, despite very much wanting to stay. The shinkansen waits for noone. I was getting Nobuko to write down a basic translation of the storyline of one of the books I had bought however, and this meant a last minute dash for the train. I literally stepped onto it, and the door closed behind me, and off back to Tokyo it was.

Here is a photo of Fuji-san I took on the way over, just because Fuji is so nice.

Japan continues to show me its best side. Everyone assures me its rare to see Fuji, but every time I've gone past, the view has been great. Even driving into Tokyo today with the crew, we saw Fuji, poking up to the west. It really is an impressive mountain. Much much larger than anything else around, and it's shape is beautiful - no wonder its so revered, and features large in the minds and arts of the Japanese.

And one last detail, just to remind you... Autumn...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


My wayward laptop has finally returned. Much has happened since the last entry, which was about Kyoto. Since then, Ive come back to Chichibu, studied, explored more of the surrounds, been in and out of Tokyo, and most recently, been travelling for a week with my wonderful friends Andrew and Nobuko. Appropriately, this has seen me return to Kyoto again, and I was able to revisit some of my favourite places from the first visit.

This time however, it was Autumn...

I really can't describe how sublimely beautiful Japan is in Autumn. Japanese poets have been trying for centuries, but still can't get even close. The intensity of the colours, the subtlety of the gradients, the superb shapes of the trees, the luminous translucency of the leaves, the freshness of the air...

In Kyoto, Koto-in, a subtemple of Daitoku-ji that I talked about in my last entry, was even more superb this time. I can only imagine what it must have been like to live there, watching the seasons change day by day.

Travelling with Andrew and Nobuko in Japan was pretty special - its been something Andrew and I have been wanting to do for a very, very long time.

We met up in Nagoya railway station, and immediately headed out on a train to Takayama, in the north of central Honshu. The train took us through mountains in the grip of Autumn, and the scenery was spectacular.

In what was to develop as a theme for our travels, we had about 2 minutes in Takayama to find and board a bus that would take us onward to Shirakawago, a village that is world heritage listed, for its wealth of traditional thatched roof gassho-zukuri farmhouses. The name literally means 'hands in prayer'. They are built entirely with wood, rope and straw and are quite beautiful. We stayed ryokan-style in one, which included delicious cooked dinner and breakfast.

In the mornings, when the sun hits the thatched rooves, large clouds of steam are generated, producing a quite spectacular sight - visible in the photographs.

It was also here that I was introduced to mitarashii dango, a kind of mochi (pounded cooked rice) that come as balls on skewers, grilled, and dipped in a special soy based sauce. Im going to try and make them when I get back home, so you may get to taste them if you are lucky (or unlucky, depending on my measure of success). Our Mochi-Man had the technique and the secret sauce perfected, and we visited him three times during the morning for more. Nobuko tried to talk the secret sauce recipe out of him, with some, but not complete success.

From Shirakawago, we went further north to stay in an onsen town, called Unazuki Onsen. Our hotel had both indoor and outdoor onsen, which we duly enjoyed, tho the outdoor onsen was less natural than I imagined - more like a large shallow heated pool, surrounded by rocks cemented into place, and 'natural' hot spring water piped from somewhere down below.

We decided to take the Tateyama-Kuroba alpine-route, to its high point at Morodo, which involved a train, then a bus ride way up into the Japan Alps. I was very happy to see bits of snow appear by the side of the road, and by the time we got to Morodo, the snow was knee deep.

While the tourists assembled on the roof deck for their group photos, we wandered off into the wilderness for a bit of an explore.

Snowballs were thrown, and a snowman, which I called Yukihito (literally 'snow-person') was constructed, mostly by Nobuko, who was the only one of us with gloves.

In this photo, he is grumpy about not having a bottom bit. Actually, he was a bit like a buddha statue, in that his expression was somehow completely different depending on what angle you looked at him from. Joyous, grumpy, indifferent...

From there, we headed back to Toyohashi, to Nobuko's parents place. They really are lovely people. When I was best man at Andrew and Nobuko's wedding, Nobuko's folks seemed to take a real shine to me, and her dad, Yasuhiro, was very emphatic in inviting me to come and visit in Japan. Which, finally, I managed to do.

I'll post this entry now, and continue from here tomorrow. Just in case you had forgotten, its Autumn here...