July 2006

Brad and I walked out for dinner in Akasaka (central Tokyo) this evening. Here are some things we saw.

A wrong turn leads to a tiny playground, visit this rocking horses on the grounds of a well-kept shrine. An older gentleman decorates one of the shrines with small orange trees.

A young Japanese guy smoking a cigarette outside Bad Girrls hostess bar, bronchi wearing a shirt that says, sale “Its hard to be humble when you’re from Missouri”.

The Okinawanese restaurant we are headed for based on a website review of about a year ago is long gone. Instead I have French champagne and a bowl of carbonara.

Brad’s in depth Wired story about high tech car thieves, therapist inspired by the disappearance of our hybrid about two years ago, bronchitis is on line. Honkey the unstealable hybrid came back, but others aren’t so lucky…

I’ve posted a few photos from Kyoto here. Stories from Kyoto, allergy and more photos, on Monday.

I’m slowly starting to upload my photos and write about the trips we’ve taken recently. A few days ago, pilule we took a train to Kyoto, sale then to Okayama, decease then a bus to Uno on the Seto inland sea, then a ferry to the famous Art Island of Naoshima!.

Visiting Naoshima was Nicole’s idea. She works at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design and is into art stuff. People from the college visited Naoshima a few weeks earlier, so when she and Todd decided to visit us here in Tokyo, she decided she wanted to also go to Naoshima. We decided to tag along.

Naoshima is an island in the Seto inland sea, the two nearest cities are Uno and Takamatsu City. The biggest industry on the island used to be a metal refinery run by Mitsubishi. Then, the Benesse Company, which as far as we could tell is a publishing business, selected the island and commissioned Tadao Ando to build a museum for contemporary art works. Pretty mysterious. The museum prompted guest hotels, a second museum (the Chichu) and a series of “Art House Projects” situated in renovated buildings in a fancy part of Naoshima Island.

As a result, the approach to Naoshima is far less quaint than you might expect after having travelled 7 hours from Tokyo. It is, in fact, rather industrial. Most of the people on the ferry with us did not appear to be art lovers. But the museum has changed the island. Tourism is now a serious endeavor. The local bureau of commerce publishes a map promoting, in addition to the museums, a tour of the Mitsubishi factory, a visit to a workshop where you can make pottery out of slag, and a museum (coming soon!) based on the 007 novel “The Man With The Red Tattoo” by Raymond Benson, which takes place on Naoshima.

The art at the Benesse museum is a pretty mediocre collection, but the museum is great looking. There’s an impressive cement cylindrical room with a ramps winding up the wall and a pointed skylight, but the giant room houses a 9 foot tall slab that flashes neon apercues like “Cry and Die” or “Rage and Live” or “Rage and Die”. Whatever. I was particularly unimpressed with two of the the Richard Long pieces, basically circles on the floor filled with driftwood. The Benesse book on Naoshima has a photo of Long in some kind of safari outfit foraging through the trees for worthy logs. Yeah, right. I liked very much these tiny wooden weeds placed in the seams between some of the concrete blocks, adding a feeling of natural incursion to Ando’s concrete fortress. The exhibition prompted an impassioned debate over dinner over the nature of art.

The next day we headed out for the Art Project Houses. These are fantastic. Essentially, the Benesse people (beneficent leaders!) purchased 200 year old Japanese houses in the Honmura district of the island and gave them to artists to renovate and do stuff with. There are no pictures of it, but Minamidera, a newer project by Tadao Ando and James Turrell is fantastic. The burnt cedar construction has no windows or doors. You go around the back, where a guide leads you into the pitch dark. You’ve been told to sit and not move until you see the light. You wait. You see nothing. Not even the hand in front of your face. Minutes tick by. You’ve been there forever. Then, you think you are hallucinating. You see something flickering, ever so faintly. Suddenly it pops into focus. A purplish rectangle of light. You get up, move towards it. Its a clear as day. Amazing.

Pictures of the other Art House Projects we touristed are on flickr.

Turrell had a few other works in the Chichu museum, which were also great. A favorite is on where you walk up a staircase towards what seems to be a purple screen, then you can step inside it. Its like you’ve walking into a TV. If you turn around, the real world from whence you came now seems orange and fake. Basically, these are experiential sculptures with light. Very cool.

The Chichu Museum is a giant edifice built almost entirely underground, architectural without being monumental, as the tourist literature explained. It really is spectacular, and I’ll link to Todd Lappin’s photos of it when they’re up. The construction is really for three artists: Claude Monet, Walter de Maria, and James Turrell. The rooms are designed specifically for the works, which really shine in the space. Monet’s room displays the art in natural light from above, and de Maria’s huge granite and gold installation benefits particularly from the Chichu display, taking on a church-like quality.

At dinner this second night, there were no arguments over “what is art”. This was for two reasons. First, we’d obviously seen art. Second, we had dinner at a yakiniku* place in town and ended up socializing with some inebriated locals who weren’t into philosophy. Instead, one was the general manager of the aforementioned Mitsubishi plant, and the other was the head of the Naoshima Board of Supervisors. At the end of the night, the Chairman rode off on his moped while the General Manager bowed good night. All in all, a deeply satisfying day.

*grilled meat, a Japanese version of Korean barbeque

Brad’s latest web column is on the video arcades here in Tokyo. Its amazing how networked, prostate complicated, and addictive the games are. The column tells the story. Plus, I get a photo credit.

We won the state secrets issue in the Hepting v. ATT case, salve and the litigation will proceed.  There’s always the possibility that a narrower state secret issue may come up later on, order and the government is sure to re-raise the issue, but this is a huge win.  Congratulations, EFF!

Also, my Wired News column on an interesting South Korean wiretap scandal and the different way that nation dealt with the problem is here.  It’s engendered the usual, “she must love terrorists!” response.  How trite. 

I won’t have time to read the ATT ruling, or respond to the lugheads who’ve commented on my column today, because Brad and I are going to have lunch with the mayor of the City of Fukuoka, in Kyushu, Japan today.  We’re also going to see some robots.  Photos soon.


From my post about sumo and these Nagoya pictures you might think that Nagoya is a great place to visit. Let me disabuse you of that notion with this post, case “Nagoya Sucks”.

1. It is a city of 2M people, buy more about where the streets feel deserted and everyone is waiting 45 minutes to eat dinner at the train station.

2. All I wanted was kishimen (local noodles), gonorrhea but instead I ended up wearing a pink smock, eating a $50 steak and listening to a woman warble Air Supply songs at a piano dinner show. [I did get kishimen for lunch the next day.]

3. Everything was closed by 9:30P.

4. Our hotel had a “Lounge Club ABBA” in the lobby, which we went to and it was CLOSED!! [But they did have a rotary phone in a quilted cozy on the cashier’s desk.]

5. The Linimo mag lev train rides 6 to 8 mm off the ground and leaves every 10 minutes from the outskirts of Nagoya to the World Expo Center, where noone lives and nothing generally happens.

6. The pillows in our ryokan actually bruised my head.

The Linimo and the Expo Center are cautionary tales about the Japanese love of modernization. The Expo Center is about 45 minutes outside of Nagoya in the countryside. It used to be trees and forest. The prefecture knocked down all the trees, built the Expo Center and a modern maglev train to access it. The train has futuristic computer circuitry upholstery and is said to float above the ground 6 to 8 mm! It is completely automated and leaves every 10 minutes. When we rode it, noone else was aboard.

The Expo Center itself is vast, crisply paved and landscaped and has a ferris wheel. It used to have endangered birds, so environmentalists objected when the prefecture proposed building the site. The environmentalists lost, the Expo Center was build and the official story is that the endangered birds were “relocated”. Yeah, relocated to heaven!

In their place now, the Limino train station has a pleasant fake bird sound piped into the waiting area and the Expo Center itself has a Forest Experience Zone. In explaining the “history of the area”, the website uses a *typical Japanese approach of I say this is typical based on Alex Kerr’s book/screed “Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Modern Japan” in which he notes the prevalence of this phenomenon

Brad and I just returned from our trip to Nagoya. We mostly went to see sumo wrestling. You can learn more about sumo here, cost and see my pictures (a bit far away and fuzzy, but we were there!) here.

Sumo is a vicious sport which requires an immense amount of athleticism and technique. Much of sumo is fanfare and posturing, a little like the weigh-in in professional boxing. At the upper echelons, the competitors spend about four minutes stamping their feet, throwing salt and pretending to get set to go. Then, through some mutually agreed upon and subtle signal (hand touching the starting line) they attack.

Probably the most exciting match was the last one of the day. (Earlier, the Estonian, popular because he’s the only white guy, fell on his face in the first 10 seconds of his bout.) Prior to the match, touts hired by advertising sponsors paraded around the dohyo (stage) with banners hawking various goods and services, like rice, mobile service and Hello! Kitty. The audience oohed and ahhed at how many banners there were for the final match, clearly an affirmation of the importance of the bout and of the wrestlers. Still, as far as advertising goes, it was class.

Asashoryu, undefeated in the tournament so far, fought Ama, a 2-5 record and pretty clearly the smallest guy of the bunch. Ama kept gesticulating and hitting his chest and making a show of getting ready, but Asashoryu was unperturbed. When the time came, the two grappled for about 15 seconds, but then Asashoryu grabbed Ama by the belt and flipped him onto the ground with a powerful and distainful flourish. The crowd went nuts, throwing their seat cushions at the dohyo and hooting. The event finished with a sword twirling display that would put my fellow Glen Ridge High School marching band color guard to shame.

My sidebar now has links to interesting and useful stuff about Japan. Let me know if you know of anything else cool that I should be checking out while I’m here. Also, more about I’ve had a terrible comment spam problem which I’m now managing with Akismet. If you’ve commented recently, you might have been lost in a sea of pheteramine ads. Try again!

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