Sunday, July 25, 2010

Great Wall

Unfortunately blogspot has been blocked in China so the juicy part of Korea, including all our extensive talks with monks and the story of how I was put into a girl band's music video and all of my 10 days in China will be updated once I get to Taiwan on August 1st. Thanks to Rui for posting this for me. China is awesome so far!

Thank you for reading,

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

We All Live in a Yellow Submarine!

We Realize We Don't Know a Word of Korean

We arrived in Seoul and immediately felt stripped of our super powers. We couldn't speak the language, we couldn't read the alphabet and we weren't even familiar with the local customs. After stretching many flustered Koreans' English capabilities to the limit, we piled onto a bus and headed for our new home The Yellow Submarine, a hostel in the Hongdae District. Unfortunately when we arrived some sort of miscommunique had led to a double booking, but the manager, Henry, was ridiculously accommodating and arranged for us to stay in a really nice, nearby hotel for the night for free.

After we showered off the grime we'd collected since our last night in Kyoto, all of us headed out together to brave the unknowns of the streets of Seoul. We meandered timidly from sign with squiggles on it to colorful sign with squiggles on it to neon sign with squiggles on it. Eventually our yellow bellied-ness gave way to hungry bellied-ness and we entered a small, family-owned restaurant and smiled politely as friendly Korean greetings were hurled at us like flying ninja stars. We sat without uttering a sound, continuing to smile awkwardly. The owners looked at us expectantly but we didn't make a sound. After our facial muscles were burning from holding the aforementioned awkward smiles, Ava suddenly shouted, "Sam gyoep!" I thought she'd had a small seizure but the owners smiled, cheered, "Sam gyoep!" and ran off to the kitchen. Ava explained that she had had "sam gyoep" with one of her friends. As we discovered as raw meat was thrown onto the stove in the middle of our table, sam gyoep sal is the name of a cheap BBQ item. The pork sizzled up in front of us and we placed the chunks of meat into lettuce and mint leaves and added kimchi, chili paste, oil, and assorted vegetables to our lettuce tacos. It was delicious!

New Meaning to Bubblegum Pop

Our first day in Seoul we bummed around the hostel because it was pouring rain. The AC, Wifi, and free coffee made it especially hard to leave. But by dinnertime we had headed out to see Hong Dae, which is a trendy part of Seoul that, once dusk hits, is filled with 20-somethings in ridiculous fashion get-ups. After people-watching in Hong Dae, Shao Min poignantly noted, "Everyone looks so Korean!"

We went out for more BBQ with a fellow Minnesotan who was also staying in the Yellow Submarine, Vanessa. Vanessa was becoming a sort of celebrity foreigner because she is obsessed with Korean boybanders and shows up to their events for signatures and hugs. She stands out from the usual screaming Korean fangirls because she is white, 6 foot 5 and has bubblegum pink hair. On our post-BBQ stroll around Hong Dae we ran into a camera crew filming a boybander getting mobbed by fans. Vanessa didn't miss her chance for an autograph, even if she wasn't totally sure which Korean boybander she was confessing her undying love to.

The Swedish Excursion in which I Pray for a Korean Girl's Future

The next day Shao Min, Ava and I headed to a Korean palace with a guy from Sweden who was also staying in our hostel. We realized later that we never caught his name. My problem with names continued because in the heat it was hard to keep track of which king had built which building for which concubine which in turn upset which queen.
The highlight of that excursion for me was really the discovery of pineapple flavored Fanta, which is exquisite. The highlight for Shao Min was spelunking through the palace's ancient sewer system.

After the palace, we took the subway with our nameless Swede to the City Plaza to enjoy the free 7:30 show which oddly enough had two parts: African drumming from the Côte d'Ivoire and martial arts demonstrations (Karate from Japan, Kungfu from China and Tae Kwon Do from Korea).

There was a huge discrepancy in the talent of the martial arts groups. The Japanese and Chinese groups were not up to snuff with the Korean Tae Kwon Do group. Not only were the Koreans amazing but they also turned the fights into a Korean drama. Black ninjas stole away the guy with the yellow robe's girlfriend so he and his three buddies band together to fight the black ninjas. But at the end one black ninja beats them all up. But whaaaaaaaat?!?!?! It's the girlfriend! She has Stockholm Syndrome and after killing these four guys, she breaks down and cries in despair. The end.
After that, the Tae Kwon Do demonstration was fully K-Popped as it became kids dancing to pop songs in school uniforms. That was followed up by a very disturbing dance routine by a 5-year-old who was channeling Britney Spears in "Hit Me Baby, One More Time." While watching the performance I silently prayed for her to turn out better and less misguided than Britney Spears but I knew the odds were already stacked against her and that the Korean equivalent of K-Fed was likely looming in her not-too-distant future.

We Are Trapped in the Yellow Submarine

Friday marked our last free day before our triple header for the weekend. Unfortunately the rain and freedom made us only too happy to bum around the comfortable hostel with only two trips out to eat barbecue. But the next day, Saturday, our adventures with monks would begin!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

One of the Forgotten Kyotan Tale-n

By popular demand I am forced to recount "The Tale of the Boy who did NOT Read the Map to the Toilet."

While bidding Rui farewell as she boarded the Night Bus to Tokyo, I climbed up on some lockers to wave a final goodbye. Unfortunately these lockers were very dirty and my hands were black as a chimney sweep's so I decided to search for a bathroom to clean my disturbingly dirty hands. I led Shao Min and Ava through the underground mall next to the bus station and finally found a bathroom. After washing up, I realized I also had to use the bathroom but there were at least 5 things that could have been a urinal in the single person bathroom. I looked around to see if there was some sort of sign that said TOILET but no luck. There were just 5 porcelain basins, slightly above waist height and all adorned with fancy looking do-hickeys. It was then that I wondered if I hadn't actually washed my hands in the urinal because, honestly, the thing I had arbitrarily decided was the sink didn't actually have anything that distinguished it from the other wannabe toilets. After a bit of pondering my need to urinate overcame my need to reason so I just picked one and hoped for the best. After I finished I pressed a prominent red button and suddenly there was a quiet, rapid beeping. Outside I heard Ava and Shao Min laughing. Ava exlaimed, "Map of Bathroom?! Who would need that?" Shao Min followed up saying, "Take a picture of that!"

The "URP URP URP URP" of the alarm was making me panic so I hit it again to shut it off. Bad choice because the beeping became 50 times louder. It was then that I saw there was a label for the button called, "SOS." I threw open the door, flushed in the face and with a look of pure terror on my face. "RUN!!!!!" I screamed over the sound of the nuclear reactor alarm blaring from the basin I had just urinated into. I found out that both Ava and Shao Min would be excellent in case of Zombie attack because they didn't hesitate or question my command, but ran off with impressive speed. Once out of the hallway a man gawked as a white kid bolted past him followed closely by two other foreign girls while that damn alarm continued to blare. We drew more stares as we sprinted to the other end of the mall clutching our sides which were sore from a mixture of sudden aerobic activity and uncontrollable laughter.

MORAL: The next time a bathroom comes with a map, read the instructions before using the toilet!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

More Japanese Adventures Including: The Horrors of Piety-Induced Numbness and The Caper of the Stolen Heels

After our coffee, we bussed out to the Kyoto Center University of Fine Arts to meet with Fujita Sensei. On the way I fell asleep and snored with the ferocity of a hibernating grizzly bear, simultaneously mortifying my classmates and creating a great impression of Americans. At the Center, Fujita Sensei taught us how to read the different versions of chant scores ranging from 17th century versions, which were really just reminder notes that could be used once you already knew the tune, to modern notation that looked a lot like western scores with five line staff notation. We headed off to attempt the difficult task of finding Gao Hong a meal without MSG. We headed home with Gao Hong plumping up like a Ballpark frank.

The next morning we got up at 4am again to go to another morning chant with Fujita Sensei. Unfortunately our jet lag was fading and this time getting up at 4 was a bit more of a challenge. The first thing Shao Min said to me as we congregated in the hostel lobby was, "Is that a piece of dried ginger in your hand? Oh, no. . . it's just a Band-Aid." We placed our shoes in plastic bags, climbed the steps of the temple, grabbed our prayer books, and settled down with our feet tucked under our butts. The chanting was amazing just as before, but this time sitting seiza style caused a permanent numbness on the top of my foot. Apparently I pinched a nerve and even now the feeling has not completely returned. And because of the numbness I didn't notice the rest of the week that my tight shoes had forced my pinky toe under my foot so I had been walking on it causing it to turn a very nasty color. One night when I climbed barefoot to the top bunk, Shao Min exclaimed, "Is that pus?" I examined my foot and replied defensively, "No, it's just the color of my skin." Eep! From now on I'm just sitting cross legged.

After the morning service, we were given a very special tour and class. We got to see a special hidden building in "The National Treasure" which is not usually open to the public. Way to go Gao Hong's connections. Then we had a lecture on the history of chant which I began to doze through (because it was after 2PM and I had been up since 4) until we heard some very moving music samples of modern chant creations arranged for SATB choir and organ. Then we headed back to the hostel to recharge our recording equipment and transfer the files onto our computers.

Rui, a former hulusi player in our Chinese ensemble who is finishing her senior year at Waseda University in Tokyo, joined us for the rest of our time in Kyoto. Together, Rui, Shao Min and I went off to find the elusive puzzle shop again. Once we'd wandered down all the small residential side streets again, we discovered that it was closed. Shao Min, undeterred by the sign that said CLOSED, rang the bell anyway. After a minute, there was a scuffling, a bang, and an 'Ow!' We all exchanged nervous glances. But they were unwarranted because we were greeted by the puzzlemaker himself, a man in his 60s with a warm smile who wouldn't have seemed miscast as the wise, old mentor in a surfer movie.
After some exploration of his shop which was filled with all sorts of amazing gizmos, whose-its and whats-its, we walked around Kyoto some more enjoying Calpis flavored drinks and raw squid tentacles and taking pictures with anime statues. We got free dinner that night from Sparling Sensei, a professor at Carleton. It was a nice relief from the very cheap but tasty Suki Ya we had been eating at 2 to 3 times a day.

The next day, Friday, we didn't have any plans so we got to sleep in! Gao Hong and her family went off to explore which left us four kids to ourselves. We went to Gion and explored temples and got our luck and love fortunes which Rui translated for us. After Gion we took a bus to Arashi Yama to see cormorant fishing. The place was stunningly beautiful. We hiked up a mountain and played our instruments at the top and then descended to see cormorants tied to boats catch fish. There is a ring around their throats so they can't swallow them so when they catch the fish, the fisherman in the boats reel them in and grab the fish out of their throats!

On Saturday we met dragged our instruments to Sparling Sensei's friend's studio to meet with some shakuhachi players. The lead shakuhachi master played for us and then asked Gao Hong to join him. He warned that shakuhachi music comes from the heart and that their music could only work together if their hearts were aligned. They must have been because the music they improvised together was amazing! Then a second shakuhachi player joined in and another man played the didgeridoo. Then Shao Min joined with her erhu and eventually ukulele, Ava with the penny whistle, Rui with the hulusi, and me with the mandocello. At one point I established an American folk chord progression (GCGDG). The whole thing was so cool to experience. We all came from different backgrounds of music and couldn't really communicate with each other in words so we just had to listen to each other's music and make it work. And despite having instruments from Japan, China, Australia, Hawaii, America, and Ireland we all managed to play together.

After the crazy cross-cultural jam session the shakuhachi player told us more about learning his instrument from his father and the way to read the score his family had developed and gave Ava a little shakuhachi lesson. I was in the middle of testing out the didgeridoo when we found out that a professional Noh theater performer was coming. She brought her 8-year-old daughter. The daughter even performed for us after much coaxing.

We talked more about the advantages and disadvantages of heritage music performers before disbanding and heading for the Ramen floor at Kyoto station. It's an entire floor of restaurants with different types of ramen. You buy your desired dish from an automated machine and then go into the restaurant and wait for your food to come to you. Inside there are raw eggs that you can crack into your ramen.

On Sunday it was back to monk business. We left Rui in Starbucks to finish her senior thesis and Gao Hong, Ava, Shao Min and I headed via train to the countryside to see Nishimura Sensei/Priest. He lives in a remote area on the southwest side of Lake Biwa (so named because it resembles a Biwa, the Japanese version of the pipa). His house is connected to the temple he is in charge of. He drove us around the countryside and to another nearby temple. All the while, my fellow passengers and I kept expressing our willingness to spend the rest of our lives in the Japanese countryside.

At Nishimura's temple he chanted for us and gave us Buddhist percussion instruments. Then he made us play for him so we played Country Roads, which was really weird because we were in a Buddhist temple. Despite their facial expressions in the photos, they really did seem to like our music. Really!
The final highlight before leaving the countryside was eating the move-you-to-tears-delicious Japanese mandarin oranges and looking through Nishimura Sensei's photo album of his journey to America in 1961.

That night we ate really delicious octupus balls (octupus in fried batter, not their gonads) and then went to a Chinese restaurant for dumplings and Japanese beer. Finally we bid good bye to Rui who had to return to Tokyo a night earlier than us so her dad didn't find out that she was skipping classes to hang out with us.

Our final day in Japan we went to meet with a shakuhachi player at the Zen Institute. I was very glad we met with the other shakuhachi players because he was nowhere near the level of musician that the other shakuhachi players were. His embouchure was a mess and he he had an overtone when he played that he couldn't get rid of. But luckily he was a fountain of knowledge. Ava had long conversations with him in Japanese about the complex history of Buddhist music in Japan while Gao Hong, Shao Min and I nodded and smiled politely waiting for translations that never came. Later at lunch Ava recounted what she'd learned. I got to try to play the shakuhachi and discovered not only could I make a sound on it, but I also had a better tone than the monk.

The rest of the day we wandered around Kyoto feeling very sad to have to leave. Ava disappeared halfway through to help an Aussie find her hostel and Shao Min and I meandered through the underground mall. The extreme fullness of my luggage (just one backpack plus my mandocello and zhongruan) makes buying souvenirs pretty much impossible but I bought a Japanese hat anyway realizing that it could easily be clipped to the outside of my backpack between my running shoes and my laptop. Though I also made a mental note to try and not look too much like a Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Ava rejoined us after her role as a good Sameritan. We didn't have much Japanese money left so we ate our final Japanese meal at McDonald's citing some sort of we'll-eat-McDonald's-once-in-every-country type of explanation.

Just when we were leaving our hostel DISASTER STUCK!!!!!! Ava couldn't find her only pair of shoes. You see, at the hostel we all had to leave our shoes at the front door and wear slippers around. But someone had taken Ava's shoes. After a mad search involving the entire staff of the hostel and many other innocent bystanders, we left for our night bus which we couldn't miss, with Ava wearing slippers from the hostel. Ava pouted and sloshed through the rain until she suddenly screamed and pointed at a girl passing us on the street. She was wearing Ava's shoes!!!!!! Ava, with a quivering upper lip, explained the situation in Japanese, but the girl didn't speak Japanese. She said, "Sorry, I thought the shoes were for anyone to take." Umm. . . yeah, I believe that. You thought that when everyone had to leave their shoes at the front door that we would all just share and take whomever's? Gao Hong bitched her out as Ava and the girl swapped footwear in a giant puddle.

We had our Kyotan farewell at the station as we got on the night bus for Tokyo. Reflecting back on the Japanese adventures, I realized they have really exceeded my expectations. The trip has been absolutely incredible so far.

Fingers crossed for Korea!!!!!!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Many Meetings with Monks

"Even the trees look Japanese!" Shao Min exclaimed as we viewed the forested mountains that encircle Kyoto.

Last Saturday, Gao Hong and her husband, Paul, and daughter, Alida, picked Shao Min and me up from Carleton and headed to the Minneapolis airport at 4am. After a layover in Houston we arrived in Tokyo, Japan and were greeted by Rui, who played in our Chinese ensemble last year, and Ava, the fourth member of our research team. With their help we ate and made it to the station to meet the Night Bus. We played our instruments briefly at the bus stop before we were informed that our music was a menace to society and that we "Please must to stop!" We boarded the bus at midnight and arrived at 7am in Kyoto after traveling for 38 hours. We all were in desperate need of showers. I claimed that I could cook breakfast with the oil I scraped off my face. Shao Min laughed, examined my face carefully and then informed me that she believed that was honestly quite possible.

The rest of the day we explored the city together.

On our second full day in Japan, we traveled by bus to a Zen Center and met with a 77 year old Buddhist monk named Eshin Nishimura. He was an expert on traditional ceremonies and had taught at Carleton many, many years ago. He taught us the basics of Japanese Buddhism and mentioned fascinating tidbits like a group of secret Christians living in Japan that sing Gregorian chants despite not understanding them. Before leaving the Zen Center we were given green tea flavored Kit-Kats and introduced to another monk, Matsuo, who said he we could attend a ceremony at his temple the next morning.

On our third day in Japan, we took full advantage of our jet lag and got up at 4:30AM to make it to a temple at 5:30 to chat with the monk we met before heading into the ceremony. We waited outside the temple until we heard a honk from a neon green car that whizzed passed us. I jumped away from the curb managing to simultaneously avoid being vehicularly manslaughtered and keep just enough wits about me to recognize the shaved head and wrinkled forehead of our friend, Matsuo, leaning out the window as he waved and drove to the temple parking lot.

Matsuo led us around his painfully beautiful temple. There were colorful banners hanging from the temple roof which he explained were there to represent the natural light and colors of the world, which is the same as stained glass in Western Cathedrals. We visited the cemetery which houses the remains of donors to the Temple and is adjacent to very cheap housing because it is terrible luck to live next to a cemetery.

Finally, we headed into the daily chanting. We sat seiza-style, kneeling with our legs folded under us. This is fun at first but extremely painful after about 2 minutes. When the chanting started I just wanted to scream, "YES!" It made all of the jet lag and getting up at the crack of dawn totally worth it. It began with a female monk leading. Then the other two dozen monks and a couple of the other attendees joined in and despite its simplicity the chanting was unexpectedly moving. The chanting continued for 50 minutes and when I tried to stand I toppled right back down with a whimper of pain. My legs were simultaneously on fire and completely numb. After three minutes I hobbled next door to another chanting ceremony but this time there was added taiko drumming and a giant fire in the altar. The head monk was tossing in prayers written on little pieces of wood. The fire and drumming made everything extra exciting. Next we hopped in our monk guide's blindingly green car and he drove us to a Starbucks for some coffee and muffins. When Mistuo dropped us off he demonstrated his instruments and let me play his conch shell which had a brass mouth piece. Naturally I played reveille on it which made him laugh. Continued on next post. . .