Friday, February 4, 2011

No Kangaroos


Mentholated masks
Keep out germs— and the fragrance
Of the plum blossoms.

It really is Spring! Ducks on the pond, two lovers in a rowboat, bright sun and warm air at Ueno Pond. My winter clothes are beginning a four-week journey to Austria, courtesy of a post-office transaction that took the best miming skills and communication ingenuity the Postal Worker and I could muster. Fact is that there is less English spoken in Japan than most anyplace I’ve been recently—and I’m finding it mostly delightful! Back to the language of gesture, inflection, props and beyond. For example, I was worried my box would end up in Australia, so I shook my head no while miming kangaroos and then found a better solution when I spotted a little map and I pointed. And so it went, until all forms were properly (I hope!) filled out and I bid my winter clothes good-bye. At the end, my postal worker smiled and said, “I enjoy that!” “Me, too!” I smiled in return and bowed out the door and into the day.

After a refreshing walk through Ueno Park, I descend into the subways like the Master of the Underground I’ve become, gliding effortlessly down long escalators to the ticket machine, through the turnstile and on to the always-waiting train without missing a beat. I ascend and meet my good friend Wolfgang Stange exactly at the appointed time. Wolfgang is one of the most down-to-earth human and extraordinary people I know, working his incredible magic with his London theater company, Amici, whose members create mesmerizing work and just happen to be a mixture of Down’s syndrome, blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound and otherwise differently-abled. We first met at the Orff Institut Symposium and Summer Course in Salzburg in 1990, a most extraordinary two-and-half-week gathering that set the course of my life in the 21 years that followed. And meeting Wolfgang was one of the highlights of a time filled with a bounty of highlights.

Last night, he took me to Shinjuku, Tokyo’s downtown area that is a mix of New York’s Broadway and Las Vegas. I imagine it is completely unoriginal to call Japan the land of contradiction and contrast, but to spend the afternoon in the spacious tranquility of Nezu Shrine and the evening in the electric assault of Shinjuku is to know the two baffling faces of Japan that are both clearly present in the national character. In the space of three blocks, seven different young men approached us asking us if we wanted to go to a strip club. My replies ranged from, “I’m shocked!” to “Are you hiring?”

Today we went to Asakusa Temple and looking at the Festival Calendar, it seems like every month there is something to do that will bring you luck, merit and/or make your wishes come true. One such festival said that if you came to the temple and prayed on July 9 and 10th, it would equal 46,000 regular visits on other days. Who makes this stuff up? 

I bid farewell to Wolfgang after a refreshing Thai lunch and met my host precisely on time at the appointed subway platform to begin my new course, this one with fifteen people—three that had come last weekend, one American and one Australian who came from an International School seven hours away and an assorted group of Japanese college students, preschool teachers and a few music teachers. Off I go again, with a new spontaneous beginning and looking forward to trying out the Tokyo Subway Stop composition I worked out walking from the post office. But we got involved in other things, including some of the most moving dancing I’ve witnessed recently to Adagietto by Bizet (little know piece, but exquisite) and Besame Mucho by Diana Krall. Too involved to explain here the process of arriving at the choreography, but it all begins with a dance from Denmark called Seven Jumps and ends at this unexpected—and in this case, beautiful—result. Wonderful communication amongst the people in the group, great connection to the music, including reaching their final shape precisely on the last note, and an overall sense of being in the body and moving with such grace and style. My final words to them for the day were, “You spoke so eloquently in your movement that any further words are unnecessary. Thank you and good night.” People who know me will know that something special must have happened to shut me up like that!

Riding the subway home, I remembered two more “Japanese seeds” planted in my childhood. One was a judo book my parents got me that fed my every-boy fantasy of being strong and powerful and got me as far as signing up for judo lessons, complete with the white robe outfit and probably learning my first bows to the teacher. I have a vague memory of going to four classes and then fighting some boy with really bad breath and deciding that was enough. I still remember one of the flips.

The other was listening to the record of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado that we had in my home and then eventually, going to see it in New York. In fact, it may have been the first such show I ever went to (the other two I remember are Fiddler on the Roof and Carmen). I remember the feeling of being swept up in a magical world and have always had a soft spot in my heart for that music, regardless of absurdly politically incorrect it may be. (There’s a telling scene in the movie Topsy Turvy when Japanese people are brought in to help the directors achieve more authenticity and the cultural divide yawns so wide, they end up being dismissed).

Two more full days in Japan—I think I’m going to miss it here. 

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