Week 6- Poems

八事日赤 7時44分 (Yagoto Nisseki, 7:44 A.M.)

wind passage

life out there among the vines

in bed

waiting

 

八事日赤 7時56分 (Yagoto Nisseki, 7:56 A.M.)

a big throated bird

standing on knotty tightrope hung across the glass

starts to caw and shriek.

it caws and shrieks,

and caws and shrieks,

and stops

 

 

栄 20時38分 (Sakae, 8:38 P.M.)

we eat fried vegetables on sticks

and again

we eat lamb curry on buttered naan

and burn our tongues

we say hello and wonder

and again

 

八事日赤 8時17分 (Yagoto Nisseki, 8:17 A.M.)

in the morning my focus loosens

—an insect on the futon, a haunted monk—

I quickly lose sight of vast distances

 

新幹線、名古屋行き 14時22分 (Nagoya Bound Shinkansen, 2:22 P.M.)

time passage

dead leaves there on coiled roots

red leaves on the smoking mount

insufficient to express

the time it takes to take a train

to Nagano

in the autumn

 

ミッドランドスクエア 21時12分 (Midland Square, 9:12 P.M.)

on the 42nd floor

gold thread unwinding

clings to a river’s shadow

cloud mass approaching

brings the molten gray of rain

 

ミッドランドスクエア 21時29分 (Midland Square, 9:29 P.M.)

on the 42nd floor

I remember the electricity

inherent in two touching fingers,

I remember

many clouded touches

long since turned to rain

 

八事日赤 16時50分 (Yagoto Nisseki, 4:50 P.M.)

dream passage

violent urges to make mistakes

foolish correspondences between fiction and reality

running over too-steep textured asphalt hills

I find a forest in this city in which I want to lose myself

 

伏見稲荷大社 16時16 (Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine, 4:16 P.M.)

the spider is the size of a quarter

and reigns over these dead

like a kite over its shadow

(having passed through a thousand crimson gates)

I am halfway up the mountain

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Week 5: A Photo Tour of My Neighborhood

Hi friends! This week I’d like to introduce you to Yagoto-Nisseki, the Nagoya neighborhood where I’m living! This little corner of Nagoya (on the East side) of course hosts Nanzan University, but is also just a few minutes from Kosho-ji (substantial Buddhist temple), Aeon (massive shopping mall), and a few famous restaurants, including Hajikken (butter noodles) and Maunten (European ski lodge ambience with massive portions of spaghetti in every flavor you can imagine). For those wondering what daily, ordinary life looks like in Japan, I hope this provides a lens.

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Welcome to Yamazato Koryu Kaikan, my dorm! On a quiet street sandwiched between two major ones and surrounded by greenery, it’s really an ideal location.

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A small collection of restaurants and shops between the dorm and Nanzan University.

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While I live just five minutes from Nanzan’s campus, one major obstacle lies between us and class: this fucking hill. Trust me–it’s steeper than it looks in this picture.

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Nanzan University

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R Building, the International Center at Nanzan University. There’s a Japanese Plaza (for Japanese language practice), a World Plaza (for languages other than Japanese), and Stella, a plaza for any language; as well as classrooms and the Center for Japanese Studies office.

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There are palm trees at Nanzan?

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R Building on the outside.

Now let’s head outside of campus…

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This patch of greenery between my dorm and the subway smells absolutely delicious. 

Some neighborhood photographs: turn left and right from Yamazato Koryu Kaikan

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Some neighborhood photographs: turn right and right from Yamazato Koryu Kaikan

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A local run-down park with a pond full of dying lotus

And last but not least, the local temple…

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Around Aeon (the big mall), there’s restaurants, Karaoke, and a weirdly fancy hotel. And with that–that’s Yagoto Nisseki!

また来週!(Until next week!)

week 4: bloody murder & edward the umbreon

This blog is about to be a jarring experience. My mind is exhausted from a long week, a week in which I needed to write an essay and make a presentation about the bombing of Hiroshima in Japanese. So I have split the blog into two parts: Bloody Murder, and Edward the Umbreon. One represents everything horrible in this world, and the other everything beautiful.

Part One: Bloody Murder

We have just lived through the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Stephen Paddock fired semi-automatic weapons into a crowd of 22,000, killing 58 and injuring over 500.

Stephen Paddock simply bought his arsenal of 23 guns. There is no restriction in Nevada beyond a simple a background check with the FBI’s criminal database, known to be faulty from time to time. He converted his semi-automatic weapons into automatic ones, capable of firing 600 rounds a minute or more, because it’s really easy to do. You just buy some trigger cranks and bump stocks and do a little DIY, like building a lego set. Sale of ammunition is also essentially unregulated.

His motive is thus far unknown.

Given all that, it’s hard to proceed with an ordinary blog.

Beyond gun control, a thoroughly exhausted debate, I think about anger and fear. Charlottesville was not long ago. I do not fear Islamic terrorism in America. I fear American terrorism in America. Why is this the America of today? And I’m over here in Japan, still unable to observe and analyze with any measure of control over my thoughts and feelings.

One apolitical-political thought comes to mind: We are led by a man motivated by anger and fear and pride. And we follow our leaders, do we not?

Part Two: Edward the Umbreon

Saturday night. Me and my friend Rob are in Ikebukuro. We’re doing the most over-the-top Japanese stuff that we can: game station, cat cafe, watching the idol performance at the mall, going to Animate. And with all that on the agenda, how could we miss out on the Pokémon Store? The store was nice and jazzed up for Halloween, with a ghost-type focus, but one beautiful creature in particular caught my eye and tugged at my wallet with the force of a small black hole.

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Yes. A plush Umbreon. A beautiful big soft sleepy plush Umbreon. I consulted social media via snapchat, but made my decision swiftly, before anyone had time to reply.

I had to have it. It was that cute. Now each morning after I finish my meditation (up to 18 minutes per day!) I place her on top of my pillow in her standard sleeping position. That way when I come back to my room after a long day, the first thing I see is a very snuggly Umbreon. It is a wondrous sight to behold.

This is perhaps the first stuffed animal I have owned since I was 6 years old. I have no shame.

A name for this delicate creature had to be just right. My brother, perhaps as a joke, suggested Edward, but then a memory swept into my imagination with the force of a hurricane.

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THIS EDWARD!

She’s a character in Cowboy Bebop, and the only girl named Edward that I have ever heard of. But there could be no better way to imagine the personality of my sleepy Umbreon than with the maniacal genius and fanaticism of said Edward.

All that being said, Ikebukuro- 10/10, would recommend.

I hope that next week I have enough brainpower to write a blog that actually makes sense from start to finish.

xoxo,

Eric

Week 3: A Train Whistle in the Middle of the Night (or a Takoyaki-Tsukuri Party

This week in my Japanese class we read a short story by Murakami and I made my own mini project out of it by attempting a translation, which I’ve included below. It’s classic Murakami plot structure in its vaguest manifestation: introverted male protagonist has weird/depressing shit happen to him and is saved by a mysteriously characterized female. Nevertheless it hits pretty hard in Japanese, and brings back those angsty teenage feels. Still, thinking about waking up terrified in the middle of the night seems funny to me nowadays. When I wake up now I curl up as cozily as I can, happily think about how there are a few hours left to sleep, and pass the hell out.

Since I spent my sadly limited creative energies on the translation, let me tell you instead about a fun dorm party we had this past weekend–making takoyaki (doughy octopus balls)! Takoyaki is an Osaka specialty and a delectable street food and appetizer. It’s also a treat you can easily make for yourself at home so long as you have the right ingredients. You’ll need batter (flour, water, eggs, dashi, soy sauce), chopped octopus, scallions, pickled ginger, bonito, and the magic takoyaki sauce.

Oh, and of course, you need a takoyaki pan.

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First comes the batter, then the octopus, ginger, scallions, and any other tasty treats you want to put inside.

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Then comes a little more batter… and from there you carefully tend the takoyaki, flipping it over until the dough is well cooked.

Once your takoyaki are finished, add the sauce and bonito, and voila! It’s easy and fun and highly recommended 😉

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And now…

A Train Whistle in the Middle of the Night, or the Utility of Stories

Haruki Murakami

A girl asks a boy a question. “How much do you like me?”

The boy thinks about it for some time, and then answers in a quiet voice. “As much as a train whistle in the middle of the night.”

The girl is quiet, waiting for him to continue the story. Certainly a story will follow.

“Once, my eyes suddenly opened in the middle of the night,” he begins. “I don’t know the exact time. I think it was 2:00, or maybe 3. But what time it was doesn’t really matter. Anyways, in the middle of the night, I was completely alone, not a single person around. I want you to try to imagine it. It was pitch-black, so I couldn’t see a thing. I couldn’t hear a single sound. I couldn’t even hear the ticking of my watch—maybe it had stopped working. At once I understood: I had been pulled absolutely apart from the rest of the world, unbelievably far away, so far away that no one could even begin to guess where I was. In this whole wide world there was not a soul to love me, not a voice to hear me, and I realized then that I had disappeared from the memory of the world. Even if I had literally vanished, there would be no one to notice. I was shut up in a steel box sinking to the bottom of the ocean. The pressure made my heart ache, and I thought I was going to split in two—that sort of feeling—I wonder if you understand?”

The girl nods. She probably understands.

The boy continues. “That feeling is probably one of the most painful experiences people can have. It’s the sadness of wanting to end up dead, it’s that sort of pain. Well, it’s not like you want to end up dead—it’s that when you’re shut up in the metal box, as the air gets thinner and thinner, you actually will die. And that’s not a metaphor or anything like that. You really will die. That’s the meaning of waking up alone in the middle of the night. Do you understand?”

The girl nods again. The boy pauses.

“That entire time, I heard the sound of a train whistle. A train whistle that was really, really far away. It was so far that I couldn’t begin to guess where on earth the railroad was. It was so far away I wasn’t sure whether or not I actually heard it. Still, somehow I knew that there was the whistle of an old steam train. No doubt about it. I knew its sound in the dark. I heard it a second time. And then my heartache started to fade. My watch began to tick again. The drowned steel box started floating up towards the surface. All of that was thanks to the train whistle.

“All of that was thanks to a train whistle so faint I didn’t know whether or not I really heard it. As much as a train whistle in the middle of the night—that’s how much I love you.”

The boy finishes his short story there. Then the girl begins to tell a story of her own.

Week 2: To Live in Freedom | 自由に生きる

When people ask what I hope to achieve in Japan this semester, or what my goals are, I say this: I want to experience life here in Nagoya as a Nanzan U. student, enjoying and worrying about all the ordinary parts of life (schoolwork, making friends, etc.) without the damning Yale-induced sense of general doom that can cloud over me back in New Haven. I think by doing this in an environment as fascinating, welcoming, and with as much depth as Japan, I can generally get a firmer hold about my broader life, in addition to whatever concrete skills I will gain and experiences I will have.

One Japanese friend that I’ve made introduced herself to me out of the blue a few weeks ago because she wanted someone to practice her English with. She is studying English, because, as I found out a few days ago, she wants out of Japan. Really badly. She wants to travel, of course, but mostly to leave her own country and live elsewhere, especially in the U.S. or Canada. When I asked her why, it came down to living in 自由、living in freedom.

It’s a first world problem, to be sure, but as she explained, living in freedom in Japan seems impossible for her. Familial, neighborhood, school, and national expectations add up into a mountain of demands too tall to surmount and too wide to circumvent; too thick-set into the metallic earth to burrow under and through. Her parents demand of her X, Y, Z; as a woman she is demanded to X, Y, Z; as a Japanese she is expected to X, Y, Z; her whole life is already set out for her, regardless of the little choices she makes along the way. She doesn’t yet know what kind of life she wants to live, only to find it, and that, apparently, requires going to a very different time zone.

In a way my case is similar, but it’s also different. I think the two of us are facing quite different pressures—mine I don’t perceive as so strong that I need to literally leave the U.S. to escape them. But, I suppose it is what I hope to achieve in my time here. A life free of pressures except for the ones that I place upon myself. In Japan I only experience one mode of life out of the many hundreds and thousands that exist around the world, and perhaps a mode of life that is not as different from an American life as to challenge every core value that I hold. But at the least, thanks to Light, I can experience this mode freely and learn a little more about how I want to live.

What she said to me also made me think about America’s self-declared and amazingly persistent international perception as a free society, valuing above all life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I think of all the immigrants and my own great-grandparents who came to this country under that assumption and belief, and am astounded that it still holds such weight. In the future I hope to explore whether or not America really opens the door to free living, and I earnestly believe the answer might lie in either direction.

Starting from next week, I will actually begin to discuss Japanese culture, society, my classes and my travels, so I’ll quit these wishy-washy “what even is life??” shenanigans. Until then, bear with me. よろしくお願いいたします!

This week’s photo: the views from the taller buildings at Nanzan are absolutely incredible. You can see all the way to the mountains on three sides, circling the Nagoya metro area. The shadows of mountains hide behind the skyline. Nanzan may not be as renowned as its neighbor, Nagoya University (one of the most prestigious in Japan), but it certainly made sure to be built on a taller hill. I thank the Catholic priests that founded this school for that. (Yes, it is a Catholic school. Somehow.)

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Nagoya, Week 1: Meditation Is Hard

In which my daily meditation has the opposite of its intended effect. 

I spent a week in Beijing with a friend who observantly meditates, and who thoroughly convinced me to take up the practice myself. Over the summer he did a 10 day silent meditation retreat, and insisted that it changed his life—he explained that somehow, after spending that much time in a silent, persistent attempt to connect with nature and his own identity, everything seemed to go his way. I was sold. I’ve started off by meditating for 10 minutes daily ever since I came to Nagoya on Friday September 8th, and I think I’m ready to increase the load to 12 or 15 minutes.

Here’s how it goes: About twenty minutes after waking up, I pull an extra futon out from under my bed and open the curtains. The sun rises early in Japan, so substantial morning sunlight hits the window at an  angle, refracting bright glare onto the white wall to my side. I sit within range of the air conditioner so I’m not distracted by my own sweat. I cross my legs, try to strike up good posture, close my eyes, and breathe.

Strangely, meditation is having the opposite affect on me that it’s supposed to. It’s supposed to clear your mind, right? Well, my mind starts off clear, right after waking up. But during meditation, daylight and everything associated with it washes over me in slow waves. All of the errands I need to run, the forms I need to sign, the exam I need to prepare for, the people I want to make plans with. Bit by bit reality overcomes the silent and surreal world of sleep and dreams.

Still, it all comes gently, one deep breath at a time. A thought heaves upwards, dissolves—all is clear—and then comes the next opaque piece of reality. I focus on the image of a triangle to clear my mind. The next thought comes nevertheless.

This daily meditation has pretty much become a necessity. I think I would be overwhelmed by stress without it. Arriving in a dorm of 20 guys I have never met, in a program of 100 students from all around the world, in a university of 10,000 students, in a city almost as big as Chicago, there’s a lot of new stimuli. I’ve also made plenty of clear goals for myself that I want to live up to: to assimilate as a student at Nanzan and not just stick with the other exchange students, to try to get a sense of what it’s like to really live in Nagoya, not just as a visitor, but as a community member. In order to do that, I will need to do my best to step out of the little world of Yamazato Koryu Kaikan (my dorm), and even outside the much bigger world of Nanzan University. So it’s not going to be easy.

But I’m certainly going to try. 頑張ろう、ね?

Photo of the week: in Sakae, the shopping and party district, I would like to present the most lit band I have ever seen playing on a street corner. They played upbeat rock and had great energy, the crowd dancing and clapping along. In their climactic song the singer just started screaming: 気をつけろう!気をつけろう!The literal meaning is “Let’s pay attention/be careful!” but I feel like when she’s howling with all the grit she can muster it becomes closer to “Ima watch the fuck out! Ima watch the fuck out!” Watch the fuck out, Nagoya.

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A unity of ashes

Calls for unity

pleas for understanding

let the world burn

fire and fury and all that jazz

heroes will stand in the epicenter of a nuclear rage

rage at what? at whom? to which end?

from here it just looks like a lot of hate

from here it just looks like terror

from here it just looks like unchecked mob violence, the sort that

strangles democracy, suffocates infants in their sleep, bombs churches,

burns ghettos, shoots those who are unarmed and backing down

from here it looks like fear

yet i see courage too

heroes will stand in the eye of the storm

the epicenter of a nuclear rage

fire and fury and all that jazz

any call for unity today

is a unity of ashes

 

it may be right to love your enemy

and it may be right to welcome him into your home with open arms

and it may be right to call for dialogue

and it may be right to let someone who sees you as lesser have his turn

it may be wise to rise above

there is no right here! there are no politics! save it for another day

and i’ll save forgiveness for when the ones i love hurt me by mistake

it may be a sound course of action to condemn hatred and call for unity 

hatred my ass

it’s only rage and fear

unity my ass

it’s only ashes.

 

how do you win? how do you not perish?

i see no answer on this day.

i only hope this monster is backed into a corner

and soon might fade away.

 

what i mean to say is i will not dull my senses, reject anger, become sage and unfeeling

what i mean to say is i will not accept torched unity

even when the torches go away it will still be too soon.

what i mean to say is

#blm

New Paperback Edition for Cadivel

WOAH! There’s a brand new (and absolutely gorgeous) paperback edition for Cadivel, Parts I & II available for purchase on Amazon.com!

Get it at this link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1521994870

I hadn’t thought about Cadivel in quite a while, but suddenly had a blast of inspiration to get a hard copy out there. Truthfully, I haven’t read it in at least a year and a half, and there’s no doubt that my writing ability as well as my state of mind have carried me far past Cadivel. In order to update the book for 2017,  I included a short story that I wrote this spring entitled “A Well of Dandelions” in the edition.

It’s a bit pricey at $16.99, (printing is expensive too!) but the edition is a really beautiful, sturdy, and impressive paperback with over 500 pages of years of hard work, so I do hope you would consider doing me a great honor and making my book a part of your home library.

The next step? Hopefully you will see Cadivel in bookstores near you!

A Roadside View of the American Landscape

Dear friends,

Over the last two weeks, my friend Joe and I did a road trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Along the way we saw a lot of America: stunning mountains, sprawling oilfields, dirty roadside gas stations, historic jazz clubs. Here I invite you to take a look at some of my favorite photos and moments from the adventure. America is a huge place, overflowing with land, crises, and opportunities, ripe with swift and unexpected changes from road to road and town to town. Enjoy the journey.

Harrisonburg, Virginia

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The Appalachians are as forested as they come. 

Nashville, Tennessee 

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Nashville is a strange city. You descend out of the Appalachian mountains into the Tennessee Valley, flatter, but just as lush and forested. And then, with no warning, several pointy-eared skyscrapers appear, and at their base a town that resembles a small historical railroad crossing. Nashville is a party town for rock and country music.

Meridian, Mississippi

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Flat forest and flatter fields. There were intense thunderstorms, with rain as hard and heavy as hail all the way from Nashville to the Gulf of Mexico.

New Orleans, Louisiana

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Ruby-red sunset over a working neighborhood in New Orleans.

French Street, New Orleans

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One of the most famous jazz bars in New Orleans, Fritzel’s, represents the curious transatlantic history of jazz. Despite New Orleans being one of the birthplaces of jazz, Fritzel’s is styled after a German pub. Jazz hit Europe in a big way after the Second World War, and is more persistently popular on the other side of the Atlantic in comparison with America. Fritzel’s was packed the brim with tourists when I went. A musical tradition had crossed the ocean and come all the way home. Somehow, it didn’t lose the bluesy bayou soul along the way.

Jackson Square, New Orleans

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New Orleans has incredible historic architecture, a beautiful mix of tropical arches and patios and baroque French, with narrow streets, wide plazas and flowers hanging from every porch.

Jean Latiffe National Historic Preserve, Louisiana

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The bayou is hot. 90 degrees with 90% humidity is almost unbearable in the direct sunlight. Fortunately, deep in the bayou, thick tree cover shades your skin, melting together a thousand chirping crickets, humming bullfrogs, and singing birds. Most of the animals hide just out of sight, but you can feel and hear them.

Somewhere, East Texas

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Once you get into Texas, the land gets big. Despite the tree line you can still see field after field following the horizon into a hazy blur.

Austin, Texas

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There’s an oasis in the middle of Austin, a cool and clear spring river that runs through a park that centers the city. Austin is clean and modern, and the prehistoric spring at its center serves as a strange complement.

Somewhere, West Texas

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Somewhere in western Texas, the prickly pear cactus begins to thrive. Besides unidentifiable scraggly brush and short trees, it was the single most prominent plant all the way from Austin to Santa Fe. Even in Arizona and California we saw some tall and monstrous prickly pear, blackened and purpled at the base, paw-like green fans knotted together until they reached six feet. You can eat the berries if you cut them open with a knife (watch out for spines) and you can easily find prickly pear juice in this part of the country. Unfortunately, the berries weren’t ripe when we foraged a few.

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

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As you travel from Austin into New Mexico, the trees get shorter and shorter, and the scrub sparser and sparser as scorching desert climates take over. But even the desert has its treasured secrets. This natural cave leads 750 feet underground, past a thousand swarming bats and into the darkness. It goes to the unforgettable Carlsbad Caverns, full of monumental and expressive stalactites and stalagmites. These reaching, howling, recoiling, flexing mineral beings take on every imaginable form: slim porcupine spines, curved katanas, embracing lovers, Mayan temples, pungent mushrooms gusting spores. Some are over fifty feet tall. In the dark underground the air is cool. A good place for a nap.

Lincoln Forest, New Mexico

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It’s amazing what a little bit of elevation can do to a landscape. In twenty minutes we rose four thousand feet out of baking, shrubby desert into a full-blown evergreen forest. Just out of sight there is a field of fifty elk grazing. Within an hour we were back on scorched sands.

White Sands, New Mexico

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White Sands is an alien landscape. Long ago, a lakebed dried up. Strong winds blasting across the mountains blew its silted and dusty bottom into a hundred square miles of pure white sand dunes. At noon the white lizards come out for the dose of Southwest sunshine.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

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A geodesic dome north of Santa Fe. In the center of the dome, sound and energy seems to pool around you, pressing down and pushing out. Northern New Mexico is a region of mountains and art galleries, encouraging meditation for the mind and yoga for the body. The whole region feels a relatively strong connection to Native American practices, history, and beliefs. Native art, architecture, and contemporary politics are visible on murals, the main streets of towns, and in the daily papers.

Española, New Mexico

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Cliffs, hills, and grassy desert landscape. Hummingbirds, snakes, jackrabbits.

Sedona, Arizona

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We climbed a mountain for this view. First by we followed narrow trails up through jagged brush, and then climbed up chunks of crumbling stone. The tricolored bluffs of Sedona extend in diverse formations in every direction.

Arcosanti, Arizona

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Arcosanti is an eco-commune founded on principles of sustainable urban design. The fundamental idea? Urban sprawl is destructive to the environment and human psychology alike. Arcosanti feels like a different universe entirely on the inside with its 70s space-age concrete aesthetic and mediterranean gardens. On a Sunday, young people relax in the garden, talking or sketching, and the sounds of a piano trickle out from music rooms hidden beneath the patio.

Sonoran Desert, Arizona

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The desert is fucking hot. 110 degrees at noon gave me a headache in 120 seconds. And yet, somehow, the Saguaro Cactus pokes up its bald head, claiming the desert as its own without a second thought.

Joshua Tree, California

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Welcome to Joshua Tree. Being here feels like being underwater, in a surreal landscape with plants and rocks of bizarre forms. The humanoid rocks gives this part of the park a sense of urban density and unexpected community. Chipmunks, rabbits, spiny lizards, tarantulas. Outside the stony city, a diverse and baffling mix of dancing Joshua Trees and low-lying colorful scrub abounds. Bighorn sheep roam the rubble mountains beyond.

Downtown, Los Angeles

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Los Angeles is an unusual city. It has no real sense of gravity, no real downtown center of great importance to the people who live there. Yet even though the streets below are empty, at this rooftop bar an unexpected skyline emerges. As my friend said to me, “This does not feel like LA.”

Pacific Palisades, California

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I made it to the Pacific. The shadows of massive mountains cap the view to the north and east, and a strong wind comes in with the waves. Compared to the Atlantic, the Pacific is a different beast. Swimming in it you can tell it is bigger, more powerful. More force stirs in its endless depths, delivering surf-worthy waves for the sunny California Coast. I biked down from Pacific Palisades to Venice and had tacos and a fruit smoothie. 

*NEW MUSIC* Album Review: Daruma Ringo/達磨林檎 by Gesu no Kiwami Otome/ゲスの極み乙女

Disclaimer: Am I in over my head with this? Definitely. I’m neither steeped deep enough or versed well enough in Japanese language and culture to be really accurate or even respectful in this blog post. However, the music is amazing, so I will quietly use my Get Out of Jail Free pass. Hopefully I will introduce you to something new and exciting!

This is a fascinating, perplexing album, by a fascinating, perplexing band, especially to an American. Gesu no Kiwami Otome, which roughly translates as “The Most Extremely Vulgar Girl”, was formed in 2012 by the front-man of Japanese rock group Indigo La End, Enon Kawatani.

He transformed his band from a catchy, guitar focused indie act into a who-the-hell knows-what. Gesu no Kiwami Otome’s first album, Odorenainara Gesuninatte Shimaeyo, which very roughly translates as, “If you can’t dance then you must be a lowlife piece of shit”, is a frantic, out of control, piano-centric romp of an album. It storms through 29 minutes of music about dancing, interpreted as crazy piano riffs alternated with power guitar-rock, hush-hush rapping, male and female band members shouting back and forth, super catchy choruses, with the ugly, fierce, and relentless drama of life as a curtain to pull down at the conclusion of the frenzied dance.

Well, “The Most Extremely Vulgar Girl” is back with a full-length LP, Daruma Ringo, which translates as “Apple Dharma” (as in the Buddhist concept and historical figure Bodhidharma).

Besides the fact that I can’t even quite wrap my head around the title of the album, Kawatani is back with a vengeance. This time it’s not just about dancing, though, and it features some of the strongest songwriting, musicianship, and creativity that I have thus heard in an album by an artist from any country in 2017. It’s fast and frantic, beautiful and tender, expansive and progressive stampede of music, with all of the energy of Odorenainara Gesuninatte Shimaeyo, but with a lot more color to it, influences ranging from progressive rock to hip-hop, and has a lot more sonic invention to soak in along the way.

The album kicks off with “Happy Apple”, a frantic piano dance with one of the band’s typical stellar jazz piano solos, and one of the catchiest choruses of 2017 (piano chord progression is on point). The album moves through a series of moods, each compelling in its own right: the highway cruising, beat-focused groove of track #2 (Shadow Song); those cases where the groove kicks into overdrive and loses itself to progressive drumming (track #3, Mr. Bodhidharma) and insane background doo-wops (track #4, That Tokyo); chilled out, textured atmospheres (tracks #5 and 11, id2 and id3). My personal favorite section of the album is “Selfish Youth” (track #9) to the end. Selfish Youth is an incredible mixture of catchy-as-fuck guitar licks, and a complex structure that builds carefully to a finish, keeping track of its own momentum.

From there on out, you get a crazy math-rock tirade (track #10, “I want to be your kind of novelist”), an emotional, fast-paced ballad (track #12, “Dancer in the Dancer”), and it all ends on a nutso funk jam (“Story of a Lowlife”).

Each track is unique in its own right, and altogether creates an album that, while not quite cohesive, fits together through its forceful ambition and inventiveness. It’s weird, for sure, but that doesn’t mean you won’t like most of it.

I’m not going to attempt to analyze the lyrics and meanings of the songs, since my Japanese level is simply not there yet. But there is a lot of interesting material to soak up, especially in tracks 3, 4, 8, and 9. The image of the “Most Extremely Vulgar Girl” strikes me as an ironic interpretation of the stereotypical sexy Japanese schoolgirl, an interpretation that can be seen in J-pop artists such as Oomori Seiko. For Seiko and for Kawatani as well (I think), the cutesy desirability implodes and reveals how fucked up its own concept really is. From there, identity moves on to either self-destruction (through dance for Kawatani, as seen in Seiko’s opening track “TOKYO BLACK HOLE”), or to revealing that self-acceptance and a motivated overcoming of cartoon stereotypes might lead to something truly good (through dance for Kawatani, as seen in Seiko’s closing track “Shonen Manga and Shoujou Manga”).

Bottom line: Apple Dharma is a worthwhile listen for anyone who likes music, regardless of your knowledge of or experience with Japanese culture. The catchy choruses and fiery solos are simply too fun to ignore, and the creativity is inescapable. There are plenty of parts where Kawatani overreaches: where things get too weird, or certainly where ideas get overdone or in the way of the listening experience. But that’s to be expected for an album with this level of explosive force behind it, and it still manages to wrap up at a neat 53 minutes. I respect that.

CHECK IT OUT ON SPOTIFY! Search Gesu no Kiwami Otome!

My rating: 8.9/10