Archive for the ‘Found Object’ Category

Object Unfound

May 13, 2012

The centennial celebration of the 1912 gift of cherry trees to the city of Washington, DC has now ended, and the last cherry blossom petals have blown away.  Because of their annual spectacular display along the Tidal Basin, these trees are a part of the American landscape well-known about even by people who have never seen them in person.  What is less well-known about is the reciprocal gift of 50 dogwoods presented by former President Taft and his wife to the city of Tokyo in 1915.

When the Tree learned about this gift a few years ago, we set out on a search for the trees not only in cyberspace but in the wooded spaces of some of Tokyo’s many parks.  Our objective:  To find a living specimen of the original 50.

Led by an on-line article in the Japan Times, we visited Hibiya Park, where, the article claimed, we could find a contingent of the original group of dogwoods.  While we did find a copse of dogwoods there, beautifully in bloom, we also found signs indicating that none of them were part of the 1915 gift, but were later arrivals.

In a small park across from the National Diet Building we found another cluster of dogwoods, but these it turned out were a 1960 gift from the U.S. government to commemorate the completion of the Ozaki Memorial Hall, which was built on the grounds of the park.  (Below you can see the sign explaining the trees’ provenance.  Our translation staff has provided an English version.)

“In 1912 the Mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, presented cherry tree saplings to the city of Washington, DC for the furtherance of friendship between Japan and the United States.  In return, in 1915 dogwood trees were sent to Tokyo from the American government.

“Ozaki was instrumental in establishing our parliamentary government, and dedicated his life to the development of world peace and democracy.  He is known as the Father of Constitutional Government.

“When it was decided to build the Ozaki Memorial Hall (now the Parliamentary Museum) in honor of Ozaki’s achievements, 250 dogwood saplings were once again donated by the American government, and were planted here upon completion of the hall’s construction in 1960.”

Finally, following a tip from an anonymous blog, which claimed that all but one of the original 50 dogwoods had died, and that this lone survivor could be found in the Koishikawa Botanical Garden of Tokyo University, we went there to verify its existence with our own eyes.  We stopped at the entrance gate to ask the security guard where we might find the dogwood, only to be told that it had been chopped down a few years ago because it had “gone bad.”  Object unfound.

In spite of the dwindling away of the original 50, there is no lack of American dogwoods (cornus florida) in Japan today.  Over the years, it has become the tree of choice for gifts to Japan by American civic and governmental groups like the Rotary Club or the State of Ohio.  And, as with the 1960 gift noted above, by the federal government as well.  During the recent visit of Prime Minister Noda to Washington, Secretary of State Clinton announced at a dinner in his honor the gift of 3,000 dogwoods to the people of Japan.

It remains to be seen how long this renewed symbol of friendship between the two nations will last in the unspecified “Tokyo park” for which the trees are destined.


The Warmth of a Maine Winter

April 3, 2011


Here in Maine it is still winter, and I miss the flowers that bloom in Tokyo even in the coldest of weather.  I stay indoors a lot, sitting by the wood stove trying to get warm.  Ever since the earthquake, I easily feel cold, and sometimes wake in the middle of the night shaking even if it’s warm under the blankets.  I am reminded of my Tokyo neighbor’s toy poodle who now refuses to go back inside the house, and when made to do so starts to shiver all over.  I guess it’s a natural reaction to large unsettling earthquakes.

But even if the weather is cold and snowy, warmth comes from the fire and from people.  A woman from Fed Ex came to the door the other day with a parcel addressed to me from one of my workplaces in Japan.  Noticing the return address she asked me, “Oh, do you know these people?  Are they okay?”  I told her I did know them; that I worked with them, and they were indeed okay.  When she found out I had just come from there, she started to cry.  “I feel so sorry for all those people over there!” she said, giving me a hug.

Concern for Japan is widespread in Maine.  According to an article in the March 23 issue of the Portland Forecaster , several Japan-related organizations in the Portland area have joined together to raise funds to help earthquake and tsunami victims.  Maine’s sister state is Aomori Prefecture, a relationship which began, according to the article, in 1889 when Aomori residents helped to rescue American sailors shipwrecked off their coast.  Now Maine wants to return the favor by sending funds to Aomori.

Other recent fund-raising efforts in Maine included a donation of $250,000 from L.L. Bean, which operates outlets in Japan, and origami lessons at the Bangor Mall, where for a donation of $2.00 apiece you could learn to create a beautiful object and appreciate Japan at the same time.


A third-grade boy I know donated $6.00 and created these origami items at the Bangor Mall booth.

Stellated Icosahedron

Asked what the experience was like, he told the Tree, “I loved it.  It was just amazing how everything fitted together.”

Any thoughts about Japan?  “I thought a lot about Japan, about how it is kind of broke down and we are helping Japan,” he replied.


Thank you, Mainers!


Found Object: A Mad Tea Party

February 4, 2011

Here’s a Train Story from many years ago.  Sitting across from me on the Tozai subway line were an elderly couple who, judging from their rustic dress and sun-beaten complexions, were probably visiting Tokyo from the countryside.  The man was peering at a map of the Tokyo subway system.  I had one of those, too.  The complexity of the system for newcomers was bad enough, but even worse, the names of the stations, in tinily printed Chinese characters, even if you could understand them all, were nearly impossible to make out with the naked eye.

It was a warm summer day, and all the windows of the car were open because even though we were now underground, the Tozai line travels above ground at either end, and this must have been in the days before the trains were air-conditioned.  The man turned the map this way and that, mumbled something to his wife and then letting out a loud “humph!” tossed the map out of the window behind him.

So much for maps and directions in Tokyo.  And it’s not only the train system that can be so challenging.  Often while wandering the streets or the underground passageways of the subway stations, I’m reminded of a scene in Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland where Alice, coming upon a crossroad of sorts, is confronted with a profusion of conflicting arrows, pointing every which way—including up.

There’s a spot in the Shinjuku San-chome subway station that illustrates this analogy well.  Six passageways converge here, and signs point the way not only to the three subway lines that run through the station (the Shinjuku, the Fukutoshin, and the Marunouchi), but also to the numerous exits (30 of them from A1 to E10) and to the entrances to Isetan Department Store, which occupies the space just above this spot.

The other day when I passed through here, I was surprised to find something new:  a mural depicting the Mad Tea Party from (this time) Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Close inspection revealed it to be an artwork by Yoko Yamamoto,  a mosaic constructed of tesserae of what looks like painted pottery.   The posting of the wall art is sponsored by Isetan Department Store, but there is no mention from either sponsor or artist of the relevance of the location to the theme of the art.  Is it possible that they did not notice the connection between the tea party scene and all the arrows around it, pointing every which way including up?

The artist’s message to those who view the mural says that she imagined traveling light years away to another dimension when she made this illustration of Carroll’s tea party, and she hopes we who view the mural imagine this, too.  But I don’t see any need for one’s imagination to go into warp speed; all one need do is turn around.

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."

"I don't much care where..."

"Then it doesn't much matter which way you go."

" long as I get somewhere."

"Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough."


November 2, 2010

I found this Obama Mask for sale at a toy shop in Asakusa.  The mask itself is hidden by the wrapping, but it looks just like the picture on the package.


Found Object

July 7, 2010

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FOUND OBJECT: The other day I saw an ad on TV for Spam sushi…

…That’s probably all you need to know, but just in case you are wondering what it looks like:  it’s a slice of Spam laid on top of a bite-sized clump of white rice wrapped in a thin strip of nori seaweed.

I suppose the Spam people are thinking ahead to the days when all the tuna has been fished out of existence and something will have to take its place.

Vengeful Ghosts

June 23, 2010

FOUND OBJECT. Near the Nishiogi Branch Library, next to a bridge that crosses the Zenpukuji River, is a small vacant lot still thick with trees and bushes.  Trash is sometimes dumped here, an old futon or a plastic bag full of wrappings and garbage from a take-out convenience store lunch.  It is the home of several stray cats, too, and when I pass by I often see empty cat food tins, indicating that someone in the neighborhood is providing them with meals.

At the edge of the lot I recently noticed this small altar.

The sign warns that “…the revengeful ghosts of abandoned cats will visit those who have abandoned them without fail.” While I stood at the side of the road copying these words into my notebook, my legs began to itch.  I was attacked by fleas.

Ono Chikkyo: Artist of the Non-Spectacular

May 12, 2010

ART SEEN. At one end of the ticket is printed a copy of a painting.  In the right foreground is a luminous green willow tree, and beyond it stretch rows of evenly spaced rice seedlings.  The water in the paddy reflects white cumuli floating upside down in a calm blue heaven.  There is no human figure in the picture.

The artist is Ono Chikkyo (1889-1979), whose works, more than 170 of them, were on display this past March and April at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.  The picture on the ticket is an illustration of a poem by the haiku poet Basho, which reads in English:  “They planted/an entire paddy/ere I moved from the willow tree.”

I could say the same about this exhibit.  Usually when I visit an art museum, I wander around looking for three or four works that I find especially appealing and focus on them alone rather than trying to take in everything.  But the Ono works seemed to demand that you look at all of them in order to understand just one of them even better.  Many of them held me at the spot in front of them, exerting a quiet magnetic force from which it was hard to break away.

Ono Chikkyo was a nihonga artist, which means he painted in the traditional Japanese style, using special techniques, materials and subject matter.  I am not an expert on the techniques or how they differ from those used in so-called “western art,” but it is clear that the subject matter is the natural world and the daily living of humans that is woven into and part of that natural world.  In Ono’s paintings trees and mountains and water abound, as well as light and color, which shift, deepen, or fade with the changing seasons.  The human presence is small, and sometimes hard to detect at first, a tiny figure in a vast rural  landscape:  a man bent over tilling his vegetable patch with a hoe, a woman standing and gazing at a view, someone tending to farm animals.  It is not the individual features of the people which are important but their stances and locations within the wider natural scene.

“The nature which I take as my subject is not that of a special place, but an innocent-looking water surface or field, and the clouds and trees that one looks up to,” Ono wrote.  He found much of his subject matter in his native Okayama Prefecture, located in western Japan on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea.  The prefecture is heavily forested, mountainous in the north, with rivers running to the sea, all providing suitable material for Ono’s concentration on the “non-special.”  (He was born in the city of Kasaoka, which maintains the Kasaoka Ono Chikkyo Art Museum, where most of the works on display at the Tokyo venue can be seen when not on tour.)

In an early work, “A Day in Late Winter” (1910), a path winds through a field surrounded by soft hills scattered here and there with trees.  On each side of the path an evergreen tree rises up over everything else.  In the distance the hills culminate in a snow-capped peak.  Blending into the landscape like one of the smaller trees, and making its way toward you between the two taller trees, is a human figure carrying a heavy load on his back.  The entire scene is rendered in dark shades of brown and green, with the exception of the white snow on the distant mountain and the splash of yellow on the human figure’s back.  The human is dwarfed by the height of the trees and the distant peak, yet is very much of the scene, not walking through it but in it.

In another work, “Winter Day Album” (1928), a white hut sits in the middle of withered fields under a gray sky.  Greenish blue evergreens form a shelter behind it, and the fields themselves are a jumble of soft, undulating shapes and colors:  green, pink, brown, gray.  A small white path winds in and out of the fields and past the hut.  A woman in an orange coat stands on this path, with one hand in a pocket of the coat and the other held at her mouth.  She is too small to see what she is doing.  Is she eating something?  Did she set out on a walk to the village and then suddenly realize she had forgotten to bring her wallet?  Possibly she just has a bag slung over one shoulder.  She looks lost in thought, unaware of the important role she plays in bringing a spark of warmth to the landscape that is just beginning to stir and stretch itself out of its winter sleep.

Nihonga uses different paints from western-style oil-painting or even watercolor, though nihonga paints are water-based.  The pigments are for the most part made from natural ingredients like rocks, shells, coral and semi-precious stones, which are ground into powders.  The resulting palette is different from that found in western paintings.  In Ono’s works the colors are muted and matte, yet rich in depth and variation. [See this issue’s Found Object section.]

Ono also wrote that “if you become open-minded, nature comes closer.”  His later works seem to reflect this idea as his palette becomes deeper, more vibrant, and he begins to focus on smaller things, framing a more limited and close-up view:  the vertical lines of tree trunks standing in snow, the pattern of white-capped waves rolling into an inlet, the reflection of sunset light on water surfaces.

My favorites are a series of trees which Ono began in the mid-60s and continued into the last decade of his life; views of a field, a river, clouds or sky at sunset, or so you think at first until you realize you are looking at the field or sky through the branches of a foregrounded tree.  These trees are painted with intricate care and detail, as if the artist were determined not to leave out even the most minute ramification of a branch.  The background is no less important now—-indeed, many of them are rendered in vivid pinks and oranges—-but you begin to wonder about all the other scenes in your life that you may have looked at, while failing to see what was immediately in front of you, framing them.

Ono Chikkyo teaches you to look at the “non-spectacular” natural world around you with new eyes.  And then, when you pause on the way home from work or in the middle of an arduous outdoor task to take a closer look at your surroundings, you might be startled to find yourself standing in the middle of one of his paintings.

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FOUND OBJECTS: Earlier this year I went with some friends to Nihonbashi, Tokyo’s financial district, where we visited a small art gallery.  Wandering through the side streets, we came upon a shop selling nihonga supplies.  Nearly one whole wall consisted of glass cabinets full of paint powders.

Yubendo sells not only nihonga paints, but also brushes (including a natural bristle cosmetic brush for $60) and attractive little souvenirs made from Japanese paper, as well as the paper itself.  For 400 yen you can also buy a “dream bag” full of colorful remnants of paper used to make the souvenirs. [Yubendo, 1-6-6 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo]

PHOTO GALLERY: Our Tree photographer was so impressed with the postcard reproductions I brought home with me from the Ono exhibit that she tried paying more attention to tree branches in the foreground as well as the small-scale presence of humans in the midst of nature in the photos she took of the recent cherry blossom bash at Zenpukuji Pond.

Totoro’s Tree

April 25, 2010

Feature Story:  A Tree Grows in Nishiogi! One cold day late last year I was out riding around Nishiogi on my bike.  I came upon a recently created vacant lot, surrounded by a fence made of vinyl sheeting.  I had forgotten the building that used to occupy this space but not the tree, which still stood in the middle of the lot, spreading its now bare branches skyward.  I took a picture of it because I felt sure it was doomed to be cut down, as all trees are cut down sooner or later in our town if they stand in the way of an ambitious development project.

This is a keyaki or zelkova tree.

Zelkovas are members of the Elm Family.  For those Tree readers who have never seen one, here’s a few words about them from Kevin Short, who writes a wonderful nature and folklore column for the Daily Yomiuri:  “The keyaki is an Asian tree, growing from Honshu Island south and west to Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula and mainland China….Keyaki wood is hard and true, with beautiful grain.  Many of the spectacular bowls and trays covered with urushi lacquer are carved from keyaki. Temples and shrines use the wood in beams and supports, and also in the intricate carvings on the walls and pillars.”  If you visit the grounds of a shrine, you are almost sure to find a keyaki towering above you.

The other day I opened up one of my bookmarked websites (called “Nishiogi Navi”) which covers local news, and there on the home page was a picture of this same tree.  Only now it had a name:  Totoro’s Tree.  It had not been cut down after all, but instead had become a local celebrity.  And the following morning, Sunday, April 18, a dedication ceremony would be held at the site of the tree to celebrate its rescue from the bulldozer and to open officially the new park that had been built around it.

According to this and other linked up websites, this zelkova had once held the status of “Valuable Tree” under the protection of Suginami Ward.  In March 2008, however, the heir to the landowner of the lot on which the Valuable Tree stood filed a request to have the protection status rescinded so that the tree could be removed to make room for a residential building.  Apparently permission was immediately granted.  (So much for “Valuable Tree” status!)  But the local residents “rose up against the planned felling of the tree” and started a “Save Totoro’s Tree” movement.  By June of the same year, they had collected 8,000 signatures calling for the tree’s preservation.  The ward caved in, bought the land from the owner, and turned it into a park.

So last Sunday morning I actually got up early and took on the assignment of attending the ceremony.  (I asked other staff members to come with me, but they all grumbled about it being Sunday morning and so on, so I ended up going alone.)

Totoro’s Tree

The barrier around the lot had been removed, and in its place was a garden plot of straggly flowering shrubs set out in terraced rows.  The park itself consisted of bare earth, still muddy from the recent rain spell, and a couple of benches scattered around the edges.  The tree had changed too.  Its branches were now adorned with pale green fuzzy-looking leaves and flowers.  I kept looking up into those branches and wondering what the tree was making of all the fuss going on down below on its behalf.

I was not the only member of the press there.  All the “front row” spots were already filled with cameramen and their crews.  We neighborhood people had to make do with less advantageous positions around the edges.  (So no complaints please about the poor quality of the photographs.)  The ward had brought out all the requisite paraphernalia for this sort of ceremony in Japan:  a red and white striped awning for VIPs to sit behind, a red and white ribbon stretched in front of the tree for the formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, a time capsule (in which I later learned were placed newspaper cuttings about the movement to save the tree so that later generations will realize the “valuableness” of trees), and a display of 250 potted geraniums to be given out to the first 250 people to arrive at the park.  (I was no. 235.  And yes, I did go home with a new geranium for the Tree office.)

Press Section

The ceremony consisted of several speeches by local politicians and big wigs, the burying of the time capsule, and the cutting of the ribbon.  We heard first from the Vice Mayor of Suginami Ward, who told us that this tree was now the symbol of Suginami, and he considered it the finest example of a zelkova in the whole ward.  I was reminded of a scene in the Akira Kurosawa masterpiece Ikiru (To Live).  In that film, a civil servant who works at the local ward office fights on behalf of local housewives who want to get a vacant lot turned into a playground for their children.  They run into opposition at every turn, from bureaucratic red tape to big money interests and gangsters, but the lowly civil servant fights on unflinchingly and the park finally comes into being.  At its dedication, however, all the speeches are made by the politicians, who also take all the credit for the park’s existence.  Not that the vice mayor was taking all the credit for Totoro’s tree:  he was not. But not only did we not hear from any of the “non-important” people who had actually done the  hard work to make this park happen, but the vice mayor bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor who played the part of the mayor in the film.

Vice Mayor’s Speech

A member of the ward assembly spoke next, in the glib and flowing tones of a typical politician.  All these politicians speak the same way, very fast and all seemingly impromptu, full of high-sounding polite expressions, so reassuring on the surface if you don’t try too hard to understand what they are saying but which if you could slow down the flow long enough to hear what is actually being said would evaporate into meaningless and empty sounds.  “It’s so wonderful to have this tree here blah blah blah and thanks to all the hard work and cooperation of everyone involved we could have this tree here blah blah blah and we must do all we can to save nature which is a treasure for our children blah blah blah and something everyone wants and needs blah blah blah and I myself will do all I can for nature and will appreciate this tree in my heart forever blah blah blah.”

Meanwhile, all over the ward, as well as the entire city of Tokyo, trees are being felled and flowering bushes uprooted at an ever-faster rate. We here at the Tree are of course happy that this one particular example of a zelkova was saved, and we think that the successful efforts of the residents who led the signature campaign are an encouraging sign. But we also fear that this “symbol” of Suginami means just that:   a token payment to the natural world which can be used as a sign of  good “tree-saving” intentions, thus sparing bureaucrats and politicians the more difficult and demanding task of revising and revoking policies and regulations that hasten and encourage destruction of Tokyo’s natural environment.

[Totoro’s Tree is located in 38 Nishiogikita 4-chome.  To walk there from Nishiogi Station, go out the north exit and go left on the shopping street known as Ichibangaijoshidaidori 「一番街女子大通り」.  Walk about five minutes until you come to a cross street with a furniture store on the right corner.  Turn here and walk straight about four blocks to the park.  You’ll pass the Newbury Cafe on your right, a nice place to stop for a drink or light meal on your way back to the station.]


THIS JUST IN: Tokyo Tree resident poet wins Honorable Mention in 2010 Kikakuza Haibun Contest. We are pleased to announce that our poet-in-residence was recently among those honorably mentioned in a haibun contest held by Kikakuza, a linked verse association here in Japan.  She will receive this award for “After a Night of Cold Rain,” a modified version of a haibun first seen in the pages of the Tree, in which she described the Grand Tour cohort’s excursion to Nikko in essay form with a few haiku thrown in.


Found Object: I walked out of the Tree office the other day and found a gargoyle attached to my next door neighbor’s balcony.   On closer inspection, it was the household pooch, catching a few rays.

Gargoyle Sighting

“Shoulda brought my shades…”

Train Story

March 25, 2010

Kore wa nani?

Hidden away on the back streets of Ogikubo, waiting in quiet composure, is the Suginami Poetry Hall.  The property consists of a house and garden, neither of which are very large.  It was originally owned by Mr. Kadokawa, the founder of a publishing company.  After his death, his heirs gave the property to Suginami Ward, and last year the ward opened the house and garden to the public.

The rooms of the house can be rented out by groups for tea ceremonies and poetry composing, hence “Suginami Poetry Hall.”  Its original name, however, is Gengisanbo, an expression that gave the Tree translation staff a hard time.  Sanbo means mountain villa.  The staff could find no such word as gengi, however, in any of the office dictionaries.  Apparently it is a made-up word, which Mr. Kadokawa, a haiku poet, used as his pen-name. It plays on his own first name by using different Chinese characters to spell it.  And these two characters, gen and gi, mean something like “illusion” or “dream” and “frolic” or “being silly,” respectively.

So please forgive them if they’ve got it all wrong, but the staff, after much argument, settled on this English version of gengisanbo:  The Silly Villa of Illusion.

The pictured mystery item can be found in the garden of the Silly Villa.  I will explain what it is at the end of this issue.

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Train Stories. Tuesday, March 23, 2010.  Last night after giving a lesson at the home of a private student, I boarded my usual bus for Shibuya Station.  I noticed at once that something was different.  The bus was much more crowded than usual.  I’ll do anything to avoid a crowd in Tokyo, so instead of going all the way to Shibuya, I got off at an earlier stop near Ebisu Station.  I can catch the JR Yamanote line at either station, but Shibuya happens to be one stop closer to Shinjuku, the station where I transfer to the Chuo line.

I walked up the several flights of stairs and escalator to the ticket gates, where mobs of people were standing around listening to announcements about train delays.  Two JR lines run through Ebisu Station, the Saikyo and the Yamanote.  The announcement said that due to some kind of mishap on the Saikyo line, all trains running in and out of Shinjuku Station were experiencing delays.  The Yamanote line, however, while not running at the moment, was due to start up again any minute.

After some quick thinking, I did an about-face and walked back down all the stairs.  Even if the train did start up again, I knew that it would be packed from here to Shinjuku, and I wanted to avoid being squeezed into a metal container which might experience even further delays down the line.  I considered my options:  I could go back out to the street and wait for another bus for Shibuya, where I would have a greater choice of alternative routes home.  Shibuya has several private lines besides the JR, and one of them, the Keio Inokashira, could take me to Kichijoji, one stop beyond Nishiogikubo. This is like going home the back way.  The trouble with this option was that everyone else at the big station of Shibuya might get the same idea, turning the Inokashira train too into a sardine can on wheels.

Then there was the other option:  the subway system.  The Hibiya subway line has a station at Ebisu.  If I took this line, it wouldn’t take me anywhere near where I live; in fact, it would take me right back toward the center of Tokyo in the direction from which I had just come.  But once there, I could transfer to the Marunouchi line, which would take me as far as Ogikubo, a station from which I could walk home if necessary.  I decided to take my chances on the subway, and headed downstairs into the ground.  The time was shortly after 8:30 PM.

The subway cars were relatively empty at this time of night, and I had no trouble finding a seat.  The trip home took about another hour. I stopped at the supermarket near my house to do some shopping and arrived home at 10 PM.  The TV was on because I had recorded a suspense drama earlier in the day, and I walked into a live news broadcast of the train delay story.  On the TV screen controlled chaos reigned:  People still stuck on stopped trains; people squeezing themselves into trains whose doors were about to close; people being led away down the tracks from an inoperable train; people who had fallen ill from being too long in a confined space being hauled off on stretchers.  No one yet knew the cause of the breakdown, but it seemed to have something to do with a damaged pantograph on the roof of one train car.

As we have written about in an earlier issue, train delays cause all kinds of problems for the flow of traffic here in Tokyo.  Because the city is so dense with people, we have to keep moving all the time to avoid bottlenecks and traffic jams.  A breakdown on one line, the Saikyo, has repercussions not just for passengers of that particular train or that particular line, but for everyone everywhere all over the intricately interconnected system.  I was fortunate to find an overlooked section of the system that had escaped these repercussions, was operating on time, and was not picking up the overflow from the backed up trains up above.  Once I left Ebisu Station, the only excitement I encountered was the frenzied reporting of the newsman blaring out of the TV set when I got home.

Postscript: Thursday, March 25.  A brief article in this morning’s Asahi Shimbun informs us of the details:  “A poorly fastened communications cable severed by a passing train…came in contact with a power supply line, causing a short circuit” at 7:18 PM.  Service was stopped on three lines for three and a half hours and 260,000 people were affected.

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What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping? On March 14, retired biochemist and medical doctor Masaichi Yamamura gave a talk to the Tokyo Unitarian Fellowship on his research into the phenomenon known in Japanese as ki, and in Chinese as chiKi is a kind of energy that circulates throughout our body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, ki plays a major role in maintenance of health and well-being.  Ill health results when ki gets blocked or imbalanced.

Through his experiments with mice Dr. Yamamura discovered that ki is actually the sound created by our muscle movements.  “Our body is an orchestra playing a symphony,” he said.  Acceleration within a muscle creates vibration, which in turn becomes sound traveling through our bodies as the “music” of ki.

On the way home from his lecture, I recalled the zen koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and wondered if Dr. Yamamura’s research had provided an answer.  If you move one hand through the air as if it were “clapping” the other hand, which you actually keep down at your side, the movement in the muscles of the moving hand would create vibrations or “sound” even though you couldn’t hear it.  (Of course, a zen master might point out that “clapping with one hand” is both physically and semantically impossible, and therefore a paradox which remains unresolved by my simplistic grasp of ki.)

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According to an article (“A life of slime”) in the January 23, 2010 issue of The Economist, researchers at Hokkaido University (in northern Japan) conducted an experiment with slime molds to see if their transport networks were similar to human ones.  They laid oat flakes on a surface representing the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, placing them at the locations of major cities.  Then they put a slime mold on Tokyo Station, and it began to form links between the food sources.  Here’s what happened:  “They found that many of the links the slime mould made bore a striking resemblance to Tokyo’s existing rail network. [The slime mold] had not simply created the shortest possible network that could connect all the cities, but had also included redundant connections that allow the creature (and the real rail network) to have resilience to the accidental breakage of any part of it.” [bold face my addition]

Please note the section in bold type.  As we report in this issue, a part of the Tokyo rail network “accidentally broke” the other evening.  The fact that I was able to find a way home nonetheless is apparently evidence of the brilliance of Tokyo’s rail system planners, or maybe the intelligence of slime molds, or is it the resemblance of slime mold thought to human thought?  Now I’m not sure which…

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Kore wa nani?

Wrong if you guessed dinosaur eggs.  This is a suikinkutsuSui means water; kin means harp; kutsu means grotto.  Thus, “water harp grotto.”  It’s located just outside the tea ceremony room at the Silly Villa of Illusions.  When I dropped by the garden the other day, a volunteer guide found me in the bushes taking pictures of a stone image.  “Do you speak Japanese?” he asked me in perfectly reasonable English.  “Yes,” I answered, laughing, “but you speak English!”  Speaking from then on in Japanese, he said he’d be happy to answer any questions, so I told him I had come to take a picture of the suikinkutsu.  He led me up the path toward the house.

My guide explained that when people come to attend a tea ceremony in the teahouse, they first rinse their hands at the small stone basin in the garden, using the bamboo ladle to scoop the water and pour it over their hands.  The water drips over the blue stones in the circular area and flows down to the four white stones, where it seeps down into an earthenware pot which has been placed in a cavity hidden under the stones.  He demonstrated by rinsing his hands, and after a few seconds the plinking sound of water dropping into water in an enclosed space drifted melodically up through the stones.

Here’s an image I found at Wikipedia of what it might look like under the stones:

Cross section of a suikinkutsu

[This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at under the creative commons cc-by-sa 2.5 license.]


There’s another component to this audio delight:  Leaning against the house were some bamboo poles.  My guide brought one over and demonstrated how to place one end over the four white stones and the other at one’s ear.  I followed his example while he poured more water over the stones.

The bamboo pole, which is hollow, magnifies the sound of the water harp.  When I listened without the pole, the water drops made a light metallic ring, almost but not quite like a wind chime stirring in a delicate waft of air that you could not precisely locate.  But when I listened through the pole, I felt as if I were down there in the underground space, right in among the plinks and plashes.

I wonder if the music Dr. Yamamura says my body is making as ki flows through it sounds anything like this water harp.

Here are some websites (in Japanese) where you can listen to a variety of suikinkutsu.

Scroll down the page at the above website till you see a player and click it to start it.  What you will hear is more raucous than what I heard at the Silly Villa of Illusions.

You can hear the water harp just by going to the above website.  This one has a steadier rhythm than what I heard.

This is a Youtube page.  It includes a video as well as the sound, though the video shows only the water basin, not the suikinkutsu itself.  It was recorded at Enkouji Temple in Kyoto.  This one sounds most like the one at Silly Villa.

You can click on the other thumbnail photos at the Youtube site and enjoy a few other water harps too.  In one of them, a man and a woman are walking around in what seems to be a temple compound, and they find the suikinkutsu.  He wonders if he can record the sound, but the woman thinks not.  However, a few notes come through.  Then the man trains his camera on the ground around him.  It is all paved in concrete.

“Why have they done this?” he asks.  “What a waste!  They should have consulted me first….”

He could be saying this as a joke, meaning simply that had anyone asked his opinion as a tourist he would have said he did not want the grounds to be paved in concrete.  Yet there is something serious in his voice which suggests to me the possibility that he himself is something of an expert on landscape design.  In any case, he is dismayed at finding the ground encased in concrete, a feeling shared by the entire staff of the Tree.

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