Archive for the ‘Kore wa nani’ Category

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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