Friday, March 31, 2006

 

A Night on the Town (in which Catherine Zeta Jones makes an appearance)



New York is a wonderful place for a night on the town, particularly when it is spring, and you have just experienced your first 70 degree day.

Last night we started with dinner at the restaurant known as Ono. It is located in the Gansevoort Hotel, which is super chic and apparently popular with Lindsay Lohan. We didn't see her at the restaurant, of course, because everyone knows Lindsay Lohan doesn't need food. I, however, do.



I liked the logo outside the restaurant. It spins around and around on the sidewalk, which is why in this photo, it appears to say "Oco" and not "Ono." My partner, the design-sensitive one, exclaimed, "Great typography!" As we were in New York, a woman stopped, looked at the type face and said, "Yeah. It's a great font."





The restaurant is billed is Japanese, but I saw nothing Japanese anywhere -- except for the sake. The menu has a funny thing on the cover with a man standing; when you tilt the menu, the man bows. The photos aren't so great, but you can see how he sticks his hands out when he bows; they don't do that in Japan. But it was a cute effect.



We had a few things to eat, but I think my favorite might be this parfait; it's made with grape jelly, uni and foie gras. I am feeling very full this morning.



See how cool the decor is? I liked this chandelier. I must also point out this incredibly cool bag which my friends Isao and Nono gave me made of fabric used in between tatami mats. It's so beautiful, I'm almost afraid to use it. But we are pretty sure Isao would approve of the bag making its debut in such hip surroundings.



We had to take our bag from Nono to the restaurant known as Ono. Wouldn't you?



We went for a walk to Gaansevoort street, and what should we see but a movie set! You have never seen such a fascinating mix of New Yorkers. Designer, club-goers, a couple with their enormous St. Bernard. Food for the crew. . .



Our favorite restaurant Florent had never looked so well lit. We waited while a crew blew some fake snow into the air. Props masters carefully dusted cars with fake snow. And then Catherine Zeta Jones arrived.




She walked across the street in the "snow" while a few extras pretended to be cold. She did this take numerous times, checking with the director to see exactly where she should transition from the street (lovingly lit and bathed in water) to the sidewalk. She also smiled at us. Or maybe at my partner. He's the cute one.



The papparazzi were waiting for her. This camera man (in black) was talking loudly about the top dollar he is paid to take pictures.



How do you top an evening like that? Well, you have to go hear some live music, of course. We went to the 55 Bar.



On the way, we passed this flowering tree. Spring is romantic in New York.

 

Cup Sake and Nigori Sake

yokote nigori sake

I tasted a lot of sake in Akita-ken, but my favorite was the nigorizake pictured above (you reading this, Mike?) and which I bought at Yokote. It was so good, I bought one bottle, and two small cup sakes which featured a picture of a kamakura, or snow igloo in honor of the famous snow festival taking place in that town.

One of the cup sakes never made it as a souvenir; once I got it home and everyone discovered how good it was, we decided to drink it ourselves.

Yesterday I picked up a copy of the March issue of Dancyu only to find that there is an entire article devoted to the cup sakes of Akita-ken. It was wonderful to see the different designs, and to see this form of sake consumption getting some recognition.

dancyu cup sake

This article gives a little history on the reputation of cup sake in Tokyo (not so good) and points out that recently cup sake is starting to get more recognition.

They certainly do not conjure the best of images, being mostly consumed by solitary salarymen, and often in less than three swigs. But believe it or not, they may be worth a second look.
When you get out into the countryside, the cup sake found out there is always one of the local brews.


Take a look at this blog too which shows a number of cup sakes from different areas. I love how each region has its own design, sometimes capitalizing on a local matsuri. Heavy though these cups may be, they make great gifts, and I'm glad I came home with my nigorizake (though my initial idea for a souvenir was an XBox 360, which wouldn't have worked here anyhow).




After we drank all the nigori sake at home, we despaired that we would never find anything quite as good again. And we didn't for a while there. But last night at Ono restaurant, we ordered a golden colored sake. And it was really tasty! Next stop is to see where this is sold in NYC.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

 

No More Knockoffs?

Never!

There was a time when I wanted an Izod shirt so badly that I actually hand-embroidered a fake alligator and put it on a sweater I had bought in Japan. For a finishing touch, a nice boy gave me the label off of his authentic Izod sweater and I sewed it in over my sweater's original tag. The problem, of course, is that if you were a quiet but inwardly precocious child like me, it was very, very hard to keep quiet about this kind of prank. When people came up to congratulate me on my new sweater, I'd lead them on for a while, then go in for the "big reveal."

I never managed to do a good Polo logo. There was something about the way the polo rider's head was turned and the horses legs were bent that made it difficult to do neatly by hand.

I was just enormously frustrated as a teenager that our shopping options made it so clear who had a real Izod shirt and who did not; it seemed so obvious to me that there was room in the market for stylish but affordable knockoffs, and now, all these years later, there are shops where you can go to find a decent "Prada" looking bag if that is what you want.

The New York Times has an article (reg. req'd) this morning about the proliferation of knockoffs in fashion. A similar article ran in the Telegraph last year. The Personally, I think the whole knockoff thing is fabulous, though it makes shopping for truly original pieces to add to your closet a challenge . . . or an adventure, depending on your personality or point of view.




A few designers, like Zac Posen and Diane von Furstenberg have banded together to try to pass legislation that will protect "original designs." Allen B. Schwartz, who owns, like, the most successful knock-off company ever says:

"That is the most ridiculous thing," Mr. Schwartz said. "There is no such
thing as an original design. All these designers are getting their inspiration
from things that were done before. To me a spaghetti strap is a spaghetti strap,
and a cowl neck is a cowl neck."



Personally, I love all the kockoffs, but then I also tend to like a little bit of chaos thrown into an ordered world to see how people will react.





How original is design really? A few years ago when I went to Mexico, I fell in love with a small store selling original Mayan art. We even came home with a few pieces; I absolutely loved this oil painting by a Mayan shamaness (detail above); for me it showed the power of storytelling and myth all at once.

The store owner, who was German, had a few nice pieces of embroidered Mayan textiles. I admired them and then he said to me:

"I had more a few weeeks ago. But John Galliano came and bought almost everything I had."

Well, that was pretty interesting. And, hey, no coincidence, what did John Galliano design for the following year's of fall collection?




I happen to love John Galliano. He is exactly the kind of intense, creative, bizarre personality I like and feel comfortable with. Never mind that, since I'm neither an Amazonian, gorgeous woman nor a young gay man, I'm not likely to ever get his attention. For those who are keeping score, can you believe that this is something like the 5th year that the peasant blouse and skirt are still around? I won't give Galliano full credit for introducing it into our closets (or the racks of H&M) but I think it's pretty clear that he was a major factor in its sudden popularity. Plus, as my friend Debbie says, there is the fact that embroidery is very cheap if you contract labor in China.

But all this did make me wonder and think about how things come "into vogue." It also makes me think about how writers come up with stories, and deal with the pesky issue of cultural appropriation and originality, which will probably be a part of the dialogue in writer's circles for a long time to come.

In addition to someone like Galliano going off on his research trips, I have also come to notice how clothing designers pick through vintage stores to look for inspiration. There is, for example, and incredible resale shop near where I live. If you go there on a given afternoon -- and particularly on a Friday or Saturday -- you will see, alongside poorer New Yorkers looking for a bargain, models, Manhattanites and fashion designers looking for something to knock-off. Every now and then, when I am in a picking frenzy, dealers will come up to me in Chez Marie and ask me if I am a) a dealer or b) a designer. When I say that I am neither, they do invariably ask me if I am interested in working for them as a picker (ie., I pick clothes that I think are stylish, and turn them over for resale or design research. I have always said "No.")

The other thing I have noticed -- and I do wish I have photos, but I don't for obvious reasons -- is that if you go to a true sample sale in New York, you will often find for sale, alongside the samples of famous designers, racks of "vintage clothes" which a designers used to inspire their own creations. How wierd is that? Not only can you buy a discarded sample, but you can also buy the original thrift store item which inspired the sample!

I am not the only one out there going to resale shops like this. It's a growing trend and has been for a while. And the designers and store owners are responding by actually putting vintage items for sale in retail stores.

How do you legally protect originality? Writers are forever talking about how there are really only a few plots (romance, quest, tragedy, etc.). Cynical readers constantly say things like, "Well, I thought it was clearly John Fowles The Magus but set in Silicon Valley during the boom years." I mean, even to pitch a novel, you are supposed to say things like: "Think Amy Tan but with a Godfather twist" to describe a book. So, are there really only a few designs just as there are a few plots? Is everything just inspiration or a reinterpretation?

The aforementioned New York Times article has this quote;

Stan Herman, the president of the Council of Fashion Designers, sees the
matter as clear cut. "It's not as complex as everybody's making it," he said.
"To take somebody's design and make a line-for-line copy, that should be
stopped."



This makes sense to me. You can't plagiarize, and you shouldn't be able to do line copies in fashion. After that, things get murky.

Monday, March 27, 2006

 

The Next Great Story

So here's an interesting article on CBS about the future of gaming. The articles asks whether or not the gaming world will ever see the equivalent of Moby Dick (a great story told through the literary medium) or Citizen Kane (a great story told in the film medium). You already know my thoughts about this. My intuitive response is to say that yes, of course we'll have great video games which speak to the human condition in a way that is revealing and wise. Sure, games are fun (they are called "games" after all), but my suspicion is that as the industry develops, players will increasingly have the chance to experience something cathartic.

Before you laugh, consider the nimbleness of games -- their ability to consider different endings, the freedom games give you to leap from world to world and pick up narratives where you left off, which is closer to the way we experience real life (especially if you are the kind of person who gets on an airplane and establishes and re-establighes relationships in different countries). Literature has a harder time doing this. To illustrate the point, one interviewee in the article refers to War and Peace.

If we take Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" (the Russian epic that reconstructs Napoleon's invasion of Russia and its turning point at Borodino) as an example, Jenkins says that it is as if Tolstoy desperately wanted to be game designer Will Wright or Sid Meier. Tolstoy wanted a medium that allowed him to simulate this event and then rearrange the pieces to see what the outcome would be. He was looking for a way out of the static narrative.

Jenkins elaborates, "The last hundred pages [of "War and Peace"] is this essay that Tolstoy wrote, saying 'if the Russians had done this differently, then this would have been the result and if the French had done this differently then this would have been the result.’ "It's not hard to look at 'War and Peace' and say that this wanted to be a video game.


Certainly the technology is pretty much there to give game players a rich and visceral experience.

Video games, as visceral and social experiences, are getting better and
better. This can be partially attributed to technological advancements. Now we
can see alien worlds and the coronas of twin star systems; we can see the sweat
and the stink and the bowels of our opponents. It is wonderful. We can talk to a
person on the other side of the globe that we just scored against. We can be
awed and stunned by the beauty and the art of gaming.


So, what's missing? Really good stories.

Game companies do not seem to believe that telling better stories is in their best interest. They've generally relied on the graphics and the bells and whistles to sell games. With a few exceptions, they've never tried to sell us on emotion or character. This can be partially blamed on us, the gamers. Soon, however, gaming companies might have to change their ways.

I mean, I agree of course. Then again, there has always been a cry for games to have better stories, just as people have been talking about expanding the appeal of games beyond the sight lines of 25 year old males. The problem is that I tend to be one of those people who is completely focused on the potential of the industry, rather than its day to day realities. This has always been a problem. ;-) How to convince a CEO to invest in a kind of story-telling that hasn't yet been explored, and to make it a priority to draw in a new kind of viewer? You'd need some kind of CEO with vision and a great deal of faith. I'm imagining it will happen some day, and I hope it happens before I'm too old to enjoy the fun.

Why am I so convinced of all of this? Last year -- or maybe two years ago -- I played the great game Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), which had been recommended to me by a young friend. This particular friend was very smart, very brash and occasionally sardonic, but when he spoke of KOTOR, his face took on this look of complete and unabashed awe and almost some humility. I thought I had to investigate a game that would cause such an emotional response in an otherwise-sometimes-defensive teenager.

And he was completely correct. It was a GREAT game (as is Halo for completely other reasons). Before long, my partner was immersed in the game too. We had different protagonists; predictably, mine looked like me (the game gives you the option to custom make your own hero or heroine who can take on a variety of ethnicities, hair color and skin tone) and his looked like him. The game gives you the option to behave in any number of ways -- good, evil, sarcastic, neutral. And suddenly we discovered that the game also gave us the option to romance someone else inside the game.

Wow. What a goal. Not only could we save the universe (or inflict mass suffering, but I'm just not that kind of girl) we could also fall in love. So, I watched him try to woo another female, and he watched me woo a male (Okay. So there was also a girl I could romance. What can I say? The chance to flirt with two people at the same time was just too exciting, though I eventually had to pick just one). And we would sit there encouraging each other with comments like: "No! Don't say that to her. Say this to her! That will get her attention!"

It's not exactly cheating. But I did feel this connection to a complete virtual character. And it's not surprising, really. People project onto celebrities or writers or even inanimate objects all the time (I know those shoes will make me cool). Why wouldn't a virtual character be as enticing?

When I finished the game, I was desperately sad that I would never, ever have the chance to interact with these characters again. It was the kind of feeling you have when you leave a film and are devastated that its over, or finish a book and feel caught in the story's atmosphere and grip and you don't want that feeling to fade. The message boards discussing this game are littered with comments like mine.

On a practical note, the company which created KOTOR does have long term plans to go public. They have also joined forces with another game company, and have opened an office in Austin, Texas, which means that I spend time looking at the job openings, which, in and of itself, is another indulgence in fantasy.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

 

First Blossom!




The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens is reporting that the first blossom has been spotted! Yippee! Now I will be watching the map in earnest, and planning my outing.

In other news, Japundit is reporting that the first cherry blossoms have opened (my lucky duck mother is in Japan now) and that they have bloomed 3 days ahead of schedule. All this means that peak blossom time will be on the 30th which, if you are keeping track, is not a weekend. While this may cause havoc with companies whose employees will play hookey to have a hanami on the peak day, Japundit encourages bosses and CEOs to relax; years in which cherry blossoms bloom early tend to coincide with economic gains.

 

Anime Rising


Japundit contributor Mike made an interesting observation in a recent post on anime. Essentially, I had written about how the New York Kinokuniya had been reorganized to give priority store real estate to manga and anime. Mike wrote:

I’m very close to people who teach at universities here in Japan and every year a handful of Western students apply to study here. There are more than a handful of young “academics” who cite their reason for wanting to come and experience Japanese culture, as their love for anime and manga. I have to figure that’s an automatic disqualification. It prompts me to think, “Get a life.”


I thought this was interesting, and I will admit that there are times when I feel the same way. I would certainly love to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting where Kinokuniya decided to reorganize its store. It felt a little wierd to find that the cookbooks had been separated from the cooking magazines in order to accomodate so many DVDs and manga. I should also disclose that a couple of years ago I went to lunch with some Japanese publishers; much of the talk centered around how to capitalize on the growing interest in manga, though the publishers themselves did not understand the appeal.

If you spend enough time in Japan, then you know that anime and manga (and video games for that matter) are not necessarily mainstream cultural activities; my favorite travel book even warns travelers against the assumption that all Japanese will share an enthusiasm for these forms of entertainment. Most Japanese people I know consider shared events like matsuri to be a truer representation of Japanese culture. I once had a long talk with a Shinto priest who told me that he believes his job is essentially "to celebrate and preserve the essence of Japanese culture."

Today I read this interesting article in which a Japanese academic notes the changing reasons why foreigners go to Japan to study. Among his main observations is this point:

The fourth trend is the widening gap between academic works and the public's knowledge of Japan. Traditionally, there has been a certain intellectual link between academic studies on Japan and the promotion of understanding of Japan in general.

Recently, however, interest in and understanding of Japan has been increasingly divorced from some academic works on Japan. Young people's fascination with manga and anime has weakened, or at least blurred, the established link between some traditional types of Japanese studies and young intellectuals' interest in Japan. (This gap may partly be attributed to the growing "fragmentation" or "specialization" of Japanese studies, which may itself be viewed as part of a broader trend in many academic fields.)


Here's the thing; I wouldn't want an interest in Japan to be a purely elitist activity that only those who have studied art history and 1000 years of Japanese literature at Harvard or Columbia can enjoy (and for the record, no I am not accusing Mike of supporting this point of view). I remember, for example, some JET friends who came back from Japan disappointed that they did not find the land of Lady Murasaki; Japan turned out to be much more chaotic than the country our classes on Japanese aesthetics had portrayed (these same professors did not want to discuss Japan post 1930, by the way, because by then the war was looming on the horizon and war is ugly). Yes, you can find practitioners of old arts like lacquer making and kimono embroidery, but these things aren't the focus of the majority of the population. There's much more to Japan than the classical period emphasized in a lot of university courses.

So, what to do? I think it's pretty clear that Japanese culture is spreading through fashion, games, media, etc., and that this is how younger adults and kids are first coming into contact with Japan. Ultimately, the optimist in me hopes thatmanga and anime enthusiasts will take the time to discover -- or end up discovering -- some of the other rich traditions that Japan has to offer the world. Some won't, but I expect that more than a few will. Like I said, if you spend enough time in Japan, it does become clear that manga and anime are only one face of a very rich culture.

The professor who wrote the article I quoted from seems to say something similar, except that he would like for universities to more actively tie the interest in popular culture to a deeper understanding of Japan's history:

. . . in order to bridge the gap between academic knowledge of Japan and the influence of manga, anime and other pop-culture phenomena prevalent among young people, we need to create programs that link Japanese studies at university level with high-school curricula in the fields of history and language.


It's a tall demand to ask anyone to "fully" appreciate another culture or country. Certainly I've seen friends from Europe (or Japan) arrive convinced they already understand America based on 1) numerous movies and TV shows and 2) everything they are told to think about America by the BBC and other intellectual establishments. And the thing is, if you want to think that America is one big shopping mall, you can certainly go find that experience. If you want to think that America is a conformist country obsessed with big cars, you can definitely find that experience as well. Stay here long enough and you will also start to notice all the small ethnic restaurants, the non-uniform styles of dress, the urgent public discourse about war, politics, etc., etc.

Finally, I would be curious to hear from people who first went to Japan during the bubble in the 80s and got to know Japan through business. Through repeated trips, I would imagine that many of you discovered that Japan was a more complex an interesting place than "how to say no in business."

Note added 3/26/06: The always interesting Japundit ran this post, which stimulated a number of intriguing comments.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

 

You Know You've Been in Japan Too Long When . . .

. .. fill in the blank.

Here's one from me.

On the shinkansen from Hachinohe to Tokyo, I watched three hearing impaired teens slide into the three seats beside me. After about a half an hour, one of them pulled out two black guns and placed them on his lap. When I saw the guns, my thought process went something like this.

1. I wonder what kind of portable video game these boys have with them that would allow them to use these guns to play. It must be a game that none of us have heard of in the US yet. I'm really curious about the console.

2. There is no portable video game anywhere in site.

3. I guess that in Japan it is legal to own a toy gun that is black matte and appears to have some weight given the way the boy is holding them and tossing them around. I don't think you can have those kinds of gun in the US.

4. Those might be real guns.

5. Sh*t.

What would you do?

It's only been recently that I've started to see hearing-impaired kids or adults in wheel-chairs in Japan at all. Until I was an adult, it was as though absolutely everyone was able-bodied and healthy (which I found out wasn't true when I made a few visits to a mental-health hospital). The last thing I wanted to do was to appear like some bigot and accuse a group of hearing impaired kids of holding guns when they were just playing with toys.

And yet . . . I live in New York which brings with it a certain degree of deep anxiety. So, my mother and I decided to tell someone. The only person we could find -- (a bento seller) -- thanked us for the information, then said that the conductor of the train was very busy at the moment and that once he was free, she would convey the information. After a half an hour, the boys got off at Sendai. The bento seller never told the conductor.

Consider for a moment that these guns were very likely toys, and that we were simply erring on the side of caution. That's fine.

But . . . what if?

Yes, I know that Japan is a safe country with an extremely low crime rate. Yes I know that it is very difficult to get your hands on a gun in Japan. But I'm still sort of surprised and fascinated by the fact that the bento seller actually never got the message through to the conductor, and that there wasn't any sort of process in place for this kind of situation -- this despite the removal of garbage cans on Shinkansen trains, and despite the ubiquitous (and I paraphrase): "The Japanese police is now on high alert! If you see anything suspicious, please alert someone immediately!"

Once we finally caught up with the conductor ourselves and told him what had happened, he did explain that there is a policy in place for this kind of situation; he would have looked at the guns, determined if they were toys or not, etc.

Now I am back in the land where, if I see kids pull two black matte heavy looking guns out on a train, I will not wonder if the guns are "toys." I won't worry about hurting anyone's feelings. Instead, I know from past experience, that my flight instinct will kick in and I'll be out of that train car.

This post first appeared on Japundit.


Monday, March 20, 2006

 

The Power of Illustration

Last year my partner wrote a beautiful book about design, which meant that he got to assemble his dream list of logos, beautifully packaged products and illustrations. He has a really keen eye for design, in part, I think, because his father is an artist. Naturally his obsessions influence me and I like to think I've become more aware of the visual world than I was before; certainly I pay momre attention to advertising than I used to.

Last Christmas, he gave me a gorgeous book called New York Owners. It is written and illustrated by Yooco Tanimoto, a talented Japanese illustrator. The book profiles a number of interesting shops in Manhattan, and gives a biographical sketch of the people who run each business. One store, for example, sells handmade shoes to dancers, and is run by an ex-dancer who decided that performers needed a wider range of danceable and attractive shoes than whas was on the market at the time.



Tanimoto celebrates this kind of individual spirit by providing a gorgeous illustration for each shop. The end result is that you get a really sense of what she sees in each business, which is a far more personal vision than if she had taken photographs.

Then, earlier this year, I was in Kinokuniya frantically trying to find some presents to take to Japan. I stumbled on another gorgeous book written and illustrated by another talented Japanese illustrator, Reiko Aoki. This particular book is called "Reikosan's New York Sketchbook" and is a tour of New York City through the eye's of Aoki. My favorite chapters include illustrations and profiles of the 5 kinds of Manhattan couples:

1. Gay
2. Lesbian
3. Student
4. Artists
5. Yuppie

She then goes on to describe the kinds of jobs that each couple has, how they wear their hair, where they go on vacation, how old they are, what they wear, etc. In another section, she describes the virtues of Central Park, and draws a picture of a pregnant woman with her belly sticking out: Aoki writes, "This kind of appearance is ok!" And of course, in New York, it is.



You can learn a lot about your own surroundings through the eyes of somoene who isn't necessarily a native to your country. Aoki is a keen and sensitive observer, and I bought every copy of her book I could find to give to friends to convince them to visit me in NYC. I will go back and order more.



I wish I could link to a place where you can buy her book, but I haven't found a place online yet. The best thing to do if you are interested is to contact Kinokuniya and tell them you want to order a copy of "Reikosan's New York Sketchbook."



I was starting to get the point where I thought these kinds of travel illustrations were only a trend for Japanese looking at New York, but then this past week while in Barnes and Noble with a writer friend, I stumbled on Kate T. Williamson's gorgeously illustrated book Year in Japan. Once again, here is a talented illustrator and writer with a keen eye, sensitively observing and portraying the world around her. I love this book and the illustrations of things like natto, the difference between a maiko and geiko and how the Japanese celebrate the new year, or oshoogatsu.



In thinking about these books, I remembered 19th century novels where a young woman's accomplishments included dancing, music, manners and, of course, drawing. I remember, for example, at the end of Little Women, we learn that Amy has become quite the artist. Jane, in Jane Eyre, draws a little and Mr. Rochester teases her about this. Elizabeth is smart in Pride and Prejudice and her bookreading captures the eye of Mr. Darcy; her inability to play the piano well or draw well earns her a scolding from Lady Catherine.

I take my dance classes, I read my books, I write my stories but . . . I'm afraid I'm more like Elizabeth than Amy. I suppose it is all very well to be able to read and to like words, but after seeing these books, I really wish I could draw. Let me say that again. I really, really wish I could draw!

Friday, March 17, 2006

 

Cherry Watch


This is the time of year when I begin to watch the trees for signs of leaves. Spring has already sprung in my hometown, but in New York, things take much longer.

I read a story this morning about how the Japanese Meteorological Agency is working overtime to acurately predict this year's blossoms. Apparently they screwed up last year and this badly hurt their reputation.


Last year, the first forecast had cherry blossoms blooming in Tokyo on March 30. The third and final forecast moved up the blooming date to March 27.

However, cherry blossoms actually began blooming around March 31, four days later than forecast.

With blooming in other areas also coming later than predicted, the agency was flooded with calls from residents complaining that cherry blossoms in their neighborhood had yet to bloom.


This is how seriously the Japanese take their cherry blossoms.

As for me, I am watching the cherry blossom status map at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. So far, not a bud in sight.




Last year I tried to have a hanami party. I wanted to have it in Brooklyn, but you aren't allowed to bring food into the Botanical Gardens, so I dutifully read through Japion and found some nice spots in Central Park and invited friends. On the designated day, it rained and I had to cancel.

This year I am thinking of moving the party indoors with some fake blossoms; I'll make some sushi for a hanami in the Park and just invite a few people who can move at a moment's notice (ie when it is not raining and the trees are blooming). For the indoor party, I thought I would get some fake branches (and a few real). This is the best artificial cherry flower I've found so far. This company had another model which I liked but is sold out; I may have to stick with this.

Once I get all these things sorted, I'll have to start in on making some sushi and finding some halfway decent sake!



Thursday, March 16, 2006

 

Found: Japanese Manicure in New York!

It took a little bit of persistence, but I finally found a place to get a Japanese style manicure in New York. The Japanese health spa/salon Shizuka is located in Midtown in Manhattan and is owned by a Japanese woman and run by a largely Japanese staff. It's a beautiful facility that lives up to its name as being very restful. I contacted them to see if they had anyone on the premises who did "Japanese style nail art."

A young gentleman named Lance, who turned out to be a happa from Hawaii, helped me make arrangements via email and phone. Yesterday I met Kumiko-san who showed up with her paints, brushes and a nice box full of mini-rhinestones. The results are below.



We had some fun talking about manicures, Japan and our favorite restaurants. She told me about an izakaya in Brooklyn I'd never heard of, and I told her about my favorite yakitori. We planned for summer manicures -- light blue background and sea-shell designs.

All in all it was a great experience, and I look forward to going back. I hope, that if you life in NYC and you are interested, you will consider this lovely salon. It isn't exactly cheap, though compared to Japan the price is about right. The manicure itself is $15, and each nail costs an additional amount. Contact Shizuka to get their pricing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

 

Truth and the Internet

Bad Marie. A whole week and no new posting. I've been trying to focus on my manuscript, and I'm afraid that slowed down my blogging. I do apologize.

When I worked at Bolt, we used to say that most teens have a tendency to tell the truth in their profiles and their posts. There was always the rare case in which someone pretended to commit suicide, or adopted a personality (with photo) that was completely different from reality, but these situations were considered rare.

Now, if you remember, I wrote earlier about some blog-drama in which someone was impersonating a persona to get attention, and how fascinating I found this. We've recently had something sort of similar happen on Japundit. One of our contributors found a web site published by a woman claiming to be named Hitomi Kurusugawa (the site has since shut down). She had copied numerous Japundit posts, word for word, and was posting them as her own, and starting to get a number of admirers, in no small part because her photo was attractive.

Here's an example. I wrote a post for Japundit about a strange experience I had watching 3 hearing impaired teens on a Shinkansen pull out very realistic looking guns, and how my brain went into and infinite loop until the whole scene finally registered and I figured out what to do. She copied this post word for word, and got the following response from her readers:

“Sugoi..My oh my. Hitomi-sensei.. I must say thats a very well written and articulated blog.. I agree that here in America, if a person brings out a gun or a toy that has a strong resemblence of a gun, people would react immediately.. putting in mind that America was attacked by Terrorist and until today, is still being threatened… Anywho.. Im glad to hear from you again.. I would have never read your blog if it wasnt for your brother.. I hope all things are well.. Im pretty sure i speak for everyone that we missed you, and we all hope you could go online sometime..”



How bizarre.

Japundit readers responded by sending her lots of "hate mail," and she shut down the site. The men then *eye roll* began to talk about how it was such a shame because she had been so good looking.

How good looking you ask? Well, so good looking that the same photo was being used for another account -- this time for someone claiming to be an artist. So, the Japundit crew headed over to look at this site and, lo and behold, found more of our blog posts lifted from Japundit and masquerading as her words.

Is she even a she? Is she an artist? Is she real at all? Would it have mattered as much if she hadn't supposedly been so good looking? (Duh. Of course it's more tragic because she might have been attractive). Aren't all relationships a little bit about what we project onto others?

All this reminds me a little bit of the premise for Idoru by William Gibson in which a pop star is rumored to only exist online. Of course other art froms have dabbled with the premise, and it is certainly interesting. Given the spate of author scandals lately -- the most fascinating one to me is a tie between the 40 year old woman pretending to be a 20 something male hustler in Manhattan and a white man who specializes in persona makeovers masquerading as a Native American author -- this might seem like tame stuff in comparison.

(A quite aside -- my brilliant friend Jeffrey said to me he thought that the whole anger at James Frey was really misdirected American anger at the fact that we are being lied to. The brilliant Peter Carey agrees.)

Now, for a little dose of "opposite" medicine. I'm a huge fan of the show Battlestar Galactica. It's pretty much the only show which I watch regularly and I'll post reasons why at a later date. I go to the message boards occasionally . . . and what did I see one day but someone claiming to be the wife of the show's main writer and developer, Ron Moore.

Except, she turns out to be real. She has read the boards for a while, knows the personalities and comments on them to her husband. So, at least for that show, fans know that someone in power actually does read comments.

I thought that this was incredible. Ron Moore himself already puts an awful lot of energy into communicating with his fans -- which is not always appreciated. And now here was his wife commenting on the kinds of book he reads (history, politics), his love of strong women (he married her) and his workaholic tendencies (she jokes about muzzling her children).

So, there's the flip side of the wily, unpredictable nature of the Internet. On the one hand, we have hoaxters who are unmasked and whose crimes are publicized rapidly and viciously, and we have people who live in far off lands attempting to bridge the gaps that separate us.

I guess that pretty much reflects the human animal.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

 

Embracing Google Earth

I am one of those people who loves to fly United Airlines because I can watch the little GPS screen of the plane making its way across the planet and listen to the pilots and the Air Traffic Control people. I am just thrilled when I hear a pilot say that he is going to go up or down (or turn) . . . and then the plane does just that. I love it when I get one of those talky pilots who wants to talk about geological formations below. I like to open my window shade to the annoyance of my fellow passengers in the hopes that I will see the Northern Lights (which I have twice).

The flight from NY to Tokyo is just beautiful, if you have a clear day. All those mountains in Canada and Alaska, and then the strange rugged beauty of the Bering Sea. And how thrilled was I when I spotted and island off of Russia coming up on the little GPS map! I opened my window shade and took these pictures.





I wondered: Does anyone live down there? If so, how do they survive? Is that part of the US or Russia? Will I ever know? It is one thing to fly over the US and spot places I've been to. It's quite another to look at places I've never even set foot on.

Then I came home and, in a fit of industriousness, got DSL and downloaded Google Earth. Whoah.

I remembered vaguely where the island in question was located, and spun the little Google Earth around trying to find it. And I finally did. Here is a somewhat similar angle of the island.



I'm pretty sure, now, that this is the island in question. Though Google Earth listed the names of the island's mountains and coves, it didn't give the island a name. Since I can be obsessive, I pored through the maps on Wikipedia, and finally figured out that this island is called Attu Island, and it is the Western-most part of Alaska. There are twenty-some people living there, all with the US Coast Guard; they run a LORAN station. Attu Island was home to Aleutians before WWII, but they were all "repatriated" by the Japanese. Americans invaded Attu Island in 1943; apparently there is still plenty of debris from the battles that ensued. Today it a destination for serious birders.



Of course, now that I know all this, I want to go to Attu Island, no matter how impractical it may be. I suspect the desire to go to new places is, for me, only going to be fueled by my constant toying around with Google Earth.

Monday, March 06, 2006

 

Memoirs of a Geisha Honored

So, Memoirs of a Geisha won 3 Oscar awards. Of course the awards were not for writing or for acting, but for cinematography, costume design and art direction.

I couldn't help but notice, however, that each time someone won, that person thanked the studio and the producers for taking the "risk" to greenlight the film in the first place. We all know what the "risk" was about; an all Asian cast. In other words, what a risk it was to put a film onscreen that explored and took seriously the emotional lives of Asian people!

Soon after the casting was announced, various groups protested that the film should have hired Japanese actors. Rob Marshall, who directed the film, was surprised by the response; he thought that the Asian audience would be happy to see an all Asian cast. But identity politics is a tricky business, particularly when you throw in not only the feelings of Asian Americans, but also the complex relationships between East Asian countries.

I had mixed feelings about these protests, which remind me of the brouhaha that followed the casting of Jonathan Pryce in the role of a half-Asian in Miss Saigon (which I never went to see, and must admit am not sorry I missed). What made me saddest about the Memoirs of a Geisha casting debate was that the financial failure of the film -- and the public arguments -- will make it more difficult for films to be made in the US that feature Asian actors. Plain and simple. That was one big reason I didn't really add my voice to the chorus of complaint. Deep down, I admit that I wanted this film to succeed. I don't want Asian actors -- regardless of the continent on which they are born -- to be appreciated as "cult figures" on the fringe.

The film was based on a book written by an American -- and was to be made by an American company. This wasn't a documentary. Consider that Braveheart starred Mel Gibson -- who is not Scottish by birth, or that Elizabeth starred the incomparable Cate Blanchett (who is not English).

Now, I actually liked the book. I thought Arthur Golden showed a pretty virtuosic understanding of the aesthetics of Japan. I was very upset that (spoiler) Sayuri ended up with the Chairman, but books don't always unfold the way you want them. Also, the loss of her virginity (more on that some other time) made me wonder just what kind of research he had done to bring her book to life; it hasn't done much to dispel the idea that geisha (or more accurately geiko) are prostitutes. But I digress.

Yes, I know that there are very few roles out there for Asian actors. Yes I know that the average American can't tell the difference between a Chinese person and a Japanese one. Yes I know that the storyline appealed to the West's sense of Japan as exotic.

I guess I am idealistic and still think that the best way to battle all of this is to write stories that are human and that matter. That still seems like the smartest approach to battling ignorance -- rather than complaining about the casting of a film like Memoirs of a Geisha.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

 

Writing Odds and Ends

I'm feeling a little bit shy about posting this here, but a good friend pointed out that I should mention that my Pushcart Nomination.

While in Japan, I did my first podcast interview with the good folks at Japundit. JP assures me that 99% of all podcast interviewees don't like the way their voices sound, and for once, I am in the majority. I thought that JP did a good job with the questions. Having met him in person now, I can see where all the energy, enthusiasm and intelligence come from.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

 

Hope for Manicures!

Hallelujah! After about a 6 month drought I think that there may be hope on the horizon for my Japanese manicure in the States. I mean, I've been reading Japion religiously looking for some hint as to where I might find a place that specializes in nairu, and I enlisted the help of my wonderful hairdresser to help me find such a place, but so far nothing, nothing, nothing. Just endless rows of American style designs that involve criss-crossy lines or Jackson Pollack-like splatter.

Then, today, I found this article, which proves that at least there is one Japanese manicurist around. Go ahead. Click on the link and see what kind of beauty your nails could be subjected to assuming you don't have a job requiring that you actually use your nails. And then today, I got an email from a Japanese salon which seems to indicate they have the kind of service I am looking for. I'll report back with results but I'm cautiously optimistic because the email told me how much it would cost per finger to have my nail art done. And that's pretty much the way it works in Japan. You pay to have your nails all painted. And then you pay per finger for the designs.
Oh happy, happy day for this obssessed person . . .

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