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Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Techscapes and Macrobiotic Highs: An Afternoon in Aoyama

Tokyo is the ultimate urban jungle and life here presents you with endless vistas of cunningly contrived concoctions of glass, concrete and steel, everywhere you look, and seemingly everywhere you go. Whether downtown or in the 'burbs, at home or on the streets, futuristic scenes surround you, seduce you, and astound you to the extent you start to feel like you're the star of your very own Blade Runner fantasy, playing in a cinema in another dimension. Futurism is the name of the game here, the dominant architectural theme, and it has been entrenched for so long it has written itself into the fossil record of the city, as well as the DNA of its inhabitants. It's a shrine to speed, a temple to technology; frenetic as a Drum&Bass track, and just as relentless. Sometimes it is just all too noisy, and all too totalitarian, and you long for a bit of old fashioned peace, a bit of the original 和 ("harmony", the former name for Japan). Interestingly enough, not all of the futurism in Tokyo is new, and some of it looks decidedly dated... that might seem paradoxical until you realize that futurism is a movement not an era, and tomorrow is a day that never dawns. Follow the tracks of the Yamanote Line between Kanda and Akihabara, for example, and you will find older incarnations of the genre, pylons, noodle shops dug under the train lines, slabs of concrete corroded by rust, untidy bundles of wires strung up wherever they will hang, and archaic air-conditioning vents spinning in the morning humidity... pretty it ain't but back in its time this was probably the most high-tech place on Earth, and the very vision of a glorious future. Who were the dreamers who imagined this city into being? I ask myself sometimes, when I am wandering around, what inspired their stupendous leap of imagination? If futurism is just a style, in other words, who invented it, and why? I believe that the official Futurism, the one that gets a capital F, was an Italian artistic movement, an anarchist movement of sorts with Fascist complications, which flared into life in the early 20th Century. Leading proponents of the movement, notably Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Giacomo Balla, and Umberto Boccioni, glorified fast cars and rogue locomotives and good factory mud, scorned women, proclaimed that war was "the world's only hygiene", and proposed a Khmer Rouge style solution to the "problem" of tradition. According to the Futurist manifesto and the manifestos which followed, museums and libraries should be burnt to the ground or drowned, and the city torn down and built again, from scratch, by every new generation. "Time and Space died yesterday," Marinetti wrote in the first manifesto, published in 1909. "We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed." I don't know if there was any direct link between the European Futurists and Japan, although the Axis would later lead them into an ideological marriage, for a short time at least. Perhaps it doesn't matter whether there was a connection or not, this might rather be an example of synchronicity, of the Jungian kind. The way I figure it, in modern societies we all have a vision of how the future should look, each according to our own hopes and fears: it could be hyper-consumerist, neo-communalist, conformist, the brainwashed masses of 1984, or the individualist paradise symbolized by the jetpack and the Martian colonies in the works of Robert A. Heinlein. Others might imagine a world which is pacifist, Deep Ecologist, or perhaps populated by Mad Max warriors roaming the deserts fighting Google and its cyborg spawn. Disparate visions these are indeed, but where they intersect collective dreams emerge, lowest common denominator blueprints: in our case rockets and the atomic bomb, freeways and the motorcar, more recently celebrity culture, TV, and the Internet. Everything shiny and sci-fi, mind you, everyone air-brushed and glittery (and on that matter, note that you never see rust on The Enterprise. Nor do they have any astrologers or Feng Shui geomancers on the bridge! Why is that? What kind of technocentrism is being pushed?) In Asia, things turned out shiny and sci-fi, too, but much of the detail is different. Why so? I speculate that there was in fact a homegrown futurism in Japan, a Zen/Shinto futurism, which culminated not just in the Mitsubishi Zero, but also DoraemonGundamanime, and all these self-flushing toilets you find here today. Futurism may have dreamed of demolishing the ancient cities of Europe but it never succeeded there, the sway of the past was too strong. Tokyo, on the other hand, has always been a city in constant flux -- a chaotic frenzy of construction and destruction -- and Marinetti's Year Zero fantasies finally found their realization beneath a Pacific sky. Accordingly, I consider Tokyo to be one of the world's foremost "techscapes" -- an environment in which the landscape has been totally subsumed by the laws and logic of the megalopolis, and the technology which enables it. It is also a city so detailed, but yet so vast, you could spend years here and keep making amazing discoveries. I discovered something amazing today, actually, with my old girlfriend Akiko: the new Prada showroom in Aoyama. The latter half of this post concerns that discovery. A little earlier in the day, Akiko and I dined at one of Tokyo's quality vegetarian restaurants, Hanada Rosso, which the first half of this post will describe. All in all it was a very cool afternoon indeed, and the coolest aspect of the whole thing is, I believe that Paper Burning made it happen. It is a bold claim, but I stand by it!

High-tech beehive: Prada Showroom in Aoyama (Japan, 2004)
Branded as Tokyo's version of Milan's Via Montenapoleone and one of the top three shopping and entertainment hubs in the city, Aoyama (青山) and the neighboring Omotesandou (表参道) precinct is jammed with quirky boutiques, cute cafes, beauty salons, and even a United Nations University campus. There are plenty of restaurants as well, ranging from sushi joints to expensive French and Turkish eateries. Today with Akiko, a vehement vegetarian, I ventured to a classy macrobiotic restaurant called Hanada Rosso. Hanada Rosso has a policy which states, uncompromisingly: "Non-meat, non-milk, non-egg, non-chemical". When the menu appeared, Akiko and I both ordered the same dish: the Tempe-Burger, a tofu contrivance costing ¥1050. Possibly I followed her lead in ordering here, I am not sure why. But it was a good choice: not only was it delicious, but it left me with a peculiar feeling of satisfaction after eating it -- a kind of purity you might say, a sense of clarity, a macrobiotic high! I felt satisfied but not full at all. Perhaps it was because this food was spiritual food, free of harmful chemicals, lovingly prepared, with no bad dead animal karma to go along with it. Or perhaps it was because of the Korean Shizandra berry smart drug I had ingested just before the date, or even just because I was so glad to see Akiko again, after all our time apart!

Vegetarians visiting Japan often complain about their problems finding suitable food in the country. John Howley maintains a list of Japanese vegetarian restaurants on his website, mentioning only 20 establishments for the Greater Tokyo area -- a conurbation of 20 million people. So, that it is roughly one vegetarian restaurant for every million people (of course, there must be many which have flown under Howley's radar, but still, you get the drift!) Japan is not a vegetarian Utopia by any means, and this fact might seem surprising given its Buddhist past and all, the veneration shown to non-animate entities such as rivers and stones. People don't go heavy on the beef like they do in Australia or the States, but there is usually a certain amount of meat mixed into every meal in Japan -- even tofu gets doused in shaved fish! For vegetarians like my Akiko, trying to educate the masses, all this meat can make life a misery. However, there are vegetarian restaurants around, and if you are in Tokyo, I would recommend a visit to the Hanada Rosso. As well as a delicious range of main courses, the menu features organic beer and wine, soy shakes and organic coffee. The restaurant is located on the second floor of the Sleeve Building, 6-11-1 South Aoyama. The telephone number is (03) 3406 1264.

Having enjoyed a memorable hour or two at Hanada Rosso, playing some personality quiz games I have lately employed for nampa, it was time to hit the streets, and look at the surrounding attractions. We walked into the nearby Idee interior design shop to admire its ample Scandinavian and European displays. It was there, looking out the window, I caught sight of a particularly weird building in the distance, a building audacious even by Tokyo standards -- a crystalline pentagonal green pyramid which Akiko identified as the new Prada showroom. Although neither of us are brand label junkies (nothing could be further from the truth), we decided to make a beeline to the hive-like Prada showroom, to see what the fuss is all about.

Designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the building rises from the street like a kaleidoscope, covered with bulbous, diamond-shaped windows. Once inside, those bulbous windows start to distort your senses, making the showroom seem both very big and very small, both at the same time! In fact, "kaleidoscopic" is the best way to describe this building, which is more a piece of art than just a mere showroom. Things always seem to shapeshift when you are inside it. While the outside is green crystal, the interior is a kind of stark white/pearl color which is both soft (in the carpet sense) and futuristic, reminiscent of a UFO. TV sets dangle on stalks from the ceiling, like anemone hunting for prey. Stairs lead to deep-set lounge recesses, where windows afford views of local landmarks, such as Roppongi Hills. It is all very cool, and I couldn't resist snapping off some photos on my keitai phone, even though I was reprimanded for it. 

We ended the afternoon at a cafe where Akiko showed me her iPod, a device I had never seen up close before. Scrolling through her Beatles collection over a Cafe Mocha, I had to confess her contraption made my own Sony MP3 player look a little bit silly, a little redundant. Such a shiny toy her iPod was, high-tech, but also organic... in many ways it was just like the organic high-tech Prada Showroom we had just explored, or a polished stone in a shrine that had miraculously come to life, and revealed its spirit to the world! Like the Tempe-Burger I had consumed earlier in the day, just like that Shizandra smart drug, this gadget seemed designed to lift your consciousness into a higher state of being. It wasn't Japanese, but it was still Shinto, and it was still Zen. It was not only Zen, but it was also a vision, and a visitor from the future. A future which, even now, is slowly dragging itself into manifestation, into being. The iPods are merely the vanguards of what is to come. Much as I hate to admit it, the vegetarians are probably much the same. Thus we have been warned. Watch this space for more!

Saturday, July 10, 2004

My First Lucid Dream Success (and More Success is Coming!)

I had my first successful lucid dream this morning after more than a week of trying, and the indications are it is only the beginning of a journey deep into the expanses of my inner world! This was my first glimpse, and I am astounded at the possibilities which await me! For the past week or so I have been thinking a lot about lucid dreams and how to induce them, and have done some related exercises, like continually checking the time on my phone to see if the numbers stayed the same, or asking myself if I was awake or asleep, wherever I was, even while teaching in a cafe or something. These are said to be good techniques for inducing lucid dreaming but I hadn't had any success so far, and to be honest I was starting to lose hope. Then early this morning, lying in my crib in Shitaya (下谷), lucidity came, seemingly out of the blue... I woke up in a dream! Now, it was not what you would call complete lucidity, I must confess -- I'd consider it 20 per cent lucidity. But it was a start, and I am sure it heralds the beginning of more spectacular nocturnal adventuring! Not that I sleep that much in the night, of course, but you get my drift... I will be lucid dreaming.

What is the first thing you would do if you started lucid dreaming? I chose to take a shower.
Anyway, what happened is this: I was in some kind of dream when I became self-aware, aware that I was in a dream. But only hazily aware -- 20 per cent aware, as I claimed above. I mean, I thought I was awake in the dream, I knew I was in a dream, but I wasn't in full conscious control of my decisions. For example, the first thing I did after attaining "lucidity" was to take a shower -- what the fuck was that about? Of all the things I could have done -- gone flying, had sex with supermodels, traipsed along the Great Wall of China -- I decided to take a shower. Still, there was something painstakingly attentive and apprehensive about my movements in the dream as I climbed the wooden steps of my Tokyo house to collect my towel, hung up in its usual spot in my tatami-floored room, and then tiptoe back down to the grotty bathroom; there was something totally willful and realistic in that: I felt like a newborn taking his first steps in a scary world, and I was frightened of fucking things up. But anyway, there is no way I could say I was completely lucid, because why would I want to take a fucking shower in my dream if I was lucid and in control? That wasn't a conscious decision, it was subconscious... and it probably meant something in a dream symbol kind of way, a Jungian/Freudian kind of way. According to an article I read tonight on A Fool's Guide to Lucid Dreaming there are differing layers of lucidity (and it would seem that I am currently on one of the lower levels if this is true):
One way to look at rationality in dreams is to classify different levels of lucidity. At the highest level, the dreamer would not only be aware of dreaming, but also possess complete understanding of the implications of this knowledge, and would behave in accordance with that understanding on all levels from thought to action. The lowest, minimal level of lucidity would be realization of dreaming, but without understanding how dreaming is different from waking, and without acting on the lucidity at all, mistaking events, characters and consequences with those from waking life. Yet, degrees of rationality vary from moment to moment in dreams, so that one wishing to use a scale of levels of lucidity would have to rate each decision, action, or response of the dreamer independently. Averaging the lucidity levels in a dream might be a way of establishing a lucidity "score" for the dream. All of this is for future research to decide.
I agree with that: this is just the beginning, I am just at the beginning, and I have a lot of my own research to conduct. I kind of believe that we live smeared on the interface of two worlds, one outer, the other inner. When you look at the night sky you can see the immensity of the outer universe laid out in front of you; I imagine there exists a similarly sized immensity inside our head. The subconscious is one of our new frontiers, and lucid dreaming is the tool which might help unlock this vast innerverse of potential. According to the The Lucid Dream Exchange:
Lucid dreaming is simply a better and more probing tool from which to understand and comprehend the true immensity of the dreaming process. Given the resources, lucid dreaming would show that dreaming involves even more than symbolic restatements of inner issues, wish fulfillments and emotional conflicts, etc. Given the resources, I feel lucid dreaming would show actual mental processes in the unconscious and aspects of the deeper identity upon which our puny awareness rides. Given the resources, I feel lucid dreaming would rework our understanding of the psyche and the collective aspects of the unconscious with which it communicates.
The truth, I believe, is not just out there; it is in HERE! And today I took my first glimpse. There are plenty more glimpses to come.

Friday, May 21, 2004

101 Reykjavik (By Hallgrimur Helgason)

Every now and then you read a book or watch a movie which changes the way you want to live your life. It's the ultimate compliment to a work of art if it makes you want to start talking like its lead character, or model your own life on theirs. It doesn't happen very often. The last time it happened to me was when I watched Pulp Fiction in the cinema on a quiet sunny Sunday in Sydney, NSW, Australia, and I knew I had found something which connected with me. All those cheesy jokes and cheap suits and retro references! Such brutality, such splendid banality! From then, my way of living was forever changed. Recently I came upon a book which seems like an Icelandic version of Pulp Fiction, minus the gangsters and gore. Strip away Tarantino's violence and what do you get -- endless witty jokes about rock bands and TV shows. Life in the media age. This is the style of writing which dominates Hallgrímur Helgason's 1996 novel 101 Reykjavik. It is kind of like a Tarantino take on day-to-day life, like going to the shops for milk or hanging out with your buddies in the bar, and packed with thousands of reference-dropping commentaries. Ashing a cigarette leads to a reference to David Bowie, "ashes to ashes". Characters don't leave a house, but make an "Elvis exit". 101 Reykjavik is the kind of novel packed with so much 90s-style referential wordplay that, when you're finished reading, you think: "Hey, this would make a good movie." In fact, it has already been made into a movie, directed by Baltasar Kormakur, and starring Victoria Abril.

Smoking in the snow: 101 Reykjavik, by Hallgrimur Helgason.

Other reviewers have described this novel as the "pathetic narration" of an "emotionally retarded slacker whose most intimate relationship is the one he cultivates with his porn collection" (Baltimore City Paper Online.) A little bit harsh, I think -- the lead character, Hlynur Björn Hafsteinsson does indeed enjoy porn, like many folk, but that is no reason to crucify him. He is no doubt a voyeur, but I think Hlynur's absolute obsession -- his core obsession if you like -- is what he calls the "theater of the real". He likes movies, but not to follow the stories -- just to check up on what the actors are doing these days. In one scene he watches a video of live births in American hospitals. In another episode he sneaks into a bedroom where two young people are having sex, pulls up a chair and begins offering critiques! This is how he describes it:
I gradually realize this is the first documentary I've seen about the Icelandic species. And I've got to say it reminds me a bit of Icelandic movies. CHILDREN OF NATURE. There's no plot in it. No angle variation whatsoever. Looks like we're in for an epic feature. Talk about dragging it out. Start to think about the zapper in my inside pocket. Saw a nature documentary the other day about those cameramen who make wildlife movies. Some British pony-tailer who dug himself into a hole for a fortnight in the hope of catching a shot of a hare shag. But he didn't even so much as get a hard-on in those two weeks. Maybe I just don't have the patience.
The Guardian writes: "this lusciously deadpan narrative - dazzlingly translated by Brian Fitzgibbon - is more than funny. It is not so much peppered with gags as infused with a wild, anarchic take on the world that is caustically, worryingly truthful." According to this other site I found: "Hlynur (the protaganist) is a true product of our postmodern global culture. Well beyond slackerdom, he lives at home with his mother and depends on social welfare. He's a quick-witted and articulate young man, and there's nothing wrong with him -- other than a total lack of ambition, an off-kilter sense of morality, and a nagging set of existential woes. Against the backdrop of Reykjavik's storied nightlife and amid the swelling global presence of Icelandic culture, Helgason portrays with brutal honesty and humor a young man who takes uselessness to new extremes, and for whom redemption may not be an option. 101 Reykjavik is a spectacularly inventive, darkly comic tale of depraved and inspired humanity."

The story is basically this: Hlynur is living in Reykjavík, one of my favorite cities, with his mother, who later turns out to be a lesbian. His mother gets a sexy new live-in girlfriend, who Hlynur also sleeps with. "I guess now we're fucks-in-law," he muses. Apart from that, Hlynur's life revolves around going to pubs and parties, and regular trips to the unemployment office. One of the reasons I decided to buy this book was to get an insight into Iceland's storied nightlife, since I was unable to go out when I was there last. Once I started reading, I discovered that Hlynur lives an idyllic, if aimless life, just like me. But what is wrong with being lackadaisical, what's wrong with going with the flow? That's the trouble with the world, there are no many people with aims, everybody aiming for the top... I'd rather be a bottomfeeder, fill the space that others leave behind. That is my ambition, if I must be forced to use such a term. So, I guess I have this in common with Hlynur: we're both bottomfeeders. The happiness of the unemployment lines; our freedom urgent as a blue sky, as Hakim Bey might have put it. Corporate high-flyers will never understand the simple pleasures of being alive. They can have their money, and I will take my precious moments, wherever I can find them. One day I will be dead, and they will mean no more to me.

Reykjavik 101 unloads on you like a stand-up-comedian; it is dark and cynical at times, but relentlessly clever in the wordplay department. Here is a typical extract:
The Castle at midnight. Not exactly wicked. Despite the name, it is just a cellar. "The Dungeon" might have been more apt. You step down into the past. A dire bluesy little piss hole: a murky cave, phoney brickwork on the walls, complete with (fake?) swords and armour. Prehistoric rock music spurting through the speakers, a tinny sound, like the records have been dug up in some archaeological find: Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin. "Eye of the Tiger", as it happens, when we walk in, myself, Throstur and Marri. A trip down mythology lane. Feel like I am in one of those QUANTUM LEAP episodes. Ancient Greece, except everyone's wearing jackets. Bacchus behind the bar cracking his whip, the old master torturer, fat and furious, thrashing the mob -- eternal slaves to alcohol with blistering wounds on their backs -- impressively equipped: the beer taps like levers on the torture rack, the thumbscrews tightening each time they're pulled. He can afford to laugh with the arsenal he has behind him: Hot Shots on the shelf, Black Death. Juggling his bottles like guns, he levels them at his victims, metallic spirit measures screwed to the nozzles like silencers. Uncapping the beer bottles with his teeth, he hurls them into the room like grenades, shakes Molotov cocktails. Pours boiling acids into poisoned goblets, and the customers sign their credit-card slips like they were signing their own death warrants. A highly combustible situation.
One of the things I like about Iceland is that it is so small, it is easy to get the hang of it. If you have been to Reykjavík, if even for a weekend, you have probably visited half of the sites visited in this book. It is the kind of place where everybody knows everyone, and everybody experiments with everybody else's scene. After spending some time in the heavy metal Castle, Hlynur and his crew move on to a place with a totally different scene and style of music -- Duran Duran is being played. Can you imagine young people in England or America being so promiscuous about their choice of music? It doesn't happen. Later, Hlynur confesses a love of Lionel Ritchie's 80s ballad Hello. In Iceland they seem to give everything a try; they mix and match; it's a big melting pot of influences and creativity. There is none of the genre snobbery I was brought up with in Australia: "I like techno -- there's no way I am going to that headbanger crap!" contrasted with "I can't stand that techno shit. Give me music with a bit of guitar in it!" Anyway, here are some of the cooler extracts from the book, the ones which struck me as particularly funny:

We're in a queue in front of the K-bar. There's a new bouncer who obviously hasn't done his homework. Doesn't know us. I've never seen him before, apart from the tattoo on his neck. A little bit more originality, please...
Guildy is telling the story about when he met Bryan Ferry in Amsterdam. Good story. Good music. Good view. There's a kind of Polaroid atmosphere here. One that calls for instant developments. If only Rosie would shut up. He's still trying to open himself to me:
"But I've always wanted to get back into costume design. I've done everything in hair now, everything I could do really, and I want to get out of hair and maybe work in theatre or something..."
"Yeah," I say, and manage to establish some eye contact with the video presenter sitting beside me. It works. He's obviously used to this from his TV work. I think it's what they call a cue. One glance and he knows he's on, he has to say something:
"But you HAVE actually worked in the theatre before, have you not?"
Good. We've slipped into the chat-show mode at last...
I have only been to Iceland once -- it was in late summer. Very pleasant I thought it, if a little too windy at the time -- and it amazed me with the most amazing skies I have ever seen. I will always remember that crystal clear Icelandic sky -- the sun hanging like a jewel in the blue, the clouds whizzing by just hundreds of meters off the ground. One night I saw the aurora. Next time I go to Iceland (estimated late 2005 or early 2006) I want to go in the middle of winter, like January or something. I have already started my saving campaign. I want to see what real Arctic dark and cold is all about, and I want to stay a long time -- at least six weeks. Plenty of time for hanging round boozy pubs and hotsprings -- I can hardly wait!

Here is how Reykjavik in the winter is depicted by Hallgrímur Helgason:
Reykjavik on a dark winter morning: a small town in Siberia. Snow drifting in the glow of lamp posts under a dome of darkness, enshrouding a shivering salted sea of porridge and shorelines of milk curds. Masticated frozen mush around the darkness. The mountains -- heaps of ancient debris, forsaken refuse, a junkyard from heathen times, scrap iron from the Bronze Age. Hardened glacial diarrhoea, hideous mounds of mould, encircle this transient town of cards, a camping site littered with computers doomed to disappear in the next blackout.
One other site I visited (from Sweden) also provided this pithy review: "En ung manns seksuelle følelser går når han oppdager at han har hatt sex med morens lesbiske elskerinne, og at hun antageligvis er blitt gravid." I am just trying now to guess what that this means. How about: "A young man's sexual fantasies run amok after he has sex with his mother's lesbian girlfriend." After Hlynur does eventually has sex with his mother's Spanish lover, he ponders: "I guess that makes us fucks-in-law." It's a witty remark, but also full of pathos, when you think about it. And when you think about it, there's plenty of great wit and pathos in this book! And so there should be.

Thursday, March 4, 2004

Niu Gini on My Mind

I've been expecting 2004 to be a bummer year for travel after the heady heights I attained in 2003, the finest year of my life yet in many respects, and most especially for globetrotting. The past 12 months have seen me clambering the old stone walls of Suwon (수원), South Korea, lost in a medieval reverie; I've scoured the dunes of Tottori (鳥取) on the Sea of Japan, metal detector in hand, sand in my shoes, and a girlfriend grief in my heart, looking for buried treasure. In the middle of all that, in the golden summer of 2003, I flew with Singapore Airlines and Iceland Express all the way to a place I had always dreamed about, but never imagined I would actually reach: Scandinavia, the enchanted realm of the North, right on the opposite side of the world! It was just as mystical and as magical as I hoped it would be, and I had some wicked adventures smoking weed with the anarchists in the lovely free town of Christiana, Denmark, floating over the fjords of Norway, and then finally making landfall on the wild, windy, grassy, glassy volcanic shores of Iceland, saluted by leprechauns. All in all it was the trip of a lifetime but it did exhaust me financially, to the extent that I was living off a piece of chocolate and a cup of green tea per day by the end, walking everywhere instead of catching the bus, and sleeping at the airport (two airports, in fact) to save some kronurs on accommodation. This might sound like a miserable experience to most but I actually found it strangely liberating, and it fortified me physically, spiritually, and emotionally... it is good to push the envelope a little, and see what you are capable of! When 2004 dawned I was drowning in debt, and I resolved to tighten the belt, in every way possible. I was supposed to go back to Australia for Christmas and New Years, had a one-way ticket and all, but I had to cancel it due to a lack of funds. Poverty has been grinding hard, and I often worry about money. I look back on my adventures of last year, and ask myself: How long will it be before I can go anywhere interesting again? It's not possible, at least on my coin. And coins have been pretty much all I have been earning, the past year at least! However, when I do eventually climb out of this pit, I will have a brand new country to visit, following a discovery I made this week. 

I was at A'cross Travel in Shinjuku the other day when I found a brochure put out by Air Niugini, the national carrier of Papua New Guinea, an enigmatic Oceanic nation of six million souls just south of the equator, near Indonesia. Perusing the brochure, I noticed that Air Niugini fly from Tokyo's Narita Airport (成田国際空港) to Australia twice a week via the New Guinea capital Port Moresby. Now Port Moresby has long had a rough reputation in Australia, and I never would have picked it as a tourist destination. But living in Japan has given me a chance to start thinking outside my Australian box, and do things I wouldn't normally do. Just because Aussies do not think it is safe or the done thing generally, does not mean I ought to write the whole country off! Aussies have their own prejudices, born out of colonialism, and an often patronizing media. Anyway, while I know I am not supposed to travel for a while, when I can eventually afford it I ought to give Air Niugini a try, whatever the naysayers may say... with a stopover in their homeland! I haven't been home in a while, and I am about due for a trip there. I've done all the south-east Asian stopovers (Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, etc) a million times before, I need to try something different. And sojourning in Papua New Guinea would be an introduction into an entirely new world for me -- a tribal world, you might call it, a Melanesian islander world, an Australasian world. New Guinea would offer me a glimpse of how Australia itself might have turned out, if it hadn't been overrun by white folk like me. And it would be cool to tick off another country off my bucket list, and take a host of cool photos on my trusty Malicia (who was sadly knocked out of action on the way to Iceland, and missed the parade there!)

For a relatively small country, New Guinea certainly packs a punch attraction wise. I'm thinking about them all this week, in cold, gray Tokyo. The fabled Trobriand Islands: argonauts paddling across a transparent sea, canoes piled high with necklaces, playing their endless game of pass the parcel. Coral-fringed atolls, bare-breasted maidens gathering yams and other edibles, bilum bags strung over their shoulders. Another world another world another world. A whole society powered by magic: a wizened farmer fertilizes the soil with incantations. Vilamalya (magic of plenty), gift and counter-gift, the taboo of accumulation. I have heard there are parts of New Guinea where the locals don't use money, and the economy resides totally on barter. With all my recent woes, maybe I ought to emigrate there! The Highlands: jagged, snow-topped mountains rearing from the jungle, volcanoes simpering in the mist. Headhunters, tribes of people living in treesMadang on the north coast, jewel of the South Pacific, shaded by casuarina trees. I'm thinking all about these places tonight, and doing some research on the Internet. As this week ends in frigid Tokyo, "Niu Gini" is definitely on my mind!

Monday, January 5, 2004

The Gift of Death

I was thinking recently about that Biblical verse: "For God so loved the world that he gave his own and only Son..." I suddenly realized a new interpretation of that expression: that we, as spirits, were so in love with "reality" (The Earth) that we were willing to give up our immortality, and accept a short life here. Just like Arwen did in The Lord of the Rings... she gave up her life for love. Just an idea! but if it is true, it means there is no Afterlife for us, no Blessed Realm over the ocean... because we forsook that for the privilege of incarnation.

On a bright note, my Japanese word of the day was taught to me by Masumi, after I told her about my psychic dreams -- it is masayume  (正夢) or "true dream". I'm sure it will come in handy someday!

Sunday, January 4, 2004

New Years Day in Japan (A New Sea Change)

It's amazing how sometimes you can "meet your match", that special someone who instantly -- and irrevocably -- changes your life. I mean "meet your match" in a number of different ways, in a whole constellation of different ways. For example, there is "meeting your match" on the "soulmate" level: finding your true love, that person who melds with you, completes you, your Twin Flame in other words. That's the contemporary idea of a "good match", and I do subscribe to the theory, to a limited extent at least. But there are many other different possible meanings to the phrase "meet your match", and I am not talking only of finding things that burn! Like a prize fighter finally meeting his match in the ring, that one guy who can knock him out -- that is meeting your match. The prize fighter who meets his match, and loses his title -- that is what I am talking about today. It is a humbling experience when you meet your match. You might be motivated to drop on to the floor, and bow in reverence to this person who has bested you.

Let me put it this way: I was starting to think like I could be a playboy, with girls all over the place, a woman in every port, or a partner for every day of the week. That's the standard playboy dream, and I thought I was on my way to attaining it, after a slow start in life. There was one particular girl (Masumi) who I used to work with about 8 months ago or so, and with whom I used to exchange emails, even when I was with Akiko and Miyuki... it might have been just casual flirtation, but it gave me a thrill to think I could have two girls at the same time, three if I tried hard enough. There are plenty of gaijin dudes in Japan living that kind of fantasy, that Hugh Hefner fantasy, and I thought I was about to join the ranks. Then I lost Akiko, and I lost Miyuki, and suddenly I was back to square one: miserable and alone. Even when I flew out to Tottori the other week for my TV job my blues had accompanied me on the plane, blotting out the spotlight I should have been basking myself in, dragging me down at every turn. Just like Churchill's black dog, sprinting at me from across the dunes. I would scan my keitai forlornly, between shoots, looking for some text message from Akiko. Nothing from her there, not even anything from Miyuki... they weren't playing the game no longer. Holiday season arrived, and I thought I was going to be in for a dismal time. Then, out of the blue, I received a perky Happy New Year! message from Masumi, and my spirits soared. Somebody still cared! But this time around, I knew a bit of casual flirtation wasn't going to suffice. I needed something solid, something substantial! So I went out on a limb, and asked her out! Well, kind of asked her out... I offered to go out to her bayside hometown and visit her. And suddenly I realized that far from being the "casual fling on the side" that I used to picture her in my fantasies, she had actually become the center of my life. The thought arose in my mind: instead of me conquering her (as another notch, another knockout), maybe she had conquered me. Seduction is always more powerful than production, as Baudrillard would say. It is the paradox of romantic love, I suppose -- it is always the woman who pulls the strings. And after meeting her, at some country izakaya, I realized my life would never be the same again. So, the old me met my match, and was forced to sue for mercy!

Side street off Okubashi Dori, north of Nippori (Japan, 2004)
To celebrate my recent change in fortunes, I went for a walk, actually it was a megawalk, megawalking being just the appropriate way to explore a megacity like Tokyo. I often pick a random direction and walk until I find something interesting; lately I've been heading north a lot. This time I went up past Uguisudani Station (鶯谷駅) along Kototoidori (言問通り) with its clusters of love hotels and its generally seedy air, then through the backstreets of Nippori (日暮里), where I might have picked up a bottle of green tea, or a cheap burger at McDonald's. I think I sent an MMS to Masumi there, while the sun shone wanly, struggling through the clouds. It was New Year's Day, and I was due to go all out the way to Kisarazu (木更津) the following day to see her. For today, however, Tokyo was mine. One of things I like about this city is that every area seems to have its own specialty or reason for being; Shitaya (下谷) where I live is famous for its Morning Glory festivals, and Nippori is known as Fabric Town. There are tens of fabric shops lined along the narrow streets, some of them so rammed full of material it is almost impossible to move down the aisles. Today of course all the fabric shops were closed, and the streets generally deserted. I walked past them all, shutters down, some of them with kadomatsu sitting in front of the premises. Either kadomatsu, or some kind of pine branch stuck to the front door, to celebrate the New Year. Somewhere along the line I must have stumbled upon the Okubashi Dori (尾久橋通り), which was to take me to my randomly chosen destination for the day. Down under some crazy overpass, cars whizzing by overhead, navigating myself through the bicycle traps. Down beneath the crazy overpass and out on to the streets beyond, with their dry cleaning businesses, obento shops, keymaking premises, that kind of thing. Perhaps, from time to time, some old lady or gent passed by me on a bicycle, ringing their bell. Later on I passed a street, lined with bare trees, and Hi no Maru (Rising Sun) flags, which perfectly summed up the spirit of the day... dead but reviving. It was cloudy at the time; in time the clouds cleared, and the sun broke out, bathing the city in springlike cheer.

Mansions on the bank of the Sumida River, catching some late winter sun (Japan, 2004)
Every part of Tokyo has its own identity, that's one of the things I like about the city; another thing I like is that even though it is home to some 20 million people, the infrastructure is so developed and possibly even overdeveloped, it can often seem like you are the only person around. This city is the urban jungle penultimate and I just love exploring all the little nooks and crannies, the underpasses and overpasses, the engineering and the rusted relics from the Bubble Years. When I touched down at Narita Airport for my first time ever on the sunny morning of November 11, 2000, and took the ride into Ueno station downtown, the thing which struck me hardest was the concrete. The legions of brown and gray concrete apartment boxes (mansions), which start rising from the Plain of Kanto halfway across Chiba, and jostle with each other ever more aggressively, the closer you get to the city. By the time you reach downtown it is all wall to wall concrete -- concrete everywhere, with barely space for a tree to poke through. Layers of concrete in fact, piled up on top of each other, like the rings in a tree trunk, recording the history of the city right through the Contraction and Expansion of the Bubble, and the less developed years before, all the way back to the devastation of the war. It depressed me -- I couldn't imagine how anyone could live in such a desert, in such a wanton wasteland. It jarred with my aesthetics, and it lacerated my soul. My first impression of Tokyo (and as we know first impressions count so much!) was that this was an ugly city. There seemed to be no trace of the ancient past (as in Jerusalem, London, Madrid), and contrary to expectations there was no in your face celebration of a Utopian future (as in the mile high towers of Hong Kong, the hypercolor of Singapore, need I mention Dubai?) Tokyo that morning didn't seem to be a celebration of anything other than bland 20th Century functionalism, replicated en masse, like a virus. Almost Stalinist, although I know that is not the right term. Still, you get the idea -- this city is The Projects. It took me years to realize that such epic ugliness could indeed be beautiful -- the severity was part of the charm (as in a Japanese rock garden or a severely pruned tree.) But by definition understated never grabs you by the balls straight up, it's like an acquired taste, or that girl who was number three... and now suddenly number one, if you can play your cards right. That's if you have any cards left in your hand!
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