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Monday, December 25, 2006

Three Dimensions of Time, and the Multiverse

I dreamed about extra dimensions a great deal during my Australian life, for example whilst I was off my head with Boyd B. at our Rowntree Street kip, trying hard to impress the man they called the Wolf. I was on a New Age Spirituality tip at the time and I endeavoured earnestly to imagine what these other dimensions would be like, always picturing them as extra spaces, physically present but inexplicably invisible to my eyes, as well as my other senses. In the Fifth Dimension stars were Earths which had attained Enlightenment and Combusted, that is what they New Agers said (and like my cousin Kellie, they are still saying it now!) Of course it's wishful thinking, and I don't believe it -- ever since I moved to Japan I have become pragmatic, a realist, a disciple of Nietzsche's Here and Now. The world won't explode in the year 2012, I can feel that in my bones, but there is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as the old cliché goes, and dump the entire New Age canon. Surely there is something in there worth salvaging, before that baby sinks? However content I am with my current reality, I can't get let go of the idea: Are there extra dimensions of space/time, beyond the three or four that we are all aware of? But if they exist what do they look like, and why can't we perceive them? Recently I have been wondering if I was barking up the wrong tree, by imagining the Fifth Dimension as a kind of Garden of Eden blooming less than a P from our Cartesian cell. Maybe the Fifth Dimension is not a space, but a time. A plane of Time, to complement the classical field of Newtownian space. The Fourth Dimension is a line of time just as Einstein understood, the Fifth Dimension is a field, and the Sixth Dimension is... wait for it, a sphere. Or actually a Solid of Time, according to Ouspensky, who pondered such things well before I was born. As The Theory of Six Dimensions relates:

Some say there are three or four dimensions, some say more dimensions (10, 11, and 26 are current favorites of some physicists), some say there are an infinite number of dimensions. But Ouspensky's explanation of the six dimensions resolves that dilemma by showing how six dimensions are both all-inclusive and yet only partial...
In modern physics and science in general, the first three dimensions are the same as those described everywhere. But then things get a little confused. The fourth dimension, which is time, is sometimes described as space-time, which is actually the fifth dimension—as Ouspensky points out, the fact that space-time is curved requires another dimension.
The sixth dimension, all possibilities, is essentially the "multiverse" or "many worlds" interpretation of modern physics. The many worlds explanation is an attempt to explain observations of quantum phenomena that have no ordinary explanation but do have a consistent, but extraordinary, explanation. It basically goes like this: At every moment when you seem to choose among multiple possibilities, you actually choose each possibility, and different universes fork off, the one you are in now is the one in which you made the choice to read this, for example. There is another universe where you chose not to read this, another where you read part way and stopped and so on...

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Sunshine and the Gloom: Reprise

After my successful date with Tomomi last night, I awoke to a sunny and generally pleasant Sunday, this being one of the mildest winters on record. I had an appointment with my old salaryman friend Tanaka-san at 4pm; he wanted me to transcribe the lyrics of a Country&Western song his partner was planning to sing in Osaka (大阪). I met him at Breaks Cafe at Ueno Station, and transcribed his lyrics. After that we marched briskly through the settling cold and madding crowds, down the bleak concrete lanes, to the Himonoya Restaurant in Okachimachi (御徒町). Tanaka-san had spotted the place from the train on the Yamanote Line as he passed on his daily business, and he was keen to check it out. Naturally, the shout was on him.

Himonoya, specializing in sundried cuisine, at Okachimachi (Japan, 2006)

The servings started with a complementary cabbage -- you better believe it a whole cabbage, which we ate with a smearing of slightly spiced mayonnaise. I am not a green veg buff by any means but this cabbage tasted amazing -- "it is fresh," Tanaka-san succinctly remarked. There followed a series of sundried seafood dishes, in the himono tradition -- Tanaka-san sent one of them back to the kitchen for having too much akaimono (red stuff) inside. Apart from the fish, the menu boasted grilled nasu (eggplant) and fried duck (鴨つくね) served with what looked suspiciously like a duck's egg. Who said the Japanese weren't adventurous eaters! There were also plenty of onigiri rice balls, some of them of tremendous proportions. Scary! Naturally, a full spread of Japanese rice wine and beers accompanied the feast. I took a few photos, and sent one or two of them to Tomomi. I returned home feeling elated, basking in the afterglow. The gloom in my heart was lifting. It's funny how your life can turn around, so quickly.

With a new job and a new girlfriend, I have achieved the aims of July 2006. So, let's bask for a while! Breaking free from Kidea is a longterm goal, and I have already come quite far, with 2.5 free days! Since money is the key to power I should focus on repaying my credit debt. There are too many  interesting things happening in Japan to worry about the implementation of Intermediate International Vagabondancy just yet. However, I have laid the foundations of this coming phase of my life.

Himonoya: 5-19-6 Ueno, Taito Ward, Tokyo, Japan. Phone: (03) 3831 8804.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Reykjavik Record Shops

Iceland's musical scene is legendary, and for such a tiny country, the island sure manages to produce an enormous amount of talented artists and bands -- not to mention the occasional superstar. How do they manage it? According to the Kimono guitarist I chatted with in my most recent visit to Reykjavik: "The scene here is so small that musicians have nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. People end up doing whatever they want to do." So Icelanders don't go seeking fame, I get that -- but oddly they receive it, on the international stage no less. Lately I have been wondering: is it not the originality of the Icelandic musician that is critical here, but rather the exoticness of the Icelandic sound? In other words, Icelanders don't mean to sound so quirky, that is just the way they are. The strange thing is that even when Icelanders try to emulate something mainstream (say, Foo Fighters), it nonetheless ends up sounding alternative (like Whool). This is the process by which the B52's is transmuted to the Ice Cubes, and Radiohead is transformed to Sigur Rós...

Much as they would like to be Anglo-American clones, eating pizza and hamburgers, playing drums in the garage, Icelanders are simply not fated to be so mundane. They have something in their background which might be boring to them, but is fascinating to the outside world. Some kind of idiosyncrasy, some singularity is crystallized in their DNA and that is refracted in their literature, their music and their fashion sense, and obviously their art. Where does it spring from, though, this mutation, this mysterious X Factor? The geography? geology? The Sagas and the mythology? I am not quite sure, but I know that it is there.

There are basicaly three main record shops (plötubúðir) in Reykjavik -- wait, four if you count the big book store (Mál og Menning) who have CDs and DVDs and stuff on the first floor (self published Icelandic poetry and mystery novels on the second floor.) There may be more than this, but in my opinion there are only good three record stores (þrjár góðar plötubúðir) in Reykjavik worth going to. At one, you can relish the knowledge that you are walking on Björk's sacred space. Or something like that.

12 Tónar: Skólavörðustígur 15 | 101 Reykjavík | Sími: 511 5656 | Web:
Tone means "music" in Icelandic, and 12 Tónar refers to the 12 tones of the musical alphabet, from Aflat to Gsharp. Whenever I am in Iceland, 12 Tónar is one of the first places I head to, to update my knowledge of Icelandic rokk. To get there you must climb the mild incline of Skólavörðustígur from the groovy underground Kofi Tómosar cafe, up towards the big Viking statue and church, and stop off when you see the yellow and blue sign. The first time I visited Iceland, I walked straight past 12 Tónar without thinking it was anything more than a used knickknacks outlet. What a fool I was! On my latest trip, I did my homework, and earmarked this store for the first full day of explorations. Though it may be small, this is the best place to shop for local tunes. The staff are incredibly friendly. Head downstairs, and you can peruse the racks bathed in footlevel sun. Staff serve you coffee, you can listen to the latest Icelandic releases on headphones on a a comfy old couch while browsing art magazines from Japan (that is what I did the last time I was there, anyway.) The staff are no doubt musicians themselves and there are plenty of in-house events, such as free concerts held every Friday at five. While I didn't make it to the concert, I did manage to pick up some CDs here on my last visit, each costing around 1000 Kronurs a disk. One was Anarchists Are Hopeless Romantics, by My Summer As A Salvation Soldier (otherwise known as Þórir ). That record really resonated with me in the humid, horrid Tokyo summer of 2006, as I lamented the breakup with C, and the general collapse of my life. A rather depressing album, to be sure, but Þórir has also put out some more upbeat numbers, for example the euphoric Canada Oh Canada (Land of the Free), and he is also apparently the lead singer of a folk/punk band called Deathmetal Supersquad. A most versatile chap, all in all...

Taktu Bensin Elskan!Bad Taste Record Store: Laugavegur 35 | 101 Reykjavík | Sími: 511 5656 | Web:
More than just a record store, Bad Taste (Smekkleysa) is a museum dedicated to the history of Icelandic music and art. It is also the shopfront of a music label, Bad Taste Records, which started as an arts collective in 1986. It became famous as the label which launched Bjork and her former band, The Sugar Cubes. Since that time many Icelandic greats have been signed by this label including Quarashi, Singapore Sling, and of course Sigur Rós. Given the history of the place, I was surprised by the limited selection of music here. You can, for example, order Bad Taste's entire back catalogue on their website. Why they don't have the music on sale at the record store as well is beyond me. Anyway, there are supposed to be performances put on here sometimes. Smekkleya isn't the only record label in Iceland: there is also the Bedroom Community. Just letting you know!

Geisladiskabúð Valda: Laugavegur 64 | 101 Reykjavík | Sími: 562 9002.
If the window display is anything to go by, this store seems to be devoted to the hard stuff: Heavy Metal, Death Metal, and hard rock. I must confess I have never stepped inside this place, as Metal is not really my thing. It is a genre that seems popular in the North, however, and has worked its influence into the indigenous sound. Jónsi claims to have liked Iron Maiden as a teenager. Listen to the climax of Glósóli, and the fruits of this infatuation are clearly audible. Albeit, obviously, channelled through a thick Icelandic filter. Which is, incidentally, just the way I like it! Geisladiskabúð Valda apparently stocks games and DVDs too.

As with anywhere, those bands with labels are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the ocean lies a great vault of untapped talent. How about these unsigned bands in Iceland, where do you find them? There are a number of websites to facilitate your search. Here are some of my favourites:

Hugi (Íslensk tónlist) (defunct)

Saturday, September 9, 2006

Internet Earnings Plan (The Freelance Life)

Imagine if I was earning ¥50,000 a month from the Internet? It sounds far-fetched, but it could be possible by the year 2016. While I would still need a regular job, an extra $US500 a month would give me a lot of freedom... including the freedom to spend long spells in cheap countries (such as India), to endure lulls in employment, and to quit jobs I don't like. This is the kind of freedom I crave... and it is coming my way, one click at a time. I am slowly building a new reality in Japan. I have a part freelance life, and day by day, I find myself getting over C. Who knows, soon I could have another girlfriend!

Monday, August 7, 2006

We're All Floating

Have you ever read a haiku poem? Not only are they fascinating compositions in themselves, as fragile as a cherry blossom, but they also open a window into the culture and the consciousness of the Japanese people.

For those who don't know, haiku comprise three nonrhyming lines of five, seven and five syllables. To our Occidental mind, they appear too fleeting and incomplete. We feel that there should be something more substantial. If we think Orientally, however, we will realize that they reveal something less... that is, the vacuum which encapsulates the core of the Japanese experience. Just like the empty gestures of the tea ceremony (茶道), they condense the essential nothingness of the Universe. This is the original meaning of the "Floating World", in my opinion at least.

The following haiku, by Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) is said to be one of the most profound achievements in Japanese literature, but is only seven words long:
"Furuike ya!
Kawazu tobikomu
Mizu no oto."

("Oh -- ancient pond!
A frog jumps in,
The sound of water.")

It should be noted that the "ya" is not even a real word, and it is merely deployed as a "state breaker", a crack of Zen revelation. I studied quite a few other haiku today and most of them were deceptively simple, but yet deeply mysterious at the same time. They make me wonder about how the same patterns coil round and round and in upon themselves, conchstyle. In Europe landscaping generally entails elaborate grounds with avenues of grand elms; in Japan the traditional garden is just a raked expanse of gravel rimmed by midget brutally pruned bonsai trees. Haiku are the bonsai of the poetry world, you might say -- severely pruned and bare.

A more contemporary state breaker can be heard in the song We're All Water, written and sang by Yoko Ono, and released on John Lennon's protest album, Some Time in New York City. Ono might be a terrible singer and the whole production is shambolic, but the curious structure of the piece redeems it. Each verse is like a haiku, with three lines of five or seven syllables each, for example this one:

"There may not be much difference
Between Manson and the Pope,
If we press their smile..."

Three is not a particularly rhythmic number at the best of times, at least on a Rock record, but here it lends an exotic, enigmatic quality. Listening to Ono's song, you might find yourself hanging on, waiting for the missing fourth line. Have the courage to let go, however, and you could fall into an abyss, one that you never even noticed there right before your feet... (For more of my discoveries regarding manifestation and the void, click here.)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Midsummer Magic

Call me naïve, call me paranoid even, but I used to worry that it would be hard meeting people in Iceland.  I used to get obsessed about it, back in the planning phase of this trip, and to combat my fears I would conduct rituals, Paper Burning ceremonies in fact, in my dingy sharehouse in Tokyo. Granted, I had met plenty of nice people on my previous visit here in 2003, among them Akiko a Japanese girl who turned into a lover, and Rodolphe the freak from the Alps who ambushed me in the mossy canyons of Þingvellir, and tried to seduce me. Great folk they all were, but they weren't locals, and it was the locals that I was really yearning to make my acquaintances with. Cute Asian girls are always a pleasure to encounter, but I can encounter plenty of them in Asia. It might well be easier hooking up with Japanese women outside of Japan than it is in their homeland, but truth be told I am over Japan after all my recent conflicts, and I want to take a break from it all. I need time out from all that stress, that Bushido bullshit! And visiting Iceland is such a rare luxury for me right now, I want to make the most of it. Icelanders are the rarest of species, anyway: how often do you see them in your home town, or at your nearest airport even? You don't see any, that's the thing... they are as elusive as elves. Apart from the staff at my youth hostel and the odd waiter or bartender downtown, I don't think I interacted with any real Icelanders on my 2003 trip -- and I was in their own country no less, in their capital city! This time around, having forked out so much for airfares and ripoff hotels, flown halfway across the world, etc, this time around I wanted to do things right, and meet the people who actually live here, rather than fellow travelers like myself. That of course can be hard when you are staying in a dorm in a youth hostel on the edge of town, and you only have six days to spend on the island. To maximize my chances of adventure, I concluded, I needed to have some kind of plan, a little piece of insurance up my sleeve. Obviously, I could have resolved to go out and network hard as soon as I touched down at Keflavíkurflugvöllur and that is indeed what I have been doing these past few days, networking my ass off so to speak! But, back in the planning phases of this trip, I required something more immediate to soothe my anxieties, something a little bit magical perhaps, something vindictively voodoo even. That is where Paper Burning came in. Call it irrational, call it superstitious nonsense, but Paper Burning seems to work. It can make your wishes come true, whether you believe in it or not. It is my key to manifestation.

Gateway between the worlds: an underpass, in Reykjavik (Iceland, 2006)
The process is so simple it's silly: in essence, Paper Burning is the transformation of psychic energy into its physical equivalent, the alchemy of -E into the "E" of Einstein's famous equation. Fire and prayer serve as the interface, the gate between the two worlds. You might liken it to mining Jung's realm of indestructible energy, or sparking a cluster of coincidences, summoning them into existence, and hoping they will play out to your advantage! That's one way of looking at it. Another way is to consider it the recycling of past events: episodes which have happened to someone else, somewhere, at sometime; episodes which you seek to recreate in your own life, right here, right now. In order for the process to work something connected to that past event, something linked to it by psychic energy, needs to be destroyed so that the psychic pattern it represents can cross the threshold into the physical realm, and (re)manifest. When I Paper Burn I first hunt down some person describing, in their own words, an experience they have had, usually online on blogs and forums and the like. Anything that looks genuine and authentic is good for me, for example stories about lucky windfalls, falling in love, ecstatic epiphanies, sex with supermodels, that kind of thing. Or for this particular occasion, the experience of going to Iceland, meeting tons of nice people, making lifetime friends here! Those are the experiences I wanted to manifest this trip: longterm friends and wanton sex! Paper Burning manifested my relationship with C., and it got me a kiss out of the blue with Akiko on the lawns of Shinjuku Gyouen (新宿御苑), so surely it could mine me a few babes and buddies in Reykjavík, and guarantee me a rollicking time here. Truth be told, however, my soul has been longing for something more luminous than just babes and buddies and rollicking fun recently, and I find myself hungering for an accomplice instead of a mere acquaintance, a Twin Flame rather than just a girlfriend, a collaborator or collaborators who can allow me to attain the Divinity in the flesh that I have sometimes glimpsed in my dreams... in short, post C. I yearn for no less than a soulbuddy or coterie of soulbuddies from another dimension, Rock star friends to deliver me the Rock star lifestyle I deserve, and dearly await! Listening to Icelandic music always gives me the suspicion that I am missing out, alienated from the art and adventure which ought to be my birthright. "Born in the wrong family, the wrong town, the wrong country," as I might have complained as a kid, growing up in regional Australia. Back then I used to call this malaise the "Goonie Feeling", and I fantasized about escape through all manner of exotic means: becoming a writer or a famous artist, a child actor, a pop star, a global citizen, etc. Assuming that my misplaced birth was the root of my woes, I figured that all I needed to do was to change my abode, and my dream life would develop around me, spontaneously. Thus my life of wandering commenced, the search for belonging in farflung lands: interestingly, the Promised Land I sought was always overseas, north not south, temperate not arid, erudite and articulate, emotionally intelligent, savvy and sophisticated, youthful but wiser than its years. The quest led me to Japan but much to my dismay, Utopia was not waiting for me there, alas. Japan is cool and all, I love the trains and vending machines, the endless concrete jungles, but it is not the social Promised Land that I was expecting it to be. If my cousin Kellie had been there to join me then perhaps it might have turned out differently, we could have established our colony. But Kellie flaked out on me, she ditched me, and after several years of life in the Far East I was compelled to resume the search for my (now) private Zion, my (personal) Canaan. Almost immediately, I settled my sights on Iceland, a country I have always held a fascination for, ever since I was a wee bairn. I booked a flight here in 2003, and stayed about six days. Amazingly, the place exceeded my expectations, it was even better than I dared to hope it would be. For the first time in my life, it seemed I had finally found the place to call home. If only it wasn't so hard to get to, and to emigrate to!

Corner of Frakkastigur and Njalsgata, in Reykjavik (Iceland, 2006)
Sometime last year I had a dream in which I was in an interior space, a long room of some kind, which was supposedly in Iceland. I can't really remember what was going on; while I often dream of being in huge parties, the atmosphere here felt sedate, more like a library than a nightclub. I was chilling on a couch, and presently I became aware that I was sitting next to this yellowhaired guy. We started talking about life and the universe, philosophy and politics and poetry, and I soon I realized that this man was going to change my life, or at least encourage me to become the real me, whatever that might mean. When I woke up, I knew it was an important dream, it was a dream with meaning. It was an inspirational dream, no less, and I used to think about it a lot during my relationship with C., when I should have been infatuated with her. I didn't know whether it would actually come true or if it was just symbolic of my Icelandic hopes: Freudian or Jungian, wish fulfillment or astral traveling, who knows. But I did remember it, and it did stay with me. That was one dream which crossed the threshold, always so foreboding and forbidding, from the unconscious, to the conscious mind... 

Memories of this dream played through my mind as I readied the Paper Burning apparatus for action, a few months before my recent flight. I had found a choice snippet to burn, which was now printed out on a pristine leaf of white paper, and which read beguilingly: "Though I can say that if you are doing the pub crawl around Reykjavik after 1 am on a Friday or Saturday, you will end up with lots of new friends who are very talkative and outgoing." This read, in fact, like the perfect fodder for a Paper Burning spell: disposable, just an anonymous quote from the Internet, but the way it had been appropriated gave it an edge of sorcery, of the sort you might encounter in Bronisław Malinowski, or vintage Harry Potter. I installed the sheet of paper atop a vessel crusted from the detritus of previous fires, and ignited a cigarette lighter. The vessel was actually a mini altar bell given to me by Soka Gakkai (創価学会), that mad Buddhist order to which I belong (and doubtless they would accuse me of sacrilege if they knew how I was about to treat it!) I settled on to the floor in front of the bell in my bedroom, crouched seiza style, and lit the edge of the page. Flame crept around the perimeter of the page, browning it, bending it, and lifting it with a draft of warm air. For a moment I was worried the blazing leaf might lift itself out of the bell and drop on to the wooden floor of my room. As previously related, my sharehouse is made of tatami mats and paper walls and wood, and it would burn down in a flash if it was set alight. I have to be careful with this shit, so I poked the page back into the center of the bell with a pen, ready to extinguish the flame if things got out of hand. Peak flamage subsided shortly enough, however, and the sheet curled up onto itself, disintegrating into flakes of ash and puffs of gray smoke. I bowed towards my Soka Gakkai gohonzon (sacred scroll) hanging on the wall, and chanted through the smoke three times: "Nam myou hou ren ge kyou" ("南無妙法蓮華経"). I'm not really sure why I do this, since I don't really believe in Nichiren, the Lotus Sutra, and all that jazz associated with the gohonzon. Maybe you could call this "hedging your bets": if Paper Burning didn't work, then at least Nichiren might do the trick, and grant me my wishes. That was probably my motivation. My Soka Gakkai friends would probably be appalled, but this is the system I employ, and it works for me. Freestyling forever... that is the way I play! You can't pin me down to any one style... no way.

The Sirkus, the "only bar in Reykjavik!" (Iceland, 2006)
I used to worry about meeting people in Iceland, but it turns out that this was a misguided fear. The reality of the social scene in Reykjavík is, the city is so small, it is really easy to get to know people. After just a few nights downtown doing the Runtur, I have started to notice and recognize the same old faces -- the Reykjavík gang. And because the city is so isolated, people are interested in you as a newcomer. This is the kind of place where you don't need to exchange phone numbers or business cards -- if you meet someone cool, chances you will bump into them again pretty soon, just walking down the street. And they will remember you. On Friday afternoon, while the wind blew, and I wandered around town checking stuff out, I popped into a corner store to buy a burger for lunch -- and who else was standing there at the counter but my old cocainehunting buddy from Thursday night! I have forgotten what his name was, and perhaps he never gave it to me, but he has become my first true friend in Iceland, my first Icelandic Goonie. Gods willing, more are on their way!

Saturday was Midsummer's Day and I was back down in the Miðbær (midtown) at the Cafe Rosenburg, nursing a hangover from the previous night, and submitting it to my usual hair of the dog therapy (ie, I was drinking another beer!) The Cafe Rosenburg was decorated with model ships, an old piano, and jazz instruments hanging from the walls. Outside was a beautiful day: brilliant blue sky, sunshine and a hearty North Atlantic breeze. I was drinking my beer, and to pass the time (which often seems to expand so enormously here in Iceland, especially when I am wandering around) I flipped through a copy of the Reykjavik Mag which I had discovered on one of the tables. I paused to read an article about a young cartoonist and playwright named Hugleikur Dagsson. According to the article and other stuff I have seen on the Web since then, Hugleikur is famous for his stage play Forðist okkur ("Avoid Us") and his comic books Elskið okkur ("Love Us"), Drepið okkur ("Kill Us") and Ríðið okkur ("Fuck Us"). And he also wrote another work called Bjargið okkur ("Save Us"). There was a photo of the guy in the magazine with short hair and slacker T-shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, looking uncannily like my old mate Dave Harris from Palm Beach in Sydney. (Dave is also an artist and an activist, although I haven't heard from him in years. I wondered what he would think of Reykjavík if he ever made it here.)

I ordered another beer, stuffed the Reykjavik Mag into my slingbag as a souvenir, and picked up a copy of the ever informative Reykjavik Grapevine newspaper, which the Rosenberg was kind enough to stock. Leafing through it, I stumbled upon an article about Midsummer's Day, which was being marked today. It stoked my interest, so I started to read the report which follows, quietly, as I sipped my beer:

In pagan times, holidays were marked by the phases of the moon and the changing of the seasons. The longest day of the year, Midsummer (actually the first day of summer), was a celebratory holiday that revolved around the goddess Freyja, whose primary areas of expertise were sexuality and fertility. You can imagine the gusto with which this holiday was celebrated -- after the long, brutal winter, summer's finally here, and celebrations are in honor of the Goddess of Love? You bet it was a good time. 
Not that things have changed very much since then. Even today, the arrival of summer is greeted with great enthusiasm, as you'll find that on the first remotely mild day of the year, Icelanders pour into the streets wearing skirts and t-shirts. But there are also a few superstitions surrounding Midsummer (due to begin on 21 June, 4:26AM) that have managed to survive. 
One of the biggest ones is, you can roll around in the dew at dawn on Midsummer and any wish you make will come true. This is risky, particularly in an urban area like Reykjavik, but people still do this... Midsummer is also a great time to gather magical rocks and plants, as they're supposedly at the height of their power on this day. I'd suggest getting out of town that day, going for a walk down by the beach, or in a patch of woods, and looking around for small stones that look magical to you. Pick up this stone, put it in your pocket, and keep it -- you've got your new magic talisman.

Boulders, anchor and crane, beneath a blue midsummer sky (Iceland, 2006)
Well, I am sorry to report that I didn't roll around in the dew naked on Midsummer Day 2006, but I did pick up some interesting lava stones down by the waterfront, and perhaps more importantly, I had in my credit a number of Paper Burning spells conducted in Japan which were doubtless swirling out there in the ether, biding their time, just waiting for their chance to do their thing and manifest. And manifest they did, in spectacular form! As I wrote above, June 24 had developed into a wonderfully sunny and beautiful summer's day, and it was the weekend (Saturday no less), with everybody in the mood to party. Thursday had been incredible, Friday had been sensational, and while Saturday had only just begun I could already sense that Saturday was resonating at a higher dimensional vibration altogether than all the other days... in short, Saturday was otherwordly. And who knows, perhaps it was all from the feminine Freyja energy in the air? I put the newspaper in my slingbag, drained my glass, and left the Rosenberg. After walking around for a while I landed at the Sirkus, the site of my adventures on Thursday night. As I approached the bar to buy a drink, I realized that the aforementioned Hugleikur Dagsson was standing at the other end of the counter, beer in hand. I quickly dug out the copy of the Reykjavik Mag which I had confiscated as a souvenir, just to check that I wasn't hallucinating. It was, indeed, him -- the guy standing across the room with a beer in his hand was the same comic and writer and artist I had just been reading about at the Rosenberg. He looked like he had clawed his way out of the page of the magazine, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and slacker T-shirt, and a Dave Harris smirk. Scanning the article, I noticed that Dagsson had been asked: "What is your favorite bar in Reykjavik?" And he had replied: "Sirkus. It is the only bar in Reykjavik."

I will drink to that.

I ordered myself a beer, and walked upstairs to the loft, where they were showing the soccer World Cup. When I entered the loft I thought to myself: Wow, this is the place from the dream, the dream set in the long interior room. This is where I am going to meet that guy, the guy that changes my life! I sat down, and this feeling of déjà vu intensified... the mood, lighting, dogeaten couches, carpet on the floor, and my own state of mind were all the same as they had been in the original dream. I thought: If that dream really was a premonition, I just have to sit back and let it happen! I don't have to force anything. So I reclined in my couch, and tried to concentrate on the game for a while, gripped in a rising excitement. From time to time I looked around, to see if anything truly luminous was going on. There wasn't, just guys slouched in couches all around me, some of them with trainershod feet sprawled on coffee tables, watching the World Cup. I was almost starting to lose hope, when finally this yellowhaired guy walked in from behind me and said. "Do you mind if I sit next to you?" I looked up and realized: Oh my God, that's the guy from the dream! Its really him! A yellowhaired guy in jeans and slacker T-shirt and bright trainers, flopping down into the seat next to me. He looked like he had just emerged out of my dreams, to grace real life. 

We started talking and after some formalities, he announced that he was the guitarist from Kimono, a band I have been listening to since 2003. I'm not sure he told me his name but based on stuff I have read online since, I am pretty sure he is Alex. Been touring for years, now back in Iceland. I told him that their Japanese Policeman in Scandinavia was one of my favorite songs and he remarked, "Wow, I didn't know we had that much of a following." We talked about earthquakes and life on the road, the Berlin rock scene, the Reykjavik rock scene, and so on. I asked him if there were any other musicians in the room with us right now, anyone I might know. "Yeah, there are a few," he replied, tantalizingly. 

The game ended, Alex made his leave, and not long after I bailed as well. I headed out on to the street thinking to myself: Man, this is one magical place. Everytime I come here, something extraordinary happens to me here! I wonder what will happen next?

Walking the streets of Reykjavik under a blue midsummer sky, looking for some action (Iceland, 2006)
After that epiphany at Sirkus, the rest of the day was an anti-climax. I wandered down into the eastern reaches of the city, down to the water where the wind blew hard, and the gulls wheeled low. I could have spent a lifetime there just photographing the houses, the cars, the dwarf trees. I read National Geographic magazines in Kofi Tómasar Frænda ("Uncle Tom's Cabin") in the evening, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. Finally, I got up, and commenced roaming again. Gatecrashed what seemed to be a private party at Hressó, sometime around 9pm. Plenty of people there, but it wasn't luminous. Eventually I left and moved on to Nelly's, which was rammed to the rafters. This was where the party was at: everyone was going crazy on the dancefloor upstairs, shaking their hands around like they just didn't care, etc. I got so drunk I fell down the stairs, and then decided it was time to call it a night. I returned to my youth hostel along the waterfront, watching the play of light on Esjan, and the sun orbiting the cold horizon. I could have spent the rest of the night out there, sitting on a rock, gazing into the grim hinterlands, that vast country of which Reykjavík serves as just an introduction. I remembered Alex saying that The Vines are pretty popular in Iceland, and that Nick Cave is actually a frequent visitor to the island. He apparently wrote the music for an Icelandic movie recently. Looking up at Esjan as I resumed my long trudge, I imagined I was Nick walking by himself on the lava beach in the middle of the night, striding home from a gig like a ghost in the mist. This is certainly the kind of country which would appeal to him, I thought to myself as I walked. Even more importantly, it is the kind of country which appeals to me!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Akihabara for Adults

Well, here it is, the Adults Only edition of the Akihabara City Guide. I have been apprehensive about releasing this page to the Web, even though I am sure the subject will proof clickworthy enough, and also lucrative from a CPC imperative. The problem lies with Google, my underwriter (and my overlord). As part of the Google AdSense program I am compelled to provide family-friendly content. No nudity, no sex, no general perversion, that's the general deal. These are, however, precisely the subjects which draw in the most visitors, as reports on Google Analytics appeal. So my dilemma is: should I succumb to censorship, or should I run rogue, and chase these illicit dollars down the drain? It is not just about the money, though; there is principle at stake: how can I be true to the world without chronicling its dark side, as well as the light? Over the years Japan has developed the reputation of being one kinky country, repressed but paradoxically unrestrained. I must confess, I have yet to see any of those legendary vending machines selling used schoolgirl underwear, but I believe they are there. Schoolgirls are an enduring fantasy for Japanese males of all ages, and maids are not far behind them. So, you can buy pr0n on the street, or even read it on the train, without the need for shame. But so what, exactly? Japanese realize there is dark to match the light, and a market for every shade of grey between. Which is, of course, why such places like Akihabara exist in the first place! This is a city of sin, more introverted than Patpong, but a city of sin nonetheless. Here are some of the more disturbing establishments to be found here.

Battle: 千代田区外神田3-1-15はしかつ本店ビル5F.
5th Floor Hashikatsu Honten Building, 3-1-15 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Time to time in Akihabara you come across something truly bizarre, truly hentai (perverted). Battle is one of these places. The sign in the photo here says "Battle Catfight -- men & women pro wrestling". Battle proclaims itself to be a Pro Wrestling Shop, but there is much more to the place than that. As Harmful, a man well acquainted with the seedier sides of Tokyo, reported: "Another one of those find-the-tiny-folding-sign-and-go-in-the-anonymous-looking-doorway-and-up-the-elevator deals. Battle is on the 5th floor.but -- lucky you! it is sandwiched between 2 other fetish stores! on the 4th is SPORTS FETISH store, where you can get videos of naked volleyball and pictures of old gym shorts, and 6th floor is FETISH WORLD.
FETISH WORLD is sort of a grab-bag of weird-for-the-sake-of-weird depravity, with a general focus on feet and trampling..."
Battle is open from 11am to 10pm.

Brainstown: 千代田区外神田???大竹ビル3F.
3rd Floor Ohtake Building, ?-?-? Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 5298 2499. 
When I was just a newbie in Japan, Cheap Bastard was trawling the backstreets of Akihabara, searching for buried treasure. A couple of years ago he encountered a specialist comics shop called Brainstown, somewhere off Chuo-Dori. I haven't managed to find it myself, but this is how the Bastard described this scene: "Take the stairs up to the 2nd floor, where they sell regular and hentai manga and magazines. Going up to the 3rd floor, they sell doujinshi, doujinshi soft, doujinshi goods, some live-action porn, and some other hentai anime-type shit. It's all retail price."

Doll@Cafe: 千代田区外神田1-6-7秋葉原センタービル5F.
5th Floor Akihabara Center, 1-6-7 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 3251 5865. Web:
Waiting for a train last weekend I noticed a new billboard at Akihabara Station (Hibiya Line), at the southern end of the northbound platform. On first glimpse I thought it was spruiking a new maid cafe, or a place where the waitresses dress up as anime stars, etc. But no, that would be too pedestrian, too mundane. The billboard was in fact advertising a hentai-themed hotel (I suppose we could call it a "brothel", but I might get banned for using such a term). The story gets even kinkier: it turns out that none of the hostesses/prostitutes at this "cafe" are real. They are, wait for it... dolls! You could say that this is a dollhouse for grown-ups, for men who like playing with dolls. I admit, some of them look cute -- see some pictures here. But for the life of me I just can't understand why people would shell out money -- and this case a lot of money -- to sleep with a doll. For that amount of money they could purchase a real hooker.
Like love hotels, there are two options -- the short stay (euphemistically called a "rest"), and the "night course".
It's cool to take photos of yourself with the dolls, and you can also dress them up in whatever turns you on -- school uniforms and maid costumes seem to be particularly popular (this being Akihabara and all!)
The dolls are specifically made for love, weigh in at around 26 to 28 kilograms, and are 140cm to 150cm tall when standing. A night of passion with one of them will set you back 22,000 Yen (around US$250). If you want a quick rumble then a 45 minute session will cost you only 10,000 Yen.

Go inside here, and head up to the 6th floor to find the Maid Cafe LammLammtarra: 千代田区外神田4-3-2.
4-3-2 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.
Phone: (03) 5209 4088.
This bright orange bazaar occupies a sliver of Chuo Dori streetside between LAOX and Sega, near Akihabara Station. Not only is the building narrow, but the aisles are very restricted as well. There is not much room, because it is stuffed with pr0n, anime pr0n -- adult videos or AVs as they call them in Japan.
I personally find this an interesting store, though I am no hentai (my girlfriend might disagree!) As you head up the stairs (which are narrow, like everything else in the complex) the vidoes and DVDs become progressively more hardcore. On the first and second floors it is fairly innocent enough -- cute girls in school uniforms or maid outfits, a lot of lesbian action, tongues interlocking, bodies erupting in wild passion... The stairs go on, ever up. By the time you stumble out on to the fifth floor, things have gone too far, as far as I am concerned -- bestiality, girls chained up with the dogs, sex in the stables, and that sort of thing are the order of the day. Amusingly, the customers look respectable enough -- salarymen on their lunch break and young students. Ahhhh... such is the paradox of Japan. Innocent but yet kinky -- and they don't even know how kinky they are. That's why I love this country!
If you make it to the roof, there is a maid cafe called Lamm Maid Café, which you can read about here. I never got that far.

If you want to get emails from a guy pretending to be a girl pretending to be your girlfriend, jon this site. Miharu is in fact a fictional "Akihiaba style idol", and she is often dressed in a school uniform. Basically the idea is you give Miharu your cellphone address and she will send you childish but rauncy and suggestive emails (I am not sure foreign email addresses are okay -- you might as well give it a try!) There's a guy in Liberty House who claims that he used to work in such a company, pretending to be a woman. Therefore Miharu wouldn't do it for me because I know how this particular magic trick works. If you one of those people who can suspend disbelief, you might get turned on by Miharu. If you are in Tokyo you might also catch her in public -- I saw two of her at Harajuku today, dressed in her famous maid costume (see the picture above!)

Monday, April 10, 2006

Skogar Treks (Iceland)

The village of Skógar might comprise just a few farms and a museum and some Tolkiensian Hobbit holes poking through the grass, but it has also become a gateway to one of Europe's last great wilderness areas, the huge, threatening Eyjafjallajökull ice cap in south Iceland, as well as the terminus of one of the world's top 10 treks. Not that I have ever trekked it... not yet, anyway. Later this year I will go to Iceland and if I have money and the time, I will definitely go to Skógar. From what I have read online, the name of the village means "forest", so it is probably the former site of a forest, although there don't seem to be many trees there now, they were chopped down centuries ago. I've heard the village is also close to the beautiful waterfall Skógafoss, which presumably means "forest waterfall", and is a major tourist attraction. There is another waterfall close to the ring road called Seljalandsfoss, which I would like to partake as well if I can make it. In the village itself, one can find a museum displaying the evolution of Icelandic houses and technical devices such as old aircraft and cars. The founder of the museum, Þórður Tómasson, is said to like showing guests around and has interesting stories to tell.

Seljalandsfoss, just off the ring road near Skogar in south Iceland.
Since I haven't been to Skógar yet, I have to delve into the blogosphere, to see what the fuss is about. The thing about the Internet, it is almost like travelling, as well as going back in time (if you look at the older sites.) Some of the bloggers you read come across as travellers you might share a room with, and they all are interesting characters. Take the Australian blogger Danny Yee, for example. Danny is just one of the many hikers and trekkers who have arrived in Skógar to take on the cunning walk. He trekked up to Þórsmörk ("Thor's Field"), a waystation on the trip to Landmannalaugar near the Hekla volcano.

Danny wrote of his trekking experience:
The morning was bright and clear. "Fossbuin" was closed, so we could neither shower nor pay for the campsite. We packed everything ready for our hike, but then went to check out the Skógar Folk Museum. This consists of a number of buildings: old farmhouses, many of them with turf walls, a reconstructed church and schoolhouse, a large modern building housing the folk exhibits, and a brand new Technology and Transport Museum. Þordur Tomasson, the curator who inspired the museum, is still going strong, and he performed for us on one of the little organs, singing along, and on a dulcimer.
After checking out the museum and the amazing houses with grass growing on their roofs (just like the Hobbit Holes in The Shire!), Danny and his team trekked on to Þórsmörk. This is actually a short trek by Skógar standards -- the standard walk is a whopping 70+km long, up to Landmanalaugar (although people usually follow the route in reverse, from Landmanalaugar down to Skógar, possibly because it is easier as it is mostly downhill.) If you are interested in reading the accounts of some trekkers who have taken on this trek and won, visit these following sites (eds. note: these are so old they are in the archives now!):

Nir Halman's Landmanalaugar to Skógar Trek
A good web-blog from the days when web-blogs didn't even exist. This site will give you a good introduction to travel in Iceland, especially if you of the pennypinching disposition. But first, allow me to get an anti-Semitic rant off my chest: If you have ever been to Thailand or India you will have probably come across Israeli backpackers and been shocked by their aggressive bargaining tactics. It seems that Israelis have an almost allergic reaction to spending money while they are on holiday, and they will do anything -- anything -- to avoid coughing up the cash. I have even seen them bargaining in fixed price places like Kodak film development clinics (Bangkok), provoking the wrath of both fellow customers and staff. Some restaurants and hotels in Thailand and the subcontinent now refuse to admit Israeli customers for this reason -- to spare themselves the grief of a 3-hour argument about the bill. I haven't seen any "No Israelis Allowed" signs in Iceland yet, but they could start appearing, if the frigid island attracts more visitors of the ilk of Nir Halman.

If you ever wondered what goes on in the mind of an Israeli backpacker, check out Nir's site. This is one of the older Iceland adventure blogs on the Net -- it dates from 2001, and describes a visit Nir and his girlfriend made to Iceland in 1999. I enjoyed reading about how they try to save money by eating in supermarkets or BBQing their meals outside -- I should add that there is a bit of Nir in me, the last time I went to Iceland I was so short of money I was forced to sleep at the airport and hitch a ride to Blue Lagoon. One of the cool things Nir and his girl manage to do while in Iceland, is make the Landmannalaugar to Skógar trek. As Nir writes:
This trek is considered the best (but also the most difficult) in Iceland. It starts in Landmannalaugar, the site of a rather big hot water spring at an altitude of 600m. It is a remote and exposed place in the highlands bordering a big lava field from which Hekla volcano can be seen. This place is obviously popular with the tourists who visit it during the summer time. In the winter time, when a thick layer of snow covers the surroundings, it is left alone for the locals, who come to bath naked in the hot springs. The trek to Skogar is 70km long, and usually takes a week to walk. It is considered unique in the world as it passes through lava fields, volcanoes, hot springs, geysers as well as genuine alpine scenery of eternal glaciers, a high snow-covered mountain-pass and numerous snow fields.
The other great thing about this trek is that the route is lined with well maintained and cozy huts where hikers can stay the night. Payment for accommodation at these huts is, well, optional. And you can assume that your typical Israeli, passing through this beautiful part of the world, will option out of paying if payment is only optional. The loyalty system doesn't work for every nationality, I am afraid. Nir's website is proof of that. One of the classic parts of Nir's adventure happens when they come across a group of Icelandic folks having a BBQ at a popular mushroom picking place en route:
They are eating huge amounts of BBQ meat and freshly grilled potatoes while we eat pasta and mashed potatoes made out of dried potatoes powder. We look at them with eager eyes and then with surprise when we see the amount of leftovers they throw in the garbage cans. We don't understand why they ignore us. They are so many and we are only 4 "poor" tourists. They could have offered us some of their food... Only when they see our mashed potatoes powder they start to talk with us, and offer to us the remaining 3 pieces of the cake that they have eaten. What a pity they didn't talk with us before and offered to us the meat...
I too know what it is like to be a poor tourist in Iceland, forced to subsist on packets of dry noodles from Japan and cans of Asahi Blue, and tins of sardines and old bread. Next time I go to Iceland (June this year) things will be different -- I am going to live like a King. Lamb and roast pork and hotdogs for me every day -- I can hardly wait. Bring on the adventure!

Rowan Castle's Landmanalaugar to Skogar Trek

Rowan Castle visited Iceland in 2002 because he needed to get away from work and reckoned that the Landmanalaugar to Skógar trek would be the perfect place to unburden the stresses of modern life. In the process, he traded the burdens of workaday living for the burden of a 56-pound backpack! On his website Castle wrote:
This route is rated as Iceland's premier walk, and some guidebooks even claim that it is one of the best treks in the World! It starts in the South Central Highlands, amongst the colourful rhyolitic mountains and geothermal vents of Landmanalaugar. These mountains were laid down by volcanic action, and then dramatically eroded to create undulating hills of multi-coloured mineral deposits. As the path loses altitude, it descends out of these hills and crosses a bleak lava desert of black ash, punctuated by pyramidal mountains and raging glacial rivers. At the other side is the wide valley of Thorsmork (Woods of Thor), which has stunning views of two of Icelands huge ice caps - Eyafjallajokul and Myrdalsjokul. The route then climbs out of the valley, along a sharp ridge and crosses the Fimmvorthuhals Pass between the two ice caps. From there, it descends sharply to the North Atlantic coast, finishing at the sixty metre high Skogafoss waterfall at the small settlement of Skogar.
Castle describes the long trek from Landmanalaugar to Skógar in gruelling prose, with blocks of text interspersed by links to his photo gallery. I liked some of the little incidental touches, like the discovery of some little Arctic flowers in a crevice somewhere, their fragile beauty contrasted against the massive glacier stretching for miles and miles into the distance -- the microcosm within the macrocosm. Castle described some mud he had found on his trek thus: "a stream at the bottom (of the ravine) emerged from a perfectly formed tunnel under the ice, but the stream had deposited strange bright orange mineral deposits onto the black ash. The contrasting colours of orange, white and black looked like they belonged to an alien landscape."

That's why I love Iceland -- I just can't get enough of those alien landscapes! And if you want to plunge yourself into one alien landscape after another, go read Rowan Castle's site. Even if it doesn't formally exist any longer!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Making Mochi, and Appeasing the Gods (New Year in Shikoku)

One of my goals for the Great Shikoku Sojourn of 2005/06 was to enjoy a traditional Japanese New Year. As reported earlier, I passed New Years Eve last year in a sleazedive Roppongi club and while there is nothing wrong with that, this year I wanted to do things differently. Luckily for me, my adopted family in Shikoku always celebrate New Years the traditional way -- unlike a lot of Japanese these days who opt out for a vacation to Hawaii, or spend New Years Day eating take-out sushi or even Domino's Pizza. Actually, Pizza Hut now deliver their own New Years Day family meal in Tokyo, which costs an astonishing US$120 (as I recently discovered.) But I didn't want to eat anything from Pizza Hut this Japanese New Year, or do anything US military-related socially-wise. I wanted to do things the old school way, Bushi "Way of the Warrior" style. Luckily for me, the gods of Shikoku were on my side. They granted me my wish, and so I will remain forever in their debt, eternally.

My newly adopted grandmother and grandfather are certainly old school in how they live -- they're up every day at 4am to do all the chores that need to be done, like picking vegetables or making presentations to the gods which live all around their country house. I decided to emulate them while I was on their island, for a couple of days at least. Well, I knew I would never be able to get up at 4am, but I wanted to enjoy all the clean-living fun of rural Japan -- working in the fields, taking the dog for a walk in the bamboo thickets, drinking warm sake under the warm warm kotatsu. On my first full day in Shikoku, I was able to participate in another chore, a particularly sacred one -- the making of mochi rice cakes.

Before we go on, I ought to explain... what are mochi rice cakes, exactly, and what do they mean to the Japanese people? Let's go to one of the popular sources of modern times: Wikipedia! Wikipedia says: "Mochi (Japanese 餅) is the Japanese variant of Chinese rice cake, which, like its Chinese origin, is made of glutinous rice, pounded into paste and molded into shape; however, unlike the Chinese variety, it is molded right after it is pounded, whereas the Chinese variety is baked once again after to solidify the mixture as well as sanitize it. Traditionally in Japan, it is made in a ceremony called mochitsuki. It may also be made in an automatic mochi machine, similar to a breadmaker. In Korea, a nearly identical food is called duk (also spelled dduk, duek, d'uk, or tteok)." (Ed's note: those Koreans have a knack of giving the same basic food a million different names -- see my Korean Dog Soup Page for more comfirmation of this!)

On the subject of Mochitsuki, which is the ceremony I was blessed to participate in, Wikipedia continues: "Polished glutinous rice is soaked overnight and cooked (eds note: see first picture in the series below: the rice is being steamed in a traditional mushiki here.) The rice is pounded with wooden mallets (kine) in a traditional mortar (usu). Two people will alternate the work, one pounding and the other turning and wetting the mochi. The mochi must be kept wet to keep it from sticking to the mallet. The sticky mass is then formed into various shapes (usually a sphere or cube)."

Rice being steamed in a traditional Japanese mushiki steamer to make mochi rice cakesMochi rice cakes soft and tender as moons

That's making mochi in a nutshell: a lot of steaming, a lot of pounding, and a lot of kneading into the desired usually moon-like shape. What you end up with a lump of soft, sticky, gooey, glutinous goodness. They taste somewhat bland perhaps, although you can spice them up coating them with various substances, or stuffing them with red bean paste or even ice cream (that last item is not particularly old school though!) In the photo block beneath you can see another variant being made -- grass mochi! Kusa mochi (Japanese: 草餅), also known as yomogi mochi, is a Japanese sweet, and despite the name is made not from grass but rather mugwort.

Grass mochi being made from burdockGreen grass mochi being made

Yes sirree, the Japanese love cooking and eating these rice cakes at New Years Eve, although they are often eaten elsewhere in the year. Japanese also love presenting the mochi to the gods, to thank and honor them and to ensure good fortune in the following year. It is interesting that throughout human history, all over the world people have felt compelled to offer sacrifices to the Higher Beings, in order to win their appeasement and their approval. I was reading Homer's The Odyssey last year, and what impressed me the most, apart from the brutality of the climax, was how on almost every second page one of the heroes burnt up a pile of bovine thigh bones, or a rack of juicy steaks, to satisfy Zeus and his ilk. Now they don't practice animal sacrifice in Japan, but they do have plenty of reverence for the gods -- and there are literally millions of gods in this country. They don't sacrifice animals, but they do sacrifice food, which must have meant a big loss of resources back in the old days when there were a lot of hungry mouths to feed.

One thing I ought to point out right here is that New Years Day is celebrated in a completely different way in the East than it is in the West. In Japan/Korea/China/Vietnam New Years Eve/Day is kind of similar to the western idea of Christmas in that it is a day for family get-togethers, quiet reflection and acts of religious devotion, the consumption of vast quantities of food, dozing off in armchairs, getting up late and basically taking it easily. Ironically, Christmas Eve is the time to party in Japan, and many couples ask each other out on dates on this day; going to Kentucky Fried Chicken is especially popular. Go figure! So in other words, the Japanese New Year is our Christmas, and our New Year is their Christmas, in a manner of speaking! One of the things Japanese people do on New Years Day, apart from eating and drinking a lot of substances themselves, is that they make offering to the gods. At the home of my adopted family in Shikoku, they honor and partake in a particular tradition, which I call making mochi trees. Actually, it is only one tree they make, a small typically Japanese bonsai style fake tree, basically a stick skeleton hung with colorful shiny baubles and -- get this -- little pieces of mochi, rolled up to make what are called mochibana (rice cake flowers). The little stick tree is then propped up in front of the household altar, in the belief that the gods will come and eat the flour flowers, while the humans are off enjoying themselves devouring osechi ryori and sinking sake elsewhere in the house.

Small pieces of mochi rice cakes are applied to branches of a Japanese New Year TreeWhen fully decorated, the tree will be presented as an offering to the household godsMochi is a food loved by Japanese people, so Japanese people figure that the gods love it as well!

In the photo bar above, you can see mochibana being applied to the branches of the fake tree, by my girl C. In the photo bar beneath, you can see the mochi tree in all its colorful glory, before the household altar. The final photos display more substantial fare for the gods -- a full tray of shrinkwrapped rice cakes ready for Divine Degustation. There are also some dried kaki (persimmon) and a whole salted fish, if any spiritual beings take a fancy to that.

The mochi tree decorated with colored lights and deemed presentable to the godsA fully prepared mochi tree
The finished product wrapped and ready for presentation to the GodsMochi presented to the gods

The idea of leaving fish and dried foods on an altar in your house for invisible beings to eat might seem strange to us westerners, but we do have some similar practices of our own. In a lot of countries people leave out glasses of warm milk (or cold beer, in Australia) for Santa Claus to drink on his annual visit, and there is a carrot in every house for the Easter Bunny. In some countries, children who have lost teeth put them in a glass of water beside their bed, and in the morning they are transformed into money! Perhaps Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are all we left of our pagan animist past. In Japan in the animist past lives on. In Japan animism never died.

Like many other things in Japan, mochi plays a spiritual role in life. Every village or town has its own special ways of using it in its religious rites and customs. In the small town of Aratano (Tokushima Prefecture) in Shikoku, for example, a festival is celebrated in the early New Year called Mochi Nage, or "Thrown Mochi". The idea behind Mochi Nage is disarmingly simple: people turn up at the local Shinto shrine, some shrine workers come out with bags of cooked (and I assume blessed) rice cakes, wrapped in plastic for hygiene, and proceed to hurl them at the assembled crowds. Little kids dash about, catching or picking up as many of the rice cakes as they can bundle into their arms. Old ladies push younger countrymen/women aside in the mad melee. Perhaps some fire works are discharged. At the Mochi Nage festival I attended at Aratano, I got pelted by a couple of the thrown cakes, which are actually quite hard and could easily "take an eye out", if you were hit the right way. I also managed to collect a big bag full of mochi, and this bag was eyed enviously by some of the local kids in attendance there. The gods were on my side; I managed to do a good job.

The mochi boat is rolled through the streets of Aratano, dispensing mochi rice cakes all the wayThis is just one of the many mochi-nage festivals held throughout Japan at New Years timeResidents of Aratano follow the mochi boat in hope of scoring some rice cakes
Mochi is a food loved by Japanese people, and is used in many religious festivalsThe closest thing to a state sponsored riot in Japan, the regular mochi nage festivalPart food fight and part holy rite, the mochi nage festival in Japan
Shinto mochi nage festival in JapanMochi nage festival in Shikoku, JapanThe small Shinto shrine in Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku, home to an annual mochi nage festival

In the photo bar above, you can see photos from the Mochi Nage festivities at Aratano. In this town's version of Mochi Nage, a colorful boat-like vehicle (actually a converted car) is first rolled through the streets, attracting a crowd of eager scavengers. Like a Pied Piper, the car led us on to the local shrine where the proper rice cake chucking and catching sessions began -- and as I already mentioned, I ended up scooping up much of the venerable little goodies (attribute that to luck, or perhaps to favor of the mochi gods!)

Mochi Nage celebrations are also held to bless the construction of a new house, according to some reports I have read on the Internet. As Amy Chavez has reported: "Japan must be the only country where throwing food is not only acceptable but encouraged. Whole neighborhoods gather to throw food at each other in a tradition called Mochi Nage or, throwing rice cakes. No ceremony in Japan is complete without mochi, a symbol of happiness. In the old days, they probably threw only rice cakes, but these days they throw anything from packaged store-bought bread to bags of chips and instant ramen -- modern symbols of happiness..."

Whether we be human or animal or vegetable or god, all we want is the same thing in life: recognition for our existence and our efforts, and perhaps a bit of love and respect served on the top. That is what mochi encapsulates, and celebrates: the awareness that life is a ritual in which everyone must play their part, and in which every part is glorious. Witness the life cycle of this critter: pounded out of generous grains nurtured by the Four Elements, molded into moon shapes, then offered to the local deities, or tossed to little kids and grandmothers at the shrine... isn't this all just a celebration of the earth, a celebration of what the Earth can offer? We take from the earth and give back to it, and then it gives back to us, etc. The cycle keeps on repeating, endlessly. Creating abundance out of scarcity, rebirth out of decay, a New Year from the Old. The cycle never ends. The gods of Shikoku taught me all this, and more. In time, I might teach them a thing or two! In a couple of lifetimes or so.
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