Where's Samurai Jack when you need him? Last night I was standing outside Nakano Station, having a post-work beverage with some co-workers, when we saw this woman fall down. She was in the crosswalk with one foot practically to the curb, and she just collapsed. She had a friend with her who was struggling to get her up, to no avail. As we headed over to help her, four gaijin in a massive crowd of commuters doing absolutely nothing except minding their own business, the taxi that the woman collapsed in front of started its engine, gently turned its wheels to avoid running her over and pulled away. It seemed like she was okay, just too much to drink, but sometimes I really hate this place.
Sado. Tres. Culo. More to come...
Any morning that begins with a trip to the onsen is a good morning. If you know my extreme distaste for the hours from 5 a.m. to 12 p.m., unless I approach them from having not gone to bed the night before, then that's saying something. Stewing in an onsen is probably one of the best ways to begin any day, at any time. It was a nice change of pace, a welcome bit o' civilization from camping on the beach, with a tent but no sleeping bag and only a towel for a blanket. Even though I prefered the beach to the buggy grass, beaches mean sand, and sand gets everywhere. For several hours, except to order an excellent plate of soba and beer in a mug big enough to be Bob Sapp's bladder, I didn't speak a single word. I read, I stewed, I ate. Such a needed break from a job where I get paid to talk all the damn time. I took a different path down the mountain and found myself in the heart of Ogi. Ogi has several main thoroughfares and a bazillion alleyways turning any map into cross-hatching. And, of course, no street lights except on the two biggest roads. Because Sado is basically a chunk of Niigata Prefecture ripped off and floating in the Sea of Japan, it's mostly mountainous. It seems like every available flat space has been dedicated to farming vegetables or rice. The sheer cliffs and high walls surrounding Ogi have lead to some creative architecture, making it fun (and exhausting) to walk through. I passed by a fish market with a restaurant on the second floor, and it just doesn't get any fresher than that. The clam miso soup and fresh shellfish were - to the surprise of, oh, nobody - extremely delicious. Walking through the town, I was nearly run over by a small parade of some sort that I later learned was Kasuga Ondeko dancing door to door in Ogi. Ondeko is the dancing demon native to Sado, who can be re-enacted in dozens of ways, apparently. There was also a cat, hamming it up. Cats are such attention sluts, when they want to be. If the cat isn't already, it should be the national animal of Japan. And of course, the Big Show. The Sunday night concert was far and away the best and the biggest of the three. Kodo shared the stage with Badenya Les Freres Coulibaly. The show started off with a haunting Japanese flute and a woman dressed in a red yukata, silver obi and wearing the traditional sea-faring hat of Sado, which looks kind of like an upside-down taco pulled low over the face, I imagine to block the sun. She moved so deftly, so smoothly, it didn't even look like she was walking. She glided up to the stage, the flute and a lone drum accompanying her. It was a subtle way to begin a show that exploded with energy. The high-energy, rapid-fire drumming and dancing was well-balanced with the slower, pace-setting moments. Sado's traditional roots were emphasized, as was BLFC's West African heritage, and yet it all sounded appealing in a modern, unananchronistic way. My only complaint about the evening is that, while it was exciting to see Kodo and BLFC improvising on-stage together, it would have really rocked the crowd to see one of the men from West Africa take a shot at one of the taiko drums, and vice versa. It was the perfect way to end the Earth Celebration, I thought, until the next morning. As we got on the ferry, Kodo ran out onto the dock and serenaded us with a high-energy, pounding going-away concert. They kept playing, I imagine, until we couldn't see each other. It was an excellent way to end a vacation that I'm still beaming ear to ear over. (This entry has been post-dated. Duh.)
The problem with multi-day festivals is that you get about as much privacy as Bubble Boy. So when I woke up way, way too early Saturday morning, I took a few pictures of the sunrise over Sobama-hama and went back to sleep. But when I awoke again, I hopped on the bus and headed into town. Everything at an event like this is rush, rush, rush and fall over, then get up two hours later and do it all over again. I picked up my entry pass for the night's show, and headed off in search of an onsen. The one kilometer trek up the hill to the onsen was a good warm-up for the wind-down. On the way up I passed by a carpenter's workshop, where he was building a replica of a pagoda from... somewhere. The amount of care and detail he was putting in was remarkable. He had several reference books and detailed schematics he had drawn up. Onsen's are utterly relaxing. The Ogi onsen had a nice view of the port and surrounding flora, and then there're the waters. Just letting the body simmer and turn into soup is a beautiful thing. The Japanese may work hard, but they party hard and relax hard, too. After the onsen it was time to pick up where yesterday left off. Kodo did a casual and somewhat goofy performance down at the docks, complete with fluorescent pink jumpsuits and big dork bowties. It was clear that they were having fun, which only encouraged the audience further. (It didn't hurt that because this was a relaxed show, with an emphasis on having fun and less on accuracy or wowing the crowd, the audience was allowed to take pictures, a big no-no at their normal shows.) The highlight of the day had to be the Kodo Village tour. The village is where Kodo live, eat, sleep and practice. They have a strict regimen and except on this one day, visitors are a rarity. What was really culo was getting to use their drumsticks and pound away on their drums. How many musicians let you take their instruments out for a test drive? Upon returning, the usual "dirty hippie" practices of drum circles and belly dancing with the occaisional capoeira match tossed in to pass the time away until the evening concert, featuring Badenya Les Freres Coulibaly from the West African country of Bourkina Faso. BFLC put on a show that was wonderfully different from Kodo's. Their emphasis was on an explosion of color and bursts of speed, and their sound was far higher-pitched than the low rumble of Kodo. Not really my bag, but it was interesting to watch... until the encore. Then it got very interesting, very quick. Several Kodo members joined BFLC on-stage. It was like putting peanut butter and banana together for the first time. Nobody was sure what to expect, but they clicked so well that the crowd was still cheering for more as the loudspeakers told everyone to leave the hilltop park. (This entry has been post-dated. Duh.)
Let me take you back, just for a moment, to the winter of 2001. The bubble economy has burst, the world is reeling from the events of September 11th, and perhaps most importantly a friend of mine gave me a CD for Hannukah. It was a mix CD, which I've always liked as much as an official release. They're one of the mainstays of pop culture. What better way to show appreciation for a friend than to introduce them to the music that holds some sort of sentimental value for you? Perhaps, the thinking goes, this friend will gain even further insights into my psyche. Or maybe it's just nice to get exposed to different tunes. In any event, this CD had on it one track from a Japanese taiko group called Kodo. Ko-do. Simple name. Instant hookage. Once heard, I listened to it over and over and over again, and eventually burned a copy of Kodo - Tataku: Best of Kodo II. The song that hooked me was "Nanafushi," a combination of energetic chanting and taiko drumming. When I found out that Kodo hosted an annual festival on an out-of-the-way Japanese island called the Earth Celebration, I knew I had to go. So I went. It was my first vacation alone in Japan. I had no idea what to expect. Would I need to use only Japanese to communicate? Would it be Yamanote-packed with people? Would I get to relax, or would I be stressed about language or people or some unforseen event ruin yet another vacation? Fuck it, I told myself as I got on the bus. This is going to rock. And it did, in a primal and crunchy-earthy and mellow kind of way. I took an overnight bus to Naoetsu and then a sparrow's ass-crack of dawn ferry to Ogi, a small town at the southwestern tip of Sado. Sado is shaped inconveniently like a slightly-angled 'S'. Ogi, the town where the festivities would take place was due south from Sobama-hama, the beach where I was camping. The ferry got in at 9:30, and the next bus to Sobama-hama was at 12:30 or something equally unhelpful. So I started walking up the hill with all of no intention of actually walking over the steep terrain to the beach. On small remote islands, hitchhiking is the way to go. It took all of 10 minutes for a passing SUV of French expats to give me a lift. Once on the beach, I quickly determined that paying 6000 yen to camp on mosquito-infested grass above the beach was far lamer than pitching my tent on the sand and paying nothing. The tent was pitched, a quick game of Ultimate Frisbee on the sand and in the water was had, a sunburn was achieved despite the SPF 50 I was using and it was time to check out the town of Ogi. Kodo had several side stages set up throughout the town, and these Fringe performances showcased relaxing yet upbeat performers. On that first day alone there were two taiko groups, both from Tokyo; one group from San Francisco that showcased African, Japanese and Middle Eastern rhythms; and Aiutao, a.k.a. Kazu, a.k.a. the Love-Song Man. And then, the main act: Kodo. They performed in a park above the Kisaki Shrine where most of the Fringe performances were being held. Open to the fresh air, a clear night sky with Mars prominently twinkling just above the trees while a susurrus emanated from the crowd. Kodo - or maybe it's a Japanese aphorism, I don't rightfully know - claims that the sound of the taiko drum is the sound of your mother's heart when you're in the womb. I can't vouch for that. Heck, I have problems remember what I had for breakfast somedays, let alone a nine-month soundtrack from a quarter-century ago. But the drumming is primal and taps into something... instinctual, maybe. Perhaps early hominids spent so many thousands of years listening to the pounding of the drum that it's as much a part of our genetic coding as hair color or finger length. Trying to describe the concert would be absurd. Go buy a Kodo CD. However: there were a lot of drums. Some of these drums were bigger than a handful of people. There were men and women with sticks, and cymbals and flutes and there was much chanting and shouting: the voice is an instrument, too. The show lasted for two hours, and nobody walked away to the beach bonfires and the parties that night without being mightily impressed. It's an ancient human custom to take a stick and bash something with it; we've all seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, right? Now I hope I'm not being too bold by saying to take that and make music and art out of it is a defining moment in what humanity is about. (This entry has been post-dated. Duh.)