In 2002, Headlong was selected to participate in the first US – Japan Exchange in Dance. Two Japanese artists, Takeshi Yazaki and Ko Murobushi, came to Philadelphia for two weeks and New York for two weeks. Then David and Andrew spent two weeks in Kyoto teaching, collaborating, and performing. We wrote these journals during the trip:
Andrew’s 2002 Kyoto Journal
Sunday, 5/19, I-don’t-know-what-time
The trip begins before daybreak in the pouring rain. Frances, my lovely new puppy, actually refused to step outside for a walk at 4:30 AM when she saw the downpour. A quick trip to pick up David at the parlor. (He has had no sleep; I have had two hours — a sort of pre-jet lag.) A wait for the egg-and-cheese stand to open at Philly International. The sun starts comes up and will remain up for about 26 hours.
Long-distance travel can mean only one thing: time to catch up on sentimental Hollywood movies. We are now four hours out of Japan and I have seen four feature length films. The theme was the tragic Russell Crowe-Meg Ryan romance. A Beautiful Mind-Proof of Life-Kate & Leopold. I loved them all. I even cried during Majestic. Something about the complete lack of shame inherent in travel. (The only reason I am now writing is that Beautiful Mind is playing again, an unfortunate overlap due to our flight connection.)
Along the way, we broke out the homeopathic remedy for jet lag, provoking an extended conversation with my seat mates. He engineers ATM machines for NCR, she travels along for fun. Apparently the new Euro notes are a big headache for these guys, too small and too stiff. The jet lag remedy is from a company that also sells No Hangover and No PMS. I am skeptical.
My seat mates also produced a bottle of whiskey early in the flight and have made serious inroads. They move from jovial chatter to mouth-breathing sleep to sudden bathroom visits to vicious spats with each other (including wife intentionally spilling ice water on husband’s legs).
From my guidebook, I learned that Japanese people politely line up when waiting for trains and then push and shove mercilessly when it’s time to get on. They also cannot abide nose-blowing in public: sniffing stuff up is fine, but expelling is unwelcome. I look forward to this being a terrific problem for David and myself.
Did I mention that there is not a single free seat on this flight? We are packed in. I am practicing reigning in my reckless American physicality, reducing the size of my kinesphere, putting the group before my individual needs.
Monday, 5/20, midnight
Just returned from a lively dinner chez Nori (also the JCDN 24-hour center). Ko arrived in dapper suit, having withdrawn from staying at the ryokan (surprising, as he had told us, “You must stay at the ryokan.”) The ryokan is too relaxing and loaded with memories for him, so he stays downtown at a business hotel. We will miss his humor here, though not his smoke output, which has expanded in our imaginations to industrial proportions.
Dinner was a splendid series of dishes, many vegetarian for the Headlong crew. Patrik, David, and Ko drank heartily of the wheat sake after it was announced that it did not produce hangovers. Ko was a flawless conversationalist, producing topic after topic is his genial way.
Today was a lovely day, and David and I reveled in our lack of jet lag (thank you homeopathy, I take back everything I said) as we walked through the warm, sunlit city. We visited the beautiful Kyoto Art Center, and saw the breathtaking studio, a half-acre of wood floor surrounded by ten-foot windows. OK, we’ll move here.
Tomorrow the workshops begin. We plan to work with talking and dancing, a fascination of ours and, according to Nori, uncommon in contemporary dance here. We hope the language barriers are an opportunity, not an impediment, in this work. We plan to use the language difference in creating dances together: maybe a two-language version of Permit. Translator Bo will be an important collaborator in all of this. We shall see…
Tuesday, 5/21, 11 am
I am sitting in the lovely garden in front of the ryokan. It a truly warm and sunny, something that has apparently been a rarity here in recent days. There are three trained bamboo shoots, old, nubby, and meandering, in the center of the pebbled garden. I sit at the low tables on a (slightly too) low stool, writing and thinking in the dappled sunlight. David is in his room, attending to Headlong business. Yes even on the other side of the world, administrative work pursues us like a demon. At one point this morning, David, Patrik, and I were all in the kitchen with our powerbooks, three itinerant choreographers looking for a data stream to tap.
The rooms here are marvelous: sliding screens, tatami floors, small futons with piles of warm bedding. Sitting on a cushion in my room late last night at the low table, I read and wrote with a wonderful sense of peace and quiet. Being low to the floor is centering. I may have to adopt this style in my home office.
Wednesday, 5/22, midnight
Second day of our workshop with a larger group (14, up from 10). We did some basic work on organizing space in improvisation and then returned to our duet structure. Each dancer made a four-movement phrase through a guided accumulation. Then they paired up to teach and combine their phrases in to a longer 8-movement phrase. We watched the unison duets (very elaborate and inventive — many dancers with experience in butoh), and then did a short structure: do the unison phrase once, then allow yourself to play with time only. So you may speed things up, slow them down, be still, repeat movements. But you may not go back. The dancers did some wonderfully sensitive work here. For the last structure, we started with the unison phrase and then allowed them to vary the movement, to “riff” off the original phrase like jazz musicians. Again these duets were beautiful and full-bodied. The last group kept dancing so long after the music ended that I played a second piece of music and they ended up making 6-minute dances. A truly adventurous group.
After rehearsal, we chatted with some of the students. Shina produced from her backpack a Headlong program from 2000 (Ulysses at Dance Theater Workshop), and mentioned seeing us at APAP. Much curiosity and interest in how you start and run a dance company.
Then we rushed to a gallery in north Kyoto to see an informal performance by Takeshi’s company, Arrow Dance Communication. They were performing and talking in the middle of an exhibit of photos of the company in rehearsal and performance. (Many of the pictures reminded me of Headlong rehearsals). We walked in as they were finishing a short improvisation. Takeshi spoke, and then improvised solo. Then he introduced us and had us come to the front. He introduced the next improvisation (speaking Japanese), and it gradually became clear that David and I were to be in it. Hell, yeah. So the eight of us (including five of Takeshi’s dancers) did a swirling mix of duets and group dancing. His dancers are beautiful improvisers — intuitive, responsive, idiosyncratic. The movement vocabularies were both kinetic and human, full of all the stuff I love in dancing. Afterwards, we met all of Takeshi’s dancers, and talked about possible collaborations over dinner at the photographer’s restaurant.
A great day, full of vibrant, fascinating people.
Friday, 5/24 2 pm
David, Ritsuko, and I are riding the train to Shikoku to teach a workshop for deaf students. It is a brilliantly sunny day, and the train rolls through tunnel after tunnel, small villages and farms nestled in the narrow plains between mountains.
Yesterday, we had Day 3 of our workshop and continued with our work on choreographic improvisation. In the workshop, I have been stressing the importance of being both present in your own body and present in the room. That combination of inside-outside is so often seen as contradictory; I think it is essential to see them as unified, not mutually exclusive. Here in Japan, many of the butoh-trained dancers are more internal, a refreshing change from American dancers’ outward focus. Dance, in this way, is political. The communities we show onstage embody a politic. And I find that the butoh dancers have an amazing presence inside themselves, but are lacking the connection, the mutual perception and response, that I crave in performance.
Happily, the tradition of butoh has made those exposed to it incredibly open in their ideas of dance. Their movement vocabularies and invention are stunning, ranging from behavioral to image-based to full-bodied explosiveness. There is no need to tall these dancers that all movements can be dance. As they accumulated phrases in duets (each contributing four movements), they made surprisingly long, intricate, and specific combinations, shifting rapidly from locomotion to subtle postural shifts. Their abilities to compose this movement improvisationally has been our focus, and they have risen to the challenge well.
Ritsuko says that butoh is dying as it has become “tradition.” She says true butoh is always new, always changing. Such a wonderful puzzle: how do you create a tradition with training, practices, audiences that can continually change and reinvent. American Modern dance wanted to be that but soon stabilized. I wonder if postmodern movement-based performance can continue to reinvent and adapt even as it becomes something you can study. It’s a bit like game theory, I think. What do you structure, and what do you leave open so that the ‘players’ may learn from experience and tradition while continually reinventing the game?
We also had a rehearsal with Takeshi. We will make a short piece for the final performance with him and Megumi, one of his dancers. We had a great first rehearsal. Takeshi gave a starting image: two Americans facing two Japanese. A quartet of arms: as Takeshi says, part Jackie Chan, part negotiation. We added quick stepping patterns, weaving the the two duos in and around each other. It was a truly cooperative rehearsal, with Takeshi, David, and me jumping in and out of leading and following, suggesting and selecting.
After our workshop, we had coffee with several students: Yum, Yuka, Mushi-chan, Mihiro, and translator Bo. Mihiro whipped out her tiny laptop and showed a video of her recent work. We had great discussions about making and showing work. They all say there very few outlets for showing, and it dawned on me that there is little or no artistic feedback available to these artists. So how about having a showing?
On the train, we told Ritsuko our idea about having informal showings. In general, showings don’t exist in Japan, and people are wary of giving feedback and scared of receiving it. Ritsuko said that JCDN is starting in-progress showings this year for certain artists. It seems to me that Kyoto dance artists are hungry for this. Many of the artists in our workshop, when asked expressed first surprise and then enthusiasm for the idea of showing their work to us. The art of feedback is so important in an artistic community: hearing and understanding the different perspectives, trying to give feedback that supports an artist in her work. Ritsuko believes — and I agree — that this is quite difficult for Japanese artists. Showings are the key for forming the sort of connections, communities, and critical, experimental thinking that Nori and Ritsuko want to bring to Japan. Hard to get going, but unstoppable once they do.
So we are going to talk to the artists in our workshop about having a showing on our last day. We’ll show the piece we’re making with Takeshi (a nice example of a very in-process work), and maybe Sarah and Patrik can be there to exemplify the feedback vibe. We’ll see. Forthrightness is a truly American trait. The idea of ‘speaking one’s mind’ has no analog here. It’s not that people consciously “hold back;” feedback immediately taps into the subtle Japanese art of understatement. The ongoing tensions between tatamae (stated position) and honne (real intent) are everywhere. So when we ask our translator Bo (a wonderful dancer) about a certain dish at a restaurant, she says, “Yes, it’s OK. Hmmmmm. Yes, quite good.” That way, we know it’s disgusting and we shouldn’t go near it. How do we work with this energy in a feedback showing? Maybe it’s not possible; maybe there needs to be a completely different form. Certainly, we cannot bring our brash American ways here, but maybe it’s possible to create the form of a showing and allow it to be filled by the local artists.
Same day, 10 pm
On the train back from Shikoku. An amazing day spent in the whirlwind of a Japanese deaf community. Wonderful students, teenagers through adults (plus one 5-year-old). David was masterful at combining American Sign Language, a bit of Japanese sign, and pantomime to keep the 20 students focused and unified. We did some physical warmup, some “energy-passing” in a circle, and a series of mirroring exercises. Then we moved on to a version of Richard Bull’s improvisation structure “Jesus’ Blood.” In this piece, the dance begin together in a clump in the center of the space. They follow an imaginary slow-moving point on the horizon, so that their facing slowly and constantly shifts (in unison). The dancers look out as they slowly rotate, but strive to dance with each other. It is a lovely, stark, and moving image. And by the third time we tried it, the students did amazing and daring work together: jumping, crawling, running, reaching, and, what was surprising to me, touching. I had been wary of initiating contact, since I assume my overly forward American “touchiness” will cross boundaries. But the students started touching each other and us. And once it started, it became a beautiful theme in the dance: dancers pulled each other back, leaned on each other, even climbed on each other. And of course, all in silence (the dance is usually done to Gavin Byars’ “Jesus Blood”). In a day filled with copious translation (English-Japanese-American Sign Language-Japanese Sign Language), this dance was a delicious moment of unmitigated physical communication and community.
The students were excited and gratified (three will even come to our performance in Kyoto — an expensive three-hour trip). And I’ll say it again: David was The Man.
Saturday, 5/25, midnight
A roller coaster of a day.
Up early to scout out a tape recorder for use in our workshop. Japanese electronics are so damn beautiful! I longed to buy a streamlined thousand dollar stereo system.
Then, we had a wonderful rehearsal with Takeshi and Megumi. We filled out the ideas we had started on, and embarked on a few new ones. It’s fascinating watching the collaborative dynamic emerge, as individuals step forward with ideas, innovations, and responses.
Then, in our workshop, we started working on talking. After a brief physical warmup, we did some vocal work: releasing the throat and mouth, shaping the breath, finding our resonators. Several dancers struggled to actually release their throats and shoulders. Overall, there were many ah-ha moments. We moved on to our “Language of Dance” structure. A soloist dances, a “describer” conveys the dance verbally to the “repeater,” who has her eyes closed. Then the repeater does a solo based solely on the verbal description. We also did the more nuanced version: the describer talks into a tape recorder, and the repeater (who covers both ears and eyes during the initial solo) dances based on the playback of the tape. The dancers did amazing work. We started building the skills required by the structure, even the verbal skills. The work was refreshing and invigorated.
At the end of class, we mentioned our idea of a showing, and after much back and forth with translator Bo, we finally managed to convey what it would be. There was so little response at first that I wondered if we would get anyone to show. And just as we were about to leave it as “talk to us after if you want to show,” Bo brilliantly suggested a show of hands. Mihiro’s shot up; Maho and her partner’s soon after; then Bo herself and, with a little encouragement, Mushi-chan. So it’s really gonna happen!
But then a difficult (as the Japanese say) night at JCDN. Nori had earlier decided that he wanted us to show not the dances we had prepared to show, but a talking dance. We don’t have the costumes or the personnel to do a talking dance, and JCDN does not yet have interpreters that could translate. But we said OK. Let’s try to do what would be most interesting for this community. What ensued was a convoluted conversation for over an hour. Five people sat around at Nori’s with me and David, debating which of our pieces should be done and in what way. Nori himself admitted that his English is not good enough to understand the talking in our dances; that is, he has never fully understood a talking dance of ours. All that Japanese discretion and lack of directness tonight was difficult. Coded criticisms with no possibility of discerning the bottom line.
The goodwill of all involved notwithstanding, it was confusing. Exchange involves both communication and struggle, I suppose.
Part of the reason Headlong is here, as I understand it, is to model a process-oriented collaborative artistic model. That is why I think we should choose the truly process-oriented option: we perform ONLY our piece with Takeshi, and it includes a talking section. Risky? Of course. Being process-oriented is inherently risky. It trusts the intuition of artists and it demands a lot of the audience. Amen.
Also, tonight, David and I share a room due to some unnamed celebration here at the ryokan. So on the one night I crave a little space to think and emotionally process the day, we are laptop to laptop. Two too tall men sitting on the floor. Wondering what the hell to do.
Sunday, 5/26, 2:30 pm
We are at Takeshi’s rehearsal (Arrow Dance Communication) at Studio Claudia. His dancers are amazing, switching fluidly from clowning consciousness work to beautiful, idiosyncratic dancing. Two women do a butt duet, writing Japanese kanji characters in the air with their butts. This weaves into complex spatial patterns and a building vocabulary of movement, all inspired by the ass. Then, four men enter and stand in a line, stating out at the audience. Incredibly slowly, they begin a hand dance with one another, reaching, clasping, gesturing. the volume on this builds imperceptibly but relentlessly until they are grabbing, throwing, slapping and one is tossed into the air and down onto the floor. The remaining three link arms balletically and promenade through the space, breaking apart into frenetic, popping arm movements and another sudden stillness. I LOVE THIS WORK! It contains so much, so many aspects of each dancer/human. The worlds we enter are magical, and non-literal, but we know them well. His male dancers display an astounding range of expression: dancing, acting, clowning, physical theater.
They try a new improvisational structure: obsessive movements whirl them through the studio, isolated and colliding. They dance frantically for 5 minutes and then collapse. The whole scene reminds me of a Headlong rehearsal in many ways: running sections, trying new structures, discussing possibilities. But there is a depth and complexity to Arrow’s work that I want in Headlong. Bravery and precision. Images, not gimmicks.
In other news, David and I have decided to build a talking section into our collaboration with Takeshi and Megumi. David is interested in a quartet version of our Permit piece. In Permit, the two dancers ask each other for permission for all movement: May I step toward you? May I do a dance of longing innocence? David proposes pairing up American and Japanese, and crossing the answers. For example, I dance with Takeshi, but when I ask for permission, David, dancing with Megumi, answers. Mixed up languages and roles. Crossed lines of communication and interpretation.
Later the same day….
Well, the debate about Headlong’s performance seems to be resolving. We will perform our duets, and we will put a talking section into our dance with Takeshi and Megumi. All sides seem satisfied (I think actually satisfied), and I think/hope that the show will go well and all of this will seem a distant memory.
Tues, 5/28, 9:30 am
Oh, what a night……
Yesterday was spent in a five-hour rehearsal with Takeshi and Megumi, adding on to our opening section (stepping around each other, knotted arm grabs), creating solo versions of our tangled arm phrases, and working with talking. We tried a dizzying number of Permit variations. The variables were: who is paired up, who answers whose questions, and are we “linked” (i.e. David and I always dancing the same tasks.) The endless permutations of relationship, language, and space were fascinating. Takeshi and Megumi, having never danced this structure, were of course amazing. We gravitated toward a communal structure: the whole group gives approval/disapproval for each question (even though, for example, David and I have no idea what the Japanese questions mean). Also, maybe a section at the end in which Megumi shouts NO over and over, stopping us, silencing us. Then she proceeds to the corner for some kind of solo. (Once I found out that Megumi and Takeshi were both in musical theater when they were younger, I envisioned a bilingual version of “Summer Lovin” as the closer. Little interest from the group on that one……) It was a Headlong-y process, trying out more and more permutations of the improve, layering structure upon structure. I am confident we will find something interesting. I am thinking that we need to show it to a couple of Japanese and get some feedback on the talking and interacting.
Collaborating with Takeshi and Megumi is going amazingly well. All seem quite ready and able to express opinions with out giving or taking offense, and everyone is getting comfortable stepping forward with ideas and input. Not art by committee, but art by synergy. Like the students in our workshop, Takeshi and Megumi possess an incredible openness and willingness to risk in the dance studio. Outside of the studio, all are more reserved and (I speculate) feel bit less open. Perhaps the studio, and the practice of dancing, are realms in which all play is possible, including gender. In any case, it is remarkable, after witnessing Japanese politeness and reserve, to work so intensely with these full-bodied fearless artists.
After rehearsal, we went right upstairs for the “Dance Discussion: The Possibilities of Dance.” Well, there was a hell of a lot to talk about. Each artist/company gave an intro statement. I showed a section of Permit on video (it is Headlong’s very first dance), and talked about speaking and dancing. I described how talking both allows us to get at subject matter and allows to open the art form up to more people. Permit was inspired by Antioch College’s sexual assault policy. Antioch students were required to ask for each “ascending” level of intimacy: may I kiss you? May I take off your shirt? If you didn’t ask and receive a clear “Yes,” you risked being charged with sexual assault. Such a fascinating idea: that you can put into words all acts of intimacy, and that such acts exist on a commonly understood progression of increasing intimacy. Is it more intimate for me to stroke your ear or to lick your fingers? Are feet more intimate than armpits? And more broadly, the Antioch policy was an attempt to impose the supposed clarity of language onto the infinitely complex and subtle realms of sexual experiences. Take the complexity of embodied experience and put it into words. That interplay is central to Permit (and to many of our talking pieces). In the dance, Amy and I take turns asking permission to do certain movements. May I enter the space? May I walk in a large circle? The questions exist on two levels: choreography and relationship. May I contrast your long diagonal with a slow curving walk? May I try to attract your attention with strange arm gestures? May I move in unison with you? So we are laying bare both the making of the dance and the boundaries of our relationship. As such, the talking in Permit is both a way to get at specific (political) content, and a lens into dance making for those who are unfamiliar with dance. Many members of our audience over the years have told us that our talking dances like Permit taught them about looking at dance. Movement is something you can look at, analyze, and interpret. And the meanings of dance are not set, they depend on your interpretive lens. We hope that this work can diffuse the biggest obstacle for new audiences, namely the idea that there is some secret, specific meaning to modern dance that they are not getting.
I also spoke about our community in Philadelphia, and the idea of showings, both free performances to bring in new audiences and showings to get feedback on works-in-progress. I said that we always proceed from the premise that people love dance, people need dance. If you give the a little entree into the art form, it becomes very meaningful to them. So often in America, I sense the idea that dance is obscure and not particularly relevant, and people need to be tricked into coming to see it. We sneak dance into the culture like broccoli into a child’s meal. This self-hating idea of dance does much to keep people away, I think. And it leads to the dumbed-down “accessible” dance that sacrifices art for subscription audiences.
Anyway, I used up our whole 15 minutes, so David graciously offered to speak later. (Sorry, Dabido-chan.) Sara and Patrik gave a lovely video/talking presentation about site-specific work. The video was so essential, a beautiful lens into their wide-open world of site work. Sara also situated their work in terms of American modern dance history from Isadora to Trisha Brown. In retrospect, I realize that this is very meaningful to a Japanese audience. I had emailed Roko Kawai (Philadelphia choreographer and performer) asking advice on doing a feedback showing with the Japanese students. She (brilliantly) recommended explaining it as a system, a school of thought (such as Liz Lerman’s five steps for feedback) that has been effective and respected in America.
The discussion was hampered by the elaborate translation needs, and by the wide range of topics JCDN wanted to cover. But in the end, I think seeds were planted, and this conversation will continue. I have the impression that Ko, asked about community and collaboration a la Headlong, responded that he does not collaborate or have community and therefore has nothing to say on the topic. With the translation and the politeness, it is hard to say how harsh this moment was. Interestingly, Takeshi, not often one to step forward in public speaking situations and not all inclined to contradict Ko, insisted on speaking next and said that he was very impressed with American communities, collaborations, and showings, and felt he had a lot to learn from it. I’m not exactly sure, but I think that was a rather heavy moment.
After the meeting, the night really took off.
Fourteen of us went to restaurant called Laugh-Laugh. We sat in a private room with a sunken table (so you can sit upright) and a large lazy-susan built into the table for distributing food and drink around. We ordered piles of cheap food (an interesting mix of bar food like cheese poppers and elegantly prepared Japanese dishes) with much discussion of what was bejitarian. It seems very difficult for the Japanese to get a handle on my vegetarianism. Like my friend Pierce’s mother growing up, every meal begins with an elaborate series of questions concerning WHAT EXACTLY ANDRIU-SAN DOES EAT. Halfway through the meal, I asked Sada (young club kid hipster who does graphic design work for JCDN) about the massive TV in the corner of our room. I was thinking sports bar. He said it was karaoke. Bo-chan, always the mischievous and daring one, said, “Andrew you will sing a karaoke song.” I nodded and laughed as she flipped through the massive songbook. She wasn’t joking. A minute later, the TV was up and running, she handed me a mic, and I launched into Purple Rain. Hot damn! I was in utter heaven.
Well, that sure got everybody’s attention, and an evening of raucous and touching karaoke ensued. Kathryn, the cultural attaché from the Australian Embassy kicked out Madonna’s Borderline with Brick. Bo-chan, unrequested, booted up Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone for me and an Australian man (so many words in that song….) And after a couple of false starts, Ko-san sang a couple of old Japanese songs. Watching this man, one of the last true butoh masters, sing songs from the culture he left decades ago, was intense. The most moving of the night was Sato-san, head of JCDN, singing a very sad Japanese song. Truly from the heart. And then a duet with Ritsuko, his wife. Karaoke at its best. And after refusing to sing all night, Bo-chan and Yuka-chan closed the session with a glorious theme song from a Japanese anime show. Bubble gum pop meets Hannah-Barbera. It brought down the house. The amazing thing about Bo is that she had engineered the entire thing surreptitiously. If we had had a big group discussion about karaoke, it would never have happened so fluidly, so generously. Thank god for Bo-chan.
Then a bike ride back to the ryokan with Kathryn, the Aussie. Fascinating conversation about feminism and sexuality in Japan. She talks about coming from second-wave feminism in Australia to Japan, where there has not really even been first-wave feminism. Must remember this……
Thursday, 5/30, 10 am
Yesterday was the last day of workshops, and a damn long day it was. First, we rehearsed with Takeshi and Megumi for three hours, a less productive rehearsal than the previous. Then right to the workshop where we did more assignments for the first hour. We made four small groups with different assignments: a solo of just head and eye movements, a full-body solo initiated from the head, a solo of just the butt, and a full-body solo initiated from the butt. We showed the groups in various combinations, encouraging them to tweak the time and space of their solos in order to make a dance together. At the end, I combined two big groups and gave them a timing structure, and it didn’t work. It really didn’t work. The particulars of each group’s movement were lost, which was great, because it led to an excellent discussion about trying things out. One of the great things about working in this way is that you can fail. You can try out many ideas and variations quickly. You can make space for the happy accidents (the Japanese quite like this expression and often giggle when it is translated).
Then we began our Informal Feedback Showing. We introduced the structure as a school of thought, a technique developed by Liz Lerman (who actually borrowed it from someone else, yes?) and used to good effect in many situations in America. (Is it just me or is my English getting really weird and awkward?) The choreographer shows the work with no preface other than title (no apologizing allowed). For step one of the feedback, we first go around and say something we noticed, something that stood out (no interpretation allowed). In step two, the choreographer describes what she is working on, where she is in her process, and asks any questions she wants answered. Then we have an open discussion based on WHAT THE CHOREOGRAPHER IS WORKING ON. We stressed this over and over: we are not here to make this person’s work more like ours; we are hear to support her in achieving her artistic vision, following through on her artistic questions. This is of course a subtle point, because we do want to react honestly and from our own eyes, mind, and heart. Simultaneously, we want to harness our reactions and thoughts in support of the artist’s work.
So we began.
Maho and her partner (they have a company called Selenographica) performed a raucous ten-minute duet. Shifting between skimming the floor, manipulative partnering, and intense sequential movement, they fought, searched, flew. It was quite striking and beautiful. She is strong at partnering and he is a fearless throw-your-body-around contortionist (occasionally provoking startled cries from the audience). The discussion was great. Everyone said something they noticed. There was some misunderstanding here, and I struggled to communicate that they should say SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED: a movement, a moment, a specific quality. They tended, throughout the showing, to be more general: I noticed your relationship, I noticed you were searching for something. But still, step one grounded the conversation in what actually happened, and broke the ice by making everyone speak. In step two, Maho described that this a ten-minute version of what they hope will be a twenty minute piece. We had a great discussion of the images and strengths of the dance, and many in the audience agreed that the dance felt complete; if they want to extend, it needs to move in a new direction. And we questioned the ending (Maho, after searching and searching on the floor, mimes finding a contact lens, sewing up the piece too cleanly), which Maho seemed to agree with.
(Days later, maho and Shuichi, her dance partner, will tell us that the showing was tremendously helpful, and unlike other “feedback” experiences they have had.)
Bo-chan showed a delicate, jewel-like solo full of personal movement. The piece provoked a great discussion about possibilities. People focused on the specificity of the movement vocabularies, the “Bo-ness” of the dancing.
>Then Arrowhead (the collaboration of Headlong and Arrow Dance Communication) showed an excerpt from our quartet: the four-way Permit section and the accumulating solo-duet-trio to a one-minute Eltro song. The audience clearly got the talking section, and the bilingual play was compelling rather than distracting. Mihiro said she felt a bit of a letdown after the talking section, that it is a hard act to follow. Others disagreed, quite decisively (ah, now we’re having a dialogue!). We wondered if playing the one-minute Eltro song three times in a row (solo-duet-trio) was working. We were considering spacing the three versions through the piece. But there was resounding support for the repetition. (In the end, we perform it like that, and Yoko-san later tells me that she thinks this section should be the ending.)
We moved to the large tatami-matted traditional space norally used for traditional Japanese performance. First, we watched a truly transcendent solo by Mushi-chan, who is utterly fascinating to me (Philly folks, think Mauri Walton plus Deirdre Egan in the physicality of Myra Bazell.) She emerges from behind a sliding screen door in white lingerie, her shaved head and muscular physique transformed by its femininity. As she turns around, we see a bulge in her butt, the image already layered and playful. She begins a controlled butoh-like cross through the space, her face utterly alive. When she pulls black fabric from her butt (first a tail that thrashes around, then a lasso carving the space), the piece climbs to new level. Pulling the fabric over her head, it drops down as a slinky black dress and a sultry French love song plays as Mushi-chan unleashes a mind-bending solo melding seduction, contortion, butoh, and exaggeration. She is utterly convincing and we are mesmerized. Then she launches into her own song (in Japanese), a butoh nightclub explosion. (Seeing this dance in a room suited to dancing in kimono adds to its power). This discussion is fast and excited, and humble Mushi-chan bows after each comment. There is great admiration for the sexiness of the dancing, unusual for Mushi-chan and, I think, for contemporary butoh. The over-the-top drag show energy is a magical catalyst for the concentrated power of the butoh. There is talk of some transition problems, gaps between strong moments.
Last, we watch an opening image for a piece by Mihiro. She takes a long time setting it up. At last we enter the darkened room. Just the light from my laptop glows (her attempt to have low lighting) behind a cardboard box. Smoke rises and we hear the sound of someone coughing inside the box. After 30 seconds, Mihiro enters and picks up the box to reveal a tape recorder. That’s it. This is a perfect piece for us to watch. Over and over, Japanese have told us of their wariness about showing unfinished work. We talk about the value of watching Mihiro’s tiny work-in-progress, both for her (she has a lot of technical aspects to work out) and for us (we can imagine the piece that emerges from this image). It is a great ending to our showing.
We then talked for a while about the showing. Takeshi contrasted the positive feedback here with the highly critical feedback many Japanese give. We emphasized that if you begin with the premise of helping an artist achieve her vision, you can critique and still be on the artist’s side. Many authority figures give what is to me remarkably critical feedback, sometimes just before or after a performance. It seems either nothing is said (Japanese politeness), or scathing categorical judgment is unleashed (Japanese right/wrong educational thinking). No wonder people are nervous about feedback: they are anticipating being harshly graded by a teacher figure. Experimental art is not like handwriting, it does not strive toward a commonly-agreed standard and it does not profit from scolding. Honesty, yes, with a healthy dose of love, remembering always that great art emerges from doing fully, not doing correctly. As I tell my high school students: when your dance reaches a point where it seems to be falling apart, you know you are on the right track.
I asked all the artists if they would want more such showings. Sato-san had indicated he wanted to create a mechanism for showings and feedback, but he was unsure about interest and participation. All the artists strongly supported the idea. They want to show work, and they want to learn about choreography by watching and discussing other artists’ work.
This showing felt to me the most important “exchange” we have to offer here. Tapping the intelligence and insight of the artists in this community goes a lot farther than any “teaching” we may impart.
Friday, 5/31, after midnight
Another 12-hour day at the Kyoto Art Center. First, we went with Megumi to look for costumes for our new quartet (“Arm’s Length” is the English title; the Japanese title is similar but, I think, lacks the metaphor). At Uni Qlo (I think it’s supposed to suggest “unique clothes”) we found some lovely short-sleeved collared shirts that we will wear buttoned up. And after much wandering through grungy, expensive hip-hop shops, we found some pants that Megumi will shorten into knickers. Yazaki-san met up with us mid-shopping after a blistering series of cell phone calls between him and Megumi. Cell phones are of course ubiquitous, sleekly beautiful, high-tech (many if not most are also low-res digital cameras), and endowed with a dizzying assortment of rings. Tonight, during a run-through of Takeshi’s solo, a delicate piano etude broke through the silence of the opening section. Unfortunately, it was Ritsuko-san’s cell phone. The music faded as she fled the theater.
We returned to the Art Center and ate lunch in the cafe there. Which reminds me that it’s about time to convey the wonder, the glory, the goddamn righteousness of the Kyoto Art Center.
1. It is located in a beautiful old school in the center of town.
2. As you enter, you walk past a lovely garden and the outdoor eating/smoking tables.
3. There are two MASSIVE studio/theater spaces that we have been using. The top floor space has gigantic 10-foot windows, and measures at least 80’ by 50’.
4. Throughout the beautiful building there art art studios, classrooms, dark rooms, and galleries and so much stuff happening all the time. The feel of a art school, only with professional artists.
5. There is a magnificent cafe open all day long serving food, coffee, alcohol, and sweets. They will even send a waiter to deliver your order to the rehearsal studio!!!! I AM NOT JOKING! Or you can sit at the old wooden tables, or outside in the sunshine. The coffee is strong and delicious and you get a special deal on “Cake Set.” Cake Set is one of the first Nihongo words I learned, as it means coffee and cake served together, often at a 100-yen discount. Oishii. As if I needed another reason to drink coffee and eat cake.
6. They sponsor exchanges, workshops, residencies, and amazing projects like the upcoming “Coaching Project,” in which Takeshi and Megumi will work with selected dance artists thrice weekly for several months, creating a new work and teaching both technique and choreography.
7. There is a staffed office open until 10 pm every day to answer questions, loan out CD players, etc. I mean this place has resource and uses it right.
8. There is a huge sand/clay courtyard in the center of the horseshoe-shaped building. At different times of the day, this yard is configured for tennis (a net is carried out and set up) or, my favorite, croquet. Well-dressed middle-aged Japanese with large plastic numbers pinned to their clothes mercilessly send one another’s croquet balls out of bounds. Can you imagine sipping iced coffee on a rehearsal break and watching this?
Saturday, 6/1, 5:30 pm
I am in the Kyoto Art Center cafe, on a break from our long day of run-through/dress rehearsal/performance. I am eating the “Vegetable Sandwiches,” which varies from day to day. Today’s six slender, crustless sandwiches include icy tomato, canned white asparagus, delicious potato salad (on the sandwich), and some horseradishy mustard. Vegetables are good here, but they tend toward the daikon-squash-onion realm. It ain’t the world of the big, ripe summer tomato. The cafe also offers “Fruits Sandwiches,” which feature strawberries, bananas, and grapes layered with whipped cream (!) on six slender, crustless sandwiches. It’s a real treat, but not great pre-dancing food. Yesterday, with Takeshi and Megumi here, I managed to get a delicious spaghetti in tomato sauce, but I am wary of trying to order it on my own. I am offered many bejitarian dishes here that have “just little bit pork.”
The show is rather long (at least two hours with the intermission) and Megu-chan (that’s Megumi’s nickname) says that dance shows in Japan usually run one hour. I got to watch Sara and Patrik’s lively and often funny piece, a shifting text and movement romp, though I missed them dropping eggs, jell-o, and sugar onto the floor from a ladder. (They are saving the mess for performance.) And I saw Ko’s duet with the the 17-year-old woman. Wow. I did not really get this one. They have some charming and playful interactions (at one point, they have a conversation in Ko’s signature screech-voice.) All in all, a brave move, but to me an inscrutable dance. Ko doesn’t really cut loose, and the young woman is a valiant but in the end unconvincing performer. But many people are saying how touching it was, how moved they were by the images of old man and young girl. So maybe it’s a cultural thing. (I got a bit creeped out at one point.) I wonder if the fact that it’s Ko-sensei impacts people’s reading of the work. What would I think if Merce Cunningham danced this piece?
Afterwards, we will have a talk-back which Sato-san claims will last 20 minutes. First each of us has one minute to talk (plus one minute for translation), which will take 12 minutes if everyone is short. then questions from the audience, though folks are skeptical (me too) about anyone asking a question. It’s not the way the education system works here, and we have experienced many times the silence and thoughtful stares that greet any offer to take questions.
Monday, June 3, crossing the international date line…
We are going home.
Last night we had a huge dinner with tons of folks, and then Sato-san (God bless him) reserved the karaoke room at Laugh-Laugh. It took a little while to get going, but we had a rockin time. The key to satisfying karaoke with Nihonjin is to make really popular song selections. Hotel California, Tears in Heaven, Stayin’ Alive, Dancing Queen, and Let’s Groove Tonight were all winners. Other highlights included Mushi-chan’s heartbreaking renditions of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors, a valiant attempt at Bohemian Rhapsody, and more anime theme songs (a real crowd-pleaser). Sato-san ordered us lots of wheat sake, Mina and Yuka hit some beautiful harmonies, and we finally got kicked out around 2:30.
We lingered in the room, at the shoe-frontier, and outside on the street for over an hour. Good-byes intertwined with talk of the future. We finally caught a cab back to Yoshimizu and stayed up till about 6 am packing and talking.
Time for some general observations.
Our students were amazing. They were brave, well-trained, thoughtful, collaborative, and fun as hell. More than anything, they possessed an expansive idea of dance, including the full range of movement and performance. In my two weeks in Kyoto, I never once encountered dancey-dance. Everything I saw in classes and showings contained a humanity, a sense of dance as a bodily art form, not a specific movement tradition. I imagine that the community we entered is a special one, but still I was impressed and excited.
Our collaboration with Takeshi and Megumi was energizing, productive, and magical. Just because you like someone’s work (and like them personally) does not mean you will be able to collaborate. Somehow, it was fluid and fast. Takeshi has an amazing sense of timing/rhythm/flow. After run-throughs, he would make tiny, sensitive adjustments to our timing. In the end, the dance had a strong sense of continuity given our section-by-section process. Lights up on the David and I facing Megumi and Takeshi just right of center stage. A shortened version of Megumi’s one-minute solo ends with her walking through us to a small tape recorder upstage. She presses play, joins the group, and the Beatles’ She Loves Me plays from the crappy tape recorder. We shift places in increasingly complex (and fast) patterns. We grab hands, arms, slap. Megumi gets stuck in a frantic arm-slapping loop until she asks (in Japanese) May I stop? Takeshi says Yes; David and I say Hai. A bilingual, patterned version of Permit ensues. David and Megumi do the romantic twister section; Takeshi and I stand together and provide Yes’s and No’s. A short men’s trio leads to Megumi’s repeated and vehement NO NO NO NO. The Eltro music propels her into her solo, I join as the music repeats, Takeshi joins as it repeats again. She Loves Me returns full-volume for a final explosive improv. In the last image, we are together again, hands slowly intertwining but not touching. Takeshi asks May I touch you? I answer Hai.
In five rehearsals, we made a 20-minute quartet. And it was truly enjoyable to perform. Dancing together was easy, funny, inspiring. I am deeply grateful to connect with these two brilliant artists.
People had time. After our workshops, students would sit around talking, stretching for a LONG time. Then maybe we would go for coffee or dinner. And our Arrowhead rehearsals would inevitably go long by an hour or two. This sense of time really helped me connect with people. The language barrier meant that communication took longer. And lingering in the dance studio (instead of the outside world) meant more openness, as the dance studio was a clear refuge from formality and politeness.
There is no money for contemporary dance in Japan. Arrow has no money. They get free rehearsal space, no one gets paid, they do costumes in-house (Megumi), a couple of small sponsorships and ticket sales pay for performances. If you can win one of the choreography competitions, you can tour Europe and maybe get some corporate money. That’s why JCDN is so important. God bless em.
Butoh’s influence is vast and beautiful. The closest analogy in America is contact improvisation: experimental dancers who have done contact are open to partnering of all kinds in their dancing and dance-making. Japanese exposed to butoh seem open to all kinds of emotionality, ugliness, imagery in movement. In America, we constantly have to argue (to presenters, to funders, to critics, to dancers) that dance is the movement of the body, all of it. Not just the pretty stuff, not just the stuff to counts, not just the difficult stuff. In Japan, I never once had to encourage dancers to open their minds to non-dance-tradition movement. Wow.
SOME THINGS I WILL REMEMBER
- Feeling ironic. Next to the decorous genuineness of my Japanese friends, I felt cynical and full of irony. It’s a good insight, and I am using it now that we’re back.
- Tech people dabbing the audience carpet with tape, picking up dust and tiny hairs. Truly meticulous, rendering the carpet an inside, shoeless space for the audience.
- Auto-flush urinals that flush twice: first while you are peeing, and then several seconds after you leave. I can’t imagine the reason for this, but I have encountered it many times.
- Textured rubber matting everywhere (sidewalks, airport, Art Center) for navigational use by the blind. Also tones indicating when it is safe to cross the street, and even a few recordings announcing the name of the intersection.
- The massive, often beautiful stones sunk into the ground at street corners. A bit of nature, of bonkei, in the middle of the city.
- The utter lack of T-shirts with kanji characters. It’s all Eigo, all the time.
- Sachie and Ely, two wonderful students in our workshop for the deaf in Shikoku. Despite the double language barrier, we connect. They are graceful, open. They travel three hours and sit on cushions in the front row of our performance.
- Mushi-chan and Bando, two thirds of Hanaarashi (stone-flower), a contemporary butoh company. Shaved heads, huge smiles, very little English. We have intuitive movement conversations and running jokes. Mushi-chan does an astounding solo, one of the best dances I’ve seen in a long time. Hanaarashi schedules a special showing with us (when Bando is available), performs a delicate and full improvisational duet. They listen earnestly and intently to feedback. They tell us that they spend much of their creative process on the spiritual and emotional aspects of their art. I encourage them to focus on choreography as well (shaping, transitions, rhythm) so that we may all better share in the deeper aspects of their work. It is a great discussion, raising questions of passion versus form, inspiration versus communication.
- Big group dinners inevitably ending with Ayaka (JCDN’s secret strength) using her cell phone as a calculator to tabulate each person’s share of the bill. All food is served communally, and no distinction is made in payment.
- The heated-seat toilet at the ryokan. A dream. It has an electronic bidet system, too. Sadly it is wedged into a tiny W.C. space. David and I wanted to unbolt it and bring it back to Philadelphia, but we didn’t have any metric wrenches.
- The tricked-out tinted window vans with Harley-loud pipes, cruising the streets or just parking and profiling. Rebellious rooms on wheels in a country with little square footage to spare.
ANDREW’S GUIDE TO VISITING JAPAN
(A Day in the Life of an Ugly American)
You get large, often quilted moist towelettes that wrapped in plastic (“Sawa Windy”) before every meal. it is nice to wash the hands, and towelette is somewhat fair game for dabbing the fingers clean during the meal. But there is no equivalent of the Napkin, which has shown me just what a sloppy eater I am. Chopsticks do help, as you can place the food inside your mouth before releasing it. But suffice it say that David and I make our share of messes on the table and on ourselves, with no easily available cleanup mechanism.
The sight of a man pissing seems rather accepted. Some bathrooms have frosted glass windows in front of the urinals, and doors that open directly from the urinals to the outside world. In Shikoku, a unisex public bathroom features stalls for women and male pooing; the urinals are at the entrance. Luckily, I finish pissing just before two 10-year-old girls enter.
You have to take off your shoes to go into store dressing rooms.
No jaywalking. It’s so established that if you do go against the light, you may well lure into the street unsuspecting Japanese who will assume the light MUST have changed.
No tipping. Anywhere.
Waiters leave the check at your table, usually when the food comes. You take it up to the register.
Avoid the word “interesting.” It’s Japanese for “I hate it.”
Japanese pedestrians have an immediate Pavlovian response to the sound of a bicycle’s bell. I was a bit shy using mine at first (on busy streets, bikes are ridden on the sidewalk), till I found that I could clear a path and no one turns a head or interrupts a cell phone call.
Get a bike.
Lots of bowing, some handshaking, almost no hugging. Freaker Japanese can be convinced to hug, usually only in the lean-forward-so-our-chests-don’t-meet way. A couple of quick, annoyed pats tells you the hug is over and was probably a big effort in the first place, Mr. Gaijin. If you want a nice American bear hug, bring a friend from home.
>Meishi (business cards) are a huge deal. Bring nice ones, keep them in a case, offer them with both hands, accept another’s with both hands, bow, read it carefully, comment on it, bow, bow a little more, and put it somewhere nice. Don’t fold it or write on it.
Dancers are less modest than others, but still change in and out of dance clothes in a private space.
A small hand towel will make nifty addition to your Japanese dance wardrobe. Curl it into your collar (think Rocky Balboa) while you dance and wipe off sweat with it during breaks. If it’s good enough for Ko-san and Masayo-san, it’s damn well good enough for me.
>Say Eh-Toe and Ah-No a lot. It’s like saying ummmm. It buys you time while you look up how to say “I’m sorry I spilled green tea on your meishi.”
Oh, the coins. So many of em. The smallest bill is worth about eight bucks. Coins pile up in my room and still every day my pelvis goes out of alignment from the weight of the day’s yen in my pocket. Spend em early and often, especially the discus-sized 10-yens.
The ethic of I’ll-get-the-check-tonight-you-get-it-tomorrow doesn’t really fly. We can’t even buy Takeshi and Megumi a coffee without them foisting more leaden Japanese coins on us. When Brick insisted on paying for a dinner ($40 for four people), there was dismay, followed by outrage, followed by shame, followed by profuse gratitude.
Say “Gozaimasu” constantly, but don’t ask Japanese what it means. It is apparently meaningless, and they quickly grow angry when asked to consider that fact.
No syllables are accented (think “Go! Team! Go!”). If you can master this (it’s so hard for Americans), you may actually be able to communicate a bit. And Nihonjin will praise you lavishly.
Avoid saying things are “difficult.” It’s Japanese for “No way.”
Little gifts and cards go a long way. They are exchanged constantly. (When Japanese exchange students come to the high school where I teach, I often get a small card/gift at the beginning and end of the term.) We received several lovely gifts from our students and a box of “interesting” Japanese sweets when we went to Shikoku. Wrapping counts, and I had trouble finding it. (Try a big book store where they often sell single sheets.) The stationery here is beautiful, so a nice note will do quite well.
Shower before you get into the bath. I guess a lot of Americans blow this one, cause I was told it about 27 times. No soap or dirty bottoms in the baths.
If you have big feet, bring slippers from home. They’re everywhere here, but they-re all size 3 extra narrow.
Questions end with “ka” and are not necessarily inflected up.
Watch your head, especially in traditional architecture.
Slurp you noodles but not your beverage.
Don’t blow your nose, fart, or burp. Do snort your snot up into your head loudly, use toothpicks, talk with your mouth full, and smoke.
When not using your chopsticks, balance them on a chopstick rest. If there is none, fold the paper chopstick holder into a v-shaped pup tent and balance on that.
OK to bring the little plate up toward your mouth for more effective chopsticking. Some folks even shovel it right in, but I try to avoid that.
Alcohol tolerance seems to break two ways: those who down quarts of sake and keep calling for Americajin to sing Bon Jovi, and those who take two sips of beer, turn red and start acting like Bon Jovi groupies. I’m a lifelong lightweight, and I must confess I savored outdrinking my comrades every night. Even Mr. Two-Beers-And-I-Can’t-Ride-A -Bike can feel hardcore.
Learn how to say “I don’t speak Japanese” (Nihongo ga wakarimasen.) and “Do you speak English?” (Eigo o hanashimasu ka.) Much better than just launching into English.
Other people are -san, not you. It’s like bragging if you -san yourself.
You can -chan a fair number of folks. But wait to see if anyone else does it.
The women on the street trying to get you to take them to a bar are hostesses, not hookers.
Most bars charge a sort of cover (on the bill, not at the door).
Though some Japanese don’t drink the tap water, it seemed damn fine to me. Sure better than South Philly water.
The shoe thing. It’s complex, but basically you want to distinguish between outdoor space (shoes) and indoor space (slippers). There are subtler distinctions as well, but gaijin are not expected to grasp them. Try to master the tricky skill of taking off your shoes in the outside, “dirty” area while you land your stockinged feet in the “clean” area. Untie your shoes, loosen the laces, and turn them around to make your departure graceful.
Not much cheese (chizz-u), and hardly any good cheese. Big deal. Have some more daikon.
Cars go on the left, bikes go on the sidewalk. On the little streets, anything goes.
When using an ATM (or the door to get into an ATM machine), don’t believe the diagram showing how to insert your card. Try it the opposite way first. Something about the international date line, I think.
The silk suit-wearing young men with long dyed hair and cell phones trolling the street corners of the nightlife area are trying to turn young women. Stone cold pimpin.
There are subtle and complex codes about where one may and may not park a bicycle. A bit like learning how South Philadelphia Italians demand respect of the sidewalk space (it is like an extension of their living room).
Convenience stores offer great rice balls, beer, wine, and yogurt for the dairy-craving. I eat two rice/nori pucks and three yogurts a day.
No one in Japan is gay, OK? So just shut up about it already. All right, maybe there are a few, but can’t we talk about something else?
If someone says you have “gay atmosphere,” laugh heartily and change the subject. If that doesn’t work, blow you nose and get in the bath without showering first.
Don’t mention marijuana or any other drug. Drug laws are super-strict. It’s like asking someone if they know any rapists. Japanese who seem stoned are just thinking.
Miso soup is amazing, but hard to order alone. Ritsuko laughed heartily when I ordered it at the train station. Akin to ordering just ketchup at McDonald’s.
Mister Donut is not bad at all.
Starbucks is everywhere, but Japanese will hate you if you go there. (OK, that’s a lie. But why go to Starbucks when there are so many amazing cafes?)
Some trains you have assigned seats, some not. Always your ticket requires you to be in certain cars. Line up early (look for marks on the platform…..the trains are utterly accurate) and you might get to see the battalion of train-cleaners AND the automatic seat rotation system for trains reversing at the end of the line.
Fluorescent light is ubiquitous (poor Sara-san). My beautiful tatami-matted room has sliding screens, a lovely low table and a TEN-FOOT DOUBLE ROW OF FLUORESCENTS!
Do karaoke, avoid pachinko. Like speaking four words of Japanese, any modicum of karaoke ability will attract lavish praise. And requests. In the generous spirit of karaoke, I consented to such requests as Tears in Heaven (Clapton), and Luka (Suzanne Vega). Just don’t ask me to sing those songs in America.
Clap with hands together in front of you, prayer position, like the wind-up monkey with the cymbals. If you want someone to “come here,” extend your hand PALM-DOWN and flap the all fingers as one. Palm up is like calling a dog.
The “u” following the “s” at the end of many Nihongo verbs is almost silent. It just means you start to turn the “s” sound toward a “u” before cutting it off. Pucker up a little but don’t go “oo.”
Don’t walk the streets with a cup of coffee. You can, for some reason, walk around with ice cream.
The coffee is delicious and strong. No refills.
Glasses of water, sometimes though not always offered with meals, will be tiny glass thimbles. Encourage the waiter to refill your glass 10-12 times. Make em earn that zero-yen tip.
Behavior that Americans consider rude is called “shy;” what Americans consider friendly is called “rude.”
Traditional hotels (ryokans) give you a futon on the floor (much thinner than the plump American liberal arts futon) and one of those seed husk pillows. If you want a little softness for your head, do what I did and steal an airline pillow on the way over.
If it’s hard for you to sit on the floor, choose the side by the wall and lean. Women can sit legs-to-the-side style, men seem to stick with kneeling and cross-legged.
Many traditional sit-on-the-floor restaurants have metal hangers on the walls for your coat.
You are not supposed to put shoyu (soy sauce) on certain dishes, I can’t for the life of me figure out which ones. But it’s more specific than Americans’ idea of soy sauce as hipster salt.
Japanese pickle everything. Whole stores are devoted to the Wide, Wide World of Pickles, and they are often served with dinner.
No sudden moves at those low-to-the-floor-tables. An errant, oversized American knee can send dinner for six across the room.
Japanese students rarely attend classes. Mostly they wander the shrines, parks, and streets of Kyoto with strange written surveys for English speakers. Where do all these surveys end up?
There are two names for 4 and two for 7. Abstract numbers are a different system from numbers of objects. Some numbers change for telling time. Damn. But they are almost always written as numerals, not kanji.
Don’t have a name with a “r” sound, “u” sound, or short “a.” People named Andrew, for example, might consider going by a nickname like Hahnj-leeoo.