Les Parapluies de Kyoto

Late June/early July hits most of Japan squarely in the rainy season. By all accounts we were fairly fortunate, but it drizzled every day at least once, and at least once a day there would be a sudden flash-downpour. Honestly, with temperatures in the sun upwards of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and high humidity, the rain was often a welcome relief.

Nevertheless, we did both carry around umbrellas everywhere we went. I packed the small ultralight one I usually keep in my teaching bag and quickly found that I had one of the smaller, wimpier devices in use on the street (I figure if they want to pack and carry $200 worth of sheet music for me, then I'll consider a beefier umbrella) At my suggestion, Sebastian stopped in a 7-eleven on his way to the airport in Taipei and bought a $7 manly cane-like contraption that he wielded with a positively Chaplin-esque jauntiness. (My comment that a small collapsible umbrella might be more practical was met with "this is more masculine" disdain)

Stylistic benefits aside, Sebastian's umbrella turned into a liability fairly early on. At least once a day we backtracked just to pick the darn thing back up from wherever we left it. The conflict reached a head when he left the umbrella at the restaurant where we had Kyoto-style sushi. The following morning dawned ominously cloudy and caused us to stop and pick up a new umbrella. (I talked him into a cheaper, less macho clear umbrella for 500 yen) We went to Ninnaji Temple and had the umbrella, but by the end of Ryonaji Temple we realized that it was gone! We went to the half-way point between the two where we got water from a vending machine, but it wasn't there either. Defeated, we left the area sans umbrella.

I convinced Sebastian that we should go back to the restaurant to pick up his original umbrella that night before dinner, and sure enough, 2 minutes into the walk it started pouring harder than at any point in the trip! We huddled under my umbrella until happening upon a small, clear blue umbrella leaning up against a bank of vending machines. Sebastian figured that he had paid his umbrella-debt to the universe and took the umbrella. (Incidentally, the restaurant was closed when we got there anyway) He managed to hold onto that umbrella and was carrying it when we parted at Kyoto station.

Sebastian's comment on his ability to hold onto an umbrella? "They're one part ninja and three parts butter."

What? No Louboutins?

I can totally get on board with the whole no-shoes-in-the-house rule. It really makes a lot of sense. The Japanese are fairly lax about it in public - most stores and restaurants don't make you take your shoes off. Except when it comes to temples and other historic structures. This creates a sort of odd industry for cheap plastic-y oversized slippers that inevitably make you feel dirtier for deigning to put them on.

It would be tempting to see it as poetic justice - a thumb in the eye of visiting tourists who meekly shuffle through buildings that are (in many cases) double the age of their governments while wearing PVC footwear. However, the Japanese seem to accept these affronts to fine footgear just as meekly. I would consider Mr. Takahashi to be a classy and refined guy, but I've seen him trudge about in them as naturally as if they were Italian leather.

Mrs. Ishii, of course, wore slippers constantly in the house. Hers had a distinctive shuffle-clomp that could be heard throughout the house as she went from room to room. (It took me over a week and a half to realize that her clomp to the bathroom were the reason I kept waking up at 5 am every morning)

From a practical standpoint, the slippers serve as a signal that someone is or isn't in a room. For example, a bathroom is known to be occupied when there are slippers outside the door (you exchange your slippers for the bathroom-only slippers). In ryokans with sliding unlocked doors, slippers outside the room lets the owners know whether it's safe to go in or not.

All the more reason to wear shoes that go on and off easily. And socks.


According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, there are seventeen World Heritage sites in Kyoto. (there are twenty in the United States) These are sites that have been deemed to be of particular importance to the people of the world and get funding from the United Nations. The funny thing is that it didn't seem to matter to Kyoto (i.e. there weren't any fun colorful maps that said "Visit UNESCO Kyoto" or even designate which sites were or were not UNESCO sites) and most of the time the UNESCO plaques were tucked out of the way, as though the people of Kyoto were saying "yeah, we always knew this was important, we don't need you to tell us."
Ninna-ji Temple

We managed to hit six of these sites (and are quite proud of that - you could easily spend over a week just trying to get to all the available sites in Kyoto): Ginkakuji Temple; Nijo Castle; Ryoanji Temple; Tenryu-ji Temple; Toji Temple; and Ninna-ji Temple. Needless to say, they were all spectacular. Nijo had incredible interior paintings (that you are not allowed to photograph) and these things called "nightingale floors" that squeeked in this indescribable way when you walked to alert people of intruders. Ryoanji is renowned for their zen rock garden. Toji Temple was hosting a flea market, and definitely felt the most urban of the sites we visited. Most of the rest were full-on temples, but some were former castles that were later turned into temples.

We also went to several smaller sites such as Honen-in Temple, Yasaka Shrine, Maruyama Park, and Shoren-in Temple (as well as really small little shrines like my favorite that had mice!)

Mouse Shrine!

Honestly, they were all unique and beautiful and peaceful, but I'm not sure if I have anything more of value to say about them. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to see them, and it can definitely be mind-blowing to think "this was built before America was discovered by the Europeans."
Rock formations at Ginkakuji Temple

Cultivating moss

Toji Temple


Our first night in Kyoto we stayed in a Ryokan (Japanese guest house) that butts up to the Heian Temple and garden. Ryokans are basically the equivalent of a bed and breakfast (sometimes minus the breakfast) and can be very traditional and personal to the owners. By the end of our trip, we patronized three very different Ryokans and learned a lot about what you get for your money. Despite their differences, all three had tatami-mat floors and futon beds that are stowed away during the day.

I would say that our first Ryokan was definitely middle-ground and a bit past-its-prime, perhaps (the bathroom was clearly built and designed in the '60s) but clean and was run by a very nice and helpful couple.

Our second Ryokan, located in the heart of a very old district in South East Kyoto was the nicest (upper middle level) and run by a very traditional woman. (She winced when Sebastian rolled the suitcase onto the tatami mats - a faux pas that neither of us had done previously (or again) and then we both biffed and wore slippers on the mats just because we were really tired, I guess) It only had three guest rooms and shared toilets (3 separate W.C.s: Japanese "squat" style; Western; and a urinal) and one bath/shower room. I'm pretty sure we were the only people staying there and basically had the run of the place. (We did have a sink in our room which was very convenient)

Our last stop found us at the sort of Best Western of ryokans. A you can imagine, these small establishments can get pretty pricey and they usually charge per person. The tourist office by the train station helped us find this one and booked it for us at half-price. However, you get what you pay for. The room was completely bare except for a T.V. and two low, small tables. We had to set up our own futons. It was nice to have our own toilet and sink, but the first night we slept with the entry-area's light on because we couldn't find the switch! (turned out to be outside our room door near the top of the door frame. This was after Sebastian wedged slippers into the cutout to the entryway trying to block the light.)

The public showers were very nice, if a bit traumatizing. Let's just say that there was a high learning curve to determining the etiquette for Japanese baths, compounded by the fact that they didn't provide towels at our price-point (but did for others). I have never been jealous of towels before! All in all, great price and location ($25/person/night) but worth the extra money in this case to get Western-style rooms with private baths.

After the first night it also became obvious that the ryokan catered to school groups. On our last day in Kyoto, one of the school groups (twenty-five 18 year-olds) had a problem with one of their girls who never made it back the night before (Sebastian and I walked out of the room in the morning and straight into the middle of an argument between the chaperones - we got the scoop on the elevator ride down) By all accounts, Japan is an extremely safe country and Kyoto is a safe city. Sebastian's feeling from his time in Asia is that she partied and passed out on someone's couch. I sincerely hope that's the case, but I just as sincerely hope that one or more parental figures dole out serious consequences when she is found.

The Honeymooners

My brother, Sebastian, and I had two missions after fighting our way through the crowded bus (and, I think, both seriously injuring two small children) and checking into the Japanese guest house where we would spend our first night in Kyoto: 1. find a pharmacy for my steroid medicine; 2. dinner. We were pointed to the corner drug store (no prescriptions) and told to follow the canal to the Gion district.

In the early evening twilight the canal looked liked something from a Kyoto tour book. The willows lazily trailed their branches down the old stone embankments and the fading light sent shimmers through the gently moving water. We crossed over stone bridges and ducked into small shops as we saw fit. "It's so clean," Sebastian marveled, "everyone told me Japan was clean when I told them I was going, but this is just so clean." (Sebastian has been living in Taipei, Taiwan for several years at this point, a city whose cleanliness - or lack thereof - has been known to make residents allergic to the air)

Stumbling upon a covered marketplace, we were briefly sidelined from our constitutional while trying to fill the prescription. (Incidentally, our last hotel was a block away from the pharmacy we ended up at. We ran into pharmacies everywhere else we went for the rest of the trip) This turned out to be our introduction to one of the main intersections we utilized in our travels.

After returning to the canal, we began to consider the state of our stomachs. We chose a likely looking little spot and peered into a smoky little Establishment with bowls laid out along the counter. At 1900h on a Friday night we were the only two people in the place besides the owner/cook and his assistant.

The perfect canal yielded a perfect first-Kyoto meal. We split orders of fresh tofu salad, grilled chicken, sashimi, and soup. Sitting at the bar enabled us to chat up the owner (the girl's English was good enough to help us out in this endeavor) and find that he had been there for 30 years! Sebastian and I were both utterly charmed and left feeling satiated and good about the experience (the fact that the girl followed us out and bowed and said goodbye again was the icing on the cake!)

Keeping an eye on our 23:30 curfew (!) we continued on to the Gion. This street was a center for Geisha back in the day and women in rented kimonos still mince their way up the street, shopping bags in hand. (This proved to be a source of fascination for the two of us, and spent much speculation on how many of the women were dressed that way by choice as fun, how many were on their way to or from work, and whether any were "working") The aimless wandering was nice, but I think we were both relieved to find a small dive bar to duck into and sit a spell.

Shortly after ordering, an inebriated older gentleman tripped over Sebastian on his way to the, erm, facilities. Much smiling and back-slapping ensued and we thought that was the end of it. He returned, again trying to communicate (this time with me) but only for a moment and with a lot of smiling still. This happened several more times and it was clear that we all were just not understanding each other. He kept pressing his two pointer fingers together and trying to put his hands on both of our shoulders. Sometimes he touched his lips (I'm not going to lie, that kinda freaked me out a little) While he was in the restroom (again) I suggested that we look up the words for brother and sister in Japanese. That was it! Turns out he thought we were a couple and was unhappy at how distant we were from each other physically. Although we tried to refuse, he bought us another round and we committed the words kyodai and musume to memory.

"Open Your Eyes": My Last Lesson With Mr. Takahashi

Today, in a 3+ hour Marathon, I had my last lesson with Mr. Takahashi. We were observed by two students (violinist and pianist - the pianist is also the beginning flute student whose lesson I watched yesterday) which I have to admit made me a little nervous. Afterall, I came all the way from the U.S. just to take lessons from him; I didn't want to suck-it-up, so to speak. Plus, he started with Suzuki Book 1 instead of the Hüe (which I thought would be first) and spent over an hour on the middle eight pieces of the book (Twinkle through Moon). The exasperating thing is that I had no idea what he wanted from each piece before I played it. If I played it more musically, then he said that he included the piece just to get attacks and not worry about music, if I played rhythmically, then I was missing the point musically. Sigh.

It can be very discouraging when you're playing and the teacher is shaking their head and you have no idea why. (I'll have to remember that for the future! Sorry to anyone I've done this to)

The good news is that I was able to do what he asked at least somewhat satisfactorily, and afterwards he admitted that the way I was playing them is the way you would teach beginners. The bad news is that all of you who think you never have to review Book 1 songs, think again! I've spent well over two hours on the book with Mr. T (without finishing...) and I have two degrees! Ha!

The Hüe was great and totally worth working on with him. (although it was also a workout and I was literally panting when Mrs. Kawakami interrupted to give me my bill - eep!)

You know those people who use praise very sparingly and then all at once they say something and it means the world to you? Mr. T told me that he would miss me starting tomorrow and that he appreciated the way I was able to change whatever he asked right away. (He tempered this with some cautions about my embouchure, but I'll take what I can get.)

He drove me back to Ishii-san's for the last time in his Nissan-Skyline (for those of you interested, here's the article on the car from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nissan_Skyline his is the 2000-GT sedan that's silver in the article, but his is white - very cool). And we were half-way there when he asked what I had for lunch.

I told him that "I enjoyed hunger" (to quote him!) and he asked if I wanted a sandwich. I sensed him stalling a bit, so I agreed to tea and cookies since it was close to dinner. We went to his brother's coffee shop in the park that I took all those pictures of and had a really lovely chat. His brother had wanted to be a professional classical guitarist, and after bemoaning Mr. T's lack of interest or knowledge in anything that could even be remotely considered "pop music" (as in Norah Jones) he pulled out his guitar and played two songs for us. I couldn't think of a better way to end my stay in Matsumoto.

On one of my first walks around the school the first week I was here I found myself in one of the "alley streets" that would describe most of the travelways around here. At one point I reached out and touched the wall of the building I was walking next to, first to feel the plaster and then to feel the wood, just to try to convince myself that I am here in person. Sometimes life can feel like you're inside a big television screen and it can be hard to convince yourself otherwise, particularly when you find yourself in a surreal situation.

And now I'm leaving.

Well, sort of... Going on to Kyoto where I'll meet up with Sebastian (brother) and enjoy the first full-on English conversation I've had in three weeks! I leave tomorrow morning and will take a train to Nagoya and from Nagoya take a bullet train (eep!) to Kyoto. Should be there between 1 and 2 pm.

(Let that also serve as a word of warning to all of you who have come to depend on my paltry scribblings as part of your morning coffee routine - I cannot guarantee that I will have internet access consistently or at all. I will try to write (and more importantly, post pictures) when I can, but I will plan to catch up on some entries for those who are interested when I get back to the States on the 8th for sure.)

Hooray for my poor mangled hands! They made it!

But I can play chopsticks on the piano!

Because of my hand-situation, Mrs. Ishii has relegated me to using a fork and spoon for my meals. I feel like a failure. I had been doing pretty well, I thought - I only drop about 2% of my food when I eat with chopsticks now. And about 50% of the time I can pick up a piece of tofu without smashing it in half. Trust me, this is real improvement.

So far I have had only two true American freak-out moments when it comes to the food Mrs. Ishii has served and I think I covered it well. The first was when she told me to spoon these little white squiggles and black dots onto my rice. I was totally game until I saw the eyes looking up at me and realized the little squiggles were tiny dried fish completely intact! But, the rule in my house growing up was that you eat what you serve yourself, and I put two spoonfuls in so that's what I ate.

I tried not to show that I was holding my breath the whole time I chewed.

The second just happened last night when she served large sardines for dinner. I know that you can eat the bones in a sardine (even a big one) without any problem, and that they're good for you. I also know that many people like them and have no problem eating the bones. I managed to crunch down about half the bones and pick out the other half, but it was a real struggle. (Keep in mind that I'm the person who can isolate the strings off of sugar snap peas and the shells off of soft-shelled crabs)

Other than that our evening meals have been really uneventful. Granted, I can't tell you the names of a lot of what I've eaten and there's a fair chunk of it that I wouldn't be heartbroken to never encounter again (last night she also served this slimy vinegary green stuff that was strong enough to make the inside of your nose burn). But most of it seems about par for the course of what you'd expect from an average Japanese household.

Our evening meals are kind of like a Japanese take on Tapas, many small plates of stuff, and always with rice. For example, tonight we had a tofu/avocado lime-y pudding thing, fish/tofu semi-fried ball thingys, sweet red beans, "kentucky beans" (which I'm pretty sure are just green beans), cucumber in spicy mustard sauce, miso soup, sauteed eggplant and peppers in tomato sauce and yogurt (she saw that on a program this morning and wrote the recipe down), and the obligatory rice (brown). Tasty.

Mrs. Ishii-isms and the sneaky Mr. Takahashi

First of all, I wanted to say thank you to all of you who have sent notes of support about this whole eczema thing. I want to stress that I'm doing much better - I just should have gone to the doctor sooner - wishful thinking on my part. I am in high hopes for Kyoto and feel that I may even be able to wear socks! Please don't worry about me, it was not my intention, I just wanted to keep all concerned parties informed.

Now, on to the good stuff. I've compiled a short list of either common phrases Mrs. Ishii uses or ones used singly that were just too priceless not to share. Keep in mind that Mrs. Ishii is 80 years old this year, and built much as you would expect a Japanese mountain woman to be built - short and stocky (though she certainly was thinner in her youth) and extremely capable. The woman is a Shetland pony. She plays golf ("old-people golf" according to Mr. Takahashi) and does aerobics. For the past ten years she has sat down once a week and studied the Tale of Genji, when she finishes she goes back to the beginning. She places freshly cut flowers from her yard or a neighboring field in nearly every room in the house and pickles a mean plum. And, she mutters to herself in Japanese almost incessantly.

  • "Junior Michael Jackson-san cute." (In reference to the Jackson 5 clips the news casts were showing last week after the King of Pop met his untimely end. Side note: the only clip of the Jackson 5 the news casts I saw seemed to be able to obtain was from a "Motown Still Lives" infomercial and included "ABC" remixed with a new backbeat and interspersed with pictures of the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Bel Biv Devoe)
  • "But he turn white!" (Also in reference to M.J., apparently she hadn't seen much of his transformation over the past, oh, three decades.)
  • "19 course hole. My par 81. Not so good" ("old-people" golf)
  • "tomorrow after tomorrow" (as in the day after tomorrow)
  • "my make" (this is applied to everything from pickled plums, pickled radish, the pizza sauce she made pizza bread with for breakfast one day (not kidding), grape and raspberry jams, various puddings, tofu, miso paste, yogurt, tempura, and dressings)
  • "my pick" (often is heard in close proximity to "my make," and usually references fresh cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, and the infamous "wallaby")
  • "eat-a-ducky-mas" (this isn't how it's spelled but it's how I remember what we say before we eat, it's not exactly like that but pretty close)
  • "goat-cheese-so-sa-mah" (ditto for after eating)
  • "hiy, hiy, dozo, dozo" (probably the one single word she says most to me and is translated as "please" when offering something as in "dozo dozo practice" or "dozo dozo eat")
  • Her rice cooker plays Amaryllis when the rice is ready (for those in the know)
And, as promised, the sneaky Mr. Takahashi...

Apparently there's a Doctoral flute candidate in one of the Carolinas or possibly Georgia that is focusing on the Suzuki method and Mr. T's pedagogic style. In May, this person sent Mr. T 30 questions (in English) about his teaching style, to which Mr. T's response was basically "eh, no." So the candidate went back through Mr. T's old articles and the introductions for the first three Suzuki books and lo and behold was able to answer all but 7 questions. Mr. T asked for my assistance in checking the grammar in his responses and for keeping them as short as humanly possible - he's really not giving this guy an inch!

(Another side note: this was where I first noticed the similarities between my father and Mr. Takahashi. Dad would totally be willing to help, but only in a way that made the person have to think harder than they were planning to! Additionally, (and this won't mean much to those of you who don't know my father) they both have the grace of tall thin men who tend to gesture a lot with their hands and also get totally worked up over the things that excite them. Mr. T is also always impeccably dressed and seems cool and impossibly dry given the heat and humidity that hangs around this time of year here.)

For example, one of the questions asked about how Mr. T teaches phrasing. Now, this question is worthy of a dissertation all on it's own in many respects, and when the two of us read the question we both looked at each other with that slightly perplexed, put-out look that people get when they just don't know where to begin. Mr. T's response, "I have them play the way great opera singers sing." Which is absolutely the truth from what I can tell in my limited time here, but man, throw the guy a bone. (Mr. T just chuckled gleefully when I called him sneaky.) A more obtuse answer to another question about tone color came in the form of "Tone color is created by the vibrative membrane of the lips."

There was only one phrase that I know did not answer the question at all, but Mr. T liked it so much that he refused to change it (and I liked it too, it's just an example of a literal translation of the word "imagery" into a Japanese word that I don't think quite means the same thing). If this Doctoral guy knows what's good for him, he'll leave it be too.

Q: "What is the role of imagery in your teaching?"

A: "To teach is to touch a life forever."

I am not alone!

Today when the students saw my bandaged hands they were all very concerned. Turns out more than one of them had the same thing happen to them when they moved to Matsumoto (although I think they saw a doctor sooner and so it wasn't as bad) and knew exactly what I was going through.

The eczema is better today, far from 100% but I can at least walk like a semi-normal person (no quips from the peanut gallery, please!) Today at the hospital we asked the nurse to leave the tips of my fingers open so that I could try to play, which I'm mildly successful with. So, Mr. Takahashi has deemed be capable to have a lesson tomorrow! I may be able to finish Book 12 with him after all. (He pointed to my hands at lunch today with some other Suzuki flute teachers and said "Melancholic Fantasy impossible," but I was able to play through it today and it doesn't seem to be too worse for wear. (side note: this goes to show that if you prepare really well, even if you have to take time off you'll be back in shape in no time! (side note2: yes, parentheses within parentheses)) Although sometimes my bandages got stuck in the keys and wouldn't seal the holes all the way. I also managed to get through the Hüe without unraveling literally or figuratively.)

BTW, the cost for my follow-up visit at the hospital with state-of-the-art facilities? 861 yen (less than $9 US)

Following our appointment at the hospital, I had the opportunity to join in a workshop Mr. T does twice a month for Suzuki flute teachers from the area. It was great to experience him teaching a group of flutists and to see what he chose to work on (up until now, I've just seen him in a classroom situation or, obviously, private lessons). Two of them joined us for soba noodles (what else?!?) and I was pleased to be able to show them the trick David taught me for helping kids who've just gotten braces by putting masking tape on the lip-plate (turns out the sign-language for braces is universal!)

After practicing a bit I went into the student lounge where I met the bounciest person I've seen in Matsumoto so far. He's a double bass player and seems to have a great sense of humor - I bet he makes an excellent teacher. Despite feigning offence when I said that Matsumoto must just be a terrible place if it gives everyone who comes here eczema (he was born here) he turned out to be extremely helpful. I told the students that I wasn't entirely confident that I had gotten the folksongs I needed from my previous trip to the sheet music store. The bassist works at a different music shop so he took me there and translated for me and even let me use his discount! It was quite a little mini-adventure careening down these tiny streets in a huge bassist's-car (okay, not that the bassist was huge, but their cars have to be big.) The whole errand took less than 20 minutes, but it was refreshing to meet such an exuberant personality and have a whirlwind tour of some of the back-streets of Matumoto!

Tomorrow I will get to observe Mr. T teaching a brand-new beginner (a piano student who wants to start). And the countdown will continue to Kyoto!

(FYI: pic is of caricatures of the various instructors here at the Institute that are hanging on the side of a locker in the student lounge. I believe the top one is Dr. Suzuki himself, and the second from the top is Mr. Toyoda, the current president. I am reasonably sure Mr. T is fourth from the top, and the one on the bottom also bears a striking resemblance to him.)

The Dubious Honor of Teaching Mr. Takahashi New English Vocabulary

WARNING: This post contains information about my medical history that might be considered TMI. However, since family and friends read this blog and I want to remember every gory detail of the trip, I am posting this story. If you are a student and do not want to know about your teacher's eczema, then don't read!

First a little history. When I first moved to Chicago for grad school I developed eczema. Actually, we had no idea what it was - I went to the emergency room and 5 doctors just trying to get it under control. At its peak, I had eczema on my hands, on my arms and legs, on the soles of my feet, by my eyes, on my scalp and under my fingernails (how do you moisturize under your fingernails?!?)

The bottom line is just that I have very sensitive skin. I don't mean in that North Shore "I would just die without my $200 an ounce hand cream from France." More like when I'm under a lot of physical or emotional stress (say a change of routine) I develop blisters, usually in select spots on my hands. What can I say? I'm just a delicate flower.

My first mistake was not bringing my steroid cream with me, but I was trying to pack light and I hadn't had an outbreak in months. Plus I figured I'd be home in 3 weeks so how bad could it get? At any rate, there they were: two or three little patches of eczema.

Day by day they got a little bigger and started spreading to my fingers. And I think they were, well, angry. My steroid cream was en-route at this point, but the patches were definitely uncomfortable and difficult to ignore. I thought if I could just get some neosporin or really thick hand cream it would tide me over until the package arrived. So, I worked up the nerve and after a lesson asked Mr. Takahashi if there was a drugstore nearby.

I hoped he would let it drop, but of course he wanted to know why and after offering up my weeping hamburger hands he decided I would need a translator and that he would go with. It is a humbling experience to be clucked over and spoken rapidly about in a tongue you can't possibly understand while your secret shame is laid bare under florescent pharmacy lights. The woman was very nice and patched me up but wouldn't let me buy any medicine until sleeping on it to see if it worked (I know what you're thinking - that would NEVER happen in America!) But she wouldn't take me at my word that it was just dry skin.

I came back the next day (alone) and the patches looked better but I had new ones (which concerned her). I was confident that as soon as my steroid cream came I would be a-okay. Later that day Mr. T interrupted my practice to see how I was doing and I was in high hopes since the medicine came that day. He proudly informed me that he consulted the dictionary the night before and learned some new words: eczema, blister, sterilize, steroid, and fester. Yes, folks, I taught the Big T to say "fester."

Mr. T gave me some stretches to do. He told me he had healed himself of stomach cancer 20 years ago without medical help and that it was simply mind over matter. I had the steroids in my hot little hands and figured that between the two of them I couldn't go wrong.

But it wasn't better the next day. And the following day I realized it was on my feet and legs. By Sunday I could barely move my fingers and came down to Mrs. Ishii resolved to go to the hospital. But Japan isn't really open on Sundays. She called Mr. T and they agreed that since it wasn't life-threatening that I shouldn't go to the emergency room. (I still kind of disagree) He came over and gave Mrs. Ishii strict dietary instructions and spent over 30 minutes trying to start the healing process from my second vertebrae.

Mrs. Ishii nodded and responded affirmatively in all the places dictated by polite Japanese conversation as he described the meals I was to be eating. I wasn't fooled, however, I could see blank incomprehension in her eyes. It was clear to me that they were from two different camps, Mr. T fasted in order to get well, Mrs. Ishii healed through food. How could she feed a guest only fruit and water for breakfast? I couldn't even have bread? It was clear Ishii-san had her own plan.

Happily, the two converged in a few places. He wanted me to have as much vinegar as possible, and she loves to pickle everything under the sun. She was making a dish with miso beans and had me drink the milk, which he agreed was very good for anyone fighting an illness. He brought over special healing mineral water which she reverently pours into my breakfast and dinner glasses.

Mr. T picked me up this morning and took me to a dermatologist. By this time I could barely walk and I couldn't practice at all. I felt a little guilty at his crestfallen look when he realized that I wasn't any better for all of his administrations (but I was happy to have a half a piece of toast with breakast!) The dermatologist was nice, but not confident, and sent us to the hospital after having three nurses wrap my hands and feet to high heaven in guaze. When tears came as they mangled my senstive paws they kept saying "don't worry don't worry" I wasn't worried - it hurt!

On the way to the hospital I asked Mr. T how to say "gentle" in Japanese.

The University Hospital in Matsumoto is the largest in Nagano prefect. They have a whole automated system for waiting that is just very Japanese, down to the little electronic sounds the monitors emit when the animated nurse comes on the screen. We were there waiting for a long time. Mr. T said, "Enjoy the hunger, it will help your metabolic enzymes to not be distracted by digestion."

By the time the doctor was able to see me I was used to the obligatory gasps and the "so des ne" that accompanied my unveiling. The aid unwrapped the miles of guaze that had been painstakingly if not carefully put in place only hours before and Mr. T proceeded to tell the doctor my medical history.

The doctor turned to me and said "This happened to you before? And they told you this was stress? No, this is an extreme allergic reaction to something. When you get back to America go to a different doctor and get a patch test, you have to find out what your body doesn't like."

He left and we waited for the aids to apply some medicine. Mr. T looked at me, clearly impressed, "International doctor" he said.

When all was said and done, the two visits and the oral and topical steroids came out to be 8,661 yen. (less than $90) Mr. T said that if I had Japanese insurance, I would have only paid 20% of that.

As I am typing this my hands look like a cross between the stay-puffed marshmallow man and a mummy. We are going back tomorrow to have the bandages changed. Throughout the whole process, everyone seems to think that I'm worried about my hands. I'm not so much worried, I know they'll heal - I'm bummed that I lost two days of practice (but stoked that I could catch up on This American Life podcasts) but more over I'm overwhelmed by how difficult it is to ask for help. Mr. T shouldn't have to cart my limping pathetic carcass all over Matsumoto and wait for hours with me during his time off. Mrs. Ishii shouldn't have had to make little guaze fingerlets for me so that I had the option of playing. I am the trouble-making American, and that's not how I want to be remembered! I'm hoping I'll be able to see the humor in the situation eventually, and I was heartened today when Mr. T referenced "next time you come" since I was sure he'd never let me back in the country!


The night I spent in Tokyo was punctuated by the sound of a hideously unhappy cat right outside my window (Joe and Mayuko did not report hearing said cat). Here in Matsumoto I've counted about a dozen feral cats in Mrs. Ishii's neighborhood. Their playground is underneath the field of grapevine (I've never seen grapes this way - elevated so that the top is almost taller than a person and looks thick enough to walk on, the grapes hang below)

A few mornings ago two cats were serenading Mrs. Ishii and myself as we ate breakfast. They unabashedly sat on the stoop to her sliding glass doors and yowled. Not because they wanted in or food or attention - just because they could, I think. After a particularly insistent howl Mrs. Ishii got up and openned the door and began to talk to them in a kind voice. I imagine her saying something like "What's going on? What's so important that you have to interrupt my breakfast?" One of the cats was back today basking in the sun all morning, genuinely not having any place better to be.

The other day, Mr. Takahashi was driving me back to Mrs. Ishii's and there was a grey cat in the middle of the street. It seemed totally unconcerned that there was a 43 year-old Nissan-Prince Skyline hurling towards it. As if playing a game of chicken, it waited until the last possible moment to move. Mr. T, stonefaced, just ignored the animal.

Most people point to their strong personalities as the reason they like or dislike cats. In a domestic cat, it would be called independence. In a feral cat, it seems to manifest itself as a sense of entitlement that other wildlife don't seem to share. A racoon will usually run away from you, and even pigeons will do their little waddle-walks to get out of your way.

I have yet to determine what the residents think of these creatures that live amongst them. People must have domesticated cats here, they have dogs - but this is not what you would call a rural area, and I don't know any Americans (who don't live on farms) who would abide by these animals.

Matsumoto Castle

Today was promised to be the last "clear" day (the sky was sort of a non-descript grey all day) before several rainy ones so I finished practicing a little early this afternoon and walked about 20 minutes to Matsumoto Castle, one of the oldest and best preserved castles in Japan and considered a national treasure. (Incidentally the outermost moat for the castle still exists and Mr. Takahashi pointed it out when we drove to get soba noodles - it's located quite far from the castle itself) The grounds were of course beautiful. I was slightly heartened to realize that Japanese tourists tend to be just as clueless when they're in Japan as when they're in America ;)

Upon entering the castle we were handed plastic bags and asked to carry our shoes in them (word to the wise - if you plan on visiting, wear socks! I was glad I did) The first steeps up were extremely tall and I had trouble hoisting myself up them; little did I realize this was a sign of things to come. The floors were very wide-planked and rubbed smooth and yellow from the thousands of stockinged feet that tread upon them. It was quite obvious that this castle was built for defense almost exclusively, there were places to shoot guns or arrows from almost every floor (except the fourth floor which was shorter than the others and had no windows (it was a "secret floor") and no creature comforts, or rooms.

There were 6 floors in the main tower, and the staircases were not arranged in any Western fashion: they all had different steepnesses (50-61 degrees)and tread width and were generally not near one another. I would imagine that it would help slow invaders down, but it was tough to feel like you could ever get used to them - a lot were really tall, even for me, and narrow. If I weren't so worried about falling flat on my face myself I would have found the images of people ungracefully ascending and descending these stairs with shoes in tow rather comical. What did give me pause was to see the high number of elderly and young couples with babies in tow willing to climb up 72 feet of these stairs. (I also liked the sign that said "Caution, very steeply)

If you manage to not bust your junk going up and down the stairs, you are rewarded with spectacular views of Matsumoto city and the surrounding mountains as well as the charming "Moon-viewing tower" which was built during a time of peace and was pretty much all windows.

Admission to the castle also bought you admission to Matsumoto City Museum. I liked the way it showed appliances in common use "only several decades ago" and included a rice cooker that was very obviously designed in the 1970s. The upper floor of the Museum had a decidedly underwhelming exhibit of watercolors and at least once another museum patron caught me grimacing at a particularly bad one as I sped through.

Woke up, got outta bed, dragged a comb across my head

I recently got yelled at for missing a post on Wednesday (ahem)... So although I didn't think I had anything to say, I guess I have to come up with something! This part of my trip (i.e. three weeks in Matsumoto) is not really about seeing historical Japan or even really getting a cultural experience. I have eaten in two restaurants, both soba noodle houses and both with Mr. Takahashi. I've gone on a few walks and to the sheet music store (yes, for you, Howard). Tomorrow it is supposed to be the last sunny day for awhile, so I plan to do my practice in the morning and then go to Matsumoto Castle in the afternoon. (If I do, I'm sure you'll get a better post tomorrow) Of course, one could argue that I'm probably getting more of a taste of a true Japanese life (or at least an 80+ year old one) this way - I figure, Mrs. Ishii is cooking and it's good, I might as well eat it! So, here is my typical day (I am also including a typical lesson for those students who are reading and think I'm too hard on them!)

My day:
  • 8:00 - breakfast. Usually with indecipherable morning news on in background
  • 8:30 - out the door!
  • 9:00 - practice begins (except on Wednesdays when Mr. T has his Music al Expression Class)
  • 9-10 or 10:30 - tone exercises. First I do the stretches Mr. T wants me to do (body then face). Low register first, full range. Dynamics in a few different forms, then low register melodies. Then middle upper, always softly and full range. Also some dynamic exercises and high register melodies. If I do everything in the order Mr. T wants me to do it in and including the new things it takes about a hour and a half.
  • 10:30 - Usually a short break, 15 minutes?
  • 10:45-12 - Practice repertoire pieces. Usually whatever the piece or two that I'll play for the next lesson. The bulk of this time is usually spent on the one main piece I know I'll do for the lesson.
  • 12-13:30 - This is lunch time, if I were hungry enough to eat after Ishii-san's ginormous breakfasts, so I usually just get a tasty beverage from the vending machine (Milk Tea today!) and drink it while I transcribe the recording I made from my lesson (these are usually over 2 hours long, so if usually takes me two lunches to do this.) If I have nothing to transcribe then I'll sit an listen to the pieces I'm working on with the music in front of me.
  • 13:30-15:30 - Practice! (or, Monday, Wednesday, Friday lessons) Usually two breaks are in there because I'm usually pretty tired already from the morning practice. I'll do the same stretches and possibly some warmups. I'll review what I worked on in the morning and spend more time on the secondary piece. If I have time I will either review a piece from a previous lesson or look ahead to a tricky spot in an upcoming piece.
  • 15:30-19:00 - This is anyone's guess. If I have a lesson, it usually goes until about 14:30-14:45... Yesterday Mr. T interrupted my practice and took me to tea and then we went to the Cello recital. If it's not too hot or rainy I might spend some time in the park, or I'll go back to Mrs. Ishii's and blog or email or read a bit (or be forced into bathing). I'm actually backlogged with stuff to do.
  • 19:00 - Dinner!
  • 19:45ish - I often excuse myself to practice in my room for another hour or so. This is generally review from the lesson or frantic practicing on technical stuff for the lesson the following day. Twice I've stayed and watched videos on Kyoto with Mrs. Ishii.
  • 21:00 - Sit. Blog for certain complaining students ;) Start getting ready for bed and getting my stuff ready for the next day.
  • 22:00 - Bed. I'm still waking up a couple times in the night so I doubt I've gotten 8 hours yet.
So, see? It really is a flute spa. Yes, it's another country and important to see, but if Mr. T were in backwater Mississippi, that's where I'd be this summer.

Here's a typical lesson:

  • 10-15 minutes on stretches and face warm-ups
  • 30 minutes on tone, sometimes more, sometimes less. There have been lessons that have be a full hour +
  • a gruelling 45-60 minutes on my main piece, generally worked on phrase by phrase
  • break! 5-10 minutes
  • 30-? minutes on whatever is secondary. This may be talking through something or a full-on lesson.
Mr. T made a comment that he always liked observing Moyse more than taking the lesson because usually he was so nervous in the lesson that he didn't play his best and he was concentrating more on that. I can totally see that and in many ways wish there was someone else here to observe. It's not so much that I'm nervous as that I'm constantly unsure where I'm going to be stopped or whether I'm on the right track. Sometimes, too, the trick is getting used to the language that a teacher uses; it took me a week to realize that what he was referring to as "whistle attacks" were what a former teacher called "breath attacks."

I am having a good time. Moreover, I am learning (I think! Despite the sinking feeling that what choose to apply from a previous piece isn't what Mr. T wants and I miss what he does want!) One week 'til Kyoto!

Book recitals!

Yesterday I watched a series of Suzuki Violin would-be teachers play pieces from whatever books they are working on. Today I watched one Suzuki Cello would-be teacher play his book 2 and 3 recital. He played both books back-to-back from memory with no break, it took about 45 minutes. Prior to this recital Mr. Takahashi and I went for tea and I watched him listen with a slight grimace to the classical music being piped in over the loud speakers. Every once in awhile he'd interject, "too fast." Or shaking his head, "equal temperament."

Over tea, Mr. T spoke of the apprenticeships in old Japan, where a master would take on just one talented student and that student would live with their master for years and just observe. Finally, after years of watching, the Sensei would say "I think you are ready" and show them how to do it once, if that student didn't get it on the first try, he was out. "In Suzuki," Mr. T reflected, "we must nurture everyone and make sure they understand."

As much as it would be an enormous amount of work, these recitals made me kind of regret that the SAA doesn't require Book graduations of its teacher-trainees. There's really no way to ensure that people would be able to have the music memorized in 5 days time (generally most people don't come with the book memorized already)

When the cello was done, Mr. Takahashi drove me back to Mrs. Ishii's and on the way he asked what I thought. I said I thought he played pretty well - good tone, good intonation, nice dynamics. He said the problem is that the student has to play like his teacher-trainer. Mr. T said there were no moments where he soared, the music was fine 3-dimensionally but lacked the fourth dimension of soul or life.

Tough judge.

It made me wonder what he would say if he heard me play Book 1 or 2 or 3. Do I play Mary or Twinkle with soul?

It made me wonder what I would say about my Book 1 or 2 or 3 playing.

Better than the students that you're teaching is not good enough. I've been inspired to start using Book 1 as warm-up tone pieces. We'll see what I think of that. (and if the students notice a difference or not!)

Ps. Counted 17 more vending machines on my walk this morning in the half that I hadn't counted before.

Don't worry - all you Coke fiends can still get your fix in Japan

There's a vending machine in the downstairs lobby of the Suzuki school. It sells water, cold tea (with and without milk), various cold coffees, and coke. There are three more vending machines directly outside the front entrance with a similar assortment. In fact, walk about 20-30 feet in any direction in downtown Matsumoto and there's a good chance you'll run into a vending machine or two. It seems that about 70% serve non-alcoholic beverages, and I'd be willing to wager that the next highest percentage would serve cigarettes, followed by alcohol and whatever else.

Every day for lunch I treat myself to something from one of these machines (they range from 100-150 yen) and so far I've managed to stay away from the coffee and Coke (and Fanta!) without repeating myself. I figure I can have all the Coke I want back home and anyway, I'm more of a Pepsi girl. Despite my best efforts sometimes when I look at the labels on the backsides of the drinks (the parts you can't see when they're in the machine), tucked away below all the Japanese characters, there it is - the familiar Coca-Cola logo.

(I've also avoided the Minute Maid Limen Ade (sic) but there was a very convincing commercial for it on Mrs. Ishii's T.V. this morning involving a broken high-heeled shoe and lots of dancing)

Today the one I chose had no English indication of what was inside of it, but it was sort of a cloudy white and I figured it couldn't have any coffee in it and stay that light. I think it was dairy-based (again because of color) and my first impression was that it was kind of like drinking a liquid form of Yoplait lemon yogurt, but I later revised that to being more like those orange push-up pops that has been melted and watered down. It was good.

About half-way home today the thought occurred to me to count the vending machines, and I was so disappointed that I didn't start sooner. Not including the ones at the school or between the school and the park (which is the most metropolitan) I counted 15 vending machines. There's a pair that I have been eyeing all week now outside a liquor store that I've desperately wanted a picture of, but so far have been too self-concious to do it (there's usually someone fairly official looking hanging about when I'm walking - which also happen to be during "rush hours") The one machine contains malt-liquor. The other contains something undetermined as of yet, but I think I might need some because there's a frumpy looking cartoon on the front that turns thin and pretty when it uses whatever's in the machine. Maybe on Sunday if it seems like I can sneak one inobtrusively on my walk I will.

(completely off the subject, but I really feel like I can't just take pictures of whatever I want here. These are people's houses and graveyards and gardens, they're not tourist traps. It's not their fault that they just happen to live right in my path. Still, it's regrettable because so many of these houses look so Japanese they could be in a textbook )

How I was Otaka'd into submission (a simple desultory philippic)

Last summer I went to the East Tennessee State University Suzuki Flute Institute International (did I get all the words right and in the right order?) with my student, Meb, and her mother, Katie. We had a grand old time - I hadn't seen Meb in over a week because she had been at a different workshop at Ohio State, and we figured the same music would work for both. So it came as a bit of a surprise to both of us when a few days in to the week her masterclass instructor said "good, what else you got?" We met for an emergency lesson that night to try to scramble enough of the next piece together to at least have something she could play for the next day.

That's pretty much how I feel after every lesson.

Chaminade? bah. One lesson. Tulou one lesson. Today we churned through the first movement of the Otaka Concerto (that I've been working on for a grand total of 3 days) and he was ready to go on to the 2nd and 3rd (but I wasn't). So instead, we spent another hour (+) on the Lindpaintner from Book 12 (also that I've never worked on, but I've had about 5 days to practice it). Both pieces were dismissed with "Anyway, you polish."

The speed at which we are eating up repertoire is good for one reason: I want to learn as much about the interpretation of French music as I can while I'm here. The old nagging doubts set in, unfortunately, as I wonder whether he's just given up on each piece getting any better and wants to see if maybe I'll get the point with the next one. Has age given him a sort of zen sense of the futility of it all?

We spend close to an hour on tone studies in each lesson, and he generally encourages the same things - I need to resonate from the back of my throat; I need to use more air pressure and less lip pressure; I need to work on the extreme ranges of dynamics while always keeping color in the tone (the list goes on). Jet lag would be a convenient excuse, but I think it's too convenient - I think I'm exhausted at the end of the lesson because it's hard work and a lot of concentrating.

Since there are Japanese customs for almost everything else, I am sure there is something for body language and the way you're supposed to stand and listen when you're having a lesson but I don't know what it is. Self-consciously I frown my way through most lessons, angry that I missed the melody line hidden within a 32nd note passage or fell into one of my other same traps again. I know how I feel when I tell a student the same thing over and over again.

Finally today as I put away my flute, a small glimmer of hope: "you are very sharp. After I play, you catch it. Very good."

Mr. Takahashi insisted upon driving me back to Mrs. Ishii's again today and when we were in the car I mentioned that I was planning to bring some chocolate from home tomorrow to share with the students. (It's hollow, I know, but I need something to assuage my guilt over taking up some much valuable practicing real-estate) He asked if I was making friends here and I told him honestly that everyone's really nice, but most of the time I'm at the school I'm practicing or listening or taking notes. "Ah, you are studious." I just looked at him and didn't know what else to say except, "Well, that's why I'm here." To which he simply replied, "very good."

In other words, you stink!

In the evenings I practice at Mrs. Ishii's. On Sunday there appeared to be some sort of function at the school, and I didn't have a room after 12 noon. So I decided that I might as well transcribe my Chaminade lesson and then see if Mrs. Ishii would mind hearing a little more flute than normal (she was fine with it, btw). Unfortunately, I practice here with the windows closed out of respect for the neighbors, who are very close and it got really hot in my room. That's when I decided to take a break and open the windows, maybe write a post or two.

All of a sudden, a call came up the stairs: "Meretsan, please take bath!" Really? She could smell me all the way down there? "Bath?" I said "Now?" "Yes, bath." she replied and walked away.

Japanese baths are actually whole rooms (err bathrooms): there's the insulated bathtub itself, which seems to usually be quite short by American standards and deep, lower than floor level, and then the whole room is tiled so that you can shower in it and generally steam up the place. Before coming to Japan I read a little on bath etiquette and apparently there is an order to the bathing: guests; adult male; adult female; children. The guests are supposed to try to refuse but will always (eventually) go first, however, both times I've taken a bath here Mrs. Ishii took me so by surprise it was all I could do to get my soap and get in. Hopefully she will not hold my faux pas against me. My understanding is that it's very important to clean yourself extremely well prior to getting into the tub (for which there is a ladle-type plastic cup and a bowl) since all of these other people will be sharing the bath water with you.

The first night I was here I didn't quite understand the whole protocol about the whole thing, and so I washed well beforehand and eased myself into the tub. "Now what?" I thought. I'm sure the idea is to sit and relax, but without so much as a rubber duckie to keep me occupied apparently I didn't stay in long enough for Ishiisan. After I was done she looked a bit crestfallen. "No bath?" she asked "shower?" I tried to assure her that I did, indeed, take a bath but it was a little lost in translation.

My second mistake was in having only the outer curtains for the all-purpose room before the "bathroom" closed - these are the ones that are normally closed and don't go all the way to the floor. After the fact, I noticed that there was a second set of curtains that did reach the floor, and I'm sure that if I had closed those Mrs. Ishii wouldn't have busted in while I was getting dressed. She was a good sport and gamely tried to cover her eyes with her hand as she stumbled through the question she had for me.

Mr. Takahashi has said to me "As proverb says, 'when in Rome, must be Roman'" I thought I would get it right the second time. Sitting in the tub I pondered how many of the 161 other guests over 20 years have sat in the same tub, hugging their knees and wondering how long they had to wait before getting out. Was I more or less amiable than the others? Why did it matter so much to me that I do as Ishiisan wanted? Mrs. Ishii wanted me to take a bath because she wanted to take care of me, and I wanted to take a bath to show Mrs. Ishii that I cared that she cared. Additionally, it must be hard to justify filling that whole tub just to indulge yourself. By having a guest bathe, Mrs. Ishii is giving herself permission to follow a tradition that is more meaningful when there are others to share it with. It's the same reason that I'll tell people that I want exactly what they want on their pizza because I know they don't usually get to have what they like.

Next time I will do my best to graciously try to refuse before taking my bath first anyway. Afterall, it's the only polite thing to do.

The culinary genius that is Mrs. Ishii

Aside from her seeming unwillingness to accept that there are not four of me to feed, Mrs. Ishii is a wonderful host. Each evening meal turns into a Japanese lesson for chefs - she keeps a Japanese/English dictionary on the table to help translate each food item. This only works to a certain point, I thought "beefsteak plant" was a particularly unfortunate translation and one that I'm not sure sure has a lot of practical applications. Some vegetables don't seem to have an English equivalent and when I asked Mr. Takahahi about something Ishiisan called "wallabee" (my spelling!) he seemed surprised and said "wallabee? That's mountain food!"

Mountain food indeed. On Friday, Mrs. Ishii and an undermined number of other people went up to the mountains to pick the elusive "wallabee" among others. (She returned home to tell of beautiful orange Azaleas that covered said wallabee and the rest of the mountainside) She then boiled the wallabee (wow, I know I'm really butchering it, you're probably all thinking of a marsupial from another hemisphere) and soaked it overnight and used it as a side dish for our Saturday dinner. As for the taste of the wallabee, I couldn't tell you... soak anything in soy sauce for long enough and it will become pretty edible. In broken English she told the story of a friend who lived in America for ten years and who, upon seeing mountains (Rockies?) went in search of wallabee but sadly there was none to be found.

There is no apparent designation between where you live and where you get your food. In the mile or so that I walk everyday, if there's not a building on it (or a park) or cars parked on it, then there is a small field of edible growing thing. I am sure that there are fewer and fewer women with Mrs. Ishii's mountain-foraging skills as you go to younger and younger generations, but I hope that she's not the last of a dying breed. She makes her own jam, she pickles her own various veggies and fruits (she has these particularly potent plums that every time she eats one she screws up her face and says "sour! sour!"), last night she made tempura and she serves homemade soup every evening. Desert consisted of some sort of sweet carrot-based cold pudding that included the "beefsteak plant" and I think plum or some such. After showing me this desert "for tomorrow" she opened the refrigerator with an "aiii" upon discovering that the entire fridge was chock-full of her various canning jars and there was no precious real estate for the pudding .

Occasionally Mrs. Ishii will try to teach me a non-food related word (she seems fairly unconcerned about whether or not I'll ever really use the words, but I try to be good natured and she is quite patient with my amateur pronunciations). The other day, the weather report was on, and I was alarmed to see square red frowny faces with sunglasses on. She explaned to me that since it was supposed to be sunny there was a high risk of sunburn. "Oh," I said, "sunburn" and pointed to my face. She looked at me sternly and said, "No. Japanese word san-bu-ru." Who was I to argue?

(Picture is of Mrs. Ishii's "backyard")

Some might call this fascination with Japanese toilets unhealthy...

Okay, I know what you're all waiting for... more observations on the toilets here in Japan. Well, I would never want to disappoint.

I can't quite believe it took me this long to figure out why the bathrooms at school smell like a hotplate... it's all the heated toilet seats! All those toilets constantly staying warm have got to produce a high energy bill - no wonder they're so conscientious about recycling here. Also, for those of you who were wondering, they're not hardwired. Every stall has to have an outlet, or a cord going to a stall that does.

Maybe it's the pleasantness of sitting down on a seat that is prewarmed (and not by someone else's butt) or perhaps it's the high-tech control panels that accompany them, but for some reason it seems like these toilets are somehow more sanitary than your ordinary American public bathroom. (I can give you whole slews of reasons why this is neither likely nor possible). They also seem to be more polite than American toilets, the type of receptacle that looks up at you (as it's lid automatically opens) and says "I welcome your waste."

Why wouldn't we put more thought into an appliance that we all use multiple times a day? We have fancy refridgerators that can tell us the weather or that I-94 is conjested. We think nothing of the fact that we carry around what amounts to tiny computers that can call up other people and talk to them out of thin air. Why not the toilet?

The one item that reminds us that we are indeed in a place of (ahem) business and not the space shuttle is the slippers that are used only (and I mean only) in the toilet room. What good is taking off your shoes so as not to track outside dirt into their house if you're just going to track icky bathroom germs everywhere on your house slippers? (This leads into another interesting point about the inside/outside shoes... Mrs. Ishii has an upstairs porch for hanging laundry right outside my window. She keeps a pair of slippers just for that porch on the top step leading out the window and I saw her nearly have a major mishap backing out the window in her effort to avoid stepping with her porch slippers on her immaculate floor. It may be very American of me, but I would have said, "screw the floor, I can mop later!" and ensured solid footing, but what do I know.)

We must seem quite backward and barbaric in America with our 20th century toilets. I wonder if Japanese tourists take pictures of our loos to prove their point to the people back home? Do they pity those among them who have not invested in a hiney warmer of their very own? Whichever side of the ocean you're on, I do think there's peace of mind in knowing, however, that your toilet works even if your electricity doesn't.

"I'm kind of flying Japanese, I hope you can be flying American"

Today Mr. Takahashi decided that I should try one of the best noodle houses in the country for Soba or buckwheat noodles. (He takes all the gaijin there - I'm told they have as much protein as bacon or cheese) It was about a thirty minute drive from the school, in the foothills of the mountains (also near Azumino, Japan where Altus flutes are made). The food was of course delicious (Mr. T said it was impressive how slowly I ate and initially took it to mean that I didn't like the noodles), but even more wonderful was the opportunity to hear more of his story. You see, I know little bits and pieces from other people, but I have tried to find biographies of him online to no avail. As with everything (it seems) in the Suzuki method, there tends to be more legend than concrete story. So, here's what he told me:

Mr. Takahashi was born in Tokyo in the late 1930s. His family moved to Nagano prefect during the Second World War because his father worked for a company that built war-planes and kept getting bombed by the Allied forces. For this reason, he went to 6 different elementary schools (and found that he had a knack for picking up the new school songs almost immediately), but he graduated from middle school in Matsumoto.

A man of varied interests, Mr. T initially wanted to be a painter, then a novelist, and finally a Sumo wrestler! It was difficult to imagine this tall and slender man having the makings to be a Sumo, but he assured me that in those days he was much heavier and he didn't lose the weight until ulcers in his early twenties caused him to have two thirds of his stomach removed. At that point it didn't matter that he shed the weight because a year or two earlier he was out somewhere and heard Moyse being projected over the speaker system and the rest as they say is history. He was "enchanted" by Moyse's flute tone and proceeded to teach himself to play using Moyse's records as a guide. He remarked that he was very glad that he had been paying attention - how many people just keep walking when they hear music?

Then in 1965 he went to Los Angeles where he lived for 3 years. Since he only had a visitor's visa he had a hard time getting work. (he also told me he had his heart set on buying a Ford Mustang which was $3,000 at the time, but since he had only brought $1,000 total to America he had to settle for a used $300 car that was decidedly less hip) He advertised flute lessons in grocery stores and volunteered to play for parties and churches. His first stroke of good fortune happened when a generous older woman heard him play and asked where he was living. When he described the hotel he was staying at, she offered him the use of her house in return for keeping up the property while she looked after an (even) older woman. Within 6 months time he was able to bring his wife and baby daughter to the States.

Not long after, he met a manager who set up a series of concerts around the West and gradually worked his way to the East Coast. While there, he sought out William Kincaid (one of my great-grand teachers) to have a lesson on Kent Kennan's piece Night Soliloquy (which Kincaid premiered) among others. Kincaid happened to mention that he thought Marcel Moyse was involved with the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, and that night Mr. T had the operator try to find Moyse's number. When he finally got through, Moyse's wife answered and told him that Moyse was in surgery for gall stones, but would be home in the morning. Mr. T barely made it to noon the next day before trying again, and this time Moyse said "sure, I'll teach you."

"Moyse was a flying Frenchman. When I was working with Marcel, I was walking on the earth, that was a kind of a problem."

While in Marlboro, Mr. T was basically Moyse's assistant (turns out he lived between Moyse and cellist Pablo Casals (!), so his tone studies are based on a combination of the two men's daily warmups) This proved to be the foundation for a long and lasting friendship - Moyse came to Japan twice in his 80s to do masterclasses arranged by Mr. T. Mr. T also plays on one of Moyse's old flutes - a heavy, silver-plated nickel flute that Moyse moved the tone-holes on to have a more "musical scale."

After living rent-free for three years the Takahashi's decided to move back to Japan after (presidential candidate at the time) Robert Kennedy was assasinated near where they were living. They moved back to Matsumoto, and there fate stepped in once more. Dr. Suzuki heard Mr. T play and was moved by what he heard. Although Mr. T was only 30 years old, Dr. Suzuki approached him about creating a flute method based in Suzuki's teachings. Mr. T tried to decline ("after all, I was 30, what did I know about writing a method book?") but was eventually talked into doing it. Dr. Suzuki's big inovation (besides the whole mother-tongue approach) was that rather than getting harder and harder until the pieces got so hard that students quit he built in plateaus and ensured success until the students were playing harder rep without realizing it. Mr. T worked closely with Dr. Suzuki for three years on how to choose repertoire and formulate the books. In that time, Mr. T tested a lot of material on his own students to help ensure that he was picking songs that kids liked to play (hence, a lot of J. S. Bach).

In America we would say that fate has looked kindly upon Mr. Takahashi. He always managed to be in the right place at the right time. Additionally, I would add that he is clearly loyal (having a 43 year car, no matter how cool it is proves that) and thoughtful, someone who talks about trying to put the fourth dimension, the "soul" to music. He also is obviously worried about Moyse's legacy dying and players not carrying on his tradition. He would never ask me, but if he did, I would tell him that tradition is important, but innovation isn't bad either - and more than preserving the teachings of Moyse, Mr. T has given us a method to work with students and each other to share ideas and promote what is beautiful in life. That, more than anything else is what has given him wings.