Solo Cherry Blossom Viewing Primer

Most springs back in Kobe I used to love heading to Shukugawa river for some I’m-not-fucking-lonely-at-all solo cherry blossom viewing, aka a getting drunk in public picnic by myself.

You too can enjoy this Emersonian contemplative past time (sophisticated alcoholism). Here’s what you do.

Pack a bag with:

  • A sitting sheet - this allows you to create a nice spread on which to set your food and drink and kick off your shoes
  • bottle opener
  • cups
  • paper towels
  • plates
  • music playing device (a portable speaker is nice)
  • camera - other than a smartphone if possible
  • book - yeah, your ebook is fine. It’s about the content not the medium.

Where to go:

This is easy in Japan where the end of March/beginning of April and no open container law means you can pop one open alongside any number of Sakura-lined rivers or parks and enjoy loads of cherry blossoms in bloom, cute dogs running around, and a pretty woman or two.

In the land of the free (US of A!) where cherry blossoms are not as ubiquitous and overzealous police might get bent out of shape about drinking outside and shoot your black ass, a discreet spiked thermos or favorite cup of third wave coffee are good substitutes.

Remember, the cherry blossoms are just an excuse. Wherever you live I’m sure there’s lovely cacti, old-ass castles, factories across the river, or whatever to provide a view.

Food & drink:

My go to is wine because it’s an opportunity to splurge on a more expensive than usual bottle.

My favorite types and areas are:

Pinot noirs, reds from the northern Rhone or Loire, anything from Austria, Margaret River or Tasmania in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

There’s a reasoning behind these picks. These wines are solid but dextrous. It’s spring time and you want something reassuring yet bright. Although the Rhone can get heavy, the north tends to be a little lighter on its feet. But look, if you love a body slamming Zinfandel from Southern California or a “this is a knife” Shiraz from the Barossa, go for it. Just remember you’ll be solo, meaning you get the whole bottle to yourself.

Past hits:

I don’t remember the names of the bottles but here’s a little help.

Anything by Alain Graillot… dear lord… float like a butterfly…

Cabernet Franc from the Loire valley. I love Cab Francs… they are underrated and some people are put off by the vegetal hints (think V-8 veg juice) but a good one should have restraint.

The truth is French Pinots are often shite unless you spend enough coin and even then. If you’re not overly demanding about complexity, get something from New Zealand. They’re delicious and let’s quit with region bigotry, the good ones are just as complex as good Burgundy. The difference is that for reasonable coin you can easily get some juicy grown-up grape juice. Try that with a Burg. Good luck. California areas such as Russian River and Sonoma and so on are good, too. I’m just not that familiar with them. And living in Japan, I tend to find easier access to NZ wines than California.

Oh, and in case you’re like South Africa? Two words: Pinotage and bananas.

I’m mostly a red drinker so sorry to short change the whites (brown man giggles to self). But here’s a go.

  • Chablis - A dry dry chardonnay-based wine that I adore. If your splurge food is oysters then you’re in business.
  • Sauvignon Blancs - Loire or New Zealand are good choices. French tends be grassy and lemony, while NZ goes tropical passion fruit. Pick by preference. Both are great. Some Sauv blancs have been described as having an eau de cat piss smell. Sounds bad but somehow it works.
  • Sparkling - I’m telling you, bubblies are easy to get right and easy to impress with, except who are you impressing on your solo drinking expedition. However, you will look baller (albeit lonely) with your bottle of bubbles out on that blue tarp. Some good choices are cava from Spain, cremant bourgogne (non-Champagne sparkling from basically next door), or any of the affordable Cali or Aussie bottles by majors such as Chandon or Jacobs Creek, etc. I know, free advertising but hey, I aim to make it easy.
  • Riesling… praise be. Ok. Let me explain. Yes, a lot of them are sweet. That’s a style and tradition and if you get over that bias, German sweet wines bring loads of amazing complexity. But I get it. Most of us don’t want our teeth to hurt. Dry Riesling to the rescue. This is a bit hard with the German ones. Not because they don’t exist but because of the categories and the tradition is for the best wines to tend to be sweet. Save yourself a bit of pain and go Austrian or Australian…. Aus(sie) Aus(sie) Aus(sie)? But if sweet wines are your thing or you really want to try German wine (and you should) wines from Mosel, Nahe, Rheingau, or Pfalz are excellent.

You gotta bring some delicious eats. I love cheese, the more stank, the better. But if your childish palate can’t handle the Gorgonzola, then some cold cuts or chocolate is great too. The only rule is keep it a little gratuitous. If you normally snack on Pocky, step up your game to Lindt. A good luxury pick for sweet tooths are macaroons. If you have not had these magical little sugary cookie-like sandwiches of celestial delight, drop phone now and get some. Trust me, they are that good.

A bit on cheese, because I can’t help myself:

Washed cheese: The kings of foot stank. The king of kings is Epoisses (the last ’s’ is silent because it’s snobby). If you like cheese that smells like you rubbed your finger in between your toes and quickly across your bunghole then this is it. Terrance! Really? Yup, it smells like balls and it’s amaze balls. Another more sane choice is Munster.

Blue cheese: I appreciate but stylistically don’t enjoy Rochefort that much. I know, the quality and stank is top class. Just not my thing. Gorgonzola is pretty good but my go to is Stilton. But my heart is in Espana. Valderon is probably my favorite cheese on the planet. U-mah-meeee!

Cheddar, brie, camembert, mimolette, parmesian, gouda, etc. are all good, too.

Ham: Jamon Iberico… ‘nuf said. Proscuitt… the fuck up. Ok ok, it’s not bad but it’s hard to beat cured meat from acorn fed pigs running around the hills of Andalusia or wherever in Spain it is that they run around. Sorry Italy, but trust me.

Camera that’s not your smartphone. Look, if all you got is a smartphone that’s all good. And if all you got is a digital point-and-shoot, really that’s fine, too. And yes, your big ass monster DLSR is cool too. But if you’ve got an old ass camera from the previous century that shoots rolls of celluloid, then we’re really talking.

Some film cameras to check out:

  • Leica M - yeah yeah, they’re expensive German jewelry boxes. Whatever. If you’ve got one good. If not but interested, the M4 is probably the easy choice. The weird M5 is an underrated but interesting one and if you enjoy torturing yourself with antiquated machinery a Leica III is your perfect poison. Truth is, it’s the Leica lenses that are crazy. However, the M-mount was super popular back in the day, so you can get a wide range of compatible Japanese, Russian, etc. lenses for a lot cheaper than Leica lenses. Look, if you’ve got a Leica a Summicron or Elmar is the dream but while you’re pinching pennies, that Rokkor or Nikkor will do you just fine.
  • Old school Pentax such as the MX, LX, and K1000. I’ve always been a fan of Pentax’s stripped down ergonomically friendly design. Example: Compare switching lenses on a Pentax to every other SLR.
  • Old school Nikons. The FE, F2, FM2, and my mini-dream (meaning, it’s perfectly attainable, I just haven’t gotten around to it) the F3 are all amazing. The F3 is probably the ultimate old school pro-level manual SLR. It’s got amazing build quality, top class features for its day, and surprisingly it’s not that expensive. It was designed in collaboration with Italian designer Giorgetto Guigiaro and I’d argue it’s one of the most beautiful cameras ever made. Nikon’s rangefinders are amazing too but the collectors have made most of them unreasonable. Damn, I’d love an SP.
  • Olympus OM-1 - I’ve never shot with any Olympus camera but their philosophy small and light is right up my alley.
  • Wonderful oddities - Rollei 35 (one of the first truly usable compact cameras), Rolleiflex or Rolleicord or any twin-reflex medium format camera. The Konica Hexar rangefinder… what the fuck, but man… what the fuck! Contax, anything by Contax will have you scratching your head in wonder.
  • I’m not hating on Canon or Minolta. Just less knowledgeable. The AE-1 has an amazing rep. The F-1 (not to be confused with Nikon’s F1) or New F-1 are beautiful, too. Minolta is a quirky company that may have made its best and biggest impact on today’s Sony D-SLRs because Sony bought Minolta’s camera division a few years ago. Some of the popular models are the SRT and the XK. Apparently, their rep really lies with their lenses.

Your book should be old school, too. A classic. I love them self-help books as much as you do, but let's leave them at home for a minute. Genre fiction is fine. The point is to slow your roll and either enter deep artistic meditation or escape to lasers and phasers or sucking and fucking or whatever toots your horn. The schlock we love is very personal, so I’ll mostly leave that to you. Here are some recs.

  • Snow Country - Yes, I’m nuts about this book but damn is it good.
  • All the King’s Men - Perhaps my favorite novel in the English language.
  • Moby Dick - I’ve never finished it but that’s my fault. I know it’s good. It’s just long as a porn star’s dong.
  • Norwegian Wood - Murakami at his most normal yet sublime.
  • Starship Troopers - High schlock, perhaps, but brilliant. And so is the movie.
  • The Great Gatsby - No, the movies don’t count.
  • No Country For Old Men - Cormack McCarthy has such a quirky yet simple writing style. I actually recommend it for people who are put off by long, complicated sentences and overwrought grammar. It’s as good as the movie and the movie, as we know, was really good.
  • Crime and Punishment - I have a sneaky feeling all of us who don’t read Russian are missing out on an amazing literary world. I think the closest I get is when I listen to Russian composers. Bat. Shit. Brilliant. And so is this novel with a super fucked up and fucked protagonist(?).

So, there you are. Now you’re ready for the perfect one-person cherry blossom viewing picnic. Pick a day, head out, spread your tarp, get your goodies in order, open your bottle, lie down and with a book in one hand and cup filled with libation in the other, enjoy some quality me-time underneath the puffy pink petals.

Valentine's Day in Japan - Romance and Obligation

Valentine’s Day seems as well-known and celebrated in Japan as it is in the US. But it is quite different. And those differences reflect general differences between Japanese and American culture. In the US, Valentine’s Day is a day for anyone to express love or romantic feelings.

In Japan, however, Valentine’s Day mainly revolves around two things- women getting a rare opportunity to assert romantic feelings and societal obligation. Valentine’s Day in Japan is not the all-purpose day of expressing love that it is in the US. In Japan, it is the women who give chocolates to their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and wives, and so on. Men, generally don’t do anything on Valentine’s Day for their special someone, as the day is an opportunity for women who might usually be more reserved about expressing romantic or sexual feelings to assert themselves.

Unlike the US, where flowers, jewelry, or even non-material things are given, in Japan chocolate is the gift of choice. Chocolate giving that has romantic intent is called honmei choco. Honmei is usually translated as favorite but in this context, more accurately refers to the ‘real deal’ or ‘true target’.

The other important aspect of Japanese Valentine’s is giving chocolate out of obligation to someone. Obligation chocolate or giri choco is given to bosses or friends or to someone a favor is owed for whatever reason. Obligation or doing something because it is societally expected due to one’s position (including gender) is a big deal in Japanese society. There are several types of giri choco or more broadly speaking non-romantic chocolate giving:

Tomo choco or friend chocolate, usually given amongst women.

Gyaku choco or opposite chocolate, from a male to a female. Although this could be honmei choco if the guy has serious feelings.

Kyouteki choco is friend chocolate given amongst male friends. This one has some jokey connotation as kyouteki means rival, opponent, or enemy.

Jiko choco is chocolate bought by oneself, for oneself. Not sure where the obligation is but this one is either an action of sad resignation or fuck it, chocolate is delicious and I might as well pick out what I like and treat myself.

The idea of obligation actually extends a month past February 14th to March 14th or White Day. This Japanese made day (now also celebrated in South Korea and other Asian countries) is the day where men can return the favor for having received something on Valentines. Usually, instead of chocolate, cookies or white chocolate is given. It is nowhere near as exciting or popular as Valentine’s Day but department stores and confectionaries do advertise and sell goods themed around the day.

My favorite day has to be the ingenious reaction to Valentine’s Day and White Day invented in Korea, Black Day. Black Day is “celebrated” on… you guessed it… April 14th. On this infamous day, those who received no professions of love on Valentine’s or White Day gather wearing black to eat black bean sauce noodles or jajangmyeon1 and wallow together in their romantic misery. And probably in hopes of possibly hooking up with each other in a last ditch effort to escape single-hood.

  1. By the way, Jajangmyeon is fucking delicious.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jajangmyeon

Terry Translates - Suga Shikao's 1997 J-pop classic Ougon no Tsuki

黄金の月 (Ougon no Tsuki)1
Golden Moon By Suga Shikao2

Link to video
Quick & easy pronunciation guide3


ぼくの情熱はいまや流したはずの涙より
Boku no jounetsu wa ima ya nagashita namida yori

冷たくなってしまった
Tsumetaku natte shimatta

どんな人よりもうまく自分のことを偽れる
Donna hito yori mo umaku jibun no koto o itsuwareru

力を持ってしまった
Chikara wo motte shimatta

My passion has become colder
Than the tears I’ve cried
More than anyone,
I’ve learned to put on a false face

大事な言葉を何度も言おうとして
Daiji na kotoba wo nando mo iou to shite

すいこむ息はムネの途中でつかえた
Suikomu iki wa mune no tochu de tsukaeta

どんな言葉で君に伝えればいい
Donna kotoba de kimi ni tsutaereba ii

吐き出す声はいつも途中で途切れた
Haki dasu koe wa itsumo tochu de togireta

Many times have I tried to say the words you needed to hear
But my breath gets stuck in the middle of my chest
How do I say what you need to hear
My voice always catches in the middle of my throat

知らない間にぼくらは真夏の午後を通りすぎ
Shiranai aida ni bokura wa manatsu no gogo o tohrisugi

闇を背負ってしまった
Yami o seotte shimatta

そのうす明かりのなかで 手さぐりだけで
Sono usu akari no naka de te saguri dake de

なにもかもうまくやろうとしてきた
Nanimo kamo umaku yarou to shitekita

Without realizing it we've passed by the mid-summer afternoon
And have shouldered the darkness
Flailing around in the twilight
We tried to make it work

君の願いとぼくのウソをあわせて
Kimi no negai to boku no uso wo awasete

6月の夜永遠をちかうキスをしよう
Roku gatsu yoru eien o chikau kisu o shiyou

そして夜空に黄金の月をえがこう
Soshite yozora ni ougon no tsuki o egakou

ぼくにできるだけの光をあつめて
Boku ni dekiru dake no hikari o atsumete

光をあつめて・・・
Hikari o atsumete

With your hopes and my lies
Under a June night let’s kiss and promise each other an eternity
Let’s draw a golden moon in the night’s sky
Gather as much light to me as you can
As much light as you can

ぼくの未来に光などなくても
Boku no mirai ni hikari nado nakutemo

誰かがぼくのことをどこかでわらっていても
Dare ka ga boku no koto o doko ka de waratteitemo

君のあしたが みにくくゆがんでも
Kimi no ashita ga minikuku yugandemo

ぼくらが二度と純粋を手に入れられなくても
Bokura ga nido to junsui o te ni irerare nakutemo

Even if my future has no light
Even if someone somewhere is laughing at me
Even if your future becomes ugly and distorted
Even if we never grasp innocence again

夜空に光る黄金の月などなくても
Yozora ni hikaru ougon no tsuki nado nakutemo

Even if there is no golden moon shining in the night sky

  1. A favorite from my international student days at Kobe University. ↩︎
  2. Funky Japanese pop artist with a cool raspy voice and great lyrics.
    Our friend Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shikao_Suga ↩︎
  3. If you speak Spanish, pronounce the vowels as you would in Spanish or other Romance languages and you should be OK. If you’re silly a monoglot like many Americans and native English-speakers, follow the guide below. (North American English pronunciation. Sorry, Brits, Aussies, etc.)

    A = ah (pawn)
    E = eh (egg)
    I = ee (geek)
    O = oh (Oklahoma)
    U = oo (zoo)↩︎

Snow Country - The bottom of the night become white

1968 Nobe Prize for Literature winner Kawabata Yasunari’s1 Snow Country2 begins with one of the most well-known lines in Japanese literature, as important to Japanese literature as Dickens’ opener3 to A Tale of Two Cities is to English literature.

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.

The line and the book is beautifully translated by the master Edward G. Seidensticker4. A more literal, and far less elegant, translation might go:

The train passed through the long border tunnel and entered the snow country.

The Japanese goes:

Kokkyo no nagai tonneru wo nukeru to yukiguni de atta.

Word by word, the sentence roughly goes:

Border’s/long/tunnel/passed/through/the/snow/country/it/was

Yoda, anyone? Japanese grammar structure is subject (often dropped or implied, as train is in this case) followed by object and then verb, making the syntax strange in English. Of course this is to be expected of any two languages, especially those that are distant to each other.

The reason I point this out is to introduce the line that follows, one of my favorite sentences in literature. In English (once again courtesy of Mr. Seidensticker) the line goes:

The earth lay white under the night sky.

It is lyrical and appropriate to the English language. Seidensticker tunes the sentence for the English, while keeping the spirit of the Japanese. Even so, I can’t help but feel it is more than adequate but less than special. The Japanese sentence, along with the other sentences, combine to create a beautiful staccato rhythm that is one of the reasons the book was lauded as part of the “new impressions” or shinkankakuha5 literary movement. That’s why the original Japanese sentence is one of my favorites in literature.

Yoru no soko ga shiroku natta.

Word by word:

Night’s bottom, white it had become.

Done this way, elegant it is not. A still literal but more literary translation might be:

The bottom of the night had became white.

Doesn’t really work in English, does it. How about:

The bottom edge of the night merged into the white of the snow.

Perhaps with more liberties taken:

The darkness of the night melted into whiteness of the snow.

Or something and so on. All of the above are terrible. And I am definitely not daring to best Seidensticker’s translation. It is the right translation. I just can’t help but feel the sentence, and the book as a whole, loses something in translation. It is the Japanese language’s ability, in this case, to make me feel deep in the pit of my stomach that the very bottom of the night itself, the part that touches the earth, has actually been swallowed by the snow and turned white.

Snow Country is one of my favorite books, of English or Japanese. It is a languid piece of literature, not exciting. Nor is it an easy read. Japanese can be a vague language and Snow Country can be infuriating in its fuzzy handling of time, space, and character perspective. But it is achingly beautiful and whenever I read it, I know I’m in the warm yet simultaneously unforgiving hands of a master writer. I can count on one hand how many books I’ve reread even just once. Snow Country I’ve read four times and will read many times more.

  1. Japanese names are in Japanese order, surname first. ↩︎
  2. Wikipedia is our friend:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_Country ↩︎
  3. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

    Amazing but long. ↩︎
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Seidensticker ↩︎
  5. Still a friend:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkankakuha ↩︎

The real first Star Wars movie

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS

It is a period of warring states. The Akizuki clan, defeated in battle, have their lands seized by rival Yamana clan.

In the aftermath, Akizuki Princess, Yuki managed to survive and take refuge in a hidden fortress with a handful of loyal servants and what remains of her family’s gold.

Led by the courageous General Makabe, Princess Yuki journeys through enemy territory, her only hope to reach allied lands, gather an army, and restore her family’s rightful place. . .

That is the crawl1 to THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, the first Star Wars movie.

What the fuck?

Yes, that’s right. Directed by Akira Kurosawa, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS came out in 1958, almost two decades before A NEW HOPE. Kakushi Toride no San Akunin (in a Japanese mouthful that translates as The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress), THE HIDDEN FORTRESS is a samurai adventure film set in a fictional Japan mirroring the 16th century Warring States period. Lucas has admitted he was heavily influenced by the film’s plot structure, storytelling elements, and cinematic style.

Lucas stole2 a lot from THE HIDDEN FORTRESS including telling the story from the perspective of the lowliest characters, in this case two gold-digging bickering peasants, whose love-hate relationship provide much of the movie’s comic relief. Like two droids we know, the peasants are not as hapless as they seem at first. And even in times of trouble, fortune seems to eventually shine their way. Unlike the two droids, however, they are greedy and their behavior is sometimes less than honorable3.

Princess Yuki is Princess Leia’s badass girl power sempai4. She is headstrong and listens to no one. Concerned that her willful personality and forceful way of speaking will reveal their identities to the Yamana, General Makabe convinces her to play mute as they travel through enemy territory. He is the OG Jedi knight. He is loyal and courageous in combat. In a duel scene that puts Obi-wan and Vader’s to shame, Makabe spear fights a respected rival general.

Among other “stolen” elements are scenes of the peasants traversing slanted barren landscapes, wipes for scene transitions, and a closing scene that will make you even angrier than you already are that Chewie never got his hardware at the end of A NEW HOPE.

So, if you were thrown off by some of Rian Johnson’s barn burning decisions in THE LAST JEDI and are hankering for something that feels more traditionally Star Wars, check out THE HIDDEN FORTRESS. It is one of the more mainstream of Kurosawa’s movies, but it is nonetheless a well-made entertaining romp. The samurai aspects are done with Kurosawa’s usual deft hand, while the elements that led to Lucas’ first Star Wars movie are surprising yet delightfully familiar.

P.S. Kurosawa also made the best Shakespeare adaptation, but more on that some other time.

  1. Long lost to the world until recently "discovered" by an intrepid blogger (you're welcome). ↩︎
  2. Good artists copy, great artists steal.
    -Maybe or maybe not Picasso via Steve Jobs ↩︎
  3. They lust after the princess more than a couple of times. Fortunately, the princess is more than a match for them. ↩︎
  4. Sempai is the senior to the kohai or junior in the important sempai/kohai relationship. ↩︎