Nov 22, 2013
Beautiful "Contradictions" - Japan/South Korea Tour, November 22, 2014
Patrick G. Jordan, viola
Our bus trip back to Tokyo was a reverse of the one to Niigata in almost every respect, including the weather. Despite a glimpse of the sun when we departed, the first hour of the ride was in a downpour, and as we reached the mountains, the sun was gloriously strong. On route we stopped for lunch at a rest stop along the highway that had a relatively large grocery store with better produce than you might find in some entire towns we tour in. At the rest stop!
Our concert last night at the Canadian Embassy, in the Oscar Peterson Hall, was a shorter version of the programme, just an hour long. It was well attended, especially by members of the Japanese media, perhaps because of our collaboration with Seiji Fukushi, a television star.
Seiji Fukushi with Bobblehead Bach. Photo by Alison Mackay
We’re off to Korea this morning, and as we leave Japan, I feel a need to revisit one word I used in the second installment of this blog. I wrote of the “contradictions” that one experiences as a Westerner here. This trip, my fifth over almost 20 years, has given me an opportunity to see those “contradictory” experiences in a new light.
First, I suppose I should give some examples of what I’m talking about. The first, and the one I referred to in the earlier blog, was running across a Christian, Ivy-league looking university in Ikebukuro, which seemed incongruous in the context of a Buddhist/Shinto tradition. Some other examples are finding a small, overgrown vacant lot in the middle of the Tsukiji Fish Market, where space is at such a premium. Another would be the various examples of small scale agriculture throughout the city, small orchards, patches of vegetables, again in a setting where space is very valuable. Another would be the detail that is lavished on common objects; for some unfathomable reason, I have been drawn to the colourful adornments on manhole covers.
Urban Citrus Grove. Photo by Patrick G. Jordan
On this trip I have been able to see those things as part a culture looking for balance in the face of needs, interests and values that I don’t necessarily grasp. Any culture is to one degree or another constantly balancing those dynamic forces. Despite the fact that we live in a much-touted pluralistic society, I’m sure some Canadians might find the mosque not too far from my house in Toronto a “contradiction”, but it seems like part of the fabric of life to me. Buddhism has plenty of capacity for acceptance; why should I be surprised by the acceptance of a Christian university here? As for the vacant lot in Tsukiji, beyond the fact that I have no idea how zoning restrictions work here, maybe it’s worth taking the time to decide what next to do with vacant space, if space is indeed so valuable. On the topic of urban agriculture, I know Japan has committed itself to being self-sufficient in the production of rice; maybe the ties to the land, to an agrarian past are strong enough to override the financial concerns of devoting space to crops. And perhaps there are zoning restrictions in place to protect those ties. The manhole covers are an extremely modest example of what I’ve termed for myself “gratuitous manufactured beauty”– workaday objects that are more beautiful than they need to be. How does one justify the expense of producing those covers? Maybe, culturally, the value of the beauty itself, and the contrast it offers to the asphalt or paving stones adjacent, justifies the expense.
Beautiful manhole cover. Photo by Patrick G. Jordan
Anyway, using the term “contradiction” to describe these things feels like an easier way out than I’m comfortable with now. And I suspect that it speaks to a certain kind of cultural chauvinism on my part, which I seem to be shedding, at least a little bit. And that, ladies and gentlemen, along with 300 yen will buy you a cup of coffee at Le Chat Noir.