Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Trip to Japan Part IV

A video billboard with an odd animation at Shinbashi

We got a late start on our forth day in Japan but beyond meeting a mutual friend, my SO and had no firm plans. We took the bus to Omiya station and I was lucky enough to get a seat this time so I wasn’t banging my head on the overhead handrails. The weather was even warmer than the day before and so of course that caused me to get completely overheated. When we finally walked out of the bus at the train station, I felt as if steam was rising off my body… and maybe it was.

Before we boarded or train to Shinbashi in Tokyo we respectfully navigated the throngs of people. My wife doesn’t come back to Japan often and so she was surprised to see a homeless woman that she had passed many times on her way work years ago. My SO said, “I can’t believe it. She’s still alive-ing” I declined to correct her English, as her accidental portmanteau seemed strangely appropriate.
Shinbashi Station

Our trip into Tokyo was becoming a familiar one and I passed the time watching the Japanese who were watching me. I was wearing sunglasses so it was an easy thing to do. When we arrived at Shinbashi the first thing I noticed was a big steam locomotive. It was decked with X-mas lights and it scared the piss out of my wife when the steam whistle blew. The second thing I noticed beyond the giant video screens was that a camera crew was going around asking folks questions. My SO told me that Shinbashi is a popular spot for news crews to quickly pick up opinions for the evening and morning newscasts.

The old train at Shinbashi Station. I’m sure the X-mas lights look better at night.

A quick interview for the news at Shinbashi Station

Soon our friend showed up and after happy greetings were we’re off to a nice lunch at a Chinese restaurant. We talked about old times when our friend was an exchange student in Oregon with us, and we talked about new things like dating and cultural changes. At one point we exchanged gifts. Part of our gift to our friend included a love talisman that we had just bought the day before at Jindaiji, but what our friend really liked was the American candy. We also gave her a bag with left over Halloween candy including Reese’s peanut butter cups, for her to pass out at work. She took a big, long whiff and proclaimed, “ah this smells like America.” I laughed of course because she was totally right.

During the meal the Japanese police were investigating something across the street. I was sure that they were going to arrest someone but eventually things calmed down and they left. Their appearance did get me thinking though. The Japanese police looked so small, skinny, and old compared to US cops. They really reminded me of elderly war veterans wearing their dress uniforms. It seemed to me that they were overdressed for the job. American police have much more practical uniforms while on the beat. Also, so many other folks wear such similar outfits that I couldn’t tell the difference between a parking lot attendant and a uniformed police officer. In fact the only guys who looked tough were some security guards that were escorting bags of money. As these guys walked through Omyia station, they wore combat boots and helmets. Because only cops are allowed to wear guns, these guards were armed with clubs and large combat knives. Their outfits kinda’ gave them a whole Mad Max vibe. Now, I’m sure that the Japanese police could take me out in two seconds flat; they just don’t look like they could…

After we parted company with our friend from yore, we were undecided about were to go next maybe Ueno? But before we got there I noticed a poster for the Chōjū-giga at the Suntory Museum of Art, which is in Roppongi. As luck would have it, this national treasure just happened to be on display while my wife and I were in Japan. The Chōjū-giga is a series of four emaki or picture scrolls. Emaki are a medieval form of art that’s unique to Japan. Picture scrolls present stories that combine both words and images in some fashion and are read by rolling out the scroll horizontally. Often they depict epic tales or recount historical events. Obviously this is the origin of modern Manga. The Chōjū-giga is unusual for an emaki in that it has no words, is mostly ink only (no color), and that the subject matter of the 1st scroll is totally anthropomorphic animals. So a guy like me, who loves Loony Tunes, Captain Carrot, and comics, would clearly be very excited about seeing these scrolls.

The Suntory Museum of Art

I had seen photographs of the scrolls many times in fact I bought a magazine about them the first time I was in Japan, but to see them in real life was simply amazing. The brushwork was exquisite and real joy just to take in. It’s a shame that we don’t know whom the creator(s) of these masterpieces are although there is much heated debated among art historians. One of things I noticed right away was that some of the moving characters had zip lines. That’s when I realized that I was looking at the first “genuine” comics ever. It’s hard describing affect the Chōjū-giga had on me but this was truly the highlight of the whole trip. These scrolls are easy to get into and enjoy because they’re rooted in light entertainment rather than high-art. The second scroll, which depicted humans, for example, had an elaborately drawn farting contest.

A rabbit with zip lines

A scene from the first scroll of the Chōjū-giga

part of the farting contest

The museum was jam-packed but luckily I was so tall, I could simply look-over everyone else when I needed to. What was also nice was that an English audio guide was provided, so that I was able to get the most out of the exhibit. At the end of our time there, my wife was nice enough to purchase a book that contained complete images of all the scrolls presented in the exhibit, a wonderful experience indeed.

My Ticket

After the high of the Suntory Museum of Art, my SO and I headed out to look around. The Roppongi district has lots of foreigners compared to other parts of Tokyo and this was the most non-Japanese (except for the airport) I had seen while on my trip. Part of the reason is that there are lots of embassies there but also Roppongi is very trendy and has many dance clubs.
A street in Roppongi. Notice the slimness of the buildings.They’re that way so that they can fit the expensive patches of ground they’re built upon.

My wife was very interested in seeing Roppongi Hills, an ultra modern commercial and housing project that had been completed after she left Japan. So we walked over to this new center that includes the Mori building before heading back to Saitama.

A spider sculpture outside of the Mori building in Roppongi Hills. There sure were moneyed folks walking around here.



Arkonbey said...

Thanks for posting this so we could live vicariously through your experiences.

Your friend mentioned the candy smelling 'like America'. That's one thing we don't think about is how different places smell. I grew up in New England and when I lived in the Northwest, I really missed the smell of oak and maple leaves in autumn.

That art exhibit looked spectacular. Even better than seeing giant, ironbound medieval books at the Morgan Library.

and you have to love a culture that would put a sculpture of a giant spider ostensibly attacking a new, modern development...

ladybug said...

That looks like an interesting day as well! I really like the pre-anime scrolls. Stuff that's not "High Art" is often alot more fun, and accessible (in all senses of the word) to the average person.

I once had an Irish Art History student (she was getting her Master's) say to me once, "The more people write about "art", the more it's just BS..."

After seeing the Picasso exhibit in Montreal, I couldn't agree more...

(it probably helped that I never liked him as person either...he was a "SCOUNDREL!" in the words of one of my French professors in college-[the ex-CIA one])

Arkonbey said...


4 years of art history gave me a strong dislike for art criticism. Especially labels like classicism, post-modernism, etc.

A funny document was circulated around school (and for years before we arrived, likely) known as the Critical Response to the Art Product (CRAP) Generator.

Someone has made an interactive version here

Try it! You to can write CRAP about art.

Don Snabulus said...

arkonbey -
That is interesting; because what I notice is the opposite. When coming back to the Northwest, it always feels like home when I smell the firs and pines. I've not been in New England at the right time to smell the maples and oaks; we need to plan a trip there.


I remember the Picasso stuff. Sketch after sketch of triangles with scribble marks scrawled over them that were supposed to be female pubic sections.

He was mostly crap.

ladybug said...

Snabby-Oh Yea! I remember the cab ride to the airport too...that guy was funny!

Arkonbey-OMG! That is so Spot-ON! I may even have to do a post about it! I LOL'D! Now I wish they had a C.R.A.P. generator for office memos....

Dean Wormer said...

If you could of got those business people to run screaming towards the camera in that last picture it would've been PERFECT.

Overdroid said...

These last few posts have been great, Swine. But really, weren't the first comics painted on a cave wall in France?

Arkonbey said...

Snab- c'mon out. Late October is best. Leaf Season is just turning into Stick Season.

(and don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed my time in the NW, but some of us are just geared to love what we grew up with)

Ladybug- Glad you liked it. You should SO make an office memo CRAP generator. First step: come up with a great acronym!

OD- Yup

Pandabonium said...

Attack of the Roppongi Spider! Many (rich) people were killed.

The Moody Minstrel said...

Wasn't there a spider like that running around in Jabba's palace?

Swinebread said...

Arkonbey – thanks, it’s taking me a while to get it all out but your comments are appreciated.

After our friend mentioned the “smell” thing. I tried to take in the smells of Japan. Probably sesame, fish, and rice are the ones that I think of most when it comes to Japan but then a lot my time was spent with the food I ate there.

Japanese woodblock prints are also very impressive. I didn’t see any on this trip but on my first trip I was blown away. They’re very and hard to make and yet they were mass-produced. After seeing both woodblock prints and emaki, it’s easy to understand why the Japanese have a greater respect for the comics’ medium.

I like art history especially in terms of how the general public and aristocrats reacted to certain pieces but the criticism is a bunch of BS. For my class, I just made up some stuff for my research paper and then backed it up with primary sources. Everyone can be a critic but not everyone can be an artist. Maybe that’s the problem.

LB – Very fun and very accessible, Most of the scrolls are “just” pen and ink and yet they are national treasures. Anthropomorphic animals are national treasures! Now that’s very cool.

Arkonbey – the CRAP generator is funny, now one for music criticism is needed.

Snab – One thing I do like about Picasso was that deliberately made crappy art just to show that the critics didn’t know what they were talking about. I was looking at his wikipedia entry, did you know his full name was Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Clito Ruiz y Picasso.

I still remember that Saturday night live sketch about him was hilarious. “I am Picasso!”

Dean – Japanese folks are very reserved. Believe when I say that they were screaming on the inside.

OD – Well it depends on how you define comics. With regards to modern comics Pen and Ink displaying a funny story on paper, you’ve got it right there in the Chōjū-giga. Sure other things like Lascaux, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, or Tajan’s Column are comics in broader sense but the oldest items the resemble what we read to today is right there in the Chōjū-giga and other emaki.

Panda – another great shot here