Two Seasons in Japan

Posted June 2008

Today on the street I saw a cool-lookin' Japanese guy wearing a black T-shirt with the words "Surrounded by Kindness" inscribed on it in bold silver print. This mirrors the way I feel about my life here. Admittedly, it is one of privilege, but I've stayed in Tokyo under similar circumstances and never felt embraced by the sincere friendliness that I have enjoyed here. Some say that in this southern island of Kyushu, locals are friendlier than the Northerners. The women have the reputation for being very "strong minded". They are also very fashionably dressed but sadly, speaking English is no more fashionable here than in Tokyo, so I battle on with my appalling Japanese always thrilled to death if I come across someone who speaks English. I do of course know a few Japanese phrases by heart and recite some of them convincingly enough so that people speak to me in Japanese assuming that I am fluent; at which point I wave my hands up hopelessly and apologetically. This usually terminates our gleeful interchange.

Close to Korea and China, the dynamic city of Fukuoka has a population of 1.5 million making it one of the 10 largest Japanese cities. I see less Westerners here than anywhere else I've ever been in Japan, although I did recently have the great honour of meeting the jazz legends Eddie Gomez and Steve Gadd.

I first arrived here in December 2007 and endured the winter, charmed weather-wise only by the snowflakes; otherwise by the elegant winter clothes, the enchanting New York-style sparkling Christmas decorations and the remaining autumn leaves. I often gave thanks that I was living in a modern, warmly air-conditioned environment, not in a typical local house with rice-paper-thin walls, zero insulation and sparse heating.

When I returned in April this year, I immediately celebrated spring by buying a bicycle that I have enjoyed tremendously. In light of the omnipresent global gloom, bicycle travel, which I have long advocated has become even more relevant. It feels like legal anarchy when compared to the stitched up environment at home as cyclists here share the wide footpaths with pedestrians, plus helmets are not required. All this evokes fabulous feelings of freedom and light-heartedness.

Throughout the winter I observed fashionable Japanese girls conduct their bicycle rides, their mobile phone conversations and hold their umbrellas whilst stealthily manoeuvring their way amidst throngs of people, traffic and other cyclists doing the same thing! I've not yet mastered this level of multi-tasking.

I take daily bike rides, often out to the futuristic seaside area of Momochi where I've twice joined in with a reggae jam session. Fantastic fun!

In Winter I'd take the ¾ hour train ride out to the ancient Daziafu shrine area. There I found a beautiful Zen monastery and tranquil garden where I'd sit as long as I could in contemplation, until the cold got to me.

The very day I bought my bicycle I happened upon Japan's oldest Rinzai Zen Temple Shifuku-ji, set mystically amidst a lush garden. I now go there most days attracted by the beauty of the ancient temple (built in 1195) and the serenity and symmetry of the mindfully cultivated garden. I always hope I'll carry this serenity away with me and have it inform my work, my life…. a small submission to a distraught world in dire need of restitution.

One recent afternoon, the monks who must have discreetly noticed my affection for the area beckoned to me while they unlocked the outer temple. They ushered me in, indicated that I must take off my sneakers and climb the steep staircase up to the attic of the temple. I was not allowed in to the inner worship area, but found myself on the top balcony of the building looking down on my beloved tree-studded garden, and indeed into the golden Buddha in the centre of the room and up at the intricate detail of the historic ceiling's woodwork. What a privilege it was.

Today though, my illusion was slightly tarnished when I arrived to find a monk using a noisy motorized leaf-blower to tidy the garden. No meditating today - just an exercise in acceptance!

I love Japan because from my empirical perspective, it seems so civilized. Most musicians I know who've been here feel this way due in part to the fact that the Japanese are a sophisticated race having a rich history of their own and they seem to revere and appreciate artists of all kinds.

I am fascinated by the Japanese art and culture. I was recently invited to visit Arita, the home of Japan's finest ceramics where I witnessed the artisans in action. I have a small collection of Japanese ceramics, accumulated over 5 visits to Japan and I am thrilled to now realize that most of it comes from Arita.

Japan is well known for its many volcanoes, and consequently there are mineral hot springs (Onsen) all over Japan. It is very relaxing to take an out-door bath (in the nude, I might add) amid natural surroundings, and this island of Kyushu is packed with them.

Japanese visual delights often engage the art of placement: Within the art of Ikebana, flowers in season are arranged to create an aesthetic balance of flower, vase and the surrounding space. Dining in a Japanese restaurant is not only a gastronomic delight but also a visual one if one notices the way each morsel is placed on a specially chosen, (often handmade) ceramic plate.

The Japanese tea ceremony stresses the spirit of Wabi, a desire to be materially simple and spiritually free and full. Both the host and guests cherish the moment of serving and receiving a cup of tea as if they would never again have such an encounter in their lives. As I observe people sitting alone in restaurants eating in this manner I am in awe of this mindful and gracious approach to everyday life that I frequently encounter here.

The iconic Yatai, Fukuoka's open-air portable street stalls, are wheeled out every evening to serve up the famous local Hakata Ramen Noodles, Yakitori (BBQ-ed skewers of vegetables and meat) and Tempura (deep fried shrimp and vegetables), all at reasonable prices. Often family run businesses, Yatai are very cozy places to mingle with locals and other (usually Japanese and Korean) tourists, even in winter, when patrons huddle together around the braziers to keep warm.

To top all that off there's the buzz on the street: the striking neon signs, the elegant ginkgo trees, the smartly dressed salary men, the girls dressed inventively in shorts, long socks and high heels (I love the way they do that!) and frequent sightings of women dressed in traditional Kimono. The unique patterns and combinations of the silks, the draped furs, the exotic formality, exquisite carriage and sensuality of a woman dressed in Kimono never cease to enchant me.

I've been thinking about, and indulging in more improvisation lately and it has occurred to me that above all, what is required is that one is totally present. One needs to know and then crawl inside the music. I don't always succeed at this of course, but I'm working on it. I once asked the American pianist Bob James what he thought of when he improvised. He replied, "I try not to think at all.".

Indeed, I've stocked up on some happiness and I'm very grateful for this. Disengaging with the familiar gets easier with practice and one becomes more adept at managing language barriers and becomes more cognizant of the parallels inherent within different cultures; of how we are all connected by the silken thread of humanity.