Sunday, 30 October 2011

Spaghetti in the Sky

Jules and I often talk about the strange contradiction to the notion of ‘aesthetics’ that you often experience in Japan. There is a strange anomaly between stylistic, functional beauty and crass commercial ugliness that can often be seen side by side. Someone remarked to me recently that the best way to look at Japan is through a small frame, as if through the lens of a camera. In the bustling, sprawling industrial world of modern Japan, you simply need to be able to recognise ‘glimpses’ of beauty that you come across and attempt to view them in isolation, away from the convoluted distraction of the wider picture. It is true to say that there is much beauty to be seen in and around the big cities, yet there remains many areas where we have tended to cringe at its ugliness. We often ask ourselves, how can a culture that has at times achieved aesthetic perfection, allow visual chaos to reign supreme in its cities and towns.This is particularly the case when you look overhead at the cacophony of wires and cables that are strewn across the roadways.

Osaka is particularly notable for the ugliness of some of it’s major down town areas due to the spaghetti-like cables that often dominate the upward view towards the sky. It seems that the Japanese have over the years resolved themselves to the fact that the ugly poles and pylons that carry these cables are an inevitable facet of modern city life. This particularly old fashioned method of connecting businesses and residence with power and services certainly seems in contradiction to our notion of a modern, high-tech Japanese society. Indeed, you might think that a visionary policy of underground cabling may be seen as a highly desirable way of beautifying its cities and making them more appealing places to live in the future. This doesn’t seem to be the case, as the overhead clutter continues to grow on a daily basis. It has been suggested to us that the reason for overhead cabling is linked to the need for repair access following earthquakes, typhoons and other natural disasters. This doesn’t seem entirely plausible, as we have seen some areas in which the cables are actually underground, resulting in a noticeable visual difference. This was certainly the case in the tourist centre of Nara which recently undertook to bury its cables as part of beautification program for the 1300 year anniversary of it’s time as the nations capital.

So it appears far more likely that the continuation of the ugly overhead cables is, as always, linked to cost and as visual pollution remains low on the priority list for governments and councils, the poles remain, carrying an ever increasing array of cables that cast a spider web-like appearance across much of the city and suburbs. There is in fact an underground cabling program in Japan, but as it only accounts for seven percent of the total cables laid each year, it seems that the ugly overhead wires are set to remain for many generations to come. This is a shame, as there are so many exciting and beautiful areas to be seen in Osaka and wider Japan. Yet the longer we live here, we begin to block out this unsavory distraction and adopt the local practice of ‘selective viewing’. We frame what we see, look for beauty in small areas and avoid looking skyward.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Hiroshima Through the Art of Yoko Ono

We recently had a visit from a good friend from Australia who, as a history teacher, was keen to visit Hiroshima during his stay. As I had been there once before, I felt confident that I could navigate our way via the Shinkhansen and provide a quick tour of the significant historic landmarks. It remains a fascinating city that has literally risen from the ashes of World War II to symbolise world peace and promote the anti nuclear cause. Not surprisingly it continues to attract tourists from all over the world, who still find the devastation of the A-bomb difficult to comprehend and seek to understand more by their visit. Like so many others we made our way straight to the Peace Park Memorial, but as we walked, we spotted an advertising banner promoting an exhibition of the works of Yoko Ono that was being held at the Contemporary Art Museum. Apparently she had recently been awarded ‘The Hiroshima Art Prize’, resulting in a solo exhibition that aimed to increase awareness of her works as well as promoting world peace and nuclear disarmourment. Being the wife and widow of legendary musician John Lennon, Yoko Ono has spent the majority of her life in the spotlight, although her significant contemporary art background has often been overshadowed by the fame of The Beatles and what is perceived to be her controversial influence upon their eventual break up. While she was working at the cutting edge of conceptual art well before developing a relationship with John Lennon, it seems that their meeting was as much a blessing and a curse for her career as a practicing artist. While she could now claim the attention of the world’s media, who were curious about her Avant Garde background, her credentials as a serious artist appeared to lose impettus as a result of her foray into the music world. This wasn’t however entirely the case in her country of birth, who over the years have been more prepared to acknowledge her place as a serious contributor to the development of modern art in Japan. Certainly the Hiroshima Art Prize is one such acknowledgement of both her cultural connections and artistic contribution to promoting world peace, a theme from which she has drawn artistic inspiration since the early 1960’s. The exhibition had certainly sparked our curiosity and we were both keen to view it before leaving Hiroshima. My friend has been a life long John Lennon fan and has followed his career closely, particularly as it became increasingly interwoven with that of the much maligned and enigmatic Yoko. While he continues to be somewhat fascinated by her personal complexities, often questioning her influence on the John Lennon brand, we have often been drawn into discussions regarding her role as an artist. So the exhibition would allow us to see her works first hand and review how they stand up today as serious conceptual art pieces. As with all installation works, upon viewing Yoko’s works they often invite more questions than answers. However, there is no denying that ‘Peace’ continues to remain her underlining theme both figuratively and symbolically. In a large blackened room, enormous projection screens flank bubble-like Perspex figures, while occasional bursts of white light denote the moment of nuclear detonation. In the adjoining room, row upon row of blanket draped bodies lie in a sea of paper origami peace cranes. People walk through silently, in respect for both the artwork and for the theme it depicts. The impact of the imagery is heightened by the scale of these pieces, which creates an environment that engulfs the viewer, who in turn engage as part of the piece. Even at 78 years of age, Yoko Ono’s works remain bold and edgy, as they have always done. Despite her complex personal history, she still essentially remains an artist and while some of her underlying message remained at times predictable, we both felt as if we had experienced something quite memorable, that in the end had effectively evoked the ‘Spirit of Hiroshima’ for which this significant art prize was awarded.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

What's a Bath Between Friends

If you spend a little time in Japan you will become more and more acquainted with the tradition of visiting an onsen. The onsen is a traditional Japanese bathing house and they can be found throughout the country, often in a range of interesting and exotic locations. They may be set indoors or outdoors and are frequented by people of all ages, families and children. Most often they are segregated into male and female areas, who commonly share the enjoyment of bathing together in natural thermal springs. For the Japanese it is a long held tradition of escaping their generally hectic lives and getting to know people better in a relaxed and very informal manner. All this is very new to Jules and myself and we have only just begun to experience this unique Japanese tradition. Arriving here with our western sensibilities, the idea of communal nudity is a concept that takes a little adjusting to, but we have been prepared to give it a try. On our recent visit to Shirahama we experienced the Shakino-yu onsen, which is regarded as one of Japans oldest and highest rated hot springs. What makes it particularly significant is it’s location, sitting in a natural rock formation directly at the waters edge. From here, waves often crash over the rocks to combine with the heated waters that rise from deep below the earth. It also has historical significance, as the springs are mentioned in early texts from the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794) in which it is written that Emporers Saimei, Tenji, Jito and Monmu all bathed here while passing through Shirahama. Although it was a humble and unpretentious establishment, the staff were clearly used to the odd visitor from foreign shores and were more than welcoming. As I entered the male bathing area, they informed me that I could either plunge into the comfortable 32 degree pool or the slightly more exhilarating 40 degree pool. As it happened I tried both and I found them both equally relaxing as I laid back and admired the picturesque outlook out to sea. After we were done we headed off to enjoy another Shakino-yu onsen tradition of eating boiled eggs that are cooked by using the same spring waters that we had been bubbling in ourselves just moments ago. In a little hut on a laneway leading to the onsen, older Japanese ladies serve you soft boiled eggs in their shells. These are pulled out of a large tub shaped like a turtle and handed to you, top removed and ready to be swallowed in one gulp. It was a nice way to conclude such a unique experience and one that has certainly enticed Jules and I to explore the wonderful world of onsens a little further.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Sands of Shirahama

If you’re looking to see the best of Japanese mainland beaches, you can’t do too much better than a place called Shirahama. It lies to the south of Osaka and is about two and a half hours on the slow train; so not too far away from us. We had heard much about it from some of our Aussie friends and given that it was the last long weekend of summer, they had lured us down to check it out. From what I can gather, Japan is not particularly known for having great beaches as many are rocky or consist of dark and gritty volcanic sand, much of which goes into glass production. However, Shirahama is quite the exception with its white silica sand spanning across a wonderfully proportioned horseshoe bay that is reminiscent of a mini Bondi Beach. You may wonder why this particular cove has such wonderful white sand? Well, as only the Japanese can do, the sand was shipped in from Perth, Western Australia in the 1990’s and has been beautifully maintained (despite the occasional typhoon) ever since. From this pristine stretch of sand a resort town has grown, and it has now become one of the most popular honeymoon spots for Japanese newlyweds. In fact when local movie producers are looking to film a scene from Waikiki Beach in Hawaii on the cheap, this is the place they come. Although it was still quite warm when we arrived, it was clearly the end of the tourist season with the beach being largely deserted. While local lifesavers continued to practice their rescue drills and the occasional tourist splashed around in the jade green waters, Shirahama remained surprisingly quiet. This is a far cry from the peak of summer where it is certainly the place to be and towel space is at a premium. We had plenty of areas to choose, but eventually settled for a spot close to a small square of sand that had been pegged out as a place where a sea turtle had recently laid its eggs. Like us, it had obviously been attracted by the soft sand and a place to enjoy the warmth of the summer sun. In the evening we returned back to the beach to enjoy a spectacular sunset, with a big red sun as bold as the one on the Japanese flag sinking below the horizon directly out to sea … it’s not surprising that honeymooners love this place so much! As darkness hit, we enjoyed the local tradition of lighting fireworks on the beach. This is apparently an accepted aspect of summer in this tourist town, with groups creating their own sky show most nights for others to enjoy when the sun goes down. This can be a dangerous practice after a few drinks, but we survived and in the cool of the evening it seemed like the only fitting way to celebrate our day on the sand in Shirahama.