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Japan: The Unique

A couple of weeks ago I got word that a good friend in Japan fell very sick and ended up in the hospital. It all went downhill from there and she passed away on Saturday, February 15. This post is dedicated to her because what made my experience in Japan so memorable were all of the people I met and shared coffees, dinners, projects and laughs with, Kathryn was one of those people and I feel incredibly grateful to have known and spent time with such a beautiful person.

Rest in Peace
Kathryn Booze-Ishiwata 1977-2014

The Unique

  • People

When I say people in Japan are unique, I’m not just referring to Japanese people but also the people that choose to live in Japan. We are a strange and wonderful breed of human, as are the Japanese perhaps that’s why we fit together so nicely.

Living in Japan (more specifically Tokyo) granted me the opportunity to meet people I would never have met had I remained living in Fredericton, New Brunswick or even Canada for that matter. I met a lot of Canadians and Americans but I also met people from all over Europe, Jamaica, Australia and one of my best friends was from Turkey. All of these people had different reasons for coming to Japan as well as very different reasons for staying. For many of us long-term residents were linked by one phrase, “I was only planning to stay for one year.”  Any of you reading this right now who are currently in Japan know exactly what I’m talking about. Japan is something of a Never Never Land where you get swept off your feet by the quirkiness and the (mostly) trouble-free and convenient way of life and soon it’s 4 years later and you wonder where the time has gone. For me that time was spent having intriguing conversations and forming relationships with interesting people, I also spent a lot of that time really finding myself and discovering what I’m really passionate about.

The interesting people I met are not only interesting but sincere in their words, their actions and their life. They live with such passion that it’s impossible not to feel and be affected by it. These people are also the most supportive people I’ve ever met. I’m finding that in Canada whatever projects you want to start or career you want to pursue there is a lot of competition that you have to deal with but in Tokyo withing the gaijin community (at least the community that I was a part of) will back you 100% so long as they see that you are passionate and sincere. These incredible people have even continued to support me in the projects I’m working on back here in Canada and I would do the same for them if they asked. To me, that is friendship in in truest form and another reason that being away from Japan and my friends there has been such a difficult thing to deal with. So I have to say thank you to all of the wonderful people I met while I was in Japan (you know who you are) and I’m sure we will cross paths once again.

  • Convenient Public Transportation

I’m unfortunately currently living in a place where public transportation is not viewed as necessity for the proper functioning of a city therefore is not a high priority for government officials. Even when it runs, it’s not exactly what you would classify as convenient. Although I don’t miss the crowds on Tokyo trains I do miss being able to go to the station (many areas have a few to choose from) and waiting no longer than 10 minutes for a metro or train.

There are lots of cities all over the world that have intricate, multi-line subway and train systems but from my experience Tokyo is the only city that keep theirs at the highest standard. Maybe it’s because if they didn’t the system would all come crashing down. Trains (for the most part) run on time, when they’re suppose to so that the rest of the country is on time as well. If trains are late, people are late for their jobs and therefore productivity is down. I have to admit I was pretty spoiled by the metro system, to the point where if a train was 2 minutes late I would almost feel upset even though I knew it was on it’s way.

  • Stationary

Had I been born in Japan I would have become an intense stationary otaku, I just know it. I was obsessed with pens, paper and stickers enough as it was when I was a child and Japan (on many different levels) made all of my childhood dreams come true (including seeing a robot dance in real life). Perhaps it’s because calligraphy is such an important part of the Japanese culture but pens come in hundreds of different colors, scents and weights. It’s not as simple as choosing between red, blue or black or deciding if you want to use ball point or gel, choosing pens is serious business.

  • Tiny Themed Bars

Shinjuku’s Golden Gai is the area that is best known for it’s tiny little bars. Most of these places are no bigger than an apartment bedroom and seat no more than 10 patrons at a time but that’s the beauty of them. They are quaint, intimate places to enjoy a drink or two after a long hard day at work and are wonderful if you and a friend feel like doing a bit of bar hopping.

  • Specialty Shops

If there’s even a small demand for it, Tokyo has got it and has a shop for it too. There are thousands of tiny little boutiques scattered throughout the city that cater to very specific interests. There are shops for dog clothing, shops for lovers of all things 80′s, not to mention all the vendors in Akihabara that specialize in various electronic parts and the sexy bars that cater to every fantasy you can (or can’t) imagine. What I’m trying to say is that whatever you want, whenever you want it, Tokyo has it and that includes stationary shops and most recently a shop that sells nothing but KitKats.

KitKat boutique

  • Japanese Tea Time (not the ceremonial type)

There’s nothing quite like tucking into an old tea house or sweets shop that’s been run by the same lady for decades. The scent of match, azuki and sweet cakes filling the air as everything is baked fresh. Fresh and deliciously appetizing bite-sized treats are displayed carefully and priced accordingly. ¥100 ($1) may seem like a lot to pay for one small momiji manju or a piece of match roll cake but you’re not only paying for quality ingredients, you’re paying for the hard work and dedication that goes into each and every piece.

You browse around, adding little treats to your equally little basket knowing that there is not one thing that you won’t like despite the fact that you haven’t even tried it yet. You pay and sit down to wait for your freshly made matcha that miraculously goes with everything. Satisfaction comes in small savory bites in Japan and that goes for meals as well. You wouldn’t shove an entire daifuku in your mouth and then be on your way because 1) it wouldn’t exactly fit in your mouth, and 2) in order to catch and appreciate all of the subtle flavours of both your tea and sweets you have to take your time.

  • Being one of the only suppliers of Western style cupcakes

Being a westerner in Japan is tough sometimes, especially when you’re craving a western food or flavor. Despite their cute appearance cupcakes have not taken hold of the Japanese bake shops, they’re still a relatively new thing. My theory is that Japanese patisserie have a hard time capturing the essence of the American-style cupcake. It’s moist and delicious cake base topped with a sweet flavorful frosting but most of the cupcakes I’ve tried in Tokyo with a few exceptions are dry and bland. This is what inspired me and my fellow baker to start the Love Hate Bakery, we wanted tasty treats! Unlike in Western countries, Tokyo is not over saturated with cupcake shops, it’s a fairly new thing and hasn’t really taken off the way it has in Canada or America. The lack of buttery, moist goodness gave us an advantage and it didn’t take long for word to spread about our treats. We even had a few regular customers. It felt good to provide goods to the expat community who so needed them.

Dating: On and Off

Remember when online dating was a last resort? Neither do I. Our world is changing and we’re becoming more dependent on technology for everything we do so it makes sense that many of us have turned to the internet to find people to share our lives and beds with. Internet dating has been around since the 80′s. Can you believe that?! eHarmony was founded in 1987! Those people jumped on the wagon before the wagon even existed, they invented the wagon! However, that was the 80s and who had the internet then? Not a lot of people so how were folks meeting new people outside of their circle of friends? Personal ads were a common way to get yourself out there. Although not used nearly as much, you can still find a personals section in the back of publications in larger cities.

I don’t know when online dating became the norm (I’ve been in relationships most of my life and met most of those people through mutual friends or through work) but I assume it was somewhere in the mid-2000′s. What used to have a terrible stigma attached to it is now normal and talked about amongst friends. Especially in a city as small as Fredericton, where all you’re in your 30′s and all of your friends are married and only hang out with other married people, online dating is essential to meeting new people. I’m not exactly what you would call a shy person but online dating allows me to pick and choose who I contact, reply to, go out with without the pressure from friends of being “set-up”. There’s a sense of freedom to online dating that you don’t experience with blind dates.

Online dating is no longer for the desperate or the weird. Although there is still a fair share of both on and offline, it’s just a matter of weeding through them to find the ones that you don’t mind spending time with.

Japan: The Beautiful

The Beautiful

  • 桜 Sakura (duh!)

Someone asked me the other day if sakura is really that breathtakingly beautiful, my response was, “it’s hard to put into words just how pretty it is. You have to see it for yourself.”

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Spring in Japan is so beautiful. It’s not just the colors or the amount of trees in bloom at one time, I think what makes it truly beautiful is that its fleeting. Sakura (cherry blossoms) are in bloom for one week at most that’s if the wind and rain don’t get to them first. They are incredibly beautiful in full bloom but my favorite time of 花見 (hanami) season was always when the blossoms finally began to let go of their branches and release themselves into the wind. In Japanese it’s called 花吹雪 (hanafubuki) which literally translates to “flower snow storm”.

  • Textiles and patterns

It was in Tokyo that I learned that wearing bold colors (or just colors in general) is okay. Colors and patterns are beautiful and I especially love what Japanese designers and kimono makers do with those two things. Just looking at this website you can see just how unique (and expensive) kimono fabric can be. One of my favorite designers is Leanne Yew of Tokyo Kaleidoscope (tokyokaleidoscope.tumblr.com). Yew takes used kimonos that she finds at various markets around Japan and refashions them into beautiful maxi and mini dresses. Kimono fabric and patterns make for very unique and beautiful pieces.

  • Dedication to Handmade

From every hand crafted knife to a pair of chopsticks and the food that is eaten with those chopsticks… hell, even the plastic food displayed outside of restaurants has a certain beauty to it. It’s not that these things are particularly stunning like the porcelain white face of a maiko shuffling down the back streets of Gion but what makes them beautiful are the details. Take food for instance, The French are well known for encompassing all of the senses when preparing a dish but the Japanese take the same care in what they present to patrons, the only difference is that its more subtle. I can tell you from experience that the best noodles whether it be soba, udon or ramen come from the restaurants that make their own. I once went to a soba shop in Ikebukuro and watched the staff mix, kneed and cut the noodles that eventually ended up in front of me. Those were the best tasting soba noodles I have ever had.

  • The Pacific Ocean

I’ve always felt connected to water but didn’t realize it until it wasn’t around anymore. I grew up in Nova Scotia and was always a short drive from either the Bay of Fundy or the Atlantic Ocean, both beautiful places but the Pacific Ocean exudes this incredible power that the Atlantic does not. What draws me to the Japanese coast is not only the power but how that power meets with such beauty in a seamless dance of wonder.

  • Geisha/Maiko

There has been only once in my life (that I can recall) that I have literally stopped in my tracks because of the beauty of another. Shortly before I left Japan I took a trip to Kyoto and as any good tourist would, I visited the area of Gion a couple of times to try to get a glimpse of a geisha or maiko. My determination and patience paid off when I was wondering the back streets of Gion, away from the rest of the tourists. I saw her exit from a small doorway. I fumbled with my camera as she shuffled towards me and as she passed by I was left speechless at the grace and beauty she possessed. I wanted to tell her how beautiful I thought she was but by the time my brain could process the words, she was gone.

DSC03653

  • Calligraphy

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Even though I can’t read most calligraphy in Japanese I still find it absolutely beautiful to look at. It’s a satisfying language to write as well. I love how the lines flow from one to the next without sharp lines (except カタカナ characters). Kanji (漢字) are complex often with many strokes and hiragana (ひらがな) has a feeling to its characters that seems so natural and free flowing.

  • Clean Public Spaces

Streets as clean your own house. Even though Tokyo has a population of over 30 million people (more than the whole of Canada) by some miraculous methods they manage to keep the city clean. Somewhere along the line, after the samurai rule, the Japanese consciousness became one and the collective good of everyone became more important than ones own selfish pursuits. Somehow this translates to clean streets.

The stations are also kept immaculately clean which impresses me. I’ve heard horror stories about the smells and disgust in the stations in NYC and even Toronto. The cleanliness is not only on public transportation but extends to the entire city as well. You can’t find a garbage bin when you need one in Tokyo but for some reason litter is not a problem.

I’ve been feeling like this move back to Canada has been some weird ethnographic study. I’m very curious about my fellow Canadians with whom I haven’t lived or worked for six years. I’m curious about the way they speak, their perspective, their thoughts and their situations. To find out why they do and say they things they do, I ask. I ask what would normally be considered very personal questions not because I’m nosey (because that has a negative connotation) but because I truly want to know, I want to understand why.

I am, in no way, shape or form the same person that I was when I lived here 6 years ago and I really feel that disconnect now that I am back living the “Canadian life”. It’s a different kind of disconnect than the one that I felt when I lived in Japan. It doesn’t make me feel lonely, it only heightens my awareness of my surroundings and the people in it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s easy to connect on a superficial level (similar likes, drinking buddies) but how many times have you really felt connected to someone, I don’t necessarily mean through a sexual partnership because I believe intense connections can be had between platonic friends as well. I think this is where a lot of confusion happens and why some relationships don’t work out or fizzle out. You feel this intense connection with someone and if that person is of the gender that you are sexually attracted to we tend to think, “this must be my soul mate” or “I could spend my life with this person.” Why can’t we explore relationships with each other without all of the expectations? That’s what I’m doing with my life right now and have been for a few years, exploring. I discovered not long ago that being a serial monogamist was not a healthy lifestyle choice for me so I have consciously made the decision to remain single and really get to know myself and others. I don’t limit myself to one “type” or another, if I feel like someone is interesting and worth spending time with I pursue it and watch the relationship, how it moves and grows and changes shape with each new interaction, with each passing day.  I use the term “relationship” not in the traditional, romantic sense of the word but in the literal, dictionary definition of it, “a connection, association, or involvement; an emotional or other connection between people.” We have these connections with a lot of different people but we don’t refer to them as “relationships” that term is reserved for the precious few whom we love and adore. Other connections are referred to as “friendships”.

What is your definition of “friendship”? Is it someone you speak to or see everyday? Every week? Is it someone you tell your deepest, darkest secrets to? I refer to a lot of people as “friends” only for lack of a better word, most of the people in my life are more or less acquaintances, people I talk to occasionally or drink with but don’t tell personal/intimate details to. My “friends”, my true friends are the ones that meet me in the middle, the ones that truly understand me and doesn’t judge me or my decisions, instead stands by me, listens and I in turn do the same for them.

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Meaghan Smith

This has always been one of my favorites from the awesome (500) Days of Summer soundtrack but I never bothered to seek out additional music by the artist but have now discovered the rest of it and its just as incredible as this one cover song. And she’s Canadian! An East Coaster even!

Check out this song!

Six Years Later…

The beautiful Pacific ocean

When I went to Japan I wasn’t a “Japanophile” as they say. In fact I knew very little about the country I was about to relocate to save for the availability of ultra fresh sushi and their robots. Of course I was well aware that Japanese created anime and that it was the home of Astro Boy (鉄腕アトム-Tetsuwan Atomu).

I figure its about time to write the obligatory things-I-miss-about-Japan post. I thought about composing a list of things I won’t miss but then I thought, what’s the point in dwelling on the negative when I can remember, cherish and look forward the beautiful, the unique, the delicious and the nonsensical.

The original post was getting so long that I decided to break it up into four parts. Part I: The Beautiful will be coming up shortly.

I didn’t know Haruki Murakami, Akira Kirosawa, or Miyazaki but I have learned to appreciate them along with some other brilliant Japanese creatives types.

Back on the Scene

“A Thursday night in Fredericton is worth any Friday night in any other city.”

I’m not sure if that was simply meant to ramp up the crowd at The Capital watching The Motorleague or if it was a sincere observation. Something tells me that it was sincere. The Motorleague are from Moncton and have played in Fredericton a lot, years ago in various forms (The Ditchpigs, Hope) and now (after many line-up changes) as The Motorleague.

I’m back in Fredericton and finding my place back in the music scene which has transformed since I was here six years ago. I guess it’s more of a rotation rather than a transformation. My generation of punks and rock n’ rollers have graduated to folk and indie music while others have just left the scene altogether. It’s all a part of the cycle of the music scene life because this needs to happen in order to make room for younger musicians and music fans. Fredericton is not big enough to hold multiple generations of music.

I attended a show a couple of weeks ago and the audience was a nice mix of old generation and new. It certainly depends on what bands are playing which crowds will come out. The Motorleague seem to bridge that gap seamlessly because their music is relevant yet still appeals to our aging generation who doesn’t want to let go of youth. I know we’re not that old but when you think about Fredericton 10 years ago, the kids that were attending all ages shows are now old enough to go to the bars and have been for a few years.

I’ve been a Motorleague fan since I first discovered they existed, which to be completely honest wasn’t all that long ago. Living in Japan sometimes is quite literally like living in a bubble. Every once in a while some Western pop culture sneaks in but only after ruthless scrutinizing by Japanese media moguls. Most of the time, if it doesn’t have to do with Paris Hilton or Tom Cruise you have to actively seek out pop culture on your own and that in itself can be a full time job. It was during one of my whats-going-on-in-Canadian-music moments that I stumbled upon this:

If you’re not Canadian you’re probably not going to understand what this video is all about and I’m not going to take the time to explain in more than one word. That one word is “history”.

I was excited to interview one of the members of The Motorleague for the publication I write for but unfortunately it didn’t get published thanks to miscommunication and delays but I thought that it deserved some sort of publication anyway so I’m posting it here.

They come a long way from their days as The Ditchpigs. The Motorleague have seen a number of band members come and go but have managed to keep their momentum despite the line-up changes.

Fresh off a tour with Ontario punk rockers, The Flatliners Moncton based rockers, The Motorleague are now ready for two more months of touring in both Canada and the US with rock and roll quartet, The Balconies.

This year The Motorleague released Acknowledge, Acknowledge their follow up to Black Noise, which Don Levandier (vocalist) says was actually recorded six months after Black Noise. “We went through record hell,” says Levandier, “we changed almost every single member [of the band] and we wrote the van off by hitting a deer.” Despite the stress that the new album may have caused Levandier says that in the end it was worth it.

Despite obvious raw talent and lots of National Canadian love from critics and fans a like, Levandier remains humble, “I don’t think of us as a great band musically. [We’re] straightforward punky rock n’ roll but people can actually see that we want to be up [on stage].”

The Motorleague were also able to get their first taste of Europe this year when they played in Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, Germany. Although they enjoyed their time there (despite an unfortunate pickpocketing incident) all members of The Motorleague are pretty dedicated to their East Coast roots and don’t plan to move out of Moncton. “I’m in love with the East Coast lifestyle,” says Levandier.

Besides world audio domination, The Motorleague want to continue touring (with a bigger van), record another record and keep making YouTube videos. If you haven’t had a chance, check out their rock and roll versions of Canada’s infamous Heritage Minutes. Congratulations are in order for taking home five Music New Brunswick Awards.

 

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