Categories
Notes from Japan

An Encounter with the Monet on Naoshima

Suzanne Kamata writes of snacking on Claude Monet’s hundred year old recipes while savouring his art and that of the famed artist who makes bold art with polka-dots, Yayoi Kusama

Water lilies by Claude Monet (1840-1926) Courtesy: Creative Commons

When I heard that the annual convention of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese would be held in nearby Takamatsu, I signed up. I would be able to meet other women with Japanese husbands and attend workshops in wine-tasting or yoga. At night, there would be a big banquet. During the day, there would time to visit the island Naoshima.

I’d heard about this island, once used primarily as a site to dump industrial waste. Now it was full of art museums, and part of the Setouchi Triennale, an art festival which takes place every three years, including this year. Among the permanent exhibitions is one of Claude Monet’s famous water lily paintings, housed in the Chichu Museum designed by world-renowned architect Tadao Ando.

Monet’s art has long been popular in Japan. The French artist had admired Japan. His garden in Giverny, France was designed in the Japanese garden style. A garden modeled after the one in France has been constructed farther south in Shikoku, but the painting was on Naoshima.

At the convention, I met up with my friend Michelle, an artist who sometimes works in coloured pencils, and sometimes in dust. She wanted to go to the island with all the art museums as much as I did. Michelle, Elana, an Italian woman whose husband is an art history professor, and I decided to visit Naoshima together. There are no bridges connecting Naoshima to Shikoku. The only way to get there is by ferry. We took a taxi to the ferry terminal and bought our tickets.

We decided to sit outside on the deck of the ferry. The wind whipped our hair and reddened our cheeks as we watched the city receding. The smaller islands scattered off the coast grew larger. Finally, we approached the dock at Naoshima. We could see the giant red polka-dotted pumpkin sculpture created by Yayoi Kusama, perhaps Japan’s most famous contemporary artists, known for her Kool-Aid colored wig and obsession with dots. Having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Kusama has lived in a psychiatric hospital for many years. She continues to make art in her studio at the hospital.

Inside the giant red polka-dotted pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama. Photo Courtesy: Suzanne Kamata

Once off the ferry, we were confronted with a row of mom-and-pop restaurants. A bus runs from the harbour to the museums, but we decided to walk. It wasn’t far to our destination. Later that evening, we would be eating a lavish dinner and drinking wine. We needed the exercise.

The entrance to the Chichu Museum. Photo Courtesy: Suzanne Kamata

The Chichu Museum was built into the side of a mountain, like a bunker, and lit only by whatever sunlight came in through the windows. The walls were grey concrete and most of the staff wore white lab coats. The brochure advised us to “maintain a quiet environment in the museum.”

As we were mainly there to see the Monet, we made that our first order of business. We descended an elevator to a dark hall and came upon a rack of slippers.

“Please change your shoes,” the docent said.

I removed my sneakers and slid my feet into a pair of vinyl slippers. Michelle and Elana did the same. Now we were ready to enter the hallowed space.

The room was circular, the walls blindingly white, offsetting the deep blues and purples of Monet’s sun-lit pond. We spent several seconds before each panel. The paintings were called “Water Lilies, Cluster of Grass,” “Water Lilies, Reflection of Weeping Willows,” and “Water Lily Pond.”

Michelle, who was a big fan of Monet, sighed happily. It was the off-season. We were the only ones in the gallery besides the docent. There were no other visitors in slippers waiting to shuffle in after us so we were allowed to take our time.

Michelle plopped down on the clean, white floor. Such irreverent behavior in this holy space! She leaned back and admired the paintings from this new perspective. Was she the first person to ever sit down on this floor?

“What the heck,” I thought. I admired her free spirit. I sat down on the floor beside her.

The docent stepped forward. Our unusual actions had clearly made her nervous. We weren’t touching the art or taking pictures. We weren’t doing anything bad. She had no reason to scold us, but she kept her eyes on us.

“Monet would laugh!” Michelle said. “He was messy. He would think it was funny that we had to change into slippers to look at his art.”

I was inclined to agree. I had seen photos of him. He had an unruly beard. His clothes were rumpled. Later, I would watch a video clip of Monet painting in his garden. He had a cigarette in his mouth even as he touched his brush to the canvas. Little dogs ran around at his feet. No smoking would ever again be allowed near his water lily paintings. Not these ones, at least. No dogs, either.

We visited the rest of the museum then had lunch in a café overlooking the sea which served desserts made from Monet’s recipes. In addition to painting food, he had enjoyed cooking it himself. I sampled his madeleines and apricot jam – delicious! — then bought a cookbook from the gift shop so that I could make them at home.

A madeleine made with Monet’s recipe. Photo Courtesy: Suzanne Kamata

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Notes from Japan

Owls in the Ginza

Suzanne Kamata visits an ‘owl café’ in Tokyo

The last time I had found myself in Tokyo with some free time and the freedom to move about, I had tried to drop in at an owl café. However, after making my way to such an establishment on the heels of a couple of Chinese tourists, I discovered that a reservation was necessary. The place was booked weeks in advance.

A few weeks ago, I again had some business in Tokyo, so I contacted an old friend and suggested we do a bit of sightseeing together.

“What do you want to do?” she asked me.

I replied that I wanted to visit an owl café. She messaged back that she didn’t like birds.

We had lunch in a sushi restaurant that normally had a queue as early as seven a.m. Due to the coronavirus, we waltzed right in and had a leisurely lunch. After that, we went to a museum that normally required reservations, or at least a long wait. And since there had been so little time wasted standing in line, my friend agreed to take me to an owl café. She found one by using her phone and called the place up. Sure, we could visit, the owner said. No reservations were needed.

The Mofu Mofu Owl Café Ginza was down a side street in Tokyo’s tony shopping district, steps away from the likes of Louis Vuitton and Chanel. As we climbed the three flights of narrow stairs, I wondered what it would be like inside. It would be dark, I imagined, because owls are nocturnal. But no, when we pushed open the door, we were met with light.

It’s a bit of a misnomer to call the place, and others like it, a café. Coffee is not served, nor is there cake or any other kind of food. There were no tables, no young women with aprons or maid costumes, just a guy wearing a T-shirt in a roomful of owls tethered to perches.

The owner seemed happy to see us. We were the only customers. He instructed us to disinfect our hands, and then showed us how to touch the owls – a gentle rub on the top of their heads, much in the way that my cat liked to be caressed. The owls were big and fluffy, like cats, and I wanted to hug them, but I figured they would probably try to bite me if I did.

My friend, the bird-hater, hung back while I went around looking at each owl. They were of various species from around the world. I wondered if they were bored, sitting on their perches all day, with nothing to do. Maybe our being there was their entertainment.

“They wouldn’t survive in the wild,” the owner said. “They have been raised from eggs by humans.”

He told us that they might live for thirty years in captivity, but only half that in nature. What was worse, I wondered? Thirty years of boredom, or fifteen years of being stressed out about their next meal, and where they would build a nest? Was keeping owls in this room any worse that keeping a parakeet in a cage? Or not allowing my restless cats to go outside, even when they meowed pleadingly at the door? (Actually, I sometimes did allow them to go out, knowing full well that they might be dodging cars, picking up fleas, and murdering songbirds and mice.)

The owner explained that before the pandemic, he’d operated two cafes – this one, and another in Roppongi — but due to the travel restrictions which prevented tourists from overseas from visiting, he’d had to close that one. All the owls were now gathered here. They’d been given names of nearby shops. Gucci was a Japanese Northern White-faced Owl, while the Little Owl from Belgium was named Bottega Veneta. There was also a Tawny Owl, born in 2016, named Tiffany.

“Before the pandemic, a lot of foreigners came here,” the owner said. Some famous people, too. He showed us a photo of the singer Akiko Yano, ex-wife of internationally renowned musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, with one of the owls. Yano lives in New York City and had heard about the café while abroad. I looked around at the empty space. Apparently, Tokyoites didn’t have an urge to commune with owls. I worried about what would happen to them if the tourists weren’t welcomed back to Japan soon.

The owner let me pick out an owl and settled it on my hand. My friend finally got up the courage to stroke one of the owls between its eyes. The phone rang, and the owner went to answer it. I heard him booking another customer, and I felt a bit relieved. Apparently, this one would come at mealtime and watch the owls consume dead mice. That was probably an exciting part of the owls’ day.

Part of me thought that the birds might be happier in an atrium somewhere. But while they were here, I hoped they would be well looked after. I wanted to contribute as best as I could, so I loaded up on souvenirs – a pen encasing an owl feather, made by the owner’s wife; a handful of chopsticks with owl motifs; and a bottle of Hitachino Nest beer, which had an owl on the label. And I promised to post some photos on Instagram so that more tourists would come.

An owl in chains

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

Thanks to the columnist Suzanne Kamata for the photographs. 

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Notes from Japan

Imagining a Possible Future: Filmmaker Felicity Tillack

Suzanne Kamata brings to us people, experiences and cultures from Japan

Director and writer, Felicity Tillack, preparing a shot at Uji.  Photo courtesy : William Yagi Lewis

Before coming to Japan in 2006, Felicity Tillack had hoped to become a Japanese high school teacher in Australia. She had grown up in Mackay in West Queensland where Japanese was one of the languages taught in primary school. “I fell in love,” Tillack says. In spite of her passion for the language and culture, she concedes that she wasn’t very good at Japanese. She decided to drop education as a major. After earning a B.A. in literature, she got on a plane to Japan. Now based in Kyoto, Tillack teaches at an international school, writing and making films on the side.

Tillack started making videos in 2012 on her Youtube channel Where Next Japan. She eventually moved on to documentaries such as New Japanese Citizens and 3rd Culture Kids in Japan. These projects, she says, “really started me thinking more deeply about the concept of identity and how it is tied to the culture you grow up in as well as your ethnic roots and background. I’ve seen so many kids struggle with their identity. I taught many biracial kids, with one Japanese parent and one foreign parent who, in their struggle to feel legitimate and accepted within Japan, would often strongly reject their non-Japanese heritage. So, a lot of experiences and observations started to come together and slowly built into a story.”

Impossible to Imagine, her debut narrative feature film is the story of Ami Shimizu (played by Yukiko Ito), a Kyoto woman doing her best to keep her mother’s kimono rental shop alive, and Hayato Arai (played by first-time actor William Yagi Lewis), the biracial Japanese business consultant that she hires for advice. It evolves into a romance, but it’s also an exploration of tradition versus change in one of Japan’s most traditional and impenetrable cities.

Although Tillack is Australian, the film is mostly in Japanese. “I felt that it was a story that needed to be told in Japanese with Japanese characters,” she says. “I wanted to start a conversation here in Japan.” She wrote the script initially in English and had it translated into Japanese. Tillack admits that the language barrier is “a big difficulty” when filmmaking in Japan, but both of the actors in the starring roles are bilingual. They were able to offer advice on cultural details and interpret, when necessary.

Tillack made the film on a shoestring budget of about a million yen (around US$10,000), financed out of her own pocket. The movie was shot in about ten days on the streets near her home. Although she wasn’t able to pay her actors and crew much, she said that she and her colleagues saw the making of the film as a “learning experience.”

Left to right: Felicity Tillack (director, writer), Yukiko Ito (main actress, Ami Shimizu) and William Yagi Lewis (main actor, Hayato Arai) at the Kyoto premiere of Impossible to Imagine.  Photo Courtesy: Morgan Lewis

Impossible to Imagine has been shown at several film festivals, including the Paris Lift-Off Film Festival, and the Shinjuku World Film Festival in Tokyo. Tillack has also hosted screenings at various venues in Japan. At one such event held at a Buddhist temple in Kagawa Prefecture, the audience was mostly elderly and eager to discuss the issues brought up by the film. The movie is now streaming on Amazon, making it accessible to viewers all over the world.

Tillack, who cites Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise series as an inspiration, had plans to start shooting a sequel: I had written the script, lined up financing, and everything.” But then the pandemic hit. Unable to make movies for the time being, she has started on another script, this one tentatively entitled Before Real Life Begins. It refers to the idea that foreigners often come to Japan after graduating from college intending to stay for a year or two before their “real life” starts. Tillack’s script contends that time spent in Japan is real life. Keeping in mind that Westerners experience Japan differently than Filipinos, for example, she hopes to explore this issue from various viewpoints. She is working on this story with two other writers who are based in Tokyo.

Tillack also had a hand in the forthcoming film Matcha and Vanilla, a love story written and directed by her friend Hamish Downie, who was the producer of Impossible to Imagine. Tillack is listed in the cast as “journalist” on the movie’s IMBD site, however she insists it’s only a bit part. Tillack’s future in filmmaking is off to a promising start.

In imagining a future for Japan, Felicity Tillack looks back at her own country’s history. “I was told when I was very young not to marry outside my culture,” she says – advice that she did not heed. She points out that in the 1970s, Australia was “95% white”, however, now, one in four in the country were born overseas. “Australia has changed culturally.” Through her work, both on this film and her other creative endeavors, Tillak suggests that her adopted country, too, may become more inclusive and accepting in the not-too-distant future.


Felicity Tillack (director, writer) and Shota Wanibe (sound mixer, boom operator) receiving an award at Shinjuku World Festival. Photo Courtesy: Shota Wanibe

.

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

Thanks to the columnist Suzanne Kamata for sourcing the photographs.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Notes from Japan

Bridging Cultures Through Music

Suzanne Kamata brings to us people, experiences and cultures from Japan

Masaki Nakagawa. Photo provided by Suzanne Kamata

For Kobe native and YouTube sensation, Masaki Nakagawa, a university trip to Latvia turned out to be a life-changing experience.

Nakagawa was a student of international culture in the Integrated Arts and Sciences Department at Tokushima University. By his own admission, he wasn’t a great student – his TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) score was around 200 – but he had an avid interest in other cultures. He first studied abroad in Korea, where he improved his English language skills, and later, in 2014, went with a Tokushima University professor to Riga for a summer seminar. He felt an immediate connection with the small, European country.

“I felt like this is the country I will live in in my future,” he says via webcam. From the very beginning, he loved the people, the language, the atmosphere, the many historical buildings, the food, and the drinks.

“Someone told me that maybe I was Latvian in a past life,” he jokes.

Although the university did not have an official exchange program with any Latvian university at that time, he decided that he would go there for foreign study. During his seven months abroad as a student at the University of Latvia, he discovered that while most Latvians knew quite a bit about Japan, few Japanese people had any idea about them. He made it his goal to create more links between the two countries. Kobe is already the sister city of Riga, but he created a project to promote a sister city relationship between Tokushima and Jelgava, which is ongoing.

From a young age, Nakagawa has also been a musician. His mother was a piano teacher, so naturally he began playing the piano at the age of three. However, when he was fourteen-years-old, he bought his first guitar. “I still have it,” he says. “It is my important thing.” In high school, he played guitar and sang vocals in a band.

During his visit to Latvia, he discovered the importance of music in that country. “Latvia is a musical country,” he says. “They love dancing with music, eating with nice music. The Latvian language is quite beautiful, and Latvian songs are very, very beautiful.” He also found that singing in Latvian was an effective way to study.

After graduating from university, he got a job at Mercedes, where he continues to work as a store manager, however his passion for Latvia remained. He decided to combine his loves for Latvia and music. “As a musician, I can connect countries,” he says.

In 2017, he learned “Mana dziesma” (“My song”), which was originally performed by Brainstorm, one Latvia’s most famous bands, and made a recording of himself singing it while playing the guitar. Then, he uploaded it to YouTube. The video received an astonishing 150,000 views. Nakagawa realized that he was onto something, and he continued to record and upload videos.

In some videos, he sings in Latvian against a Japanese background, such as along a river in Kyoto. In others, he sings in a combination of Latvian and Japanese in a Latvian setting. Recently, he has begun to add Japanese subtitles. While he continues to record Latvian favorites, he has also written and recorded original songs in both languages.

His popularity has continued to grow, leading to interviews in magazines, on the radio, and on Latvian television. By his estimate, he has appeared on television in that country “twenty or thirty times.”

When asked if he is perhaps the most famous Japanese person in Latvia, he laughs. “Maybe.”

When the president of Latvia visited Japan for the coronation of the new emperor, Nakagawa was invited to perform at a closed reception at the Latvian Embassy in Tokyo. He had a chance to talk to the president and the first lady, who, as it turned out, was a big fan.

His most recent TV appearance, via Zoom, marked the occasion of his one millionth view on YouTube, the 100th year of Latvian-Japanese friendship, and of his latest single, “Es Lepojos Ar Tevi,” recorded with German musician Joran Steinhauer, another lover of Latvia. A few years ago, the two friends collaborated on a YouTube series called “Masaki Learns Latvian” in which Steinhauer taught Nakagawa two or three phrases per episode. “Es lepojos ar tevi”, which means “I’m proud of you,” is the first phrase that Nakagawa learned. This song in Latvian, uniquely created by two foreigners, premiered on the TV show “900 Seconds” in April of this year.

Nakagawa has been branching out a bit in his musical career, writing songs for aspiring idol groups in Japan, and singing on Japanese anime soundtracks. His vocals can be heard in the theme song for the anime “Dark Hero Yoshitsune” which will be released nationwide in Japan in fall 2021. Fans can follow his activities via Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/masaki.lv/.

He maintains, however, that developing relations between Latvia and Japan is his main priority. “As a musician, I really would love for people to know about Latvian culture.”


Nakagawa with his girlfriend Arta Voicehovska, who works as Coordinator for International Relations Latvia-Japan at Higashikawa Town Hall in Hokkaido

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL