Tokyo to Portland

12 February 2013

Tuesday


leaving Tokyo 1

I departed Tokyo as I arrived, on the Narita express, at the Shinjuku station. Tokyo is an overwhelming place, and it would be easy to feel oneself quite at sea while attempting to negotiate this vast metropolis. But today it feels just slightly less overwhelming, because I became just a little familiarized with a very small portion of Tokyo, having learned how to use the local train stations at Shinjuku and Yoyogi and Iidabashi, and so on. So in at least one sense, I did not depart as I arrived, because I take back with me a little bit of knowledge about Tokyo. As a true believer in the Socratic imperative that knowledge is good, I then count my week long expedition a good thing, however many mistakes I might have made, and however short the time may have been.

leaving Tokyo 2

I think that some people derive a perverse pleasure from talking about all the things that went wrong in the course of travel. I have had my share of mishaps, but I have never had a vacation that left me feeling dissatisfied that I had come — only dissatisfied that I had to leave. As difficult as it is to tear myself away from my routine, once torn away I quite definitely have the feeling that I could keep going on the road indefinitely, with no need to go home again.

leaving Tokyo 3

I have never had a vacation I would not readily and gladly repeat — indeed, as I travel I often think of a first trip as reconnaissance for a future trip that will be all the more fulfilling because I have some basic knowledge that will make that next attempt that much better. It is highly likely that there are places I have seen that I will never visit again, but I always go home with the idea that I can’t wait to go again, and that I never really wanted to leave.

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Tokyo to Hakone

10 February 2013

Sunday


Hakone 1

I took little side trip outside Tokyo to the hot springs (onsen) resort area of Hakone. It is a holiday weekend in Japan, and Hakone is one of the closest resort areas to Tokyo, so the little train station at Hakone was thronged with visitors. Also, the narrow streets of Hakone were so packed with people it was difficult to walk in the town. I was the only Westerner present in this crowd.

Hakone 2

Nevertheless, it was worth it to brave this resort town on a holiday weekend, as the Japanese bath experience is one of the great civilized pleasures that the world has to offer (apparently like getting a shave and a haircut in Turkey, which I once read about in a Wall Street Journal article).

Hakone 3

The Tenseien Hotel is large, and has all the facilities one would expect from a spa hotel in a Western country — hot bath, cold bath, wet sauna, and dry sauna — and more as well. The facilities are sex segregated, and everyone goes naked inside the bathing facilities. The sixth floor is given over to the women’s bath area, and the seventh floor was given over to the men’s bath area. In addition to the facilities enumerated above, there are large outdoor pools where one can recline in the natural hot spring waters while looking up at the stars through the rising steam. These outside tubs are constructed of stones to give the appearance of a natural outdoor bath. Jets are placed in a few areas so that one can enjoy the equivalent of a jacuzzi.

Hakone 4

For an onsen hotel, Tenseien is large, and the dining room is quite large to accommodate all the guests, who are served dinner and breakfast buffet style (which the Japanese, I was astonished to learn, call “Viking style” — presumably a reference to the Scandinavian smorgasbord dining experience). Nevertheless, there was plenty of food for everyone. And again, in the hotel and in the baths, I was the only Westerner present. This doesn’t have to be a problem, even if you don’t speak the language. Just watch what others do, and follow their lead. But by all means, next time you’re in Japan, do yourself a favor and go to an onsen — even the humblest among them are well worth the time.

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Peculiar Institutions

9 February 2013

Saturday


Torii gate of the Meiji Jingū.

Torii gate of the Meiji Jingu.

In the antebellum American south, slavery was called the south’s “peculiar institution,” so it is perhaps unfair to use this particular phrase to describe anything other than antebellum slavery. Also, the word “peculiar” has taken on insulting connotations, so that its use is generally avoided. However, it would probably be worse to try to speak in terms of, for example, “autochthnous institutions” or “indigenous institutions” while “parochial institutions” or “provincial institutions” both definitely carry the wrong connotations. So I visited two peculiarly Japanese institutions, and they are definitely peculiar institutions — or indigenous, or autochthnous, or whatever other phrase you’d like to employ: the Japanese Sword Museum and the Meiji Jingū (the shrine to the Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken). Both are as narrowly conceived as the Tokyo National Museum is grandly and comprehensively conceived. Their great value lies precisely in this narrowness.

Color lables on sake donated to the Meiji Jingū.

Color lables on sake donated to the Meiji Jingū.

The ethical code of the Samurai has been given an explicit formulation in the form of Bushidō (武士道), a confluence of Shinto, Confucianism, and Zen Buddhism, although (as is the case with most explicitly formulated doctrines) Bushidō is only the late culmination of an ancient tradition that goes deep into the history of a people, intertwined and integral with a way of life. And the way of life is ultimately more fundamental that any particular expression of that way of life. Thus the meaning of Bushidō must ultimately be sought in the lifeways of the Japanese people and the traditions of Japanese civilization, rather than being understood as an exclusive expression of the elite class of a rigid feudal system (which it unquestionably was as well). The austerity of Bushidō, its aestheticized asceticism, must then be attributed to the wider culture in the same way that the Christian ideal of a medieval European knight is to be sought in the culture of medieval Christendom. And indeed a trip to the Japanese Sword Museum is an experience in keeping with the austere Zen ethic of the Samurai who wielded the swords, and one would be perhaps equally justified to speak of a Zen aesthetic as of a Zen ethic.

Meiji shrine 4

The Japanese Sword Museum consists of a single room constructed as a museum vault (like the Gold Museum in Peru) with a glass case running around the walls of the single room. Behind the glass are a series of blades. Only the blades. There are a few swords with grips and scabbards, but most of the swords are displayed as blades only. There is nothing here to distract from the austere purity of the sword blade presented in splendid isolation. The oldest blades on display from the 12th century looked nearly as new as the 19th century blades on display. Most of the blades were signed including many of the earliest blades. Even in the 12th century the sword makers were signing their work, like some of the most famous Greek potters in ancient Athens.

Meiji shrine 5

If you visit a European museum of armaments (and I have been to several, though I should mention that housed with the Gold Museum in Peru, mentioned above, there is also an armaments museum, so it isn’t just in Europe) you will be confronted with a bewildering display of every imaginable weapons design. There are swords (and guns) of every possible design and description. This is not what you will see in the Japanese sword museum. Here the swords are displayed as the blade only, and all these blades are to essentially the same design. This is not to say that there are no differences among the blades. Some are longer or shorter, more or less curved, and there are slight slight differences in tempering visible by the particular coloration of the blade. It is as though each individual blade were striving to approximate the ideal Platonic Form of a sword, and the individual, contingent details of each were mere mundane deviations from the ideal and perfect sword.

Meiji shrine 6

After the Japanese Sword Museum a walk through Yoyogi Park will bring you to the Torii Gate that marks the entrance to Meiji Jingū, an extensive shrine to the Meiji Emperor and Empress Shoken. Set in a large forested park, the Meiji Shrine is a wooden structure of noble proportions, by which I mean that it was large and elegant, but not overly large or excessively elegant. I read that the whole shrine had been destroyed in the Second World War and was subsequently rebuilt. It is structurally similar to many of the monumental wooden shrines in Kyoto (which was not bombed and burned in the Second World War). The whole architectural ensemble has a wonderful serenity that belies its relatively recent rebuilding; it would be easy to imagine that this shrine has stood here undisturbed for centuries.

Meiji shrine 7

If I understand what I saw and what I read, people come here to worship the spirit (kami) of the Meiji emperor. After washing at stations outside the shrine itself — first the left hand, then the right, the left again and finally one’s mouth — one approaches through a large gateway, passes through a spacious quadrangle and approaches another quadrangle that one does not enter. There is a box to collect coins that acts as a (closed) gate to this second quadrangle. The ritual appeared to involve tossing a 50 Yen coin into the collection box, clapping twice, bowing twice, and closing one’s eyes and bowing one’s head forward in prayer. These prayers lasted anywhere from a part of a second to several minutes in length. One suspects that the duration of prayer corresponds to detail and care with which the wish or desire has been formulated, like an exercise in creative visualization. Usually those who approached the shrine and made an offering and a prayer would give another small bow before walking away, a step or two backward first before turning around.

Shinto wedding 1

I have tried to describe the visitors to Meiji Jingū and their rituals as plainly as possible, since Western monotheistic distortions usually seriously misunderstand non-Western religious traditions, and especially those traditions of the far east of Asia — Buddhism and Confucianism — which are in no sense supernaturalistic, though both incorporate vaguely animist elements. To the Westerner unable to transcend his own traditions, praying to the spirit of a deceased emperor represents the worst kind of idolatry and superstition, but if you actually visit Meiji Jingū it doesn’t feel or appear the slightest idolatrous or superstitious. It is, on the contrary, supremely dignified.

Shinto wedding 2

At the Meiji Shrine I happened to be present for a procession of a traditional Shinto wedding, which was an impressive sight that got the attention of all the cameras in the immediate vicinity (mine included). Later I saw a second traditional Shinto wedding, and later still I saw an office that arranges weddings at the shrine, so it appears that traditional Shinto weddings are an industry for the Meiji Shrine.

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Shinto wedding 3

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Friday


Ueno 1

Ueno Kōen is a large park in Tokyo where several major museums are located, including the Tokyo National Museum. The latter was my reason for coming to Ueno Park. On Tumblr I wrote that, “A national museum is the record of a civilization seen through the lens of a nation-state.” In the case of an island nation-state like Japan, its geographical boundaries were well-defined long before Japan emerged as a nation-state in the contemporary sense, so there is a significant continuity between pre-national Japan and Japan as a nation-state. Indeed, Japan could be termed a “civilization-state” — an idea that was introduced by Martin Jacques in order to try to define the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and Chinese civilization (cf. A Point Of View: Is China more legitimate than the West?).

Ueno 2

This politicized conception of civilization makes national museums particularly interesting to me, and so I make a practice of seeking them out whenever possible. However, when I arrived at Ueno Kōen I discovered that the park is also the home of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, which is currently hosting a temporary exhibition of fifty-one El Greco paintings, El Greco’s Visual Poetics. Yesterday at the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum I noticed a posters advertising a major exhibition of El Greco paintings currently on show, and I made a mental note to look this up and see if I could find it; it found me when I arrived at Ueno. The pull of El Greco proved the stronger, so I went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum first.

Detail of a painting from the Tokyo National Museum.

Detail of a painting from the Tokyo National Museum.

The ticket to enter the El Greco exposition was 1,600 Yen, so it was rather expensive as museums go. Despite the price, once I entered the exposition space I was surprised to see how crowded it was. One almost had to shoulder one’s way through the crowd in order to get up close to any of the pictures. I was even more surprised how quiet everyone was. In an interconnected series of rooms housing 51 paintings and hundreds of viewers milling about trying to get close to the paintings, the atmosphere was so quiet that one felt self-conscious coughing or clearing one’s throat. El Greco has long been a favorite of mine; I felt his presence at a show of icons that I viewed in Iraklion in 1993, and saw some of his most significant work in Toledo in 1998. Since then I have encountered individual paintings in many museums (for example, I wrote about an El Greco painting in Norway at the National Museum) but never before had a see an entire exhibition dedicated to El Greco’s ouvre.

A painting in the Tokyo National Museum.

A painting in the Tokyo National Museum.

The El Greco exhibition made a point of showcasing El Greco’s artistic development by showing paintings from early and late in his career side by side, sometimes the two contrasting paintings being of the same subject, as with the two portraits of Diego de Covarrubias. Of the two portraits, the earlier is more conventional and more superficially lifelike, but lacking the inner life — we might even say, lacking the inner disquiet and turmoil — of the later picture, which is pale almost to the point of a deathly pallor, i.e., exactly what one expects from a mature El Greco painting. The two paintings of The Adoration of the Shepherds, again, early and late, are as different as night and day — indeed, the earlier seems to depict the scene during the light of day, and the later to depict the same in the dark of night, illuminated from within by the life and spirit of the figures. I was especially interested in the painting “The Glory of Philip II” (which came from El Escorial, though I don’t recall seeing it there when I visited in 1994), which was remarkable in its medieval conventionality, and not at all what one expects from El Greco. Artists (and all creative individuals, for that matter) achieve greatness through the elimination of the conventional and schematic. Yet it may be necessary to begin with the conventional and the schematic in order to overcome it.

Another detail from another painting in the Tokyo National Museum.

Another detail from another painting in the Tokyo National Museum.

After spending a couple of hours entranced by El Greco I left and walked a few minutes away to go to the Tokyo National Museum, my original object in coming to Ueno Park. After the experience of some of the most intense Western art, I saw what the Tokyo National Museum itself calls “Highlights of Japanese Art” — in other words, some of the most intense art of the Japanese tradition. This is another way to work toward the elimination of the conventional and the schematic — to see the world through the eyes of a distinct and alien tradition. One recognizes the objects depicted, but not the style in which they are portrayed. Everything is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It is difficult to say whether or not this is a process of defamiliarization, as it is difficult to say whether or not the experience corresponds to the idea that to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. Is to forget the name to forget the identity, or is to hold fast to the identity while forgetting only the formal linguistic apparatus by which we grasp the identity? Both interpretations are valid in their own sphere, and each represents a distinct idea — a distinct idea of the potential radicalism of perception.

Also from the Tokyo National Museum.

Also from the Tokyo National Museum.

Make of the experience what you will, interpret as you please, see it through the lens of whatever idea best illuminates it, but this is precisely why I seek out the great museum collections. As I wrote above, a national museum is already a record of civilization seen through the lens of a nation-state. In viewing the collection we see it through our own lenses, which may correct, may magnify, or may distort the intended image. Only know that it is an image, and do not mistake the image for anything other than what it is. No one looking upon El Greco can forget that they look upon an image. There is no pretense of naturalism. This is the ideal perspective to bring with one when one goes to visit a national museum.

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Outside the Tokyo National Museum.

Outside the Tokyo National Museum.

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Thursday


Edo Tokyo 1

Tokyo is a city famous for recycling itself, but the kind of urban sustainability that comes from urban recycling isn’t what usually comes to mind when one thinks of sustainability, and is more akin to what Schumpeter called “creative destruction” — the wholesale tearing down of the old to make way for the new. This is, of course, a perennial feature of industrial civilization, but the level of this creative destructive activity in Tokyo has outstripped its operation elsewhere; Tokyo is the purest species of the genus “industrial city.”

Edo Tokyo 2

While most of the structures demolished in the “destructive” phase of creative destruction are lost, there is a small preserve of formerly endangered buildings, the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum. Many of the “historical” structures at the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum were not all that “old” — not even as old as the house in which I grew up and where I spent my childhood. But such is the character of a city (and its historical museum) that continually re-invents itself by tearing down the old and building the new in its place that the “old” is not always all that old.

Edo Tokyo 4

Many of the more recent buildings at the museum (mostly houses rather than commercial structures) felt downright modern and contemporary and not really in any sense “old.” I was, in fact, reminded of the Gordon House — the only Frank Lloyd Wright building in Oregon, and another contemporary structure that has been turned into a museum. It has been noted that Wright was profoundly influenced by Japanese aesthetics, and there is a surprisingly detailed documentary about the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and his time spent in Japan, Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings and Legacy in Japan. This film is well worth watching, and goes well beyond Wright’s work to discusses the extensive influence that Wright had in training an entire generation of Japan’s modern architects.

Edo Tokyo 3

It would be too facile to say that Wright was influenced by Japan or the Japanese architects were influenced by Wright; there was something more fundamental at stake. There was an essential relationship, a deep consonance, between Japanese aesthetics and Wright’s personal aesthetic vision, and, as it happens, the two were uniquely suited to each other. Wright’s personal aesthetic vision of architecture within nature, drawn from nature and harmonious with nature, happened to coincide with age-old Japanese aesthetic traditions that have valued nature differently from Western axiology (although this is changing in our own time). If an individual mind chances to resemble, in its constitution, an ancient tradition of which that individual mind is not, however, a part… or if an ancient tradition chances to find its most contemporary expression in the works of an individual whom it did not shape… it should be no wonder that the individual and the tradition will eventually find each other. Modern transportation technology has made it possible for us to find and to experience traditions of which we did not even know ourselves to be a part until we happen upon them. And this is one of the great experiences of travel.

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The Accidental World

6 February 2013

Wednesday


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To travel is to be schooled in one’s own irrelevance — one’s dispensability (if not disposability) at home, and one’s anonymity and fungibility abroad. Life goes on, with us or without us, so that our presence is essentially indifferent to the business of the world.

So I have now come to Tokyo for a week, and am being schooled in my own irrelevance and anonymity in this, one of the largest cities in the world.

When I was walking out of the Narita Airport I saw a large sign with a stylized depiction of a map of the world — the sort of thing that one sees everywhere because familiar projections of the world map have become iconic. This particular rendering of the world map reduced the image to oversized pixels, but the image was still immediately recognizable, much like the famous image of Lincoln’s face in photo mosaic by Leon Harmon, which was then adapted by Salvador Dali in his Lincoln in Dalivision.

As I rode the Narita express train into Tokyo I thought about this iconic image of the world, and how we now identify with it so easily. This was not always the case; in fact, this recognition of the planet entire as an icon represents the confluence of many factors: the mapping of the world (which has been going on since antiquity), wide dissemination of basic scientific knowledge (which is a fairly recent historical phenomenon), space technology which has allowed us to see the world whole, a media culture that repeats particular images until they become imprinted upon us, and other developments peculiar to our industrial-technological civilization.

The particular outlines that the continents happened to have assumed during the historical period, when they have been systematically mapped by human beings, have become iconic to us, and since they are now shown to us with casual regularity, and in addition we have photographs that reveal to us the outlines of the continents as they have been mapped, we intuitively respond to these images and identify with them as readily as we identify with our faces in the mirror, which latter are equally the products of chance, i.e., accidents of history. In the case of island nation-states, like Japan, Britain, and Australia, the familiar outlines of an island, seen whole, may even evoke feelings of nationalism and patriotism.

The individual variability upon which natural selection is predicated implies the biological uniqueness of the individual, and this biological uniqueness extends to our physiognomy, our metabolism (i.e., the individual life of the individual body), and to our brain, which ultimately means the uniqueness of the individual mind emergent from the uniqueness of the body. There is a sense, then, in which it is right that we should identify with our individual faces as expressive of our individual identity. Perhaps, then, there is also a sense, mutatis mutandis, in which it is right that we should identify with the particular outlines of the landmasses of the world, upon which our existence and the shape and structure of our lives is predicated.

All of these unique, individual expressions of life — the life of the planet and the life of the individual, inter alia — we identify as being uniquely ours: our planet, our continent, our country, our people, and our body, our face. These are the accidents of history upon which natural selection acts, and in so acting generates further unique expressions of life, including entire unique species, and the worlds upon which they live. Indeed, our species expands its numbers, and therefore expands its range and the extent of its civilization, by a systematic randomizing process — sexual reproduction — that ensures children will always be unlike their parents, i.e., that they will be unique individuals in their own right.

It has become something of a contemporary commonplace to critique the egoism of individuality, and this critique of egoism is properly understood as a Copernican critique — or, contrariwise, the macroscopic Copernican critique of anthropocentrism and geocentrism and all Earth-centered thinking may be understood as an extension and an extrapolation of the critique of egocentric thinking.

Yet the individual is unique, and therefore possesses unique value — i.e., the individual possesses axiological uniqueness in virtue of ontological uniqueness. However, the unique value of the individual has primarily been conceived and expressed in terms of the individual’s exemplification of universal values and principles — this is particularly striking in the case of Enlightenment universalism. Here, the individual serves as a mere cipher for the universal (in Hegelian terms, a concrete universal, or, in the language of analytical philosophy, the token of a type).

The Foucauldian critique of the Enlightenment, which has been called “anti-humanist,” has often been implicitly cast as also anti-individualist, but it could with equal justification be called anti-anthropocentric, which is to say that the Foucauldian critique is an extension of the Copernican critique. Like most science as we have come to know it in its modern form, the Foucauldian critique (following the Copernican critique) is a denial of privileged forms of being. This ontological critique of privilege emerges not in spite of but rather because of an appreciation of individual uniqueness in all its contingency.

In a sense, this perspective is akin to contemporary object oriented ontology (OOO), which, in speaking in terms of a “democracy of objects” (as in Levi R. Bryant’s book of the same name), also denies privileged forms of being.

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A fragment of the Tokyo skyline as seen from the window of my hotel room.

A fragment of the Tokyo skyline as seen from the window of my hotel room.

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