Friday, May 07, 2010

Back in Tokyo

On the way back to Tokyo airborne, and onto central Tokyo by car, I was continuously writing a series of essays which unfortunately met their respective deadlines yesterday.

In all, I churned out 4 essays, letting out a total of ~10000 Japanese characters worth text.

My home country welcomed me back with a sunshine and hot air. I immediately became a "T-shirt" man, taking off my sweater, revealing my Paul Smith T-shirt featuring an apple. It is one of my personal favorites.

Once in my native country, I get immersed in a totally different context from the past few days. This morning, I will have discussions with editors of a book in the morning. In the afternoon, I will give two lectures at Keio University.

Back to the chores. However, the spirit stays. There are certain things that are left in you forever, to grow and glow.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The volcano did not hinder my flight back to Tokyo this time.

On the last day in London, we met with Dominique O'Brien, who became eight times World Memory Champion. The current Champion, Ben Pridmore was there, too. We conducted a simple EEG experiment.

In the afternoon, I met with Prof. Linda Pring at the University of London Goldsmith campus. Goldsmith is famous for being the home of the YBA (Young British Artists), including the sculptor Anthony Gormely.

The volcano did not hinder my flight back to Tokyo this time. Right now I am safely on the plane, trying to reflect on my experiences in the U.K this time.

Soon after I finish writing this, the airplane will start descending to the airport. I won't be able to use any electric devises then. I will most probably read "Darwin's Island" written by Steve Jones. I bought the copy in the Heffers bookshop in front of Trinity college.

Once back in Japan, I will have a busy work schedule as usual. I won't have the luxury of relaxing. One needs to find solace in small things under these circumstances.

In the least, I would like to have a taste of the soba noodle somewhere and sometime soon. That could be done in 10 minutes at a standing bar found in many locations in Tokyo.

See you again, U.K. See you soon, Marmite. You have been very kind to me.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Drive it away!

I did not "agree" with the tightly controlled process of learning how to drive that is normal in my native country. So I dropped out of school. Time flew, and I moved to England, to conduct two years' post doctoral in Cambridge. After a while, I learned that I was eligible to apply for a driving license under the British system.

So I called up BSM. On the first day, Mr. David Ash came to my door and knocked. "Hello!", David said. "Hello!", I said.
David took me to the suburb of Cambridge in the car. I think it was near the Cavendish laboratory. David parked the car on the roadside, and let me sit in the driver's seat.

"Drive it a way!"

David said.

So under the British system, the learner is told to "drive it away!" on day one. What a difference from what I had known previously. The "drive it away" approach suited me fine.

When I was moving in London yesterday, I saw a car with "BSM" written on it. All of a sudden all these memories came back to me like in a flood.

The conversations I had with David. The first motorway. Night driving. David always helpful and kind, and yet firm.

The process of obtaining a British car license was interesting, but that is another story.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

London Skies

Walking along the London streets, even for a short time, is always an uplifting experience.

People has identified New York city in the United States as the capital of cultural freedom. In a subtly different sense, London is at once a capital of cultural tradition and freedom.

People from many countries in the world flock to London in search of something. What they seek and get, being immersed in the world according to the lingua franca of English, reflect the multitude of opportunities for a human being today.

I am in search of something myself, when I find myself in the British capital. To some extent, the nature of that something has changed over the years, while other aspects remain the same.

So I look up to the London sky, believing in the infinite possibilities extending before me. The skylines inspire me, to keep going and make yet another effot.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Trinity excellence in gardening.

I have moved to London yesterday night. When I awoke in the car, people were shouting "Abbey Road!" A surprise encounter with the street of Beatle legend brought me back to conscious life on arrival at London.

As I reflect on my stay in Cambridge, several things surge in me. Every time I revisit, I take home something valuable.
This time, my mental souvenir included a realization of the excellence of the art of gardening in the academic city.
I have been to the Trinity college premises many times, but until the last visit yesterday I did not explicitly realize the meticulous care with which the trees and plants are cultivated and maintained in the gardens, alongside the building walls, along the corridor.

Gee, what an excellent work of art! And high tech, too!

I asked the kind Trinity college Porter who was with us about the gardening in Trinity. "Yes, gardening in this college is excellent," he said. "There are 30 gardeners in this college. We have a new head gardener now. He is a superb man."
So I discovered that Trinity college excelled in the science of gardening, too. I suspect that the Trinity excellence in gardening reflects the general high standards of English gardening.

Thus we become the plant's best friend, with care and knowledge.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

A venerable society of lunatics

I stayed in Cambridge for two years from 1995 to 1997, and have been visiting regularly since.

I know the streets in out. Memories would flow back to me.

Cambridge is a stunningly beautiful town. However, needless to say, the value of the town is not for the looks. On my arrival, I went straight to the Cambridge University Press and checked the latest volumes. After that, I strolled to the Heffers bookshop in front of the Trinity college. I was thrilled to see all these wonderful books, each representing years of hard work, rigorous application of logic, no-nonsense empiricism, and refined aesthetics.

I think it is simply wonderful for people with similar interests and orientations to be gathered in a place, and have heated discussions, letting their souls inside out. We are always in search of such a community. In Cambridge we find a venerable society of lunatics which have matured over 800 years.

What a solace!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

There's something about U.K.

There's something about U.K. that resonates deep with me. Maybe it is the unpretending attitudes of people. Perhaps the spirit of understatement. In any case, although I come from a totally different culture originally, I find many things that are assumed and carried out here dear to me.

The newspapers, for example. This morning I was reading the Guardian over breakfast, having heard on the BBC news that they are now endorsing the Liberal Democrats.

Irrespective of the particular political point of view that one may adapt, the way the facts are presented, arguments are developed, and the tacit assumption of intellectual honesty and (for the want of a better word) "brutality" is something that I share deep in my heart. I suspect that it is something that are often "hidden" and "suppressed" in other cultures.

This morning, I would have liked to give a detailed account of my encounter with Mr. Ben Pridmore, the current World Memory Champion. Unfortunately, I could not finish the narrative. Please watch this space for some insights into how Mr. Pridmore has come to realize his enormous memory power.

Today I move to Cambridge.

Friday, April 30, 2010

After four essays and a prawn, I arrived in U.K.

On the plane to London Heathrow, I had to write several essay manuscripts. Theoretically, it was possible to do them after arrival, and make the deadline. However, I was in a mood to get done with them while airborne, wanting to be immersed in the U.K. atmosphere once I reach my "second home".

Thus, after food and wine I started to type, and took a nap. When I awoke, I continued my ordeal. Perhaps little people came to help me for being diligent. I could finish the four essays (three in Japanese and one in English), and still had time to watch the film "District 9" from the beginning to the end. The film is shot and edited in a refreshing documentary touch, rather reminiscent of the great British T.V. comedy "The Office" by Ricky Gervais. The protagonist starts as a very shaky and unconvincing man (delightfully played by Sharlto Copley), and through a process of transformations (one literally happening in his right hand) gradually become a convincing hero. The politically correct message is clear. I suspect (taking into joint consideration of the ethos behind the blockbuster film Avatar,) that simpleton films of "shoot the enemies up" mentalities are now out of fashion. Which is a good thing.

The film made me think of the word "prawn cocktail" in an entirely new light, by the way.

From Heathrow airport, I went to Nottingham. I passed through yellow fields. The close encounters with the color yellow persisted when a rubber duck family greeted me in the hotel bathroom. For supper, we went to the Indian restaurant Cumin. There, I had a delightful conversation with Ed and Paul. Paul told me interesting stories about his experience in reporting world affairs which made history, like the Berlin wall fall.

Yellow fields seen from the speeding van.

The rubber duck family in my bathroom.

Ed Wright and Paul Keyworth.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Not so fast, Mr. volcano!

The reader of this blog might recall that recently I was stranded in Munich for 4 days due to the volcanic ash cloud crisis.

Here I go to Europe, this morning, again. I will be flying to U.K. I hope the volcano would not make any sudden moves this time.
Not so fast, Mr. volcano!

The U.K. has become something like a second spiritual home for me. I was in Cambridge for two years, and have repeatedly visited the country before and since. Horace Barlow, my Cambridge mentor, is there. It is a country which produces lots of excellent comedy stuff that I love. The general election campaign is going, energized by such unexpected events such as the surge of popularity for Nick Clegg and the unfortunate (in many ways) gaffe of Mr. Gordon Brown. I have been following the moves with great interest. I admire the wisdoms of the English people, including the unwritten constitution.

So I set off to England with a lightness of heart. I shall return to Tokyo, volcano permitting, next Thursday.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

You understand these things from a distance.

When you are a child, there are many things that leave an impression on you. As you get older, you grow out of these things. But then one day, they would come back to you, with all the vividness and freshness of the one time experience.

When I was 4 or 5 years old, my father would often take me to the zoo or those places which hold dear values to an immature soul. We would take the train, and go through the stations. I remember how my father would suddenly disappear, while we are walking in the corridor. Naturally I would become desperate, and search for my protector. But I could not find my father. I go on the verge of crying, with water swelling in my eyes.

Precisely at that watershed moment, my father would appear from behind a column, smiling, teasing me, saying "did you think that I had gone somewhere?" and would hold my hands tightly. The warmth of the skin touch would invariably soothe me. I would stop short of crying out loud, having finished the ride on the emotional jet coaster.

I have been oblivious of these incidents for a long time. The enigma of the human mind is that you suddenly remember them out of the blue.

Looking back, I reflect on the state of mind of my father. Then, something extraordinary happens. Instead of reliving of my own trials, I sense as if in a delayed flash of realization the anxiety of my father. I think my father might have been projecting his own existential Angst upon me.

While teasing me by hiding behind the station columns, my father's heart must have been trembling. You understand these things from a distance.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Relative positions.

As I walk home at night, these days, I notice that the moon is getting fatter every day. What a dramatic change! To think that shifts in the relative positions of the moon, the sun, and the earth brings about this salient transition gives me a deep shudder. What marvelous manifestations of existence!

We tend to think that life occupies a privileged position in the universe. To some extent that feeling is justified. Ultimately, however, that is perhaps an deep-rooted ignorance, if one reflects on great alternations of things, like the moon shape change.
Life is about movement, and movement is about the passage of time. Entities in the space-time structure is never at rest. Life as we call it is only a subset of that great multitude.

The cherry blossoms bloom and then wither. A person is born and dies. The wind blows and is then dispersed. Change is the only certain fact in this world.

"We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end."
Blaise Pascal

Monday, April 26, 2010

Great book of the world

Even if a book sells a million copies, it would at best reach a very small proportion of the population. The same is true for a mega-hit film like "The Avatar". Thus, the worlds that are presented by these creative works by necessity remain a minority experience.

When we cast our eyes on the elements of every day, we find incredibly rich multitudes of experience that are the true "bestsellers" of life. Consider the sensation of flavor and taste as you sip your coffee in the morning. The joy of being immersed in the morning sunshine as you venture off into the wider world from your domicile. The swelling feeling of joy as you finally put your self at rest on bed after a strenuous day. These elements of experience are known to everybody, and shared by a true majority of people.

When one is young, one is often quite taken by a work of human creativity that one encounters. Because one is carried away, one sometimes even equates the weight of the adored piece with the whole world itself. One talks about the genius of the creator in a heated manner, enthusiastic on becoming an evangelist of the value of the work. One is then often disappointed by the more or less subdued reaction of the listener. One has forgotten that no matter how important a piece of creativity might appear to be, the experiencing itself remains in the minority.

Despite the disappointments, the young person soldiers on. One gradually rediscovers the common grounds for every breathing soul on earth. The simple joy of sharing those rudimentary elements of living must then serve as the foundation for communication. One leaves one's Dostoevsky and Murakami and starts to read the great book of the world once again, as one used to do as an innocent infant.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Memento contingency.

It seems like another job will take me Europe again within a few days. This time I will be flying to U.K. I have some trepidations naturally about it as the U.K. was the worst hit country by the recent ash cloud incident.

For some time I thought that the plan would be abandoned. However, with the air situation improving, it seems that the schedule will go ahead.

I am looking forward to seeing things that I love in England again, as well as to encountering new things. On the other hand I am in a hung state of mind as regards the ash cloud contingencies. I don't want to be kept in exile AGAIN.

I will try to gather information about the likelihood of yet another series of explosions of the volcano. At the end of the day, of course, things remain ultimately uncertain. No place on earth is completely safe from unexpected catastrophes (remember where the UFO hit in the film District 9?).

Contingencies strike at the most unexpected places. Memento contingency.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Companies to my sweet sleep

I am in Nikko, where a series of temples were build in the early 1600s for the first Shogun of the Tokugawa government, Ieyasu. Now it is a UNESCO world heritage site. I am to have a joint public lecture today with a respected Buddhist priest, Mr. Yusai Sakai.

When I arrived at the hotel, it was already pitch dark. I had a nice dinner with editors from Asahi Shimbun newspaper. After parting, I went to sleep after watching for a while the second debate in the U.K. general election.

When I woke up this morning, I went to the window to take in some fresh air. To my surprise, there was this very attractive river just outside the hotel. A beautiful mountain was behind the river, and together, the water flow and the chunk of rocks made a wonderful scene.

I was taken unexpected, and thought of the long night during which I was not aware of those things. In the darkness of night, it was impossible to sense their existence. To think that the river and mountain have been companies to my sweet sleep all along gave me a surge of happy realization.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Sentimental value.

When I arrived in the U.K. to do two years' research in Cambridge, the first thing to do was to find a home.

I looked around, and found a cozy place on Missleton Court, in the southern suburb. The owner was a professor at University of Cambridge. We shook hands as we agreed on the rent.

There was a small wooden chair in the house. The professor pointed to the chair, and said, "Well, this chair has a sentimental value for me. My father made it for me when I was a child."

Maybe it was the way the professor said these words to me. Maybe it was the particular circumstances. I had just arrived in U.K., preparing myself for days in a foreign soil. The words "sentimental value" associated with the parental love probably struck the chord in my heart.

How strange is the human memory system! To this day, I remember vividly how the professor said it, on the ground floor room, as the sun came through the small green house attached to the side, in which I used to drink beer in the evening, as I looked up at the swallows crisscrossing the sky.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

When and if Mount Fuji erupts.

I am still recovering from my experience of being stranded in Europe for 4 days due to the volcanic eruption. I could have enjoyed it as an unexpected vacation, but I simply had to come back to Tokyo in order to fulfill some important assignments. Controversies are raging whether the tight airspace controls have been a case of overreacting. One thing is certain. It has exposed the vulnerability of an island economy.

England was harder struck compared to the continental Europe not only because of its proximity to Iceland, but also due to its geological isolation. The U.K. is an island nation. The logistics depend much on the air, especially in the shorter time scale. In the continent people are able to use other means of transportation, albeit taking much longer time. Something is better than nothing. An island nation, when deprived of air, can go into a state of despair. Much thanks thus are due to the channel tunnel, without the existence of which the U.K. would have been more severely cut.

When I think the state surrounding my own nation, the island vulnerability is clear. If Japan loses its airspace, it would be virtually cut off from the outside world, especially in the shorter time scale.

The largest volcano, Mt. Fuji, has last erupted in 1707. Theoretically, it can erupt at any time again, letting out a huge amount of ash like the Icelandic volcano did this time. That could well lead to the loss of airspace in metropolitan Tokyo, judging from the events in the past days.

The nation clearly needs a contingency plan in case eruptions (not necessarily limited to Mt. Fuji) happen. Meanwhile, while I return to normal from the ashes, I brush up my cognitive processes so that my world model would better reflect the inherent unpredictability of the world that we inhabit.

You never know what tomorrow will bring.

Mount Fuji as depicted in a famous Ukiyoe print by Hokusai.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I don't know what happened to the serious man.

A great sigh of relief was emitted from my mouth, or rather, my soul, as I finally made it onto the Lufthansa flight to Tokyo.

I was sitting at a window seat. I was looking for any signs of irregularities outside, but noticed only a tinge of the air quite widespread, which looked like dust from some perspectives. It was hard to say if that was the effect of the volcanic ashes, though.

At first I had this theoretical fear that something might go amiss with the engine (which were quite visible from my seat, bad thing or good thing?). However, as I took my first glass of wine things started to become fuzzy. Before I knew it, the airplane was cruising over Russia, well out of the danger zone. Maybe alcohol is a great tranquilizer preventing the passengers from unduly panicking.

Probably I was in a mood for an entertainment spree after these days of trials. Surely I could be excused if I did not work. I watched three films in a row.

The first was "All about Steve", which traces the stalking activities of a narcotic, but not unattractive crosswords maniac girl.

The second was "The invention of lying", starring the "The Office" Star Ricky Gervais.

The last one was "A Serious man". I started watching the film assuming that it was another light-hearted comedy, but sensed something was different in the first few minutes. I looked at the film description again, and found that it was actually directed by Joel and Ethan Coen!

I found the film quite interesting, and wished to watch it to the end, but as the airplane approached Tokyo Narita airport the entertainment system was abruptly terminated. So I don't know what happened to the serious man.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A silver lining

Today the Lufthansa started operating its long distance flights, despite the still existing problem of the volcanic ash.
I therefore would hurry to Munich airport in a few minutes,

in a hope that I would be able to secure a seat in the planned Tokyo flight.

Fingers crossed. There is a silver lining to any desperate situation, and that is hope.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mad in Munich

I am still stuck in Munich due to the distant echo of the vigorous activities of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull. Last evening, in an effort to indulge myself a bit and boost up the morale, I went to a Japanese restaurant in front of the Hofbrauhaus. I had a Sushi plate to the accompaniment of miso soup, occasionally sipping sake. Eating my favorite delicacies did not make me homesick or anything, but surely improved the overall mood.

This morning, I am still struggling to find a way home. The Vienna airport has opened. The Germany transport minister is apparently taking a conservative stance about it, and is being criticized by airliners such as Lufthansa. For a few hours I considered the possibility of moving to Vienna by train, but later found that it was not plausible due to several circumstances including difficulty of reservation, predicted ash shift, and the state of ongoing cancellations for the long haul flights.

Thus, the best hope apart from the opening of the Munich airport seems to be the flight from Rome. I could secure an Alitalia flight to Tokyo leaving on the 22nd. I have a train ticket to Rome on the 20th, and intend to try to change the date to the 21st at the Hauptbahnhof today, thus preserving the option of trying to fly out of Munich for one additional day.

Meanwhile, staying in this state of forced procrastination seems to be directing my psyche in an increasingly eccentric direction. I have been suspecting that it is in me for some time, but now I am quite sure.

My madness seems to be as certain as the blue sky over Munich.

Here's the snapshot of me standing next to my all time favorite mad hero, King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Notice the resonance?

My much respected fellow of the lunar clan. King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Operating through the ashes

In the morning I went to the airport, to make changes to my reservation. As the telephone lines are always busy, one needs to go to the airport counter physically and make necessary arrangements.

After I finished the ordeal, I went back to the city center. I love Munich. I have visited the city many times. I know some of the backstreets by heart. And yet I never expected to wander around in my beloved city in a spirit of exile.

I went to the National Theatre, in a ritual that must be done every time I come to Munich. I then meandered through the narrow paths. The Hofbrauhaus was too full of people, so I sought a quieter bierhaus instead. Prior to this "spazierengehen" in the evening, I had already learned that the Tokyo flight I meant to take had been cancelled. So I needed to stay in Munich for at least one more day, unless I started searching for other routes.

The decisions are not so simple. The distribution of the volcanic ashes are unpredictable. At present Rome and Madrid are open, but one does not know if the wind would not change. It is reported that Lufthansa started test flights to see the plausibility of operating through the ashes. That adds new elements of uncertainty to be considered, albeit in the direction of hope.

There is a heavy cap on the logistics. Since one needs to move on land because of the blocked airspace, once one makes the critical decision to try Rome or Madrid there is practically no turning back. Number of additionl uncertainties make the decision extremely difficult. Thus the procrastination.

There is one consolation, though. Despite all this, the city of Munich still allures me with its charm. Maybe I will stand in front of the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus) in the evening breeze and forget all about it.

The famous New Town Hall in Munich. Standing aloof from the ashes.