Saturday, August 30, 2008




Catch a buzz-Tsukuba`s cicadas

Newcomers to Tsukuba are usually taken aback by the intense and inescapable chirping of cicadas (semi) in late summer. Though some find it thrilling and ALIVE, for many, the pulsating whir these insects whip up can be mind-numbing, or at the other extreme nerve-wracking. For many Japanese, however, who can often differentiate the particular sounds created by the most common varieties, the cicada is a cherished symbol of summer, which not only indicates the season, but also, depending on which type is singing or at what volume, the time of day. Also, along with the cherry blossom, these creatures, who spend but a few above-ground days LIVING THEIR LIVES AT FULL THROTTLE before quickly falling away, represent that most quintessential Japanese concept, MUJO (無常), the passing nature of all things.

Japan's greatest poets have used these fast-living, short (above-ground)-lived summer icons to evoke the season, as well as sadness or loneliness. A poem that most Japanese know by heart is the haiku by Basho which goes: 閑かさや岩にしみ入る蝉の声 (shizukasa ya iwa ni shimi iru semi no koe), which I translate as "In the stillness, the cry of cicadas permeates the stones". Besides this classic, there are dozens of other well-known poems which use the cicada or the empty shells of molted nymphs (out of which cicadas emerge) as key words. The empty shells are especially powerful symbols of transformation and rebirth.

There is a charming etiological myth explaining the semi's incessant crying which is related to the great Buddhist priest Kukai (Kobo Daishi 774-835). It is the story of Hime Haru Zemi, a princess who falls in love with the brilliant monk and wants to be by his side. Since it was impossible for them to stay together, he fashioned an image of himself out of a tree trunk. As he departed, she climbed to the top of this wood carving, clinging to it and straining to see him, crying all the while. She has been clinging to the tree trunks and crying every summer since.

Fascination with semi starts early and strikes deep roots. Japanese children love catching insects. A daytime stroll in any of Tsukuba's parks or along any of its pedestrian paths during summer vacation will give evidence to that fact. Armed with nets and green insect cages they excitedly search for beetles, dragonflies, or cicadas. Today I watched a security guard leave his post to help some kids snare some semi which were just out of reach.

Because cicada symbolism has become so natural for the Japanese, fans of Japanese film and animation should take special note, as often summer is evoked by inserting cicada sound effects into the sound-track. I have heard that when these films are dubbed into other languages, these sounds are cut, as they have no meaning for foreign viewers and can be misconstrued as static or white noise. Off hand I can name the film Ijintachi to no Natsu (a summer ghost story) or the recent Semi Shigure as examples of films which effectively employ the sound effect.

Today I asked some friends if they could tell the difference between the different cicada calls. All of them said that they could and enthusiastically talked of what cicadas meant to them. These are the types which I found out are most familiar:

MIN MIN ZEMI that go MIN MIN in the daytime and like to cling high up in the trees;

HIGURASHI ZEMI that go KANA KANA KANA, evoking a sad feeling in the early morning or evening;

ABURA ZEMI that go JI JI JI JI in the daytime;

TSUKUTSUKU BOSHI that go TSUKUTSUKUBOSHI, especially in temple trees;


NI NI ZEMI that go chi CHI chi CHI on the trunks of cherry trees in the daytime.

If like me , these explanation do nothing to help you identify the different types of cicadas ,you can probably make more progress if you check this site.

There is no avoiding the cries of the cicadas, but if you want to have a full SEMI experience, why don't you start from Doho Park and walk down to Tsukuba University using the pedestrian path.

The Tengooz will be making a buzz of their own at a beach concert on September 13th. You can catch us and your favorite surfers at the annual surfing competition.

Avi Landau

Friday, August 22, 2008


Summers are noisy in Tsukuba. One evening last month (July) the cacophony around Tsukuba Center actually had me scared. I stepped out of the Okura Hotel's lobby and out onto the road. In front of me stood the soon to be completed Joyo Bank building. The cicadas (semi) were chirping and droning, making me feel that I had ringing in the ears. From up and towards the south appeared a black swarm, and then another and another. These were flocks of Grey Starlings (mukudori) coming to roost for the night around the Center. I was mesmerized by their interweaving which created visual effects more fascinating than any kaleidoscope or lava lamp.

As the starlings started to settled into the trees, the noise more than doubled its volume and you could feel the soundwaves vibrating against your body. Then, suddenly, another sound rose up above the rest of the din. It was extremely loud and could only be described as NIGHTMARISH. l imagined some huge beast being tortured.

What this was was the man from the city office trying to scare away the flocks of starlings. He was doing this by blasting the recorded sound of the starlings distress call. It was certainly distressing! The man doing it told me that it would take at least five evenings of doing this to get the birds to move somewhere else.

The reasons that the people at the Center would want to have the birds move are easy to understand.

Besides the horrible racket the birds make, their droppings are prodigious and the ground along the pedestrian square area between the hotel and Nova Hall and then stretching towards the library was becoming pasty and difficult to maneuver.

Anyway, this week I've still been able to enjoy watching the interweaving flocks. The birds have moved, but NOT VERY FAR! Now they are roosting in front of the Mitsui Building and behind the Lexus dealership. I'm sure that soon someone will call the city office to have the starlings chased away again. One more thing the boys at city hall might do is order the kind of tree-butchering which you have probably noticed (and cringed at) in Japan, which leaves only a miserable trunk. This is also an effective way of getting the starlings to roost somewhere else!

Why do the starlings like to roost in the center of the city? I guess it makes them feel safe. They must also prefer to be in trees neatly lined up in a row.

The cicadas and starlings will be keeping things noisy for a few more weeks. If you too would like to hear the buzz and watch the starlings interweave come to the bridge between Right-On and Days Town, at dusk.

Avi Landau

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tsuna Bon in Tsukuba

After 5pm the sun's cruel and deadening grip began to ease up, and Tsukuba's old neighborhoods started to come to life. By day, most adults had sought out the comforts of some air-conditioned refuge, while those with no such luxury sufficed with a shady place and a fan to laze away the day watching High School Baseball or the Olympics. It was even hard to spot any kids outside enjoying summer vacation. It seems that, they too, much prefer to be indoors with their beloved video games which have overwhelmingly supplanted hunting for insects and playing in the fields as the number one summer fun.
The evening of August 13th is always filled with excitement in these traditional enclaves. It is the first day of Bon, the three day period in which the souls of departed ancestors return to their hometowns to be with their descendants. Children and grandchildren have arrived. Preparations have been made. The house cleaned, the Buddhist altar (butsudan) set up with the proper decorations and offerings (these can conveniently be purchased at the special O-Bon corners in the supermarkets) and special lanterns and votive strips of paper placed at the front gate or entranceway to the house.
On this evening, the spirits of ancestors will come home, and their living descendants go to the cemetery to greet them and guide them home. This evening I saw Tsukuba's small graveyards teeming with color and activity as families brought flowers, water and incense, as well as a lantern with which to guide the spirits back to their homes. Many neighborhoods can be seen with streets fully lined with such lanterns so no spirits will lose their way. Homes in which someone has recently passed away usually put out a much larger lantern suspended high on a pole since this will be the first time that that particular soul makes the journey back. These families celebrating a first Bon, might even light a traditional Bon Greeting Fire (迎え火, mukaebi), which have have been almost completely replaced by lanterns, for guiding and welcoming returning ancestral spirits.
When the families arrive home, the spirits are symbolically purified with water and salt, and greeted with 長い道を御苦労さまでした (nagai michi o gokuro sama deshita), you must be tired after your long journey! Then tea is drunk and incense burned.
In Ibaraki, especially around Lake Kasumigaura, there are many villages which continue to keep alive a very interesting custom, which is especially fun for the kids. The spirits of ancestors don't have to walk from the graveyard. They are transported IN STYLE, on the backs of large dragons or snakes of straw, carried by the village children from the cemetery to EACH HOUSE IN THE VILLAGE where the appropriate ancestors are dropped off with much merriment.
Fortunately, there are also a few neighborhoods in Tsukuba which still keep the same custom, called Bon Tsuna (盆綱), or Tsuna Bon (綱盆). I joined two separate such events (in different parts of Tsukuba) this evening, and I would like to tell you about them.
Before the war, Bon Tsuna had been practiced in numerous hamlets in what is now Tsukuba City. It is now found in only a handful. Today I went around with the the straw dragon of Kami-Sasagi, near Tsukuba Hospital and the Space Center, and also that of Kurihara, farther north, near Tsukuba's heliport.
In both of these magnificent hamlets, the children make the straw dragons on the morning of the 13th, with the help of some adults. At the end of the day, this year's dragons are burned. In Sasagi, the dragon was more elaborately made, and well… more dragon-like, while its Kurihara counterpart seemed to be a thick pole made of straw.
The kids of Kurihara, however, certainly, showed lots of enthusiasm and stamina. They carried the heavy pole to more than 30 houses. They ran up to each house with a cry: "The spirits have arrived!" Then they proceeded to toss the dragon into the air about ten times before going on to the next house. In Sasaki, the same went on without the tossing and chanting.
Besides these straw dragons, both in Tsukuba and in some other area of Japan it is customary to decorate the Buddhist altar with a horse and an ox, made from a cucumber and an eggplant, respectively. These are also meant to represent rides for the spirits, and they are often cast off onto rivers or into the sea at the end of the festival. These decorations are fun for kids and utilize IN SEASON vegetables. A friend of mine in his 80s, Yoshida-san, told me something that I had never heard or read anywhere before. He said that the cucumber horse was meant for the arriving spirits, because horses are fast, the ox is for the departure, because it is slower, allowing for some last lingering moments with mortal loved-ones.

We were asked to do a big gig on the beach this weekend,but unfortunately we have no guitarist as Thomas is Holidaying in the UK.
Maybe we can play the same place(Nalu Toy Box) after he gets back.

Avi Landau

Monday, August 11, 2008

August-time of Rememberance(O-Bon and YOKAREN)

The vegetation is closing in all around you, while the shrill droning of cicadas and other insects pounds in your head. The heat-waves radiating off the ground and buildings make it seem as if the air itself were a living, throbbing organism. August is when nature in Japan is most pulsatingly alive. It is also the time when special consideration is given to the Dead. Since ancient times (records date from the 6th century) the 13th day of the 7th lunar month (our August) has been a time to light fires(lanterns these days) for the O-Bon Festival (the origin of the expression bonfire?). These were used to guide and welcome back the spirits of departed ancestors who are believed to return to their native homes for three days. These visiting souls are consoled with sutra chanting, offered food, drink and incense, and entertained by the community with Bon-Odori dancing (which is never TOO interesting so as to make sure that no spirits would want to overstay their welcome!). On the!
evening of the 16th, a fire is lit again as a send off, often accompanied by offerings which are cast onto a river or into the sea. It is interesting that though the dates of most Japanese traditional events have been changed due to the introduction of the Western calendar (see my article: Lunar or Solar?), most Japanese outside of Tokyo still keep the O-Bon celebration in August, now the 8th month (this could possibly be because farmers would have been too busy in July).

In addition to the festival for the Returning Spirits of the Dead (O-Bon), there are three more days in August connected with remembrance, all of them related to the war that ended sixty three summers ago. Each national or cultural group with its own identity utilizes whatever tools it has at its disposal to embed its own particular view of history into its members. In Japan, the powers that be have naturally used this country's comprehensive education system, the mass media, and public holidays and monuments to effectively shape the way most people remember the war and think about themselves and others. What has become stressed in Japan is that THIS country and its citizens suffered UNIQUELY during the war. August 6th and 9th are reserved for ceremonies commemorating the horrors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (respectively). August 15th, which by strange coincidence is also the peak day of O-Bon, is the day which marks the end of the war (anoth!
er reason to have O-Bon in August) and is most famously commemorated at Yasukuni Shrine, where throngs of visitors come to pay their respects to all soldiers who died in service of the emperor.

For at least half a century, after WWII, people who grew up in the English speaking(and many other countries of the) world would instantly think of Pearl Harbor and kamikaze pilots if JAPAN were mentioned in a word association game. That is because some countries (especially the US) use the story of their successful fight against tyranny in Japan as a way of building an effective national identity. Americans are taught of the treacherous sneak attack on sleeping Americans in Hawaii (wait, didn't George Washington use sneak tactics to defeat the British) and the fanatically determined foe who had no regard for human life (kamikaze pilots) which justified the dropping of the atomic bombs, which also saved countless US lives (wait, wouldn't that mean that Vietnam,fiercelt attacked without provocation, would have been perfectly justified in nuking the US, and anyway how can the incineration of 100,000 civilians and the fatal irradiation of that many more ever be !

Like many, I grew up hearing and reading about the war. For Americans, the story of the heroic struggle against dictatorship and the eventual bringing of democracy to Japan(through its total destruction) was a point of national pride and an important part of the national consciousness. For me it is not surprising that George W. Bush,whose father fought in the Pacific,would want to carry out a similar GOOD FIGHT(in his opinion) in the Middle East, as he was raised in a generation even more full of the MYTH of the BENEVOLENT, democracy bringing effects of American military force.

Growing up in the 70`s,before ever imagining that I would one day live in Japan, I learned of all the great battles major figures and intrigues of the war.

Arrived in Japan to study at university first exposed me to the fact that different countries or groups talk about the same story in very different ways. While I knew all the major battles and many details of what the Japanese often call The Pacific War, people my age seemed to know almost nothing at all. And since the topic hardly ever arose (except with my 85 year old friend Toshiko who lost her husband in the war), I too started to forget about it, or certainly not dwell on it.

For that reason it took me a few years to realize that Tsuchiura City and Ami Town near Arakawa-Oki Station played a major role in Japan's Imperial history. While what is now Tsukuba City was mostly forested and very sparsely populated (because of a lack of water resources) Tsuchiura and Ami thrived as Kasumigaura was used for training the Imperial Navy's pilots. With huge bases (which still exist in a much diminished form having been broken up for industrial use) and thousands of soldiers, sailors, pilots and technicians. Business boomed.

Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the reluctant planner of the Pearl Harbor attack lived in Ami at what is now part of Ibaraki University (I found out about this because I was teaching there). The pilots who participated in the monumentally successful attack trained on Lake Kasumigaura. Tsuchiura`s Sakura Machi entertainment areas' restaurants were used to celebrate. For a while,Thing were real good.

Unfortunately for the Japanese armed forces the US soldiers turned out to be the REAL fanatical fighters. Remember, Japan`s great triumph and entrance into the BIG BOYS club of Imperialism was its defeat of Imperial Russia at Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. After suffering early, stinging defeats, the Czar decided that it just wasn't worth fighting anymore and to let the Japanese have what they wanted. I guess the Japanese commanders thought the same would happen with the US after heavy early losses. They could never that imagine boys from Kansas, Ohio, Vermont, etc., would leave their comfortable lives and come out to the jungles of the South Pacific and fight to the death.

By 1945, Japan was in a desperate situation. Losing battles everywhere, and more importantly, running out of equipment and resources.Japanese cities was completely exposed to American bombers who used weapons intended to cause the most possible destruction and death. In October 1945, the Special Attack Units(tokkotai) were put into action. These were the Kamikaze pilots, boys trained for a few months and then put on a plane loaded with explosives and enough gasoline to get to their targets.

These programs were first initiated in Ami on the shores of Lake Kasumigaura at a school called YOKAREN(予科練). There is still weapons school on the site which belongs to the Japanese Self Defense Forces and on its grounds is a museum commemorating the boys who died flying missions,especially suicide attacks.

Anyone who is interested can visit the YOKAREN memorial museum. It is free of charge and open everyday until 4:30. The soldiers at the gate (women, each time I've been there), are friendly and security is easy-going. Only one person in your group has to write his or her name (no id check). The weapon school campus is sprawling and not a soul can be seen, making it a very peaceful place. You walk to the museum from the gate and pass by some old pre-war buildings and a large display of armoured vehicles which lines the path.

Inside the memorial museum are the photos, belongings and last wills and testaments of more than 1000 boys, mostly between 15 and 20 years of age, who gave their young lives trying to stop an attack on their country and protect what they were taught they had to: the Emperor.It seems most were country boys,probably from poor families,many of them local.

No matter what you think about the Special Attack Forces, you will probably have to FORCE back the tears when reading the letters these boys wrote to their parents.These show a surprising variety of content.

As there is no English here, if you cannot read Japanese well, you should bring along someone to translate.

Most Japanese people do not know about this museum, and naturally most foreign residents don't either. Most people do know that Ami is the site of Japan`s first ToysRus outlet(things do change). To get to the YOKAREN, drive past the big toy store and the army base until you get to the lake. Look for the entrance to the RIKUJO JI EITAI BUKI GAKKO(陸上自衛隊武器学校)

During this season of remembrance, if you have the time, maybe you should head to the shores of Lake Kasumigaura, think about the past, war, and WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT. There are numerous places in ibaraki which have had great national impact, but this place flight school played a role on the stage of world history and left its mark on our language and culture. it is about a 20 minute drive from Tsukuba Station.

By the way, the Hotel Edo-Ya near Mt Tsukuba Shrine used to host the last parties for the Kamikaze Pilots.

They still hold an annual reunion for those who survived.

Avi Landau

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Kanashibari has always been one of our most popular songs, certainly of our most memorable numbers. Often, people who had caught our act just us, and years ago, still remember it.
Let me tell you a little about the songs history.

The entire piece generated out of a bass line which was a favorite of Tom Debor, Xenophonia`s bass player. Ascelin Gordon came up with the reggae guitar to go over it. It was up to me to come up with the melody and the lyrics. A few times we had worked on it in the living room at
The Ice Palace, and the melody for the A-pattern was pretty much set. The original theme, however, was about nuclear waste or pollution and I even might have improvised once about alien invasions.

While the song was in the process of being written, I had a very traumatic and exhausting Kanashibari experience. For non-japanese,this expression might need explanation, and I think
the lyrics of the song preety much explain what it is.

On a sultry summer night, as I slept, it seemed as if a face, human yet not of the flesh, zipped right up to mine,pressing right up against me. I felt as if I were paralyzed by an electric ray-gun, my whole body tingled like a foot that has fallen asleep. when I inhaled, it seemed as if a hurled
upwards and crashed into the ceiling and then crashed to the floor as I exhaled.
This probably went on for a few seconds, but it felt like the proverbial eternity. For a few days after that my whole body felt Charley Horse.

When I told Tom about my experience he sympathized and said that he often had had similar ATTACKS himself. Obviously, this phenomenon is not uncommon in Japan as there is a set expression for it, which is commonly known.

We decided to make this unusual reggae song into something about Kanashibari.

I remember righting the lyrics and the chorus melody as I walked all the way to Tsuchiura(over 2 hours) and I especially remember crossing over the bridge at the Sakuragawa River. Our first recording was done at The Ice Palace in my Tatami room. Ryutaro Kawakami laid down the crazed sax solo in what I remember as one take.

We later recorded the song again as The TenGooz, during the Inertia recording sessions. Tanaka changed the feeling of the song with his slide guitar.

We have been keeping the song alive in concert and most recently Michael Frei on sax and Thomas Mayers on guitar have performed it and the rapt faces in the audience as well as post gig comments show that the song is still a favorite.

Avi Landau

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Joso boys bring back SOIL OF KOSHIEN after disappointing early exit

It's a summer ritual here that I immediately took to. Watching the Koshien (甲子園) High School Baseball Tournament which takes place in Osaka. In my hometown New York, I had always closely followed The Boys of Summer, and by that I mean Major League Baseball. Since my first summer in Japan, however, more than watching the professionals, I have joined the millions of Japanese who with beer or barley tea in one hand and a hand-held fan in the other, spend the dog days of August cheering on the Bozu of Summer (bozu, 坊主, is a term used to refer to a young boy), the high school baseball players who have made it into the Koshien Finals. There are 49 teams (representing each prefecture, with 2 teams from both Tokyo and Hokkaido) in all who battle it out in single elimination. If you are not a baseball fan, now is probably the time to become one, because no matter what, if you turn on the TV during the next couple of weeks that is about all you are going to see. In fact, I have a game on in front of me right now, and it's so exciting that I can hardly type!

Koshien is a perfect way to show hometown spirit, and many of your friends who live in Tsukuba now are probably rooting for their home prefecture team. Native Ibarakians and others who have grown to love the Land of Hitachi (Hitachi no Kuni) have always had a lot to cheer about since this prefecture has often fielded very strong teams. The most famous of these is Joso High School which is located just near Tsukuba City. Once again (for the 3rd straight year) their manager Yukio Kiuchi, who is now 77 years old, has taken them to Osaka for the finals after an incredible extra-inning win in Mito on July 27th. This is a very impressive feat considering the hundreds of schools in the prefecture. Maybe attribute this success to what has been dubbed KIUCHI MAGIC.

Oh my God! This game that I'm watching! The Tokushima team has just come from behind to win! Incredible! Pandemonium! Unbridled joy! Tears (looks more like sobbing) of defeat! Slouching, bent over players. Dirty, sweaty uniforms. Wait! This is the part I love best. The winning team belting out their school song, singing with their bodies and souls making it known to the world that they are making an effort!!they go into their victory sprint. And now , the losing team is scooping up some soil from the infield, a memento of their fleeting moment on the Big Stage. Certainly the game will be replayed in their heads over and over again, probably for their whole lives, with thoughts of how it would have been if things had gone the other way.

Sorry for the digression. Let me get back to my main point. High School baseball fans in Ibaraki have been looking forward to watching Joso play and maybe even win the tournament and some people I know even went down to watch today's game. Unfortunately, things did not go as expected and our local boys were blown away in their first game, by a Tokyo team (even more frustrating). Thus, Kiuchi's bozu, as with all losing teams, could be seen after the game, scooping up the Sacred Soil of Koshien.So much for Kiuchi Magic.But... Wait till next year!

Dont be surprised if you see more than the usual depressed sulking Ibarakians this week. They were hoping to see their team do better.

And of course there are other ways of looking at this High School baseball madness. I, myself often cringe when I hear about the boys` PURE SPIRIT. Like everyone else they are in it for the glory(and the girls?).

Another aspect to think about is the PROFESSIONALIZATION of the game in a similar way to what has happened in college sports in the US. Thus many teams, including Joso recruit players using certain incentives. Thus many students DO NOT get the High School education they should be getting, and will be stuck after graduation. So the coaches, adminstration etc.. come out ahead,but what happens to the boys?

Anyway, they sure WANT to play, and they do it well! Thats what makes it so much fun to watch.

For Koshien games just turn on your TV and flick through the channels.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Thomas Mayers on Enka guitar

Summer Break for TenGooz(with recording!)

The Tengooz are still in studio, but might NOT be having any
August gig! Guitarist Thomas Mayers will be holidaying with his family
in Englands beautiful Lake District, and drummer A-Chan will be tied up with other business
for a few weeks. Sorry for that and thanks to all of you who have been giving us support.
We got alot of positive feedback from our last gig and we hope that we will be back soon with
more songs and new material. We also promise to get some changes done to the web-site which we have been neglecting.

Avi Landau
and the TenGooz

New-Fangled Watermelons

Japanese pomologists revolutionize the Watermelon!

After an amazing and exhausting museum experience, I felt like heading staight for home.
Trying to stay out of the heat, I slipped into the chic,new shopping mall called Tokyo Mid-Town.
Not interested particularly interested in designer goods,I was not even window shopping and at a brisk pace
and head lowered I was heading towards Roppongi station.My inertia was broken when I virtually bumped into a group of journalists
and photographers from the Japanese press.No, they were not out for an interview with The TenGooz, in fact Im still not sure what they were there for.
When I looked up,my eyes focused on something they had never seen before- pyramid-shaped and cube-shaped watermelons, on display at an exclusive fruit shop.
By exclusive I mean high priced. These novelty melons were selling for 200 bucks each! In Japan sending a gift of fruit
is common in mid-summer. These presents, which do not necessarilly have to be fruit(drinks, meats or salad oil are popular, among others)are called O-Chugen,
and are sent to professors, teachers,bosses, in-laws, basically anyone who is in a position to help you out.

These watermelons are not mere curiosities but reflect the hard work and ingenuity of Japanese researchers struggling to deal with watermelon industry related problems.
The two greatest ostacles these researchers have been struggling to overcome have been wasted shipping space due to the fruits round or oval shapes(up to 25 percent of a container can be wasted)
and of course, run-away(or should I say roll-away) melons which have lead to injury and even fatalities over the fruits long history.
San Fransisco is one town which will likely take a liking to these shapes, as that hilly city has been plagued by rolling melon related accidents.

Too bad there is no Nobel Prize in pomology!

Avi Landau