Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The day is short and the work is much

It has been a long time since I wrote an entry for this blog. It doesn't mean that life has stopped and there hasn't been anything to tell, actually the contrary is quite true.
Things have been very busy: High Holy Days, work, daily life. Too much to get all done in one day. There wasn't even time to get one's hair cut. Well, let's say that I would have been able to find the time, but I wouldn't have been happy to spend Y7500 ($83) on something so ephemeral as a hair cut at the nearby barbershop. So I had to wait to have a little more time so that I could go to the Y1000 ($13, more at my speed) which is further away and at the end it was worth the 20 minutes walk.
This barbershop is on the second floor of a building, tucked away behind an anonymous Y1000 sign. Hadn't someone told me I would have just assumed that the barber-pole outside the building was just an eccentric decoration (which would not be so uncommon in Japan after all).
So, I got upstairs and there was a line. The barber, a burly woman, said something with a very harsh tone of voice and without using any of the polite language forms, and with her chin pointed to a stack of numbered CDs. I interpreted it as "Get your number and sit down!"
When my turn came she took my Y1000 and then seated me down and asked something. I assumed she wanted to know what kind of hair-cut I wanted so I responded with the sentence I had prepared in advance: "Please do not cut it too short" and I was sure that it would be enough. But no, the lady, like every good Japanese person I've had my interactions with so far, had to say something back which I didn't understand. My subsequent statement "I don't understand Japanese" was completely disregarded, if anything it generated more questions. After a couple of Wakarimasen, I don't understand, I decided to adopt a different strategy: I would answer alternatively hai and iie, yes and no, without having any idea about the questions.
I got a decent hair-cut. Really nothing special, I've done better myself with my faithful hair-clipper, but the whole experience was really amusing.
At the end she pulled out a vacuum cleaner with a long flexible extension. While I was still thinking, "Why doesn't she take this bib off before vacuuming the floor?!" she was vacuuming my face and neck.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Turn back, Shulammite! Turn back that we may see you!

If you click here you'll be able to listen to a sample of the music that accompanies the performance while you read this posting.

Tokushima City hosts the Awa Odori Kaikan, a theater where the Awa Odori is performed all year long, with several daily performances. Following the suggestion of the gai-jin at the Tokushima Tourist Information Bureau I decided to attend one.

The audience was quite large and included people of all ages: parents with children, teen-agers, retirees, housewives, middle-aged sarariiman. They were unobtrusively looking at me, the only non Japanese, I was staring at them, surprised by the heterogeneous mixture of individuals in the room. The presence of children and teenagers was particularly interesting: Awa Odori is the pride of Shikoku and these completely westernized youngsters had come there to watch the show and at the end to dance with the members of the company.

Oh, yes, because the English flier I found on the desk in my hotel room did not lie when it said "Let's enjoy to watch and to dance Awa-Odori," and at the end of the show the audience was invited to join in with the dance company. After some ten minutes of intense dance (during which the participating audience took themselves very seriously) a winner was selected. The winner, a local retiree (if I understood him correctly), had rivaled the members of the company in energy and dexterity. The leader of the dance company interviewed him with extreme composure, as if were talking with the Emperor himself, and every now and then he would make sounds (soo des ka? aaaa!) showing that he was taking interest in the gentleman's story, as did the rest of the audience. At the end the winner received a red and white flower chain, some sort of diploma and a standing ovation.

If you read the brochure of the Tokushima Tourist Information Bureau "Three major scholarly hypothesis" exist about the origin of Tokushima Awa Odori:
1. It originates from the dances of the Bon Festival, held in July of the lunar calendar...
2. It derived from Furyu Dance, the dance performances said to be at the origin of the Noh theater...
3. It celebrated the local feudal lord when the Tokushima Castle was completed in 1587...
Whichever one the right hypothesis, the Awa Odori is full of sensual energy, like most dances.

The show lasted almost one hour. First came in the band that positioned itself in a corner and started playing, then the dance begun. The dance itself was very simple and repetitive - women and men advancing in line and then moving in circles and other repetitive geometrical patterns - and it played off the unbalance between the two groups of dancers and the way they presented themselves on the scene, between raw energy and controlled elegance. Let's start from the costumes: the female dancers were completely covered, wore tight, modest dresses, that didn't allow much movement; the male dancers wore loose coats, not fully closed that showed their underwear. The women held their hands up above their heads; the men waved them all around their bodies, marking the space. The women's bearing was very stately, they advanced in small steps, with their arms gently floating in the air; the men strode with their knees bent, and their movements were somewhat sensual, provocative. The men's hand gestures were wide and seemingly out of control, and every so often the fans they were holding would suddenly open and move down just at crotch' height. Each woman's space was clearly defined by their dresses; each man instead was out to expand his own space, get a prey. Like Satyrs they were jumping around the female dancers who kept moving at the same pace, and didn't loose their aplomb despite the frenzy of the male dancers.

All this while the taiko (heavy drums), the high pitched flutes and the shamisen, kept playing the same mesmerizing tune for the entire duration of the show, with almost no variation. As the sound waves moved through the air in the space and reverberated in my wooden bench, different parts of my body perceived different instruments at different times. At some point I felt I was in a trance, probably helped by the repetitive movements of the dancers, the dimmed lights, and the stroboscopic lights on the back screen. This experience itself was worth all the bad pizza.

A brief aside. The following day when I arrived to Tokyo, too late to grab any of the set lunches but still early enough to find lunch somewhere, while scanning the square around the train station, a sign caught my eye: パレルモ (Palermo).

And guess what I had for lunch...

Monday, September 14, 2009

A time to break down, and a time to build up

There is a sense of impermanence here in Japan, a feeling shared by many of its citizens.
Things change, move, die, are reborn.
Old trees can be uprooted without much guilt, buildings are torn down every 30 years or so, stuff is thrown away periodically.
There is even a whole Shinto shrine that has been dismantled every 20 years and rebuilt exactly in the same way in the same place for the last 1600 years.
And also the Jews of Japan have torn down the old building of their community center and rebuilt a new one, modern, linear, essential, peaceful, full of light. The third one since the community was established.
We have a mikveh, several classrooms, a great library, lounges, and most of all we have a beautiful synagogue, made of American wood, Italian marble, Jerusalem stone, all perfectly blended together to create this space designed by Mr. Fumihiko Maki, a famous Japanese architect.
I haven't been able to decide if Mr. Maki's design for our shul represents a tent, Abraham's and Sarah's tent, that welcomed everyone inside, or if it's like branches of a tree, a עץ חיים, that wraps every individual without discrimination.
Whichever one it is I'm the lucky one who has inaugurated it last week.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A meal offering in a pan

Shikoku - part 2

It must have been written in the stars. I bet that had I read my horoscope it would have said something like "In the next couple of days you'll have lots of pizza."

I arrived in Tokushima City early enough to see the town in the day-light. My hotel was above the train tracks and all I had to do to reach the reception was simply to follow a few arrows. But you know I still managed to get lost inside this one building that hosted my room on the 13th floor of the hotel, a 5-story mall, and the hall of the train station.

Since the hotel had several restaurants all with prohibitive prices, I decided to go look for a place to eat dinner outside of the building. So here I am with my colorful knitted yarmulka and my faithful pocket dictionary, entering the local Tokushima Tourist Information Bureau. I always carry my pocket dictionary with me. I love to phrase the questions in Japanese, and I always try to formulate them in a way that requires simply a Yes/No answer or, at the most, that can be answered with an adverb or simple phrase. For some obscure reason the answer is always much, much longer and usually contains words not listed in my 48,000 words pocket dictionary.

The island of Shikoku is the place where Japanese Buddhists go on the "88 Temples pilgrimage" and the trail starts in the outskirts of Tokushima City. I was therefore under the impression that finding shoojin ryori, food for pilgrims, i.e. strictly vegetarian, would be easy. Of course I was wrong but, when I labored on putting together the question "Is there nearby any place where one can eat shoojin ryoori," I didn't know it. To my surprise one of the employees of the Tourist Information Bureau was another gai-jin, so I flung myself at him. To make a long story short, when I told him I needed vegetarian food his answer was: "Well, your best bet is Italian," and printed out a map showing the location of Mariisa - Itaria ryoori (Marisa - Italian Cuisine). Here it is again, my nemesis, Itaria ryoori. Then he asked: "Where are you from?" "Italy." And he, making that heavy aspiration sound that Japanese people do when they are about to disagree, said: "Oh. Then you shouldn't go eat there. It's really bad." 45 minutes later I had worked my way to Mariisa - Itaria ryoori, the last business open in a shopping area with a vaguely Middle Eastern souk flavor. Nobody inside. I told my self "No, it's not because food is bad. It's because it's the middle of the week." Probably it was empty because it was the middle of the week. And because the food was bad.

There is a very common gesture I've seen a lot since I'm here: right hand raised at face level, palm facing down, arm bent at 45 degrees, then the arm moves up and down for a couple of times. This gesture means something like "No. You may not" and I believe that the speed at which the hand moves is proportional to the strength of the negation. After reading the menu at Mariisa I told the waitress that because of my religion I am not allowed to eat most of the things on the menu (let's not talk about the look on her face upon hearing this statement, a mixture of "Why would I care?" "Are you crazy?!" and "Loooooser!!!") and I asked if I could have a pasta with mushroom without shrimp. Hand up and down. Could I have the pasta and beans without the sausage? Hand up and down. Could I have the pasta with tuna without the shrimp? Hand up and down. I don't know if it was a nervous tic, but the poor girl kept shaking her hand up and down, no matter which item on the menu I was asking. I reached the point when I started asking just for the fun of it, inquiring even about items I wouldn't want to eat, to see where the breaking point was, when would she crack and say yes. When I got up to leave she said "pizza" and basically told me that they could make a pizza with anything I wanted. So I ordered pizza with mushroom, cheese (crossing my fingers), onions and tomato sauce. Some 20 minutes later the waitress arrived holding a frying pan and a spatula. My pizza was ready. Voila: fried deep-dish pizza, with a thick layer of a white gooey substance (crossing my fingers didn't really work), a can of mushrooms with much of their water, huge chunks of still raw onion, and sweet sauce. My hand felt this really strong urge to go up and down, but I stopped it and ate my last botched pizza for the day: it was getting late and I did not want to miss a local dance troupe of Awa Odori (this link will teach you much more you ever wanted to know about the Awa Odori).

To read about my Awa Odori experience, you'll have to wait for the next post.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

And he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and bowed to the ground.

Part 1 - Somewhere near Tadotsu

(and yes, it's OK if you don't know where Tadotsu is...)

I'm back to Tokyo after a two-day trip to Shikoku. It was clear from the moment the plane took off that it would be an interesting journey: I was the only non Japanese on the plane, which made it also very easy for my local contacts to spot me at the exit gate.
It turned out that I was the first Italian my contacts had met, even though one of them had lived in the US for some time. I was surprised to find out that even in provincial Shikoku the list of Italian words every one seems to know is the same as the one in the US, just with a slightly different intonation (pasuta, pitsa, Borare, Reonarudo, supagetti, mandorino, Arumani, Besupa). As usual, when the last item on the list is uttered, inevitably comes an uncomfortable silence followed by the question: “And where in Italy are you from?” My answer, “Sicily,” this time was not followed by the usual “Mafia!!” response which, in all honesty, disappointed me. People say
“Mafia,” I do my usual schtick and then we move on, or we face another uncomfortable silence. Finally, as if waking up, one of my fellow travelers surprised me with a mostly unusual reaction: “Aru Kapone!!, Aru Kapone!!” pointing a finger to our driver and making a machine-gun sound. Let me render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s: he also knew that Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and that there is a strait between it and the Boot.

My hosts were very concerned with my lunch, what and where I would eat it. All my local contacts knew about Jews was that we are very finicky eaters, but as soon as they heard I am from Italy the proverbial light went off and they told each other, almost at unison “Itaria ryoori deshoo ka?, Should we have Italian?” Those who know me surely have heard me saying the following at least once: “I don't eat Italian food in restaurants, except pizza.” Not only because if I really crave Italian food I can make it myself, but mainly because it never tastes like mom’s. That “Itaria ryoori” sounded like “doom and destruction” to my ears. We were driving in a narrow road, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rice pads and Japanese-looking tiny wooden houses. I dreaded the meeting with Italian cuisine as reinterpreted by some Japanese chef in rural Shikoku, but my two hosts were aglow, pleased with their idea, undoubtedly the perfect solution to a very difficult problem.

So ten minutes later there I was in a wide and crowded parking lot, surrounded by rice pads and Japanese-looking tiny wooden houses, walking towards my gallows. On the one side a flower store simply called “Hana-ya, flower shop.” On the other side a gray, three-story, anonymous, concrete building. In front of it a sizable sign read “Dearu Koku - Itaria-ryoori, Dear Coke - Italian cuisine” spelled both in English and in katakana. I told myself: “You knew it would be an adventure, so shut up and go for the ride!” This “suggestion” made it easier to accept my inevitable fate, and entering the dining hall I was much more relaxed and ready to go with the flow. There was something melancholic in the combination of olfactory, visual and tactile stimulation I received from the place, so I won't talk in detail about the mixture of smells that grabbed me at my stomach as we walked in, neither about the sensation of greasy sticky floor, nor about the faded color of the wall-paper, peeling here and there from the walls.

We were told by a very polite hostess that the place was full and we had to wait “nijippungurai, around 20 minutes.” For a second I thought that it was an eternity to be stuck there and hoped that my two companions would not agree to this delay in our work schedule for the day, but after a quick powwow they decided it was OK, so they gave the hostess my name to put us in the waiting list, and asked for the menu.

Remember, I was going with the flow, so when they got excited reading on the menu Shichiriaana pitsa, Sicilian pizza, I also got all excited. Because of our unbecoming reaction we incurred in the hostess’ angry looks, at which one of my companions explained: “Kare-wa Shichiria-jin desu! Kare-wa Shichiria-jin desu! He’s Sicilian! He’s Sicilian!” After dropping her jaw and exclaiming: “Hontoooooo!? Reeeeally?!” the hostess started bowing down to me. Not just head-bowing. Not even upper-body-30-degree bowing. Rather full-blown-upper-body-90 -degree bowing. Not once, not twice, but I lost track of how many times she did.

When she finally got over herself, she called someone else to replace her and made a very polite, measured gesture inviting us to follow her. We went downstairs to the lower hall that wasn’t open up to that moment, and accompanying her words with another hand gesture she said that we could sit anywhere we wanted. At that point I knew exactly what I would have had for lunch that day: shichiriaana pitsa, no matter what was on it.

As she listed the ingredients of the pizza my mouth was getting all watery: mozzarella, tomato sauce, eggplants and… salmon, all foods I love. Not really the ingredients for Sicilian pizza but at least there was no pork. Moreover the fact that she had mentioned the eggplants somehow reassured me that at least the eggplants would be Sicilian style (one centimeter cubes, fried in olive oil, and then simmered in tomato sauce).

For Americans, Sicilian pizza is the one and a half inch tall chewy dough I have never been able to swallow. For Sicilians, Sicilian pizza (which, by the way, we call spincione), is a 3-quarter of an inch oily dough, loaded with fresh tomato sauce, roasted bread crumbs, pecorino cheese, anchovies, sliced onions, oregano, and capers and olives buried inside. For me it is my mom and her sisters kneading the dough at the beginning of the spring, and spreading it in large old pans blackened by the smoke of the wood oven, and myself and my cousins pushing capers and olives deep inside the dough. Shichiriaana pitsa was none of this.

In much less than the 20 minutes she had told us at first, my shichiriaana pitsa and my companions’ two pastas were on our table. The sauce was fine. The mozzarella, was motsarera, a processed yellowish cheese; the salmon, tiny lozenges of lox; the eggplants, thin, raw, pungent slices. This extremely heterogeneous mixture of stuff was symmetrically arranged over a round, machine-pressed, crunchy piece of dough that tasted like shmurah matza (which I happen to love, so I lucked out!). I ate all of it, making loud sounds of approval, continuously saying “Oishii! Delicious!” and giving thumbs up to our hostess, who was standing there silently at our disposal.

Later that day, on the train ride from Tadotsu to the next stop of the journey, Tokushima city, I couldn’t help but thinking about those people’s reaction to the fact that I'm Sicilian, and about the discomfort it caused me. Discomfort because of my ambivalent feelings about being Italian and, the even more mixed feelings about being Sicilian; about my pride for Italy and Sicily of the past, and my loathing for Italy and Sicily of today. But, given that I have to come up with two derashot for this Shabbat, this will have to be the subject of another blog entry at some point later on.

Three “Babel Moments” that happened during this one day at Tadotsu:

  1. The “Aru Kapone! Aru Kapone!” mentioned above.
  2. “Creap,” the name of a coffee creamer served with coffee at Dearu Koku, clearly a contraction of “cream powder” and pronounced as “creep.”
  3. “Let's shit together,” a highly unlikely suggestion during a very formal meeting. I should remember in future that many Japanese pronounce “see, sea, si” as “shee, shea, shi.”

Dearu Koku

From the top:
The 8月25日(火) Tue 8/25 menu that set in motion the whole Dearu Koku incident told in the blog entry above. The fourth line from the bottom is the nefarious Shichiriaana pitsa. Not worth the money.

The hostess of the Dearu Koku, proudly displaying their Shichiriaana pitsa. I swear, taking this picture was not my idea.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mene mene tekel u-farsin

It feels as if the mysterious hand has written everywhere: on the remote controls of the TV and AC, on my cellphone, on the microwave oven, on the switches of my hotel suite, on my iron...

Tiny, elegant signs at times intriguing, at times, like at King Belshazzar's banquet, terrifying.

It doesn't really help that here and there I'm able to identify a kanji or a kanji-radical. Twenty-five years ago, when I was majoring in Japanese Literature at the University of Rome I knew almost 600 kanji, today I recall less than 100. I actively knew more than 2000 words, most of which are buried under layers of rust.

Since I'm in Japan I've caught myself laughing hysterically in the most diverse and unexpected situations: looking at a string of kanji and feeling absolutely helpless and clueless, or staring at clerks who have flooded me with endless sequences of sounds where I could identify only the final sound ka, the question mark.

Without the slightest idea about the life unfolding around me.

Friday, August 14, 2009


It started with a light rattling of the metal coat hangers in the closet.
"It must be a neighbor's car pulling out of the drive-way...".
The rattling became stronger and louder, and there was this intense nausea that turned into panic when I saw the chandelier swaying.
And then I let go of the panic and enjoyed the moment.
A strange sence of of peace while feeling the sismic waves passing through my body.
My office chair moving on its wheels, my tall desk-lamp shaking, the clinking of metal objects somewhere behind me.
And it was over.
I don't know how many seconds it lasted, I bet that I'd find this information in some Japanese website, but why bother?
The first of many she-hecheyanu moments that I'm sure await me in the months to come in Japan.
August 13th, but posted later.

Before I start blogging...

"May the Lord bless you and protect you,

May the Lord show you kindness and be gracious to you,

May the Lord bestow favor upon you and grant you peace." (Num 6:24-26)

These are the three pesukim, verses, from the Torah known as Birkat Kohanim, The Priestly Blessing. They constitute the blessing the Kohanim, the priests, would impart daily in the Temple of Jerusalem to the Jewish people. Today they are still recited during services, but the practice varies in the different movements.

These are the words my mom told me before I left my village a couple of weeks ago, holding her hand over the back of my head. I guess that’s the way a Christian woman does nesi’at kappayim to bless her son, the rabbi. And these are the words she repeated when I called home to inform my family in Italy I had arrived safely in Tokyo. And with these words, that I hope be fulfilled during my time in Japan, I would like to start this blog.

This first entry in my mind is also little tribute to my mom and dad who, unfortunately, given their complete ignorance of English will never be able to read it. My parents are two of the most amazing individuals I have ever met. They have showered with love my sister and me, and made the biggest sacrifices to take us where we are. They have accepted me in all my different permutations and with all my revelations, and, most of all, they have never clipped my wings and let me fly freely since I was eighteen.

Even when I announced to my parents that I might be moving to Japan, their only reaction was: "If this is where God sends you, you have to go." So here I am, with their blessings, missing them slightly more than when I was in the US, because Tokyo, mentally, is further away from Sicily than NYC.