Naoshima: The Island of Inspiration

This piece was originally written for Creative Review magazine. I’ve posted the beginning of it here, along with some of my own photographs of the island. (Ferry ticket machine pictured above. I took the first morning boat over to Naoshima. I was, it’s safe to say, super-over-excited.)

I’m standing in a hut in pitch darkness and a man is trying to tell me what to do. In Japanese. This is something of a problem, as I don’t speak the language, and he clearly doesn’t speak English. As he gently presses on my shoulders, I attempt to take a seat and promptly sit on someone’s lap. Whispered apologies and slightly hysterical, hushed giggles ensue before I find a space on the bench and then quiet falls. As we continue to sit there in the darkness, a faint glow begins to shine gently. It’s like the dawn of sight, and it’s all part of the masterplan. In James Turrell’s Minamidera, the perception of light is a matter of careful design. And in an age when ‘experience’ has become the focal point of so many advertising, branding and marketing campaigns, here the experience is all there is.

A modern art mecca
Light plays an important role in many of the galleries and installations on Naoshima, a small island off the south coast of Japan that in recent years has become something of a modern art mecca. Three galleries feature works by artists such as Bruce Nauman, Walter de Maria and Lee Ufan. The buildings were designed by Tadao Ando, the self-taught Japanese architect who predominantly uses cast-in-place concrete, with steel, wood and glass, in his structures. On Naoshima, light is his fifth element.

Read the rest of this piece here.

Yayoi Kusama's iconic Pumpkin sculpture
This is the roof of the public bathroom designed by Tadao Ando, in Honmura
The view from deep within Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Go’o Shrine
The sleepy fishing village of Honmura
Shinro Ohtake’s piece for the Art House Project in Honmura includes a replica Statue of Liberty punching her way through one of the floors of the building
A real life lily pond, mimicking those found in the Monet paintings on show at the Chichu Art Museum
The view from my hotel room
Gazing down into the outdoor gallery featuring photography by Hiroshi Sugimoto

In Japan, even the bathroom signs are cool

In today in wow, a visit to the stunning Nezu Museum in Tokyo, where I admired some incredible Buddhist masterpieces and was blown away by the beautiful, newish building, designed by KUMA Kengo. The garden is also completely stunning, filled with ancient artefacts and teahouses and gloriously green. Hard to believe you’re in the city, really. No photographs of the exhibits allowed, but I did love the sleek, stylish signs for the bathrooms. Cool, huh?


On the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima: 08:15-August 6-1945

I didn’t realize I was going to be in Hiroshima in the week of the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb. And I suppose it doesn’t make any difference to my thinking that I was. Yet birthdays are always a ripe time for reflection. And 65 years is both a long time and a mere heartbeat. To my mind, the event for which Hiroshima is renowned feels like it took place in another world, and I find the fact that there are still survivors left to tell the tale of what happened to them when the bomb landed somehow astonishing. The hibakusha, as they are known, are a dying breed, of course, as are the veterans of every nation involved in that particular world war, but it’s so old school. We’ve come so far since then, right? Oh. Right.

What struck me as I toured the permanent exhibit at the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima and the various installations that make up the city’s Peace Memorial Park was a theme I’ve touched on before and one I’ve thought about in this context ever since Ian McEwan published his devastating op ed in the Guardian just after the awful event of September 11, 2001. As McEwan put so beautifully, what makes any of us matter in this world is our relationships with other people. As he wrote about the people on those planes on 9/11, their desire to reach out to those who meant the most to them is essentially what elevates the human being. “Those snatched and anguished assertions of love were their defiance,” he writes of those last, anguished phone calls.

Yet the decision-making process leading up to dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima effectively stripped the city’s people of their humanity. Take this excerpt from the June 6th 1945 entry of the diary of Ally Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, highlighted at the Peace Memorial Museum exhibition: “I was a little fearful that before we could get ready the Air Force might have Japan so thoroughly bombed out that the new weapon would not have a fair background to show its strength.”

Through propaganda, a fervent belief in the Allied cause, or whatever it was, Stimson had dehumanized the Japanese nation to the extent that bombing them didn’t mean the obliteration of hundreds of thousands of people, it meant a delightful emphasis of firepower. It’s a common strategy in war. By all accounts, the Japanese had so dehumanized the Chinese that an event such as the Nanking Massacre in 1937 saw its soldiers sink to depths of terrible savagery (Chinese estimates put the death toll there at 300,000). The 9/11 terrorists surely weren’t thinking of individuals or families as they flew planes into buildings. Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, sadly the list goes on and on. One effective way to motivate an army is to turn the enemy into caricature subhumans.

These days, though of course soldiers are still only too present in many a warzone around the world, the disconnect from the battlefield is only growing. When the plane doesn’t need a pilot, it’s even easier for war to be both entirely abstract to the perpetrator and utterly devastating to those on the ground. After all, there’s no need to rally robots. Just set them to “destroy”.

Anyway, back in 1945, Stimson got his wish. The new weapon showed its strength and the era of disconnected warfare went up a gear. 140,000 people are estimated to have died in Hiroshima by the end of 1945.

I thought I was coping pretty well with the exhibit, which is filled with the bloody rags of the clothing people had been wearing when the bomb went off, along with their battered possessions. And then I watched the video testimony of one survivor. I’m not sure when it was filmed, though clearly fairly recently. She described how her son had died in his bed, the buttons of his pajamas burned into his skin. A few days later, her daughter died and last, a few weeks after that, her husband. Her lip trembled as she spoke to the interviewer. “We used to be such a happy family,” she said quietly. “The A-bomb destroyed my life.” And that did it. Her simple, quiet recognition of what had happened to her was a gut-wrenching reminder of the human devastation wrought by an event that the records of the industrial military complex have sought to classify as just an interesting landmark on the path to progress.

And so, on the anniversary of Enola Gay flying to drop her deadly cargo, I have the awful sense that even as we’ve come so far, we haven’t really come anywhere at all. But in an effort to use the sadness of this depressing anniversary as the catalyst for something positive,  a word for all my own extensive support network of amazing people: thanks and love; you rock.

Pictures: the 08:15 time of the bomb blast is used as a motif throughout many of the installations in the Peace park, including graphics in the Peace Memorial Museum and a fountain in the Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims. My hotel was right beside the A-Bomb Dome, which pretty much took a direct hit from the bomb. Everyone inside was killed, while the walls and roof were blown out. The structure stands, and has now been shored up as a physical symbol of the day’s events. The skeletal dome itself is lit at night. I didn’t take pictures of much of the exhibit; it felt wrong, somehow. The glass bottles were fused together in the blast.

Zen perfection

I don’t mean to become one of those people who waxes way too lyrically about the beauty of Japan. As it happens, not everything in the country was designed by Naoto Fukasawa. But check this out, a fountain I spotted tucked away in a corner of a remote Zen temple in Kyoto. See it? The water spout is a leaf. I repeat: The. Water. Spout. Is. A. Leaf. I mean. With attention to detail like that, you just can’t go wrong.

Kyoto: A Random Act of Kindness

I loved the Random Hacks of Kindness event that happened last year, sponsored by tech heavyweights including Microsoft and Google, to bring together a community of developers and geeks to work on the Big Problems of our time.

I’m not actually sure where the concept of “random acts of kindness” first came from (anyone?), but I just got recruited to the cause, after an elderly angel came to my rescue in Kyoto.

The thing about tropical weather, see, is that it can pelt it down without so much as a by your leave. You might think I’d be somewhat prepared for this, what with living in increasingly inhospitable New York. And as it happens, I was very proud of myself for traveling with an umbrella. Only I didn’t actually have said umbrella with me on the morning in question. In fact, I was a number of miles away from it when the heavens opened and I found myself doing an extremely convincing impression of a drowning rat. (The picture above is not blurry because I’m a bad photographer, but because it was pouring with rain.)

Anyway, skip over the part where I attempted to find out where the nearest train station was, only I’d overlooked the fact that I don’t know the Japanese words for either “train” or “station,” which led to a supremely awkward encounter with a man who’d clearly have loved to help if only I could tell him what in god’s name I needed. And skip to the bit where I’m squelching down the street in a state that’s by now bordering on hysterical laughter at how ridiculous this is/I am.

Suddenly, a woman passing by grabs me by the arm, yelling at me in Japanese. Then she points at her umbrella, at which I nod and agree that it’s a lovely umbrella and she’s very lucky. Then she drags me about 100 yards up the road, yelling all the way, which if universal body language/tone are anything to go by includes telling me I’m a very silly girl to get caught in this storm and what the hell do I think I’m playing at, which isn’t really a sentiment I feel I can argue with, to be honest, so I agree busily. And then we get to this hole in the wall alcove, which has a glass counter but not much else, and she drags me under the awning and promptly reaches underneath the counter to pull out a bucket of umbrellas, the big show off. And then she hands me one. At which point I do have a phrase that works: “How much is it?” at which she shrieks again and shakes her head and near enough shoos me out of her shop and back into the rain. At which point the language breakdown happens all over again, with me repeating incessantly, I think, “I’m very well, thank you very much” and heading on my way, squelching off down the street, warm in heart that people really are, in essence, pretty great. I was too bedraggled, befuddled and other words beginning with “be-” to get a photo of my rescuer, but instead, above, a shot of my very beloved, very most favorite souvenir, very pistachio-colored umbrella.

All a long way of saying that I clearly have some karma to repay. So watch out random tourist in distress in NYC. I surely won’t have a bucket of umbrellas on me, but I’ve totally got your cab fare.

Japan — and a case of hedonic adaptation

Having quit my job recently, I promptly granted myself the summer off to recharge. (Hey, you can take the girl out of Europe, but you apparently cannot take the belief that a proper summer holiday is an inalienable right and that the U.S. is pretty much a land of the barbarians when it comes to this issue out of the girl.)

Ahem. Anyway, I find myself in Japan, a place I’ve only previously experienced through manga and movies. So it was with wild over-excitement and a dash of trepidation that I approached Tokyo. Think of the fabulously hilarious things I could write about getting things entirely wrong in an environment where I neither speak nor read the language! And, sure, I now have a healthy collection of tales of spectacularly stupid things I did on arrival and, well, continue to do throughout my trip.

But I’m actually more interested in noticing a case of what MIT behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls “hedonic adaptation.” You’ve experienced this too. It essentially describes the condition of adapting to your environment as time passes. In his latest book, The Upside of Irrationality, Ariely conducted various tests which suggest that if we were smart, we’d space out the things we like (take a break during a massage, redo our home little by little rather than in one big, furniture-buying splurge) so that we get a bump of renewed pleasure each time. On the other hand, we’d be better off getting shot of chores we don’t like doing all at once. Ripping off the bandaid all at once smarts less when it comes to less literal pain like filing taxes, too. In one experiment, Ariely concluded that after a certain amount of time any overweening joy or pain subsides and experiencers settles back into more or less the same state they were in before, be they recent lottery winner or new paraplegic.

Now I certainly haven’t been in Japan long enough to experience a full dose of hedonic adaptation. It’s all alien and different enough that my western eyes seem destined to be out on stalks for a long time yet. But I have already noticed my behavior morphing from unblinkingly wide-eyed, slightly overwhelmed and oh-my-god-is-this-really-happening to a more comfortable stance. Now I find myself zipping into subway cars with nary a second glance. (Then zipping out of them at the next stop on figuring out it was the wrong train. Sadly I don’t think hedonic adaptation means you’re any more likely to get things right.)

Now the question becomes how to capture and bottle this state: that sense of achievement and exhilaration that only comes when your senses are firing on all cylinders and your head spins a la Carrie in an effort to process every visual, sound, movement, person, thing, yet it’s not overwhelming, it’s just brilliant. (Photographs of some of the weird yet familiar sights in Tokyo shown here.) That’s what makes travel so addictive and can make the daily grind seem such a drudge. Remember that heartbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning article about parents who forgot their child was in the back of the car, who then died after being baked in the sun? Shortly after reading that piece, I remember coming to on the subway car on my way home from work. Just a regular day, and yet my last genuine recollection was of walking out of my office building. The rest had been autopilot. And autopilot isn’t something that happens when you’re slightly expecting a ticker tape parade to welcome your exit from the subway.

So on return to New York, I hereby solemnly swear to notice and appreciate the small details that make the city unique and great and weird and interesting. You may only be able to visit somewhere for the first time once, but that’s no reason to get all blase. Thanks for the reminder, Tokyo.