Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Suzaka, Hiroshima and Sour Milk

When I was in Japan as an exchange student from 2002 to 2003 I would walk to Garyu Koen all the time. Recently, when I was back in Suzaka of Nagano Prefecture, I met with every one of my families and people who knew me around town. Every one said one common thing, "He would always go for long walks at night to Garyu Koen." The name Garyu means "Sleeping Dragon," and Koen means, "Park." We all know that the 1998 Winter Olympics were in Nagano, so there's more than enough snow here, and when it snows at Garyu Koen, the small mountain within it looks like a dragon sleeping in a blanket of snow.

There are two bridges in Garyu Koen, one is pictured further down this post, but the one shown above is a smaller red bridge. I drew this from the larger white bridge which transverses the center of the lake at the park.

It had been roughly 5 years since coming back to the park. I noticed that there were very large amounts of giant koi and turtles swimming in the lake that weren't there before. I laughed when Mako started clapping, claiming that it would attract the fish and turtles. I teased her in English and then the two Japanese business men who were right next to us started clapping and the fish and turles started to show up. Mako won.

Here's a quick sketch of the white bridge at Garyu Koen:

I wished that I would have had more time to spend at Garyu Koen, but when you live in someone else's house, you have to obide by their rules and the man who let me live with him, Nodaira-san, mentioned in my previous post, is a very bossy person. In fact, he is the boss of two companies in Suzaka. In fact, it's hard to go somewhere and find someone who doesn't know of him or owe him a favor. I find it strange when I can get into a taxi and simply say, "Nodaira," and they know where to take me. He is a very busy man who always used the imperative form of verbs to tell people what to do.

He understands interesting things and has acquired many interesting things, yet he did not know what it meant to simply go to the park and enjoy it and because of that, I was not allowed time to enjoy it. It's a tricky situation when you want freedom yet depend on others... The only real thing I can say at the end of the day is, "Thank you."

I left Suzaka on the 18th to stay with Mako's aunt and uncle and their ten year old child, Yuutarou. I saw this genius playing with an abacus and if you have not seen someone skillfully use an abacus, I recommend that you search for it on YouTube immediatly.

We were both a little shy to meet each other and talking to each other was hard at the beginning. So, I thought maybe I could get to know him better by drawing Ultraman for him.

After this drawing we spent the next couple hours playing 2000 J-League Soccer on his Play Station One. Oh, the nostalgia! We played the hell out of a game that is literally translated as the "Game of Life," which is exactly like the American version except with spooky Japanese photo realistic paintings all over the board and many different interchangeable game boards and parts. He always won. We played every night.

If anyone reading this is familiar with the cartoon and comic character, Doraimon, they may be familiar with the spinoff baseball comic call Doraibase, as in Doraimon Baseball. I drew Yuutarou and his younger cousin, Ryohei, each a drawing of Doraibase. Again, I've gotta say that I love the kids.

When I was waiting at his aunts house I found a pair of guardian dog statues that I mistook for Komainus. I love the textures, the shapes, the rhythms and everything about them. I could spend a life time drawing them. How ironic that I didn't have enough time to draw the other one...

Mako and I had a whole day to spent in Hiroshima. It was hot and filled with really depressing sights. When I first in Hiroshima, about 2 months ago, I stood at the exact spot that the bomb was dropped. When I returned this time, I spent roughly 3 hours in the Hiroshima Peace Park Museum reading captions, looking at photos, walking into exhibits explaining nuclear warfare and it's consequences and wholly regretting that I am an American.

In America, we say that we dropped the bomb to end the war sooner, but there were many more reasons that we dropped the bomb and many details left out of our explanations of history. For example, Japan was the initial target from the get go, yet, not one city was established as the target. So, the US and Britian, narrowed the choices down to a few. Routine bombing was not permitted in these cities because if the bomb was to be dropped, they wanted to be able to accurately asses the amount of damage that was dealt. Then when the war was winding down and the US and Britian feared that if they didn't act soon then Russian would also get spoils from Japan, they decided to bomb Japan without warning to prevent the Russians from also having a say in Japan.

I really wish that everyone could have seen the giant models of the cities and the giant amont of destruction that it caused. One of the remaining buildings was made by a Czech architect and still is standing today. It's called the Atomic Dome:

The modern structure in the back is one of the lights for the Hiroshima Baseball stadium in the background.

In America, I've never met a Jehova's Witness. While in Japan, I've met four. This time, they had incredibily bad timing. While drawing the dome they approach me, seeming like nice interested Japanese women, but soon the conversation turned to converting me into a Jehova's witness just as it started to rain. That rain continued on and off through out the day. Finally when the rain seemed to stop, I started drawing the castle in Hiroshima. It started raining again. I really didn't care though. In fact, it was quite liberating not caring and drawing in the rain. Check it out:

Two days later, I returned to draw Hiroshima Castle on a dead lawn which I was told I couldn't sit on.

The final image of this post is of one of the many people who love to stare at foreigners in Japan. Mako informed me of his gazing eyes and I looked at him and looked away. I repeated until we decided that he was indeed creepy and something should be done. So, I asked her how she felt and she said that she really didn't like him, and that was enough for me. As I drew him, everyone on the train looked at my drawing and then looked at him. Looked at my drawing, then looked at him. My drawing, him. Drawing, him. Just before he got off the train we showed him the drawing and he smiled. Then Mako told him that he shouldn't stare at us like we're in a zoo. It was great to see his smile turn sour with shame.

The final text on this post is some really shitty sad news: It's being discussed and decided upon as I write this as to whether or not my project in Ukashima will be able to continue for too many reasons to count. The problems are as superficial as a George W. Bush speech in places and as complicated as counting grains of salt in other places. I really hope it can continue but it seems like it will have to stop. Find out next post: Same tall time, same tall channel.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


I had four host families when I was in Japan as a Rotary Exchange Student from 2002-2003. It's been five years and finally I've come back to see my families again. I've been staying at my fourth host family's house, the Nodaira's, since coming back to my host town, Suzaka. Nodaira-san has been my best model since coming to Japan. He he is:

I'll be back to drawing Ukashima soon. First I'll be making a stop in Hiroshima to see Mako's cousins and hopefully make an appearance at a school to teach a bit of English. I think I'd like to teach them how to use the most versatile word in the English language: shit. They really don't have "swear words" here. I love don't have "swear words" here. I love it.

But more importantly, while in Hiroshima I'll be visiting the WW2 Memorial Park and Museum. I've already been to the exact site where the bomb exploded above the city and it was spine chilling. I feel a pretty large responsiblity to go and pay my respects again.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

On the Run


Sketched from the bottom of the Kintaikyo bridge on an overcast day. It was so cloudy that the castle on top of the mountain could barely be seen.

The island of Miyajima and it's gate are considered to be a National and World Treasure. This is one of my favorites from the day Mako's family, my brother and I spent the day there. Tame friendly Deer roam the island too.

This bird is trained to fish for people. It dives into the water, catches a fish in it's mouth, swallows it, then regurgitates it. Then we eat it.

So, Mako's father came into the house and placed this beetle on the floor. I stopped eating my lunch and starting drawing it. They're called Kuwagata and are one of Japanese children's first pets. He now lives in an empty sushi try full of scraps of paper and a bit of honey on a paper towel.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Before this post even gets to the guts of it, I've got to share this monkey picture I saved from the trash.

But yeah, it's been a while. Let's clarify some things and begin the updates:

I'm staying with my girlfriend, Mako, and her family, the Homuras. Their house is on the island of Oshima. I'm drawing in a different island called Ukashima where I'm living wth Mako's Grandma and Grandpa. It took quite a while to get back to Ukashima to draw because Grandpa had been sick and is actually still in the hospital. He's soon going to get out and back to maintaining his orange fields. When I did get back to the island the whole island was incredibly busy because of the new fishing season, which I'll explain later. For now, enjoy this next cartoon kid with a healthly dose of your irregularly scheduled blog.

Upon returning to Ukashima, I started out by resuming my portrait hunting. I knew that the people who lived next to Obachan were never there, but that day they were. Upon knocking, I found two old women. This first women was really out going and had recently lost her husband. I drew her right in front of the shrine to him. I really can't tell you why, but she thought that it was very important to talk to me about how sad it was that Bruce Lee died. Yep.

I had to basically yell at the next woman from almost a whisper's distance because she was so deaf. She also was the foreshadowing of the trend of this week: People not wanting me to draw them. I begged her to let me draw her because she was so intriguing to me. She had a wicked sense of humor too. She told me again and again that I couldn't draw her. So, I just started to draw her, and then she became very curious. I think it's my favoirite portrait since beginning this project. After finishing the portrait she was very humble and very happy, almost to tears, because I spent the time to draw her and thought that she was important enough to draw.

It's hard to put my finger on it, but I find that most Japanese women live in a way that they make themselve subordinate to men. I've had many discussions with people about this, and usually the conversation ends as soon as I ask the hard questions. The role of men and the role of women have been well established from a long time ago. I think that Japanese women are getting braver and stronger, but there is still an air of helplessness. I'm all about accepting other cultures and learning what they value and how they think, but I've never felt more alone in my life before this trip to Japan.

In my previous visits, I was trying to learn about Japanese culture and how to act. During this trip, I have the mindset of being an individual seeing other people as individuals and it makes me sad to see how these women have been manipulated since they were very young and since generations before that. I don't even feel American anymore. I feel like an individual.

These next three men are part of the reason why the island was so busy and why I was only able to do 15 portraits in a week. Everyone was so busy helping the fishermen that they didn't have a combination of time and energy to let me draw them for 5 minutes. It's Iwashi fishing season meaning that the fishermen go out fishing at 5 am and the women and their wives work in a factory which packages the fish until roughly noon. Everyone is now tired.

After drawing the two previous ladies I was told that I should head to Taki-nechan's place to eat some Iwashi sashimi, which is a tasty delicacy, and all of the fishermen were in there. Noon thirty. Smoking. Drunk. Noon thirty.

They had just been out for the first day getting Iwashi and they were celebrating the day's catch with the rest of the people helping the fishermen. I know and have drawn most of them. So, when I entered I was welcomed and drew three men. The man on the left was a good friend of Mako's Grand Uncle, and we became good friends over a lot of booze. He was a very funny dude who kept saying, "Michael Jackson. C'mon baby Yeah baby YEAH BABY!" Pure gold.

For one day I decided to switch up the materials that I was using and try some new methods. On this day, I met 10 people. 8 people told me, "no."

On the subject of people telling me, "no," the man in the middle was a reminder of one of the reasons why Ukashima people tell me, "no." So, I draw the man in the middle, I've previously drawn the man's three kids. There's a grandpa, grandma and a mother in the house too. I've met them all. The grandmother won't let me draw her, and she thinks that it's a compliment that she won't let me draw her. In her perspective, she doesn't believe that she's good enough for me to draw her. This is because they value objective cultural good looks so much that she thinks I couldn't possibly see her beauty. Beyond that, it's an even bigger compliment if she doesn't let me draw her family either.

The girl in the middle of the next set was really great. She is a 15 year old girl who I was told was good at drawing cartoons and comics. She draws very well. She also knows that her brother who loves to break stuff and shoot people, dogs, cats, random cars and whatever he fancies with a BB gun, is annoying and not like her. She knows that people from the island aren't like her either. I'm not surprised that she wants to be a comic artist! She had the most conversationally dynamic responses of anyone from the island.

The predeeding drawings were done in the times when no one could be found to draw. People always asked me if I draw scenery and landscapes and I tell them that I do, but I don't draw them now because I'm working on my project of drawing the islands people. Well, after long hot days of walking around the island and not finding anyone I decided to draw what I wanted.

This changed everything.

The people who were genuinely interested in art, seeing their own portraits, foreigners, expanding their island life and the people who were outwardly friendly were quickly drawn. Seriously, within spending 14 days on the island I drew 50 people. That means, finding them, introducing myself and finding the connection between them and myself, talking to them about their lives, usually drinking some coffee or tea with them, finding out connections about why the island is the way it is and the least of all drawing them. Drawing does not take much time, but this is not all about the drawings either.

So when there was a giant increase in shy people, busy people and people straight up telling me, "no," I starting drawing other things. Some of them have something to say about the island, while some of them are simply things that caught my attention.

This is the first of many:

From a bridge over looking some vegetable fields and people farming them, I spotted that truck. That truck must be the most popular vehicle in Japan. Hands down. Further down the post is another drawing of the truck with a larger explanation.

Next up is the location where all of the fish that the fishermen catch goes. It's called Kakoba. Inside are about 20 old ladies who work in a factory that seriously pumps all the fish into the factory via tube.

From this drawing the fishermen's union can be seen on the far left, the fishermen's boats and a few apartments. While I was drawing this, two of my Ukashima Elementary School friends brought me 4 fish that they caught. I donated them to the Ukashima starving cat population.

A sweet bike:

On the way to play Soccer with the kids at Ukashima Elementary School, I saw this bug. It made me think of my buddy Spencer who also appreciates bugs. It has long hairs and because of that is called Kemushi, Hair Bug. It didn't move until I was done drawing it.

So, after playing Soccer with the kids they asked the teacher if I could walk home with them. I was not expecting this, but it was fun catching crabs, playing catch with a baseball and using bamboo leaves as a whistle. They ask really funny questions too. One of them mischeviously asked me if I knew what a "penis" was. He was shocked to hear that it was English. Before leaving on the walk back to the village, I drew this wonderful machine of machines: the Suzaki "Carry."

Like I said, it's the most popular vehicle in Japan. If you come to Japan, you will undoubtly see them every where. This particular vehicle shows a lot about the people of Ukashima. Look at the front: there's no license plate. They could care less. Why? Because there are no police on the island. None. They never come there either. I wish America had more of that. In the back there is a large aparatus that holds water to irrigate the farms.

This truck is at least 20 years old and is still working regardless of the large amounts of rust. The people of Ukashima basically work until they die. If they don't work, they get sick. After they're done working in the factory for 7 hours, they go work in the mountains for another 4 or 5 hours. While it may seem not that impressive at first, they make every single meal by themselves. For an American reader, please consider how many times you eat out per week. Now consider not being able to eat at a restraunt and how much time you save by eating at a restraunt. On Ukashima, I have not yet found a restraunt or something similar.

This next drawing is actually a self portrait. I drew it while standing in the middle of the road while looking at these spherical mirrors that are on most corners so that the drivers can see what's coming around the corner. I once heard my Russian mentor, Natalia, say that a drunk person could drive down an American road because they're so wide.

Once I returned to Oshima to be with Mako's family I showed them my portraits and other drawings which inspired my to draw Mako's mother:

It also inspired Mako's mother to draw me:

Before I said this everything changed when I started drawing things other than people. I continued to draw the things I wanted and I realy enjoy drawing. Since I didn't get the chance to draw many people, when I returned back to Oshima I wanted to draw everything. I began walking around Oshima and making location drawings. I met soooo many people by doing this. The greater thing was that I wasn't out searching for them, but I was found by them.

In the set shown above, while drawing the bottom left location, I was approached by 8 people. One of them walked out of his barber shop, down 3 blocks down the street and began having a conversation with me. He asked quesitons like where I was from, how long I was here, why I can speak Japanese, where am I staying. When I told him that I was staying at the Homura house, he said he knew Mako's father and for me to tell him that he's very good at golf. He also told me that he was an art student and then eventually became a barber because his parents convinced him that he could make no money.

The man came back again, with the art that he made in art school. The man could draw. They were classical drawing studies of still lives and copies of the head of David and such. He told me that he loved Picasso and that the line of 45 degrees is the line that human being really enjoy. I told him that he should read Kandinsky because he's got a lot to say about that. Then he went back to his barber shop.

I was chuckling when he came back a third time holding a puppy in his arms. He wanted to see how the drawing was turning out and I think that he thought the puppy wanted to see it too. His name is Nakano-san and he is awesome. He invited me to come to his barber shop to visit him again and I plan to do just that.

While making the fourth drawing in the set displayed above, the Oshima Elementary School let their students out for the day. Many of the students said a friendly hello to me. Many old ladies walked by. They always wanted to see what I was drawing. I showed an old women my art and she thought that I was giving it away. It broke my heart when I had to tell her that I wasn't giving it to her and that I needed the drawing.

While speaking to the old woman, one 6th grade girl was just kinda lingering around looking down at the ground and I asked her if she was okay and she immediately began asking me questions. I showed her all of the drawings that I had on me, and then I answered more questions for the better part of 20 minutes. I'm usually impatient when I'm drawing because I like to be drawing and not distracted, but I always talk to the kids. They are so important and vital and maybe if I talk to them they'll want to think more artistically and differently about who an artist is. I was flattered when she asked for my autograph. I told her that I wasn't famous, but she said that it jsut wouldn't do without an autograph. I thought that I could sketch something for her, so, I asked her if she liked animals. She said like 20 different animals. I was surprised when she told me that she liked snakes, so I drew her a snake on a piece of newsprint.

She asked if I'd be here tomorrow and I said that I won't be in the same spot, but I'll be drawing and if she can find me I'd be happy to take her along. She said thanks and ran off to her house. She returned in 10 minutes and this time with two of her friends in the 2nd grade. She told them I could draw animals and that I'd draw animals for them. So, I drew one a cat and the other a dog. Then one of the mother's showed up and I chatted with her for a little while until another mother showed up. I'm usually pretty bad about bringing a camera and taking photos, but I asked if I could take their photos and they were happy to comply. Here are those photos:

All three of the girls:

All three girls with their drawings:

All three girls with their mothers:

As soon as I told the mothers that I'd like a photo with them and the kids they started to run but I snapped a quick photo before they could escape. After chatting with them for a little while longer, I discovered that one of the mothers was actually the father of Matsumura-san from Ukashima! He was shown in a previous posting, but here he is again:

Here I am again:

I've been quite a busy boy lately. Like my previous post says, my brother is in Japan with me. We've been traveling and I've got some new stuff from that to be posted soon. Before publishing this post I'd like to say again how great it is to draw and support the kids. It is honestly times like that which remind me why I became an artist in the first place. Peace.