Saturday, September 22, 2007

mystery advice

I heard about a thing called a "Maternity Pass Book" that they give to pregnant ladies in Japan -- it's a little booklet for your personal and medical information, with spaces for your doctor to fill in the necessary records of each prenatal visit. I also heard there were coupons & other valuable tidbits included. I went to the Neighborhood Ward Office to seek it out, and after some very confusing instructions from the lady at window #24, I took the map she'd given me and made my way to a different building, which I finally realized was the place for Mother & Child Health and Welfare Services. Sheesh -- why didn't she say so?

I got the Pass Book, which did in fact include coupons, and a voucher for a free dental exam, as well as a supplemental guide with advice for a healthy pregnancy. My favorite was in the dental hygiene section, where among the usual reminders to brush after every meal and stop eating so much sugar, was this: "Avoid Eating Lazily."

What could it possibly mean?!

Lazily is the only way I eat lately. I take two hours to eat breakfast, after which it's usually time for lunch.

Here's the cool keychain I got:

It says, I have a baby in me! Give up your seat, ya jerk!


Monday, September 17, 2007

solo project

I haven't mentioned yet that J and I aren't living together here in Kyoto... that was one of the conditions of being able to come at all. A strange sacrifice, but one we were willing to make, so intense was the longing to return! Sounds like a fairy tale. Actually it's a Study Abroad Program: J is the program assistant, helping to shepherd 20 American students who wanted to study Buddhism in Japan for a semester.

They are all staying in a Temple downtown, waking at 5:00am to meditate, perform soji (temple cleaning), and eat their breakfast, before taking classes in Japanese language and Buddhist theory. For many it is their first trip to Japan, so J is the go-to guy for all inqueries. It also means he has his hands full during the week, running countless errands and preparing for trips and in general being an assistant.

I'm staying with my friend K and her husband, in the North-Eastern corner of Kyoto. They live sandwiched between Takaragaike Park and Mt. Hiezan, along the Takano River. It's gorgeous up here, but quite a hike from Shichijo where J is staying. He gets Saturday evenings and Sundays to be with me.

Consequently, weekends are a whirlwind of visits with friends not seen in ages, to dole out omiyage and catch up; while the days during the week stretch out unfettered, and unaccompanied by husband. It's a difficult transition to make, coming as we did from spending nearly every day together, but it's not entirely foreign: we spent years being long distance, he in San Diego and I in San Francisco, writing letters and only seeing each other once a month.

Still. This is Japan. And I'm pregnant.

I find myself caught up in an effort to prove myself, similar to the last time we were here, except this time I really am doing things by myself. I'm not sure yet if this independence is good, for my recouperating artistic self esteem, or bad, for my needing lots of attention. I want to tell J about my days so he can marvel at how adventurous and brave I'm being.

I took a long bike ride yesterday in an attempt to explore the western side of Kyoto, which I haven't done much of. It was excruciatingly hot and humid, and the temple I was searching for remained stubbornly evasive at the foot of Mt. Funayama, a valley away from the labyrinth of streets I got stuck in. I huffed and puffed and finally gave up and made my way home.

If I were with J, we could have found it, I chastised myself.

But, I thought, I'm alone. And this can be okay. This time around I'm not going to judge things as Good or Bad, I'm going to pay attention instead to all the nuances in between. This is the right place for nuance.

So after lunch I set about inking the cool Geisha hair-do's (from last week) on brown paper, surrounding them with billowy pillows of gesso. A great effect, though I don't know yet what I'll do with them.

We'll see what happens when I'm left to my own devices. At first I'm fantasically lazy, but eventually the work comes out. What do you do when no one is telling you what to do? Sounds simple enough to fill a day with activity, but I swear it becomes existential very quickly.

And it's only week two!

I just finished reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel -- at least I'm not a shipwreck castaway in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger.


Friday, September 14, 2007

13 weeks

One of the major logistical concerns about being pregnant in Japan was how and where to find good prenatal care... both J and I are here on tourist visas, and don't have insurance. Neither did we really know where to start looking for hospitals and doctors. Fortunately he is resourceful and his Japanese is way better than mine: he did lots of legwork from the States before we left, looking at websites, comparing prices, determining what will happen at a routine check-up (you'd be surprised at how much this varies from culture to culture). Also fortunately, we have lots of friends here who are willing to help out. One friend recommended an OB-GYN who speaks English and is a friend of hers, so to him we went.

The check-up mainly involved showing the doctor my records from my initial visit in Michigan, which included all my blood work and medical history, and then an ultrasound, and a reminder not to smoke, drink, or overexercise. He didn't weigh me or take my blood pressure, something I didn't even think about until later. What I did say to J right afterwards was, "He didn't palpate" -- and I meant to say 'my uterus,' but it came out 'my universe' -- and so we were laughing too much about the slip to be really concerned about it. I guess if they do an ultrasound, they have a good idea of the size of uterus and baby and all.

Here's the baby in its universe:

That's the head on the left, in a profiled and reclining position; to the right, the round midsection and spindly little leg. Of course, ultrasound prints always look more like snow on the TV than any discernable likeness to a human; but in his office, watching the monitor, watching this little creature tumble around and kick its legs out, I was utterly impressed with its wholeness and complexity. We could make out its spine, its tiny hip-bones, even hands with fingers. I was also amazed at how active it is -- I still can't feel a thing.

The doctor pointed out the presence of a nose bone, which apparently is a sign that it does not have Down Syndrome. "Nice baby," he said, "Healthy baby. Congratulations!"

I don't know what this check-up would have cost in the States, but I do know that Medicaid kicks in for a reason, namely, prenatal care can be prohibitively expensive. We found out that pregnancy is not covered by Japanese National Health Care -- which makes sense when you consider it's not a sickness, a categorization I find annoying in the States. I don't know what's better: instant medical coverage for pregnant ladies, or super cheap prenatal care with no insurance necessary.

This visit cost us all of $30.

That night we celebrated with dinner at Kerala, delicious Indian food, and coconut ice cream for dessert. Here's to nice babies with nose bones!


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

hair and other fibers

A couple of days ago I went to the Tetsuo Ishihara Museum of Traditional Japanese Hairstyles, in Gion. I'd read about it in the Kyoto Visitor's Guide, which cryptically provided no address or directions. I found the website linked above, and pedaled down to Shijo with a vague notion of how to find it. I was assuming that, like all other things in Gion, it would be hidden to those not in the know, so I was prepared for a bit of a treasure hunt. Turned out to be easy to find, but no less delightful in the discovering: up a narrow staircase from a darkened rear-entrance, into an equally narrow u-shaped room with display cases on either side. I'd say it hardly qualifies as a museum, but for my purposes -- sitting and sketching -- it was perfect.

The configurations of shapes and loops and ornaments ranged from sublime to outrageous, all of them great fun to draw.

Afterwards, the woman who was working behind the counter played a video for me, which showed Tetsuo Ishihara creating three of these hair sculptures on a live model. He still does the hair for many a maiko, and apparently it's somewhat contentious that he has gone as public as he has. It was fascinating to watch him work, though, with deft precision and a rakish disregard for the poor girl's scalp. I had no idea how much scaffolding goes into some of these styles, although I don't know how else they'd defy gravity so gracefully.

Then the woman explained to me the contradiction of Japanese hair being so straight and flat, and yet pliable into these kinds of dimensions. It's the same with kimono, she said, on its own it is flat and straight, just square shapes; but wrapped just so around the shoulders, draping elegantly on the arms of a woman, it transforms into a curving and sensual line. At least I think that's what she said.

That's what I love about art here -- there's always some kind of underlying philosophy, a metaphor of relationships that seems to cut right to the essense of things. It's not just a pretty hairstyle, it is a coded message; a signifier of age, of status, of position in time. I want to achieve the same meaningfulness in my art, but without appearing contrived or pretentious. This, I surmise, is a life-long process.

On the way home I stopped at yet another furuhon-ya-san (used bookstore) to gather materials for collaging. I got a couple of pocket atlases and a pile of worm-eaten maps, sensing an emerging theme...

Now it's time to conjure images and feelings from flat surfaces: off to the drawing board!


Sunday, September 9, 2007


Here at last! Through lines at airports, cramped seats, 3 times Spiderman 3, and the fog of jet-lag: Kyoto.

The humidity is thick, the cicadae are deafening, and the smells of summer have once again enchanted me... ripe, tangible smells, like musty tatami in a jumbled store-front, sandalwood incense coiling out from a doorway, fried sweet things and fresh fish odor wafting down alleyways. I tuck them all into familiar pockets, riding along on my bike.

It feels as though I never left, and it also feels as though I've returned to a dream. Yes, I'm sure this street leads to that one, and that there's a darling cafe on a side street where we once at lunch... it's all hazy and delightfully real at the same time. I've even surprised myself by remembering a decent amount of Japanese. The sounds come first, their meaning second.

Not a great sketch at all, but an attempt at the marvelous tangle of wires and buildings that is Kyoto, with the Kamogawa in the foreground. On our bikes today, J and I slowed on a bridge across the river to look north toward the layers of blue-gray mountains, growing pale into the distance, as far as the eye can see. How will I capture them?

I met a woman the other day who has synesthesia -- her senses overlap -- she can see music, taste shapes, and letters have colors. (She told me that my name is mostly green, with blue toward the end... how lovely!) I had never heard of this before, but it strikes me now that Kyoto is a particularly lush place to experiene such a phenomenon, as a place where even those of us with linear senses can smell things and practically see their vibrancy. The air lingers on the skin and feels charged with possibility. The moss in the gardens is too extravagant to enjoy with eyes alone.

All of this means good things for art-making, I can tell. The trick is to let it come to me, to meander, to explore and experiment; to be, as Milan Kundera says, Not Afraid of Not Arriving.

(But I have arrived! At last.)