Archive for June, 2009

Tokyo Adventures

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

It is currently Day 2 and Japan, and I finally feel like World Tour has started. Sydney and New Zealand were very similar to the United States, but Japan is, well, different. Yesterday, we sang a long concert yesterday in Fujisawa, a suburb of Tokyo. I am not kidding when I say it was long: the entire thing was over 5 hours with 3 intermissions! I think this demonstrates that there are some serious undercurrents of sadism in Japanese culture. I couldn’t imagine an American audience sitting through the whole thing.

It began with a big jazz band from Tokyo University performing what would have constituted an entire concert by American standards. Next was an Okinawa-style drum dance group. This was quite fun to watch, but, again, quite long. The dancers have varying sized drums, and stand in rows, doing very athletic dance moves and banging along to the music that is playing over the speakers. It reminded me of Bangra, except with drums. After that, there was a smaller jazz quartet, but we didn’t see them because we had to go get changed.

We came on last and sang the longest set I have ever performed in an a cappella concert. Our portion of the set lasted over an hour and a half, and we sang almost all the songs we know. Afterwords, there was a reception with lots of sushi, gyoza, buffalo wings and beer. They asked us to perform a few songs at the reception, and then we really did exhaust our entire repertoire–they heard literally every song we know except for Rachmaninov’s Ave Maria.

Here is a picture of us rehearsing before the concert:

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After the reception, we all parted ways and headed back to our home-stays. Each whiff had his own host because the houses are too small and no family has enough room for more than one guest. My home-stay family is very nice, although sometimes we have trouble communicating. The father is an urban planner, so we have some common interests. He spent his childhood from age two to age eight in Chicago, so he is very interesting to speak to. When he does know what to say, he says it in a Chicago accent. But his command of English has faded some over the years, and he sometimes thinks to himself in Japanese or asks his wife for help. So his speech alternates from what sounds like perfect fluency to the broken English that is more common. (Of course, knowing hardly any Japanese myself, I am extremely grateful that the entire country has taken the time to learn my language, even if it sometimes less than perfect).

Today was a free day with no concerts. I had intended on meeting with a group of Whiffs at a nearby train station, but the station was bigger than I realized, and for some reason, I was unable to find them. It would have been nice to meet up with a few other people, but I decided to make lemonade, and I started out on my own. I decided to make my way to the Imperial palace (why not?). The first step was to figure out where I was on the train network. I have had a lot of experience wrangling it on my own on the train networks of London, Bangkok, Paris, Rome, and New York. None of that prepared me for Tokyo. I knew that Japanese people liked trains (I had even taken a few in Kyoto when I went five years ago for my brother) but the Tokyo train network is truly colossal. There are more trips made in a single day here than in an entire year on Amtrak, and the map of all the lines cannot be contained in a single drawing.

This is a picture of the map in my guidebook. It looks like spaghetti, yet it does not even contain all the stations on the express lines, much less the local ones:

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I made my way to Shinjuku station, which I believe is the busiest in the world by traffic. After a few wrong turns, I managed to get onto the circular Yamanote Line and make my way to the Palace grounds. I was proud of myself, but still a little sad that I was all alone–many of the signs were in English, but I wished that there was someone to ask questions.

As I thought this, a group of four Tokyo University students approached me and asked if I spoke English. “Yes,” I replied. They were looking for someone to practice their english with, and they offered to show me around the Palace and the city. We spent the rest of the day seeing the sights and getting to know each other. We walked all around the Palace and the garden, explaining everything as we went, and then they took me to the Meiji shrine across town. At the end of the afternoon, we exchanged e-mails and parted ways.

Here is a picture of my new friends at the Palace gardens:

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At the Meiji shrine we came across a Japanese wedding procession:

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Bohemian Grove

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

I’m in Auckland right now—more on that in a later post. But before it fades too much into the past, I wanted to write a bit about one of the crazy experiences in San Francisco: a visit to the Bohemian Grove. This, I discovered, is a private encampment in the redwood forests about two hours north of the city that is owned by an organization called the Bohemian Club. This is a fraternity composed mainly of two groups of people: rich Californians and artists. They have a clubhouse in downtown San Francisco, but for three weeks every summer, most of the membership (1000-1500, I think) treks out to the Grove for what they call a “Jinx.” This involves camping, hiking, eating and drinking together, singing, playing instruments, listening to shows and speeches, and socializing. I had never heard of the place before the Whiffenpoofs, so it isn’t quite famous, but everyone in San Francisco that we talked to seemed to know about it.

The Grove is organized into about 130 “camps,” and each member belongs to one of these. They have weird names like “Aviary,” and “Hill Billies,” and vary greatly in size and aesthetics. Some are very rustic with hardly any permanent structures. Others have posh cabins. A few have teepees. The most important feature that they all have in common is an open bar. In the evenings everyone wanders from camp to camp. There are no boundaries once you are inside, so little, in fact, that you are allowed to obey the call of nature on any tree except the ones that are marked with what looks a “No Parking” sign but whose meaning is slightly different.

When we walked in, the CEO of Wells Fargo was giving a speech about the economy to a large gathering of people around a lake. After settling in to our camp, Aviary, we enjoyed a few cocktails at some nearby camps, and then went to dinner. This meal and breakfast are eaten collectively at a central dining area. On the walk over we could hear organ music, which I later found out was coming from a large outdoor theatre built into the hillside where they stage an annual musical. After dinner, we sang at a variety show that included a really good saxaphonist, an big-band jazz orchestra, a comedien, a troupe of people who had done a really funny voiceover for a John Wayne movie, and a guy who juggled on a unicycle while playing the guitar. For the rest of the night, we wandered around and enjoyed the hospitality of various camps.

The coolest experience for me was the walk to breakfast the next morning. By the same lake that hosted the speech the previous afternoon, there was a full orchestra set up playing Tchaikovsky,with the forest in the background. They were mostly old men, and amateurs, but they were very enthusiastic and quite good. Unfortunately, because the club is quite secretive, I couldn’t take pictures outside of Aviary, although I would have liked to snap one of that lake. Here is one of the Aviary camp from a distance, showing our sleeping quarters.

Bohemian Club - Rex - 1

This is one of me standing in the common area of Aviary.  The bar is directly in front of me (behind the camera). The posters in the background are posters for shows and performances that had been put on by the men of Aviary in the past.

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World Tour

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

For the next three months, I will be saying farewell to college by hopping around the globe with my a cappella group, the Yale Whiffenpoofs. To keep in touch with everyone and to preserve better my own memories, I am retrofitting this blog from a soapbox for my occasional rants and musings to a public journal of my adventures.

For reference, here is a rough summary of the itinerary:

May 27 - June 1: San Francisco
June 1 - June 6: Queenstown, New Zealand
June 6 - June 11: Auckland, New Zealand
June 11 - June 20: Japan (several cities, including Tokyo and Kyoto)
June 20 - June 24: Beijing, China
June 24 - June 27: Shanghai, China
June 27 - June 30: Bangkok, Thailand
June 30 - July 3: Phuket, Thailand
July 3 - July 7: Kathmandu, Nepal
July 7 - July 11: Udaipur, India
July 11 - July 15: Mumbai, India
July 15 - July 20: Capetown, South Africa
July 20 - July 27: France (several cities)
July 27 - July 31: GROUP BREAK (I’ll probably spend this in Paris or Brussels)
July 31 - August 4: Greece
August 4 - August 8: Istanbul, Turkey
August 8 - August 13: Israel (several cities)
August 13 - August 21: US Northeast

Because I have an (unfortunately) high tolerance for dealing with tedious and buggy technology, I have taken on the role of group photo-uploader. I purchased a pro account on Flickr, and will upload edited sets of photos to the following address:

The edited sets contain what I think are the best photos. But because everyone has different tastes, I am also uploading complete sets that include every single photo taken by every Whiffenpoof–those in the edited set, plus many others. The complete sets are available here:

There will be one edited set and one complete set for each place we visit on tour. So far, I have uploaded all the photos from California; the first New Zealand photos should be up soon too. Because I am uploading what I can, when I can, you will probably notice that sets will grow over time. So even if you’ve already looked at a set, there may be photos there that you haven’t yet seen. Also, free to share these links with anyone you know.

A few technical notes about Flickr: First, the the best way to view any set on your computer is to click on the “slide show” link. Second, you can also download the full-sized version of any photo that you like by clicking on the “all sizes” link above the photo, clicking on the “original size” option, then clicking “download original size. Finally, for some odd reason, the photos seem to look better on Safari than they do on Firefox or Internet Explorer on Windows or Mac. I think this has to do with the way that the browsers deal with what is called a “color profile” (I’m new to this too). I’m working on sorting this out, but in the mean time, if you have a choice, look at them in Safari–the colors will be more vibrant.

That’s all for now! Check back later for stories.