Japan 2007-2009

January 3, 2007  Otskare Sama Deshita 

Dear Friends, 

        I always try to write these letters before the end of a chapter, but now I’m writing from a comfy apartment in Toronto having been back from Japan for two weeks already!  Actually this whole year has been lived entirely outside of the country, and as it looks from here, so will most of next year!   

        Japan!?  How did That happen?! On my way back from Ecuador in June, I stopped in to visit with my parents in Ft. Lauderdale.  We were sitting poolside and discussing what to do with some money I got from my Grandmother.  I told my parents I wanted to put a few thousand aside to go on a trip because whenever Nana gave me money she always told me to spend it on myself and not to pay bills with it.  Of course the idea of spending it All on myself was too much for frugal me, but I thought she would definitely approve of me taking a vacation to go somewhere I really wanted to go. Moments after articulating my desire to go to Japan,   I dried off and went to check my email where among other mundane things was a letter from someone who knew someone who knew me was looking for a pianist/vocalist for a three month contract in a lounge in Tokyo starting in August.  

I was only slightly stunned because this is exactly the kind of thing that readers of my emails over the years know happens to me with some regularity.  

      So, I got the gig and after a great July, visiting the nice boy I’m staying with now in Toronto, playing some gigs in Toronto and NYC and dancing and drumming for a week at a festival upstate, I headed off to Tokyo with my feathers and pearls. 

    They picked me up at the airport with one of those little placards that said Ms. Cole, and I got a little teary eyed realizing that it was a first, and how thoughtful and generous it was for them to send a private car.  The driver brought me from Narita to my ‘apartment,’ a small hotel room with a burner and a dorm fridge.  It seemed too small at first, but after I unpacked it felt cozy and nice.  My gig was in a truly lovely lounge, attached to one of Tokyo’s well known fine dining spots.  There was a great Steinway Grand and house PA, and for the next three months I had a wonderful time playing, singing, eating, drinking and visiting with staff and guests of this laid back nightspot.  On the weekends I played with great local bass players, Koji Tetsui  and Ebiko Kentaro both of whom studied jazz in the US, and the other four nights I played solo, practicing in the daytime at the restaurant, and trying to pull off the things I’d been practicing in the night!  I learned a bunch of new tunes, memorized the majority of my repertoire (always difficult for me on piano!) and really improved my piano skills overall.  I met Al DiMarco, a great self taught American pianist at a neighboring club, and we became good friends.  He gave me a few pointers which turned out to be really helpful, stuff about my left hand which I’m sure I wouldn’t have figured out on my own.   

    I settled into a nice rhythm of going to sleep at 7am and waking at 3pm, practicing piano and Japanese for an hour a day each going to my gig each night for 5 hrs.  I had a bike, and spent my spare time riding around Tokyo, which is much like riding in NYC except you ride on the left, and they pull you over for running red lights!  I joined a bicycle club and went on a weekend trip with them to Zushi, and then when my contract was over, I took a solo biking trip around Shikoku, the 4th largest island in Japan.  

     The scenery was incredible, the island was made to bike around!  I slept in youth hostels and temples which host many of Shikoku’s pilgrims who come to visit the 88 temple circuit.  They’re everywhere with their white robes, walking staff with bells, and a straw triangular hat of a style which reminds me of people working in rice fields.  On my first night, I met a girl who was doing the temple pilgrimage by bike on her own.  We both felt encouraged by our meeting.   

At the end of my trip, I took a ferry to a smaller island off Shikoku, Shodo Shima, and met a peace activist on the boat who introduced me to a group of cool Japanese who had an intentional community and organic farm there.  I had intended to ride the 70k around the small island, but since it rained and they were so cool, I

spent the day instead visiting with the people from the commune, watching the movie they had made about the 1km long rainbow scarf they knitted and brought to Afghanistan!  

    On one morning while biking, I came across a particularly beautiful spot, and looked out and realized that I was so happy, and that I always want my life to be like this.  ‘What is life for?’ I wondered. I thought about my career and the pleasure it is to perform and make music, and how unpleasant it is to be caught up running on a wheel in the rat race towards whatever marginal success a jazz singer can expect to have.  I’m sure it isn’t worth it. In The Sea, The Sea; an Iris Murdoch novel I read recently, the main character says something like, ‘I always had fun, and therefore enjoyed a great deal of success in the theater.’  Since I don’t particularly want fame or money, I really am free to do whatever I want, however I want to! Jesus exhorts us to be In the world, not Of it, and not only do I want to do what Jesus thinks is cool, I also Know it leads to higher fulfillment.  I sealed this renewal of my faith on the rainbow that was suddenly there before me reminding me of the covenant God makes with Noah in Genesis, ‘I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind.   

    I took a beautiful 17 hour ferry ride back to Tokyo, said my goodbye’s and was back in NYC the next day.  Other highlights of my time away included a week trip in Thailand, which was necessary to change my visa status after my work contract was over. (Thanks immigration!)  My grandparents also came to visit me, and we traveled in Japan for two weeks together, and got to experience a Japanese hospital in person, (everyone’s ok now!) I also had a great concert in Kyoto, and sold out of CD’s!  

        Well, Otskare Sama Deshita, the Japanese set phrase said when you leave work, after a meeting, a group bike ride, or any other time you did something, experienced something together, or made something.  (I don’t know the ‘real’ translation, but that’s close)   

Happy New Year and hope to see you soon, 

Yours, 
Alexis

Iro Iro Arigato Gozaimashita October 31, 2008 

  Strangely, I feel as if it was in the very near past when I wrote my last missive about my time in Tokyo.  But it was a year ago!   

    Thankfully you only have to have a first time once, and this trip was so much more relaxed and productive than the last one, whose focus was just on taking things in to the maximum, learning to tell the time and negotiate the trains.  This trip picked up where the last one left off, and coming to Japan felt like a homecoming of sorts.  I stayed in the same apartment, worked in the same lounge, and picked up my friendships where they left off.  

    I had taken a Japanese language class while still at home, and my first week in Tokyo, I hooked up a private tutor with whom I met weekly.  My Japanese improved greatly.  And now I can even read kana and a few kanji.   

    About two weeks after arriving, I was walking home from work at 2am, and studying Hiragana, one of the Japanese alphabets.  I had a little cheat sheet, and as I walked I read the signs, and as familiar words popped out at me, I felt like I had the decoder ring at last!  'U - do - n ,' 'Ra - me - n,' 'Su - shi' and names of the neighborhoods I was walking through.  Suddenly the world was nearly intelligible!  It was an awesome feeling!  I bought the magazine 'Hiragana Times' which has articles written in English and Japanese, with all the Kana provided above for the kanji for those like myself who are just starting.  Both the foreigners who speak fluently, and

the ones who speak nothing after being here for years, are an amazing inspiration to me.  Learning Japanese is so empowering. It helps me to feel like I'm really 'in it.'   

     I studied at work a little bit every night, and I noticed that my studies helped to give the employees at the Lounge more confidence in speaking English.  Generally, Japanese people find it very difficult to jump in and risk sounding foolish and so never try to speak.  It wasn't until I started quizzing Mitsu our bar tender that I realized he had a great English vocabulary!   Another Japanese friend reported that after years of English study in school, he had his first trip to New York, walked up to a counter to buy coffee and couldn't figure out at all what to say!  

    The most exciting thing about learning Japanese is the way it makes me feel.  Two days before leaving Tokyo, I was having a study and coffee in an Italian restaurant in my neighborhood and talking a bit to the owner in Japanese.  I was eating the most delicious salad, (complete with daikon and lotus root) and the atmosphere was quite magical.  I was doing my first translation into kana, a chapter of my Berlitz Nihongo book about when Mike Nelson, the new English teacher at Yokohama high school goes over to his bosses house.  He has dinner with them and they talk about this and that. At the end of his meal he is getting ready to leave. As I slowly translated the dialogue, I started crying into my coffee. It perfectly expressed my own gratitude about this whole trip, the awesomeness of living in Japan and coming to know another culture, the 'good life' which I am able to live there, so taken care of and nurtured.   

Mike: Dewa, kore de shitsurei shimasu.  Iroiro arigatou gozaimashita.  Konban wa taihen tanoshikatta desu. 'Well, please excuse me.  Thank you for everything.  This evening has been terribly enjoyable.  

  Okusan: Iie, kochira koso.  Mata douzo. 'It's nothing, the pleasure's ours.  Please come again.'  

   Yes, thank you Japan, thank you Tableaux Lounge, thank you Azabu Court, thank you Tetsui for remembering my arrangements, thank you Mitsu and Antonio for making Alexis' no special drink so oishii every night, thank you Zen no Yu hostel mama-san, thank you tourist group who gave me the tangerine in Izu, thank you Yohei watashi no Nihongo no sensei, for teaching me, and for your mother's poem and your new baby's smile. Thank you taxi drivers who still got me there despite my bad Japanese and irritation at your not understanding, thank you ii kuni 'good country' for putting up with my bad attitude sometimes, and tolerating my erratic bicycling practices, and my need to always know why.  Thank you Nihonjin who were so nice that it made me angry, thank you for buying my CD's, and to the fans who came to the lounge just to see me, and to really Listen to jazz, who tolerated my learning curve on the piano and said encouraging things that it was difficult for me to take in.  Thank you Nikko for being so beautiful and keeping the rain off my head until I had walked all the way to Lake Chuzenji, thank you beautiful bicycle for taking me everywhere I wanted to go.  I hope you appreciate all the new parts!  Thanks Al. Thank you Miyo for planning the great rafting trip in Minakami, thanks Ben-san for riding at my pace.  Thanks Alwyn for asking me to sing Ellington over BBQ and to the little girl who sang for me.  Thank you Tessa and Lianne for sharing my ecstasy at the Awa Odori 'Fool's Dance' Festival. Thank you Global Dining for sending a limo taxi with my name for me to the airport. Thank you Tableaux staff for the flowers last night; my last night, and for embracing my tears as I left you.  Thank you Japan for putting up with me. Sorry I'm so loud. I tried to be a good girl for you this year and keep more of your innumerable rules.  Mada mada dame desu, and I probably never will be good enough... but I hope I bring enough to you to make it worth the visa. I want to know you.   

  Iroiro various arigatou thanks goziamashita is/are.   

It's been real.   
xo 
alexis 

Summer 2008  We Are Close 

A (nother) rainstorm is brewing, it’s the moments of calm anticipation.  Of course I did laundry a few hours ago when the skies appeared to be clearing.  It’s Typhoon season here in Tokyo.  Everybody says I’m getting out just in time.   

It’s been three months. Sakura time, cherry blossom petals littering the streets and old hunched over men and women sweeping them off the sidewalk with hand made brooms.  From my 2nd story balcony I’ve watched the tops of the trees leaf out, the new green so much more delicate and waxy than older brothers below.  And now life giving rain to ensure a good harvest.  

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This was my third trip to Tokyo.   

No, this was my third stay in Tokyo. 

A stay is different than a trip.  Maybe before, even though it was still three months, it was a trip, as every new place I’d visit gave me a feeling of seeing the world, and apprehending new things and ideas, smells and sights.  But now it’s definitely a stay.   

I went to Tsukijii Matsuri on Saturday.  A festival whose focus was a hundred or so people carrying around a huge shrine on a float supported by beams which are carried on their shoulders.  They don’t just walk it down the street, they have coordinated dance moves and chants.  You see a line of bare legs doing a kind of ritualistic Can Can with the added pressure of a few thousand pounds.  

It wasn’t the most amazing festival, but the fact that I wasn’t awed and delighted was an indicator to me of the fact that I have clearly arrived at the level of ‘stay’ and have long past ‘trip’.   

On my website, on the front of my ‘AlexisSpace’ I have a wonderful quote by Proust ‘The Voyage of Discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’ 

So what does it mean that Grilled Octopus Balls is now just a normal street food,  that unbelievably cute children in little school uniforms blend with the landscape, that when deciding what to eat here, I choose Italian or French just as often as Japanese?   

It pains me to think it, but maybe all this edgy living has had a cost.  My constant explorations of the last decade or so have not been easy, and have been unpleasant in equal proportion to the joys.  I often fantasize about a normal life in a normal town that doesn’t have a spaghetti bowl for a transit map.    

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Regardless of (or perhaps because of) my dissipated sense of adventure, this contract was by far my most pleasant and swam by before my eyes.  I made friends and nurtured those relationships despite their ephemeral nature.  I bought a great lamp and rug for my crappy apartment, lit some incense and did my best to make this place a home.   

To tell the truth, I’m getting a little tired of moving around.  I’m tired of living in spaces other people designed and furnished.  I’m tired of having to leave my friends all the time.  I’m tired of seeing an attractive person and weighing the value of meeting them against the time I have left in a given place.  I think after all these years of adventuring I may be ready for a new adventure, perhaps one which involves mortgage payments and the purchase of a sofa.  Wow, my own sofa. Just like any phase or adventure, settling down has its pitfalls.  But considering how close I’m coming to losing the wide eyed innocence with which I used to approach the world, I don’t see what I have to lose.  I think I’m getting old.  Well, older at least.   I value convenience and comfort; familiarity.  Oh, I have so lost my edge!      

So now I have some choices to make.  Do I try to get my edge back, or just follow the natural evolution?  Maybe there’s a simple ‘why’ at work here.  For the first time in ages, I can actually afford to live a comfortable life. (if I chose to spend my money in a certain way).  So in a way that fact is giving me a very difficult choice to make.   

Resilience has always been a trademark of mine, but now I feel I’m sustaining more hurt from smaller pains.  I feel so down…will this rain ever stop!   

When I lived at Jeff’s in Toronto, one thing that would always surprise me (but not him, as he knew me better than I know myself) was how after about two fortnights at his place, I’d be so ready to get out and go on an adventure…back to New York, back to Tokyo, somewhere new…anywhere.  After awhile of that I’d be calling him up in tears, so ready to come back to the comfort and stability of his home.  Is it possible I wonder for me to have it both ways?  I’m clearly not ready to retire my Chaco’s and backpack just yet. 

Walking home the other day I passed by a café as they were getting ready to open.  The sign outside, in typical Japengrish said, ‘We are CLOSE’.  Yes, I thought. We are close.  So close to being who we are, and yet not. So close to having what we want and yet, not. So close to making a better world, yet not.  I was very close indeed.  Close to my apartment, but so FAR from home, close to the people I love, but separated so often.  Close to seeing God, but only from afar and in glimpses between banalities. 

Every transition is an opportunity.  I have again a deep breath feeling of infinite possibility in my life.   I’ll let you know how it all ends up.  Maybe invite you to a housewarming soon. Come early and let’s sit close on my sofa.   

yours in travel and misadventure, 

alexis  

Another date 2008  Intro is the Coda 

This waking dream; an exercise in overcoming disbelief and submitting in devotion.  A loop of God’s energies, in constant motion, cycling…cycling.  The diamond net of Indra, that perfect metaphor for the interconnectedness of all things through time and space.  God speaking through Madonna (the II) ‘Open your heart to me, I hold the lock and you hold the key’  

This past summer, in my last missive I wrote: 

To tell the truth, I’m getting a little tired of moving around.  I’m tired of living in spaces other people designed and furnished.  I’m tired of having to leave my friends all the time.  I’m tired of seeing an attractive person and weighing the value of meeting them against the time I have left in a given place.  I think after all these years of adventuring I may be ready for a new adventure, perhaps one which involves mortgage payments and the purchase of a sofa.    

I’ve just returned from such an enjoyable four months in Tokyo, renewing my friendships, visiting with my loves and making music every night to a more or less engaged audience, growing on the piano and doing yoga.  Before leaving for Tokyo, I submitted my package to the West Point Jazz Knights big band which was going to be auditioning a vocalist, coincidentally, the week I was scheduled to return from Tokyo in March.  

All through my time in Tokyo, I felt as if it might be my last time there.  I savored every moment of my mundane and lovely Tokyo life.  And in the last few days, I was even able to ‘see’ Japan again in all the glory of its quirky foreignness, as I did when I first arrived three years ago.  I felt overwhelmed by the ephemeral nature of life.  I cried a lot of thoughtful tears thinking, ‘today I live in Japan, tomorrow I may never be back here, except for a visit.  I’ll be one of those people for whom Today becomes a great memory of a more romantic and exciting time.’  The joyful pain of existence, the inability to live 10 lives at once! My gratitude for this life adventure and its boggling unpredictability! 

I flew home, a beautiful goodbye from a generous and kind bilingual taxi driver, the $250 ride a gift from my company.  My bags were both overweight to the maximum, plus I had to carry about 40lbs with me, mostly unsold CD’s and books.  

I arrived in Newark and went directly to a hotel to rest and prepare for my audition.  

I was like Rocky, totally immersed in learning Alicia Keys ‘If I Ain’t Got You.’ Everyone always tells me ‘you could sing pop music, it’s not that hard.’ Well, it is hard if you never listen to it.  The way they pronounce the words, the little glottal stops and nasalities are things I’ve completely eradicated in my voice, plus the way they belt up into the high register runs counter to the techniques I’ve practiced for around 20 years. I studied every breath and nuance, all the while feeling the ghosts of my jazz vocal students, with whom I’d been so strict about extracting these very affectations.  

They said they were looking for a jazz singer who could cut the pop thing, not the other way around, so I was encouraged that I might be able to get the job despite what I perceive as my mediocre pop singing.  I had to sing a few songs with a small ensemble, some with the big band and then two pop tunes, and the National Anthem in classical style a capella.  The other two candidates were totally gorgeous and about 20, and seemed to be well equipped in the pop department.  I was nervous.  Luckily the singer from the concert band kept smiling at me, calming my nerves, even as I sang my Alicia Keys tune.   

Before I got there, I wasn’t sure I wanted the job, but I thought, let me get the job, and then I can decide.  After going to the base, meeting the guys, hearing the band, and most of all seeing how incredibly beautiful it is at West Point, I had no doubt that this was the Godsend I thought it to be.   

They emailed to tell me that I got the job.  Moments after, I’m on the subway going to the Motema office, the label that’s putting out my Christmas CD, and suddenly I realize that everything that I’d wanted I now have.  I wouldn’t have wanted it 3 years ago, but what’s right for me in this moment God knows and provided for me, with more abundance that I could have imagined.  I have an incredible new job, posted in the Hudson Valley, close to water, nature and NYC. And in my solo career now, I find myself among a team of intelligent honest people who care about my music and are going to help me promote it.  

Ah, the promised land: health insurance, stability, the potential of community and the habitat to foster the natural blossoming of my musicianship.  Blessed Be! 

I ship out to basic training on May 18th.  Nine weeks later if all goes well, I’ll be home just in time to go to the Starwood festival for a week of drumming and dancing all night around the fire, what better juxtaposition could there be! 

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Celebrate You! This Holy week. This Birth, Death…Resurrection.  Jesus a baby, come to save the world.  The loop of God’s energies, cycling…cycling.  This diamond net of Indra. The intro is the coda. The intro is the coda. The intro is the coda. 

With all my love, 
Alexis

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