April Showers

A period of discomfort can provide the basis for a period of happiness and joy.

One of my favorite memories, learning how the Shields made their wine in the beautiful, rural Spraggs, PA

One of my favorite memories, learning how the Shields made their wine in the beautiful, rural Spraggs, PA

I’ve rarely taken a moment, in the blur of the past five years, to step back and appreciate – or at least rue-minate on – all the things I’ve done and the people I’ve met. What spurred this thought, on my exploratory run into the flowery margins of Koriyama this morning, was a certain song, “Proud Mary” and it’s connection to an until-now forgotten memory some two years ago during my turbulent time in New York City.

After another monotonous day sitting in a cubicle with three incredibly introverted coworkers intent on avoiding any conversation whatsoever, I got cozy at my favorite Barnes & Noble café to study Japanese; at the time, I had little inkling I’d be using it quite practically in two years’ time. I left the café as the sullen voice announced closing time as usual, boarded the late Q train as usual, and put on some loud music to drown out whatever crazy happened to also board the same train as usual.

Moments later, one short and one astoundingly tall drag queen walked into my car. I’ll admit: I was no fan of drag queens at the time. Perhaps it derived from my prejudice toward clowns – thanks to Tim Curry – but drag was far from my scene. One of the glittery gals worked the small boom box she carried in, while the other announced a clearly very rehearsed and repeated introduction.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are not drunks, and we are not prostitutes…”

Yes, the usual musical metro panhandling freak show, I thought.

It was amazing, both in performance and voice. The song was “Proud Mary”. They managed to fit in the act perfectly thanks to the longer track between Manhattan and Queens beneath the East River. They got off at the next stop. So did I.

Now, Lee Lee, as she introduced herself, had massive eyelashes and an extraordinarily convincing chest thanks to some muscle and a pushup bra, while Frosty sported tall pumps with legs to suit them. Despite the smooth performance, the duo had only been plying their performance art for a month at that time, tirelessly traveling car to car on the Brooklyn-bound Q and lengthy Manhattan 1, while avoiding the Orange line altogether.



Gladly, and after feebly explaining a solely journalistic interest, they agreed to have me along on their shift that night and subsequently invited me to a drag show, at which they were hopefuls for a grand prize of $175. Both Lee Lee and Frosty were happy to open up about their personal and professional lives – both had day jobs as waiters – and I met so many more interesting and fun characters that night, even a delightful queen that was something of a cross between Ursula and Dolly Parton.


Since then, I’ve encountered equally interesting people, fleeting but each an impression on my life. There was violinist, another soul from the underground, who I met at the 42nd street junction and who agreed, after much coercion, to give me fiddle lessons for over a year. Alongside a bandmember strumming a washboard with gunshell-capped fingers, Rique Prince handled his pale, straight-grained violin like it was the Lord Jesus himself.

Henrique Prince, busking with his band in front of the Metropolitan

Henrique Prince, busking with his band in front of the Metropolitan

Then, there was the copy editor. In every way, a happy romantic in a desperate search for his soul mate and a settle-down life in a city sleepless and full of men who habited that very bar looking for anything but. During that time, I became infatuated with my roommate, a desert flower who was far too subsurface for the likes of me.

The girl from Novia Scotia came next, a throwback from my heady college year spent abroad in Marburg, Germany, and who I would later find myself bunking with in Budapest, Hungary. Before, in between, and after, indelible impressions were left from a life-loving Finn, a beautiful-eyed Danish traveler, and a gorgeous American couchsurfer from Spain who, after three days at my Budapest apartment and one missed train, was gone too soon.

A Spanish supermodel. A caring, potential husband of a boyfriend of two years. A fierce Hungarian gypsy lover.  A helpful Norwegian pastor with a surprising dark past. A high-school beauty I never realized until we spontaneously shared stories over games of pool.

Flings failed, old friends renewed, new friends made, brief encounters had – I think it’s time to slow down and consider another direction.

I asked what Lee Lee and Frosty where they’d ultimately like to be in life, and both said they would like to be performing on Broadway. Getting there would be hard, they said, and for that time, they had chosen to start at the bottom, gigging their way through the underground until they were raised to the stage.

No matter who I’ve met, I’ve always asked what they’d really like to accomplish with their life, and I really do hope they achieve their dreams, and I’d like to think Lee Lee and Frosty are both making their rounds in the circuit now, donning their Rihanna costumes only for some weekend fun. Though I’ve struggled with the idea of ending my own weekend trysts, as it were, I’ve felt less flighty as of late, and maybe it’s time to make like a plant and stay put.

The most important people in my life

The most important people in my life

Sounds in the Vienna of the North

Musical steps leading to a temple

Musical steps leading to a temple

Beneath the pillar-supported shops on either side of Sakura Street in downtown Koriyama, among the black-suited salary men hurrying to work and the inexplicably giggling school girls sporting blue uniforms and white stockings, there is an inconspicuous world of musical symbols that were once meant for the great promotion of a city made unsound by the discordant tremors of the ruinous earthquake of March 2011.

One representative of this hopeful image remains, emblazoned on construction site barrier walls and displayed throughout the city in a desperate attempt to garner attention as one of the popularity-vying mascots of Japan’s prefectures in television adverts and online promotional videos: Gakuto-kun (がくとくん).

Gakuto-kun, music mascot of Koriyama City, and her sister Onpu-chan

Gakuto-kun, music mascot of Koriyama City, and her sister, Onpu-chan

Something of a Powerpuff girl/unsettling-felt-version-of-my-circa-high-school-sister hybrid, Gakuto-kun is among over 400 colorful characters who vied for last year’s highly televised distraction campaign, the Regional Mascot General Election, in Japan. The musically talented and sporty Koriyama representative was beaten out by Funasshii, the pearish, official “unofficial” nightmare mascot of Funabashi, Chiba.

I was intrigued by Koriyama’s mascot despite being overshadowed by an oversized convulsive, jaundiced fruit, and I determined that I should find out what exactly made Koriyama the musical city it purports to be, aside from its purely decorative allusions in the most heavily trafficked part of town.

School Piano StatueWhile I’ve been exposed to few Japanese-influenced bands, such as Akiko and current sensation Mister Children, the majority of my young students are overly fond of J- and K-pop (Japanese and Korean pop music, respectively). One would also be hard pressed to find a local train or bus not plastered with posters of the disturbingly immaculately clean English-Irish pop boy band, One Direction. Only a handful of students, mostly over the age of 30, express some interest in composers dear to my heart, including Chopin, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff.

Piano BenchNeedless to say, karaoke joints parallel pachinkos in popularity here, and the repertoire offered can include anything from lung-straining, insanely paced Japanese pop to gag-inducing renditions of Bon Jovi and Journey.

Aside from the private booths of ensconced karaoke parlors, however, Koriyama prides itself on its successful junior and high school choir competitions with surrounding cities and prefectures. In February, the New York Philharmonic performed “Music for Fukushima”, including “short pieces composed by students between the ages of 10 and 15.”

Subsequently, musicians and designers joined together to raise money for earthquake victims, producing such works as the heart-wrenching animation By My Side and the aptly unusual Psychedelic Afternoon, the collaborative effort of David Byrne and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Koriyama high school choir performance

The events heralded the third anniversary of the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck the Fukushima prefecture on March 11th, and much discussion in my classes in that second week of March touched upon the effect the tragedy had – and still has – on each student. In a grammar lesson dealing with cleft sentences (remember those?), a student asked what calmed me when I got upset or angry. What normally I do, I replied, is find my peace in any music with violin or cello.School Music Notes

Following that lesson, the city’s heavy investment in mascot branding did not seem such a waste after all. Whether or not the pony-tailed piano skirt has done the city any favors in the way of tourist and resident appeal alike, it’s nice to see – and hear – such appreciation for music.

On March 11th, I watched for the better part of an hour a husband and wife alternately striking the large bronze bell outside a nearby temple as speakers overhead broadcasted eerie shōmyō, or Buddhist monk chanting. As is with so many untaken pictures, the moment was beautifully unrecorded, and the altogether new sound now takes place in my top favorites, right behind glass tinkling in the surf on a beach, dry Golden Grahams hitting a porcelain bowl, the warning of a wind chime as a storm approaches, and Tina Turner performing a Buddhist chant to a very uncomfortable Larry King.

Godzilla playing the piano outside a music shop in downtown Koriyama

Godzilla playing the piano outside a music shop in downtown Koriyama