Friday, September 30, 2005

V&A Friday Late - Africa

This month's Friday Late at V&A features Africa, including Fashion In Motion (V&A's free catwalk show) by three African designers.

On the way from the School to V&A I felt a bit sick. Maybe I caught cold as the temparature in London was much lower than in Italy this week. But as soon as I watched West African drums and dance performance (by a group called Kaago) taking place as part of tonight's friday late opening event, I got upbeat. The V&A Cafe served African dishes tonight. I had Cameroon vegetable soup and Tanzanian coconut milk curry. The Cameroon soup had lots of pumpkins in it. Not too bad - certainly better than English soup. The Tanzanian curry was marvelous, making me feel like going to Tanzania.

And Fashion In Motion - the main attraction of tonight's Friday Late. (See pictures at the V&A website). The designers featured were Xuly Bet, Joel Andrianomearisoa, and Hassan Hajjaj - all Africans. The most interesting - I believe this was a consensus among the viewers - was the one by Hajjaj, a Moroccan designer. All the models wore a colourful burka made of Bedouin textile mixed with European one (a football player's t-shirt, for example). They appeared on the catwalk dancing and dancing - in Arabic style - instead of model-walking. The background music began with Arabic-flavoured dancable tunes and gradually turned into Sean Paul's Gimme Da Light - not the original one but the remixed version featuring Busta Rhymes. Crazy.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


I'm back from a five-day trip to north-east Italy. If you know about me fairly well, you may wonder how come Masa visited Western Europe. You're correct. The purpose of this trip was not to experience Italy but to meet a good friend of mine Alberto, working at his family's manufacturing company in Oderzo, a town near Venice.

I secretly expected Italy to surprise me. I hadn't been to continental Europe before. So maybe I was just wrong to assume that Western Europe was not interesting for me to visit. Well, I was more or less correct. I enjoyed a lot talking to Alberto, but Italy itself was just not too bad. (Don't get me wrong if you're from Western Europe. If you are a good friend of mine, visiting your place will be wonderful. But otherwise it will not be as attractive for me to visit as developing countries, which always surprise, refresh, and energize me. I'm not an ordinary person as you may already know. :))

I stayed at Alberto's house, which impressed me a lot - big and very clean. It's got fancy stuff as well - automatically opening gates for a car garage are the least of it. The most impressive was Automower: everyday this little machine automatically starts mowing grass in the whole area of your lawn garden. Whenever it hits the edge of the garden, it turns at some degrees so that it covers every part of the lawn in the end. What's more, it just cuts the little tips of grass and leaves them on the lawn. So you don't need to throw the cut-out leaves away, and it keeps the fertility of soil as well. I haven't seen such a smart machine either in Tokyo or in London. In Tokyo, you don't have houses with gardens. In London, people are awkward with fancy technology. :)

Above and below: The Automower in operation

And this vacuum hole on the wall of each room:

When you open the black lid, it absorbs the air just like a Hoover. The holes are connected through pipes inside the walls to the vacuum machine in the car garage. So you only need to connect a vacuum tube to the hole to clean each room. You don't need to carry a heavy Hoover from one room to another. You don't need to disentangle an electric cable while and after vacuuming. I haven't seen this in technologically most developed Tokyo, let alone in technologically less developed London. Well, more precisely, what Japanese are good at is electronics technology. Italians are better at mechanical technology. Britons are awkward with fancy technology.

Finally, a bedroom where I stayed has a light switch attached to a cable from the wall (see the picture on the right) so that I didn't need to walk in the darkness after switching off the light.

Enough with Alberto's place. During my stay, I visited several towns in this northeastern part of Italy (mainly the region of Veneto). First, of course, Venice or Venezia in Italian. This is the most disgustingly touristy city in the world. True, its landscape is enormously unique. There's no car running - all streets are narrow alleyways. Boats are the means of transportation. Water buses (called vaporetto - there are even "nightbuses") and boat taxis are running across the city. Construction workers use a crane boat, not a crane car. The view from Canal Grande - an S-shaped, wide canal going through the centre of Venice - is amazing. Venetian glass is stunningly beautiful. (See some pictures of Venice that I took if you dare - Everybody takes pictures in Venice. So these photos are not a big deal at all).

But 90% of the people you see are tourists - from Westerners to Chinese. Locals are all selling goods and services to them or hiding in the backstreets away from tourists. The city is basically dead - the population is in decline as housing cost keeps soaring. Most houses seem to be empty. Some rich people buy these houses just for using them once or twice a year to throw a gorgeous party.

Entrance to any public toilets costs one euro. The seaside is packed with tourists and souvenir shops including dodgy brand bag sellers (I saw Louis Vuitton bags with prints of red cherries). I couldn't relax by sitting at the seaside at all, though the sea itself looked beautiful. The worst is Piazza San Marco, the main square of the city, where I saw a horribly huge number of pigeons in the square - much more than in the Trafalgar Square in London! And I paid 12.50 euro for caffe latte at Caffe Florian, a very old cafe - since 1720 and frequented by many celebrities - facing Piazza San Marco. The price on the menu was 7.50 euro. It's already pricey, but I went for it given its historical significance. But when I got the bill, it said 12.50 euro. 7.50 euro for caffe latte (which was actually excellent - they served in a pot so I had three cups of it) and 5 euro for MUSIC! Outside the cafe there were some musicians playing mediocre classical music. If it were the table charge, it wouldn't be so outrageous, given its historical significance. But it was for unsolicited crappy music performance outside the cafe!

I realised that if you want tranquility in this city, you have to go to the east of Arsenale - the eastern tip of the main island is much more quiet. Murano, an island to the north (20 minutes by boat) famous for its glass works - Dale Chihuly (see 30th July) studied glassblowing here - is another option. I saw a glass worker making a glass horse in a factory. His skill was amazing. During just a few minutes after taking out glass from a furnace and before glass cools down completely, this guy quickly molds heated glass into a horse by using numerous tools one after next. I bought a very beautiful piece of glasswork for 20 euro.

Aside from Venice, I visited Trieste, Caorle, and Treviso. Trieste, the easternmost city in Italy, next to Slovenia, was not worth visiting at all though lunch at Audace Cafe, a cafe facing Piazza di Unita d'Italia (the city's main square), was wonderful.
Audace Cafe, Piazza di Unita d'Italia, Trieste, Italy
Above: Tables outdoors at Audace Cafe, on the Piazza di Unita d'Italia of Trieste. Below: San Guiusto cathedral, on the hill of Trieste.
San Giusto cathedral, Trieste, Italy

Plus I managed to experience the infamous delay of Italian railways on the way to Trieste - the train delayed 65 minutes and I took the next train that came first. How can you delay more than the next train?

Trenitalia infamous for its frequent delays
Above: A monitor screen at the waiting room of San Dona di Piave railway station (click the picture to enlarge). Look at the first and second rows. The first train to Trieste Centrale, scheduled at 0851, delayed 65 minutes. The next train came on time at 0946.

Caorle is a seaside town to the northeast of Venice. According to Alberto, this is where the elderly prefer to come. That's why the town has managed to avoid becoming tacky - for a seaside town it is surprisingly relaxing and tranquil. At a cafe I had a glass of sgroppini - cold drink made of icecream, lemon juice, and vodka. I found there was no decent soft drink in Italy except for coffee - almost every drink contains alcohol. I was surprised to know there is no Italian law prohibiting young people from drinking. At the age of around 13, every Italian starts drinking.

And Treviso. We visited this town after dark. It's got this beautiful, contemporary-designed bridge.
A contemporary-designed bridge in Treviso
Near this bridge was, though, a London-style tacky bar - trying to be stylish not so successfully, with loud music pumped out from crappy sound systems, and full of smoking and alcohol smells. Well, this is a bar in a small town. You shouldn't expect that much.

But this bar was rather an exception than the rule. Caorle, Treviso, Oderzo, and San Dona (a town with the nearest railway station from Alberto's house) all have pleasant townscapes. Plus girls walking around in these towns are not dowdy at all. This is very surprising. If you visit a small town in Japan, you can't expect any girls stylish or attractive in a sophisticated way. Even in Osaka or Nagoya, a city with more than 50 million people, girls' fashion is clearly less impressive than in Tokyo. In London, except for in nightclubs, girls are not stylish - or slender - at all.

And Italian foods. They were tasty, of course. Naturally, I didn't want to go back to London in this sense. But there are a couple of things I couldn't stand about the Italian way of eating. First, they don't eat breakfast. They just have a cup of coffee and some chocolate cookies. How can they work properly in the morning with their stomach almost empty? Even England is better in this respect - it boasts the best English food - English breakfast.

The other thing I can't stand is that Italians eat delicious dishes but only one or two per meal. At one dinner, Alberto took me to a ristorante. He explained the Italian style of dinner - antipasto, primo piatto (the first dish - usually pasta), secondo piatto (the second dish - meat or fish), and side dishes like salad. He warned that each plate has a large amount of food. But I wanted to try a wide variety of meals. So I ignored his warning. I ended up unable to finish delicious beef steak as secondo piatto. For another dinner, we went to a pizzeria. Each of us ordered one pizza. I wanted to share so that I could taste two different piazzas. Alberto didn't want that. He wanted to eat the whole pizza. I remembered when I went to Strada, London's best - Alberto don't agree, though - pizzeria chain, with three Italian colleagues at LSE, I asked them to share each other's pizza. One of them didn't want that while the others reluctantly agreed to my suggestion. I now understood their reaction. (So I apologize for my insensitiveness to Italian culture - Riccardo, Rocco, and Barbara.) But I don't get it. Even the most delicious food loses its tastiness if you keep eating it. As typified in kaiseki ryori (very expensive Japanese dinner where one very small dish after another is served almost endlessly), Japanese people like to taste a wide variety of meals at dinner. Italians don't get this. Or, if I use an economics jargon, their marginal utility from eating the same dish is very slowly diminishing.

But a good thing about eating out in Italy is that everytime Alberto said it was expensive, as soon as I converted the price into the British pounds, I said, "Not too bad at all!" My sense of fair prices has got totally screwed up in London.

Finally, one surprising thing to me was the rural landscape in Veneto looked very much like Japan! Although there was no rice field in this part of Italy, natural landscape looked very familiar to me.

On the way back to London, the degree of pleasure gradually declined. After checking-in at Treviso Airport, the world's second smallest airport (not sure if it's true, but as Alberto knew one smaller airport in Australia, we concluded that this was the second smallest), we went to a bar across the road. Serving at the bar counter were two Chinese people. Alberto told me they bought this bar from an old Italian family just before the low-cost airlines - EasyJet and Ryanair - started using the airport to carry passengers from and to London. As the airport had no drinking facility, this bar became very popular. I ordered caffe latte. My last coffee in Italy was basically made by a Chinese guy, which wasn't tasty at all.

I arrived at London Luton Airport at 2345, 10 minutes ahead of the schedule. At immigration, I waited for 45 minutes, watching EU nationals from the same airplane and the next airplane passed the passport check swiftly. (There were three immigration officers working, one for non-EU nationals and two for EU nationals though the time taken per person is much shorter for EU nationals.)

The train service (Thameslink) to central London was already over. I took a coach (Green Line) to Victoria for one hour. When I arrived there, the nightbus to my place was just gone. I waited for the next bus for 30 minutes under the freezing weather - it's already winter in London - and surrounded by rubbish spread around on the ground. I'm back in London.

Let me finally show you a picture of the most desired souvenir of Italy: David's trunks. (I always think that Michelangelo's David was made for gay men at that time.)
David's trunks, the most desired souvenir of Italy :)

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Lecture notes on Japan's economic development

I'm not just drum & bass nuts. So today I let you know a more academic thing.

I just found a set of lecture notes on how Japan became a rich country, written in English by a Japanese economist, Professor Kenichi Ohno, at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), the leading university in development economics in Japan.

Although Westerners have lost interest in the Japanese economy since its plunge into the decade-long recession, people in developing countries can still learn a lot from the Japanese experience of economic development in the past century, or so says Professor Ohno. If interested, check it out.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Shy FX & T Power - 'Feelings'

I've decided to launch Let-Everyone-Listen-At-Least-Once-To-Drum-and-Bass campaign. I believe that drum & bass is one of the few music genres right now where creativity keeps sparking. But its exposure to a wider audience is limited. You may not like it. But also you may like it. You never know unless you listen to it at least once in your life.

So the first instalment is Shy FX & T Power's 'Feelings'. This track has been big in the club scene during the past few months. A passionate female vocal with latin-flavoured drum & bass beats and '60s rock keyboards. Sounds interesting, yeah? Click here to watch the promo video! (If you have a narrowband connection, then click here instead.) Ignore the first 30 seconds. It's just a commercial.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Tube Today

The Central Line is suspended between Liverpool Street and Ealing Broadway/West Ruislip due to signaling faliure today, which doubles my commuting time from my home to LSE.

I think I'm not lucky to live in London today.

BBC Prom: The Rite of Spring

Following Vinayak's recommendation, I experience the BBC Prom for the first time in my three-year London life. If you're uninitiated, this is a rare opportunity to catch the world's leading classical music performers just in front of you by paying just 4 quid (about 7.5 US dollars) on the day of the performance (see here for more detail about the Proms).

I like the idea of paying for a concert on the day of the performance. Concerts, either classical or popular, shouldn't be so big an event. If you want to listen to live music on the day of a performance, you should be able to do so.

And the reason I feel like going to the Prom is Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring conducted by Zubin Mehta. This was the first piece of symphonic music that I found interesting. That was when I was a high school kid. I really didn't get what's called classical music at that time. It was either boring, sleepy, or hard to understand how to appreciate. But when I watched a broadcast of this highly-elaborate-but-never-boring piece of music, played by an orchestra (I forgot which orchestra it was) with conductor Mehta, on a satellite television in Japan, it blew my mind. What the hell is this music?

I still remember that moment. Almost 10 years on, here in London, I have an opportunity to listen LIVE to this tune conducted by the same guy who impressed me as a high school boy. After queuing for about 45 minutes to buy a 4-quid day ticket, I enter the Arena of the Royal Albert Hall. The stage is just 10m ahead from where I am. People are standing to watch and listen, just like an indie rock band's gig. This is what I like about UK. Classical music in Japan is always associated with "high society". This kind of event is almost impossible there. (Speaking of Japan, I see quite a few Japanese (and Chinese/Korean) people, mostly girls, at the concert hall, which is very rare for my usual kind of music events.)

The first tune, Haydn's Symphony no.103, is not too bad. I like the third and fourth movements. The second one, Berg's Wozzeck, is terrible, just boring.

During the interval, a man next to me starts talking about The Rite of Spring to his girlfriend, explaining how extraordinary it was at the time of its production (the early 20th century). Overhearing it, my expectation surges. For the first time in years, my heartbeat quickens because of an anticipation of the coming live music performance.

And it does live up to my expectation. Stravinsky is a genious composer. The contrast of quietness and loudness, one instrument after another claiming its presence in waves, and very progressive patterns of rhythms continuously coming in an unexpected way. I realise the reason I like this music is not so different from why I love drum & bass. But I admit it's more than drum & bass. With a panoramic sound of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in front, I can't think of any other form of musical experience that's more luxurious than this.

As I'm a layman when it comes to classical music, I can't tell how much Zubin Mehta contributes to this wonderful experience. But I guess his interpretation of The Rite of Spring is quite close to my taste. My late grandfather, a big classical music fan, didn't like Zubin Mehta. So when I told him about my crush on The Rite of Spring, he lent me a CD of this tune conducted by someone else, and I didn't like it as much.

I feel I'm lucky to live in London today.