Monday, May 7, 2012


As many of you already know, I was involved in "Monsters and Misfits II", a multi-artist show (with fellow Circus Posterus artists Brandt Peters, Kathie Olivas, Doktor A, and Chris Ryniak). The show was a joint effort between local designer toy/culture shop Tomenosuke and the Kusakabe Folk Art Museum in Takayama, Japan.  Being in the show was a great honor in itself, but the resulting trip to Japan to see the show set up, meet the people behind the scenes, and be introduced to the fans and collectors there was absolutely humbling and amazing.

I'll go through what we did and saw in chronological order and try not to ramble too badly. Get ready for food pictures, because I love food and ate quite a bit of it...Here we go!

Looking a bit rough, but happy. Arrival in Tokyo!

Day #1: Arrival in Japan

After a brutally long series of flights from Cleveland to Minneapolis to Los Angeles to Tokyo, we finally arrived. And lost an entire day - I left on a Tuesday and arrived on a Thursday, and lost Wednesday entirely. It's the closest thing to time travel that I'll ever experience. Once our feet touched Japanese soil, we would hit the ground running and not stop for a week. From the airport, we rode a van for nearly 6 hours up into the picturesque mountains of central Japan, into Takayama. The terrain was very much like the mountains of Colorado in the U.S. - steep and snow-capped, with tall trees and crystal clear skies above. Once we got into Takayama, we went straight to the museum to see our show being professionally installed. You can see some progress shots on the Tomenosuke blog, HERE.

Here's a great video our friend Eno from Tomenosuke put together, showing some footage from the drive up into the mountains, and our arrival at the museum:

Pickled fern and other delights.

 That evening we were treated to a very wonderful cultural experience. We went to a restaurant (which I later figured out through reactions from other locals, as well as research after we returned home, is an extremely exclusive and special place) called Susaki, which is a type of restaurant called "ryoutei", in which diners are seated in tatami-matted rooms, often with serene garden views, and served many small courses of delicately balanced and carefully-prepared food, the selection of which often changes to reflect the seasons. 

Grilled freshwater fish.
The type of food preparation that Susaki specializes in is a slightly modernized version of "Sowaryu Honzen", a tradition that has been orally kept by the restaurant since 1794 (yes, the restaurant has existed for over 200 years!).  Food and sake were presented on beautiful antique dishes, atop a smooth, glossy wooden table. We ate eleven courses of food - and none of it was familiar to me. We had pickled vegetables, beautifully-shaped cakes of beans and rice, edible cherry blossoms, fresh grilled fish, fried whole fish, and delicious fresh fruit. It was such a wildly different experience from anything I'd ever tasted, that even if I was not thrilled with the flavor of something, I was thankful to be experiencing it.

Day #2: Art Show Opens

In the morning, before going to the museum, Mr. Shinji Nakako (our host and the owner of Tomenosuke) led us to the beautiful Sakurayama Hachimangu shrine, to pray for a good show. After admiring the architecture and decorative statues, a sequence of donations, hand/mouth purification, bows, claps, and a moment of earnest prayer, we were on our way.  We stopped by the "float museum" on our way out, to view the historic floats used in the Autumn Festival that the town holds every year.

Shinji demonstrates the handwashing ritual.
From the floats, we made our way to the museum to see our show set up and ready for the public. A little goof had been made - we thought the museum opened an hour later than it actually did, and a crowd was waiting for us when we walked in - and erupted in applause as we walked through the door! I've never experienced anything quite like that, it was so unexpected
and flattering.

Doodling a fat bee under Kathie's work.
Once we got into the museum, we were given the chance to meet many fans and collectors, including folks that had purchased our pieces from the show. We'd had programs designed and printed for the show, and spent a good amount of time signing and drawing in them for people. I loved this, because if you can't speak a person's language, you have a hard time connecting with them, but drawings transcend language barriers, and it was a great way to communicate wordlessly, and make people smile.

I could post all the pics that I took from the museum, but there were professional photographers there, and they did a much better job than I did. You can see a lot of their shots HERE, and HERE, and HERE.  It's really amazing to see our work in such an old setting - this museum usually shows antiques and cultural artifacts....I wonder what they thought of our work?

After we left the museum, we all piled in a van and drove to Takayama City Hall, where we met the Vice Mayor of the city. Now, I had expected this to be a quick meet and greet sort of thing - meet in the lobby, shake hands, and have a photo taken. What actually happened was that we were ushered upstairs into a closed conference room, and had a meeting (complete with assistants serving us tea) with the Vice Mayor, translated in part through Shinji and some of our friends there to help us with such things. A bit intimidating! It was an important meeting.

Crazy delicious.
All that left us a bit hungry, so we stopped at a wonderful little restaurant called Myogaya where Shinji had arranged beforehand with the owner, for a totally vegetarian and organic lunch. The tea cups and plates were rough earthenware, and the lunch consisted of small piles of REALLY amazing food, plus a dish of special red rice that the owner (a super sweet older woman) said she had been in the process of preparing for us for three days. I loved this place, I think if I lived in Takayama, I would end up eating there a lot.

After the meeting, it was back to the museum for the official opening ceremony of Monsters and Misfits II.  There were a lot of people packed into the museum - both young fans and collectors, and older people, including a lot of important-looking men in dark suits.  Unlike openings in the U.S. (which usually consist of artist and observer alike casually standing around and drinking beer or wine), this reception was formally opened with a speech from the Vice Mayor, from Shinji, and both Chris and Brandt got to say a few words, with Eno interpreting for them. After photos were taken and bows were humbly bowed, we were shown to the back room of the museum. The museum serves tea and cookies during the day, and there is a little screened-in room off an open patio with seating, where guests can sit and relax. It was now evening, and this room was lit up with an elaborate tea ceremony set-up in front, with four chairs in front of a long red-swathed table. We were told to sit down - they had prepared a tea ceremony especially for us. I know that, not being Japanese, there was a lot of subtleties and details about this whole experience that were lost on me, but I tried very hard to soak it all in, and really appreciate ever aspect of this. I was lucky enough to have my new friend Noriyo (who translated for us during our stay in Takayama) right beside me, and she helped me understand the significance of what was happening, and how I should hold the tea bowl, and what order to do things in. I probably messed a lot of things up, but my intentions were good, and I did my best to understand and show my appreciation. For the ceremony, they had sent away for special "wagashi" to be made, which are traditional Japanese sweets made from native ingredients (I believe the ones we had were sweet white bean dough wrapped around sweet red bean jam). They are soft and chewy, and incredibly sweet, but it is eaten right before the strong, burning-hot, and slightly bitter matcha tea is consumed, so they balance each other out. These Wagashi were shaped like Chris Ryniak's "crumbeater" and Brandt's "Lucky Skull" characters, and were extremely cute!  You can see them in this video, along with some footage from after the ceremony, which was a lot more signing and drawing, and meeting fans. Notice the huge pile of snacks on the table we're sitting at, ha!


  1. What a great experience for you. It was like you were some kind of rock star. Your theme song should be Alphaville's Big in Japan. Ha ha. Seriously, though, very cool. Thanks for sharing, and I can't wait to read the rest. I know someday I'm going to be telling people, "I'm totally friends with that chick!"

  2. Fantastic! Congrats :)

  3. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into what sounds like an amazing trip :-)

  4. Mandi, I'm so proud of you for following your dream. Look how far you've come!

  5. i loved reading of your japanese sojourn and will be waiting for part two.
    takayama is now on my list, thanks to you.


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