Art Japan Reviews

Serenity on Paper

In addition to the art gallery at Tenri Cultural Institute (which I’ve written about on several occasions), TCI hosts various other cultural events and classes.

I recently participated in a three day Shodo calligraphy course at TCI taught by Tomoko Furukawa. It was a particularly great opportunity to attend as it was Paris based Furukawa’s first class in the US.



Having never tried calligraphy before in any form it was  fascinating and enriching experience. Furukawa explained learning calligraphy is a hands on endeavor and all three classes were structured in a practice based manner, with her demonstrating the day’s techniques to open, creating guideline pages for us all to reference, and then offering guidance and suggestions as needed as we attempted what she showed us.


My final attempt from class 1.


During the three two hour sessions we experimented with three different aspects of calligraphy. On the first day we practiced what is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when calligraphy is discussed: stylized kanji. Furukawa demonstrated a line of four kanji (“flower,” “bird,” “wind,” and “moon”) in three different styles, then focused on one style for us to attempt ourselves throughout the session. One of the most interesting things was seeing the ways in which everyone’s results were individual and unique even with working off the same examples and writing the same kanji.



In the second class we learned about making Japanese Ryoshi paper, a technique of lightly decorating paper to be used for calligraphy. The concepts of using small amounts of color to accent etherial and similarly faint metallics really appeals to me, as does the idea of negative space. I had to leave this class a bit early so didn’t get to do as much of it as the other techniques, and would really like to revisit it in the future.


One of my completed papers from class 2.

On the final day we tried creating patterns evocative of bamboo. This was perhaps the most difficult to get a handle on, between trying to capture the essence of bamboo in minimal representation while making the brush and ink do what you want them to.



Everything was “trial and error” to some degree, and of course nothing looks the way you want it to the first time.  In all three cases, even over the course of two short hours, I could see improvements in my (of course still rudimentary) efforts. It was quite satisfying, and the process itself relaxing and fun overall.



Furukawa provided a wonderful primer on several different nuances of calligraphy in the limited time we had. In addition to the basics of the techniques we were focusing on each class, she had us use different types of paper to see the ways in which different techniques are needed and the ink, brushes, etc all react differently and produce lines with different qualities.

She also touched on the importance of how each work is approached mentally, visualizing what you wish to create,  and the importance of negative space in the compositions. The breath of knowledge she shared and variety of topics covered while still spending the majority of class time letting us practice was quite impressive.


My final bamboo attempt from class 3.


While I found some things difficult (as of course expected when beginning any new art), I thoroughly enjoyed my first foray into Shodo and greatly appreciate the time Furukawa spent teaching us. Thanks to both her and TCI for such a rewarding class.

Art Japan Reviews

A Million Colorful Threads

Tenri Cultural Institute, in addition to its language school, concerts, and various other cultural events, hosts an art gallery that is always home to a variety of incredible exhibitions ranging from demonstrations of traditional Japanese techniques to innovative displays of multinational modern art. I’ve spotlighted several past showings, including the multinational Ink Imagists exhibition and Chika MacDonald’s Mugen exhibit.

Here I’ll be sharing thoughts on the currently showing “12 Years” exhibit.




Nobuko Tsuruta has been doing SAORI, a Japanese art that embraces irregularities and uniqueness of freestyle hand weaving, for the exhibition’s titular “12 Years.” There’s wonderful variety showcased in her art. From stark, striking black and whites to gloriously colorful compositions in forms ranging from traditional tapestries and clothing to more inventive and abstract pieces using a wide array of fibers and other materials.



Beyond the surface intricacies and beauty, an underlying contemplative aspect to Nobuko’s textiles that adds emotional impact to her pieces. In her candid and genuine profile, she shares fascinating insight into weaving as meditation and accepting all aspects of herself, including “negative thoughts” and her “own vanity, ego, competitiveness and pessimism,” into the creative process and her art.




The centerpiece of 12 Years is a breathtaking floor to ceiling tapestry entitled “Requiem.” It’s absolutely gorgeous, with shimmering gold interwoven with splashes of vibrant colors. There’s something powerful and evocative beneath the surface, and a placard nearby explains the deep meaning behind it.



Requiem was created while a fellow member of Tsuruta’s Saroi studio was hospitalized and subsequently passed away due to terminal cancer. It’s “intended to connect the Heaven and Earth, a bridge connecting the spirit of the people who died to we, the living.”

Nobuko’s dedicated Requiem to lost loved ones, including Tenri Gallery’s curator Kazuko Takizawa, who also passed from cancer a month ago. Kazuko’s love of art and infectious enthusiasm were apparent every time I saw her, and Requiem is a wonderful tribute to someone greatly missed.





Rounding out the exhibit are striking photographs of people wearing Nobuko’s creations. They provide a nice compliment to the pieces on display, and the entire exhibition makes great use of the gallery space to really highlight and heighten the visual impact of Nobuko’s work.



12 Years runs until Wednesday, March 29, and is another excellent exhibit at Tenri well worth going to see in person.



Japan Reviews Wrestling

Tokyo Joshi Pro 1/4/17 Live Thoughts

January 4, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan

Last year’s Tokyo Joshi Pro show I attended was admittedly my least favorite of the trip, with mediocre wrestling, poor pacing, and the general feeling that I was not their target audience. There were bright points and most of the crowd adored it, but I felt with some tweaks the show could have been significantly better without losing any of the appeal to their dedicated fanbase.

So my expectations weren’t high for this, but I was interested to see if there had been any growth in the promotion / performers.


The undercard featured a nice assortment of match styles, including Nodoka Oneesan (who debuted in last year’s opener) opening against her trainer Cherry, a 3-way between Rika Tatsumi, Hyper Misao, and Maho Kurone, and Ai Shimizu & Laura James vs Azusa Takigawa & Nonoko with special guest referee Joey Ryan.

The opener was decent and while still developing Nodoka was clearly more comfortable in the ring than last year. The three way had a overriding story of super-creepy Maho Kurone going after TJP’s resident ring announcer Minami Momochi (who was seconding Misao) and Misao or Rika running interference. Maho’s vampire/zombie character, complete with a severed limb she wears around her neck to the ring and gnaws on,  is a great addition to the idol heavy promotion to provide a different feel. All story over action here, but fine for what it was.

The tag match was all comedy, but it was good comedy. The pairing of Azusa and Nonoko benefits both as they have good chemistry. 

Everything was absurd but entertaining. This match was the best Ai looked in the ring of the three times I saw her this trip.

A couple of matches in things paused for idol performances, with two different groups performing a couple of songs apiece. I actually liked isolating them instead of having the singing as part of certain wrestlers’ entrances like last year. It also allowed them to set up speakers/proper equipment in the ring for them (which is impractical when doing one song at a time throughout the show). I understand criticisms of this breaking the flow of the show, but I thought it was fine and fit well with TJP’s general theme/appeal.


It also tied directly into a later match between two members of the respective groups as Reika Saiki faced Maki Itoh. I was familiar with Reika via social media but never saw her wrestle before. She’s got an incredible physique and uses the power to great effect in the ring, looking quite impressive in her victory over Itoh. It was kept pretty basic (understandable given both wrestlers debuted in 2016), but they put on quite a clean, solid match considering their experience level.

In a rematch of sorts of one of last year’s highlights, Candice LeRae faced Yuka Sakazaki’s “masked twin sister” Mil Clown. I absolutely LOVE the crazy clown gimmick. The mannerisms, moves, etc. were all pitch perfect. Another strong showing between the two, and a touch better than last year’s I think.  Mil gets a victory to avenge “her sister’s” loss last year.


Saki Akai is clearly TJP’s star, and received the biggest reactions of the night by far. She was in full dominant heel mode, but still heartily cheered regardless as she faced Miyu Yamashita in the semi-main. Saki’s personal maid / manager / henchman played to the crowd a little too much when interfering, but Miyu did a decent job of trying to rally the fans behind her despite it being an uphill battle.


I still kind of feel like Miyu’s capable of a bit more than I’ve seen from her, but she was good here regardless. Akai played the arrogant heel to the end, including mockingly offering a handshake after defeating Miyu only to pull it back and continue the abuse. I like the total commitment to the character she showed and that she didn’t let the cheers tempt her to play hero to the audience.


The main event was quite an interesting matchup. Reigning and defending Tokyo Princess of Princess Champion Yu made her wrestling debut in the opener of last year’s show. In contrast, her opponent Shoko Nakajima wrestled in last year’s main event in the finals of the tournament to crown the first champion, coming up short against Miyu Yamashita.


This started slow, but once they built momentum it turned into a nice example of a grapple heavy and judo influenced style I unfortunately didn’t really see otherwise this trip.

Shoko’s parallel challenge to last year added a bit of depth, and Yu looked natural as champion despite her short amount of experience. It ran a bit long and Shoko was clearly carrying things at times, but overall this had a strong story and good action and was a fitting main event.


After Yu’s successful defense, Reika comes up to apparently stake her claim as the next challenger. Good choice I think. It’ll be interesting to see if the two relative rookies can elevate each others’ performances in a main event slot.


I was pleasantly surprised to discover most of the issues I had last year had been addressed. While a lot of the action was still basic, significantly higher average in ring performances in terms of execution and a better array of stories and characters made this a vastly better show while keeping all of the elements that appeal to their core fanbase. The effort was strong up and down the card, paired competitors extremely well, and perhaps most importantly the pacing was much improved, with nothing really overstaying its welcome.

This is a very different product than the other promotions I watch, but it’s growing into its niche and I found this show quite enjoyable. Looking forward to seeing if they’ll continue in this vein going forward.

Board Games Reviews

Takenoko: Chibis Review (First Impressions)

Takenoko has become one of my go-to games for when I want to play something a little lighter while still enjoying a bit of strategy and depth. It’s easy to teach and fairly straightforward to play, but still has a good number of strategic choices and room for competitive play.

So I was quite excited about trying the expansion, hoping it would supplement and enhance the game without diluting it or making things too complicated. It did.




This is a direct expansion, and as such requires the base game to play. It introduces a “Miss Panda” figure, new land types, additional goals for each of the three kinds, and baby panda tokens (3 for each bamboo color).

The new land types have a Miss Panda icon, which determines when she comes into play, additional movement, and is relevant for some goals. They also have various powers that activate when the gardener is moved to them such as growing bamboo on all irrigated plots of the same color anywhere on the board, one plot where players can chose to grow an color of bamboo, and a “gardener’s hut” tile that allows the player to look at the top card of each goal deck and choose one. All the tile abilities make sense and work well within the established gameplay framework.




The baby panda tokens can be claimed for one piece of bamboo of the same color whenever a player moves Miss Panda to the location of the (original) Panda, and provide small immediate bonuses (including the new ability to exchange a goal card from your hand for a new one) as well as 2 points per token at the end of the game. They are well balanced and seem reasonable in terms of powers and point value.





The new goal types are great natural extensions of the ones in the base game. New land goals include having a set number of a land type on the board and formations involving the Miss Panda symbol. The new panda goals are worth more points than the base game goals for the same color/number of bamboo, but can only be redeemed if the Panda is on a lake tile. The new gardener goals are perhaps the most interesting, involving having bamboo stalks of minimum height(instead of exact heights) as well as goals needing varying heights of the same type of bamboo. The point values seemed reasonable and the variety was nice.





Overall the new rules expand the depth of Takenoko nicely without being overwhelming. However I would still introduce new players to base game first, if only because of the numerous new tiles with “powers” and the intricacies of having two pandas to move with different effects. The theme of the expansion is quite cute (although the thematic ties of mechanics had my group chuckling often) and it all fits well in the established framework.

Best of all there are small nuances added that increased depth without making things too complicate. Everything in here is integrated well and nothing felt extraneous or unneeded. Excellent expansion, and an easy recommendation if you like the base game.




Manga Reviews

Until Death Do Us Part Volume 4 Review

“Mamoru-san doesn’t need my help. ”

This collection contains volumes 7 and 8 of Until Death Do Us Part as originally published. Although heavy in action it also features a fairly intricate plot that builds from volume to volume. Best to start reading at the beginning.




Volume 7 picks up right where volume 6 left off, with a key confrontation between characters who have been circling each other thus far in the series. Takashige is excellent at giving just enough to be satisfying while holding back for later developments. Nothing’s settled but a lot is established. Also, fights (and other events) unfold in ways that develop characters. It’s an important and masterful use of craft to keep the manga engaging without losing momentum.

Things later move into a nice spotlight on Haruka as she has an unexpected vision at school. It’s an important story that shows her having to rely on the lessons Mamoru’s been teaching her in unexpected ways.

Then the patient, brilliant Wiseman’s finally ready to make his move…

All arcs here are grounded in nuanced underlying emotions: Genda’s controlled, calculating rage, Haruka’s feelings of inadequacy, Mamoru’s (over)confidence, etc. Haruka’s actions towards the end lead to a heart wrenching situation that illustrates how far Mamoru and she still have to go in understanding each other.

There are also interesting yet logical twists, and having master strategists involved on both sides of every conflict makes the unfolding stories absolutely captivating.


Continually fantastic stuff with no signs of slowing down.


Manga Reviews

Until Death Do Us Part Volume 3 Review

“This means hired killers and mercenaries the world over will be racing to Japan to find him.”

This collection contains volumes 5 and 6 of Until Death Do Us Part as originally published. In addition to nuanced plot and characters, this book directly continues an arc started in the previous one. Best to start reading at the beginning.





Until Death Do Us Part is rolling along nicely, with another book filled with both captivating action and compelling, deepening intrigue.

The entirety of volume 5 features the conclusion of an intense fight started last book. It illustrates just how dangerous and hard to control things have become, and raises the stakes drastically.

Volume 6 moves things forward with Blade tackling a new, troubling situation with head on escalation. His blunt nature creates a solid anchor for the chaos around him, and also allows room for the more level headed members of the cast to shine.

And shine they do. They flesh out the world nicely and as I’ve gushed about in every review so far the intertwining and conflicting agendas and points of view of everyone make the manga extremely engaging and compelling. Well developed characters form the heart of any great story, and Takashige’s are great. Certain members of “The Wall,” Detective Genda, and Haruka all get spotlights and important moments. There are also several introductions of characters that will obviously be important later by way of minor, superbly paced cameos.

Another thing that’s impressive Takashige and DOUBLE-S’s storytelling is the economy of information delivery they achieve. The significance and meaning accomplished with little looks, expressions, and careful composition add an incredible level of atmosphere and depth to the narrative.

The book ends with a nice pair of weighted confrontations / meetings that continue to complicate the situation in the best possible sense.  It’s wonderful foreshadowing of long term impending doom as well as leaving things on a mild cliffhanger in the short term.

Another excellent entry in this series.




Manga Reviews

Until Death Do Us Part Volume 2 Review

“I wouldn’t trust him. He’s a killer.”

This collection contains volumes 3 and 4 of Until Death Do Us Part as originally published. It’s an action manga at its core, but the characters and story are quite layered so best to start reading at the beginning.


I was pleasantly impressed with the way the first book of Until Death Do Us Part came together in terms of story, action, and art working in harmony to overcome some of the more cliched elements it employs. These volumes are more in same vein with appropriately escalating stakes.

Volume 3 ties up the first major arc that’s been building while setting future plot threads up with interesting new angles and players that continue throughout volume 4. The storylines and arcs feed into each other nicely, with prior events logically progressing into further complications for our protagonists. The main characters are well developed, and have sufficiently nuances personalities and motivations to keep them compelling and the general level of intrigue high throughout continually increasing tension.

The way numerous schemes overlap and intersect continues to be a highlight for me, as Takashige spotlights the intelligence of his characters even when they make mistakes  or get outmaneuvered. This is always important to me in any story, as when anyone acts dumb for plot convenience it ruins dramatic tension.

The opposition also finds clever ways of creating difficulties for Blade which prevents things from getting too one-sided given his vast skills.

In addition I liked some of the philosophical touches in these volumes regarding Haruka’s powers and the fact that sometimes the only choices available are bad ones. The desire of her companions to seek out as “normal” a life as possible for her is another strong theme that seems destined to become extremely important long term.

Good capitalization on the first book’s potential here. I hope the momentum continues.

Manga Reviews

Until Death Do Us Part Volume 1 Review

“The contract will last… ‘until death do us part!'”

This collection contains volumes 1 and 2 of Until Death Do Us Part (as originally published).


I really enjoyed this “blind swordsman” variation. It doesn’t have a lot of original elements – the blind swordsman, the young girl with mysterious powers everyone’s after, the use of technology to overcome a handicap, etc. have all been seen before. The combination here though is done well and has just enough twists on the cliched building blocks to freshen things up. The backstory of Mamoru’s (also called “Blade”) organization adds some depth and has a lot of potential going forward. The characters aren’t terribly deep yet but their personalities stand out enough and I don’t think the story suffered. The action is solid and what you’d expect from this type of story.

But what really ends up elevating this for me is the multiple parties with multiple agendas woven throughout the volume and the intelligence of the characters. There are characters on all sides that are carefully planning, reacting, and adapting as unexpected complications pop up. I really love this kind of layered storytelling and the feeling that people trying to commit (or stop) involved, ambitious schemes are using their brains. I hope Takashige can keep things at this level as the series continues.

The art is another huge asset. It’s well detailed and very crisp and easy to follow which accentuates the pace and impact of the action scenes. The characters are all diverse and distinctive in appearance as well. Just high quality work all around.

Until Death Do Us Part grabbed my attention more than I expected and I’m greatly looking forward to more. It’s an action manga at it’s core, so if that’s not your thing this won’t change your mind, but it’s one of the most interesting such series I’ve read in a long time.

Board Games Reviews

Hanamikoji Review (First Impressions)

Emperor S4’s version of Hanamikoji attracted me with its beautiful art and some good word of mouth, but I didn’t know much about the game going in.

Simply put: it’s fantastic.




This edition has a classic Japanese theme to it. Seven oversized cards representing Geisha (female artisans) placed in the center of the table. For each Geisha there are 2-5 associated item cards which will be played on either player’s side, and whoever has more of that Geisha’s items played at the end of a round wins her favor (represented by a victory marker). If at the end of any round a player has won four Geisha markers or has markers for Geisha worth a total of 11 “charm value” (value on Geisha cards, corresponding to the number of her items in the deck), that player wins the game.

If neither player satisfies a victory condition, another round is played in the same manner except victory markers are not reset. So you can win the favor of a Geisha that your opponent did in previous rounds, but any claimed Geisha will never be “neutral” again during the game.


The key to the game is in how cards are played. Each player has four action tokens and will use each exactly once during the round.

  1. Pick one card to play face down that will count for you during end round scoring.
  2. Pick two cards to play face down that will NOT count for end round scoring.
  3. Pick three cards to reveal. Your opponent then chooses one to play on their side of the board, and you play the other two.
  4. Pick four cards to reveal and separate them into two pairs. Your opponent then chooses one pair to play on their side of the board and you play the other two.


So in a round each player will see a total of ten cards in their hand, but three of them will end up on the opponent’s side for scoring and two . This “pick and choose” system is easy to understand and teach but creates significant strategic depth. Every step is a difficult decision, from deciding what order to take actions in to picking which options to present to your opponent.




The gameplay design here is phenomenal. You can essentially only ever guarantee a single card in your hand each round is going to count for your own scoring, and the psychology and  strategy of picking what options to give your opponent are vexing in the best possible way. The fact that a single item card is discarded face down before play begins adds the perfect amount of uncertainty and luck, is while players can make reasonable guesses about hidden cards in play things can never be fully counted out.





This is an abstract game at its core, and as such the theme is lightly integrated and honestly could have been anything. But the chosen theme fits well, and the gorgeous art style and graphic design really do enhanced the game significantly.






Overall Hanamokoji is a wonderfully deep 2 player game with simple mechanics that comes together beautifully. I’m quite excited to play it again soon.