A Strange and Wonderful Year

Think 2016 was bad? In 2004, George W. Bush was reelected on a platform of torture and war, 280,000 people died in a tsunami, and Ray Charles and Ol’ Dirty Bastard died. But you didn’t yet have Facebook to make it feel like all these things were part of your own personal social life.

So how was your actual 2016? The one you really lived?

My 2016

For me, 2016 was actually pretty amazing. It began on a wet, windy beach in Danang, and the first five months took me on adventures in Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Bali, Java, and Singapore: festivals and flings and love affairs, Phnom Penh rock and roll and Laotian chill, ancient temples and gleaming cities. Then it was back to the US for a few months to visit friends and family before returning to Asia: finally getting to visit Japan, attending a month of language school in Seoul, swinging one more time through Thailand, and finally starting a completely new phase of my life as an actual Seoul resident, with an apartment and a job.

I’ve made an extraordinary number of new friends. A lot of them I’ll probably never see again.

But more important that any of that was the safe, healthy arrival of two new people in the world: my sister had a baby, her first, and not long after my brother’s wife had her second child. I’ll be meeting my two new nieces early in the new year.

Your 2016

How’d the year go for you? I know some of my friends had it rough. Others had amazing things happen. Most of us, we had both. That’s how life is.

Our 2017

Here’s wishing you and me both a very happy New Year.


Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Seoul

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Just a couple of days left in the US, and then it’s on to the next phase of my life.

So here’s what’s next for me:

If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that I’ll mostly be in Seoul, or possibly doing a bit of internal travel around Korea. It’s my new home, and while I won’t quite be officially moving there until September 7, it’s where I’m going to be setting up a new life for myself.

I’m excited to see my Korean friends again, and to make new friends there. I’m excited to be staying long enough in one place to build new relationships. I’m excited to have somewhere to call home — my home.

[more on japanese vs. korean coolness]

I was going to follow up on an earlier post about Korean vs. Japanese coolness, and wondering whether anyone in Korea would ever be doing something like this:

Yes, it’s awful. But it’s also cool in a way that I didn’t think Korean culture would quite grasp: the cool of the avant garde.
So I went fishing on the Interwebs to see if I could find an equivalent, and lo and behold, I discovered Balloon & Needle, a Korean artists collective that does things like this:

For some reason, this gives me hope.

[hermit kingdoms]

In a New Yorker article on Burma, John Lanchester notes that “Burma … has long been preoccupied with isolation, and the desire to be cut off from the world recurs in its history.”

But Burma is not alone in one sense: it is hardly the only nation in the world that has sought to isolate itself from all outside intrusion. Korea was long known as the Hermit Kingdom, and North Korea maintains that tradition to this day. Bhutan is less militantly cloistered, but it strictly limits its contacts with the rest of the world. For many centuries, Tibet and Nepal held themselves aloof, as did a number of the kingdoms of Central Asia, and not only from Europeans, though from Europeans more intently than with close neighbors.

Indeed, dotted across Asia, from Japan and Korea to the landlocked mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan, were forbidden kingdoms. I have studied Asian history more closely than some other regions, but I wonder whether Asia is uniquely rich in hermit states. Certainly the territories of Persia and Rome, whatever the ruling state may have been at the time, have not lent themselves to such isolation. Nor has the easily traversed European peninsula, with its superabundant coastline and its many rivers flowing to every sea. About other parts of the world, I’m less certain. But I do wonder whether there is anything in common among the hermit states beyond geographical potential.

[the spirit of clumping]

Katamari Damacy is a surreal Japanese video game whose name means “the spirit of clumping,” or more simply, “clump spirit.” The goal of the game and the mode of play are fairly simple but different from anything else I’ve ever played: you roll a ball (the katamari) around various environments, picking up all kinds of objects as you go — paper clips, people, elephants, chopsticks. As you collect objects, the katamari grows, allowing you to pick up ever bigger items. (You can see what this actually looks like here.) The game is presided over by a king whose speaking voice is record scratching and who either praises your success or shoots lasers out of his eyes when you fail. (He also has great legs and a psychedelic cylindrical pillow permanently lodged behind his head.)

What makes the game so compelling is the elaborate, creative, surreal universe in which you operate — not to mention its zany, sometimes dark humor — and part of that effect is achieved by the music, which consists of thoroughly loopy J-pop and a pair pieces for full orchestra, recorded with appropriate theatrical bombast.

I wish I could tell you who the artists are, but I can’t find that information anywhere. Still, you can buy the soundtrack at YesAsia.com.

01. Introduction
02. Katamari on the Rocks
03. Overture II
04. Katamari on the Swing
05. Kurukuru Rock
06. Everlasting Love
07. Tsuyogari Katamari
08. Beautiful Star
09. Heaven’s Rain
10. Houston
11. Blue Orb
12. Katamari Holiday
13. Baby Universe
14. Disco x Prince
15. Killing Hot Savannah
16. The Royal Academy of Katamari
17. King of Kings’ Song
18. Untitled

Thanks to DKNY for the link, and for introducing me to the game.


On Tuesday night I went to the first session of a six-week, twice-weekly aikido class at a dojo on Smith Street, not far from where I live.

Man, was it fun!

Aikido is all about defense, and in fact has no attacks. The whole idea is that you disable your opponent without injuring him. After the class, I went online and found films of the founder of the discipline, O Sensei, a little bearded Japanese dude in his eighties, getting attacked by whole squads of young guys and dispatching one after another with what looks like little more than flicks of his wrist. The term aikido can be broken down as ai = harmony, ki = energy, do = way, which means it’s the path of harmonizing energies. The basic principle is that you use the energy of your opponent, redirecting it just enough that he throws himself on the floor instead of you.

In our first lesson, we went through a slightly complicated series of steps that you can use if someone grabs your wrist. Step in, pivot, grab the attacker’s wrist, pivot, twist, and there he is on the floor in front of you. Two more steps and another twist, and he’s on his belly, helpless. The whole thing is like square dancing, except someone falls down.

And it really works. As the teacher put it, “In a lot of martial arts, the attacker is left thinking, ‘Wow, that hurt!’ In aikido, he ends up thinking, ‘How did I get here?'” As far as I can tell, what happens is that you take control of the other person’s wrist, twisting it in such a way that his body has no choice but to follow. To alleviate the pressure on the wrist, the person will actually fall down, then roll over, as you go through your moves. And of course, when it was my turn to be the attacker, the whole defense worked just as well on me.

Tonight I go in for the second lesson. Hopefully by the end of tonight I’ll be able to take down anyone who attacks me by grabbing one of my wrists. As long as he does it very, very slowly.