Photo of Michael J Downey
  • Acoustic / Pop / Rock
  • SANTA CRUZ, California, US
  • Profile Views: 39,777

Michael J Downey's Blog

New blog postWrite a Blog Post
MICHAEL IN JAPAN - SEPT 2009 by Michael J Downey on MyspaceShare your blog



I wake up this morning early, as I have been lately. And in contrast to the fog outside, I’m feeling clear. Focused. Calm – almost too calm, considering I’m about to leave for this, my 9th trip to Japan.The change in me is welcome – all too often lately it’s been me who’s feeling foggy inside amidst the clarity out there. Part of it may be the relatively “unscripted” nature of this trip compared to previous ones. In fact, this will be the first trip since my first in 2004 that I won’t be performing live. I’ll be speaking at an international music conference in Osaka, and  my Non-profit organization –– will have a booth at the trade show there.

..But other than that, it will be six days of great friends, special places,  and completely recharging my inner batteries. For some people, lying on a beach on a tropical island does that. This trip, I’ll be in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo for 2 days each – traveling on that magic carpet known as the shinkansen (bullet train) between them.

I pull into San Francisco Intl.Airport with plenty of time to spare, and find the only parking space left on the ground floor. Hmmm, this space has a “portal.” And it leads directly to another world – via the elevators…

As I take my seat in 22H, we appear to be on time, yet, as the plane taxis out to the runway, the pilot comes on the speaker saying we had to return to the gate because of a luggage mixup. Ah shigata ga nai, as they say in Japan – “it can’t be helped.”  The 11-hour flight was made more bearable by a friendly denizen of San Francisco sitting next to me, and the remainder of the Haruki Murakami book I’ve been reading – Kafka on the Shore.

I’m looking forward to meeting my friend-Japanese teacher-and employee at Osaka airport, but after I get through customs find that she hasn’t arrived. It’s a beautiful airport, but one that I’m not familiar with, and for a gaijin (foreigner) like me, even with modest Japanese-speaking ability, it’s no small feat to purchase tickets and get on the correct train into Osaka…

I rented a cell phone at the airport, and get in touch with my best friend Hiro, and eventually, Atusko. We all agree to meet up tomorrow at the conference.


Walking into the Conference this morning, they made me feel quite welcome, and as I walked through the meet-and-greet room, could here whispers, in Japanese accents, “ that’s Ma-i-kel J Da-u-ney” as if I was some celebrity or something. If they only knew. But I find it extremely easy to reach out my hand and meet many new friends this morning.

Atusko arrives, and we set up the booth,
 and immediately start spreading the word about my non-profit organization - which seeks to further cultural exchange by giving scholarships and guiding people towards these opportunities on our website.
I duck out with Hiro and his musical partner, Sola, for a welcome return to delicious Japanese food for lunch – ah…the real thing!
 Hiro was my first and best friend in
Japan, and helped me set up my first tour back in early 2005, and we’ve done many shows together since, had a lot of fun, and he’s been such a gracious host with my band and I.

The conference itself was organized extremely well, and I’ve met people from all over the world – Austrailia, New Zealand, England, Cleveland!...and from all over the United States and Japan. The panel I’m speaking on starts around 3pm, and goes over an hour. With about 150 people in attendance, we talk about the music scene in Japan, how to set up tours and get people to our shows, and the importance of the “relationship” in Japan..

I talk about the personal reasons I come here to play and the ability we all have as musicians to use what we can do in an effort to ‘bridge’ between cultures - that this universal language has the ability to reach out around the world and make friends – between people and between countries. 
At the end of the day, we go out and meet up with Hiro and Sola, who are playing a show about 10 minutes from the hotel. Before the show, we enjoy some unbelievable soba and ‘yuba’. (a delicacy from Kyoto – sounds awful, but it’s like a congealed, skimmed part of tofu) Oh man, soooo good. Smooth as silk. Then, they do a really moving set, and I’m awash in both good and melancholy memories. I’m reminded of a popular book by a writer here called “Beauty and Sadness” and the warm, touching, unique way that Japanese can embrace these two simultaneously.
 There’s quite a few musicians and other people from the convention there, so it turns out to be a really festive evening. And for the time being, jet lag has not gotten its hooks in me yet…

After a couple of hours at the Convention Center - meeting, greeting, bowing, and shaking hands, I head to the train station. At a friend's recommendation, I forego the swift, smooth Shinkansen, and opt for the more traditional Keihan line. It's slower, and more "like a train" but the opportunity to take in the sights as I pass worth it. I see so many beautiful, Japanese gardens in people's little backyards - it puts my sorry attempt back home to shame. But I get lots of good ideas... Plus, the 45-minute train ride is only about 4 bucks!
After arriving in Kyoto, I hook up with my long-time friend and band supporter - Satomi. We meet for coffee, exchange gifts, and set out on a stroll. You know, in the town I live in - Santa Cruz - we have a beautiful river that runs next to downtown just like Kyoto.

 But unlike Kyoto, where folks stroll, and relax along its peaceful riverbanks, the Santa Cruz river is closed to mere mortals, yet somehow the homeless population carries out their activities with impunity... 
But I'm here. Now. 

 Eventually we head to a traditional (kaiseki-style) restaurant next to a creek and awesome Japanese garden, where I've been before, and almost always return to when I'm here. 
After a lovely dinner, a stroll in the garden makes it complete. 
Hard to believe all this co-exists with the bustling, humming nightlife of Kyoto. It's a late summer evening, and the weather is perfect. And so is this return to my epicenter of the "real Japan"...


DAY 4 – ....KYOTO....

Finally, a good night’s sleep. Waking up at ..6:30.., rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I open the curtains to a flood of golden sunlight coming from just above the mountains to the east. And as my morning unfolded, I experienced that same “flood” of culture and spirit again and again throughout the day.

 At least once, each trip, I have to go down to the river banks of the Kamogawa and wash my hands – in a practical and symbolic kind of way. From there, I meander the streets in the general direction of my favorite temple – Chion-in. There is always an overwhelming feeling when I sit on the tatami mats and offer incense in the main hall or “hondo” and this day was no exception. It’s “Silver Week” in
....Japan.... – a 5-day holiday – and the streets, trains, and popular temples are bustling with people.
                          I take in a 1-hour service at the temple as monks file in, chanting, followed by ever-more colorfully robed monks until the obvious leader, the last in line, makes his way into the room. It seems that while the chanting and instrument are playing, they are taking “prayer requests” from the masses of people in attendance – praying for their children, or success in business, or an ailing loved one…

Later, I meet my friend Tomoko, who I’ve known for over 3 years now. She works as a tourguide, much to my delight, but moreover, a delightful friend. We start out our day as we have before, at a noodle shop for a delicious lunch, and with no particular plans, make our way to, in her words, the most famous tea-shop in
....Kyoto..... This should be good…

 And it doesn’t disappoint. We make our way to the “tasting counter” and as luck would have it, a girl whose mother she’s know for decades is working there. We taste the very high-end, special powdered tea called “macha” and I’m weak in the knees at its robust power and flavor. Then, my favorite – houji cha – or roasted green tea. And theirs truly is the best. I buy a stash of both to keep me tided over until my next trip

                                     Then it’s over to the hustle-bustle of Nishiki Market – a kind of  semi-open-air market with a roof but open-air at its ends and intersections, where every kind of traditional Japanese food, tea, clothing, etc. can be found. And again, I stock up for the coming year…

At night, Tomoko has made reservations at one of the most exclusive traditional-style Japanese restaurants that serve in the “omikase”-style – loosely translated as “chef’s choice.” It was a 2-hour non-stop feast with small dishes of what would more aptly be described as “art” rather than food. The sake served was from a local brewery so exclusive there is no ‘brand-name’ – it’s only sold to restaurants. And it goes down like golden sunlight – with a ‘kick” – it’s 17% alcohol (sake is usually around 14%). I notice the difference…J. The weather on this trip has been fabulous – around 80 in the day, and 70 at night. Perfect strolling weather. And we stroll our way into the Kyoto evening.

DAY 5 –  TO

After a relaxed morning, I make my way to Kyoto’s train station, buy a “Shinkansen” ticket and board this bullet-train just after noon. The smooth, 2 ½ hour ride gives me time to catch my breath, to take in and digest all that I’m experiencing.

 Time for a bento lunch, a little reading, and time enough to watch the tightly-packed cities wisk by as the stately, green rolling hills in the distance move by more slowly – as if relatively impervious to the passage of time.

I get to my hotel – the Shinjuku Prince Hotel – around 4 and, once again (but in a very different way) feel like I’ve come home to familiar territory – ultra-modern hi-end, surrounded by the  flashing-lights and bustling streets of the hurly-burly Kabuki-Cho area of Shinuku, where the hum of human beings in search of entertainment, distraction, or oblivion is palpable.    Since I’m not doing any live shows this trip, it seemed the best way to see some of my ....Tokyo.... friends all in one place was to throw a little party. My room in Shinjuku on the 22nd floor overlooks most of Tokyo, and is big enough to accommodate the festivities. Among them, Nancy and Shotaro – Nancy asked me to write some English lyrics last year and I sent them to her, and she wrote a beautiful song from them.
 We got a chance to play the song together tonight. Man, that’s the essence of what I love about this – a real, human connection, half a world away, that comes together in a moment like this. Again, my friend Hiro, and Neil Young-loving friend – Okano – are there as well as others…


DAY 6 – My last full day in
Japan begins with news from home of my sister, who just underwent open-heart surgery, and the complications there. The news brings home how fragile, finite, and yet how full life can be. An offer to spend the afternoon sightseeing, talking, and enjoying good food together from my friend and always-helpful employee -  Atusko – is just what the doctor ordered for today.

 We stroll through a park in Yoyogi, with no further plans other than hanging out. On this last day of "Silver Week", there's special events everywhere - we happen upon this song/dance troupe from Okinawa. Each line of the songs they sing are punctuated by a loud BONG on the drums they each hold - as if to say "Hey! what I just said was important!" There's a pride in their performance, and on the faces of the people in the crowd. 
Next, we pass through neighboring Shibuya – the other mecca of young night-life...
– and finally to Ebisu, for a memorable meal of okonomiaki.
  Okonomiaki is a popular Japanese dish that’s essentially like a “vegetable pancake” – with shredded cabbage, bean spouts, onions, usually meat, in a batter that holds it all together. We sit at the bar where it’s made on the “teppan” right in front of us, and then ‘customize’ it with special brown sauce, mayonnaise, and sometimes bonito flakes. A fitting, last dinner for this trip – with new experiences in old, familiar places.


It was 5 years ago today that I got on a plane for my first ‘real’ trip to Japan (and Korea). On that trip, heading east as we crossed the international date line, it became my birthday. Now, heading home, we roll back a day and my birthday isn’t until tomorrow. Maybe that’s one of the benefits of being 5 years older – a little more patience? Maybe.

I think about these past 5 years – two new albums, 8 Asia tours, real estate investments, owning a company that’s grown to 12 employees, learning to speak and write Japanese, martial arts…

I’m happy to think that as I turn 50 tomorrow (there, I said it – 50!), with a new home, a sense of it being home, and new friends, and all those things that I’ve done in the past 5 years so that as I turn 50, I don’t have to run around the world proving anything to myself or others.

A trip like this was more than symbolically apropos for me. For example, speaking at the Conference in Osaka – a kind of ‘passing on the torch’ - and maybe sharing a little of my experiences and what I may have learned along the way.

There’s not much in this life I love more than music, but as I get older, the contributions I want to make are taking me beyond where I’ve been, to where I want to go. And even though I’m not sure I can accurately describe the details of that goal, I can see the step in front of me. And when I take that step, the next one gets clearer as well… and so on…

I’m sad, as always, to leave Japan today. But for some reason, or reasons, I feel more than ever I have something (or maybe someone) to go home to. And, as always, I know I will return soon.

One plan I have is to gather a group of friends next year and arrange a week-long, group trip to Tokyo and Kyoto. And I will surely be doing a few shows along the way.

I’m grateful to Duane and the people at the Kansai Music Conference for inviting me and being great hosts and hostesses. And to Atusko for coming up to Osaka to work the booth at the trade show, and meeting me in Tokyo this week. And my friends in Kyoto – Satomi and Tomoko – for being the greatest hostesses in the world. And to Hiro, Okano, Nancy, Shotaro, Sunny Cloudy, and the rest of the gang in Tokyo for coming out, and bringing guitars to share an evening of music, food, fun, and friends. I’m humbled to be in the company of these fine people.

Finally, to the folks at home – to Tom and the guys at work for keeping the wheels turning, to my folks for keeping me posted on my sister’s condition, and to Ginny for making me feel connected and grounded…5000 miles away – who could ask for anything more.

As we took off from Narita Airport this afternoon and rose through the fog, the plane started a long, sweeping, turn. Looking down at the fog, the plane’s shadow surrounded by an eerie but stunningly beautiful round ball of light, with all the colors of the rainbow, moving in concert with the shadow.

There will always be fog, I guess. It’s just nice to rise above it every once in a while. And every once in a great while, to see your own reflection…passing through life.





Michael J Downey
  • Joanne™ I love this entire trip for you and I feel that it brings you a real sense of peace birthday boy and life is just beginning and I would know I have been 100 since I was born hehehehe and YOU know that
    2 months ago
    Michael J Downey Thanks, Lynn, I'm with you -my okonomiaki was veggie, too. We went to a special place that one of their main dishes is 'nagaimo' okonomiaki (shredded yam, instead of the flour batter). Shazzam it was good! I had shochu (Japanese whiskey) for the first (and last) time, too.

    And thank you, Joanne, for confirming that life doesn't end at 50, but... how would YOU know?
    2 months ago
  • Joanne™ Embrace life this is precious what you write & share & the best is yet to come life is full of wonderful adventures for you
    2 months ago
    I saw you in KMC, but didn't have a chance to talk to you...
    Maybe next time...!!

    If the Japanese page came up, you can change it into English one from "International" or "MySpace International" on the right side at the bottom of the page. 
    Just choose "United States (English)".
    The Japanese page doesn't look smart for me either!
    2 months ago
      Michael J Downey レイさん、コメントを送ってくれてありがとう。本当? KMCで見ましたか?会えませんをごめんなさい。
      2 months ago
    Michael J Downey Thanks JoAnne, Your new pic reminds me of home...

    And Lynn, you're too kind. Next year we should all go on a "field trip" together! I think you would really like 'yuba.' And not being a meat eater, it's a great source of yummy protein.

    By the way, I ended up with MySpace mail because when you log in, in Japan, everything is in Japanese. So I mistakenly signed up for it! My reading comprehension is very slow... :)
    2 months ago
  • Joanne™ This rocks touching friendships inner peace serenity happy for you xxx
    2 months ago