Saturday, December 31, 2005

year of the dog

It's been a little over twelve months since this little project ballooned from a lark to a small obsession, and my own little patch of the web has seen around eight thousand visitors. I suppose if I include daily updates on the health of my dog and lists of weird shit I saw in the supermarket I suppose it would be more, but you and I would rather enjoy essays with big chunks of style stolen from Alan Booth and David Sedaris, then sprinkled with a thin veneer of artiness.

I spent the last week holed up in a small room with eight other expats in Kusatsu, one of Japan's most well known and eggiest smelling hot spring resorts. Most of us were long termers, with at least three or four years here and a grasp of the language. Which made us feel at home enough to pelt each other with snowballs while we froliced naked in the outdoor baths. On Christmas eve I grabbed a friend and we cobbled together a Christmas tree and ornaments from pine branches and free flyers left in the lobby of our hotel.

Happy New Year of the Dog.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


There is a film somewhere in my morning commute. Three days a week I have been shivering out at eight in the morning with a few million other souls to pump through the arteries and viens of Tokyo's railways.

My movie starts with our hero’s morning routine: toast, shave, tea, shots cutting to the face of a clock, polished black shoes slipped on in the doorway. Hunchy shoulder walk trying to step ahead of the seconds, winter morning sunshine, figures in black coats flowing through the streets, breath clouding faces. Dozens of bodies flowing through a row of ticket gate, each body flicks off a double beep as it slides through, the beeps sprinkling like heavy rainfall. Feet tapping and shivering at the platform, people staring blankly in neatly marked rows, every one muffling out the riot of jingles and broadcasts that hurtle from the speakers. Train pulls into platform, great dark piley lumps through the heavily fogged windows. Shot from straight overhead, doors groan open, steaming air and black coat bodies pour like coffee from a pot, funneling through the two lines of shivering cloaks waiting to board. Keyboard jingles, lines slithering into car, a series of sharply angled shots of the doors: the recording of the girl tells us the doors are closing, station master’s crackly voice repeats it, passengers suck in their breath and doors shut with a slow hiss.

A shot down length of the car interior: uniform and unisexed bodies packed tight and comfy, dead silence but for the wheels on the tracks. Shots of faces interspersed with advertisements: fifty year old man, twiney gray hair combed straight swaying on a subway strap, eyes looking inside to his day, suited commuter hanging from subway strap packed with faceless gray bodies, clutching his stomach “Stop Diarrhea Fast!”, young woman in front desk dress and overcoat, eyes flicking over novel, cover discretely tucked behind the store’s complimentary paper cover, small brown bottle, “Highest Caffeine Levels on the Market!, Vitamins to improve brain bloodflow!, Stay Awake and Alert for Overtime, Business Meetings, All Night Studying!”, acne, glasses, overwashed hair stripped to brittle mop, shirt, tie, jacket, seated, head drooping over school logo bookbag on lap, face of old woman and young man in suit occasionally sway into the frame, “Live in a Hot Spring Resort! Seventy Minute Train Ride to Tokyo Station, Eighty Minutes to Shinjuku!” white houses fuzzy and glowing among trees, “Work in Tokyo, Live Close to Nature, Now Receiving Buyers! Free Info Session...”, young man in suit with sharp face, eyes blinking at the “Does Koizumi have the Guts to Stand up to North Korea?!” “Exclusive! Border Breaking Haruki Murakami as Interviewed in the New York Times! (Junichi Uegusa trans.)”

Cut away as train lurches to a stop, hero shuffles out, bodies flow among platforms, camera twirls 360 to sound montage of train broadcasts and whistles. Slow motion shot of crowds tramping up stairs, backs of heads bobbing, feet tramping in a slow roar. Cut to cramming into new train, shinier and brighter than last, feet negotiating small inches of space. More jump cuts of train interior, televisions screens blink ski holidays, weather forecasts and station info. Hero’s face blank, we watch him gazing intently at something, cut to thumbs tapping on mobile phone, cut to doors pulling to platform, tromping out, blurry figures fly past bus size poster of a young girl in jeans and sweatshirt newspaper spread over knees, “Read It! (It’ll be on the Test!)”, long tracking shot follows hero down stairs through ticket gates (beeps patter like rain), across street, he gets lost in streams of coats and faces.

Camera floats away, up into buildings, up, up, then turns down on streams of black sweeping through streets, trickling into cracks and doorways.

Friday, December 09, 2005

just when you thought the world couldn't get any weirder

I'm currently reading this Philip K. Dick novel "The Penultimate Truth" where most of humanity has retreated underground in the aftermath of a planetwide war, fleeing nuclear fallout and chemical weapons. They continue to produce robot soldiers to fight the wars that rage above, and are urged to stay the course by their crusty and charismatic leader: Talbot Yancy, the President of the United States. The reality is that Talbot Yancy is computer image programmed by the upper class living on the surface, which has been clean and healthy for decades. They live in massive estates waited on by robot servants and function like a massive ad agency producing lies for the workers below.

This was all very nice, until I found a cover story on the top page of the New York Times website that confirms my belief that human beings have no limits on weirdness. There is now a booming business in China where nerds are paid around 50 to 75 cents an hour to play video games by proxy for first world gamers.

Let me repeat this, there is an entire economy revolving around people buying and selling player identities in a fictional online universe. These guys get paid to "slay orcs". 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Just read the article and marvel at the modern world.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

marrying people

"So, have you ever been a priest before?" the gnome asked me over a cup of coffee. Miwa-san and I had met in Shinjuku to go over the details of the job the next day. "I would have liked to have you come down and see Terry do a service yesterday, but we'll just have to do with this." He pulled a videocassette out of the pocket of his Zippo windbreaker. "The order is a little different, but words are all the same."

My Japanese is apparently now at the point where I am qualified to conduct wedding ceremonies.

I'd been hearing about the faux-Christian wedding industry for years, but it wasn't until this morning that I actually took the plunge. The set-up is simple: put on a priest's outfit, read a mixed Japanese and English script for twenty minutes with appropriate gestures to throw around the power of God, walk out with $130. Miracle on earth.

One of his Miwa-san's regular priests had cancelled at the last minute and he'd had to scour his phone book for Japanese speaking foreigners. A friend of a friend came up with my name and I got a call on Tuesday night. Meeting him Friday afternoon I had expected a sweaty little man in a suit, but was surprised to find that Miwa-san was actually a gnome: hunchy and twinkly, grey hairs bristling out from a shiny dome, gold spectacles, wisp of a beard and a smile like a five year old. After we'd gone over my scipt I asked how he'd gotten into the business of managing clergy.

"Oh, I've been doing this for ages, maybe eight, nine years now? I have a lot of other stuff going on: setting up sound systems, managing nuns. (just kidding, ed.) I'm also a musician: sax, piano, you know. Would do a lot of wedding gigs, and met a guy through that to see if I knew any foreigners who would be willing to do a wedding service. Originally I worked with Americans and Australians who were involved in the Tokyo music scene, now this has ended up becoming the main thing. As long as there's people, there'll be work in weddings," which is when he flashed the twinkly little smile that got him into gnome college. We waved our goodbyes and trotted off in opposite directions.

There is a scene in Lost In Translation where Scarlett Johannsen, wandering Kyoto, stumbles upon a traditional wedding procession. A dozen ethereal figures in Edo-era dress move slowly through the temple grounds, a white cloth headdress perched on the bride’s head like the wings of a bird, her face serene, wise, eternal. They drift out of the frame, a stunning wordless image, complete of itself. It is a lovely moment, signifying nothing other than its own radiant calm. Most Westerners have probably never seen anything like it. And I would be one of them.

Japanese, on the other hand, have seen hundreds of marriage scenes in Hollywood films. Beaming brides layered in white lace, bright soaring churches, hurled corsages, bells pealing celebration: the Christian wedding is glimmering, giddy, and most of all romantic. To this end Japanese weddings, while remaining secular at heart, have taken on more and more Christian trappings. Trains are lined with posters selling the romance of a wedding abroad in a real chapel. Canada's Prince Edward Island is a particularly popular location; Anne of Green Gables took place there. For those without quite enough cash for the foreign wedding, local churches, hotels and massive wedding service halls lure in engaged couples with photos of gleaming pews and stained glass windows. The Anglican church as brought to you by Walt Disney.

While a lot of people out there may be screaming that this is a total perversion of a Christian wedding ceremony, in my mind the Japanese have pretty much hit to the core of the Christian wedding, which is in their elaborate trappings: the dress and tuxedo, the rings and the tossed bouquet.

Given the poverty of ordained and native English speaking clergy in Japan, wedding planners filled in with the next best thing: throwing a minister’s robe on any old schmuck with a smattering of Japanese and tell him to smile. Besides, you think God has anything to do with this? Miwa-san put it pretty succinctly. “So I guess you’re familiar with how weddings are in America. Forget that, this has nothing to do with it. Make gestures, be animated, think of a scene from a movie. It’s a performance.”

Despite hailing from a country where 90% of the population believes in a higher power, I was raised in a staunchly agnostic family in suburban Connecticut, where Jesus coughs on the SUV fumes and outlet shopping. Our local churches were peeled off the pages of Martha Stewart Living, white New England chapels that accessorize the local neighborhoods. A church was once a source of pride to the local residents, but a proposal to build a new one down the road from my grandparents’ house was stopped dead by squeals from local residents: what about all the traffic? He may have made the world in seven days, but in Connecticut the Lord is just another prospective buyer in the homeowner’s market.

I only stepped into churches for weddings and funerals, where calm voiced men in robes earnestly spoke of death, marriage and God’s love to a family of agnostics who had better things to do with their Sunday mornings than sleep through Bible readings and gargle their way through a few stale hymns. For funerals we would stand up one by one to memorialize the deceased in anecdotes and recounting of family lore, but only after the minister had gotten in some biblical passages. My family wasn’t hippy enough to scrap the Christ garble altogether, it was just part of the show, a word from our sponsor, (God).

Which didn’t leave me with too many scruples about imitating a man of the cloth for an hour or so.

The organist and the choir ladies were a bit nervous during our rehearsal the next day, as I unknowingly slipped in conversational interjections into the stately formalized flow of the Japanese script. “Alrighty, would you mind stepping over here to sign the marriage certificate?” Miwa-san himself hovered around the empty pews in a thin gray suit that rumpled onto his body in the same shape as the windbreaker from the day before. “That was good, but try to speak a bit more slowly, dramatically.” The entire ceremony was give or take twenty minutes, the bulk of which was on me, intoning Bible passages in English and Japanese, raising hands and bestowing rings, and projecting a benign and stately presence.

Ten minutes before the ceremony I donned the robe, smoothed out my hair, finished off my thermos ginger tea and stepped out to meet the bride and groom. The chit-chat was kept to a quick exchange of names before we launched into a run through. The bride’s father had a sweet little pinched face behind a pair of spectacles large as a set of biscuits, and the lead choir lady rushed them through the basics of stepping in synch down the aisle while the bridegroom fidgeted next to the pulpit. I kept my face as bemused and stately as possible with my flock. I examined their faces and tried to imagine which one had decided to shell out the extra money to have me as part of the little show, but the image didn’t come to me, the bride and groom looked too terrified to mutter their “I do’s.”

We did a simple run through of the vows, “I do.” “Amen.” “I do.” “Amen.”, mimed the rings and then hurried to get ourselves ready before the curtain rose at 11:30. “Just don’t drop the rings!” the lead choir lady whispered before the doors opened and the guests filed in. Smile, nod, if you believe it they will.

Twenty minutes later vows, rings and saliva had been exchanged, and the guests were packed out into the rooftop garden for the reception. The doors closed and the singer, the organist, Miwa-san and I packed back into the locker room shedding robes and exchanging congratulations. This being my first time as a priest they’d all been a bit nervous but I’d even nailed the timing for the applause during the conjugal kiss. They did have a few comments for me though. “Just try not to be so… heavy the next time, okay? I dunno, more peppy or something.” I was about to hang my robe on a bar of choir outfits before Miwa-san stopped me, “That’s a different company, ours are over here. So who wants to get some lunch?” The four of us slipped through lobby and past the wedding reception just beginning to germinate in the courtyard. The newlyweds were too busy blushing their way through the guests to notice us leave, so we hunched by in our winter coats, leaving our audience to their cake, champagne and matrimony.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


1. I got a new job. Like office. They take pretty pictures, I do stuff with Japanese and English and maybe learn about pictures.

2. I made a Halloween band. We had a penguin for a lead singer. We rocked really hard. (Check out the pics at the bottom).

3. I turned 26 yesterday. The loot count so far:
- 3 English books
- 2 Miso Soup Bowls
- 6 Lords 'a Leaping
- 1 Okinawan Samba (like a castinet)

For those folks who would be interested in sending me more loot (or just well wishes), my (public use) email is

Monday, October 17, 2005

both sides of the fence

There was a girl I knew from vaguely from college who once asked me what the Japanese character she had tatooed on her arm meant. "At the store they told me it means peace!" In combinations with other characters, yes, it can have that meaning. But sitting on its own on her arm it conjured up the rows of discount stores in Tokyo where the character screams "cheap! cheap!" has been documenting the hilarious abuses to the English language committed in Japan for years, so I was extremely pleased to find the website in their links section which somewhat obsessively documents American mistakes in Chinese and Japanese character tatoos. While most of his entries are petty examples of upside-down characters and missed strokes (on the level of spelling mistakes), some of them are disturbingly funny. Ergo the marine who wanted "tank" on his arm and instead got "toilet bowl/feeding trough"(tank, get it?), or the unexplained tatoo of "shit/excrement" on one guy's thigh.

A few weeks ago I was out with a Japanese friend who had studied for a year in London, and she regaled me with the unbelievable names of Japanese restaurants out there. Apparently the largest Japanese restaurant chain in London is Wagamama (directly translated: "selfish"). Somewhat puzzling was "Moshi Moshi Sushi" (Hello Sushi), but the real corker was a Sukunai, which means "small (portions)".

Thursday, October 06, 2005

when the circus comes to town

A. called at the same instant his face emerged from the photo paper. We hadn’t spoken since he’d moved back to the states to chase grants and scholarships to fund his perpetual art addiction. Both A. and darkrooms have odors of the occult about them, and the fact printing his picture had summoned a phone call from across the globe had a strange symmetry to it. Best not to ask too many questions about these things. Dark powers fuel A., keeping him in a state of perpetual crackling focus. The photograph was taken a few years ago, as he reclines in the corner of his solid white apartment, a slashing ink painting of his uncurling above him like the smoke from the invisible fire behind his eyes. His hair was long back then, tangled in the same obsidian blacks of the scroll. I cradled the phone against my shoulder as I slid the photo into the stop bath and listened to A. speak. Conversations with A. move with the same sharp strokes as his artwork, bristling braids of abrupt impulses twisted to a single focus.

Turned out wasn’t A., but a friend of his I was to talk to. It was Tuesday. The friend was coming to Tokyo with a band and a documentary film crew the next morning, they needed a translator on Thursday and Friday, I would get money and meals and my big crack at show biz. On Thursdays I coach adults skills relating to the capture and taming of the English language, so Friday it would be.

In a society that feeds on images, a film crew is a safari hunting the choicest bucks in the herd. It is an amoral and self contained unit that picks up stragglers like a conquering army. It hews individuals down to caricatures of their roles: the egomaniac director, the technically oriented camera-man, the benevolent producer that counts the pennies and soaks in the energy of the expedition, the flurry of gophers that haul tripods and tiptoe around the general. I had met all these characters before in movies and novels, and suddenly here were half a dozen American males my own age slipping into these eternal roles with their own particular variations. The director’s arrogance solidified into a metrosexual wardrobe and a smile that he hadn’t been used innocently for years. The crisp clean black shirt and baseball cap of the cameraman suggesting the one quiet, confident kid in middle school who could land consecutive three pointers but didn’t gloat about it. The producer was the veteran of close to eighty Phish shows, which explained several things: his rabid fanboy enthusiasm for the project, his tendency to rate everything in grades of hyperbole (“the fucking greatest”, “the shit”), and his self-consciously atrocious dancing that married white-boy funkiness to an epileptic fit. Somehow the squirts, prudes, jocks and obsessives I’d known all my life had brought their quirks into adulthood intact, inflicting them on girlfriends and coworkers, Tokyo and documentary films.

The actual subject of the film mystified me. It was ostensibly about this rock band I’d never heard of (“the 26th largest touring act in the US” according to the producer), but the director described a massive social critique in sweeping op-ed page phrases like “Post-modern consumer society”, “Me Generation vs. We Generation” and “Society of Excess Imitation”. The list of questions I was supposed to fire at our interviewees looked liked they’d been penned somewhere over the Pacific between the third and fourth micro-bottle of scotch against the spine of a historical background section of the 1993 edition of Lonely Planet: Japan. “How does the concept of Bushido apply to the modern Japanese corporation?” “Does Japan imitate the West too much?” “Would you characterize Japan as an excessive consumer society?” The director didn’t actually have any questions about Japan, he’d simply rearranged the grammar on a few simple statements and thrown question marks on the end.

I was here to help them speak with the natives. I was that strange lonely figure whose white skin shone out beneath the war paint, who was torn between the simultaneous desires to both protect and shelter his adopted people and display their wonders to his fellow white men. I had been living in this country among friends and neighbors but suddenly they became but “the Japanese people.” I felt myself getting sucked into the reckless momentum of the film crew, their brazen tribal confidence. They were paying me to give them the real Japan, but somehow I wanted to shelter the Japanese innocence from the marauders. Navigating the train platforms and labyrinthine neighborhoods, I led the white men to the watering holes, where we picked our prey carefully before shooting indiscriminately.

A group of males wandering with a battery of heavy shooting equipment exudes a morbid fascination just about anywhere on the planet, even in a city as saturated with camera crews as Tokyo. I had taken them to a university campus, where small flocks of undergraduates eyed us from courtyards and staircases. After getting a small orange press badge from the public relations department we began the interviews. Aside from the initial ping of fear I took to interviewing pretty quickly. All these years of coaxing conversations out of thin air from reluctant English students suddenly showed their merit. The crew looked on with glazed eyes as I guided the conversations through the tundra’s and valleys of “generation gap”, “relevancy of art” and “mass consumerism.” A pair upperclassmen just off studies abroad navigated the questions with easy aplomb, a couple pimply freshmen still looking for the library hacked at them with nervous enthusiasm, and two coeds aiming to be public servants answered the questions like true bureaucrats, deflecting any bite or conflict and letting everything settle into a lukewarm consensus. As we were interviewing them a male friend of theirs walked by with a wary look on his face. “Are you guys being scouted or something?” In Japanese, being scouted has much narrower connotations than the English: it almost always means porn.

By the end of the day we were back in their hotel in downtown Shibuya and the cameras had turned on me. Three years in this country and suddenly I’m the local expert. Hopefully I got through it with only a two feet dangling from my lips, but we’ll have to wait for the final product. For all I know they could edit my forty minute of words down to the sentence “ me...out?!” I ducked out at half past eight, had to meet a few friends for a farewell party across town. Close to a dozen other Japan hands crammed around a table in a Shinjuku izakaya, the talk peppered with whole chunks of Japanese, jokes and gestures colored years among the natives, the roar from our party dissolving in the clattering din of a score of other tables.


Living abroad as an ex-pat is just like any other drug: the initial effects are disorienting, frightening, maddening, exhilarating. Some folks put away the experience and only bring it out in idle conversation (“I tried that once!”), some flit on and off, returning for weeks or months at a time, and not a small number get into the habit of it. To live in Japan as an ex-pat is to know that some part of you will always remain outside this country, that the way you make your living will almost always revolve centrally around your nationality and not your individuality. We are language teachers, hustlers, prostitutes, translators, announcers, DJ’s, importers, exporters, cooks of exotic foods, sellers of exotic wares, entertainers, and usually a few of the above. We might be factory workers, but we are never cops or firemen or judges.

Translation between individuals may just be the most direct experience of this; putting yourself directly between both worlds and watching them try to speak to one another. I must enjoy the experience, because I signed up again for nothing more than a free concert ticket and a backstage pass.

The club occupied the entire fifth floor of an unremarkable Tokyo department store. I had to weave through a few racks of imported hip-hop apparel to get to the stairs, and then suddenly I’m inside and several hundred people are milling about waiting for the show to start. The V.I.P. area was a wobbly partition and a plastic braided rope on the left side of the stage. I shook hands with the documentary crew like old friends. The producer bought us all beers. A handful of photographers shouldered blocky black cameras, a few American girls I took to be girlfriends of the band furtively handled a dark green Ziplocked brick, sound engineers and roadies scurried in and out of a backstage door. If the documentary film crew is a safari, the rock band is a conquering army: Alexander’s host and Genghis Khan’s cavalry, Sherman’s divisions sweeping through the South, a train of grunts, cooks, refugees and tagalongs trailing in their wake, every single one pricked by the sickening exhilaration of sweeping through border, law and reason.

Backstage after the show people lounged in footstools and chairs, nicking complimentary beers and orbiting the five band members, who shook hands and smiled and kissed their girlfriends (if they had them) and batted around plans for their last night in Tokyo. I suppose we all have cartoon sketch ideas of the backstage of a rock concert, culled from legends of the Who and the Rolling Stones presiding over night after night of Dionysian orgies of virgin flesh and psychedelics, and for all I know they may be true, but this was so much simpler and human than all that. Just a bunch of folks lounging around after work in the tingling aftershock of electric sound, nothing more radical than an undergraduate party, some of us just barely managing a handshake, some of us just thinking of a warm meal, and a few of us flicking glances at that short guy with the steely bronzed arms who had just been pounding the drums for a few hours. Oh, I thought to myself, those girls over there are groupies. But the thought didn’t stick or even ring very true, the word had reduced a human impulse to a caricature. Wasn’t I also back here out of some curiosity about the whole process? Were my interests here purely anthropological? Didn’t I also end up at the neighborhood restaurant chatting with the keyboardist and his girlfriend amid a few dozen other roadies and hangers on? I stick by my army metaphor, our minds buzzing on the collective rush of bodies crashing through our caution and daily morality. We were the whole world, given the right situation we’d have been stealing livestock and sowing fields with salt, our brain chemistry was already primed and ready.

It was in this frame of mind that the director sallied the crew into a midnight attack on the Shibuya crowds, our minds loosened by beer and rock and roll. A few days before I had deflected and padded the cannonball inanities he was throwing at undergraduates, but now we cut straight to the bone, fans of the band musing on the present and future of Japan, the veiled hostility of the director’s questions unmuffled, all hearts racing on the same electric pulse charging the neon fireworks all around us.

There was more beer and wranglings and karaoke and then there was a few hours sleep in a hotel room with two members of the film crew and a poor girl who had been swept up in the whole thing and suddenly found herself without a train to ride home on or a bed for the night. Maybe if it had been Mick Jagger’s party we would have woken up to streams of cocaine dribbling off the busted frame of a ravaged table, but it was just four bleary mortals in a moderately messy hotel room.

The various grunts and career officers trickled down to the hotel lobby in twos and threes, all military banter and talking shop, a few girls hovering at the edges of the conversations. Oh, I thought absently, these are the groupies. And this time the thought did stick, and it made me ill. Last night they had just been curious folks like me, but this morning the talk had turned to departure times, layovers, Hawaiian tourdates and German shooting locations, and they were left adrift and ignored. I watched astonished as the director and crew who just last night had been haranguing against Japan’s hyper-consumerism compared the plunder from their shopping excursions that morning. They ooh-ed and aah-ed like pygmies in front of a radio as the producer showed them the two hundred dollar pair of limited edition Japanese-market only Adidas he had discovered.

Hotel clerks and baggage handlers were dispatched in curt, hungover voices. Roadies and band members boarded different buses for the airport, and I saw the documentary crew off in the chilly October air to a stream of goodbyes and promises of more translating work in post-production. I headed home to whip up a meal and wash up before work in the afternoon. The white men had left with their trophies, but I had to get back to living among the natives, selling my talents and living a quiet life.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

the first day of fall

There are days when the accumulated weight of magic soaked into the world almost drowns you. Days when God seems like the director of some movie with you in the starring role, Gabriel doing the cinematography. Every action is careful and gorgeous, your heart flutters for hours. Just as cherry blossoms and spring are closely associated with the opening and fleetingness of life and love the end of summer has become synonymous with lost love. How many times have a heard a melody where the singer sits at the end of summer remember their first love that ended with the season. It’s a hokey thought, but it’s one that always seems to pierce me, and I’ve never even had a June to August fling.

My first few breaths this morning had the dry taste of autumn. The sweet summer stick was gone from the air and my dreams suddenly focused in the crisped air. I woke twitching to strains of folk guitar, the last images of the dream curling away like smoke. Michael has been dead these eight years, drowned in a Vermont river, but he played for me last night. I wondered what part of me had brought him into my dreams, his glossy gray eyes and the brown hair brushing his shoulders.

It was a Sunday morning and I had a list of errands, but once I started down these town lanes my bike refused to stop, racing minivanned families down tree lined streets, squeezing and cheating between traffic and through red lights, slapped the political banners fluttered along the way.

A typhoon swept into Asia and just missed Japan this morning and the far sprinkling reaches of it sparkled the Japanese sky with a strange patchwork of clouds. Noon dusted us with the ashen gray light of dusk. The sky was riddled in a weird checkerboard of black squares rimmed in sunlight. The wind scurried about like a hyperred puppy chasing his own tail, sometimes almost toppling me with his enthusiasm. He brought me strange little presents of smells and sounds, quickly pattering off to find something new, packages of chicken roasted on skewers and the shrieks of motorcycles on the highway. As I crossed the river the wind dropped a smattering of long farty bass tones at my ankles, soon disappearing among the bored purrs of car engines. Looking around I found a small figure perched in a field of weeds, blowing on a wooden horn the size of a small tree. I veered off the bridge and he waved to me from the field. “Hando-meido!” he yelled against the wind. “It’s hand made!” “Yatte mitai? Yatte mitai desu ka?” How could I say no?

I waded into the waist high grasses to take up his offer. The field was churning with mud, the tires of my bicycle sinking into this earth suddenly gone soft and dizzying as making love. The man cradled the long wooden horn in his hands, holding out the mouthpiece to me. “It’s alright if I try then?” “Please, give it a try.” I pursed my lips and blew it like a trumpet, air columning down the shaft and exploding out the opposite end in a long blarp of rippling air. The digital display on the chromatic tuner perched below the mouthpiece said I had belted out a solid C sharp. I twisted my face and coaxed out an A sharp and a G sharp as well. I shook hands with the maker and we traded our names. Mine is Jamie. His is Kawamura. He made it by hand, from Nagano timber. He comes down to the river to practice in a spot where no one can hear him. My coming had exhilarated him but shattered his solitude: was he bothering people in the immediate area? Why no, I said, I had just barely caught the sounds of his practicing. The storms to the south had pulled me down there to hear him. But I didn’t tell him that.

The horizon was scarred with slashes of slate gray and faded orange as I waved goodbye. By the time I’d ridden back into town it was covered in black, the bobbing lamps of bicycles floating in the darkness like firefly swarms. As I sat in my bathroom the light from the outside hall clicked and flicked in patterns that matched this September’s checkered skies. Oh... my heart felt miles wide today. The country is plunging whole into the churning waters of winter, and today my insides were swirled up like a dash of cold cream into coffee, and my heart ached for someone. Oh oh how it ached for the bundled mystery of a human being to twitter my eyes and shake my limbs. Oh today I wanted someone. Oh. Oh.

Friday, September 09, 2005


Our team may have had the home advantage, but the Ham Fighters had apparently been employing an amateur psychologist with vocal training to motivate their batters, placing him inconspicuously in section 10, row K. “Give us a hit Shinjo! Let’s see something here! Doesn’t even have to hit the stands, I’ll shut up if you knock us a nice line drive!”

I wonder how in the hell they recruit the beer girls for Japanese baseball games. They must be making more than the average shit part time job, because these girls work, each of them lugging a full keg of beer on their backs, backpacked in a heavy plastic case emblazoned with brand colors. No single brewery had a monopoly on the stadium, three of the big four beer makers hawking at least two versions of their top beers. (Sapporo must be spending all their publicity money on those ridiculous televised adverts that blast out every three minutes on Tokyo’s jam packed Yamanote trains: squeeling girls and handpuppets, animated dogs that teach English phrases and hawk beer synthesized from pea proteins). I have never felt so desperate to tip anyone in my life as these poor young ladies, burned red and sweaty in the direct sun, lilting voices hoarse from hawking beer, some of them with beef jerky packets draped across their chests like long Vietnam-era GI bullet loops. There were more of them than I could count, the avian strangeness of the bills neatly folded in their left hand and customer calls occasionally drew my eyes from the game, even the minor dramas of business overwhelming the spectacle of organized sport.

Koike-san had stumbled onto four tickets to yesterday’s early season match between Hokkaido's Nippon Ham Fighters and the Chiba Marines. Best seating I’d ever had at a sports event, about ten rows behind the visiting team’s dugout, with a clear wide view of home plate and those poor girls breaking their backs and pouring beer. Koike is a fan of Baseball, spends his Saturdays as the third baseman for a local amateur league, will watch whatever game is on the tube, gets out to the ballpark two or three times a year driven more by circumstance than loyalty than any particular set of uniforms. Yamamoto and Sayo and I knew better: baseball is about winning. None of us had any personal or regional ties to Chiba, Hokkaido, Marines, Fighters or Ham, so our cheering was spurred by other loyalties: Sayo has a massive crush on the Ham Fighters Center Fielder, Yamamoto has a massive crush on Sayo and I wouldn’t be caught dead rooting for a team called the Ham Fighters.

Besides, it was a home game for the Marines, and the fans were as primed and practiced for the new season as the boys on the field. They sat directly across from us, just behind right field, a pixilated field of identical white and black Marines jerseys that was less like a tipsy baseball crowd than a massive transistor radio, the volunteer brass band cueing up one of the dozen or so fight songs and chants that made up the Marines songbook. Seemed almost every player had his own melody, from the Fukura batting cleanup to Bennie, the American shortstop. There was nothing simple or oom-pa, oom-pa about these either, it took me about seven innings of constant repetition just to figure how to clap along. The supporters box was like a tenth player, occasionally starting a low rising “aaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh...” at the opposing pitcher during his windup, several hundred fans all focused on the single task of doubling his heart-rate.

Let’s have one, come on! Morimoto! Mo-ri-mo-to! I know what you’re feeling! I just finished my summer vacation too, but it’s time for both of us to get back to work!

The game lolled along, a solid line drive from the Marines' Fukura prompted a sprint towards home base from the guy on second, but the ball got there with time to spare, which would push it up to three outs. I was just lamenting the loss of another inning when the ref called him safe, and the game stopped to give the catcher and the Ham Fighters coach a few minutes to scream at him for being such a blind fucking asshole. The grumblings about a payoff continued into the next inning when he called an outside ball a strike, knocking it up to three outs. Even the Marine’s cheering section seemed a bit subdued by the string of shady calls.

Each seat had a little “No Smoking” sticker printed on its back, so Sayo had to head back inside to breath one of her light menthols. Yamamoto-san went where she went, Koike-san wanted some foi od from inside, and the game wasn’t interesting enough to watch by my lonesome, so all four of us headed inside. Just as Sayo had lit one of her absurdly long Kool’s we all turned around to the indoor TV screen to watch a replay of the two run homer that some Ham Fighter had plunked out. By the time we’d resumed our seats the best inning of the game had ended, the Ham Fighters (Ham Fighters!?!) now with four runs against the phantom one run of the Marines. The game loped along for a few more innings, with the Ham Fighters (a pro-league team called the Ham-Fucking-Fighters!) knocking around the Chiba team on both sides of the field, racking up two more runs without much thought. The Marines got a second wind with a replacement pitcher and a surprise one-run homer from my new man, Fukura, and by the bottom of the ninth they were down by four but had a solid momentum going. One ball arced towards right field, and arrow straight to the heart of the monster of the supporter’s section, but it dropped just short of the stands, straight into a Ham Fighter’s waiting glove (how in the hell do you fight ham?).

The game ended there, the four of us moving between the giant geometric hotels and convention centers that lay between the stadium and the train station like the tombs of future kings, none of them more than ten years old. There must have been thousands of other baseball fans and weekend shoppers there, but it still felt quiet and empty, the wet Chiba plain stretching out in all directions, the sky the color of a damp pair of jeans, these alien gray structures risen out of the soft earth, and resting on this sharply gridded concrete crust. My friends began to twitter at the sight of the Chiba outlet mall placed innocently next to the station, and just as I felt myself being pulled along with them I found my excuse in a young woman doing tricks with a trained monkey just outside the entrance.

Charlie was a Macaque Fuscata, the breed of monkeys native to the forests and mountains of the Japanese islands, bane of rural farmers and frequent trespassers in secluded hot springs. But his trainer had saved him from a life of delinquency and had been put to the honorable trade of amusing Sunday shoppers for pocket change. Pays better than typing all day with dreams of Shakespeare, and with more immediate gratification. Besides, he had a comic's timing and was as nimble as a... monkey, hand-springs and vaults, leaping around on stilts, clearing a small arsenal of hurdles, hoops and bars. All done with a Buster Keaton deadpan that didn’t waver through all the hugs, high-fives and whispers with his trainer, who seemed to do most of the talking anyway. By the time the hat came around I emptied out what coins I had into it, to the tune of just about three hundred yen, less than half of what I’d paid for a beer.

By then my three friends had emerged from the outlet mall satiated, Yamamoto and Sayo with brand name bags in their arms, Koike always just content to watch and smile. The monkey act started again, pulling in two or three dozen returning baseball fans and Sunday shoppers to make a small stadium of their own, all eyes tuned to the flick of his tail and the arc of his jump, all eyes turned away from the great catacombs of money and power.

Friday, September 02, 2005

fourteen seconds

Like most news, it came filtering through friends and acquaintances, Japanese families where dinner is chewed to the rhythms of the NHK anchorman’s voice. It was dropped by people I’d just met, hearing I hailed from America. “How is your family taking the hurricane?” They ask me for information, and I don’t even own a television. I smiled and brushed away their concerns. Japanese news loves a natural disaster, the drama of a windbreakered reporter struggling to maintain his clean diction and formal verbs while being slapped by the drippy fingers of a typhoon. A few houses are flooded in Florida, the Japanese nation will be chewing their rice to UP interviews with the survivors, and I hear about it the next day. I remember my basement flooding when I was twelve, swimming down there among the furniture, the August we lost power for three days, the TV muffled and mute, the family living by candlelight after dark, reading and playing checkers before bedtime.

It was when a friend who just moved to New Orleans last week emailed me about the people trapped in the city looting supermarkets for food and profit, about the unclaimed bodies floating in the streets, the bulk of her possessions abandoned, that steely cold horror sunk itself six inches into my belly. From there it was two clicks to the New York Times online and their artfully framed and lighted photos of people (black) trapped on the upper levels of apartment blocks, couples (black) huddling in the Superdome among a few thousand others, of a thick armed volunteer (white) with a thoroughly American face helping to carry a refugee girl (black) to... somewhere. And I started to get a little bit fucking angry at the New York Times and the whole goddamned international community of photo-journalists, squeezing out the horror in their scramble for the dramatically lit angle, the exquisitely framed instant of Suffering and not just the suffering of New Orleans. The article talks of thousands pressed into the stadium, sore, sweaty and dehydrated, and you see the silhouettes of a man and woman against the exquisite pillars of sunlight shooting through the damaged roof. I read of the uncountable number of bodies floating in the streets, too numerous for the rescue workers to bother with, and see a picture of a lone man in a boat, drifting exquisitely amid roofs and telephone poles.

I’ve never been to New Orleans, but it always seemed to me like one of the few American cities worth visiting even if you didn’t know anyone there. You heard the stories about Mardi Gras, and that didn’t sound like any America I was familiar with. It wasn’t a city where the tourism bureau and middle class descendants of the original settlers desperately cling to old immigrant traditions, which eventually come out glossy twenty-first century versions of their original selves. It seemed to be a genuine black sheep in the family of American cities, the odd Creole aunt that slightly unnerved stuff shirt New York, schizo entrepreneur LA and manic depressive Seattle. There was one excellent piece in yesterday’s NY Times penned by a guy involved in architectural preservation projects in New Orleans, lamenting not just the extensive damage to many of the cities beautiful old neighborhoods, but the unknown damage to the cultural fabric of its communities. According to the article the city has one of the highest rates of folks staying put of any American metropolis, folks staying in the neighborhood they grew up in, an old world node in the transient American landscape.

The images and stories coming out of the South the past few days have stirred up some more local fears as well. For years the ash faced men in white lab coats have been terrifying the greater Tokyo area with their warnings of the big one. The Kanto Daijishin is expected sometime within the next fifteen years or so, and this is the sucker that is going to level Tokyo, churning this warren of steel and concrete into the Pacific Ocean. I sometimes wake up, wondering if the room is shaking or if it’s just my heart throwing the blood around my body.

This year there’s been a string of major quakes along the main island, the earth snake cracking his ancient spine. A few weeks ago I was holed up in a fifth floor internet café when the air began to groan and the whole building started whipping back and forth, heads twirling and twittering, partitions snapping against one another. I clutched my bag and tried to remember what in the hell you were supposed to do when that happens. I stood in a tensed crouch, ready to sprint in five directions at once for about a minute or so, the whole world shaking around me. Of course it just slowed down and stopped, but of the few dozen earthquakes I’ve felt in my years here it was the most aggressive, the most vindictive quake I’d felt. I checked out with about half of the café and wandered back to my house, the streets level as always, people shaking off the tremors in their legs and heading back to their business. False alarm folks. No one died except for a few abandoned houses which made the news. The nation resumed it’s scurrying.

Japan lives with images of disaster, this shiny new world still seems so fragile, so unreal. They say Godzilla was about the atom bomb, so why did everyone love him so much? Every nation clings to its innocence, its memories of suffering with a black pride. We remember the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, and the black day in September which really did change everything. Japan can remember Tokyo crumbling twice in the past eighty years, grandparents tremble at thoughts of the war years, living on millet and wild grasses, every major city burned black. Japan quietly gave more to this year’s tsunami relief than any other nation, the bulk of it from individual donations. It seems like only last month that nightly news was commanded by stories of Niigata families driven to school gymnasiums by last October's earthquake were moving into pre-fabricated housing units.

We do what we can. Houses are stocked with water and canned goods, a friend of a friend has been perfecting a pulley device so he can rappel off his balcony. Japan’s bestseller list has recently been topped by a new up-to-date guide with maps of the danger levels of different Tokyo neighborhoods, and the best routes to designated emergency shelters. Many of the city’s major centers lie on the ghosts of rivers and valleys that were loosely packed with earth early in the last century, the water characters in their names their only claim to the past. They’ll be jiggling like long strips of molded jello when d-day hits. Scientists have perfected detection equipment to sense earthquakes a good fourteen seconds in advance. I talk with friends and the conversation ends with shaken heads and shrugs. I type this and I look out my fourth floor window at the children walking from school, the mothers with bicycle baskets loaded with groceries, the groups of men laughing over Friday afternoon beers. These millions of us skittering on this treacherous earth like drops of water on an iron skillet, praying for the strength of the levy’s and our chances for deliverance, televisions flickering with the images of our nightmares.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

not a blog

Whatever this website is, it's not a fucking blog. You were probably confused by that little url tagged at the top of the screen that says “” First off, blog is an ugly word – a squidgy four letter little turd of a word. Blog does not rhyme with strawberries, sunshine or kissing-in-the-afternoon. Blog does rhyme with snog, a hairball of a British word that reduces the beauty of kissing to the sounds of cooperative gulping. Blog does rhyme with dog, frog, log, flog, bog, clog, smog and sog(gy). Right down to ogre, the associations with “og” in the English language are mostly damp, grayish, and smell funny. My page doesn’t smell funny.

Blogs are sleep inducing records of dog walks, forums for the politically inclined to talk about what a wanker Bush is, pages and pages of goddamned baby pictures. A three AM missive whose contents are "I'm kinda sleepy rite now. Had a ruf day 2day. Here's a pictur of Fluffy drinking from the tolet bowl. Isn't she 2cute?"

This is something much classier and literary. Check out the ridiculous post below "a life in books." The thing was ten single spaced pages on Microsoft Word for chrissakes. Anything that long is way classy.

Monday, August 22, 2005

dance dance dance

Where: Small club in Iruma, a spectacularly unremarkable Tokyo suburb. Although the music is exclusively hip-hop and R&B, the place is aggressively decorated with fake Hawaiian masks and coconuts. There is a grass hut stuffed with three or four tables next to the dance floor.

When: Exactly one year ago, dead August heat.

Who: A few local English teaching Americans, some Japanese friends from work, a smattering of b-boys in Green Bay Packers caps and local girls wrapped and bowed in summer yukata’s, straight from the local festival.

What: I know it was hot, but this one wiry muscled guy was dancing stark naked in a circle of his loosely clothed friends, his bits and bobs jangling like a custodian’s key chain. Apparently this didn’t satisfy the terms of whatever bet he lost, because after a disappearance of a few minutes he streaks back in through the front door and does a dance that closely resembles an epileptic seizure, writhing on the floor with the possessed look of the ecstatically happy. Whatever was tugging the strings of his skeleton had a dark sense of humor, his right hand desperately trying to light his pubic hair on fire with a ten yen plastic lighter.


Where: Bordered by foreign embassies and bars cleared for patronage by the US military, swarming with hookah bars and forty dollar dance clubs, Roppongi doesn’t have the best rep. Originally designated as the official spot for US soldiers to drink, fight and pick up girls during the occupation, the place still has an Interzone kinda vibe to it, floating somewhere outside Japanese society but smack in the heart of Tokyo. This is the spot where English teachers, tourists and Marines go to get hustled by Nigerian guys flyering for dance-halls, strip-clubs and Russian hostess bars, where Western businessmen go to score coke and heroin, Japanese professionals go to slum it up with the foreigners, and foreigners go to pick up loose Japanese. Roppongi clubs sway from postapocalyptic warehouses raves to the merely expensive and sleazy watering holes; places where fun is engaged as more of an intellectual exercise of drink, dance, hook-up, and you can never really shake the fucking paranoia. Every few months my embassy sends out an email warning about some recent shooting or rape involving a US citizen in Roppongi, with the standard advisory to stay away from Roppongi or hold onto that passport if you do. (I don’t think the daily shuttle buses from US military bases are affected by these warnings.)

Right in the eye of all the money and sleaze the Lexington Queen sits like a cease-fire zone for Roppongi combatants, ambitions and aggression checked at the door, everyone equal before the 3000 yen entrance and free drinks all night fee across the board. They say this is where Leonardo DiCaprio dances when he’s in Tokyo, but the most famous people was a jazz drummer from Chicago touring Japan.

When: Last Easter Sunday.

What: Lexington Queen holds no pretensions on music or style: they spin anything that was ever in the top ten, with a lot of weight given to this week, last week and the week before. Last summer we shook it like a Polaroid picture to ahlay mohn but every once in a while you’d get ya freak on, you’d milk shake, or even rock like a virgin. Russian hostesses on their night off, import executives, Nigerian hustlers, export executives, professional ravers, English teachers, Korean students, Indian entrepreneurs, secretaries, waiters, b-boys, dealers, me. They say Sunday is the best club night in Tokyo, all the folks who have been busting their asses in restaurants and bars all week pulling the stops til the first train, just to crash and sleep past noon on Monday. Sometime after a string of slow dance tunes the DJ slipped in Smells Like Teen Spirit, miraculously transforming the dance floor to a bunch of thrashing males who had only danced to the song when they were a) thirteen, b) listening on headphones and c) prancing around their bedroom in their underwear. The girls all went to powder noses or refresh drinks while we moshed the dancefloor back to 1991. It might have been all those tequila sunrises, but I swear to god I saw Jesus there too, his body wrapped in white sheets, sweat loosening the glue of his beard, hair brushing his shoulders, makeshift cross propped in the corner while he crowd surfed.


Where: A three leveled, two staged, multi-barred labyrinth of a club in Ebisu, a neighborhood in Tokyo where the import grocery stores and fashion boutiques fight for space against the overwhelming perfume that stalks the streets, so thick you can almost bite it. Jet black interior, dividers and stairwells wrapped in a kilometer or so of thick gray steel wiring, H.R. Giger’s living room. The place looked like the abandoned spaceship from Alien, with just as many people. Beers ran up to \1200 (approx $12 US) for a bottle, your cheapest option was a \750 Corona or a glass of Miller for \700. I smuggled in a bottle of tea.

When: Last Saturday night.

Who: A friend’s electronica group, a slew of DJ’s intently scowling at their equipment, a smattering of bands too busy with their hair to bother thinking about the music, and several dozen of Tokyo’s rich and bored, grimly soldiering another all-nighter with no obvious enthusiasm.

What: Two buddies fresh and glistening from some tropical paradise wandering shirtless: pecs burned nut brown, eyes glazed opaque, hand-hewn djembe drums slung over their shoulders. They performed the needed public service of clenching their biceps for spectators and helping out the bands and DJ’s by adding an extra set of drums from the dance-floor. I had to flee to the corner just to make out the clicks and squeaks and beats from my friend’s electronica group, which was fighting a losing battle against the tribesemen who had seized the room with surfer charisma and bodies not natural to Tokyo.

Hand-drumming duo acts must be sweeping Tokyo clubs, just a few minutes later an exquisitely tailored set of twins wearing tuxedoes burst in with a flourish from their brass molded Greek dumbeks. They had a better sense of timing, their drums snapping brightly to the DJ’s for a minute or so, perfect rows of teeth smiling, then ducked out to dumbstruck faces and enthusiastic applause. The hippie brothers sulked off to a different level of the club.


I'll leave the Whys to you.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

a life in books

“A book is a mysterious object... once it floats out into the world, anything can happen.” –Paul Auster, from Leviathan

1. Fiction.

Read one too many novels and your life starts to resemble one. Everyday objects morph into personal symbols (“beer cans”, “the rusty faucet”, “favorite pair of jeans”), you try to guess out your friends through internal character sketches, remembering a girl from high school becomes a flashback. But hanging over every paragraph spent comparing fish prices at the local market, every stretch of dialogue with friends (“You should start doing push-ups...”), every chapter ending (“... raspy sounds of a man croaking out karaoke curled in through the window and wriggled into his head to tangle and tease the thoughts inside.”): arching over the whole thing are the plot questions, the career and love and family and death questions. Like a well crafted novel we usually tend to wrestle with these issues every day, in fits and spurts, in lies and wishes, without even realizing it. Eventually we tumble out the other end, and the world looks a litttle different.

Ever since it came to light that my work visa renewal was not exactly a sure thing I had to split my mind down two paths, preparing both for an abrupt return to the states and another year of life in Japan. I spent two months gathering the necessary documents and putting off writing my letter of apology and explanation to the immigration bureau until the last possible minute.

Once all the other documents had been cleared I holed up in a cafe and wrote the damn thing in a two hour burst, just in time to meet up with a Japanese friend who helped hew my rough and boastful Japanese into something clean and laced with formal pronouns. She had also insisted on adding a final paragraph where I pleaded for a visa not simply on account of my job but out of a sense of responsibility to an international exchange group that I volunteered at, doing my humble part to broaden and internationalize the greater Saitama area. It was exactly the type of meaningless drivel I’d avoided throughout the entire letter, trying to project myself as confident but affable, a productive and harmonious member of Japanese society; I would appeal to the system’s sense of decency, I wouldn’t pull out my Americanness, whiteness, or maleness just to get a visa. “I know these people,” she said firmly, cutting off my objections “they eat this stuff up.”

After having spent several hours in the dead flabby air of an aggressively air conditioned Starbucks I left the place lightheaded, my throat aching. I spent the last day of my deadline worrying over ever sentence in the grips of the early stages of a headcold. Did my friend really “know these people”? They dealt with lines of Chinese and Brazilians every day – people who had lived here for most of their lives, their Japanese unmarred by accents but marked by a kind of alien directness and brevity that bowled through the paragraphs of apologizing that usually frame a conversation. No way these hardened immigration officers would fall for my white boy shtick, waving a certificate of Japanese proficiency (Not quite first level yet!), gee- shucks American apologizing for a year-and-a-half of visa violations (well, this alien culture just so confusin’...), and a desperate plea to help continue my “internationalization” activities. Right. I could see the guy already, little bureaucrat with a face that looked and smelled like creamed coffee, brow knotted over this letter that begged him to consider my community service in spreading American culture. But then again, somebody had to be buying all those Norman Rockwell collections I’d seen placed so prominently in the arts section of the local bookstore.

With less than an hour left before the office closed for the weekend I finally decided to agree with her and kept the paragraph in. I tucked the printout into a folder with signed letters and officially stamped tax records, timelines of my workplaces in Japan, certificates of Japanese proficiency and my college diploma. I arrived sweaty from my mid-summer bike sprint, t-shirt sticking to my back, sweat contracting to salt as I plunged into the bubble of air-conditioning. The large waiting area was mostly empty, the staff shuffling the last of their papers before the weekend. Waiting numbers floating in electric red above the service counters, but no one there to service, or to wait.

I stepped out ten minutes later with a “Visa in Processing” stamp on my passport, arms and organs shivering like I'd just walked off a first date. There was nothing I could do but wait for the gears to whir through their course and just have the machine spit out my goddamn fortune already.

2. Book Worm.

Between the ages of ten and fourteen I was thrown into a Kafka fucking holding pen called Coleytown Middle School, and I hated every minute of it. It was a four year educational white out between the blissful romps of elementary school and high school’s scramble into jobs and colleges. No one had any idea why we were there or what we were supposed to be doing, least of all the teachers. Our geriatric English teachers hadn’t read the assigned books in years, so we simply invented plots and characters in our weekly book reports. I failed a sixth grade geography project for being too lazy to include an isthmus in my diorama. Computer skills classes mostly dissolved into furious typing battles, filling the entire screen of our Macintoshes with fuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyoufuckyou

Sometime back in prehistory the popular cro-magnons had staked out their territory closest to the windows and bequeathed the space to their descendants, who claimed their birthright each year, sliding into the same plastic scoop seats as their forefathers. They ate trays of hamburgers and brown bag lunches bathed in sunlight, the doors to recess luxuriously convenient. My first lessons in real estate. Location, location, location. Your social position corresponded exactly to your seating positions: the farther you sat from the doors, the lower you sank on the social graph. I treaded water somewhere round the lower end of the average boys, a seat barely touched by the sun. The bodies around me were savage, unfathomable. The other boys at my lunch table blazoned their bodies with sports jackets and baseball hats bearing the icons of wild animals: Wolverines, Bruins, Hornets. To my right was a small jungle of snarling thirteen year olds, to my left, the pitch black depths of the socially unmoored. They floated aimlessly in ones and twos in the dark corners of the cafeteria, bathed in odors belching from the kitchen doors; ghosts and outcasts, chewing their food in silence. They terrified me, and I hated their injured animal eyes that would search my face for compassion. I had nothing for them. With my whole field of vision as clogged by rabid creatures. I developed a habit of looking down: most often straight into a fantasy novel.

Fantasy. Contemporary Fantasy. I had started years before with Lloyd Alexander’s dark and beautiful amalgams of Welsh legends in “The Horned King” and “The Black Cauldron”, and was probably triggered even earlier by the gorgeously illustrated D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths. But by middle school I was chomping through reams of novels by contemporary American writers like Raymond Feist, David Eddings and Anthony Jordan. All of their books were wonderfully small variations on a story that I never tired of reading: orphaned and misunderstood boy turns out to be messiah, thrust out into a cold and uncaring world with a small band of companions on some quest, beset by [insert author’s monster preference here: orcs, goblins, dragons], romantic awkwardness with feisty girl his own age, battle with forces of darkness, social order overturned, evil punished, boy has become a man and hero. These books were wonderfully predictable in overall plot and structure, but they were delicious in their details, in their deep imagined histories, in the crude and stylized maps tucked into the front cover. They were coming of age stories draped in iron age legends and World War II alliances of good nations banding together to defeat the armies of darkness. They crushed up the emotions of my daily life and distilled them into a sweet clear vapor that plucked my soul like an open guitar.

I devoured them savagely, gulping down whole chapters without pausing to think, absently skipping descriptive paragraphs for meatier ones. I read during recess, I read during study hall, I read between classes, I read in my room when I got home. If I was reaching the end of a fantasy novel I’d make sure to bring its sequel to school with me. There was always a sequel. My dolphin blue backpack, already stuffed with math and social studies textbooks, was also crammed with at least two fantasy hardbacks. Mom raged at me as I shouldered this bag of boulders using only one strap. Everyone knew going two strap was for losers. I honestly didn’t notice the weight, my mind too busy flickering with images myself wracked in study of ancient scrolls and spells: hours of careful study over precious manuscripts while the world of evil armies and mindless politics swirled around me.

My fifth grade social studies curriculum consisted of a year of studying the social habits of animals. I can remember learning exactly two things from the class: seagulls regurgitating food for their young (A: You are totally gonna regurgitate that those curly fries. B: What, you wanna eat my barf or something? Eww, you’re such a sicko, SICKO!), and that Eskimos clothing left pockets of air between the cloth and the skin to stay warm. Apparently Eskimos were also considered animals, being the last species covered that year.

It was unclear exactly what lessons we were supposed to take from the class, so many decided to pursue independent study projects in farting noises and ways to torture our social studies teacher, Mr. Hanson. He always seemed like a nice enough guy to me, but Mr. Hanson must have done something really terrible in a previous life to be given this job, shivery as his body was with Parkinson's. He looked like a skeleton marionette, clanking into class on a special pair of crutches, his skinny limbs twitching to invisible strings. His voice wavered as well, but at least he spoke to you and not an idea of you, brown eyes soft behind his thick glasses. He was frail and nearing the end of his tenure, but he wasn’t sour or bitter or gray like my other teachers. The kids in the class called him Dancin’ Hanson.

One day when he hobbled into the room and took a seat at his desk only to find the chair slathered in the gel from a punctured executive stress squeeze ball that some rich little shit had probably stolen from his stock broker father. As the entire class of twelve year olds dissolved into a hurricane of yells Mr. Hanson’s gaze flailed around wildly, eventually meeting my eyes in the front row. “Jamie! Get help!” I froze in my seat. The old bastard was going to bring me down with him, he’d cursed me with trust, he’d pulled me out of my warm little anonymity in the second row. There was nothing to be done. I sprinted across the hall to the principal’s office and retrieved a younger and scarier disciplinarian whose voice stung like whip, slapping the hooting room of primates into a grid of children, shivering at their desks.

Years later even girls in the class would be able to stop me cold with a warbly “Jamie! Get help!” After a whole year of seagull, otter and Eskimo filmstrips I had finally learned something useful about animal behavior: anyone straying from the pack will be culled. There was no messiah story here, there was no kindly older wizard, eyes twinkling with the secrets of the universe. My reading was an opiate, it had nothing to do with the world I lived in. It was fantasy. Contemporary. Fantasy.

3. Auster.

Somehow I limped out of the petty tyrannies and dark woods of middle school intact, and by high school I’d put aside my fantasy paperbacks with their oil painting covers of boy wizards and elfin maidens with breasts the size of their heads. I would occasionally see them in curls of smoke at a New York rock club or popping out of carpets like a magic eye poster. All the dope I smoked and mushrooms I dropped tickled through years of dreams and images, dredging up old stories and hobbling together new ones from the cracks and crevasses of my fifteen year old skull.

It was around this time that the fiction of Paul Auster began to creep into my life. An English teacher handed my class a bizarre little New York Times piece with his name attached. It was like a case file from a detective story, a smattering of clues paper clipped together in a binder marked “Why Write?” Under that cryptic title were about a dozen anecdotes of chance and coincidence, of families and lovers torn apart, reunited in strange coincidences, each as unique, strange and inevitable as Oedipus. Icy and precise little crystals. I puzzled over the thing for close to a month, the title boring at me insistently. It was my first exercise in close reading, in engaging a piece of writing that wasn't barreling through the familiar stops and plot points to end at the same terminal. This wasn't a ride, this was a maze.

His work popped up again, tucked away innocently on a back shelf of the high school library like an undetonated bomb. Auster books are like that, exquisitely crafted little packages whose design just barely keeps the whole thing from dissolving into chaos. They trace the madness and mystery of living in a calm, cold and controlling prose that is coiled just tight enough to not explode. “In the Country of Last Things” was a purely invented world, but it was not magical or wondrous. There were no kindly old wizards, it did not arc to final battles of good and evil. It was a young woman crawling through a decaying urban landscape fenced off from the outside world, searching for her disappeared brother. It was a small packet of horror, an amalgam of decaying New York of the 70’s and 80’s and closed off Jewish ghettoes of the holocaust, it was stories of middle class civilization chewing itself to death. And there it was on the green gunmetal shelving next to Auden, ignored by the librarians and the few students who ventured into the library.

With their stark covers, slim two hundred page sizes and odors of years in public libraries Auster books were a very different species from the chunky five hundred page dragon and wizard splashed epics I'd been lugging around years before. But they both had self contained worlds churning beneath their covers. To move through Auster writing is to stare at the eternal strangeness of the human universe, a series of shocks and chances that twist and warp the characters into strange new shapes by the end of the book, so that they are left alone, blinking at their lives and calmly thinking “how did I get here?” His books are peopled with men and women possessed by ideas, ideas that shifted the world around them. Mr. Auster will descend into the story to talk with them himself, discuss their goals and fears. But essentially they are calm, stoic and resourceful against the horrors around them. Here was adulthood, here was responsibility, staring down the horrors of life. I would close Auster books a little bit older than when I started them, a little bit warped and weathered for the experience.

It was all so New York, all so literary, so liberated, so fucking ex.

4. Immigration.

And it was after handing in my visa application that I settled down to Paul Auster again: a new edition of one of his novels from the late eighties. It was wrapped in a sexy new cover, solid black stripes crowding across a photograph of a Brooklyn tenement. Here was another small bomb left ticking on the shelf.

That strange logics of the book were doing laps around my head as I headed back to the immigration bureau on a Monday morning, my college diploma and two passport size photos in hand. In all my haste to get the application in, I had forgotten these two essential components. I fear bureaucracy like a computer, one typo throwing the entire process into spasms of error messages and barred entry. I learned to type a long time ago, but I haven’t renewed my passport yet.

I suppose all the visa issues that had built up over the weekend burst out on Monday morning. It was a press of bodies, a loud, brassy, and distinctly un-Japanese mob of Chinese, Koreans, Brazilians and Filipinos dotted with a few black and white faces. I left a small space between the family in front of me to let people pass through and was promptly cut off by a fierce looking Thai woman. The Chinese family protested helplessly in confused Japanese as the immigration official curtly tried to explain that Mom would not be able to join them in Japan. This went on for a few minutes, the father and daughter eventually leaving with rain clouds circling their heads, Mom no closer to them than we they walked in. The Thai woman finished her business quickly and I stepped up to the counter.

Maybe it was just imagination, but the face of the woman behind the counter seemed to curl into a genuine smile as I approached, something reserved for the handful of white folks who make their way through this immigration bureau. I asked her where I should submit my diploma and pictures, which launched us into a brief debate on visa application procedure. In my favor I had two passport size photos, a copy of my diploma, and all the shit my friend had told me. In her favor she had a few decades of experience working for immigration. I was pretty confident of winning, but somehow her age and experience in visa applications trumped my youth and hearsay, so I left with my college diploma and two regulation size passport photos, no closer to my visa than when I walked in. I wandered to the mega-bookstore next door and browsed the long rows of paperback fiction. They were grouped by publisher into uniformed little squadrons, height and length regulated, spines all a single color. I picked out a book of short stories by a mystery writer I knew, buying it for a few hundred yen.

5. Reading Japanese.

Every book leaves an aftertaste. The fantasy novels were M&Ms and cans of Coca-Cola, leaving you thirstier and hungrier than when you started. I would finish each one on a quivering sugar-high, too pepped up to think beyond the sequel. I finished Auster books satiated, the tastes of pepper and salmon lolling around my tongue. You don’t close a book simply full, your body has just emerged from a bath of sensations. Dreams and symbols digesting in your mind, moving into the bloodstream, into your bones and out your ass. The cells in our bodies regenerate completely every few years along similar patterns, how often do our minds regenerate?

Speech and language are hard wired into the brain, God’s anonymous little gift to the baby shower, but writing and letters were made by human magic, scratches willed into life. They bear the contradictions of their makers, are in need of constant tinkering and adjustments, follow the laws we give them. Speaking always flows in the same direction in time, but words can move in any direction through space, English words stacked in horizontal brick rows, peppered with periods, commas, exclamation marks, Arabic drifting from right to left in continuous smoky curls, Chinese characters dangling top to bottom in long beaded curtains unbroken by spacing or punctuation.

Five years ago I embarked on an expedition outside the English language and into the shifting urban jungles of Japanese. Even as I made my first tentative forays into speaking (“Is this a pencil?” “The post office is across the street.”), their written counterparts always seemed much more mysterious and sexy, long draping columns made of thorny little symbols. The promise of diving into the raw, untranslated literature of a country removed from the winds of European thought would be like walking on the moon, testing out the altered physics and fingering the dust of another planet.

A friend once told me that after English Japanese is the most published language in the world; the language of 120 million island dwellers living on the edge of the world beating out French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian. I don’t know if this is true, but it rings true. While the thousand tentacle branches of national and local governments do their part to flood the world in Japanese documents, the publishing industry is no slacker, with at least a dozen telephone book size comic publications coming out every week, succeeded by a rich array of novels and histories, quietly consumed in train cars and rackety bedrooms. I had unknowingly leapt into one of the largest linguistic oceans in the world.

After a year or so spent deciphering the speech bubbles of comics I dove into the deep end of the pool, flailing my way through an extended essay by Haruku Murakami on his whiskey tasting trip through Scotland and Ireland. When I emerged grasping at the other end I checked myself, I swallowed the taste in my mouth. It was raw and wooly, with overtones of Auster’s clear polished intelligence and clarity but shot through with smoky little bits of poetry. He had squeezed these symbols into extistence and they had shone off the page, burning images of Scottish distilleries, wild Celtic drivers on country lanes and old men trading stories over glasses of single malt whiskeys. The first Japanese book I had read told me about life in the British isles, where they speak English anyway. Oh well.

6. The Big Day.

Here pasta was a big part of my diet and I’d run out of fucking olive oil. I had a whole cupboard stuffed with vinegars, soy sauces, dried pastas, and all I could think about was olive oil. But what if I was moving in two weeks? What would happen to that sweet golden syrup? I couldn’t just chuck it down the drain. And hell, all my friends around here live at home, they don’t even cook. I mean, I suppose I could do without it for a few weeks but goddamnit I wanted to dip my bread in herbed olive oil. Actually, the brown rice seemed to be getting low too, and they only sell brown rice in five kilo bags at the supermarket. I was dropping money left and right on histories of Japanese sake and George Orwell essays, but somehow I couldn’t spring for a bottle of fucking olive oil. I needed to start cleaning out that cupboard. It was good the postcard came when it did or I’d have been forced to stomach strange pasta sauces of red miso and black rice vinegar.

They said it would take a month, but the postcard had arrived after two weeks, requesting my presence down at the immigration bureau sometime before August 19th. I knew it. The whole application had been so riddled with holes and pockmarks they had taken one look at it and tossed it in the “Denial” bin with a cynical laugh. It would be better to just head in and get the whole damn thing over which I resolved to do the next Monday, when I had the whole day off.

My eyes fluttered open on Monday morning and I turned over the idea of heading to immigration or reading another chapter in the mystery novel I was reading. I recalled the press I’d experienced the last time I’d been down and decide to wait til the afternoon. Besides, the detective had finally located the apartment shown in the video of the missing girl. I would much rather spend the morning trailing the victim’s ex-boyfriend with private investigator Miro Murano than have my rejection summarily handed to me among screaming babies and lines of other foreign nationals desperate for a work visa.

It was two-thirty in the afternoon by the time I’d put the thing down and gone outside for a walk. I hadn’t eaten anything besides a quick breakfast, so I threw together a lunch of tofu and soba noodles, letting it settle in my stomach with a cup of tea. But now it was a little after three, and the place closed at four. Well, gee, guess I couldn’t make it that day, and I hafta work tomorrow...

Tuesday came and went, my mind was less preoccupied with the visa situation than with whether Miro was starting to fall for the film producer who was starting to look a lot like the perpetrator. Wednesday morning was wide open, and I resolved to go just after I’d found out who the mysterious woman was that seemed to be paying Miro’s employer large sums of cash. And so the morning disappeared. I was feeling vaguely ill when I left for work, body bored and restless from sitting with a book all morning, mind desperately burrowing into the novel and refusing to acknowledge any slighter larger issues that it might be better to start considering. Thursday morning and I had fifteen pages left and no excuse. Miro found the poor girl recovering in a hospital room, her mother having thrown herself out a fifth story window after confessing to killing her former lover in order to protect her marriage to the wealthy industrial heir. Miro had finally waded through all the lies and counter-lies to arrive at this hospital bed, the nineteen year old girl reading comics to shut out the cruelty that had been dogging her from page one. I closed the book and felt its last few lines bounce around my head, the detective walking through the empty hallway, tired and exhausted from confronting the world of human greed and lies for four hundred and thirteen pages, but walking away with the grim satisfaction of having confronted the world with open eyes. “Hey Jamie!” the world was screaming, “Get your ass down to immigration!”

I took a number and sat down on the padded benches they had laid out as a waiting room. It wasn’t so busy today, just a few Korean families and a score of nervous looking Iranians. I read the posters as I waited. Security camera photos of a Chinese man wanted for questioning on burglary and assault. An impossibly cute claymation woman in an immigration officers uniform gave me the rundown on recent changes in visa law. “Spousal visas have been extended to five year terms!” “Always bring four thousand yen for your visa processing fee!” “Remember, all violations can be punished by deportation and a ban from the country for up to seven years!” I finished that one when my number was called.

“Okay great, can I have your passport please? Excellent, here’s your one year working visa, make sure to head down to your local city hall in the next two weeks to register the changes on your ID card. Thank you very much for coming to the immigration bureau today NEXT!” And that was that.

7. One Last Thing.

I was bursting to tell someone the news so I hurried out past the book megastore down to a nearby imported grocery store where a friend works. I looked up and down the aisles for her but it looked like she had the morning off. I was just about to leave when my eyes fell on a rack of extra virgin olive oil discounted 20%. I had cooking to do.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

dog days

Today we slithered out from under typhoon number 7, hopefully the last in the Pacific’s annual attempts to skydive onto the Japanese archipelago. Half the shoes stacked by my door were mushy and dripping this morning, so they got set for a full day of drying out on my balcony along with my freshly laundered sheets and half a dozen pairs of red socks. What can I say, I like red socks. Perfect laundry weather, the grid of windows in my apartment block speckled with fluttering eggshell sheets and slate gray futons slung over railings. It was like someone had turned a key in the back of my spine, unlocking the ramrod posture I’d developed after a few weeks of walking under umbrellas. Although the storm has sucked away a lot of the humidity with it, there is still a veil of moisture in the air, just waiting to congeal back into the spongy days of August.

Like all the seasons, summer has a small universe of icons in Japan, from the relentless metallic scree of cicadas to fireworks festivals and squares of cloth to wipe the sweat off your neck. Not a small number summer standbys are pushed on by relentless advertising. Models frolic in bikinis and repose in light summer yukatas, grinning at you from skyscrapers and train platforms. Real-estate firms and loan agencies hand out plastic fans on street corners emblazoned with their company info. The interiors of entire subway cars are splashed with beer adverts. Beer is exclusively a hot-weather drink in Japan. I read an article in the Japan Times last year that said the big three beer brewers all had formulas that could accurately predict their beer sales on any given day in July or August given the temperature that day. The higher the heat, the more beer sold.

Japan seems to be pretty unconcerned with this intersection of commerce and tradition; the fact is, they have been intertwined here a lot longer than the West. It has been estimated that in the 18th and 19th century Edo had a population of around one million people, making it the largest city in the world at the time, only London coming close. Like all cities of a certain size, it wasn’t simply a gathering of elites living off their country estates, but a sprawling center of merchants, craftsmen and laborers, inventing their own traditions around the rhythms of commerce. Today (July 28th) is the vestige of one of those holidays, Doyo no Ushi no Hi.

It’s no secret that Hallmark invented Mother’s Day and Father’s Day around the turn of the century to sell cards and Valentine’s Day was dug up by chocolatiers to hawk sweets. But Japan has been doing it for centuries, Doyo no Ushi no Hi having been concocted sometime in the 18th century as a way to sell grilled eel to a populace that didn’t have the disposable cash to throw away it’s rice money on a middle class delicacy. And make no doubt about it, unagi (grilled eel), is a fucking delicacy. Specific methods vary, but the basic idea is to alternately steam and grill slices of eel flesh over hot coals, gradually applying layer upon layer of a thick, sweet sauce. The results are dark golden brown strips of flesh as soft as foie gras, but unbelievably light and refreshing. Unagi is supposedly loaded with all sorts of nutrients sweated out during the summer months, when its sales peak. Out of the price range of your average laboring family at the time, Doyo no Ushi no Hi was the day to save for, a day to break the daily soy-bean and rice routine to savor the luxurious flavors of unagi at the height of summer. Which is why supermarket fish sections are overflowing with saran-wrapped trays of grilled eel, and unagi restaurants will have lunch lines around the block today.

Friday, July 22, 2005

being twenty-five

How old are you anyway?
Really, I’m twenty-five. I dunno, you look older.
I get that a lot.

But I think the essence of being twenty-five is you always look older than twenty-five. How long ago was it when we were in our early twenties, toeing into jobs and speaking the language of adults but not really knowing it. I might say six hundred a month is a good deal on that apartment, but fuck, who believes paying six hundred dollars a month is a good deal for anything? But if you’re earning two thousand a month it’s not so bad, and you can still go out for beers or a proper restaurant every once in a while and, hey, who’s to tell you how to spend your money? I mean hell, I’m making two thousand dollars a month. Which I know isn’t that much for a college grad, but if you’d told the sixteen year old me he could be making two thousand dollars a month and after rent, groceries and debts he could do whatever he wanted with it, I think he’d be pretty damned excited. And then at some point when we weren’t watching it just became our language, and we realized, fuck, this is our world! It’s our turn!

But you know what made me think of all this. I was at this club in Tokyo where two twenty-five year old friends were doing this electronica show using a rack of sequencers and obscure devices they’d dug out of bargain bins in Akihabara. Before them these two British guys (both twenty-five) did a hip-hop set, and after them a skinny Japanese guy (who looked twenty-five) did this great set of clicks and beats on his laptop. And earlier in the evening a friend had everyone he knew there together in a circle and made them say how they old they were when they first got laid, and we were all twenty-five and we’d all been laid. There were all these people that said fifteen and sixteen and you can see them remembering it as they talk and wondering where that person is now, how they are doing at twenty-five, but there was this one shy little couple and they both answered twenty-five and after everyone else it was just about the sweetest thing you could imagine.

I remember going to jazz clubs as a sixteen year old music freak and looking at these strange creatures who drank calmly, knowledgably, habitually, and they would probably all go back to their city apartments to make love or kiss on street corners and do things like that and here I was drinking ginger ale with my nineteen year old buddy (in college!), and we were just there for the music, y'know. But here I am, twenty-five at the club, sitting and talking to the girl behind the bar and ignoring the musicians, and even the musicians are ignoring the musicians.

There was this girl down at the edge of the bar who looked twenty-seven and had her hair up and this classic black dress and heels on amid all these baseball hats. She looked like she'd stepped out of a Dashiell Hammet mystery, trading double entendres with Sam Spade. But you know, not like she wanted to step out of a novel, but that she already had. She'd been flirting with just about every guy in the place and they all knew her and knew her routine and they just talked but I was the new guy, so she talked to me. And we were just making conversation, and she was a bit loud, a bit pushy, but she was alright, pretty much everything wrapped up for her, she had her steady job and her dress and her Friday night and a new guy to talk to. And she asked, or I asked:

How old are you anyway?
Really, I’m twenty-five. I dunno, you look older.
I get that a lot.

best japanese t-shirt in english i've seen recently

Young girl maybe eighteen years old strutting down a Tokyo street with a purple shirt stamped in plain white letters:

No shirt,
No shoes,
No juicy.

Prize to anyone who can explain that one to me.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

watermelon run

Yokozawa-san stepped back to light a cigarette as Kaneko-san and I squeezed the last plastic crate onto the flat bed truck. The late afternoon sky was ribbed with white streaks and framed by the thick, chewy green of mountains in late July. We paused to check the fully packed truck. The crates were stacked three high, four wide, and at least six or seven deep, each one scrawled with the name of the farmer responsible for the contents. Six or seven watermelons to a crate, with two set aside for pumpkins and cucumbers. The payload just edged over the one ton limit written above the license plate. Our bags would have to ride on top, tucked between the top crates and a heavy plastic tarp. I had images of us shooting along the highway, the extra weight throwing us over a curve, skulls and melons bursting on impact, red juices running along the blacktop.

“Try not to get caught!” Yokozawa said, a barky alto laugh squeezing out of his stocky farmer’s body. I didn’t really know what he meant.

I had lived in Isazawa for a few months at the end of last year, staying with the Kaneko family and working at their soba restaurant. Isazawa is an unassuming little valley in Japan’s north country blessed with pristine water and a thick red soil that can run the color of blood when it rains. A few dozen farming families have blanketed the soil with crops; apple orchards, grape lattices and large wooden frames for hops line the rivers and roads. It’s the contracts with department stores and big companies that keep these small farmers alive. Cash crops of hops are sold to Kirin for beer, the apples shipped off to shops and customers who have been buying for generations, and the grapes sold in high end department stores. There may be a few plots of summer vegetables, but most of what makes it to the dinner table will be from the super market.

Kaneko-san is a knotty little gnome of a man, an eccentric among this valley of cash crops farmers with their new Toyotas and remodeled houses. He tends a dozen or so patches of potatoes, pumpkins, corn and soy beans sold for trifles at the local farmers market while his neighbor may simply tend a wide orchard of high grade apples to sell in Tokyo. It’s whispered around the valley that the guy has a lot of money tucked away, saved from years of working in town selling electronics. I had to drag that little bit of information out of him, he doesn’t talk about the past very much, too busy scurrying around on his plots of organic land, trying to better organize the local farmers market, find new markets for Isazawa produce. He is the unofficial head of the farmers cooperative, his eyes always squinting past the myriad of daily chores to an unvoiced goal. He loves this valley, loves the people in it, loves the life they live, and sees it slowly slipping away, the children going to work in factories in town or disappearing into the cities. The farming families of Isazawa have it easier than most folks out in the country, their valley grows fruits of unbelievable quality. But like all small farms they are perched on the edge of an abyss. A new market could mean everything.

With this in mind we’d piled the truck high with crates of watermelons, throwing a few boxes of plums and eggplants pickled by a local housewife. A fresh Japanese watermelon the size of a volleyball can sell for close to ten bucks in Tokyo. Apparently some of the black watermelons from the far north in Hokkaido can go for sixty bucks. Isazawa had never tried to sell their dark heavy melons any farther than the valley, the farmers coop might be able to double their money down in Tokyo, selling better fruit at the same price, no middle man.

We left at the gun running hour of one in the morning, blinking ourselves awake after three hours of sleep. The yellowy moon was just a few slivers shy of being full. There were three of us in the front cab: a pudgy farmwife named Machida squeezed between me and Kaneko-san. She chattered on about mountain roads and what she made for dinner last night while Kaneko squinted behind the steering wheel and I scrunched by the passenger door invent new ways to tie my legs into knots.

Machida didn’t really let up for a few hours, Kaneko nodding through her rambling. I drifted in and out of sleep. We flew through the city of Yonezawa to pick up the freeway, Machida remarking she’d lived here for a little while in high school when her Dad found work near here, but they soon moved back to Isazawa. “But you’ve always lived in Isazawa, right Kaneko-san?” Even though her speech was littered with local phrases it was a lot clearer than most Isazawa folks, who speak with mouths pursed tight, muddying up their words. Local joke is that it’s so cold up here no one wants to open their mouths too wide.

“No, wasn’t born in Isazawa.” My ears perked up at that one. She pressed him on it.
“Born in Manchukuo when the Japanese empire was over there. Dad had a job as a local policeman, was planning to get some land, start a farm. Left when I was about six. Everyone pressing to get out of the country, it was... incredible. Was with my mother and sisters, only met up with my father by chance at the port. Otherwise… who knows. Came back to Isazaawa.” He blinked a few times. Machida made a few comments about how terrible war was and he just nodded. “If Koizumi keeps up with this whole Iraq thing...I just don’t know.”

I woke up to find us jammed on the entrance ramp to a Tokyo freeway, three lanes crammed with morning commuters. The air was thick and wooly, and the sky the color of wet paper. I worried about the fruit jostling behind us, imagined it turning gray in the sticky Tokyo smog. Kaneko was still at the wheel, face still stony and squinting, Machida, hunched over a small library of maps. We trundled off the highway, three rubes and a full ton of melons screeching around Tokyo backstreets on rush hour. We trundled into central Shinjuku, signs and stores screaming at the thousands of commuters pumping in and out of express trains and local buses. We gawked out while waiting at the stop light. Just three days outside this mess made it seem grimy, fresh and terrifying. “If you got everyone together in Isazawa for the summer festival, you still wouldn't...” Kaneko’s voice trailed off.

By nine o’clock we had dropped off Machida and half the produce on a small two way street nestled in a neighborhood of take-out restaurants and apartment blocks. We stacked the crates on a creaking wooden deck fronting a neighborhood bar-restaurant. The door was hung with sign scrawled in red and black magic markers: “Wednesday, July 20th, Watermelons direct from Yamagata!”

Kaneko and I curved through another tangle of one way streets and wrong turns, getting stuck in neighborhoods where not even the cops could give us decent directions. We spent close to forty minutes four blocks from our destination, stuck in a neighborhood designed by a four-year-old drawing a plate of spaghetti. We pulled into the apartment complex over an hour late, the street fair already underway. Between the parking lots and apartment lobbies a tree shaded path was lined with frumpy old women selling juice boxes and handcrafts. The local tenants association had hobbled this little event together, housewives in aprons and wide rimmed hats bowing and smiling as they scurried amid the tarps and folding tables.

We set up quickly across from a sour looking guy selling used clothing on blue tarps. Next to us there was a Chiba farmer with crates of free range eggs and two women in their forties selling organic teas and flavored honeys. As soon as we set down our crates we were swarmed by gaggles of housewives, the older grandmas thumping the bottom of melons listening for irregularities, younger moms with toddlers watching on. They squinted at the melons, trying to figure out just how big they could buy and still have it fit into the fridge between the cabbage and the daikon.

Once the fuss had died down we cut up a few samples, laying out thick slices on a tray. Kaneko-san excused himself and went back to the truck to collapse for an hour or so, leaving me to make change and pull in the customers with a lilting voice. “Fresh watermelons, straight from Yamagata! Try a slice of these delicious watermelons!” A skinny old guy with shock white hair and coke-bottle glasses shuffled up to me, staring at the melons and pumpkins and the skinny white guy behind them. “You come all the way from the states to sell these watermelons?” he asked me in nearly flawless English. Kids on summer vacation eyed the watermelon slices shyly and checked with me two or three times that it was really okay to try one. The grandmas weren’t as shy, munching on the samples and delicately spitting seeds into a plastic bin.
Eyes widened at the taste, sweet and rich as candy. We’ve all grown used to sucking the watery juice from feeble pink footballs, but these watermelons were a whole ‘nother animal. Little kids giggled and chewed down to the rind, breaking into little arguments over whether it was sweeter than a watermelon lollipop. Old folks sighed, “I haven’t had a watermelon like this in years...”

By four o’clock we were left counting bills among stacks of empty crates. The egg man had sold all his produce a few hours before and left with a flurry of bows and name cards passed around. The women selling organic teas gave us a free packs of locally grown Darjeeling and a pamphlet for their natural foods store.

By five we were back with Machida at the restaurant, packing empty crates and leftovers onto the truck. The same scooters and sedans we’d tangled with that morning flying back in the opposite direction, missing us by finger breadths as we fastened down the tarp. Once the truck was safely parked at a friend’s place and we’d washed our faces the three of us tumbled into the restaurant into a small sideroom with a low wooden table and a “Reserved” sign. We sat down to chilled mugs of beer and platters of raw fish with a smattering of friends and partners who had helped to put the watermelon run together. I found myself next to a graduate student in environmental agriculture I’d met at Kaneko-san’s last October and I harangued him into explain exactly what he was studying, which he was all hedgy about. “Actually, it’s all super specialized, I don’t quite get it yet,” he said sheepishly.

Kaneko was soon onto cups of chilled sake and plying a local friend on the best places to find wild mushrooms in Saitama, his face occasionally twisting into a gnarly smile. The conversation swung to liquor brands, with the student and I trying to decipher how to read the names of the different sake brands. I asked Kaneko which one he thought would be good and his face scrunched the way it does when he’s checking the ripeness of pumpkins. “I don’t really think brands mean that much,” he said, his voice slipping to the muddy Isazawa accent he’d been suppressing all day. “If it’s made locally, fresh, the day before, it’ll be good sake.” He started munching on a piece of fried eggplant, which was tasteless next to the gorgeous purple chunks we’d eaten with our dinner the night before. The talk turned to good liquor stores in Tokyo, wandering into soccer, sumo and places to go in northern Japan as our heads grew heavier.
The grad student and I had trains to catch, gathering our bags together. Kaneko saw us off at the door, handing us each a couple of watermelons that could also be used as bowling balls before eating. He came out to point the way to the station, and I asked why he seemed to know this neighborhood so well.

“Lived here for three years when I was younger. Worked in a factory over there making motorcycle parts. It’s an apartment complex now. So yeah, thanks for today, take care, bye bye.” He ducked back into the restaurant with a gnarly smile as the student and I glanced at each other, eyes wide. We talked about him as we staggered down to the station, hands loaded with fruit, heads heavy with sake.