Monday, March 28, 2005

tube feeding

I have had this pet theory for a while that extended air travel is the best way to get a preview of the totalitarian dystopia we will be enjoying in a few years. Strapped to a narrow and confining seat and bombarded with corporate advertising, strictly segregated by income, you are fed at determined intervals, drugged with alcohol and strings of movies, bathroom trips the only possible excuse to leave your pod. This time I flew a direct Narita to New York on United, but up til now I have only flown Northwest to and from Japan, since they were the cheapest and had the most flights. But as I learned somewhere over Alaska yesterday, Northwest has had a long history with the US military, having gotten their toe-hold in Asia during the American occupation of Japan, flying over troops and officers. (But not in the same seating sections.) What with life as it is, Northwest remained tight with the military, flying over our boys to ravage Korea, napalm Vietnam, stare down the Red Chinee and keep Imelda Marcos' shoe collection safe for democracy. The rows of crew cuts that usually block my view of the movie screen were conspicuously absent on United.

Another tweaking of reality I enjoy on airplanes is the editing of in-flight movies to remove any references to airplane crashes. One of the major plot points of "Get Shorty" revolves around a plane crash, but when I saw it on a few years ago an entire scene had been digitally retouched to change an airport to a train station and dubbed to make it a "train crash."

One of yesterday's features was "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow", a bit of fantasy fluff with scientists being kidnapped, a religious fanatic trying to destroy the world, and more elaborately staged plane crashes than dialogue. All in a gorgeously detailed CG alternate reality, with zeppelins, reptilian monters, and every person with skin a shade darker than a stack of A4 printer paper cut-and-pasted to the Windows Recycle Bin.

The fact that Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow lived through all those plane crashes didn't do much to reassure me, so I got up to take a walk around the cabin. I strolled up through business and first class, only to be chased out by a fierce looking stewardess who told me to "Get back to your class!" Pondering the ramifications of this I walked back to the rear cabin to discover a real party going on.

Stewards and stewardesses were having dinner and bullshitting with a few passengers who went back to stretch their legs. I began chatting with a middle aged Japanese man dressed in spectacles, a sweater vest and slacks, looking like nothing more than a kindly professor on a TV show. Or the one on the Beastie Boys album who answers what another word for pirate's treasure is. He told me about Northwest and their military connections, which is why he only flies United. I did a few stretches. We talked about Kyoto and temples, he wrote down the name of a garden owned by the Imperial Family that is free of charge but only allows twenty visitors a day, application-only. I mentioned a few of the cheaper jazz clubs in New York I knew. He got a scotch-and-water and I got a cup of red wine, the stewardess squeezing my arm to make sure I hadn't had too much to drink. She pointed to two figures stumbling down the aisle: "Not really worried 'bout you, those two girls managed to knock back about eight drinks by always asking different stewards." The professor and I laughed about that, and then I asked him what he did for a living.

"Oh, I'm a college professor."
"Really," only half surprised "what's your field?"
"Nuclear physics."I almost choked on the wine.
"No kidding, why are going to New York?"
"I've been running an experiment in Long Island, have to check up on my students a few times a year."
"Make sure they don't blow up Long Island?"
"Something like that."
Our conversation ended aroudn there when a steward came on the PA system to remind us in a clearly aggravated voice that this is a non-smoking flight.

Although not much more relaxed than after watching the plane crash movie, the wine had loosened my cortex, and I sat back down, blacking out until they came around with breakfast, somewhere over Toronto. The captain told us about New York weather and told us in a calm voice that "although most of you were asleep last night and unaware of it at the time, we had a security disturbance on the plane last night, but the people involved have been restrained. you will have to wait for a few minutes at JFK while the Port Authority escorts those folks off the plane." We all looked around at one another, faces more amused than shocked, bewildered.

When the badges and uniforms walked on the plane, they stopped by the professors row. "Holy shit!" I thought, my head flooding with images from Sky Captain. "They tried to kidnap the nuclear scientist and blow up Long Island!"

Every neck on the plane craned to look as the two drunk college girls from the night before stood up, escorted off the plane for throwing something at a stewardess when caught smoking in the bathroom. Despite all the Hollywood and alcohol we'd been given to forget it, we had landed, and this was still a nation at war.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

tear the roof off the sucka

It's the way of the world I suppose.

I owe pretty much my entire current social life to the Good News Cafe, a local bar and club run by hippy couple Takeo and Michiko. Thanks to them I have met a slew of local twenty-somethings who are making lives for themselves here in this lonely city north of Tokyo. Amid the regular crowd of beauticians, coffee shop part-timers and people in electronics sales I have met a freelance photographer, a visual artist and event organizer, a slew of DJ's, a 50's rock cover band, and a kaiseki chef, all of them fully genuine people who don't give a flying fuck that I'm a white guy from the states.

They also like the way I dance.

In my years as a social drinker I have never had the pleasure of encountering a bar so relaxed and inviting and just damned friendly as this one.

But after seven years of selling clothes they made themselves and five years of running the best damned bar in Omiya, the two of them are exhausted. Their lives are shortening, every weekend party just another string of drink orders and broken plates. The other day Takeo broke the news to me: he and Michiko are going to close the place this October and then take an extended trip through Asia, America and Europe. He's rounding out thirty-five years and is scared if he doesn't do this now he never will. His voice was sopping heavily with regret when he said it, loathe to break up this great little social center he and Michiko had raised up. "We'll be starting a mailing list for everyone to keep in touch with each other, and for us to keep everyone up to date on our travels!" he said, his voice trying to kick start enthusiasm like a choking starter on a dead motorcycle.

In anycase, we're gonna make the next few months count. The fifth anniversary party of the place is this Saturday, and they have invited every DJ who spins there monthly to play that night. That means thirty DJ's knocking down their three best tracks then sidling over for the next guy, rocking out a bar that will be quite literally overflowing with working folks who are gonna be dancing to the breaka breaka dawn. I am very fucking excited. Especially since my plane to the US is the very next day, United Airlines flight 800 soaring my Dionysiussed body across the world to the city where I was born.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

reset button

This time of year is pretty unremarkable in America, the liminal days of late winter when everyone would be hoping for spring if the freezing rain and gray winds weren't crushing their spirits. Here in Japan however, everything here is coordinated to reset exactly on April 1st: the financial year, the school year, employee transfers, hirings, firings, moving house, and probably more than a few marraiges. Companies debut all their latest talking toilet seats, GPS cell phones and dancing robots in April. In March every internet service provider and home furnishing maker is bending over backwards to grab up all the students and company employees who are moving into apartments still smelling of fresh concrete. When told that the financial year, the school year and company schedules are all different in the US, people look at you with glazed eyes. This is the world's great super power? You may have built the atomic bomb (with European scientists), but you can't get the damn trains to run on time.

I'm not clear on the origins of all this. Most of modern Japanese government was created under the American occupation; the Japanese constitution was drafted by an American committe, so maybe some joker at GHQ decided the most important day of the year should be April 1st. I'm pretty sure it's not continental in origin, Japan wouldn't be caught dead celebrating New Year with those Chinese barbarians, they slurp their longevity soba noodles and quaff their sake at the local shrine with the rest of the civilized world: midnight twelve thirty-one.

I suspect it may have something to do with that most celebrated and hackneyed of Japanese icons: the cherry blossoms. At the exact moment my plane leaves Japanese soil for the US the entire Kanto plain will burst into a riot of pink petals perched on exquisitely twisted cherry branches. Ten days later, the very last petal will touch the ground at the same instant my return plane does.

The fine, delicate, and frankly wussy sakura's short blooming period has inspired Japanese lyricists from across the ages to compose a lot of very bad poetry, most of it dealing with things like the fragility of beauty, the fleeting nature of happiness and the necessity for young Japanese men to suppress natural survival instincts and common sense and die for their country. Last year saw yet another hit J-Pop ballad called Sakura, here's my translation of the chorus.

"I am right here by your side/ to make you laugh./ The dance of the sakura paints the season./Let's go walking together."

Barf. Sigh. I much prefer the 18th century haiku poet Buson's take on the little pink guys.

With no underrobes
bare butt suddenly exposed
a gust of spring wind
(trans. Sam Hamill, from The Sound of Water)

But much more typical is this 8th or 9th century poem by our good friend anonymous monk, who is to sakura poetry what Joni Mitchell is to that generation of lacklustre female singer songwriters.

Their colors are bright but still they fall
who lasts forever in our world?
Today I cross the far peak of Transience:
no more shallow dreams, no drunkenness.
(trans. Janine Beichman, from Oriori no uta)

As often as these are remarked upon around this season, I get the feeling the whole country is rather fed up with these cliches. When I saw the fantasy, err, ahem "historical" epic The Last Samurai here last year, I swear to god the entire theater groaned in unison when "the last samurai" Ken Watanabe committed hara-kiri on the battlefield, watching the cherry blossoms fall to the ground and whispering "perfect..." in English. Most modern Japanese jidaigeki (period dramas) have dropped the hagiography and portray the samurai as they were: a spoiled and useless military class that exploited peasants so they could have enough money to drink, gamble and whoop it up with the geisha. Preferably under the cherry blossoms.

While the sakura inspire a lot of saccharine lyrics, for the most part they are a great excuse to get outside after the long winter and greet the warm weather under the falling petals with copious amounts of grog, grub and good cheer. This is one of my favorite Japanese customs; people of all ages coming by the hundreds to completely cover the grass of the local park with acres of picnic blankets, blossoms hurricaning into beer cups, perms, and discarded shoes. After you have brushed off your clothes, collected the bottles and cans, rolled up the blankets, at some point on the way home you realize your internal clock has clicked to zero, the slate is clean, emotional debts have all been paid. The world is blooming and so are we.

Cherry blossoms
having shed their flower-bodies
are folded in
among the fine gravel
where people walk

(Kanoko Okamoto, 1940.
trans. Janine Beichman, from Oriori no uta)

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


I'm Still in Japan... in America!

Yes that's right. New York, Boston, maybe Philly, from Easter Sunday to a week after April Fools. I hear it's cold there. I wore a t-shirt today. Email me and we will rock and roll.

more free beck promotion

warning: this blog post was written under the influence of innumerable bottles of sake and the new beck album, which kicks ass.

I really dug Hamamatsu. The city didn't feel like Japan, it had this gritty world weary feel that transcended the provinciality that infects the Japanese archipeligo as far as Tokyo, where you get straight laced bartenders decked out in several hundred dollars worth of fashion, pouring out cocktails with a stone face to the Tokyo hordes, breaking down into pantomime English and Punch-and-Judy gestures once a white face walks in the door. Hamamatsu houses the largest Brazilian population in Japan, mostly factory families where dad does a twelve hour shift at the Honda plant doing quality control on brake pads. South of the station in Hamamatsu is Brazilian neighborhoods, groceries, and all night clubs where they dance with the desperation of graveryard shift workers on their one night off. Yamaha cranks out guitars, amps and pianos, flooding local music stores with some of the largest and cheapest stocks of musical equipment in the world. It was there I picked up an petite 80 watt bass amp that has served as my stereo (mono?) system for several years. What with all the moving around in the past few months, the amp got dropped off with a documentary filmmaker friend who teaches English to pay the bills.

My Indian chef next door neighbor has been taunting me with late night Bollywood rock outs, tugging at my soul to get a proper stereo outside of my headphones, something that can fill the room with Mahler while I cut vegetables. My friend had moved himself and my amp from the hardcore boondocks of Western Saitama to Shimokitazawa, which is just about the hippest neighborhood going in Tokyo, it is what Tribeca was about seven years ago, all caffeinated artists living on part time jobs and pure style. We rendevoused up at the grimy, gangstery, and decidedly unhip Ikebekuro district in Tokyo tonight, him passing off that heavy bastard of a box off to me before we stopped off at a traditional bar for a few drinks.

I truly love this guy, he's another Japan long termer, rounding out his fifth year, suffers through an English teaching job while shooting his two documentaries on Japanese hip-hop and the whole Japanese ex-pat experience. He has been there for last call at just about every dive in west Tokyo, has had his heart broken several times here, and has just about the most wicked sense of humor I've encountered on the archipeligo. Drinks were on me tonight to pay back for the few months of free storage. We knocked back a few bottles of regional sakes while a party of two thirty-ish aged couples next to us went from happy-drunk to rolling-on-the-tatami ecstasy with the help of some of Akita's finest.

The conversation is between him and me (you nosy bastards), I'm only writing to tell you about the pure pleasure I received from a few hours of good conversation and good sake. I tend to be a straight out and out beer guy, but something about the freaky warm t-shirt weather today with yellow clouds of spring pollen floating by parched my throat to the degree that only a good dry sake can relieve. What can I say, I'm a sophisticated motherfucking drinker. Don't even get me started on that food exhibition with all the free Belgian beer I went to last month.

I told you not to ask.

Anyway, it was another late night train ride back to Saitama, lugging a cardboard boxed amp back through your standard late night party people. I haven't bought an album in months, but the new Beck CD is being blasted out of every nook and cranny of the hip end of Tokyo, and after ten minutes on a listening station at a record store I broke down and bought the damn thing.

It makes my knees weak.

I grew up with this guy, and after the weak showing on the last two discs I'd given up on him, figured him as just another one of life's dissapointments, my generation's Lennon (or was that Andre 3000?) lost in the wasteland of fading pop stardom. But fuck me if this guy hasn't crafted another album of flawless late night anthems and 21st century blues tunes that he frankensteined out of every pop song you ever vaguely liked. Rebirth is possible. We live a dozen lives.

He made pulling a bulky ass bass practice amp through late night Tokyo rush hour just about the coolest experience on the planet, so much that I sung out in a raspy hay fever voice in spite of myself, just another wacked out gaijin on the last train out from Tokyo.

Saturday, March 19, 2005


You couldn't tell it by looking it this blog, but I'm an avid street photographer.

Against all real reason I am also still a bit of a technophobe, and my photography is all film, black-and-white, lots of time and dark rooms and smelly chemicals.

In anycase, I have a great story to share with you.

The other day I had a midday meeting in Shinjuku, and, waking up to a starkly bright March morning, decided to make a street photopraphy day of it, starting among the pachinko parlors and sex clubs of Ikebukuro, and slowly moving down backstreets to the churning center of Tokyo, Shinjuku. The morning was promising enough, I snapped up a few shots of a ring of police cars and bystanders at the spot of a brawl that took place amid the hordes of folks lined up for the slot machine parlors to open at ten AM. The cops chased me away.

Trees wrapped in plastic, the way old men link their hands in the small of their back waiting for the light to turn green. I was starting to get the street photo high, when you shoot without thinking, looking for the way people move and trying to see the photos ten seconds before they happen. You are Weegee! Cartier-Bresson! The visual poet of this crazy modern age!

It was at the peak of that moment, stalking down a Mejiro back alley, when I heard a voice call my name.

I turned around to come face-to-face with the husband of an old co-worker, moving some boxes into the service entrance of a building. We clasped hands warmly and laughed a bit about the chances of running into each other in this city of 25 million. "By the way," he asked, "are you interested in taking a tour?" This was the rear entrance, you see, to Tokyo's seven story music box museum.

He whisked me through his workshop of antique mechanical music boxes in various stages of repair to the clean and sunny front desk, where an elegant woman wearing a clean craftsman's apron and white gloves started my personal tour of antique music boxes. I had fallen straight through the looking glass to a 19th century wonderland, a repository of fantasies clothed in elegant oak and maple boxes. Some had grand disks that turned on springwound motors, warm old melodies from another age. Some were cylinders that spun and struck rows of metal teeth, arias coming out clear as the music of the spheres, pure geometry in sound. There was a doll perched on a chair who winked and tipped his hat to a sprightly forgotten tune. There was a mechanical orchestra in a fine oak trunk, bells, chimes, a small drum and the elfin sound of those metal teeth singing the delights of the 19th century. At the end of the tour we sat in tall Victorian chairs and drank coffee from china cups, listening to a piano that played itself.

By the end there was nothing to do but thank my tour guide profusely with bows and smiles. I told my friend to give my regards to his wife as I waved goodbye, leaving, as I had come, by the repair floors's service entrance, cluttered with the springs and cogs of miracles.

Monday, March 14, 2005

portable euphoria

The most purely American pleasure I have ever had was charging down a midwestern interstate on a bright May morning, destination several hours away, blissfully unaware of my speed, the rasp of Jim Morrison's voice mysteriously reaching out thirty years from the past, fuzzing my car speakers with "L.A. woman! You're my woman!"

What is it about that strangely modern cocktail of speed and music that sends all of your nerves ringing like the open strings on an electric guitar?

While Japan is awash in automobiles, the trains were too entrenched in the routine of daily life and too well connected to old money to be muscled out by the auto industry, the way they were in the US. I enjoyed a year zooming around the mountains of Western Shizuoka in a neat little two door, stick shift Toyota Starlet. I soon learned to maneuver down two way roads that wide enough for maybe a half of a US made car, my speakers ringing with Tokyo dancefloor electronica and Wilco. But they never made the whole landscape ring out in sympathetic tones the way the Doors could make an American road trip a religious experience. I only had those on trains.

Sometime in my first month or so in Japan as an exchange student, late summer shifting to early autumn, I learned that nothing made the Kyoto countryside dance quite like Glenn Gould playing Bach preludes. I took the train everyday to school, a fifteen minute ride across the Kansai plain, the oldest and most historically rich part of Japan. The low rolling hills and rivers of Kansai were where the Yamato people from Korea cut out an agricultural and artistocratic society amid the bearded Ainu natives who had huntered and gathered along the island for generations before them. It is an area where every bend of the river holds a story of armies pushing there way in or out of Kyoto, where people walk along streets and paths worn with millenia of use. I would see the same procession of commuters at the same time each morning, plinking back and forth between home and work, home and work, home and work. These exquisitely recorded little pieces, played with a bright precision and pathos by Gould in the last year of his life, brought out the bright old soul of the Kansai landscape.

A few years later I took boarded an express train bound for Kanazawa on the north coast of Japan, to visit an artist and kindred spirit who had an English teaching job there. It was the first day of the late April Golden Week holidays, a string of holiday's that include the Showa Emperor's birthday and Children's Day (formerly Boys Festival, but the florid carp streamers are still hung from balconies and flagpoles). Although it was a long distance, individually seated train, the holidays had packed it to the gills with college students and families heading home for the week off. I shouldered out a squatting position by the door, gazing out as we crossed the massive "Japanese Alps" that run like a spine down the center of Honshu. The train was moving along impossibly deep crevasses and tunnels that would go on for minutes before we reached the end. I was listening to a recording of the Austrian laptop artist Fennesz that a friend of mine had leant me, these exquisitely churning masses of sound and color that, unlike a lot of electronica, can be surprisingly warm and lyrical. The train burst out of a tunnel to a deep orange sunset melting over the mountains cued to a key change in the music. The college students huddled in the corridor with me were dozing in the sunlight and reading comics. We swept into another twenty seconds of darkness before emerging on the other side, and it's like someone had changed the channel in our absence, the hues of the sunset thickening to crimson.

Last week after attending a demonstration in central Tokyo, and having dinner with a friend, I caught one of the last trains back home, jostling shoulders with the rush of a Sunday night, my head flushed with a few beers from dinner. God knows why, but Led Zeppelin have never quite lifted me quite as high as when maneuvering the Tokyo train system amid hundreds of late night partyers, it was all I could do to keep from pumping my fist in the air and yelling "Ramble On! Sing my song!" I just strode along quietly with an extra spring in my step and an inexplicable and silly grin on my face.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

the union marches on

One of the main threads I keep on returning to in this blog is the tendency of foreigners (most specifically English teachers) to look at their time in Japan as some kind of extended vacation, albiet one with a salary and benefits. No matter that you spend two or three years here, Japanese society is something outside oneself, something that you interact with but do not enter in any significant sense. So imagine my excitement and surprise when I heard that there was a massive demostration for foreign workers' rights planned for last Sunday in Shibuya.

For those of you who have never been to Tokyo, Shibuya is the ground zero of Japanese youth culture; a gaudy and frenetic mix of fashion boutiques catering to high schoolers, bars and clubs for college students, and massive record stores. The largest Tower Records in the World is in Shibuya. It's also that massive pedestrian crossing from Lost in Translation where Scarlett Johansenn gazes at a massive CG brontosaurus sauntering across a 50 foot TV screen. There are invariably several TV camera crews threading through the crowds, getting man-on-the-street interviews with "average teenagers." Shibuya has also acquired a dangerous reputation as a center of high school prostitution; middle class girls who pick up Johns not out of any pressing economic necessity, but to get enough money to pay for Shibuya's hideously expensive clothes and cosmetics. It is Japanese consumerism at it's most ugly and gaudy.

So it was amid this Sunday afternoon chaos that a union of foreigners decided to hold a march to raise awareness of foreign labor issues in Japan. We marched in rows of four, carrying massive Japanese banners like "working in Japan for Japan" and "treat foreign workers the same as Japanese!" Since the organizers were an English teacher union, the bulk of the complaints were against specific English language schools and City Boards of Education that have terminated contracts without warning, don't pay overtime and even create fake health insurance policies. But I would say maybe 20% of the participants were non-white English teachers, and the issues included them as well. No more random stops by police asking for ID and work visas. No more hiring foreign workers without issuing proper visas. No more intimidation and harrasment in the workplace. No more differences in pay and hiring practices between foreign and Japanese workers. Fire the Nova Pink Rabbit! All of these are currently Japanese law, but many companies have simply ignored the law.

An amazing experience to see the differences in US and Japanese protests. We marched in orderly lines, our chants already carefully selected and read in order over a loudspeaker, everyone replying in unison. "We demand proper visas for all foreign workers!" "Proper visas!" "Africans, Asians, Europeans, South Americans, North Americans, unite!" "Unite!" "Japanese and foreign workers, unite!" "Unite!" "Workers of the world, unite!" "Unite!" At the front someone was carrying a sleek boombox about as thin as a notebook playing Brazilian drumming music. Towards the back there was a guy whacking on a birimbau.

Most people on the street were dumbfounded to see several hundred foreigners waving Japanese banners, and chanting in Japanese for equal rights. Some people came up to us directly chanting "Right on!" or "We're behind you!", most of the young fashion victims just stood back laughing nervously at these foreigners who were demanding equal treatment with Japanese. What, do they want to be Japanese or something? But not a single person looked at us with hostility or anger.

The march took a little over an hour, with people scattering out from the park as the sun began to set. I picked up some literature, chatted with a few of the old timers who had organized the thing, and asked about their next meeting. Had a plan to meet a Japanese photographer friend on the other side of Shibuya, and hurried out to meet him, scurrying through the Sunday crowds of Shibuya. When I came to Hachiko crossing that our march had passed through just an hour or so before, I noticed yet another political demonstration, a few dozen Japanese waving banners and half heartedly calling for "Japanese Self Defense Forces out of Iraq!" They were swallowed up by the weekend shoppers, their bodies swarmed by high heeled girls charging heedlessly for skirts and CD's, their ragged voices drowned out by the ceaseless roar of Japanese consumerism.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

to my loyal readers

Well, I'm back. Was shocked to look at the blog and realized I hadn't posted since February 22. Good lord, I was actually out there living a life instead of blogging it. Well, the moving is basically finished, and I found myself at a 24 hour internet cafe, which I feel very compelled to write a few words about.

Tokyo nightlife revolves around the trains, safely whisking hordes of exhausted businessmen and lithe young partygoers home every evening. A Japanese train station at 12:30 am is a harrowing experience: red faced men in business suits and long black coats jogging as fast as their bodies will allow, people crammed in to the subway car, ear-to-mouth, the normally ice-cool conductors struggling to get this one last metal beast of drunken fools off safely. The doors shut... and open to accomodate a few more stragglers who shove on it, then shut... open to let an umbrella free, then shut again, and the whole smelly mass of humanity lets out a collective sigh. The overpowering claustrophobia is a bit alleviated by the fact that, even standing straight up, you can relax and feel your full body weight supported by the people crammed around you.

For anyone who just can't bear to leave the party or stomach sweating through the last train, there are a few options. Most bars and clubs stay open til 5, when the trains start again. The cheapest option is the ekimae hoteru, "Station-Front Hotel": admission is free, and there is almost always space available. Grab a bench or a concrete corner, pull your jacket tight, settle down for a long night. Wake up call is 5 am, with station gates clattering open and the public address system wishing everyone a good morning, the first train will depart at 5:05.

Moving up the scale, there are the infamous capsule hotels, whose name is remarkably misleading. They are basically rows of well furnished bunk beds shaped more or less like gel caps: long enough to stretch out, high enough to sit up. There is usually a pretty good shower, bath and sauna room in the basement, and when you waddle up to your capsule, scrubbed and wrapped in hotel robes, you'll find a set of clean sheets, a radio-alarm clock set into the wall and a personal TV with a coin slot on the side for anyone who would like to drift asleep watching young Japanese women being ravished in wide spacious hotel rooms.

Then there is the good old manga-kissa, the cafes that provide small libraries of comics and free soda and coffee refills for a small hourly fee. They have gradually incorporated internet as well, giving you a personal cubicle with a PC, a TV and a cup holder for all that soda.There's usually a shower somewhere on the premises, making you the cleanest and soberest individual on the first train out, everyone else a bleary mess, hungover from another night in the tooth-and-nail struggle for happiness in central Tokyo.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

public internet

The internet has always been something I've taken for granted, there always seemed to be some free internet connection lying around somewhere, work, housemates or libraries opening me to a wide world of international pornography. I've been wandering around plucking email access like some kind of 21st garden of eden, but this all came to a screeching halt when my housemates moved out abruptly, taking the internet with them.

Looking for public internet access is a great way to see just how capitalism is manifesting itself in the town you happen to find yourself in. Wandering as I am in the wilderness of central Urawa, where the internet seems to be locked into people’s homes, the library computers only search for books (the hubris!) and I can’t even find an internet café, I realize my long run of internetting without a computer may be numbered. I’m uploading this previously typed essay from the tiny computer at the English school I work part time at, in a brief 15 minute interval while the boss is out. Shhh.

In my old town there were three standup internet terminals plopped right in the middle of a video rental store, no explanation given for why, just a note asking you to keep use to 15 minutes a person. “The fools!” I thought, conducting my international correspondence amid rows of Kill Bill Vol.2 and to a relentless soundtrack of 50’s pop hits. For any of you who care, there is a fascinating sequel to the song “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To”, where our hapless narrator has found her boyfriend Bobby stolen by her “best friend” Judy. In the second installment of the series the undeserving Bobby is back with our narrator, who gleefully croons in the chorus: “and now it’s/ Judy’s turn to cry, Judy’s turn to cry/ Judy’s turn to cr-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-i-i.” I wonder why that doesn’t get more airplay on oldies radio in the states. Maybe I haven’t been listening enough.

I thought I was cleverly duping the rubes at the 24 hour Popeye video rental store, but then I noticed that, even though I had spent over a year and a half in Japan without renting a single video, suddenly I found myself picking up that copy of Goodfellas from the staff picks shelf, or realizing I’d always wanted to see Magnolia...

It was right around that time that all the Virgin Megastores in Tokyo started inexplicably closing, and taking their unlimited free internet café’s with them. While Popeye could sucker me into giving up a dollar to rent a video, I wasn’t exactly going to throw around the $30 a disc piracy that passes for music retail in Japan. That slick looking night manager at Popeye with his wet looking helmet of gelled hair may have gotten the better of me, but I’ll be damned if I’ll say uncle to that cocky mofo Richard Branson.

I was saved by the fortuitous arrival of a free internet spot in the local Seibu owned department store in my local station. Thanks to Popeye video rental’s tutelage, I can make the apt comparison to a Kubrick set; a wide and flatly lit room backed by broad glass windows, an excess of purely aesthetic unused space, the three slender monitors set up on a high counter against the gleaming white walls, punctuated only by the bright orange of the stools. Placed as it was right in my local train station building it was often crowded with elementary schoolers who blatantly ignored the “15 minutes a person” signs, coming down on rainy days played racing games online for hours at a time. I was also a bit amused to see some dorky looking 20 year old playing erotic anime games: he would transfixed, bouncing a little ball around the screen that would chip away at some busty anime girl's clothing.

The biggest drawback was being subjected to the music broadcast in the department store. The Pepe department store, along with the Seibu train line, was owned by the Seibu company, one of the largest privately owned companies in the world. I read somewhere that the owner of Seibu was at one time the wealthiest individual in the entire world; amid all his other investments, it was all based from the network of trains and department stores that spread over Western Saitama and Tokyo. Seibu also owns a baseball team, The Lions, which had the gall to win the Japanese national penant last year, which meant that the Lions’ three fight songs were played at deafeningly loud volumes on repeat for the opening of the season, playoffs, the championship... My price of free internet was to have those three songs playing on repeat in my head for the rest of the day, and they are still permanently seared onto my memory. “The passion/ the challenge!/ the excitement!/ Whoa whoa whoa Lions!/ Whoa whoa whoa Lions!/ Li-ONS!!”

Two weeks or so after the pennant victory some higher-up in the company finally gave the ok to cut the 24-7 Lions songs. I, along with every single employee of the department store, breathed a massive sigh of relief when the music turned over to the slick smooth sounds of R&B crooning played at more reasonable volumes: R. Kelly earnestly wailing his soul’s redemption after weathering those statutory rape charges was a much more appropriate soundtrack to my email writing. I did, however, keep my ears cocked for a long awaited third installment to the saga of Judy, Bobby and Anonymous. Since it never came, I have decided to write it myself. If there are any up and coming music producers out there who are interested in producing the following tune in a 50’s bubble-gum pop style, please contact me.

Had a party just the other da-ay-ay/
Dumped Bobby ‘cause he’s in my way./
In a second, dropped him flat,/
Drinking all my beer and chasing a-a-ass./

Talked to Judy sitting in the co-er-ner,/
Said she never really liked that boy either./
Just wanted me to look her way,/
Says I’m the brightest part of her da-ay-ay./

So now it’s/
Judy and I, [clap-clap] Bump and Gri-ai-aind/
Judy and I, [clap-clap] Bump and Gri-ai-aind/
Fuck that sexist prick. [don-don-don-don-don-don]