Wednesday, May 25, 2005

our mamori-gami

We left as the sun was just beginning to seep into the sky. The morning was holding its breath and the air was steely and cool. The lead van was loaded with mikes, mixers, two MC’s, a DJ, and enough alcohol to kill a horse. Our van was an identical white, a kaiseki chef at the wheel, smoking an American cigarette, a DJ stuffed between stacks of plastic ice coolers in the back seat, checking beats on his laptop, and me sitting shotgun, watching the sunrise in the rearview mirror. The stereo played Wayne Shorter as we ragged on Hiro for his grandma driving and made fun of each others haircuts. Me and the Japanese hip-hop group, going camping.

A few months ago Takeo handed me a small hand lettered flyer printed on shock blue paper. I turned it around in my hands as Takeo finished the head on my beer, taking my 500 yen coin off the table with a nod. “We’re doing this free outdoor music festival on Sunday the twenty-second. You should come.” Takeo has a flat broad face and two thick eyebrows that live permanently under a grey baseball cap. His eyes turn down to the floor whenever he smiles. I’m one of the few people who call him by his given name and not by his informal title, masta. He doesn’t seek out the title, but society lays it on his gentle forehead. He is almost perfectly balanced against his wife Michi, tiny and wonderful, pinched eyes and a face glowing beneath a massive pile of dreadlocks. I get the feeling that in her practical and modest manner Michi gathers all the ideas half baked at the bar and prods them to crisp and steaming reality. A small bar like theirs normally swirls around the strong and spiky personality of the owner: masta­ for men, mama-san for women. But this gentle couple with their love of American folk music have let the customers define the place, giving space to hip-hop bands, trance DJ’s, rockabilly fanatics and old school punk rockers. They have quietly woven together a network of regulars, always flexible enough for a few more, but tight enough for everyone to go camping for the weekend.

We arrived around eight fifteen, steep grassy slopes hitting an unnaturally flat field that pooled out below a small covered concrete stage. It was about as long as a Greyhound bus and as tall as the pine trees around us. Large panels of styrofoam had been painted in colored stripes and fashioned into a rainbow arc over the front of the stage. Chunks of people were eating breakfast with soundcheck: rice balls, canned beer and dried fish snacks. Michi was unpacking boxes of handmade clothes and store bought liquor onto rows of folding tables and Takeo was shouldering loops of cables and hammering together a wooden tent frame for the sound board. After we had helped the band unload their records and DJ equipment, Hiro and I unpacked the folding tables, camping chairs and ice coolers. Old women from down the road came to stare with furrowed brows at the clumps of hippies and sound equipment.

People were starting to trickle in, stumbling down the grassy slopes in fours and sixes, dotting the field with tarps and coolers of beer. It was a cool and cloudy Sunday morning, some of us basking in the last day of the weekend, some people clutching to this day off they had bargained for weeks before, trading shifts or begging long promised holidays. With no announcement, music came pounding across the field, a troupe of young Japanese hippies pounding on drums they had carved themselves, their leader waving changes and chants with flashes of hair and an intense smile. Two or three young looking guys with cameras the size of small rocket launchers took up tactical positions around the band, twisting torsos to sniper their photos.

As the morning wore on drums gave way to DJ’s spinning soul music. I helped Hiro make a salad of mashed yams and julienned daikon. As I mushed the yams with oil and veggies his gnarly hands twirled a knife around the daikon; it was soon laying in three clean piles of matchsticks. My friends’ hip hop group took the stage to scattered applause and tentative glances from the tie-dyed and ponytailed crowd. They bounced through their set juggling around sound problems. The sound guy crawled between keyboards and turntables to realign cords and place power strips while the two MC’s tossed the one good mike back and forth. If it fizzled the sound guy’s hand would pop out from underneath a mixing board, a new mike just plugged in, the set a high wire act at the mercy of the sound system. The crowd gradually thinned back to their tarps and cold beer, and the group left the stage to scattered applause from the few dancers left. Hiro and I consoled them with the salad and a round of beers from the cooler.

The clouds burned away and suddenly we were all very hot, sharing beers with friends who dropped by our tarps, munching on peanuts and dried squid and making fun of each other’s haircuts. The afternoon grew hazy in the heat and the beer, bodies napping in the shade, wild frisbees and stray soccer balls colliding with plastic cups and heads. I strolled around crunching on rice crackers talking to old friends and new, asking after those who couldn’t make it and those who would be here soon.

Asking one pale American where he was coming from, I almost dropped the last few swallows in my cup when he mentioned Hachinohei, a city on the very northern tip of Honshu, a full day’s drive from here. He had come down with a bunch of regulars from his local bar, and waved over his masta to talk to us. The masta looked like the veteran of a million summer festivals, skin dark with sun, voice deep and raspy, rangy arms twisted in tattoos, a bright and easy smile across his aging face. “Hey, please call me Kappa,” he said, switching our handshake to an affirmative handlock.

I did drop my beer at that one. A kappa are ancient Japanese water spirits, frog-men with duck billed mouths and fishing spears that stand as high as your chest. Mischevious or helpful, they can bring you fortune or steal your newborn children. You don’t pee in a kappa’s river. When I asked him about it he shrugged. “Yeah man, I’m kappa. Ever since I was seven, people call me Kappa, y’know.” He had left his duck bill and spear at home, but he told me that he had just bought 1500 tsubo (…) of open land in Aomori. “And hey man,” he said, eyes crinkled and twinkling “there’s a river in it too.”

A girl whose words were dripping with Aomori dialect offered us a few bowls of the soup that had been bubbling in the shade. We toasted the afternoon together and I thanked her for the soup. She told me it was a Hachinohei specialty, the hard local rice crackers cooked with seasonable veggies in a thick pork broth. As we sat down in the shade Kappa continued his story, stopping occasionally to slurp from a paper bowl or a beer can.

For a Japanese water spirit he was pretty well traveled, having back-packed in great circles through the jungles and beach raves of South-East Asia, along the mountains of Central America and across the African savanna. “But you know man?” he paused to put the final lick on a hand rolled cigarette. “Aomori is pretty great. You can wander out into the forest and find weed growing wild! Just fields of it! They used to be taller than me, but the cops they burned all the big ones. But you can still find ‘em man.” Asking what he did now, he told me about settling down as the owner-chef of a restaurant-bar in his native Hachinohei, the American interrupting to say how good the food was. He had met Takeo at a music festival a few years ago, and when he heard about this event he had corralled as many regulars as he could into a caravan of trucks and four-doors and brought everyone down for the weekend. “So here we are man! Have a beer!” A friend called him away and the American and I sat talking about Japan and bars. “Yeah man, I wouldn’t know anyone up there without Kappa y’know? That guy’s great. So where’s your masta? Y’know, the guy who organized this.”

In that moment I felt several stray thoughts in my brain click together into a perfect circle. Mama and Masta always seemed like thoroughly Japanese jokes, names of respect given a sly ironic twist, borrowed as they are from a foreign language. They were born somewhere in the rows of tiny drinking spots where a wiry man with a towel snapped in a band around his head sweats over rows of slowly grilled yakitori skewers, scraping a living selling beer and conversation to a counter of salaried workers who make four of five times what he does. From five PM until closing he is the masta of his small corner of the world, but what is he Tuesday morning at the bank, begging an extension on his loan payments? But could I be wrong? Maybe they are our mothers and masters more than we suspect, benevolently ruling our selves after work.

The sky grew thick and wooly gray as the last band took the stage, but with my mind spotted with beer, sunlight and fuzzy epiphanies my memory of them is a blurry mess. I remember Hiro talking about how to make good sauces for grilled beef while simultaneously realizing the folk-rock song they were playing had been a favorite of this old Boston street musician friend of mine. Just as the band rounded out their last guitar solo the sky began to drip and we hastily folded chairs and wrapped up tarps, scurrying up to our rented cabin for the night.

After waving off friends departing in cars and shuttle buses we settled to grilling beef and veggies on the cast iron grill on the porch of our cabin, sending plates over to the folks in the next cabin over and making fun of each others haircuts. Outside the circle of our porch light the world was black and silent as stage curtains, our bad jokes and skittery laughter disappearing in the darkness. After we had grilled off the last of the veggies and the yakisoba I said my goodnights and turned in early, arms stinging red from the sun and head feeling like the last plate of yakisoba on the grill.

We had breakfast with the festival staff and Kappa’s caravan from Aomori, big pots of miso soup, plates of grilled vegetables and free beers poured from the leftover kegs. I had two bowls of soup, slices of grilled burdock and eggplant some ginger pickles and half a cup of the beer. Some of our group had work that afternoon so we ate our fill and thanked Michi and Takeo for the breakfast. “By the way,” he said quietly, “have you guys seen the festival’s mamori-gami yet? It’s just a few minutes drive from here, I have to go that way anyhow, so I can show you the road.” We wound up a single lane strip of concrete that curved through pine forests and along sheer valleys, eventually parking at a turn in the road. Takeo led us up a dark little path between the trees, then stopped short. “This is it, the protective spirit of our music festival.”

I didn’t even notice it at first, the twisting coils flooding my whole field of vision. A massive tree, more than a thousand years old, mammoth twisting branch-trunks hurling out of the earth like the tentacles of a sea monster, frozen in a single instant. Our heads spun in different directions to try and judge the scope of it. Takeo placed his hand on a gnarly knot at the base of the tree the size of a bicycle wheel. It looked like the face of an elephant emerging from the trunk, folded with age. Takeo put his hands together and thanked it for another prosperous year, and as he stepped back a wave of laughter suddenly possessed us all at the same time. We bawled with open eyes and beaming faces, face-to-face with our master, this god of the old world who had quietly guided our little human gatherings and our drunken laughter: a party of fools at the feet of eternity.

Friday, May 20, 2005

vision examination

Accosting people on the street is pretty much a standard business practice in Japan. The convenience of my living close to a rail station is offset by the fact that a walk around my neighborhood entails brushing off half a dozen folks flyering shoppers with little packets of tissues, ads tucked inside. If business is slow, just about every bar, real estate agency, hostess club and slot machine parlor will send out the lowest grunt in the pecking order to confront pedestrians directly, proffering tissues or coupons to every passerby with a monotone “Please favor our business!”, head tilting up and down like a bobble doll. On the upside I have yet to pay for toilet paper or tissues: a stack of brightly colored tissue packets shining in M&M colors perches on my toilet tank.

Loping around as a white guy changes the reaction a bit: the hostess club girls in butt hugging skirts offer their tissues and smiles to everyone else, but for some reason the contact people zero in on you with a jittery smile and a “very cheap contacto.” The one time I actually bothered to take a coupon, I realized they weren’t kidding about the prices. So today I walked down to Apple Contacts, coupon sheepishly in hand, to buy a few months worth of very cheap contacto.

The store was on the third floor of a “mixed use” building, the first two used by a financing company, the fourth by an English school and the rest apartments nestled onto a few floors. After a filling out a short form I sat down on the available sofas, passing over the sports and women’s health magazines for a viciously drawn samurai comic. It was the twentieth issue in a series about the life of legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, opening at the end of a duel, opponent already skewered on his sword. Miyamoto pulls it out, blood bursts in a beautiful arc, there are a few moments where they lock eyes and a strange kind of sympathy passes between them. I put the comic down and glanced around the room, from the other waiting customers absorbed in a daytime drama (“I will never tell father that you’re still alive, NEVER!”), to the staff behind the counter. It slowly dawned on me that every last person working in this place was a stunningly good looking woman between the age of twenty-three and twenty-nine, all of them decked in identically pressed cream-white and clam-pink uniforms.

Just as I swallowed that thought I heard my name called in a clear, cool voice. I was led into the next room, mirrors and stools lining the walls. This hologram of a girl led me to a device in the middle of the room where I rested my chin. In front of my eyes was an almost Platonic landscape, a gray road shooting straight through a lime green field to a tree draped in foliage. It blurred in and out, eventually resting onto a sharp definition. Before I had time to think about it any longer we were onto the next station. “Are they all automatic like that?” I asked her, half elated by the experience and half missing all my squinting at letter charts picking E’s from F’s. “No, just that one,” she said, her smile blinding me for a few seconds. After I had blinked it all away I found myself confronting rows of black Japanese characters floating in white space, watching them grow smaller and smaller until I could barely guess at their shape. If it’s possible to fail an eye exam I could probably do it on sheer nerves.

The vision then sat me down before a mirror with a pair of trial contacts. After tucking them in I threw my clear new vision around the room, along rows of mirrors and eye tests to the beaming face of the hologram girl, looking all the more unreal in this new high definition. Just as I was recovering from the gleam of her teeth she plonked me down on yet another sofa, slipping the results of my test through a narrow slot in the wall. An anonymous hand took the sheet soundlessly, and after a minute or two of flexing my new contacts around the room my name rang out and the hologram was motioning for me to walk through the curtain.

The room was lit dim as a whisper, a little control center set dead between the reception room and the examination room. I felt like I’d walked in on OZ himself, muttering an automatic “Excuse me…” before I could even see. Oz sat behind a low desk, lab coat turned silvery in the darkness. Before my pupils had a chance to fully relax they were probed with flashlights, look up, look down, OK, looking good. My eyes fluttered with stars and I was waved out in just two minutes, back to the lights of the waiting room and my samurai comic. I hadn’t even glimpsed his face.

I sat in the waiting room, watching the hologrammed uniforms float behind the desk and waiting for my order to be processed. I was unnerved by all of them, feeling odd at the women scurrying, smiling, not handling anything more complicated than an automated eye check machine, and that darkened little room at the center of it all. What niggled me was how calm and simple this had all been, how I enjoyed the smooth warm faces with their pixellated tinge, how I had even enjoyed the shadow in his office, and I enjoyed the hyper-reality of this cream colored waiting room. It was all as clean as a Hollywood film, polished to a digital sheen. In this office selling sight the waiting room was bustling with female visions, clean and anonymous. And the doctor was literally invisible.

Maybe some of these women had once held vague dreams of medicine, those wisps of ambition cutting off here: a smile behind a desk job and a paycheck they can keep as long as their skin stays smooth. Maybe they only dream of working until they marry a nice man with a fine job: a doctor. But who can say what they really wanted all along? Our desires and sense of the possible only stretch as far as we can see.

I heard my name called, the syllables blocky in Japanese syllables, and picked up my contacts, bagged and taped in blue plastic by the woman behind the desk. It was probably my new contacts, but I could have sworn she flickered in a digital blip as she smiled and thanked me. As I turned to leave I nearly ran into a guy about my age slouching out from the bathroom, skin tanned nut brown, hair permed and spiky, a red coat emblazoned with the store logo barely holding his rangy and jumpy body. He gave the desk girl a sly smile, swooped up a new basket of promotional tissues and turned down the hall in one fluid motion. He held the door for me and we walked out together into the clattering street coughing with heat and people.

Monday, May 16, 2005

my dictionaries

If all the books had a party dictionaries would be the boring uncle in the corner, taking conversations literally and eating all the bean dip. Even the other reference books would fare better, thesauruses with their flowery stories about nothing and encyclopedias keeping their blandly told anecdotes bobbing with factoids. My dictionaries did nothing more than prop up my novels until I started seriously studying Japanese, spending a several hours everyday with these stodgy little uncles. They can be pretty damn amusing actually.

Learning a foreign language your choice of dictionary can seriously affect your day to day routine, and suddenly that bookshelf fixture you always took for granted is the only thing between you and opening a bank account. Like any book you spend a bit of time with, you start to wonder about the author. Where is she from? What is she like? Why do so many of the example sentences in here ring with resentment towards younger sisters?

Bought within a few weeks of first coming here, “The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary” (Editor in Chief Jack Halpern) has been the single best reference book I have ever had the pleasure to use. It is bound like a Gideons bible, floppy plastic crimson cover over its paperback spine. I have bored more than a few people enthusing about this kanji dictionary, but the fact is the thing is awesome. It uses a simple and logical system that reinvents the process of organizing characters, and provides extensive examples on meaning and core usage. It is also the only dictionary I’ve ever encountered with extensive biographical information of the editor, a photo of him on the inside jacket cover, grinning like an employee of the month in his tweed suit and accountant’s haircut. In the foreword to the dictionary (yes, there’s a foreword), University of Hawaii Professor of Japanese Agnes M. Niyekawa talks about Jack with the enthusiasm that only real language geeks like us can really appreciate.

“Only someone like Jack Halpern, who learned seven languages before Japanese, and has since added five other languages, could have conceived of such an extraordinary dictionary that is ideally suited to learners… Jack Halpern did not waste his time day dreaming, but embarked upon the project within a year of his arrival in Japan.”

I’ve thought about writing a fan letter to Jack care of the publisher, asking if he’s ever going to edit a sequel.

Although it has considerably less personality, “The Yellow Book” covered the other major hurdle in my Japanese study, grammar. Recommended to me by a former Mormon housemate who learned Japanese while having doors slammed in his face, “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar” covers just about every major basic grammatical formation in a thorough, rigorous and thoroughly bland manner. I don’t know why, but copying down their example sentences always made me giggle. E.g.

Bakari, a particle which indicates that s.t. is the only thing or state which exists, or the only action s.o. will take, takes, is taking or took. Example: “Dezato wa taberu dake ni natte imasu. (Lit.) The only thing left to do with desert is to eat it.”

~garu, an auxiliary verb attached to a psychological/physiological adjective meaning a person other than the speaker shows signs of ~. Example: “Ueda-san wa aisu-krimu o tabeta gatta. Mr. Ueda showed signs of wanting to eat ice cream.”

But no dictionary hits the proper balance of useful reference and amusing reading quite like “A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters” by Kenneth G. Henshall. I discovered “A Guide...” sitting innocently on a shelf in the East Asian Studies section of my school library. Henshall (actually, let’s call him Ken), doesn’t get Jack Halpern’s star treatment, remaining blessedly anonymous. But while Jack simply created a lookup system and oversaw a staff that implemented it, we spend all of “A Guide...” with Ken, wading through short passages that explain the origins and changing meanings of the standard two thousand characters in the Japanese writing system.

While the lions share of entries are straightforward explanations, (Hashi: Bridge. [The left side] is “wood”, [the right side] is “tall”, thus “tall wooded structure” which came to be associated specifically with bridges), one does occasionally come across some real howlers. “Kan: Government, Official. [The upper section] is “roof.” [The lower section] is “buttocks”, here acting phonetically to express “work” and almost certainly also lending an idea of “sedentary”. Thus “person doing sedentary work in a building”, which came to have particular associations with an official doing work for the government.” I really dig Ken’s deadpan delivery on that one.

But the crowning jewel of “A Guide...” is the entry on the character for “trade”, where Ken loses his cool and shows us a bit of the rage that drives the hardcore etymologist. While most character entries take up a third of a page at the most, the “trade” entry spills over three quarters of the page, barely holding in the essay he clearly had in mind. Ken cuts down any conflicting theories on the character left and right, first brushing aside anyone who would mistake it for a combination of “ sell” and “mouth”, then pushing with disturbing intensity his own theory:

[The lower section] is almost certainly “spread thighs”, the plumpness indicating female thighs, with “opening” added to indicate vagina. [The upper section] is the early form of needle, which was often used to symbolize “pierce/penetrate.” Thus this character appears to have originally meant “vaginal penetration”, i.e. “copulation.” From this point the link with trade seems clear, i.e. the worlds oldest trade of prostitution.

In case you had any doubts or were listening to any other etymologists, Ken spends the rest of the page attacking other theories that try to explain “trade” as a variant of “tall” or who explain the presence of the vagina radical as a purely phonetic borrowing. As Ken witheringly puts it “This does not seem especially convincing.” He’s holding onto to his plump thighs and penetrated vaginas come hell or high water.

Now your dictionary may have a cleaner and more pared down version of “trade”, but let me tell you, I never forgot that character again.

Friday, May 13, 2005

eulogy for a record collection

I don't think I had ever seen two men who looked meeker than these two. They wore dull colored collar shirts (faded blue - mild yellow), had straight hair that brushed down to their eyelids, and punctuated every sentence with a suck of air. They stood in the hallway at a safe distance from my front door, clipboards in hand. Then again, they had come bringing news of death. Ten years of music collected from friends and record stores around the world had dissappeared in transit between Japan and the US. As the father of the collection I needed to sign a few forms acknowledging the end of the search and working out proper compensation. We had given up hope, the search was off, my record collection was pronounced dead.

I received my first CD as a birthday present in sixth grade from a classmate. It was an REM album with a cover that looked like a blurry golden photo of a wheat field. It came in one of those old cardboard CD packages twice the size of the actual disc, which I believed were designed to fit CD packages in old record bins. My fleeting excitement was tempered by the fact that a) my family didn't own a CD player and b) REM is the most boring band on the planet. The horrors of sixth grade were better expressed by stealing my parent's cassete of "Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits" and listening to "I Am A Rock" and "Sounds of Silence" on repeat.

Eventually my family did get a CD player, and I started to get CD's to put in it, mostly local rock bands or the jam rock stuff I was into at the time. I didn't really learn about music until my first part time job. While most of my classmates were spending late nights delivering pizza or busing tables for tips, my high school job was a bit more glamorous: I was the assistant to a veteran jazz record producer.

Well, to be more precise, I was his office gopher, taking messages, filing correspondence and picking up sandwiches from the local deli while he jetted around to recording sessions. I had found the job in the last place any self respecting high schooler looks for a job: the dusty file folder marked “job bank” in the guidance counselor’s office. I never did see the inside of a recording studio.

The office was the converted basement of a suburban house, all available wall space lined with record shelves that held thousands of records. On top of the shelves were dozens of signed baseballs. One of my many jobs was to keep the office well supplied with these official major-league standard baseballs, which my boss took to every single recording session, getting the autographs of the musicians involved.

My boss was in his mid-50's, divorced, a thirty year veteran of the record industry. He had worked with just about every major name in jazz, from the lily-white 50's jazz poster boy Chet Baker to Gil-"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"-Scottt-Heron. In between was the history of post-war jazz, from the 50's West Coast cats Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck to free jazz originators Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. Although he had lived most of his adult life in the New York City area he still spoke with a heavy North Carolina drawl that he used to lull people into thinking he was an easy going, laid back sorta dude. In fact he lived his life on roller coaster cycles swinging from debt to being flush with cash. As the lowly office boy I wasn't privy to the accounting, but I could get a pretty good idea of how we were doing by the tone of the drawled shouts that came from his desk. "Hey Jamie! We're using to many damned staples! Try to cut down, y'know!" A month later: "Hey Jamie, how much am I payin' you?" "Seven dollars an hour." "Well, make it eight!" He would then dissappear upstairs and come back thirty minutes later in a change of clothes, eyes droopy and a faint whiff of pot on his hair.

While I mostly recall hours of boredom in front of the computer, feeling trapped in this basement on a dead-end street in suburban Connecticut, it was heaven for a sixteen year old music geek, given access to one of the most amazing record collections I had ever seen. It was a sprawling monster that had grown by literally swallowing other collections whole. It was a whale, but the sea it swam in was the flood of CD’s that poured in by the boxes. Promo CD’s from our label, "For Promotional Use Only" carelessly stamped across the cover, gifts from record biz buddies, and uncountable auditioners carefully bubble wrapping their plastic disc of lame jazz ballads only to have it sink amid the torrent.

My own collection became a tributary of the office, swelling into weird shapes based on whatever was interesting and available. The bread and butter of his business was remastering the LP catalogues of record labels for release on CD, producing small pools of live Coltrane albums and old Sun Ra discs from the 1950’s. I burned Theolonius Monk and Frank Zappa LP’s to shock white CD-Rs. I learned the entire history of jazz from the backs of LP covers, checking liner notes and sideman names, learning who played with who and when. My boss had thought that by hiring a young guy he’d get the youth perspective on music, but he’d ended up with a skinny little maniac who preferred 70’s free jazz to Nirvana and Snoop Dogg. “Don’t you like any normal music?” he would ask, coming back to the office to find it screaming with saxophones at the top of their register.

After two-a-half years I had caught enough of the up-cycles to get a few pay raises, with the bulk of my money wasted on yet more music. I was heavy into the experimental music scene in New York at the time, spending nights as the youngest person in the club, sipping ginger ales as my one-drink-minimum. I sat breathless as Fred Frith pulled a galaxy of sounds out of a single guitar, had Tim Berne set my nerves on fire with fullback baritone solos, and saw Dave Douglas dancing his trumpet over moogs and marimbas.

There were so many damned good drummers, all of them goofy looking. Jim Black looked like a twiggy little elf, a mop of blond curls on a thin little face with two big blue eyes. Joey Baron was five foot nothing, a shaved head and smile sticking out of a black turtleneck. Kenny Wolleson looked like a Normal Rockwell auto-mechanic with his mashed baseball hat and three day scruff. I remember him once trying to tune his kick drum and munch a banana at the same time, his ass poking out like a massive “kick me” cartoon. But every one of these guys transformed behind a drum kit, snap, crackling and popping several hundred years of beats every few seconds, and doing it all with a massive grin on their face. After the show they would sell their CD’s out of cardboard boxes straight from the factory, making change from their wallets.

When I moved to college my record collection suddenly moved into public view in my dorm room, and it blinked in the light of day, a bit startled by the attention. It was a weird looking thing, built on obsession and circumstance. It was mostly instrumental, noisy, complicated and abrasive music. I would put on a record before a girlfriend came over, and just as we would start making out the music would dissolve into free improv, breaking melody, meter and my prospects of getting laid. My collection had grown in the pitch dark isolation of my high school bedroom, and suddenly we both had to learn to be more social adept. It slowly sweetened with Joni Mitchell, Rufus Wainwright and Billie Holiday, got some flow with Black Star, Outkast and Common and a touch of repose with Webern, Bach and Mahler.

In the fall of 2000, I came to study in Japan for a few months; partially out of an interest in Japanese history but mostly out of an overwhelming interest in underground music. Any time not spent studying Japanese in my drafty student boarding house I was prowling Osaka for record stores and clubs, tracking down obscure CD’s by groups with names like the Boredoms, Ground Zero, OOIOO, and Guitar Wolf. Thinking I would never be back I crammed as much as I could onto four months and a tight budget. I followed maps off the back of flyers through back alleys and red light districts to small clubs. This music was even darker and stranger than my high school heroes, the audience’s well groomed and stoic as the musicians presided over small weather systems of sound and static. Got my lip bloodied at a hardcore punk show, crowd surfed to underground hip-hop, stumble out exhausted and elated, hurry to the last train home, go to bed headphones on, the music ringing my head as I lost consciousness.

I came back to the states, finished college, ended up back in Japan, teaching English in a small town in the mountains of Shizuoka. I occasionally browsed record stores, but the prices were about double those of the US, a new CD going for around twenty-five dollars. We buckled down close to one another over that long lonely year, stereo humming quietly as I copied kanji onto flashcards and wrestled with grammar textbooks. For two years of moving around I whittled down the collection, sending boxes of CD’s home in small bunches. Last October before moving up to the northern country I struggled my way down to twenty albums, packing the lions share into a box, padding them with crumpled newspaper and paperbacks. That box disappeared somewhere between here and the US.

When I first heard the news, I clenched my stomach and told myself it didn’t matter. I pushed the thought out of my mind, tried not to imagine what had happened. Had it been accidentally packed away in some endless warehouse, like that closing shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Had it burst open while being tossed from a truck, falling in a pile of wet cardboard and broken plastic? Like I said, best not to think of these things.

Now that it’s gone, I find myself missing it at odd moments, humming a song that I packed away in there. It’s like hearing a classmate from high school died. But more often than that I’ve been pretty unfazed by it. So many of those songs are tied to old bedrooms, to a girlfriend from college or a thirteen hour car trip. Listening to them again is like reading your diary from high school, wondering at this person who used to live in your body all those years ago. The post office is compensating me a bit for losing the package, so I’ll be getting a few hundred dollars later this week. All I have is a small stack of CD’s in the corner of my room. It’s a comfy little party where Miles Davis rubs shoulders with Glenn Gould, Wilco jokes with Mississippi John Hurt, and the Arcade Fire are awkwardly being introduced around. All of them sound that much sweeter now, echoing against the fading memories of departed friends.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

country gaijin, city gaijin

The other morning I dropped my rent in the cash machine, settled my grocery and gas bills at the corner store, rode the train to Tokyo to buy a summer shirt and check out this art party. Early May in Tokyo feels like low tide, the Golden Week holidays draining out half the city to visit their families in the provinces. For a handful of days the city is craggy with the flotsam left behind, those of us with no grandmothers in the country to visit.

All the shirts I looked at cost as much as last month’s groceries. I bumped into a short American girl in the department store, and she replied to my “Sorry” with an “Are you, are you really?” When I started to walk away she kept after me. “You know I was just kidding right? Just the gaijin humor y’know. You probably haven’t been here long enough.” It wouldn’t make a fucking difference, but I answered anyway. “Three years.” “Six,” she fired back, as if she’d just proven something. She had her little victory.

I met up with a friend in a corner Shinjuku station, no new shirt and a dash of vinegar in my soul. We bought a stack of paper cups and a bottle of refrigerated white wine from a convenience store and found the art party on the roof of an apartment block south of Shinjuku. The roof was blanketed in blue tarps where people lay chatting in small clusters of bright summer shirts, pulling beers and screw-cap wine from a row of coolers. All around us the hotels and skyscrapers of Nishi-Shinjuku gleamed like a false smile in the late afternoon sun. TV antennas stuck out in bunches on one side of the roof, an uneven wall of metal rods spearing out at us with our sandals and plastic cups.

The host was on the north end of the roof, conducting a tea ceremony in a special hut he’d made entirely from plastic bottles. He was tall and lanky, with a scruff-beard, spectacles and a grin that bunched up to the corners of his nose. He explained the plastic bottle tea room to a gaggle of older Japanese women as “a fusion of Japan’s traditional Shinto culture and its modern ‘recycled’ culture.” They nodded, brows furrowed to better catch all the slippery English syllables. There were occasional ducks of the head and whispers between them in a frantic effort to figure out what he was talking about. I swallowed my corrections that tea ceremony was not part of the Shinto folk religion but a Zen Buddhist art taken up by peasant slaughtering warriors who enjoyed its calmness and austere sense of order. I’m pretty sure one of the customs of tea ceremony is no intellectually one-upping the host. End up with a packet of nightshade in your cup or a sword through your eye socket.

I was enjoying his party though, the guests all city folk soaked in style and ambition. Spoke briefly with a tired looking Hawaiian guy starting a fledgling English school. Met a cheery young Japanese girl who spoke English with Italian inflections; she creates “events and happenings” in Spain, where she lives with her partner. That would be a partner in love, not business. Talked photography with a young art student who was abandoning abstract still-lifes for his new obsession, cute puppies and babies, “the really tacky shit”. Poking out from the crowd was a guy from Colorado who had been here for three months, big and knuckly with a baseball hat and a goatee. I learned that he had just put down his first payment on a two hundred year old samurai sword. He lived a few hours north of here by train, in mountain country that hardens English teachers. Even English teachers from Colorado. He kept on looking around at the cityscape or laughing too abruptly. I liked him.

The hours rolled away and guests came and went, hugging goodbyes and hellos on the metal staircase. As it left the party the sun took its long golden sheets off the city, uncovering an inky blue mountainscape sparkling with stars and crystals. To the north the skyscrapers stood bright and arrogant, looking larger and prouder in the darkness.

I had just started talking to this sound engineer when a British guy in wide sunglasses and a rock magazine haircut swooped in, talking straight past me. Some urgent story about an ex-girlfriend calling the cops on a party of his, pee-in-the-cup drug testing at the station, his mother crying in confusion. I fingered my Dixie cup of wine. The conversations had begun to make me queasy, like eating a string of fine chocolates until you’re sick. The friend I had showed up with was talking to some cute girl shouldering an SLR camera, so I looked for the samurai sword guy instead.

Samurai sword was talking with a guy who wore a shirt that shimmered a bit in the low light. Shimmery shirt had dark brown skin made darker by the night and a smile that radiated charisma. He had come here three years before and was leaving in three days; our talk was a summary of the Tokyo experience. He kept on smiling and shaking his head, talking bout the clubs, the bars, the girls. It was a charmed life, and he knew it. “I’m going back to Toronto for grad school, and I don’t plan to come back, but I know I will man.” Samurai sword was nervously weighing the idea of catching his last train back to the mountains or staying out all night. “You guys are so lucky out here man, Tokyo is so... great. For foreigners.” Shimmery shirt coughed and shuffled his feet as Samurai-sword went on. “Where I live man, you just walk into a place and even if everyone doesn’t stare they know you’re there, you’re a foreigner, y’know.” Shimmery shirt bowed out at that point, said his apologies and went off to meet some friends. I gave samurai sword guy what comfort I could. The mountains can be rough on your own, the locals a puzzle of dialects and emotions tucked away when the foreigner comes to visit. If I’d stayed out there any longer I might have bought a sword too.

I left with the last few stragglers as the clock rounded towards ten. The camera girl my friend had liked had disappeared for a final private tea ceremony with the host, so we headed out with no goodbyes. We ambled down the sidewalk under a row of street lamps talking loudly with the sound engineer and the British rocker, his sunglasses shielding out the night. While passing a rock club a shaggy black man in dread-locks broke off from a circle of Japanese guys holding guitar cases and approached us. He had froth at the edges of his mouth and mumbled in broken English and Japanese. “He-help me. I... wakaranai. I don’t know wha...wakaranai.” I looked straight into his eyes and asked what was wrong, but nothing came back to me, they were opaque. The sound engineer gave him a cigarette while the Brit rocker stood back, face young and smooth behind the shades. “Probably just one of those finger-up-the-bum things, y’know what I mean?” he said offhandedly, which tugged out some ragged laughter from the group while I fell silent. I felt like punching through his fucking glasses. He looked bored. “Let’s just get goin’, alright?”

And we did, leaving the man with a cigarette dangling from his lips, shuffling back to the rock club. It was an empty Tokyo evening in the middle of spring. The families of the city would be back in two days, drowning us away in a flood of black suits and school uniforms. We said our goodbyes on a corner below the freeway. They had clubs to dance in, people to smile at, and I had a bed and a tangle of thoughts waiting for me at home.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


If you think about it, the idea of noodles is a pretty strange one. Out of the myriad of ways to raise grains from the ground and digest them into our bodies, pounding them into flour, molding them into dough, slicing them into fine strips and then boiling them is a pretty elaborate and time consuming way to go about it. Last year I worked for several months in a rural soba noodle restaurant where this mystery was played out every day in the work routine. Our two main dishes consisted of soba noodles and soba-gaki­, little buckwheat dumpling balls the size of an egg served in a variety of sauces. The noodles took the bulk of our preparation time, twenty servings carefully crafted in about forty minutes just before opening. That included a long and heavy kneading of buckwheat flour and near boiling water, flattening out the dough to a half centimeter thickness, folding over and then cutting it into thin and even strips with a square knife, the blade as wide as the cover of a dictionary. The soba-gaki was made to order, portions of soba flour thrown into hot water and stirred furiously until thickening up, scooped out of the pot, patted into little balls and dropped into little bowls of hot water. Start to finish two or three minutes.

Many of our customers had grown up with soba-gaki as a poor substitute for rice, buckwheat being cheaper, easier to grow, and rice being a rare and precious commodity at the end of the war. Like ordering a bowl of oatmeal in a bistro. But when the same buckwheat flour had been carefully kneaded, folded and cut into long thin strips it became a delicacy, something to shell out a few yen for. The fact is that something about the long squiggly shape and slightly firm texture of noodles is incredibly appealing to the human animal, even though I can’t think of a single equivalent food that our evolutionary proto-types slurped on in quite the same way.
While they have been around for millennia, noodles became quick, cheap eating only in the past fifty or sixty years with the advent of inexpensive public eateries and dried supermarket pasta. While there are plenty of Italian places in the states where you can order a plate of pasta, it mostly seems to stay in the home, a quick meal whipped up in a few spare minutes. Boil water, cook a fistful of pasta for a few minutes, pour on a can of sauce, you’re ready to go. The same logic has extended to ramen noodles, which are even more basic than pasta: just boil water.

Anyone who has seen the old 80’s “noodle-western” Tampopo will know that proper hand made ramen can be pretty serious business in Japan. Admittedly, the movie was a satire of the Japanese obsession with food minutiae, but the scary thing is how little it exaggerates. Hastily boiled roadside ramen is not uncommon, but just as common are the neighborhood places that have been perfecting their secret broth recipes for generations, carefully using the same pots to nurture out rich flavors impossible to duplicate. A photographer friend of mine once had to choke down two or three bowls of the stuff a day while visiting dozens of different venues around Tokyo for a ramen guide book. But swimming in his muddled gastronomic memory were two or three places that had cultured perfect alchemies of pork, veggies and soy sauce. The place he took me to was hidden a few minutes walk from the glittery shopping district of Shibuya on a quiet side street. A wiry young man stood behind the counter while a weathery looking old lady took our orders. They joined a few regulars to gawk at the TV news program about a series of elephants that escaped from a Chinese zoo and ran amok through a city. According to my friend the founder had died a year and a half ago, leaving the place to his son, and while initially there had been a drop in quality, within a few months the characteristic broth had returned. When the bowls came out, the broth was unusually clear and light, carefully simmered out of chicken and vegetables, a change from the heavy pork broth of standard ramen. Swimming inside were thick slices of Chinese cabbage, specially seasoned slivers of shiitake mushrooms and a tangle of ramen noodles. The whole thing was ecstatic, and worthy of a movie unto itself.

Ramen is a relative latecomer to Japanese cuisine, originally harking from China and only became widespread after the war as a quick belly filler downed in a few hasty minutes between trains. While the broth is usually made on site the noodles are usually bought pre-made, half cooked in crinkly plastic packages. A much more recent Chinese import are the flying toshomen.

While cooking ramen noodles could not be more simple, making toshomen is a tricky and dramatic skill usually performed in open kitchens for the customers to gawk. When an order comes in the noodles are literally shaved off in foot long strands from a large log of dough held in one hand. The other hand holds a broad curved knife that sends the strands of raw dough flying directly into the boiling pot. The end result is a bowl of long thick noodles with a distinctive chewy texture. The sauces and broths seem to vary, but I really enjoy the mara, a meaty broth layered with a ladleful of hot chili oil and topped off with a few snips of fresh herbs and string beans. It packs a kick; I once had a bowl of the stuff that knocked me out of a mild fever. As far as I know there are only a handful of places that actually serve toshomen in Japan. One of them happens to be a ten second walk from my front door.

The maitre d of the place seems like a nice sort of guy, but every time I see him he looks like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, pacing up and down our street in his loose button shirt and apron, frantically smoking a cigarette by the vending machine. The few times I have stopped in the place always seems to be running smoothly and doing a brisk business: Chinese waitresses rushing up and down the stairs, three or four cooks moving briskly in the open kitchen, the maitre d greeting customers and settling checks with his frayed smile. I’ve only been in two or three times, but we nod to each other every day as I scurry around and he stays at his post, holding the whole place together with nerves and cigarettes.

I’ll finish this off with a noodle I know a little bit more about; soba. The humble buckwheat noodle has somehow beat out its wheat based cousins udon (too thick and goofy), kishimen (too chewy) and somen (to thin and scrawny) to become the iconic Japanese noodle. When hearing that I prefer soba to udon (I get this question more often than you would expect), I am often met with appreciate nods from older Japanese who all agree soba expresses the true heart of Japan. I am still not exactly sure why that is, but properly done it is a pretty great fucking noodle. The elegant dipping sauce is gently coaxed from long strips of kombu seaweed and various combinations of dried fish, then stirred with dark soy sauce and sweet mirin rice wine. Like the best Japanese food the flavor is direct, simple, and exquisite.

A proper soba restaurant will discreetly have the characters te-uchi, “hand made” tucked into their sign. Most hand made soba places have a special area just for the noodle making with open glass panels to show off the process from start to finish. At the place I worked at we estimated sales and prepped the noodles before opening, but occasionally an unexpected rush would send us through the whole kneading, rolling, folding and cutting again. Little kids and their parents would wander away from their tables to gawk at us as we sweated and grunted over the tough barky dough. To think that after two thousand years the process of molding base grains into fine strands still surprises our senses. Like eating a great poem over and over again, curls and tangles resolving themselves in our gummy grinding mouths.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


I lay in bed bed late this Sunday morning, reading a borrowed copy of D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love." The air was wet and sticky but just this side of cool, perfect weather to read a classic novel in your boxers. My head was still heavy in images from the night out before, a beer or two at a friend's bar in Omiya, the girls I'd talked to, some guy friends I hadn't seen in a month or so, the nervous hipsters who giggled like schoolkids at the idea of talking to a white man. Hidden among all the outdated political conversations and extinct social customs in Lawrence's writing were the raw heart-twisting bits that locked up with my Saturday night in a Japanese bar.

The clock was moving towards noon when the sounds of crackly PA's and drums echoed through my neighborhood and brought me out of the novel. The more I listened the bigger this thing sounded. I had been thinking about getting a cup of coffee for a little while, but decided to just throw on some clothes, grab my camera and go see what this was all about.

My apartment is in a small gem of a Japanese neighborhood, a warren of small shops and restaurants shouldered into back alleys. They're kept alive by the eight-storied, two buildinged Isetan Department store complex, which brings both locals and out-of-towners, and the Prefectural Capital buildings, which create a daily flow of pedestrian traffic that trickle straight through the neighborhood. I jogged down the stairs and weaved around the shoppers strolling past the old bag and tea stores. The other side of my block is a pretty main street in Urawa, which a long political march was making it's way down.

A quick glance at the banners brought no immediate theme together. The graying marchers held flags that called for Japan out of Iraq, for a recall of the new government pushed revisionist textbooks glossing over World War II, for a halt to Koizumi's changes to the Postal Savings and pension systems, and for a boycott of Risona Bank due to their recent layoffs. I snapped some shots half heartedly, but the mild humidity, no shower and no coffee meant my mind hadn't really kick started yet. I walked along the march, which wound it's way up around the Prefectural Capitol complex. I began to realize that the marchers numbered in the hundreds, if not close to a thousand or so. A Dixie-land band of retirement age Japanese men played old timey jazz in front of the Prefectural capitol building, waving to the demonstrators between solos. Cops were directing traffic and keeping things moving, but the road was still open, with City Buses and Toyota's sometimes roaring pass the graying marchers with only two feet to spare. I felt conspicuous and foolish. Unshaven, lanky white guy loping around with a Nikon camera trying to figure out what was going on.

It was on one of the PA trucks lining the march route clear as day. I sounded out the Japanese sounds until they wiggled into my groggy brain processing and came up with an answer. May Day. It was fucking May Day. It was also the beginning of Japan's "Golden Week" of holidays, and a Sunday to boot.

The marchers all seemed so weary, all the banners and chanting in unison and Koizumi caricature masks... this was a phantom limb from the 60's. The people and the style hadn't changed. There issues were all reactionary, in the original sense of the word. "No war in Iraq!" "No Change to the Pension System!" I happened to agree with them, but there was nothing here but moral smugness, nothing new, nothing constructive. That stuff takes time and effort. Don't I know it. There was a troupe of clowns in green, orange and purple, banging drums and cavorting. When I looked closer their makeupped faces were lined with wrinkles and crows feet.

I desperately needed something to eat and slouched back to my apartment for a brunch of strong black tea and leftovers. I could hear the drummers echoing around somewhere in the distance. I was going into Tokyo to haunt some used bookstores. At every train station the Volunteer Clubs of high schools were out collecting money. Over their navy and gray school uniforms they wore faded green sashes blazoned with pleas to support children orphaned by natural disastors, suicide and abandonment. I dropped them a few yen but still felt ill at ease, another leftist curling up into silence, just another passive face on the train, going shopping on a Sunday morning.