Saturday, December 30, 2006

usa notes

Catching the late commuter train back from New York. Two lily white couples get on at 125th st. Same age as me, but with haircuts and overcoats from income brackets in the stratosphere. One couple grabs the two free seats next to mine. On the commuter train the seats are turned front and back in little two and three seater pods, not the long democratic benches of the subway. On our three seat pod I scrunched up against the window with my brand new hardcover and they talked about people they knew. "Look at that skiht though, just look at your skiht. There's practically nothing there." My eyes flicked over to her skirt; deep blue, clinging toddlerlike to a pair of tanned thighs marked once or twice by birth marks or field hockey scars. His voice was marked by objective observation while his fingers ran circles round her kneecap and little forays higher up. I really tried to just enjoy my book, half of me just wishing they could do this somewhere else and the other half of me glad that these guys had sat next to me and given me such a good story.

The other couple spoke up from the seat ahead of us. "Ohmigod my ass is so big, my ass is so big in this photograph." As far as I could get from the furtive glances the photograph was her drivers license. "Can you believe my Dad told me that I looked liked shit in this?" Still waving around the drivers license. "But whatever, I just told him that he was fucking ugly anyway." Okay, I was ready to move now. The boyfriend next to me turned his voice of objective observation to the voice of objective amusement. "Jesus, that's hor-(laugh)-rible (laugh)."

I settled back into the book, but by the time I'd glanced over again her hand (silver ring on the index finger, silver bracelet on the wrist) had moved between his leg, and looked like it was massaging his crotch through the thin black cotton of his trousers. Oh Jesus. Read the book, just read the book. This isn't happening less than a foot away. His jacketed arm is pressed against my own, her hand is pressing firmly along the folds and creases of his... oh for chrissakes! Just get off at the next stop please.

Maybe I've been out of the states too long, but their conversation was as light and breezy as if she'd been running her hand through his hair. He asked about the ring on her finger that was running the length of his member, she lifted up the hand to look at it. "This? Jeez, I haven't taken this off in like, fifteen years." And maybe she was in love, because she slid it off without a second thought, held it with the edge on her fingertips, all three of us with our eyes on the ring, and the finger it had left.

Friday, October 27, 2006

I did it.

I drove one of the fish hauling carts from the Tsukiji Fish Market.

a short list of persons who have emailed me about enhancing my penis

What with all the dope we smoked I can't remember it too clearly, but I think the cornerstone of comedian Patton Oswalt's routine was a joke that went "Oh yeah, and to all you spammers in the audience, just one thing. Spell check your fucking emails." Even sober that joke is pretty funny.

The problem is I think the spamming bar has been raised recently. I came in this morning to find that "Carly Bishop" had taken the time to write me, an average citizen and generally savvy consumer and investor, not about investment oppurtunities, West African bank transfers, the latest advances in shedding weight and enhancing male organs, or the wonders of pound-melting. No, Carly had decided that I, a total stranger would be interested in this: (I've left it unedited)

"it is a proof of your own attachment to hertfordshire. anything beyond the very neighbourhood"she will drop the acquaintance entirely."
"i advise mr. darcy, and lizzy, and kitty," said mrs. bennet, "to walk to oakham mount thisenough to drive happiness away.
catherine de bourgh, does not look on the match with a friendly eye.'claim an acquaintance with you-mr. bingley and his sisters."
"his manners are very different from his cousin's."
come in again and rest herself."you are quite a visit in my debt, mr. bingley," she added, "for when you went to town last
"ah!" said mrs. bennet, shaking her head, "then she is better off than many girls. and what sort
answer, and took her place in the set, amazed at the dignity to which she was arrived in being allowed
"do not give way to useless alarm," added he; "though it is right to be prepared for the worst,
"he has made me so happy," said she, one evening, "by telling me that he was totally ignorant of"i admire all my three sons-in-law highly," said he. "wickham, perhaps, is my favourite; but i
actuated by one spirit, everything relating to their journey was speedily settled. they were to be off as
downstairs. as they passed through the hall, lady catherine opened the doors into the dining-parlour"say nothing of that. who should suffer but myself? it has been my own doing, and i ought to feel it."

I'm no expert, but based on my extensive knowledge of Jane Austen gleaned from BBC costume dramas, it looks like Ms. Bishop decided to email me a fragment of "Pride and Prejudice."

Even with the literary constraints of having to come up with unorthodox spellings and hyphenations to sneak around email filters I think the genre is starting to spawn it's own Shakespeares. Or at least Mark Twains. I have been saving a lot of the crap that finds its way into my mailbox because of the pure genius of the names they come up with. For wacky descriptive character names these guys wipe the floor with David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. Hell, they give Dickens a run for his money. I am tempted to steal these names and write a series of short stories. The ideas just pop right out.

"Tension Q. Denigrates finished his cigarette, flicking it to the rain-slick sidewalk. From the corner of his eye he caught the grimy old geezer on the stoop watch the butt bounce along, fingers tapping against each other in a vague half-rhythm, eyes in anticipation. Tension turned up the collar of his jacket against the wind walked over the abandoned butt, the tip of his cowboy boots grinding the thing to a million little specks. So the vagrants wouldn't scavenge it."

Man, this stuff just flows out.

I've copied the full list below, in the order they arrived to my inbox. Enjoy.

Ricochets V. Jogger
Poseurs B. Tarpaulin
Weller J. Illegalities
Intruded C. Vasectomy
Assuming C. Lascaux
Chariot Q. Whatsoever
Paranoia Q. Breeziest
Missourian M. Suckled
Objector L. Corking
Miscarriage P. Nodded
Prohibition K. Benedict
Atari H. Repackaged
Keywords K. Eyewitnesses
Hybridizing B. Regimented
Geography E. Charles
Implication T. Kapok
Unsuitably U. Politicizing
Armando L. Thrifty
Sellouts J. Laundries
Observatories H. Mushier
Livens Q. Coauthored
Motivating S. Tortoiseshell
Snootiness E. Thundershower
Grunts H. Cenotaph
Vomit J. Brewing
Cudgels K. Methanol
Churchyards U. Forgivable
Briefness K. Sandpapering
Drained E. Eutectic
Gorbachev R. Unhappily
Nudity L. Celerity
Tension Q. Denigrates
Their R. Georgina
Lithographer I. Thunderhead
Boxcar F. Extempore
Misfits E. Mooring
Recount G. Preserves
Mumps I. Swivel
Doling H. Dismemberment
Lamarck O. Ejecting
Headset R. Huntsman
Appliqu H. Inducing
Wildfowls D. Crankiest
Doughty I. Accessibly
Pyxed L. Cruddiest
Francoise R. Piglet
Sidelines Q. Billy
Pacesetters B. Pervasive
Caledonia M. Nazism
Eating L. Coquette
Oceanographer V. Imperfection

(My personal favorites: Keywords K. Eyewitnesses and Snootiness E. Thundershower.)

(And Wildfowls D. Crankiest.)


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

fuck the bomb

North Korea has the bomb. Most likely they are pointing it a few miles south of my apartment. Recently I’ve had a string of apocalypse dreams. Blinding flash of light, running through burning hulks of concrete and melting steel, silver rivers snaking across pavement. Stuff like that


Recently everyone seems to be getting pregnant. Emails from elder cousins arrive with grainy photographs at the bottom. Swaddled infants cradled in someone’s arms, an x-ray of a white creature curled like a shrimp in the big black pond of someone’s belly. People at the office clutter desks and computer screens with pictures of unconscious infants and toddlers grinning like idiots. Yesterday Mori-san was a sensible systems engineer, read the paper at lunchtime, did laps at the pool after work. Today he has pinned a photo of a shrieking bundle of goo next to his monitor. When it catches his eye he’ll sigh for a moment at this thing that has sprouted out of a dab of his semen. His semen.

My boss’ family came to the office the other day, his lovely wife and the scheming little parasite that calls itself his son. What had this thing, barely two years in this world, what had he done to earn our respect? His mother had brought a ribboned box of department store cookies for these men and women at their desks, but the boy just hobbled around with a goofy grin and babbled ungrammatical sentences in this weird squeaky little voice. Yet the girls in research coo over his little hands and his soft hair, the guys in sales quit the dirty jokes and turn their charm on this snotty little creature. His mother handled him carefully, this little goblin that wiggled out of her flesh and into the world. There he is, a Voyager probe launched from her body, and, if their luck holds, into the future.


Every Thursday night I bike out to a dull and quiet suburban neighborhood to tutor a lovely couple in their fifties in English conversation. She has left her job as the manager of an organic grocery to start an all organic baking business named after a Swedish cartoon character. He is on the board of directors of Japan’s largest organic produce distributor, and is currently organizing a national organic agriculture symposium and looking to import organic olive oil from Jordan. We’ll sit down to dinners of handmade sausages and homegrown vegetables, then discuss our week and read a short story or an essay. They giggle and laugh and tease each other in English fragments cut down to the essentials. Every other sentence will remind them of a song from the 60’s. “All You Need Is Love! John Lennon. My favorite!

They have two children, both about my age. Their daughter and their son’s girlfriend got pregnant within two weeks of each other. Everyone lost a few nights sleep, then decided to get married. Their daughter is now in her ninth month, and has come home for the last few months of her term, padding around the house with this basketball hidden underneath her shirt. She sits on a sofa in the corner of the room stitching baby clothes while her parents sit at the dining room table, frowning and giggle over strange words like “lilting” and “superstitious”. “Superstitious? Stevie Wonder! It’s a great song! Ja ja ja ja JA ja ja ja!

Their daughter is still wearing a basketball under her shirt, but their son's wife ejected her volleyball last week. I stopped by on Friday night to drop off a souvenir I'd brought back from a short trip I'd taken to the highlands. They were sitting in the living room flipping through an album of old photographs and drinking from a bottle of Hatsu-Mago sake. They flipped on a music program on public television station and I sat with the thing in my lap, looking at fuzzy photographs, the colors slowly yellowing over twenty-odd years. There were graduation pictures from nursery school, visits to grandma's house and trips to the shrine, little things running around. A picture of their daughter, five years old in the middle of a temple courtyard pulling the hem of her dress right up to the her grinning face. Her mother looked at the picture and collapsed in a fit of giggles. "Kaya, she always... moh!!" She had taken the picture. They poured me a cup of the sake, and we drank to their first grandchild.

"This sake is... from Yamagata. It's name is Hatsu-Mago. The name means..."

"First grandchild?"

"Gah! Jamie, you... moh!"

The other day someone hired two men to sit on folding stools in front of my building and count the pedestrians as they walked by. They were both equipped with a clipboard, a mechanical clicker you depressed with your thumb and a blank stare like the back of a truck. I was off to work, still swallowing the coffee in my mouth, brain straining at the arithmetic I do every morning of current-time + (minutes-to-station,briskly-walking vs. minutes-to-station,flat-out-sprinting) = (train departure time + 50 minutes to get to work?)

If I hadn’t been so preoccupied I would liked to have stopped and asked them a few things. Like, how do you guys divvy up the work? Does one of you count pedestrians going one way and the other the opposite direction or do you guys both just count everyone you see and then they average your numbers together later on? Don’t you guys feel an overwhelming urge to click when the other guy does? Do you wear earplugs to prevent that from happening? What happens if, say, some gangly American walks by you at 8:20 in the morning, then remembers he has left his mobile phone at home, rushes back in front of you to get it, then runs past you again in a frantic effort to make his train? Would you count him once (same guy in five minutes), twice (doublebacked within a few seconds, back again a few minutes later) or three times? How long is a shift for chrissakes? And how much are they paying you to do this? You know, to count of all of us tramping along the pavement. All of us, rushing to work, bumping into each other, having kids, tossing bombs.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


I bought a grey hardcover copy of an E.B. White essay titled “Here Is New York” today. It was one of those things you want to find more of in used book stores, little publishing oddities, a 54-page essay, hard bound, published by Harper & Brothers, New York, the name and address of the original owner carefully written on the title page. Even with one monochrome photograph and a hand sketch in the back there isn’t enough copy to fill the whole thing: there are four whole blank pages in the back of the thing, just flapping away in luxurious uselessness. It cost a little over two dollars, and I finished reading it in less than an hour. There are nice big margins on each page to pad it up to fifty-four pages. Probably just too long for The New Yorker, so they pumped it up to the size of a very tiny book.

It was written in the summer of 1948, a brief little piece on New York, how it feels, how it tastes, what it is. It was a brief little read that made you feel better for reading it, made you feel a little cosmopolitan, a little nostalgic, left a pleasant aftertaste. I usually wouldn’t write about it, but buried in there was one of the strangest and most unnerving passages I have encountered in a book in a long time. It is both a complete and accurate prediction and a totallyy weird coincidence, something that E.B. White took from his own memories of the war but which weirdly echoes our own time. I don’t really have much more to say about it, so I’ll just quote the passage in full:

“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak about much but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, the black headlines of the latest edition. // All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”

Whoa. Weird.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

It's A Boy!

I'm sure all of you have been anxiously following the drama of the Japanese Imperial family, Japan's original reality TV show. Unlike the British royal family, who work extremely hard to provide the public with a fresh turnover of drama and scandals, with occasionally moments of unbelievable weirdness and irony (Lady Di, literally chased to death by paparazzi), the Imperial Family mostly just deals in slow, sadistic, tragedy.

I have pretty much next to no interest in the petty little novels of royal succession and imperial weddings, but they force themselves on me anyway, leading off news broadcasts, the disembodied face of Princess Masako flapping from a tabloid advertisement on my train to work. I mean, I guess I know the outlines of the story. Harvard educated Princess Masako giving up her promising career as a diplomat in order to marry Crown Prince Naruhito, she is unable to produce a male heir, grows depressed and reclusive. She has a baby girl, Aiko, who is the cutest little princess ever. Maybe just cute enough to become... Empress!

Can a girl really do that? Let's forget the fact that girls were empressing all over the place in the 8th century ordering deaths of their enemies, consolidating power; does a girl really have what it takes to be a meaningless, powerless icon in the 21st century? I have a first hand account of the daily rigors that a modern day emperor must endure. My buddy Jolyon is currently in Tokyo doing research on modern Japanese religions, and the emperor pays his rent. To say thanks, he and a few other scholarship winners put on their Sunday best, combed their hair, pulled back their dredlocks, and sat down to drink tea with a living god. While Jolyon and the others nodded, gave brief little descriptions of their research, offered thanks for the rent money and smiled for the cameras, one girl decided her research could not be adequately summarized in a brief response, launching into a twenty minute lecture while Jolyon, the students, the god and his wife clenched their teacups and waited for her to shut the fuck up. But, being an earthly diety, Akihito withstood the onslaught, smiled politely and thanked her for coming. Could a girl be trusted with responsibilities like these?

One hundred and fifty years ago over half the country had never heard of the emperor, they were up to their knees in the mud planting rice so they could pay their local taxes. One hundred years ago the emperor was an oil painting, scowling with through his beard and his Prussian military uniform, chest puffy with medals and gold braid. Eighty-five years ago they didn’t really publicize the emperor too much: he was mildly retarded. Sixty-five years ago his name was on the lips of battalions marching through every corner of the Eastern hemisphere, his portrait in the front of every school room, staring dumb at the millions who repeatedly chanted praises. Fifteen years later, his job (and his neck) spared by the American occupation he shook hands with his beloved childhood friend, America’s Prince: Mickey Mouse. Who knows what havoc a girl might wreak on this hallowed institution?

This is the question that has gripped many of Japan’s best minds for the past year or so, newspaper editorials sounding for and against the idea. Practical minded moderates proposed retracing the imperial line down to some weird cousin. Some conservatives pushed the old “Just conceive through a concubine!” route. Some saucy liberals suggested that maybe we could just let that cute little Princess Aiko be empress, but only her! The rest should be guys! Let’s not get out of hand here. The thuggy far right wingers soon took up the “Males Only!” stance, the message booming from loudspeakers on the black vans draped in Rising Sun Flags. The Crown Prince’s younger brother (winner of the I’m Still In Japan Lamest-Facial-Hair-On-A-Japanese-Public-Figure Award) publicly criticized his sister-in-law: “She is failing her sacred duty to conceive!” Prime Minister Koizumi convened a special commission to look into the issue. Japan’s intellectual climate was whipped into a froth of debating and politicking: Who will be our next Homecoming King and Queen? The country waited with bated breath. Families chewed dinner through the evening news, then Dad flipped the channel to see if “Police Inspector Tamura!” was a repeat this week. Princess Masako smiled through the headaches, wondering why she had given up her diplomatic career to have an entire nation speculate on the condition of her fucking womb.

Well, Princess Masako and the rest of us can take a big sigh of relief, because, like the title said: “It’s a boy!” As usual I wasn’t exactly waiting on this news, it had to walk up and grab me. I was hurrying to work in the Ginza district of Tokyo when I had to wade through packs of camera crews picking off telegenic pedestrians. They usually don’t come out to hunt until noon, getting street interviews from office workers on lunch break and little old ladies laden with department store shopping bags. Ginza is a good area for interviews. The sidewalks are wide, the buildings look good on the screen, the people have enough money and they’ll say nice bland things for the tv. I had always felt safe as a loping and conspicuously non-Japanese pedestrian, but all bets were off the this morning: god had been born, and god was a boy. One of the reporters picked me off, and once my ability to understand and answer questions had been confirmed we launched into the first episode of Jamie: Japanese Pundit.

Q: So, are you familiar with the imperial succession issue?

A: Umm, yes.

Q: Did you know that their Imperial Highnesses Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko had conceived a child nine months ago?

A: Oh, the younger brother? Actually… no, I didn’t.

Q: Well, this morning that child was born! (Voice twinkling with excitement.)

A: Huh.

Q: Do you know what the gender of the Imperial Child turned out to be?

A: …

Q: It’s a boy! What do you think about that?

A: Well… I don’t know, I’ve always wondered what the problem with a having a female Empress is. Actually, to tell you the truth, I don’t really understand what the big deal is.

Q: Thank you so very much for your time!

By noon, everyone at work had heard I’d been on television, and they wanted to know where they could catch the first episode of Jamie: Japanese Pundit.

“I don’t know, I forgot to ask the guy what station he was. Was worried about being late.”

“Well, they probably won’t use you anyway. Just a string of old ladies saying ‘Oh, isn’t that nice...’”

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

monday morning

I was shocked awake by the sound of the sky cracking open. The initial shriek of sound snapped me awake, and I was conscious in a second or two, eyes popping open, brain screaming on, fingers clutching the sheets. Slid open the screen by the futon and the shriek faded into lower grumblings that tumbled across the whole sky, and the city felt tiny beneath it. It had come from the south. Across the river. Tokyo. That didn’t sound like any thunder I’ve heard. And the sky is glowing, deep color, like a ripe peach, not a cloud to be seen.

They say that the day that Little Boy atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, drops of thick inky liquid fell from the sky, raincoats dripping in streams of black rain. They say that when the Aum Shinrikyo cult gassed three subway cars with sarin that it took the EMS hours just to sort everyone out. They say that after Tokyo burned to the ground in the Great Earthquake of 1923 that gangs roamed the wreckage, lynching Chinese, Koreans and any foreigners they could lay their hands on.

I am not generally a paranoid person, but on that morning every one of my senses was screaming that something was very wrong as my brain tried to calm itself down. My brain decided to check what time it was, and when I flipped open my cell, there was the date right beside the “5:31 AM”: September 11, 2006. Fuck. I thought about flipping on the news, but my apartment doesn’t have a TV, a radio, it isn’t connected to the internet. I decided to stand up. I put on a pair of boxers and a t-shirt. I looked out into the streets again. A man with an umbrella and a grey suit was calmly walking towards the train station. I went to the fridge and drank some juice out of the carton. Pineapple juice. Why did I have pineapple juice? I never buy pineapple juice. And what had that noise been? The sky was bright, I didn’t even see rain. A North Korean warhead? An Al Qaeda attack, coordinated all over the world, metropolis’ crumbling? Like I said, I don’t usually think like this.

What if Tokyo was gone, what if it had been bombed? Would the news come at all? Would all the channels go blank? Last month a construction crane collided with some powerlines, and central Tokyo blacked out for three hours at the peak of rush hour, thousands of people trapped beneath the city in dead subway cars. Would friends of mine be able to get out of here? Would I be able to get out of here? Would the airports be jammed? Osaka too? Maybe I could go up to the north coast and find a ship to Russia

I was standing in front of my kitchen sink with the carton of pineapple juice in my hand when the second explosion hit. I rushed back to the window and searched the sky, which was still beautiful, clear and orange. Was that the sound of thunder? Could thunder sound like that? So sharp, so loud? It sounded like it came from far to the south, but it felt like I’d been jabbed in the chest. Should I call someone? Would they be awake too? Could they have slept through that? Were they injured? I looked out the sky and suddenly felt how tiny I was in this city, how tiny I was without the trains, without the flights home, without the phone, without the power of the city gushing to push me through it. I looked out at the city and wondered if it was dead, if the law had cracked open, who I could trust with my life. The closest I had ever come to feeling like this was five years ago, when I sat alone in my living room in Oberlin, Ohio, listening to NPR, Karl Castle’s voice shaking as he said: “We don’t know what has happened. A plane has flown into the World Trade Center. We don’t know what has happened.” The morning when you didn’t understand a thing, even from a one story house in Ohio.

As you know, Tokyo wasn’t bombed. I almost didn’t write this. It was too stupid, too neat, too perfect, too trite. Waking up to the sound of bombs on the fifth anniversary of September 11. But it happened, and it scared me shitless. I was standing on the balcony in my boxers with the carton of juice and that beautiful peach sky with my brain doubling back on itself, wondering if I was crazy and imagining things, if I should panic or if I should worry about the people I knew who lived across the river or if I should start packing bags and storing water when: the sky cracked again. The sound was a bit softer, and as I listened closely to a sound that was just thunder. There was a light hiss coming from the pavement, and as I stretched my hand out I could feel rain, a very light rain falling. Falling from that stupidly beautiful sky, and there were people walking in the streets, walking to work.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


“Oh, this must be a cheap hotel, popular with young people!” Three young Japanese men with their hair dyed strawberry blond sat around a table in the lobby, playing cards. At the other end of the room a few girls sat around looking bored and smoking cigarettes. Niigata City on a Friday night. “No Jamie, they’re not just hanging out, they’re, umm… working.” Chika had to explain this to me.

Steve and Chika had found a hotel that gave a discount to couples, very kindly not discriminating between pure Japanese couples and couples with a bit of American thrown in. Chika and Steve had located their hotel hours before, right after we’d finished lunch at a noodle shop in the mountains. While was finishing my plate of noodles they both furrowed their brows and tapped away at their mobile phones, navigating accommodation sites in a race to find the cheapest hotel. When one of them found something promising they held it out like a trophy: What do you think of this? I was the extra wheel on this trip, so I was on my own for hotels. I wonder; if I’d brought in a paid girlfriend they would have given me the couples discount?

There were no shortages of girlfriends for hire in Niigata City. Just north of the station the neighborhoods were crowded with Mahjong parlors, hotels that rented by the hour and bars where every woman in the place was on salary to pour drinks and laugh at jokes. Kind of like Hooters, except without the healthy American attitude. In Niigata a woman is appreciated for her ability to giggle politely at your worst jokes, and not simply by her breast size. Japan is a more subtle and refined nation than the United States.

After they’d checked into Hotel Green we set out to look for a place where I could stay. It was Chika who spotted the banner running down the side of a building that promised the “9 Hour Pack”. You can spend the night for a little under thirty dollars, provided you’re in after midnight and out before nine. And there were all those nice looking young people in the lobby!

We had a sushi dinner, at a good place, where they keep the counters spotless and slap the sushi right down on the wood in front of you, a few pieces at a time. It is very easy to gauge a sushi restaurant: if the slices of steamed octopus are tasteless and rubbery, it’s bad, if the slices of octopus are almost tasteless and kind of rubber-ish then you’re in for a real treat. Okay, I don’t like octopus, but there really isn’t anything like a proper sushi restaurant, the bouncy old men yelling orders and slugging down protein firecrackers of fish and vinegared rice. The oldsters are as much fun as the slabs of octopus, white meat glistening on the counter.

I came back to the hotel three minutes before twelve, and the guy at the front desk looked at me like I was nuts. “Still a few more minutes til twelve you know! Go take a walk around the neighborhood.” Business seemed slow in the lobby, all the same girls were hanging out, and he probably didn’t want me jinxing it any worse. So I took a walk around the block, flocks of girls barking jokes at one another in Chinese, Fillipino and Thai, waiting for the trains to stop running and the lonely men to come pay for their company. When I came back to the lobby the clerk said “hello” like he’d never seen me before, and slid me a piece of paper. “And do you have your passport on you?”

“No, I’m a long term resident, just my foreign registration card.”

“Well, do you mind if I photocopy that?”

“Why?” I let the peevishness creep into my voice. If they found the TV had been chucked through the window the next morning he could always contact the street address or the company I’d written on the check-in form. “Why?”

Everything paused for three seconds.

“Well, I suppose it really isn’t necessary, here’s-your-key-have-a-pleasant-evening.

Steve and Chika were leaving Japan. Steve has decided to take his obsession with Japanese novels up to the pro level and enrolled in a master’s program in Japanese Literature at the University of Washington. And Chika was going along for the ride, putting aside her acting and voice-over career to move to Seattle with this American boyfriend. Here she is in her early 30’s, well past Japanese marrying age, moving to the US with this surprising boyfriend. It’s hard not to love Steve and Chika, his twinkly eyes and enthusiasm, her twinkly eyes and enthusiasm. Steve seems like an average dude, but after a while you start to wonder how the hell he finds the time to know so much stuff, to have an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, pop culture, pro basketball and Japanese nouns. “You’ve never had kawahagi? God, it’s totally delicious.” It’d piss you off if there wasn’t an ounce of pretension in his body. We have a band where I play bass and he sings about symbiotic shrimp-fish relationships and cicada mating habits. Chika is also deceptive, you’d never guess all she knew about history and politics from that thousand dollar smile. Just about every machine in this country beeps at you in a polite and sparkling feminine voice. Chika is one of those voices, narrating over TV specials, acting in bit parts. Her work had brought her to all sorts of weird places in Japan, including Niigata city. She acts in a community theater. On the train up she had her English textbook spread across her lap while I sketched people in my notebook. She was writing a self-introduction essay in English. “I live in Tokyo. I am a member of an acting company. I will do it until I die.” I kind of have a crush on Chika. But I don’t take it personally. It’s kind of her job for people to have a crush on her.

They were spending their last few weeks bumming around the country, taking local trains, seeing friends in Hiroshima, watching TV at Chika’s Dad’s place. I’d decided to tag along for the weekend. We were headed for a taiko drumming festival on Sado-ga-shima, an island just off the north coast of Japan’s main island. Any mention of Sado is immediately followed by the comment that “political prisoners were exiled there for hundreds of years”. The picture of Sado in my head was identical to the cover of a comic book I had read as a kid, The Black Island, where intrepid boy reporter Tintin is navigating an outboard motor boat in a kilt, his faithful dog Snowy perched on the bow, a craggy black island with a castle rising out of the cold, forbidding sea. I couldn’t wait to get there.

We caught a nine-am bus to the ferry terminal, and got there to find we’d missed the ferry by five minutes. Special “Jet-Foils” took half the time and left every hour, but at around sixty dollars they were three times the price, which is just a little too much, even for a super hi-tech hydrofoil. The next ferry was in three hours, so we had plenty of time to kill. We had breakfast at a little cave of a place right inside the terminal, everything made from a dark glossy wood, and the walls crammed with all sorts of weird pagan figurines. The menu seemed unnaturally large, and the pancakes Steve and I ordered came to us in a disturbingly short amount of time, probably just the amount of time in takes to microwave a frozen pancake. I paid six dollars for a cup of instant coffee.

We had a few more hours to kill, and Steve and I decided we were going to see what kind of weird shit we could find around this shoddy little marina! Chika’s job is to get enthusiastic about pretty ordinary things, so she decided to camp out in the waiting room. We soon found the “Nautical Artifacts Room” tucked behind the souvenir shop, a dusty, unmanned little room with models of boats and those nautical steering wheels, mounted. Steve and I played the game where you had to match the aerial picture of the harbor to the correct city on the map; you pressed a little white button and the correct photograph would light up. “Damn, I can’t believe that’s Ogi, that should totally be Naoetsu!” There was a sparkling new convention center right next to the docks, and we walked over to find an ATM. “You know, Chika did the voice on the video tour of this place.”

There were three options on the ferry to Sado: 2nd Class, 1st Class and “Special Class”. In Special Class you get a room to yourself: a king sized bed with sheets, maybe some drinks in the fridge? The pictures looked very nice. In 1st class there were open rooms with wall-to-wall carpeting and you got a blanket, a pillow and a futon. In 2nd Class they still left you the carpet. People poured on the ship, taking off shoes before sprawling out on the carpeting. This all would have made sense if we were spending the night, but this ferry would take just a little over two hours to get there. Most people decided this was dead time, curling up and passing out on the carpet even though it was only noon. You wandered through room after room of bodies sprawled flat over carpets in the middle of the day, like they’d all been leveled by a gas attack.

The top deck was open air, flocks of seagulls hovering around the boat like gnats on a bull, following us as we slowly pulled out to sea. Passengers chucked potato crisps off the side of the boat, gulls catching them in mid-air. One seasoned pro simply held the chips out, and the birds would sweep down to pluck them out of his outstretched hands, literally lining up for the privilege. Walked through steerage, ears and eyes pricked up at the six white girls chatting in the corner. There was an arcade room where Steve and I dropped a few coins into boxes that let us play the same Nintendo games they were selling when I was eight years old. (First Japanese word I knew? NINTENDO!!! What does that mean? I still have no idea!)

We arrived on Sado anxious and happy, despite having failed to save the princess. I was more than a little disappointed that it just looked like a regular Japanese island, abrupt little mountain-hills covered in green, air thick, chewy and hot, nothing cold, forbidding, black or Siberian about it the place. Looks like a nice enough place to serve out your banishment, I’ve seen a lot worse in this country. Or maybe those old Japanese lords were just nice to the enemies whose heads they didn’t lop off. The festival was on the other side of the island, we had to catch a bus to get there. This festival is actually kind of a big deal, as the lady at the ticket counter let me know. “We usually don’t run busses direct from one end of the island to the other, but we’re running temporary busses for the festival.” We got our tickets, piled on the bus. There was an older woman in tight stewardess dress and cap who stood at the front of the bus and gave us a little fifteen minute informational speech where she literally repeated every sentence three times before she moved onto the next. It boiled down to: this is a special temporary bus running for the festival, no stops before we get there. It was mostly non-Japanese on the bus, so it was nice to see her concern for us by with her painfully clear enunciation and incessant repetition, but it wasn’t much help. The six white girls sitting behind me whispered together in a rainbow of accents. “Did she say this bus is headed to the festival?” “What does rinji-basu mean?” “Yeah, she said that a lot.” “I think it means this is a special bus for the festival.” “Oh.” I spent the whole ride working on my eavesdropping skills, listening to these six lovely girls each with their own lovely melody of a voice: Australia, New Zealand, London, middle-America, Ireland, New England.

“Oh isn’t this island just love-ly, looks just like parts of England, you know? The little winding roads and all.”

“Except for the rice fields though, right? Not too many of those in England I bet.”

“S’pose you’re right, probably just be moahs or something.”

“Moah? Oh, a moor, like in Jane Austen, right.”

“What is a moor exactly? Like a field?”

“Oh hell, what’s a moor anyway? I guess it’s uncultivated, like a meadow, but… rougher, you know? Like… a moor.”

I could have listened to these voices talk about this stuff all day but they moved onto talk shop, or however much you could talk shop as a public school English teacher in Niigata. They don’t give you much to do, so the girls mostly talked about all the strategies used to make sure you get all of your vacations days.

Christ, this is it? A huddle of booths and vendors in a small harbor town? Hippies selling each other hand made hippie accessories, a woman offering Aryuvedic healing, artists displaying their pottery and calligraphy. Foreigners all over the place, all manner of Japanese hippies. Huh. I should have known from the name: “Earth Celebration”. A Japanese festival with an English name. Earth Celebration.

I tend to rag on hippies, but only because I used to be one, buying the whole package: the fashion, the pot, the music, the silly iconography. I used to get high at jam band concerts, then do readings from “Through The Looking Glass” in the parking lot to very forgiving crowds of people. Gimme a break, I was fourteen. You can say a lot about hippies, but they sure can be nice, so I tend to have a lot of hippie friends. Two minutes off the bus and I ran into one. She was more a hippie in spirit than fashion, had done part time waitressing at a cafĂ© where I’d worked in the kitchen, I remember her being obsessed with seeds. We saved all the seeds that came out of the kitchen just for her, she took them home to collect and grow, like baseball cards.

She had actually come up with a few more seed geeks, my friends Ai and Kami. They live out in the mountains somewhere, with a stream and a vegetable patch and a little white van. Ai works a few days a week at an organic importing company, Kami has his own business. He sells seeds. Non-GMO, all natural little seeds that come in brown paper envelopes. It’s scary, but there is no one else doing this in Japan. If you want to grow plants whose DNA hasn’t been shaken and steroided up in a test tube, Kami is your only choice, this quiet smiling guy who hasn’t even reached thirty. These guys are great. They don’t really look like hippies. But they hugged me when we said hello, which is a pretty good litmus test for hippies in Japan.

All this, and we’d just come for the music.

We met in front of the local shrine about an hour before the concert and some people wearing “Event Staff” t-shirts and little plastic megaphones split us into groups. One by one the groups would disappear behind the shrine. Behind the shrine was a dizzyingly steep paved road that wound up the forest, hippies and little old ladies heaving deep breaths, crawling up the 45 degree slope. The path was lined with hanging paper lanterns, each one individually painted with poetry or calligraphy, brush drawings of devils or spirits or women, or men. Like we’d been invited over for a party and they’d spent time a little extra time on making decorations. How nice.

The music was not very nice. The music was… supernatural. A wide grassy clearing in the middle of the woods, stage at one end, whole string sections of cicadas swelling out in the darkness beyond the glade. When the drumming group Kodo first took the stage at first you could barely make out the sounds of drums over the harsh cicada symphonies going on in the darkness: you just saw a dozen figures on a dimly lit stage, their arms whirring, no sound. Then a faint high pitched whirring, growing a bit louder and louder, until the flickering sound began to meld with the cicada sounds all around us. Something slithered up my back.

The name of Kodo comes from the characters for “drum” and “child”, as in “Children of the Drum”. An explanation of the name is always accompanied by the phrase “they seek to play drums with the pure heart of a child.” That may be true, but I have never seen a child that could drum like this. The drums themselves were massive, some of them the size of small cars, carved from the trunks of giant pines from up north. The group literally threw themselves at these enormous chunks of wood, tiny little bodies scurrying around, whacking them all over with thick wooden sticks. Distorted splashes of hand cymbals, snapping little drums held from the waist. And then there was the grandfather, this elephant of a drum that let out a sub-sonic boom when it was struck. At times the entire group would begin to yell, voices crawling out over the drums. If the music hadn’t been so furious you would have spent all your time wondering at those bodies, marathon runner physiques squeezing every muscle in a supreme effort to coax a sound out of the wooden Volkswagens. At one time they played lying down, legs under the drum, torso angled up in a kind of half sit-up, both arms flailing on the drum-skin, squeezing their stomachs to keep themselves at that 30 degree angle.

Then it was over. You kind of blinked, maybe clapped and realized you couldn’t really think straight for the beating of your heart. I looked over at Steve, whose face was positively glowing. “Oh. My god. I think they just took this thing up to a whole new level.”

Kodo is a ball of anachronisms. The group emerged out of a commune that began on Sado Island in the 60’s, and in addition to agriculture and communal living studied traditional Japanese folk music, especially those drums. By the 1980’s they had started performing abroad at various world music festivals. By the 1990’s they were touring eight months out of the year, and had played at the Acropolis and Carnegie Hall. “I’ve played at Carnegie Hall,” Steve said as we were poking around the gift shop, scoping out books and CDs.

“You what?”

“My high school choir. We were kinda well known. Played Carnegie Hall.” He said it in the same voice that some people say “I’ve been to New York.”

That night everyone pretty slept on the beach, tents spread out on the sand. Our immediate neighbors had gotten up early to go diving for shellfish, and now the massive shells were sitting on a rack over an open fire, sizzling next to thick cuts of pork and eggplant. Farther down the beach some folks had dug a fire pit and were whacking on drums, the usual mishmash of African djembe, Turkish dumbek, Japanese taiko, the sounds pushed louder and softer by the wind. Three or four people seemed to know what they were doing but the rest just kind of smacked on the skins and maybe figured they’d pick it up eventually. Everybody has a beating heart, everyone is a drummer. But not everybody knows how how to practice.

And not just anyone is a traditional drumming commune where practice sessions go for hours, where the day starts with group runs along the beach through the frigid surf, where every member is allotted their own rice paddy to cultivate and care for, where you eat, drink, sleep, breathe with your band mates. Scrambling after a kind of hyper-awareness, a sensitivity, a better understanding of just what this all adds up to. They’re not trying to be farmers or luddites or full musicians, they’re looking for a kind of honesty: the most honest work, the most honest music, the most honest life. The members submit themselves to that ideal, on stage they disappear into flurries of motion, no center, no focus, just sound of the drums, groaning.

Many of us strive to live honest lives, those of us camped out on the beach here, trying our best with these drums and these bonfires, these cans of beer and plastic bags of potato chips to make us simple, happy, satiated. I suppose these guys I see, egging each other on before leaping over the bonfire, they want to be honest, but they also want something else. Kodo plunges after honesty like an army, here on the beach we tumble after it like toddlers grasping at shoelaces. But no matter how many rice fields they tend or sit-ups they do, could Kodo ever match the desperation that made this music? When those brown knotty bodies came out from the rice paddies, the muscles hard from whole lives of bent backs, bitter winters, dead babies, when they came out to dance the summer solstice, came out to dance the harvest festival, did they ever doubt the music? Did they ever doubt it’s truth, their own truth, or were they left wondering that there was something missing? Did they ever think that, maybe, this wasn’t all real enough?

The next day we sat by the harbor among the booths of fried noodles and vegetarian burritos. There was one skinny old maniac with dark red-brown skin, sunglass and a top hat, making mango cocktails in a blender. His hoarse voice scraped out over the terrible sounds of ice and juice bouncing off the metal blades. MangomangomangomangomangoMANGO! OK! Sreee! Tsu! Wan! MANGO! It’s a MANGO! Please. We drank beers from plastic cups and watched the scheduled acts that wandered on and off the grass stage. Some guy played a guitar and sang an original composition about peace that sounded like the mango man’s blender. A man who looked tanned down to his kidneys played a few songs on his mouth harp. He was selling them over at his tent if anyone was interested. I especially enjoyed the display from the local karate dojo. A rainbow of belts stood in straight lines, punching and kicking the air in unison. They lined up first graders and hard them break pine boards. When the boards wouldn’t break on the first or second try the sensei would run over and guide the kid’s foot through the board with his hands. The girls who had played the lovely madrigal of accents on the bus the day before sat to our right in pretty smiles and sandals and sunglasses, talking about nothing.

Kodo played again that night. Well, actually, Kodo and special guest “Urban Tap” played that night. Well, actually, Urban Tap had played the night before, with special guest “Kodo.” The thing is, Urban Tap is not very interesting, and I don’t want to write about them, I want to write about Kodo. So I’m changing parts of the story. I will say this: Urban Tap is a tap dancer with some drummers and a trumpet player and a saxophone player and this guy who breakdanced and this girl who dances, but I didn’t really want to see them. I wanted to see the Japanese drummers with the fabulous abs.

Steve bought a bottle of local sake, “They had some really dope junmaishu, this shit is gonna be awesome”, we sat in the dark with our knees up to our chest, taking swigs from the brown bottle and watching the miracles on the stage. There were two or three encores, I don’t really remember. I think they ran out of material and played the same song twice.

Steve and Chika saw me down to the docks, down to my bus. I was riding overnight to Tokyo, off to work in the morning, they were still on vacation. We hugged and nodded, skin thick with sun and sand heads thick with drink, waving our goodbyes. The bus rolled onto the ferry, and off the island.

A week later Steve and Chika came to Tokyo for a farewell party. People started to give speeches. Here is my speech at Steve and Chika’s loosely translated from the Japanese:

Steve is… I haven’t even known Steve for a year but… Steve… is…. There were lots of friends. We were going to hot spring town, Christmas! It was hotel. Steve. Because… one night, Christmas Tree! We stole many things on Christmas Eve! The next day everyone wakes up! But… the night before, Steve and I make Christmas Tree! And… steal… things. It is Christmas. Steve is a... Santa Claus.

And then everyone clapped.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Okay, yeah, that took me entirely too long. The thing stretched out to twenty-seven single spaced pages in Microsoft Word, and for what? A few notes on a vacation? A million times during the whole thing I wondered: "the longest single blog entry to date, and it's just an account of a five day trip, without much of an purpose

This was basically me taking a crack at travel writing, trying myself against Alan Booth's "The Roads to Sata" and Will Ferguson's "Hokkaido Highway Blues", which are two of my favorite books, not just about modern Japan, but about life and loneliness. It was me tackling that whole form of travel writing, the little figure wandering through huge landscapes, hoping a pattern or something will fall out of it. I can't hold it up against any serious writing, but when I look at the stuff I wrote last year I can't help but think it was better than that stuff.

The whole thing could definitely use some editing and I should probably prune it down, but the idea was to just get in finished. So there it is, about three months after the fact, still pockmarked with weird grammar and typos. I'll try to be more brief from here on out.
Promise. Thanks for sticking through this.


a golden week (VI.)


Nagano was overflowing, so I decided to give up on mountains and just find a place where there weren’t so many damned people. I hadn’t come all the way out here just to hang out with the same jokers that sweated and farted up my morning train. I’d had enough of Tokyo people.

I spent the next two days with Hiroshi. Hiroshi had come from Tokyo, and he looked it. He wore his clothes carefully, his backpack was covered in elaborate straps. He born in Aomori, a cold, forbidding, mumbling prefecture, famous for apples. I can do a pretty good imitation of an Aomori accent by speaking standard TV Japanese while eating a bowl of oatmeal. Brings down the house everytime, even in Aomori.. Aomori is kind of like the Idaho of Japan, the nerd so thoroughly and unashamedly himself that he’s actually kind of cool. But not really. And Aomori has apples, not potatoes.

So Hiroshi from Idaho walked up while I was squinting at a large board with a map printed on it. But we weren’t in Idah… Aomori, we were in Naoetsu, on the north coast of Japan, winds from China rattling the shutters.

I learned a few things about Hiroshi. 1) He was a university student in Tokyo, and he looked normal enough. 2) He’d never been here before either, was traveling for Golden Week. 3) Yeah, he liked to travel, he’d done two weeks in the states by himself, had been to see the Grand Canyon. 4) He’d arrived at the Grand Canyon without enough money for lodging, so he decided to sleep outside, the check-in clerk pointing him to the warmest group of rocks in the area. 5) The first night he did this he was bitterly cold and the second night a pack of coyotes smelled the beef jerky he was eating for dinner, so danced and screamed til the early morning hours to keep them at bay. 6) He had once left his disposable contacts on, day and night, for two months. "Don’t ever try that," he told me seriously. "You know you can damage your eyes that way?"

I met Hiroshi ten minutes after arriving in Naoetsu, and we quickly bonded over our shared lack of common sense. My reasons for getting off here were about as carefully considered as my desire to go to Kamikochi because of frog-sprites and cave baths: the three characters in Nao-e-tsu all had a beautiful symmetry, each one a series of strokes balanced on a vertical axis, like branches off a pine tree. It was also ten o’clock at night and the very end of the line. Right here the train line running north bumped into the Japan Sea, splitting into an east-west line than hugged the coast.

If Kamikochi was the roof of Japan, this felt like the back-door. Japan’s population tends to run along the Pacific coast, facing out into the world’s largest ocean. Somehow this little sea that divides Japan from Asia always looks darker and colder than the vastness of the Pacific. Bitter winds blow across this ocean from Asia, and sixty years ago Japan made a choice and turned their back on them, eyes turned across the ocean to America. More than once I have been told in all seriousness that “Japan is not an Asian country.” This seems to me like the Minnesotan living in New York, swallowing their accent and hiding their high school yearbook. This cold northern sea is the gap between what they were and what they want to be, it faces towards everything the country would rather not think about. Out across the Pacific anything seems possible, out here everything is wrapped in bad memories and old grudges.

I didn’t see much of Naoetsu, it was a rows of dark shuttered shops that dissolved into the full inky blackness of the ocean. I hadn’t expected so… little. One side of the station was a small pool of yellow light with two or three hotels with worried lobbies and shocking prices. The other side was black. Hiroshi approached me as I stood squinting at a public map of the area, a graph of little gray squares. “Where are you staying tonight?” he asked with a refreshing directness. I said the hotels were out of my range, so I was going to check out the green blotches on the map and see if I could find a patch of ground for a sleeping bag. He said his plans hadn’t gone farther than finding a relatively flat bench. We shook hands, spent thirty minutes wandering Naoetsu, and promptly decided to leave.

Hiroshi and I didn’t have much in common besides our aimlessness and our lack of planning. We took the last train to an hour or so down the coast, found a city only marginally brighter, found that every hotel in our budget had been fully booked months in advance, got beers at an all night bar, talked life stuff, country differences, regretted not packing warm enough clothes. There were at least a dozen people hunched in corners around the station, heads resting on duffel bags and briefcases, Golden Week travelers who had missed trains and been stranded here as well. Our conversation didn’t seem to have enough staying power to keep us up all not, so we found our own corners and joined them. And then the monsters came out.

I have never heard voices like this. These were voices warped, scraping, furious, full of bile, the voices of animals mad with pain, cartoon villains filtered through bad acid and paranoia the screams of a mind gnawing on itself. As the voices grew closer I could begin to distinguish one from the other. One had the shrieking quality of nails and blackboards, tearing sheet metal, cats rutting and fighting, high, shrieking. One more (were there two?) was a broken speaker, distorted bass amp shaking a box of nails, goats dying, every rut and pothole in his throat shattering syllables. Hiroshi and I looked at each other. “What in the hell is that?”

That was a shuffling shadow moving through the dark corners barking at coffee cans and people huddled against the walls. A stumbly shadow of a man and trailing it was a shrieking little harpy: ropy gray hair, tiny little body. “What are they saying?” I asked Hiroshi. The rhythms were Japanese, but the syllables poured out as pure sounds. “I have no idea. But it has to be Japanese, right?” The shadow heard us speaking and moved over to crouch in front of Hiroshi. It crouched against the light, a black outline, turned its head straight towards Hiroshi, breathed in and spit out a howl that seemed to last for hours. Hiroshi took the standard Japanese response to the insane or the annoying: blank indifference. The shadow got up after the roar and dragged itself outside onto the pavement, the avian little witch twittering around him, voice of broken bottles. I have never heard anything so soaked in terror, have never heard anything so desperate.

* * *

The morning came, we left on the first train. The night before I hadn’t felt fear so much as… awe. Awe at the human animal; broken, half-finished creature, grasping at the apples swaying in his mind, stumbling on the stones at his feet. Awe at the weird binding of men and women, of the things that burst out of their couplings. A lone maniac is a burst of flame in the darkness, but a couple is an infinite amplification, a circuit of emotions, a positive feedback loop.

I don’t know what they were but I know what they felt like: old and evil ghosts, wailing helplessly out of the past. They were just ghosts: their violence was all gurgling cartoon voices, their hands would pass right through us. But they could scream. Christ, they could scream,. These were not the polite shuffling creatures from the cities, the downsized and the despairing men and women building cardboard huts under bridges, curling out of sight. These were spirits from the fields and the mountains scratching on this new concrete world in a blind terror.

I know, it was just a poor old couple from the country, weird on age and time and liquor, but those voices brushed on something huge.


Hiroshi and I ended up in Kanazawa, which is the loveliest city in all of Japan, but maybe that’s just me. It’s the Japan I wished for before I arrived, a clean little city between the sea and the mountains, wandering little streets of wooden houses, hunchbacked old women with twinkly faces thronging the fish market, school children screaming and pointing at white people. Everything you could want in a Japanese city. It is also one of the few cities in the country that seriously values its architecture, preserving the old stately town houses with their tile roofs and stark little gardens, preserving the stone Prussian government buildings from the 19th century, and lining its downtown with boutiques of glass. We arrived just as the sun was sprinkling onto the mountains, walked through the temples and parks terraced along the hill. In late morning we walked down to the center of the city where a large glass circle sat in the middle of a park like a coin dropped in the grass. It was Kanazawa’s 21st Century Art Museum, and today it was open free to the public, kids tumbling around ear trumpet lawn sculptures, old men tapping canes on benches, a DJ in a goatee and a cap spinning music, young and beautiful people dancing. Downtown everything was on sale, and I found a pair of jeans for two dollars. That night we found a rowdy little place with local sake, local food, and local people getting thoroughly toasted. The local specialty: Transparent tadpole-size fish swimming frantically in a bowl of chilled soup broth. You eat them alive, crushing the wriggling bodies between your teeth. They didn’t taste like anything, so I guess that it’s all about the texture, frantic tails tickling gums, the sadistic crunching away of those little slivers of life, breathing in their last, frantic moments. A taste of evil in Japan’s golden city.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

a golden week V.


Humans recreating in the great outdoors can be divided into two main types: Waddlers and Gearheads. I formulated this theory on the first day of Golden Week, when I passed a big enough chunk of humanity to get a pretty decent estimate. The quiet, carefully tended trails I had hiked along the day before were now simply overflowing with people desperate for nature, vacation, relaxation. Clans of two or three tubby generations drifted up the trail while smartly attired alpinists fumed behind them. People of every age were spilling around all over the place, tripping on rock, roots, ice and each other. Mostly each other. The last time I had seen this many people cramming through small spaces was… two days before, on my rush hour train out from Tokyo. Now they were all in their weekend attire, suited up and ready for some fun! What kind of fun depended on whether you were a Waddler or a Gearhead.

For the Waddlers, fun was pretty simple: scoop the kids into the car, head for the mountains, concentrate on doing nothing for a few days. Fun is the reverse image of work: it is sauntering along a gently sloped mountain trail in soft clothing, relatives scampering all around you. You alternately sip the crisp clean mountain air and the crisp clean beer you brought along for the morning stroll. The stream is sparkling, your children are screaming, your mom is still spry enough to keep up with everyone, the heaviest matter on your mind is lunch. You lazily observe your first born son using all his ten year old arm strength to thwack a skinny little branch against the snowdrifts. You’ve finished the can of beer and wonder whether to carry it all the way up the trail or to toss it discreetly behind an evergreen for a ranger to pick up later. But with all these people around… maybe just wait for a waste bin ten minutes up.

Gearheads know that fun isn’t quite that simple. Fun is elusive, it has to be tracked, spotted, wrestled to the ground. At any rate, fun is out there, maybe up somewhere where the air is thin and the trails prone to falling away beneath your feet, so best to armor yourself appropriately and efficiently. Gearheads are equipped for maximum efficiency: bags packed with synthetic lightweight apparel, rubber hoses snaking out of their backpacks to deposit water directly to their mouths, packs, gators and baseball caps helpfully emblazoned with brand logos to shave off seconds of valuable conversation time. Don’t want to spend all day chit-chatting about pack straps and cubic centimeters of stuff sacks. Of course not, we’re here to enjoy the mountains!

Waddlers drape their bodies in shapeless bags of soft, invitingly rippable cotton, they travel in family based packs or tour groups, matching scarfs wrapped around their necks for easy identification.

Gearheads travel solo or in small units of two or three, a few college buddies, a newly married couple,

You think I’m taking this a bit far, don’t you? Sprucing up the story, smooshing hundreds of lovely individuals into caricatures that at best describe their taste in clothes. But within my first five minutes on the trail this idea popped into my head, and it kept on snowballing the more people I passed. As a firm believer in the scientific method I submitted my theory to rigorous testing, silently judging every person I walked by. Waddler, waddler, waddler, GEARHEAD! Waddler, oh, now there. is. a. Waddler. At least he’s considerate enough to ash his cigarette in his used beer can. And a Gearhead…

Out of a random sampling of what I am estimating to be several hundred people (I told you it was crowded), I only found two specimens that refused categorization. One was a family of five Gearheads that had walked out of a television commercial, the photogenic father stooping to explain a bit of geology to his eager young progeny, a gurgling little blob strapped to his back, young healthy wife beaming at all of them. The other was a man in his early thirties with a serene expression, a walking staff and a bell clanging from the back of his rucksack to let the bears know he was coming. He was the only serious looking hiker I spotted whose equipment looked seriously used, but had clearly been well cared for: pants carefully patched, Italian leather hiking boots polished smartly. Thinking back on it there wasn’t a single logo on him. He probably felt terrible.

At first I thought you could explain away the difference by money or jobs, but from the few people I talked to it didn’t come out that clearly. The Gearheads were all over the place: a brisk and tidy executive at Goldman Sachs, a floor worker at an auto-parts factory, a dentist. The Waddlers I met included a middling looking office worker and his sour looking family, a bank teller with two plump and rosy little girls, and a construction worker with hair died the color of golden retriever with his tanned young wife. They insisted on giving me a 10 am slug from their flask. We compromised at a dainty little sip.

The Gearheads seemed to be more economically diverse than I had imagined, while the Waddlers only varied from navy to sky blue collars. But it seems to me that any Waddler with the cash would buy their way out of the crowd, find a nice secluded villa in a vallery somewhere: deep cushioned sofas, a fridge stocked with beer, massive living room windows that frame a dramatic line of mountains, peaks leaping up and down like a cardiogram.

For a good two hours I was the only person I saw walking down from the mountains, pressing against the great surge heading back into them. I spent the time honing my powers of stereotyping and social sciencing until I found the sign that pointed me the way I needed to go.

The night before I’d stayed up with a few folks at the Tokusawa Lodge, planning a route for someone with ambitions of climbing mountains and stupid enough to have left his boots at home. I heard all about the valley getting flooded with people and decided to leave it behind me, so we settled on a slender little route that took me over some of the milder little mountains to the south, out of the valley and right onto the road I’d come come in on.

Turned out the most dangerous thing about the hike were the mud patches. I didn’t see a soul the whole time I was there, just a faint little trail winding through the evergreens, all manner of birds tweeting and whooping at full throttle, all of them tipsy on the brisk spring air, screeching out their personal ads. It’s fucking spring! This is my tree! This is one virile male with plumage like you’ve never seen! Virile male virile male virile maaaaale!

I broke a sweat clambering up the incline at a swift pace; after two hours of sludgy traffic I was anxious to test my horsepower on the open road, and scrambling up one little slope I lost traction and dropped four feet down the trail, a mud patch slurping my right pants. On the way down I passed a stream and stripped to my undies for two minutes to wash off the muck that had started to dry on them. My legs were getting goosebumps in the mountain air, and when I slipped the slacks back on the icy right leg clung to me like a poltergeist. Gehhhh. Luckily, I am half gearhead, and my cheap looking slacks were made from some synthetic materials that dry unnaturally fast, and don’t need any more prompting than body heat. (I had bought them in a clearance sale six years before at a department store in Kyoto, the clerk’s face lighting up when he saw my pink Caucasian face. “I am…” he labored, “Bon Jovi fan! Bon Jovi!” That’s all he felt moved to say, and once he’d gotten it off his chest he very calmly gave me change for the slacks.)

After an hour or so of traipsing around the woods by myself, drinking up the space like the Takasaki drunks from the night before, I burst back into civilization. Civilization was a two lane strip of highway with holiday traffic of cars, vans and tour buses whizzing in both directions at impressive speeds. Most of them seemed to be carrying pop eyed faces of people gawking at a skinny white man who had popped out into a stretch of road that was at least forty or fifty kilometers near to anything you could call a town. I sucked in my courage and stuck out my thumb.

Hitchhiking is a lost art, something that Americans probably associate more with serial killers than the freedom of the open road. In the late 1970’s the bodies of dozens of hitchhikers were found mutilated by the side of the road. By the time the police and the media had the Freeway Killer case sorted out it they were left with not one, not two, but three Freeway Killers who had all operated independently of each other, unaware that anybody else shared their hobby of picking up perfect strangers and then savaging their bodies until their souls simply gave up and left. Not one, not two, but three. Based on pure anecdotal evidence I’m guessing hitchhiking somewhat survived through the 1970’s, carried on by generations that had grown up with it, but by the time I came along they were cranking out instructional videos that taught kids “The Honk.” The idea behind “The Honk” is that kids screaming for help sounds a lot like kids crying for ice cream or playing tag, and a much better way to get people’s attention is to press your hands to your stomach and emit a firm, confident HOOOOOOOONK. My third grade friends and I decided we would rather be remembered as that poor little brutally murdered child than as the boy who honked to live.

I could hardly believe the stories when I came to Japan. Friends who had traveled the breadth of the archipelago without settling for a single train, the guy who hitchhiked to work almost every single day, even hitchhiking contests ; packs of foreigners racing from A to B on waves trucks, sedans and two-doors. Possibly my all time favorite book on modern Japan is “Hokkaido Highway Blues”, Will Ferguson’s rippingly funny account of his three month journey along the full length of Japan totally on the strength of his thumbs. I had stumbled upon a lovely little byproduct of Japan’s infatuation with all things Western: free rides anywhere on the archipelago! And no serial killers! The only charge of admission was a face that did not look noticeably Asian –Will Ferguson’s advice to Asian-American hitchhikers: write your destination sign in English— and a friendly, non-threatening demeanor. More advice from Will Ferguson: when hitching give a shy, apologetic smile, as if you would never be doing something like this under normal circumstances.

This landed me a ride within minutes. I had walked a bit down the road to a nice long stretch with a decent shoulder where the cars would have plenty of time to see me, decide what to do, and have enough space to pull over. The blue Subaru station wagon stopped about fifty yards up the road in a sputter of dust, and I trotted up to meet my serial killers.

They were Hiro and Toshi, two local outdoor bums vaguely in their late 20’s, both with smooth coffee skin and ponytails. We got going once we worked out where I was going and what language we were going to speak in (they attempted to say absolutely everything in a weirdly broken English they’d picked up from compulsory high school classes and hanging out with surfer dudes in Australia.) They were anxious to get at some of the fresh fields of spring snow: you could hike right up to a virgin slope and ski down to the bottom, provided you were willing to carry up your skis with you. They were.

Toshi had just started on his hitchhiking in Australia story when we arrived. We did a screeching halt, scattered dust and pebbles, got a few horn blasts from cars swerving around us. I piled out and Hiro and Toshi disappeared up into the highland valley, dissolving with all the other gearheads. I don’t know if it really counted as hitchhiking, since I was in and out in ten minutes. There was no question of walking: every inch of the road had been scraped, carved or blasted out of the cliffs, I felt a little selfish asking for a sidewalk too.

I had been dropped off by a shack that was delicately perched between a fifty foot gorge and the black gaping mouth of a tunnel boring straight through the base of a mountain. This was the only paved road up to Kamikochi, the highland valley I had just hiked down from. Right on this narrow little strip between the mountains and the river gorge a bridge, a tunnel and two skinny mountain highways smooshed into each other. There were two men with buttoned blue uniforms and orange cone sticks who checked traffic for the proper stickers: only authorized vehicles could drive up to the roof of Japan. I wouldn’t want just anybody driving around on my roof either.

I could have stood there all day looking at this weird little house that looked like it was trying to gather up courage to jump into the gorge, but given I had a meager three feet between the door and the traffic I had to scurry inside. The whole place was probably the size of your living room, but they managed to fit quite a bit inside. There was a functional little kitchen, a heavy wooden table for eight or ten people depending on how tiny they happened to be, and shelves positively dripping with souvenirs. Even here, at the ends of the earth, there were five people on benches round the table, sipping tea and ogling all the stuff to buy. A little run off from the humanity that was slowly flooding the valley in polo shirts and North Face sportswear. Rats, I thought I would be the only one here for the cave bath.

A hurried man with a baseball cap and rough dark skin plopped me down at the big wooden monster in the middle of the room that ate up space and conversation. He hurried back to the little kitchen nook and started to dice spring onions, then remembered me again and hurried out to pour a cup of brown tea from the hot thermos. “Take as many as you want.”

Traveling as a frame of mind is all very nice, you open yourself to the Oz-ness of the world, your notebook fills up with notes and sketches, you take too many photographs, you try to make them good enough not to bore everyone afterwards. But I suppose you also need things to push you along, little details to get you out the door. I’ve read the books, I know the score. I’ve got my hand straight in the air, Life Lessons 101 is in session, and the teacher is looking for someone to call on. It isn’t the destination, it’s the journey! I had to choose a few little markers to aim for. So the cave bath it was.

A cave folded into the walls of a sixty foot gorge like a forgotten jeans pocket, walls dripping with minerals, water gurgling red with iron deposits. I admit it, I’d come out to Nagano for a bath. Are you surprised that I was kind of disappointed? I was. I mean, everything was there. A wooden Bilbo Baggins kind of door in the cliffs, the little wooden changing room, mats of dried reeds hanging for curtains, you could peek out between them to see the river crashing around fifty feet below, then slip your gangly little body deeper into the cave, into the steaming crimson bath that tastes like blood.

It sounds awesome when I write it down. It’s impossible to make it sound bad, the natural hot spring deep in the craggy mountains. It makes a great story, you can sit there and think: adventure! But you know, it was just a bath. I kept on wanting to turn up the temperature, give the walls a kick and let out a little more geothermal energy. I was like the freshman virgin with their hand up in English class. Well… I think what Lawrence is trying to tell us is that sex is like death.

So let me tell you what really hit me. I sauntered back to the little hut, gave the owner the key and paid for my thirty minutes of cave bath. The couple behind me in line sported the most incredible Osaka accents: a forty-ish man with the clothes and the posture of money, sunglasses on inside and out, a hard looking woman in her late twenties who did enough talking for both of them. They walked off to their bath, towels slung across shoulders, and I was left with my pack, the little man scurrying with the dishes, the massive wooden table, the walls of dusty souvenirs. I was anxious to get on and try the hitchhiking again, but I was afraid that another Hiro and Toshi would try a sixty-to-zero maneuver, cars screaming and flying into gorges. So the frantic little man in the baseball cap looked up bus times for me and then poured me another cup of tea. It was just me and him now, the little guy scrubbing pots and me just sipping tea. “Umm… do you need any help?” I asked. Hell, I always feel weird just sitting around when the host is fussing over you. Even if you’re paying him. Even if you don’t know his name.

He looked up. “Are you serious?” Nodded yes. “I’m almost done, really.” But I’d already made the offer, so…

He had pretty much finished up, but I scrubbed up a few noodle plates and wipe out a few tea cups. He’d shrugged his agreement and here we were, elbow to elbow, scrubbing pots and watching each other silently out of the corner of our eyes.. Just after I’d started one of the traffic guards came in from the road, patting the dust off his blue uniform, laying his stiff visored cap on the counter. It smelled of car exhaust. He reached to the shelves heaped with dusty souvenirs and pulled out a styrofoam bowl packed with instant noodles, less than half the price of a plate of local buckwheat noodles. He’d worked out the change in his pocket and put down the exact amount on the counter in a single pile, helped himself to the thermos of hot water, split a set of chopsticks over the meal. By then we were done with the dishes and sitting on either side of him at the counter.

It was funny. Here the traffic guard was still in uniform, the cook still had an apron on, but these men didn’t look at all like their jobs. They looked like… individuals. This man made soba noodles for tourists, that man stood in a dusty street and checked the stickers on cars. But that as just what they did, it wasn’t who they were. It had been ages since I’d seen that. Human beings more than their jobs. The shop man only let the scurrying seep in so far, under all that he had a gruff little life that was all his own, the traffic guard let that blue suit take all the dust.

It was Children’s Day. For reasons unclear to me, on this day people chew on sweet buns of pounded rice, each one wrapped in a pickled leaf. Like they need an excuse to chew on sweet buns. The shop owner pulled out a tray of them, and we munched away, three deep at the counter, the clerk, the guard and the tourist, eating cakes on the roof of Japan.