Tuesday, May 30, 2006

a golden week (II.)

II. The Wrong City

I’d made a promise to let the trip determine itself, and to simply walk onto the first train to pull up to the platform. This happened to be the local bound for Takasaki, which was just fine by me. I’d only had the pleasure of visiting Takasaki once before, and all I’d seen was the inside of the station.

I’d been spending the night as a straight tourist at the gay bars in Tokyo, and after I’d kissed my tour guide off at his station I boarded the first train home and promptly fell asleep among the all-nighters, alcohol leaking from our pores. When the conductor gently shook me awake I awoke two prefectures and three hours away from Tokyo, in a broad and shiny station twinkling in the Sunday morning sunshine. Small groups of retirees walked around purposefully in sensible wide brimmed hats and nattered about how clean the air was. I blinked through my hangover and asked a twinkly-eyed woman of about sixty which train would take me back to civilization. I nodded off on the way back, head jumped with weird dreams of old women with bandannas neatly wrapped around their necks gossiping among throngs of Japanese homosexuals bumping and grinding to old Madonna hits.

This time the trip was done at rush hour, awake and sober, which was good, since I needed all my strength to ignore the briefcase wedged into my buttocks and the foreheads rubbed into my armpits. At each stop we would all heave and gasp as a few more passengers seeped out; a belt loosening itself, one hole at a time. After an hour or so the car had emptied down to myself, a few locals, and two Canadians loaded with shopping bags filled with personal electronics. The motherboard apartment blocks faded away and the stretches between stops turned pitch black; a full, rich country darkness that felt weird and primal. This was the way nighttime is supposed to look, but live in Tokyo too long and your sense of the natural world starts to loosen. There is currently a massive ad campaign for canned coffee which involves a popular television actor sipping the stuff in a twinkling forest grove, snuggled next to a grizzly bear three times his size.

I usually only crack into my book once I’ve finished reading every train advertisement around me, so once I’d gotten over the fact that the night sky outside was a real, full on dark, I turned my attention to all the lovely little advertisements around me. Out here it seemed like half the things were ploys to get you to leave Gunma and come to the big city, where there were a lot more things to buy. Special Weekend Pack train deals, a holiday sale at the Tobu department store, a Monet exhibit at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum… The only local ad I saw was for a shiny new housing development whose biggest selling points were it’s natural hot springs and the convenience of being a mere 150 minute train ride from Tokyo staion.

Two stops before the end of the line I interrupted the Canadian couple. Graham and Amy were English teachers at a small English language school in a scrawny little city twenty minutes past Takasaki. They’d done the Tokyo weekend: taken the Special Weekend Pack, bought digital cameras in Akihabara, had dinner in a restaurant overlooking the bay, spent the night on love-hotel hill in Shibuya. They were still blinking from their two days in Tokyo, where a white person can sip Spanish sherry in a corner bistro or read Jane Austen in the park, and no one will look at you twice. Now they were glumly trudging back to work over the holidays in Gunma, a rather pretty prefecture with a name that sticks in your mouth worse than peanut butter.

Maybe they felt their home needed a little more zest, so they told me that “Gunma has the most English teachers of any prefecture in Japan!” This was said with the same dubious pride as a Kiwi telling you that sheep outnumber people in New Zealand. I haven’t seen the numbers, but it seemed like a bit of semantic gerrymandering to me. Tokyo is a “capital” and Osaka and Kyoto are “urban prefectures” which pretty much knocks out all the heavy competition, giving Gunma a nice clear shot at the top prize. Celebrations ripple all across Gunma’s English education community, plaques and handshakes in every office.

They’d only been here five months, but did they know a cheap place I could spend the night in Takasaki? Without pressing it too hard I was hoping that as fellow foreign adventurers they would open their hearts and let this shaggy guy and his backpack crash on their sofa. They didn’t take the hint and wracked their brains for ideas. They suggested looking for a love-hotel in Takasaki, but when I pressed them they didn’t actually know of any.

And then suddenly it was ten at night and the end of the line, the Canadians leaving me smiles and their great bubbly shopping bags, and I had a city to explore.

In my home country, all fifty United States like to legislate whatever active powers are left to them by the federal government, so the state governments amuse themselves by tweaking local hunting laws and deciding if seventeen or seventeen-and-a-half is a good time to let kids start driving. Whereas in Japan a book can’t be discussed in the classroom without a stamp from the federal Ministry of Science and Education, so local governments are left with plenty of time to organize international flower shows and get the local castle approved as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

Takasaki is the prefectural capital of Gunma, and the city looks a bit weary from all the earnest plans being foisted on it by career bureaucrats. Every other corner seemed to have a sign in rhyming prose that exhorted citizens to “talk, speak, communicate.” “One ‘thank you’ makes a thousand ‘your welcomes’”.

After living the Tokyo crush Takasaki itself seemed drunk on space, didn’t know what to do with it all. A sparkling and brightly lit boulevard cut through the darkness, spreading out into the city, with no one walking on it. I wandered out from the station, into the empty streets, peeking into a few well kept hotels whose prices would break my weekly budget for the trip. I followed the wide street for a few minutes, running smack into the prefectural government’s campus. The complex was massive: a municipal park flowed into a campus of buildings, all connected by hamster tube covered walkways for human beings to move themselves from the General Affairs Bureau to the Business Planning Bureau. The concert hall looked like it was just out of the package, not a note to scratch its surface. Small packs of skateboarders were putting the space to good use, wheels ripping and thwacking through the courtyards.

They weren’t the only ones. Moving into a cluster of brick paved streets with twee little shops and bars, I saw two guys who had jacked up their muscle car a few feet off the street, customizing the shocks in front of a Starbucks that was just closing for the night. What few people I saw trickling around the city walked with loping strides, while I was still trying get my legs to unlearn the clenched shuffle that reduces your surface area to an absolute minimum, shaving valuable seconds off your commuting time. The streets were shorn of people, just the occasional little gaggle of skateboarders or Monday night boozers walking in great weaving arcs, as if to savor every extra inch of sidewalk.

In one of the iconic movies of my childhood, the muppets Kermit, Gonzo and Fozzie plop into London and ask one of the locals where they can find a cheap place to stay.

“How cheap?” “Free.” “Well, that narrows the fjord a bit (for the longest time I thought all Brits talked like this). Let’s see… there’s riverbanks, bus terminals, The Happiness Hotel…” Choosing the third option, Kermit and the gang arrive at The Happiness Hotel and are greeted by hordes of ragtag muppet guests in a full on song and dance number complete with gypsy choruses, drum solos, and tap dancing rats.

I received a much colder reception at Takasaki’s “Hotel Happiness”. The sign glowed black and purple, and the check-in clerk’s body was completely hidden, just two disembodied hands sticking out of a whole in the wall. They offered rates by the night or by the hour, and a sign by the check-in window illustrated several of the theme rooms available. Just as I was deciding whether to go for the Playpen or Mistresses’ dungeon, a voice came out from behind the hands.

So, shooed out of Hotel Happiness, I thought back to muppets and chose the first option.

The river was just a few minutes walk from the station, and a park with rugby fields and trees lined the west side. I said hello to a woman out walking her terrier on the rugby field and nearly scared her witless: a lanky white ghost with a backpack slipping in and out of the darkness. I reached a copse of trees and brush, laying out a mat and a sleeping bag. A steady stream of midnight trucks glowed from across the river, their low highway rumble echoing across the water and mingling the groans of frogs.

…and was awoken at three in the morning by voices. It was the woman, back with her terrier and police! Vigilantes! Zombies! Or… English speaking Zombies?

“…always fireworks, going off all the time, they just you know these…”

And it faded off as quickly as it came, my heart thumping away with them.

Graham and Amy had been right. Gunma was crawling with English teachers.

Monday, May 22, 2006

a golden week, (I.)

a sort of prologue

There’s an urban legend out there that if you start a recording of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” at the exact second the MGM lion roars at the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz” that the 70’s prog rock album will match up exquisitely to the 40’s film. I tried this once in high school with a few friends, and the effect was unnerving. At the exact moment a black-and-white Dorothy perches on the fence of a pig sty, mouthing the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, the Pink Floyd album chants ominously “balanced on the biggest wave…”. When the nasty Kansas counterpart of the Wicked Witch of the West bicycles into the picture the album explodes in a sound collage of alarm clocks screaming. After two or three decades of being beaten to death on classic rock radio and endless TV specials, both “Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wizard of Oz” have lost a lot of their initial punch, but playing them together was a stoner-psychedelic revelation at seventeen. The prancing members of the Lollipop Guild, that cheesy saxophone solo on “Money”: suddenly it all seemed beautiful and terrifying. And we were all stone cold sober at the time.

If you think into it for a few seconds, the theory that Pink Floyd spent the extra studio time just to cue their album up to “The Wizard of Oz” is pretty ridiculous. Especially considering the album was made way before anyone imagined home video, and the thought of the band constantly rewinding a massive film projector just to cue up a guitar riff to a farm girl, a tin can, a hay sack and an lion skipping down a road is pretty hard to swallow. Like any record exec would pay for that kind of studio time. The whole thing was just one of nature’s happy accidents.

Which was confirmed last night when a buddy of mine mentioned the whole Oz-Pink Floyd connection and mentioned that he’d tried “The Wizard of Oz” with some other albums. “Man, everything goes with that movie. I cued it up to this hip-hop album, and there was this surreal bit where Dorothy skips on ahead, stops (just as the beat cuts), spins around, and then begins to sing right as the lyrics pop in. Like, insanely good timing. I love shit like that.”

I. The Future.

I also love shit like that. You open your ears and eyes and suddenly the whole world turns synesthetic, senses popping off of each other like a pinball machine. You can talk about GOD or you can just enjoy the ride. I was all set to enjoy the ride a few weeks ago when I stuffed a backpack with clothes, a sleeping bag and 13 pages sliced out of the middle of the 1998 edition of Lonely Plant: Japan. I had a vague idea of heading north and wandering the land, opening myself up to a few days of chance and weirdness. So I’m not sure exactly what it meant at the moment when I stepped into my boots and suddenly my whole apartment started to quiver and roar with a mild case of the Tokyo earthquakes. I used to hate earthquakes, convinced each one was “the big one”, the one that experts tell us will shake Tokyo’s pimply landscape flat, but now they’re just gentle nudges from the earth, reminding you that no matter what the hell you’re doing, you should be grateful for the ground beneath your feet. I love shit like that.

Fortunetellers are a common sight on the streets of Tokyo, serious looking men and women with a folding chair, a folding table and a paper lamp with the characters “palm reading” printed on the shade, dispensing wisdom from the other side on the convenience of a city sidewalk. I’d never noticed them around my station, but then suddenly there he was, a boyish looking thirty-year-old, back straight up, hands on his knees, eyes looking at the world behind the world. I’d never had my palm read. It seemed like a good time to start.

Sakuma-san made sure I was aware of the 2000 yen fee up front. I had already made up my mind, so the twenty dollars didn’t really bother me. Seemed like a decent price for a good story.

Actually, he was pretty good. First off he asked me a few of the basics: what do you want to find out? (Leaving for a trip with no destination, how’s it gonna turn out?) What kind of work do you do? (I work for a photo agency in Tokyo, editing and preparing photos to sell overseas.) Are you married? (No.) He wasn’t trying to be psychic or anything, just… empathic. You know, like Lt. Commander Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation: doesn’t stick an ESP microphone into your head to record your thoughts, detects general emotional trends. (“I sense… great pain.” That sort of thing.) Besides, even if he did have a front row seat to my brain, all he would have gotten was “Pink Floyd-Wizard of Oz, optimistic skepticism, Pink Floyd- Wizard of Ox…” I don’t know if it was my initial impression that did it, but for someone who’d know me for about sixty seconds he pretty much cut to the core of what I was about. He drew a diagram of a series of peaks, and a little stick figure making his way up. “Every time you get right here,” he drew a figure just below the mountain peak “you start to become worried and anxious, wonder who you are and what you’re doing, so you decide to try something else.” I nodded and mumbled agreement with a childish wonder that really only works in Japanese. You’d sound like an idiot in cooing like that in English. “But,” he continued “just when you are at your toughest point and believe all is lost, someone will come to your aid. Always. Don’t despair.” He had a soft voice with the slightest gay lilt to it. When he spoke for long periods of time the spit would foam up inside his mouth and he had to swallow every once in a while to keep it from spilling out.

“Wow!” I said, keeping on my gee-golly voice. “You’re pretty much right on! (actually, he had been) What can I possibly do in those hard times, what I can do to overcome those obstacles?”

“I’m glad you asked. Sometimes, we need to clean up. Like in your house, little bits of yourself flake off and pile up, and then we can see our house is dusty, and we need to vacuum it, right?” I nodded. “ Well, our souls are the same way, but we can’t see our souls, so we don’t know that they need cleaning.” Hmmm… “So, if you are interested, I could initiate a three day course where I pray for you and make offers at the local shrine for you, imploring the god to clear away the confusion in your soul, just like vacuuming a room! This would be three times a day, morning, noon and night, for three days. You’ll be surprised at the results!”

“And how much does this service cost? To vacuum my soul?”

The figure he quoted could have bought me weekend in Korea, hotel, hot peppers and all.

But it didn’t stop there. Sakuma-san kept himself busy. Why, just next month he was arranging a bus trip to the Ise shrine. Was I interested in paying my respects at the most holy (and most ignored) shrine in Japan? A place so holy that only the emperor may enter the innermost shrine and implore the local god for advice on politics and girls. Was I interested in slapping down $140 US for three days with Sakuma-san and 150 of his closest friends on one of three tour buses? Well, actually, yeah! I was kinda interested.

I have a friend who spends his time as a graduate student in modern Japanese religions. According to him, modern street-side palm readers provide a convenient alternative to religion, dispensing spiritual advice in easily digestible chunks. The advantage is that people can approach them not as believers tied to a specific religious dogma, but as individual consumers, seeking a service. God knows that’s all I was looking for. That and a front seat to Japan’s newest religion making a pilgrimage to it’s oldest religious site.

(Note from the ed. I found Sakuma-san's contact info folded in my wallet this afternoon between the a restaurant coupon and the local bike shop's calling card. I missed my ride to the shrine, so that's the end of that story. But I'll be writing about my Golden Week trip in chunks. )