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. )

1 comment:

kowhai said...

nice to see you have posted i always enjoy reading