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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

weelcome back. I've missed your posts.