Saturday, August 26, 2006

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.


rachel said...

eek, scary post! witchy old couple, eating little fish alive. it's like you went on vacation in a Tim Burton movie, the one where he collaborated with Miyazaki.

nise_k said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nise_k said...

quite a gud post!

yeah, even me too not seen people eating live fish in japan. but cant really rule out.