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 café 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.


rachel said...

This post is Santa Claus, if Santa Claus were a huge hippie.


ted said...

Fantastic post! I go out to EC every year (both as fan and part-time worker) and knowing Kodo relatively well, I think you really caught the spirit of what they're all about, and trying to become. I know they DO recognize the desparation as source of their sound. Their relationship with Sado is symbiotic, their reason for living out there deliberate, their immersion in local tradition deep. The music we all enjoyed that night was simultaneously Kodo's gift to Sado, and Sado's gift to Kodo. I too am astounded by this life lived deeply, training the body until it becomes one with the music, the body as vessel. As Bruce Lee once said, "I don't hit. 'It' hits." To live a life completely in the body is something most of use rarely do for an hour, let alone decades. And occasionally they do wonder if "this is enough," which is about the time they move on to their next bliss, be it family or a solo career.

By the way, they did indeed play the same song, "Berimbau Jam" closing night two and as both opener and closer to night three. This year's pairing was somewhat limited musically...

I always love your writing, but this post was simply amazing. Thanks a bunch...

Jamie said...

I probably didn't do a very good job of writing about steve, because he is very not hippie.

Exhibit 1: (he's the sweater and kappa kappa tao hat man)

ted: Thanks for reading! And glad you liked this post, I'll try to keep them coming at more regular intervals...