Tag Archives: Japan

Flashbacks

I remembered today what it was like to be really tired, the kind of tired that hangs over you like a cloud, that works its way into your skin, like a suntan lotion or sweat from working in a summer field all day.

I’m not there now, but a little dazed and wandering by the water in Hornstull I had a flashback to that kind of fatigue.

It was the first office we had in Nakameguro, probably around 2006. I was stressed from constant pressure on the job and hadn’t been sleeping much. I worked overtime, some weekends; didn’t have a day off. I was so tired then that the only thing I could do during my lunch break was trudge across the river to the small municipal park, and lay out on the grass to drift in and out of consciousness for half an hour. This was as close to rest as I got those days. I yearned for noon when I could disappear from the office and roll around on the hard, dry earth, prostrating my body under the Japanese sun.

At first you fight it, the fact your environment is grinding you down like this, but in time you forget why you’re fighting and eventually that any other way of living existed.

Now it’s just a salty, creased memory that bleeds into the edges of feeling when fatigue and the afternoon sun mix together in just the right amount.

Hubris

I spend a lot of time reflecting on my reasons for loving Japan, perhaps too much time. Now that I think about it, there is a lot of logic in just accepting it and moving on, perhaps there are a lot more productive things I could be thinking about. Buddhism teaches to accept one’s nature. Fighting against that which is natural only leads to suffering. Humans are imperfect. We do get angry and irritated. I was talking with another henro about this earlier in the week. When climbing a mountain, it is tiring. The heat, weight of the pack, pain in the feet, all these things can be irritating. it is not useful to feel guilt for being irritated. What is useful is to accept the irritation and try to be positive. Japan is appealing for a large variety of reasons. But I am not Japanese, no matter how long I live here. I feel insecure that my attempts to integrate to Japanese society are superficial or poorly executed. There are certain other foreigners who I look at with disdain for their awkwardness and inauthenticity. Probably because I worry that is how I myself appear.

But I love Japan. I love the constant flow of people around the train stations, the chalky concrete texture on every wall and pathway. The clicking of bicycle transmissions disengaged under dusky baskets full of groceries in polyurethane bags. The sounds lilting from the cracked windows between tightly packed houses. Piano lessons and braking dogs, filling bathtubs and balcony washing machines. A thousand smells wafting on the breeze, soy sauce and cooking wines, fish and mountain potatoes. How an intricate latticework of shadows from the web of power lines, telephone cables and shopping street banners suspended overhead.

But this is not my private banana republic, no matter how much I pretend it were. There are many foreigners living in Japan and many of them are likely as enamored with being here as I am. That duality is something I have to come to terms with. It’s fine that Japan is such a big part of my identity, just as it is for others. I am special and unique, but not entitled to pride or special treatment as such.

Leaving Home

There are many reasons to hitch, deriving in some manner from a sense of economy, adventure, or loneliness. There are other options for reaching inaccessible places, and at many times opportunities present themselves at times that require ad hoc decision making. Because I didn’t care for crepes, because all of the anticipation and excitement I felt returning to Nara for the first time in seven years was erased, and instead I felt I needed to get out of there, that moment, and as it happens the train I took lead to a series of transfers which ultimately could get me within a kilometer of my final destination that very night on an unlisted bus route. So I clamoured up the six stories of stairs to the highway bus stop and bought a ticket, sacrificing dinner for an easy day of travel tomorrow. Where I’ll stay I have no idea, but if the rain worsens it’ll likely be under an overpass of some sort.

Why did I come to Shikoku, to far reaches of a prefecture so sparsely populated that several years ago the vast expanse of two mostly uninhabited towns had to be combined for sake of zoning? Because chafing from the seemingly endless hospitality of my in-laws I needed to get away. Away from people and pets, laundry machines, and rooms stuffed with belongings. I needed something of my own, wild, open and serene to soothe my mind, but with barely enough humanity to stave off loneliness. Henro is tolerable even alone because there is a goal and the scenery changes constantly. Only the last three days of my pilgrimage, when I stopped moving forward and set a makeshift camp in an abandoned seaside park did I begin to yearn for the city.

But now I will have all nutrients essential for concentrated production: nature, solitude, and glorious open space. Rise early, do my contracting by day, and at night entertain a good friend who shares my spirit for joie de vivre. Somewhat appropriately from my ever dwindling stack of physical books I’ve brought Big Sur to commune with, though cautiously I look to avoid the same fate as my reluctant guru of rough living.

Pangs of setsunai

There are things that are bluntly Japanese that upon seeing them send a pang of something I cannot describe other than setsunai: a plastic-sandled boy crossing the street (presumedly near his house and making a run to the convenience store for his mother), a grisly middle-aged man standing in sagging, gray, sweats outside a run down apartment complex, slouched and smoking, or the tightly postured beret on a bus tour guide’s head, and the austere’ methodical bow after every one in a row of pleasantries. 

These reflections on society, from the personal to the honorific, are taken for granted by everyone else on the bus as we ride down Mejiro street to the highway interchange, but I receive each one with quiet appreciation.  Knowing there will be a day soon where I can no longer enjoy the mise en scene firsthand with such frequency can only be coined as something beyond wistful, setsunai.

In a dream

After a month of travelling in the States, I have finally come back to Tokyo for the indefinite future.  For now, no more trips, no more adventure, I should just settle.  Yet I am uneasy.  My future remains unclear, and the uncertainty of what is to come makes me restless.  My being without a fixed address makes matters worse.  Come Friday I will move into a temporary dwelling, but for four weeks it will be all mine, albeit with a skeleton attachment of belongings.  No furniture, no warmth, just my notebook, a couple backpacks, and my camera.

I thought it would be relieving to be back in Tokyo, my home for the last ten years.  But it doesn’t feel like home.  Perhaps in my heart I know I won’t be here long, and everything I see and experience now is like a dream, a flashback to an old lover.  It feels hollow and muted.  The gingko leaves carpet the sidewalks, the plazas and alleyways are respectfully quiet, and the sun falls quickly behind the shellacked tile apartments that I love so much.

But there is a distance between me and the city, one I have never known.  For so long I relished the fantasy, that the exotic metropolis was mine to call home, but now all of the romance is gilded in loss.  The lights twinkle on and the media still smiles, but to me it might as well be on a movie screen.

The Kyoto

Kyoto.  The simple, five letter word is laden with so much history, fantasy and tantalization, just thinking of it changes my mood as instantly as a sudden squall.  Such a delicate blend of tradition and progress, the veneer of a thousand years of imperial dynasty only barely thins around the edges, revealing a glimmer of neon 21st century finance that courses within.  The new style Cool Japan tendrils of Tokyo wrap themselves lithely down the bullet train electric cables, and the vast marketing power of the Nikkei makes good use of the elegance woven into every kimono thread.  In many Japanese cities I am either a visitor or an inhabitant, but even having dwelled in Kyoto, I know that I could live fifty years and still never be received with genuine affection.  The silken masks Japanese show to each other every day can never fully be removed for me.

The transportation

Yesterday I hitchhiked from the seat of Yamanashi prefecture to Nagoya, so I didn’t have much time to write.  By the time I finally made it to my capsule hotel I was too tired to do much of anything other than idle synchronization.

I travelled 285 kilometers via five cars in seven hours, though about half of it was waiting to get rides.  The campsite owner dropped me on the state route 139 in front of the Yamanashi Wind Cave.  Lots of trucks drive by on that route but I have yet to have any luck with semis. 

After about fifteen minutes an American who was working as a farmhand picked me up in a utility van.  His hair was sandy blonde, and his gray marked teeth hung out from his mouth with the same curve as his rounded large shoulders.  He hunched over the wheel and talked amicably about the the drafty farmhouse he lived in, and his limitations in tolerating Japanese cuisine.  He seemed kind-hearted and simple, trying his best to make a living and save up money to fly back home at Christmas and visit his mother.  I only had a chance to ride with him for fifteen minutes or so before he had to turn off the byway.  He was cheerful, but he laced normal conversation with self-directed mutterings from time to time that showed his social frustrations in relating with people.  He reminded me of a co-worker I used to know, and I thought about all the different kinds of people that make up the tapestry of society.

My next ride took over thirty minutes to get, such that I started changing tactics and bought a magic marker and wrote a sign on the back of some cardboard from behind the convenience store.  No sooner had I done this, however, that an Englishman and his wife approached me from behind and offered a lift to the highway interchange in Fuji City.  Like a lot of hitches, they passed me, proceeded for about a kilometer and then looped back to come pick me up.  The decision to take a hitchhiker is not a light one these days.  To be honest I wouldn’t pick up one myself unless it was a girl or an incredibly benign looking guy.  So of course I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to give me a lift.

The husband had been an English teacher but quit and now was looking, unsuccessfully, for better work.  He strongly recommended against teaching as my next profession due to the lack of advancement potential.  They were a nice couple and I didn’t feel like I had to talk to earn my ride, which is something you have to sense.  Personally unless I really hit it off with someone I dislike chitchat and prefer to just take in the scenery.  However I’ve learned from experience that antisocial hitchhikers rarely get far.  The couple was kind enough to drive me up to the highway tollbooths, but hitching from that point is near impossible since the cars are coming directly up the ramp and only the highway, besides the fact it is illegal and all of the security cameras would surely have the police after me in short order.

So I walked down the highway bus access tunnel and a kilometer back to the entry point of the highway on the state road.  After about fifteen minutes an elderly woman in a small car pulled over and offered to give me a lift.  She had no plans to get on the highway, in fact she lived about five minutes from where I was standing, but she offered to drive me to Shizuoka.  I was a little hesitant at first, but since getting actually on to the expressway is quite hard, I accepted.  She had to run an errand first and return home with her shopping.  I was leery not for my safety, but of wasting a day keeping a lonely old woman company. 

After we went to her house she tried to offer me in for tea, but I politely declined and waited outside while she carried in her groceries.  A small dachshund on her porch playfully rolled on its back begging for a rub.  After we started out driving she took the state route west away from the highway, either she planned on driving to Shizuoka via local roads or thought she could lengthen her time with me by taking a roundabout route.  Though it chilled the atmosphere a little, I restated that I needed to get on the highway as soon as possible and after that we got to Nihondaira in short order.  Along the way she told me of all the foreigners she had helped and set up homestays for, naming each in turn with nationality and remarked how they all came to visit her on the holidays.  At the Nihondaira service area she bought me a container of dried fish and awkwardly said goodbye.  I then had my lunch and talked with some drivers before finding a light trucker who would take me close to Hamamatsu.

He had delivered supplies to Nijima in the night, and was on his way home from work.  To keep from falling asleep he tore through a pack of foul-smelling cigarettes but I wasn’t one to complain.  He was gruff, oily, and as disheveled as his cab but kind and seemed empathetic to the difficulties of hitchhiking.  When he let me off at Enshutoyoda he gave me a wet wipe as a farewell present, half-laughing as he did.

Up until this point, things had gone rather well, but at Enshutoyoda it seemed to run out.  I spent almost two hours trying to get a ride, smiling so much my face muscles started to get sore.  It is illegal to walk out of the highway, so until I could get a ride I was stranded.  Fortunately just as dusk began to set in a young businessman my age took pity on me and gave me a lift into Nagoya.  He was easy to talk to, it felt like we had been friends for a long time.  We joked about girls, baseball, and traveling around.  I got some really lovely pictures of the sun setting over Nagoya as we rolled into town.  At first he was going to drop me near Nagoya station, but on a whim I asked him to take me to Osu Kannon which we were passing by.  I had only been to Nagoya once and didn’t know the area very well. 

We said our goodbyes and he drove off.  As I shouldered my bag I turned to my left and glanced at a restaurant.  The name of the place was Smashhead, and across the building was spray-painted, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I had just started re-reading Pirsig only two days ago.  The coincidence of a somewhat minor western novel being plastered across a random shop in Nagoya, let alone one I just happened to be dropped off in front of, was staggering.  I thought about Yabe-san’s remark about nothing being coincidence again and grinned.  Maybe there were such things as signs.

The quiet of the forest

By noon I had climbed to Gokodai, where Mt. Fuji and its lakes were all visible.  Being a Tuesday there were few other hikers, mostly retirees.  The mountaintop was empty, so after reading some passages from The Diamond Sutra in the shade I sat atop one of the stone picnic tables and meditated on charity and compassion. 

Carelessly I declined to bring sunscreen for the added weight, but feeling the midday sun hot on my face I turned my back to the godly mountain and directed myself northwest.  I thought staring at the mountain would be focusing, but a chuckled to myself when I realized seeing the mountain could be done with more than just a line of sight.  So I turned my inner eye to the summit and visualized it in the wild grass in front of me.

One of the first things The Diamond Sutra teaches is the need for purging ego.  This is a concept I have never been comfortable with, not even in principle.  So I spent the first part of my meditation looking to the root of my need for identity and individuality.  The fact is the greater part of my motivation for creating art lies within the ego, with affirmation of the self and my actions.  So to cast away ego would mean to inviolate my existence as an artist, and perhaps all art itself, unless there is a deeper purpose to drive such activities.  What form does completely selfless art take?  Can it exist in our world?

Secondly, compassion and charity must be performed without motivation of feature or quality.  This is something much easier to comprehend, palatable, I can easily think of many instances where such action of mine were largely directed to those I identified with on a certain level, those who fulfilled needs in my own heart.  Such charity is inherently selfish, and fuels again my restraining ego.

After meditation I made my way back down the mountain, but halfway along took a faintly marked shortcut down the south face.  On the map the path was marked a lighter color, presumably as it was less maintained.  This was a drastic understatement.  The path was barely visible, and the ground largely silt and topsoil, making footing unsure.  It took me thirty minutes of careful navigation, but after sliding more than hiking down the 300 vertical meters, I ended up at a series of three meter high concrete drainage gates that further impeded my progress.  Eventually I picked my way to a tiny path lined with electric fences outside a temple.  On the other side of the street was a discarded, mostly full miniature bottle of sunscreen.  I recalled Yabe-san’s prophetic words of fate and grinned.

The climb

This morning I awoke from the chill of predawn and rose at seven.  I washed my face and my laundry in the bathroom sink and by eight breakfasted with my foster parents while watching the morning news.  After straightening my effects I meditated by the lake and leisurely read Kerouac.

By ten I was on the trail, and listened to Red Dead Redemption while making my annual assault on the north side of Sankodai.  This is the fifth climb I have made of the mountain in consecutive Octobers by this time a new sign greeted me about a quarter of the way up the mountain.

emJinsei ni nayandara yama wo noborou./em
When life is in doubt, climb.

These words struck me and I muttered “prophetic” out loud, remembering the words of my ride yesterday.  Nothing is by chance, everything has meaning if you are wise to see it.

The cliche’ is that I climb a mountain because it is indeed, there.  But there is a deeper meaning that reminded me of some advice I received long ago.  When unsure of what you want, undertake many things and in doing so, you will at the very least find what you do not want.

But perhaps I want everything.  Perhaps the road for me needs not to be chosen but simply trod.  That is a practice of doing I shall follow this month.

On the road to erudition

Today I started on my pilgrimage in earnest.  Last night we went to the biannual rave we always visit, a group of friends who gather with a love of, music, dance, and celebration.

After bidding farewell to friends and family, I set to hitch on Doshimichi.  I knew traffic would be light at the end of a three day weekend heading away from Tokyo, but the route had few branches, so if I could get a ride it would probably take me all the way to the edge of the Fuji Lakes.  Fortunately, I got a ride with a good natured couple in about fifteen minutes and they took me all the way to Saiko where I would be spending the next few days. 

Yabe-san and his wife had moved from Tokyo to Yamanashi thirty years before to live in the country.  He was a dietary vegan, and grew all of his own food in a number of rental fields.  He had large, rough hands, and eyes that belied a lot of experience.  He talked freely, and happily of his philosophy: the beauty and tenacity of nature, simplicity of an independent life, and the heart’s role in knowing truth.

He was distrustful of media, shunning television and newspapers for books and his own intuition.  He studied the trails of jet planes, built a compendium of cloud photographs, and bade nothing to chance.  The time on the clock when he left home was 9:11, and when he returned 11:09.  These things were all signs, like the beauty of a sunburst over Lake Yamanaka as we drove.  They were not circumstance, but messages for those that had the wisdom to see them. 

He asked me some details about my journey and what I sought, but for the most part explained the details of our world through his own lens.  Being not much of a talker I was happy to listen and feel satisfied with my part of acknowledgements and the occasional follow up question. 

The cool of summer

Storm front is moving in now, the outskirts of a typhoon in Kyushu.  The rapid temperature drop is appreciated, but the wind let’s me know we won’t be dry for long.  I’m on my way to a baseball game anyway, I haven’t hardly had a chance to go all season.  Baseball is dharma, like running or raves.  There is a balance in it you strive for, and a simplicity that loosens your heart. 

My team is the Yakult Swallows, because I lived in Shibuya for eight years, their simple, open air stadium a five minute bike ride from my apartment.  In the States this would be a AAA minor league stadium, but it doesn’t matter.  I’d rather have it that way because it keeps the focus on the game, on the fans.  With their traditional band-led cheers, to the ritualistic raising of umbrellas for every run, it’s honest and open, something rare in the deferring Japanese society.

Baseball isn’t religion, but it can be some kind of salvation.

Ten days in

The perfect storm of Kanto’s migration west coupled with a three day weekend traditionally reserved for visiting ancestors’ graves in the countryside has backed me into a corner of the Nozomi Super Express for the ride back to Tokyo. I should have had the foresight to buy a reserved ticket before I even left the capital, but it’s not that big a deal. I’ve had worse returns. It remains to be seen how packed things get at Nagoya, it’s possible I won’t even be able to sit in the corner then, so I’m taking advantage of the time to write now.

I wasn’t alone this weekend hardly at all, actually. I figured coming into town with two days’ notice would leave me wandering around a lot, but to my chagrin I spent virtually the whole weekend with Nobue, going around to her various appointments with her, meeting father and mother each twice.

No temples, but I did more than a fair share of praying at Izumo Daijinja and Kitano Tenmanguu. For the most part I was able to avoid gloomy conversation concerning the earthquake and the hot controversy spun around the nuclear power industry, which has been bane to efforts to improve my spirit over the last ten days.

Yes, there are going to be lingering issues darkening life in Tokyo for months, conspiracy theory talk, rumors of radiation tainted vegetables and rolling blackouts that ensnare the faltering economy. But it’s neither cathartic nor a positive use of my time to spend another second thinking about it so the monologue ends here. I appreciate the problems we face as a community but it’s my nature to focus on the positive, on the future. There’s a life to live and countless victories yet to be won with my blinding resolution.

Retreat

I haven’t written in a while, since January I’ve been working on a side project for the company that has me exceptionally enthused, so I was coding at nights and weekends, at home or going into the office. At the beginning of March we had a number of important presentations to prepare for, etc. etc. Now as few things that greatly alter the course of one’s life are planned, Japan is in the wake of one of the most devastating earthquakes in recorded history.

The last week has been a series of ups and downs, with drama on all fronts. Physically I am in no immediate danger, and my greatest personal challenges are those shared with many of my countrymen, fear, distrust and apprehension. Conspiracy theorists on both sides of the ocean are dubious as the quality of the information disclosed by the government and the power company, but I’m not in a position to play pundit. My goal is to keep a level head, do my job, and support the country as best I can. If I were to start doubting the veracity of the news provided to be by the authorities, then I might as well leave the country outright, which is the course chosen by an increasingly large number of expatriates. I am an American citizen but for all intents and purposes otherwise Japanese. My livelihood, my friends, and my passion all thrive in this country and I will not toss them all away on mere conjecture. I would be lying if I said that I don’t think about the threat of another earthquake or radioactive contamination on a daily basis, but I am fortunate to be able to say it is a fear that weakens by the day, and roughly as much a factor in my decisions as cholesterol level.

I do not consider myself noble or strong, perhaps stubborn more than anything. I have lost sleep this week like millions of others, but when considering my position as compared to most others in the this disaster-stricken country, I have no right at all to complain. I have no wife, no children, no family’s future to think of other than those I have yet to produce. My house was only slightly tousled from the earthquake, and the central location of it precludes me from the current rolling blackouts. I do not need to commute on the trains and line up for hours hoping I can get home, my bicycle works as well as it ever has. In a time of so much chaos, from a topical perspective I am total control of most of the everyday factors of my life.

I’ve starting carrying my passport with me at all times, and though the implications of such an action are unsettling, it provides me a small sense of comfort. I also enrolled in the STEP program, and for the first time in a long time I found a deep, moving sense of value in my American citizenship.

I want to be stronger and less affected by the words of those around me, but I overdosed on information in the first 72 hours of this crisis, and found my composure leeching away through the tide of so many panicked voices.

I’ve come to Kyoto this weekend to clear my mind. I was just here two months ago so in terms of a vacation spot it’s not the top of my choices, but it’s familiar and farther removed from the gashed wounds in Japan’s heartland. The next three days I hope to find quiet and busy myself again once in expression, through code, and words, and music. Three days of walking, three days of contemplation, of strengthening, three days of prayer and rebirth.

The bittersweet limbo of belonging

地元の渋谷区本町辺り相談があって、帰り道で昔よく通ってた居酒屋とスナック両方に表敬訪問しにいった。スナックのママが80歳になったけど、超喜んでいた。水商売の経済について色々話して、カラオケ歌いました。素直に「歌唱力あまり上がってないね」と言われた。笑って泣きそうだった。あぁ、このほろ苦い人生が好き。

寒空の慰め

開催は後二週間弱です。毎晩一種の進行です…広告、プリント用意、またはネガの棚卸。今回の展示は七割モノクロのプリントを出しますが、幾つかこう見たいのカラー写真も展示します。これは2008年の正月、一人で角館に旅して、孤独に包まった。本当に美しかった、あの誰もいない寂れた城郭都市。