A modern Kaguro Diary.

Tokyo Diary 2008-


May 28, 2008. A China Hand In Tokyo. "Can you tell me where I can find a crowded train station?" This disarming question came my way yesterday about 6 a.m. as I awaited my chariot on the Ryogoku train platform. I turned to look upon a ruggedly handsome man sporting a huge camera. "Sure can," I said, while thinking "Like, that is every station in Tokyo in about 40 minutes. Who is this clueless tourist?" Turns out he is a professional photographer spending three months in Tokyo. He spends half the year in China, where he feels the people are wonderful, and very open emotionally. His litany of complaints launched forthwith, and covered The A List of well-meaning people new to Tokyo. In retrospect, I wonder what bright and witty and accurate observations I would have of a totally different country...like China. Well, I directed him to the nearby Akihabara station and suggested he spend the next two hours there. He'll surely see many people crowding onto trains. I myself would like to photograph people hurtling themselves onto the trains, an urban speedrace I witness whenever that train is bound for the airport.

DATE, 2008. Behind the Sumo-beya.From my 4th floor, I gaze down a narrow lane, which features a simple hair salon, a small lumber supplier (always loading and unloading tiny trucks) and the sumo-beya (sumo practice room and dormitory for the sumo team). Sometime I hear them group shouting. Lately I've noticed that after morning practice, some of them drape their yukata and several of the mawashi or training wrap. Do you know how long those things are? Looks like they are made out of the sturdiest sailcloth. It's amusing to go by and survey the unceremonial sunning of this unique garment. Looks to be about two-feet by 12-feet long. Photo soon.

April 21, 2008. Back to Shitomachi. Last weekend was the reason I moved back to Tokyo. Saturday with an enthusiastic friend at the Tokyo Met. Museum gazing at towering bronze statuary from the 700's from Nara, Japan. Soaking in the depth and early coding of symbols and signs of our relationship to the universe and the divine. Later, we poked around the boisterous morass of junque and fast food joints south of Ueno station to find a completely unexpected oasis of quiet and sublime good taste. A soba shop featuring hand carved cedar from Akita. Pure unadorned walls, the scent of cedar, simple planks of polished wood held handmade soba with fresh wasabi, freshly grated off the pungent root. We sat in a planked room. Our table up a narrow, vertiginous stairway was a simple slab of polished cedar, complete with knotholes and bark. The traditional soba grain grinder snuggled in its own large box nearby. We left refreshed and uplifted. For some reason, we next stopped into a little bar for a sip of quality sake. This place was covered in knicknacks and plastic cherry blossoms. It could not be more different from where we just left. Yet, it was still comfortable. The barkeep wore the blue cotton of traditional shopkeepers, and was quite surprised that we knew to ask for "junmaeshu" sake instead of the usual gaijin hot stuff.

Sunday I enjoyed watching three long dances at the Funagawa Edo Museum and community center...women of a certain age in complete stage kimono and white pancake makeup executing astonishingly nuanced dances. High culture recreated to live on in our memories. Then I discovered the area has a Conan's store, and pet fish. The equivalent of Home Depot...what a relief! Now I know where to find gardening and building supplies. Not high culture, but necessary to a good modern life. The bike ride back featured buying vegetables from a hawker by the river bridge...a scene right out of ukiyo-e prints of shitomachi (Edo townspeople) life. Raman shops galore and so much more. Finished the night off with a gratifying soak in the local o-sento.There are at least three near my new abode. What is it about public bathing in a huge tub of breathtakingly steaming water that a home tub just cannot do? I biked back along the darkened, narrow streets, set my wood geta inside my doorway, and fell asleep listening to the gentle sounds of the urban night. What a town. I love shitomachi life.

March 8th, 2007. Now that's service. Two nights ago I was not amused to spy yet another gokiburi (cockroach) loafing high up on my apartment ceiling. I eventually got rid of him, and it was a long story. The next morning, I determined to find the chink in my apartment. Where is their little welcome mat? Oh, yes, the air conditioner hose coming in from the veranda to the BIG HOLE over the sliding doors that lets the exterior hose come in and connect with the air conditioner hanging up high inside my apartment. The wad of play dough wrapped around the outside hose was old, stiff, and had pulled away from the hole. A short reverie on the approaching onslaught of summer gokiburi who soon would be impolitely seeking sustenance in my private castle motivated me into a SEEK and DESTROY mood.

Several stops in various home supply sources in Nakayama all pointed me to the local aging department store. My angel of mercy proved to be the ancient old guy in the TV/home appliances department. I showed him my stinking wad of C4. His reply, "No can do, we don't carry it." However, he chattered away, false teeth obliterating whatever his message was beyond a few randomized words. "No problemo. What was my address and phone number? Could I be at home at a certain hour?" He creaked over to the desk telephone and yakked away with someone who must be used to decoding him after many years of practice. The thought bubble over my head said, "What the...? You don't have it so you will deliver it to my apartment? OK!" The next day, an only slightly less ancient, desiccated workman of still-limber knees brought me the soap bar of gray play dough and installed it. What a cheerful experience! I paid him and placed a well-deserved thank-you orange in his palm along with the coinage. And breathed a sign of relief. Round One of the Gokiburi Wars 2007 goes to my side!

February 2, 2007. A Moment of Balance. Sometimes living in Japan is just living as if I would anywhere else. Nothing special, and I wonder why I am here instead of other places where I am close to friends who are growing distant with time, food that I will never see here such as organic Whole Foods peanut butter, and all the easy access to books, libraries, and clothes in my size that are not daft or mundane. It can be a bit daunting. Then, I have moments like this morning.

I had biked down to the local nursery, a sprawling greenhouse complex along the river that runs through town, and surrounded by miles of truck farms. The path along the river is fenced in, and I stopped in the pleasantly warm winter sun to stare at the two-foot long dark koi (carp) that lazed in the river flow, inhaling a watery breeze of oxygen to their gills, and snacks to their open, rubbery mouths. I became aware of a sun burnt older man ambling on the other side of the river towards this bride. Perhaps he was one of the local riverside farmers. He was singing in the unencumbered public space along the river. As he crossed the bridge on my right wandered off into the fields, he sang a favored enka song, which is a genre of heartfelt "people's music" here in Japan. What made this moment was that at the same time, another older man was toddling up the path from my left, walking a close-shaven Pekinese lap dog on a leash. (Pet dogs endure innumerable indignities here.) He was singing along to his handheld cassette player. The two men's enka songs wove back and forth for a few moments. The carp troupe waved and drifted in the river currents. A family of ducks perched on riverbank rocks scrubbing their wings into order. A fine winter’s moment. Only in Japan.

THE DIARY IS BACK! January 28, 2007. I no longer cut my own hair.Tonight I had my hair trimmed. A complete understatement. A careful inspection of Nakayama's variety of hair cutting establishments came down to the weirdly named "Hair Make ASH." Why? Close to the train station, big, clean, bright modern look, and the staff looked insanely competent and very stylish without being cutesy or overbearing. Two months ago, I came in with my printout of their price list for permanents and a magazine clip of what I had in mind, as I expected to conduct this negotiation in Japanese. Not to be. Mr. Terakado (Terra Cotta) marched into my hair-life and announced he was my hair artist. OK! He talked me down from the expensive permanent I had in mind to a cut and heavy conditioning. That lasted for three-hours of his administrations and the follow-up secondary tasks carried on by another younger man who is also dedicated to the "Way of the Hair." I left completely impressed and about $150 lighter.

Tonight, as I was saying, I had my hair trimmed. Once more, Mr. Terakado and his assistant devoted themselves to my hair. Two hours later and only $55 lighter, I departed feeling like the Queen of Yokohama once again. Mr. Terakado speaks English as he lived for one year in Florida during his University home-stay days, and he is devoted to the Way of the Hair. He is from Nakayama itself, and lives nearby in a newly purchased home with his wife and near his parents. His assistant's parents are further away in Chiba. I believe I now have my own Hair Team. Both events end with a handwritten thank-you card from Mr. T, and my team bowing my out the door. I leave on a cloud of civility, secure that at least my hair is looking FANTASTIC.

Awaji Diary: September 2005-March 2006

'Godzilla and Akira Ifukube take a memorial stroll through Awaji. 06feb11.

February 6, 2006. Da-Da-Da.....Da-Da-Da-.....Japanese everywhere were devastated to hear of the recent passing of Akira Ifukube, composer of the original theme music for "Gojira" (or "Godzilla" for those who can't wrap their lips around Japanese). None more so than his greatest and largest fan. Shown here as he leisurely thundered along Awaji Island on his way to Tokyo, Gojira-san ("Mr. Godzilla"), is re-enacting his past paths of destruction throughout Japan. In a traditional gesture of mourning, he is carrying the formal "death portrait" of his beloved theme master. Mr. Mothra, the now ancient but still lovely South Pacific twin maidens, and the entire creature ensemble are planning a rendezvous with The Big Guy in Tokyo for a final roasting and stomping of the town.

Mrs. Ifukube could not be reached for comment, but rumors have swept through Yokohama of a major garage sale of "all that monster junk." Official obituary .

'Green Dispray and cemetary. 06jan9.

January 9, 2006. Sumoto's GREEN DISPRAY. By the local Buddhist cemetery, this sign perches along the roadside. "Green Dispray"-yes, let us pray for a display of greenery before we all lay beneath Buddhist gray. "Container Planting"-yes, we have a full house of those. "Indoor, Outdoor Plants"-yes, all are planted. This is my absolute favorite Japlish weirdness discovered in Sumoto.

February 5, 2006. Earliest Spring. The deep intake of breath of winter is over with the first signs of renewal and stirring of nature. My car's headlights bounced off the first flying bug, about an inch long. I see a small weed growing in my flowerpot. The daikon radishes are leaping out of the soil on solid white vapor trails. A plum tree shrub has burst radiantly into rosy-red bloom along a still dormant rice field. The farmers are back in those fields, spreading fertilizer by hand along endless rows. The Chinese cabbages (hakkusan) that have grown to immense size through the winter have been bundled up. Literally. Their outer leaves wrapped protectively around them, held by miles of white plastic string, looped once around each proud cabbage and then on to its neighbor. To no avail, though. Entire fields have been lopped off at ground level and carted off to market. The empty cabbage fields stand aghast in a carpet of limp and yellowing discarded leaves. The onions, oh yes, the onions. Stocky men and women farmers have set jillions of little onion sets in marching order. The women wear giant sunbonnets, while the men wear knit hats, towels wrapped around their faces, or are bare headed. I have never seen a woman farmer without her bonnet on while working in the fields. The temperature on a sunny day approaches 50F. I feel like it is safe to turn off the heater at night, or during the warmish day. Still, my fingers are chilly as I write this. The first hint of future humidity and heat lied tantalizingly in certain vales and hollows. It is still winter though, with each morning veiled in a frost covering the grass and overhead wires. However, the animals are up and about. I have discovered the local family of tanuki (in the raccoon family) lumbering about at night. Several dinner plate sized turtles now lounge on sunny rocks in the local river. A two-foot long carp languidly breathes in the muddy river waters. The morning air features new songs by perhaps cuckoos and nightingales, returned from wherever. The hordes of delicate narcissus at last show signs of weariness in the fields. The camellias are at their fullest saucy dominion. I do not want to forget these moments in the heady clamor of Yokohama.

January 30, 2006. Nashi pears. Last week I received a pair of pears by one of my charming private students. Gift giving is an art form, but it may be a conspiracy brought about by the necessity of generating untold amounts of trash to be collected, sorted, and compacted into new land for more airports, housing, and other deathtraps in a land of spectacular earthquakes. However, I digress.

These pears fulfilled their landfill missions with zeal. Both were as enticingly wrapped as a youngest daughter's wedding dressage. The outer layer was a crisp, off-white, slightly waxed paper with gold stamped official seals and descriptions. "Passe Crassane" for a hint of French refinement. Kanji for the rest. Instructions on "meishi agari ho," or "The way of giving gifts" followed with three lines of instructions. Next, a plain white layer of paper. Next, a layer of more official, waxy white paper with much more gold embossing. A circle of fruits, persimmons, oranges, pears, and grapes drawn around a medieval castle and the words, "Fruit Parlour.” The stamp of the shop that sold the pears, their address, and fax. No website yet. The rest in kanji. "Lucky England,” or "Propitious Distinguished,” depending on your choice of interpretation. All good, surely. A short story about the company, founded in Meiji 44 (1911). Next, a layer of pink paper, and finally the pear, still wrapped in a net of white styrofoam netting, just to get a head start on that land fill. This pear, or "nashi" (Japanese Pear) is lumpishly round, and big. I mean huge. Two hands barely got around it. BIG. Two pears, and two mountains of paper and foam netting of equal volume sit side by side on the spruce cutting board.

I imagine the orchard commandos tied protective little baggies around the pears-to-be as young flowers, newly fertilized by ambitious bees in the Okayama orchard hills and mountains, somewhere between here and Hiroshima. The fruit were perfect, and yet they are only pears. Presentation of the ordinary is a fine art form in Japan. With such a pear, just chopping it up and tossing it onto a paper plate, or simply biting into it seems, well, crude, or perhaps against some cultural law. Pretty plates and toothpicks can only do them justice and celebrate the labor of those hard working farmers. Was landfill ever this much fun to create? The pears prove absolutely delicious over the several days required to consume their tasty, juicy roundness.

January 8, 2006. Winter Lull. This is the quiet week of the year in nature's cycle. Trees, hills, and field are deceptively faint and faded. The daikon leaves lie supine and weak-willed along their elevated dirt rows. The rose bushes are thoroughly dormant. The rice fields do not care to be disturbed and the farmers leave them at peace. It is the suspended feeling when one turns a corner and the laws of gravity deny weight and mass. The last of the persimmons hang forlornly from bare branches, rejected by voracious crows and sparrows. Oranges have reached their final astonishing volume and wait benignly for the plucker's hand. Camellias shamelessly color the odd corner and hedge, singing a little song only to themselves. Next week, the buds will show signs of interest. Color and weight will slowly return with increasing urgency. Today, though, nature is crossing through the suspended moment between the notes of the local temple bell.

January 5, 2006. Heaters. Snow fell. I bought a second oil heater as it was on sale for Y5,000 (about $50). This type works, and I can dry my towels and especially the laundry across the top. Since dryers are considered wild extravagances instead of the obvious other half of owning a washer, this is a godsend.