Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A Day In Kobe 神戸

I made my way to the Kobe for the first time yesterday, a city known for two things outside Japan: 1) Gourmet beef from pampered cows (contrary to popular rumor, the cows do not drink beer on a regular basis, but a steak will set you back about $120) and 2) The 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, which until last March had been the worst natural disaster in recent Japanese history. To the Japanese friends I asked about the city, two very different things invariably came to mind: 1) Chinatown and 2) "お洒落 "(oshare), a word that means "posh" or "fashionable." Along with Nagasaki, Yokohama, and a few others, Kobe was designated as one of the ports for trade with the outside world after the opening of Japan in the 1800's, and it retains a cosmopolitan, international atmosphere to this day. This port history also made it a destination for Chinese immigrants, although we'll see soon enough that the Kobe Chinatown of 2012 is essentially an open-air food court. 

Nestled between the mountains and the Seto Inland Sea, Kobe is a pretty, compact city. The cheapness of my camera makes it ill-suited for impressive landscape shots, unfortunately, but ideal for little visual mementos. It's proven surprisingly durable in the face of drops as well as dousings of plum sauce. Anyways, let's get started:  

I arrived at 11:30 (Kobe's less than 2 hours away from Arida by train) and immediately headed to the Chinatown, which is called Nankin-machi (南京町) after the city of Nanjing. 

As a fairly competent reader of Japanese and a complete ignoramus regarding the Chinese language, seeing written Chinese can be kind of disorienting - it just seems a little off.  
Nankin-machi is basically a continuous sprawl of delicious-smelling stalls and restaurants. After stuffing my face with the first Peking Duck wrap I encountered, I quickly realized my folly: undersized and overcooked. To taste Nankin-machi's delights, I would have to take my place in one of the half-block long lines extending out of the most popular restaurants. 

 At the oldest pork bun shop in town, the line has a line: 

The buns themselves, though, are awesome. I honestly couldn't say what they tasted like because I've never had anything quite like this mysterious Chinese alchemy: sweet, spicy, soft, chewy, savory.....

The crowded, steaming, noisy atmosphere somehow stimulates the appetite 

Ever since my cousin introduced me to Joe's Shanghai in Manhattan, I have nurtured a burning passion for Shanghai-style soup dumplings, xiao long bao ( butchered into "shorompo" by the Japanese). Seriously, of the many magical things that can be done with flesh of pig, these are, in my humble opinion, the very best. I don't know why the combination of cloudy soup and pork and chewy skin is so satisfying, but whatever the reason, it consistently induces a sense of intense pleasure and all-around well-being deep in the reptilian part of my brain. Imagine my surprise, then, to find my favorite dumplings grilled.  
These haunt my dreams. 
Now that I've gotten the dumpling related hyperbole out of my system, let's see something a little more exotic:

Sliced pig ears (" brimming with collagen!")

Pig feet, also "brimming with collagen!" I've heard that ingesting collagen does nothing to make your lips or skin look like Angelina Jolie's. Many Japanese believe otherwise, apparently,  and it's not uncommon for 7-11s to have an entire small shelf devoted to collagen-containing beverages. My friend "J" chugs a little vitamin C/collagen supplement every chance he gets for reasons too complex and disturbing for the present discussion.  
Pork belly, blow-torched to order

Observant readers may have picked up on a theme to the food in Nankin-machi

Thoroughly stuffed with at least 6 varieties of pork product, I collapsed on a bench and napped in the open air, backpack in my lap. In Osaka this sort of gluttony is so common that they have a name for it: kuidaore ( 食い倒れ), which is naturally enough comprised of the words "eat" and "fall over."  I awoke twenty minutes later, refreshed and rejuvenated, and ambled to Meriken Park on Kobe's waterfront. 

Kobe Port Tower
The park was quite empty on a chilly day save for some dog walkers and families with exceptionally well-dressed children. As a tall foreigner with dark sunglasses, I resisted the urge to photograph said children for fear of being mistaken for something other than a tourist. I did, however, snap a shot of this life-size replica of Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria:  

She was built in the early nineties to commemorate five hundred years since the Genovese's fateful voyage, and actually made the trip from Barcelona to Kobe as a sign of Spanish-Japanese friendship. I was surprised by how small the thing was - it took me only 23 steps to walk from one end to the other - and by the intensity of my own reaction to it. It's not fair to pin all the horrors that came with the conquest of the Americas on Columbus himself, and the legacy of the "discovery" of the New World is complex beyond reckoning (I for one certainly wouldn't exist without it...), but.... but I suddenly found myself very angry at this inanimate wooden object in a sunny Japanese park. We can't help but live in the world that Columbus helped create, but I'm not sure that we should be celebrating that fact.... 

Anyways, my mood cleared when I found this memorial to Japanese emigrants 25 feet away. Meriken Park has all sorts of things with plaques to occupy oneself with:

A high-tech boat that almost floats above the water.

A non-functional phallic bell tower

Just outside the park, the aptly named "Girl Riding a Dolphin."  

The dolphin looks less than pleased with the situation.

Hardly unique to Kobe, but here's an interesting little cultural tidbit for those outside Japan.  Tanuki ("raccoon dogs") often show up as tricksters in Japanese folklore, using their magical powers to shift shape and turn leaves into money, for example. Their large testicles are considered symbols of good luck in money matters, which is one of the reasons why some shopkeepers place statues of them outside their establishments. Folkloric tanuki use this testicular endowment for mischief, of course.

"Engrish" apparel is usually nonsensical, but sometimes it veers into the obscene and philosophical....

American readers will be happy to know that "pro-wrestling" is big in Japan.  

"'Hollywood' Stalker Ichikawa" is my personal favorite. 

This country has few Christians outside of Nagasaki, though both Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses have a presence here in Wakayama. Accordingly, many of the church-like buildings in Japanese cities are actually wedding chapels that satisfy the huge demand for Western-style weddings, without any of that tedious theological stuff. I've met some pretty areligious white guys who make their living as "priests" officiating such ceremonies. 

The infamous toxic fugu pufferfish are actually kinda cute (taken just outside a fancy restaurant). 

I met up with my friend N, an Arida native studying in Kobe, and she guided me to the famous Ikuta shrine. After a celebrity couple got married here (shinto style) it became popular as a wedding spot, though its popularity has waned since they divorced....

Ikuta shrine has the feeling of an oasis in the midst of the garish neon entertainment district just outside its gates. 

N escorted back to the harbor and its illuminated pathways. 

Elvis! The plaque offered no explanation as to why Kobe has such a statue, but I guess the king doesn't need a reason.... 

This is honestly the best of about ten attempts at an impressive scenic shot from the bar....
We ended the day at a posh bar on the top floor of a waterfront tower, sipping on Guinness. Not a bad town, Kobe.

Sunday, 29 January 2012


Completely unrelated to the matter at hand, but here's an old picture of my friend Yu in an Osaka McDonald's, circa 2010. 
Feeling optimistic about my progress in the Japanese language, I decided to try out reading a full-length Japanese novel and picked up the first volume of Haruki Murakami's recently released 1Q84 towards the end of last August. Over five months and 1600 pages later, I set down volume three with a puzzled sigh. That's it?!? 

("1Q84" is a Japanese pun on 1984 - both can be pronounced "ichi-kew-hachi-yon")

Murakami has been one of my favorite writers since high school, and starting his latest novel in the original Japanese (before the English translation was completed!) was.... awesome. I won't divulge too many important plot details, but the book is at its core a love story about two lonely people searching for one another other. One's an personal trainer/assassin (generally not to the same people), one's a struggling writer, and, through distinct and unusual circumstances, both become entangled with a mysterious cult. IQ84 is recognizable a piece of Murakami work from the outset, complete with obscure musical references, aimless male protagonists who enjoy ironing shirts, prurient attention to female ears, weird fetishes (one character is obsessed Sean Connery's perfectly formed bald head), weirder sex scenes, extended quotes from interesting works of literature, memorable dialogue, fake newspaper articles, and mysterious supernatural forces at work.

 It also shares thematic similarities with Underground, his excellent nonfiction book on the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo.  Consider, for example, the similarities between Aum's leader Asahara Shoko and the charismatic leader of 1Q84's cult Sakigake - both are nearly blind, charismatic, and reclusive. And, like Underground, 1Q84 tackles the weighty subject of the search for personal narrative in the vacuousness of contemporary society, though what, precisely, Murakami is trying to say on the subject with this novel is not quite clear. Which is fine. The richness of his imagined worlds can lead to plenty of hidden meaning upon closer examination, but that same richness can't be reduced to an allegory about x or y (unlike, say, some of George Orwell's books).  I became obsessed with these books in high school because they were so entertaining. I learned how to read into the deeper levels of meaning in college, but it's Murakami's ability to sustain a fascinating, amusing, intelligent narrative for hundreds of pages that makes him such an appealing writer.

This brings me to my problem with 1Q84: It's boring.

There are many flashes of brilliance in the book, many delightful details and memorable scenes. The Little People (no "Big Brother" in 1Q84) are especially vivid, mysterious creations, and the character Tamaru - a world-weary, homosexual bodyguard and all-around badass - is consistently fascinating. There are also hundreds of pages of people staring out windows waiting for something to happen. Such chapters take up a large percentage of the work (most of the last third of the book), and they serve no apparent function except to inch the plot forward at an unnecessarily slow pace. I must admit that my struggles with the Japanese language probably didn't help things, but really, much of the book is tedious and repetitive, plain and simple. I can't help but suspect that Murakami has become a victim of his own success - his stature as Japan's leading writer and perennial Nobel prize contender may have taken a toll on his editorial discipline.

Whatever the cause, it's a pretty big disappointment. Fans will find much to like within the pages of 1Q84, but they'll have to sift through some less-than-interesting chaff to find it. The whole, in other words, is less than the sum of its parts.  If you haven't picked up a Murakami book before, I recommend The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore - they're awesome.

Here's a recent profile of the author from the NY Times:


In the interest of ending on a positive note, here's an extended quote from Anton Chekhov, whose travel diaries show up in one of the more interesting segments of 1Q84:

"At Oreanda they sat on a bench, not far from the church, looked down at the sea and were silent. Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist. The tops of the hills were shrouded in motionless white clouds. The leaves of the trees never stirred, the cicadas trilled, and the monotonous dull sound of the sea, coming up from below, spoke of the rest, the eternal sleep awaiting us. So the sea roared when there was neither Yalta nor Oreanda, and so it roars and will roar, dully, indifferently when we shall be no more. And in this indifference to the life and death of each of us lives pent up the pledge of our eternal salvation, of the uninterrupted movement of life on earth and its unceasing perfection. Sitting side by side with a young woman, who in the dawn seemed so beautiful, Gomov, appeased and enchanted by the sight of the fairy scene, the sea, the mountains, the clouds, the wide sky, thought how at bottom, if it were thoroughly explored, everything on earth was beautiful, everything, except what we ourselves think and do when we forget the higher purposes of life and our own human dignity." (The Lady with the Toy Dog, 1899)"

I can't think of a passage more precious to me, and I think it supports Christopher Hitchens's assertion that literature has more to teach us about life and morality than religion does. I could go on and on about about how awesome Chekhov is, but, well, that's old news..... 

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

....and we're back

First, a word on my hiatus from blogging: I decided last February to apply to law school, which, as it turns out, entails a rather grueling sequence of standardized testing, application writing, and anxious waiting for a final decision. Fortunately, said decision came last Friday - I'm going to Harvard Law School! I settled on HLS because of its excellence in environmental law and international legal studies, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited to be attending Barack Obama's alma mater. Here's to hoping the grandiosity of the place doesn't go to my head....

Anyways, last week's decision has freed up a lot of mental real estate, and it only occurred to me yesterday just how long I had neglected my dear old blog. Having just handed my papers declining Arida's offer to extend my teaching contract, it's hit me pretty hard that my months here in Japan are numbered. Fortunately, that number is 7,which allows me some time to cultivate at least a few more stories worth writing home about.

For now, though, please enjoy this snippet of conversation from the Fisherman's Bar in Arida last night:

Dramatis personae:

Master - the chef and proprietor of my favorite restaurant, Arida's Fisherman's bar

"R" - Master's bubbly assistant, a senior at a local high school, master of the fine arts of barroom banter and the management of drunk fishermen.

Katsuo - nickname ("katsuo"= a relative of tuna) of a Fisherman's Bar regular, speaker of the thickest, most unintelligible Wakayama dialect I've yet encountered

"C"- Yours truly

(Scene: R has just poured small cups hot sake for Katsuo and C at the Fisherman's Bar. Master is concentrating on slicing small slivers of fish flesh behind the bar.)

Katsuo: (jokingly) I expect an awesome souvenir when you get back from America. You're leaving next week, right?

C: Good of you to remember. I'm sure I'll think of something worthy of the great Katsuo.

R: Really?! You're heading back to America? Wowwwww..... That's, like, so foreign. I mean, Korea's a foreign country, but America's, like, super foreign. Wait?! So is Japan, like, a foreign country to Americans?!

C: Yup.

R: Whoaaaa! So can you, like, drive to America?

C: I'm afraid not, R. You see, America's......

Master:(interjecting) Y'know, R, cars are no good, but you can take a bus to America. (winks at C and Katsuo)

R: REALLY? like the one that runs to Tokyo?

Katsuo: Yep. Leaves right from city hall. You sure you haven't heard of this, R?

C: It's a hell of a lot cheaper than flying, though the seats are pretty cramped....

R: Huh... so it's, like, an all night bus ride? That must be pretty uncomfortable....

C: Twenty hours. Terrible.

R: I can't believe I'd never heard of it! Imma ask my mom about it when I get home.

Master: She's gonna laugh at you, R. It's super famous.

Katsuo: Yup.

C nods in agreement, stifling laughter. R takes a moment to make a mental note of this new fact. Five minutes pass, and she serves beers to two regular patrons after they enter the bar.

R: Y'know, I've been thinking about taking that bus to America that leaves out of city hall. (puzzled looks from the newcomers) You never heard of it? Well, I'm more knowledgeable about the world than i might look.....

Friday, 17 June 2011

Pomp and Circumstance

'tis the season! Or it was last month when I started writing this, anyways. Robes and mortarboards, friends and families gathered 'round, speeches and hors'douvres and farewell nights of revelry. It's a lovely time of year, and I'm especially sorry to be missing it now, with several beloved cousins and friends taking their well-earned, triumphal marches to their respective graduation podiums. (Instead, I sit here in my pajamas listening to the sounds of the year's first typhoon - spooky, humbling, and strangely comforting.) Sincerest congratulations to all those in Amherst, Oberlin, Brown, and elsewhere.

In honor of the occasion, here are some commencement-related readings:

The first is an article from the NY Times about American colleges and income inequality that prominently features recently ex-president of Amherst College Tony Marx. I sincerely hope that Amherst continues (and expands) the wise and generous policies that he championed, which allowed me and so many others to benefit from a great, horizon-widening education and graduate (relatively) unencumbered by debt. 

The other two are commencement speeches by two novelists, David Foster Wallace (a fellow Amherst alumnus!) and Jonathan Franzen. Both are certainly worth the five minutes it takes to get through them, and will hopefully be of interest even to those for not receiving diplomas this spring. I found them thoughtful in a sends-tingles-up-your-back kind of way. I read somewhere that Wallace's speech has actually been published in book form, one sentence per page. Silly to pay for what one can get for free, though.

I know that Wallace's speech has been in wide circulation for a while now, especially since his suicide three years ago, so it may not come as a revelation to many of you. Having just finished his mammoth novel Infinite Jest, though, I found myself rereading the speech and finding it just as interesting the second time around. His words on the effort it takes to go through one's daily life with presence of mind, not allowing familiar mental habits to cloud the immediacy and profundity of our existences, feel especially poignant in the (sometimes) grinding midst of the Japanese school year.

 At college, it sometimes seems as if sheer intellect holds the key to all life's great questions - that all problems will yield if one simply thinks hard enough about them, that humanity's most persistent quandaries simply await someone with the brilliance to break through them by sheer force of thought.  Infinite Jest both alerted me to this assumption I didn't know I still had and shattered it. One comes away from the book impressed by Wallace's singular, self-conscious brilliance. A man of both encyclopedic knowledge and vocabulary and the urgent need to show it off. There is real wisdom in that book, especially in some of the parts portraying the main character's struggle to overcome his addictions, but there are also large helpings of solipsism, nihilism, and fatalistic pessimism as well...

....But before I ramble on too much about the book, let me get to the point - Infinite Jest gives one the distinct impression of someone trapped inside their own head, struggling to control the internal cycles of their fears and neuroses. That Wallace could convey this so well leads me to think that he probably experienced a great deal of this himself. His speech addresses this issue head-on, showing his characteristically productive self-consciousness, and he sounds almost buddhist in his exhortations to mindfulness. That Wallace ultimately lost the battle against his inner demons (which apparently included debilitating clinical depression, among other things), only adds another, terribly sad and poignant note to the speech.

Franzen's speech is a fine example of what a friend of mine likes to call the luddite argument against our increasingly 'plugged-in' lifestyle. He means this disparagingly, saying that Franzen doesn't acknowledge the mutability of human connectedness, but I think the point stands: Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, etc. etc., abet our congenital human narcissism, that this impedes the love of things outside ourselves, and that, somewhat ironically, it is by giving ourselves over to people or causes beyond ourselves that we attain happiness and satisfaction for ourselves.

That Franzen would probably include this blog as a part of that love-killing technological apparatus is an irony that does not escape me.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Me, the sentimental old man (plus some pics)

Clark Kent retires to his favorite swingy chair after a long day of good-doing. (Is it narcissism if the portrait is almost as old as you are?) 

I observed the passing of my 23rd year on planet Earth Thursday. Before I forget, sincere thanks for all the birthday wishes via various physical and electronic pathways. Some of the more Scrooge-like among us hold that a "happy birthday!" sent via Facebook somehow means less than a card or verbal congratulations because Facebook both reminds us of the birthday and provides a way to fulfill greeting obligations in approx. 10 seconds. I think that's bulls**t - there is something humbling and wonderful about the cascade of well-wishers that appears on one's wall. 

I've neglected this blog for over a month now, the longest of several unintentional hiatuses since starting my chronicles. I wish I had a decent excuse beyond simple forgetfulness or the usual cliches about how time flies on by. I don't, though. But (to paraphrase David Foster Wallace), it's often the case that the more banal the cliche seems, the sharper the canines of the truth behind it. Time flies so very fast when you're 22 in a foreign land, simultaneously learning how to be a grown-up and a foreigner in one of the planet's more self-consciously insular countries. This is mostly because it's so much fun. Every smoothly executed Japanese conversation with a co-worker seems like a grand accomplishment, every meal out promises new smells and flavors, every evening of moonlight and cicadas seems a living, breathing haiku.

Sense of wonder is another one of those cliches that will sneak up and kick your a** when you least expect it. This happened to me on the car ride back from the island of Kyushu last week after a week of sightseeing, eating, and generally good-natured debauchery. I dozed off in the passenger's seat, rousing an hour later to that pleasant, if disorientating, place between sleep and wakefulness as the Japanese countryside passed by at 80 km/hr. For what seemed like several minutes I groped in vain for something familiar to orient my sleepy brain: Highway signs in Japanese, the hum of my friend's ipod, the low green hills outside of Hiroshima - all contributed to a sense of profound disassociation. "Where am I? Who am I?"

Like the proverbial ton of bricks, it hit me. "I am in a country called Japan, with good friends I did not know 9 months ago. I am an English teacher. I speak Japanese. I graduated from Amherst College almost a year ago. My little sister is at this moment in Buenos Aires, my parents sound asleep in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.... Life is good." I felt for a moment like Cinderella, terrified that midnight would come and I would wake up a tired, pimple and angst-ridden 15-year-old to find that the past eight years had been but a dream, that the wonders of first love, Japan, and college would vanish. poof

But nothing happened. Chris, the driver, tells me we're close to Hiroshima, making good time. I smile. 

I don't know how I got to this place, healthy, college-graduated, employed, with a so many people I actually consider friends wishing me well on my Facebook wall.  And still occasionally wonder how this could be really, truly be my life and not some sort of somnambular wish-fulfillment. But I never seem to wake up, no matter how hard I pinch myself... 

Ah, to be so drippingly sentimental at 23. I can only speculate what my friends and family will have to put up with when I'm a nostalgic old man....

Selected scenic pics from my golden week trip (4/29-5/7) to Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands: 
Purported to be the most beautiful bridge in all of Japan (Iwakuni)

Also Iwakuni

Takachiho gorge, Miyazaki prefecture

This one's for you, Allan (and any other geologists out there fond of ancient lava flows)

800 year old cedar

Shrine to Ameterasu, sun-goddess (still Takachiho). Apparently she spent many dark years in a cave not far from this site after ill-treatment from her brother and other gods. That cave, alas, is off-limits to sightseers, its location a tightly guarded secret.

Aforementioned sun goddess

A stone pagoda we erected on the beach of Aoashima,  Miyazaki


Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Saidaiji Naked Man Festival, Part II: Snatched from the Jaws of....

I was quite literally in the middle of this. 
And now, the long-overdue conclusion of this sordid tale:

Having joined forces with my friend Bear and his compatriots from Kochi prefecture, we made our way to the center of town. A group of friendly volunteers in white robes passed out paper cups of warm amazake, a sort of watery Japanese rice pudding, by the side of the road. Wafts of grilled noodle and roast chicken drifted through the narrow streets. We partook of some tasty Japanese carnival food (think meat-on-a-stick) before dutifully heading into the night's first trial: the changing area. 

Within the large tarp tent about 100 men in various stages of undress and about 5 wizened, elderly women milled about. Fundoshi loincloth and tabi socks in hand, we stripped and joined one of the many lines to be... fitted. Motivated by altruism, sadism, or some perverse combination, the fundoshi assistants at Saidaiji spent many hours that day helping complete strangers don the traditional white loincloths , which begin the night as nothing more than long strips of fabric. Most were old ladies, but ours was a young, bored-looking man, who wasted no time in wrapping the fundoshi around our lower halves and sealing it with a sudden, eye-popping, squeal-inducing YANK. 

Properly attired, our group stepped back out onto the street....

We are running, shoulder to shoulder, flanked in front and behind by other, larger groups of Japanese revelers. "Wa-shoi wa-shoi! Wa-shoi wa-shoi! Wa-shoi wa-shoi!!" We enter the temple grounds, veer to the right - ahead is a murky pond with an 8-foot obelisk at its far end. The air is cold, but the water is so much colder, up to our chests as we loop around the obelisk. "WASHOI WASHOIIII! WAHHHHH!!!!!" Our tabi and fundoshi soaked and sandy, we ascend the stairs to the man temple. Two claps and a silent bow. Down the temple stairs and around to the annex, where we ring the sacred bell and pay obeisance once more. Back to the courtyard - "WA-SHOI!! WAH-SHOI! WA-SHOI!" - and out the main gate. 

.... We repeat this circuit four or five times. Our voices grow hoarse. The second lap, I notice the size of the crowd at the margins of the temple ground: Thousands of fully-clothed spectators littered with TV cameras and the occasional newscaster. We are ascetics, celebrities, Japanese peasants of two hundred years past. After our fifth or sixth bow within the main temple, we are told to stop: It is beginning. The crowd begins as trickle, wet, drunk men stumbling onto the platform and awkwardly standing in place. The air grows warm and I notice that I no longer have room to stretch my arms. The platform is packed, every face oriented at the inner balcony on which stand priests and photographers. "50 minutes!!" 

The crowd compacts.  I feel a formless pressure on all sides, unable to move a single inch in any direction. "Lift your arms!" Trampling and heat exhaustion are genuine concerns here, and the priests address the former by splashing buckets of water on the crowd. Steam rises. "Wa-shoi! Wa-shoi!" The horde heaves. A shove at its margins is amplified, releasing shockwaves of human motion in the center. 4 feet to the left. 3 feet back. I lift my feet to avoid being stomped on (having lost my left tabi in the pond) and am held several inches above the ground by the pressure of those crowded around me. A drop in a sea of flesh and sweat. Always moving. The lights dim. Silence. A priest steps onto the balcony clutching a large bundle, unceremoniously flinging its contents into the crowd. 8 or so rectangular objects fly above our heads. THE SACRED STICKS!!!! One makes contact with my outstretched hand and I swiftly pull it to my chest. The unwelcome sensation of fingers not my own, searching my torso blindly for the prize. Cradling the shiki in my left arm, I curl my right palm into a fist and proceed to methodically bash the hands of would-be stick thieves. Thank god for all those years of karate. Bear is to my right. I poke him with the shiki - "I have something." Bear uses his ursine bulk to shield my rear half as I make my way out of the main platform, concealing the shiki within crossed arms. We make it down the stairs and into the courtyard. Fresh air! 

We examine the shiki: A bundle of sticks and leaves from a sacred tree, wrapped in a paper inscription. But  it gives off no incense smoke. A "little luck" stick, its value measured only in intangible good fortune for the rest of the year. Before us, two great balls of human flesh and violence slowly advance towards the gate, shouting and swearing. Blood streams from scraped knees and smashed noses. The big luck sticks, worth several thousand dollars each. I recross my arms and head out the main gate as inconspicuously as possible.   

The Big Luck shiki

A Little Luck shiki

And so this tale comes to a happy end, the hapless hero somehow emerging from the heart of darkness with a goofy grin on his face, treasure in hand. I find myself struggling for words to communicate the primal nature of the Naked Man Festival. As if the higher functions of one's brain cede control to lower mammalian or reptilian dictates: Run. Shout. Grab. Protect. Flee. 

It was also a lot of fun, despite the various bruises and scrapes incurred. How infrequently it is that we engage in physical contest, where one's strength and animal wits are the sole determinants of the outcome. For most of human history (or rather, prehistory), I suppose, this was a primary way of engaging with the world, whether to obtain food or settle disputes. Nowadays we channel those basic urges, sublimating them, abstracting them. But, I think, It's good for the psyche, if not the soul, to embrace that side of one's nature every one in a while. 

Many, many thanks to Bear, Jacy, and Rachel, who kindly let me use her pictures! 


Sunday, 13 March 2011

Tsunami, or, "There's nothing left but to enjoy tonight."

At about 4:00 Friday, I had just sat down for tea and cookies with other teachers at Minato Elementary after a full day of classes when the tsunami warning came out. There had been a large earthquake off the cost, the principal told us, and though Arida is far from the epicenter, we had better get to the roof.

"Minato" means "port" in Japanese, and from the windy roof we could see the still, shimmering ocean. A half hour passed. The predicted two meter tsunami did not come. Some neighborhood families had come to the school seeking higher ground, but a sense of relief and normalcy soon returned. I helped the first-grade teacher post student artwork on the ground floor bulletin board. 

I had plans to see friends in Osaka that weekend, including a breakdance performance by the fourth-grade teacher at one of my elementary schools(!), so I went home, took a nap, and made my way to the big city blithely oblivious to the devastation in northeast Japan. It was only after I met up with some Japanese acquaintances later that night, at an Irish pub of all places, that I saw the footage of towns being swept away and factories set ablaze. Pangs of guilt for drinking Guinness at such a time. 

The next morning (yesterday, that is), I received a call from my sister in Argentina - "Are you OK? Have you talked to mom and dad yet?" Pangs of guilt for forgetting that, though Wakayama's distance from the quake and my own safety seemed obvious geographical and existential truths to me, they would be far from obvious to those who care about me back in the States. Sincerest thanks, and apologies, to all those who worried about me. 

A few hours before my breakdancing teacher friend's performance, I ambled through the streets of Shinsaibashi, one of the city's most debauched neon night districts. Young men in slim suits with strange hair asked me how my "search" was going,  groups of college-age friends posed for pictures, women in short skirts flirted with small herds of drunk businessmen. In a word, normalcy. I made my way to Ola, a Mexican restaurant run by a Japanese couple - the husband a stoic aficionado of salsas and tequilas, the wife a gregarious bartender who my friends and I immediately mistook for an actual Mexican the first time we visited. 

The conversation at the bar, naturally, turned to the ongoing disaster several hundred miles northeast. 

"Y'know, they say we're due for a big earthquake here in Kansai too - the nankai jishin." 
(Kansai = The Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe/Wakayama area of Japan)

"Really?" I blurted out, barely concealing the surprise and concern in behind it. 

"Yep. Like the Kobe earthquake." 

"I was here in Osaka when that hit. It split a crack right down the middle of the roof in our apartment...."

(Osaka is only a 30 minute train ride from Kobe and experienced strong tremors during that quake.) 

"We're screwed if it hits Osaka," the barkeep said as a half-smile spread across her face, "Osaka's one of the weakest cities when it comes to that sort of thing." 

"Why's that?" I asked, eyebrow raised. 

"Because Osaka people are damn fools."(osaka no hito wa minna aho yakara) Her face bloomed into a full, bemused grin. "If a building catches fire, you're supposed to evacuate, right? Not so in Osaka. This very building could be on fire right now, and we'd just say 'hey, you smell that?' 'fire? psshhh, don't be ridiculous!' We'd all die in the restaurant, beer in hand, laughing like the fools we are."

"Not such a bad way to go, I guess," I offered.   

"Not at all." 

"You can't predict these sorts of things anyways."


"I still feel bad about what's happening up in Sendai. I just wish I could do something." 

"Besides giving money, there isn't a whole lot we can do." 

"True, but... I guess you're right." 

"Like you said, it could be us tomorrow," the barkeep said, "No way to predict these things. And that's why, for us, there's nothing left but to enjoy tonight." With that she poured chilled tequila into a long row of glasses that had miraculously appeared in front of her. "On the house." 

The closest analogy I can think of to how people here in Kansai are experiencing the Northeastern Japan Tsunami is how people in Maryland felt when Hurricane Katrina first struck. Before the botched response added insult and compounded injury, before the justified outrage at "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!", there was that visceral mix of awe, fear, sympathy, and a sense of our own futility at what was happening.

 "Natural disaster" is an interesting phrase as such - besides the usual, literal meaning, "natural" also has the nuance of "in keeping with the order of things." We think of wars and other human-born crises as preventable, their occurrence the result of our failure to prevent them. Not so with earthquakes. All we can do in the face of forces beyond human magnitude is prepare best we can and respond when they do strike. But we are ultimately at their mercy: some people in northeast Japan had minutes between feeling the ground shake beneath them and the arrival of the tsunami. We call such things acts of god for a reason - before geology and meteorology, what could have possibly explained a wall of water thirty feet high but a wrathful deity?

If any place is prepared for such disasters, though, Japan is. I highly recommend Nick Kristof's essay on the disaster for those interested - he articulates something I felt strongly but could not put words to. I'd add one thing, though, to toughness and resiliency he describes, something in the words of that bartender at Ola: humor.  Osaka people are known for their raucous, slightly mean sense of humor, and I think it reflects a certain type of fatalism common to any people who have known misfortune ( this has been said about Jewish humor, but really, laughter is not so far from tears in many places.... here, the trauma of WWII has not entirely faded into history yet). Realizing that ceiling could quite literally come crashing down on one's head at any given moment, one is faced with a choice: to worry, or to laugh. Perhaps this is not the first response one feels at seeing a costal village wiped away, and certainly there are times when the sheer enormity of a tragedy precludes any response but stunned silence or inexpressible sadness. Once that initial shock begins to fade, though, the stoic resolve and stifled tears that Kristof describes will share space with laughter. Not simply out of bitterness, though there will surely be some of that, but because misfortunes of this magnitude are, in a cosmic sense, funny. They put into high relief the smallness of our selves, our ambitions, our problems - all suddenly absurd in this new light. Down at the bottom of pandora's box, just to the left of hope, the gods must have left us laughter too. 

I felt a sudden sense of solidarity with those affected by the tsunami in Ola last night, hearing about the nankai jishin and realizing that nothing but sheer chance separates me from someone on the northeast coast. But I guess that's the case with any disaster, manmade or natural, large or small. My prayers are with those in northeast Japan, as are much of the world's. We should do what we can to help in these situations - I'll go give blood Wednesday - but there's precious little most individuals can accomplish from where we live. For now, then, I guess there's nothing left but to enjoy tonight. 

Much love to all my friends and family.