Monday, August 22, 2011


To me, Kayosan has always been a mythical figure, larger than life, with her neat knee length skirts and string of pearls, cast up in realms of Japanese society where a foreigner and lowly English conversation teacher like me couldn’t belong. I knew before leaving for Japan that it was a rare privilege to be invited into a traditional Japanese home, what I didn’t expect was the strange loneliness that crept over me, never being invited, being admired as an oddity from afar, never ushered in from the arms length at which I was held.
I met Kayo for the first time at a friend’s birthday party in a karaoke room, the big party kind of karaoke room lined with brown vinyl booths, flat screens hanging at both ends and mugs of frothy Asahi lager sweating onto wobbly tables. Kayo’s self-possessed style clashed with the self-conscious English teachers, foreigners in our mid-to-late 20’s, loud and brash and thirsting for the karaoke spotlight, singing overplayed pop songs and those of us who had been studious, chopping our way through overplayed Japanese pop songs.
I thought she was someone’s mother or conversation student or a grossly out of place librarian. She wore deep red rose colored lipstick on full lips, slightly wrinkled around the creases, two circles of matching rouge slapped on her cheeks, flat and fleshy like pancakes, peering at us behind small, heavy hooded eyes with kind acceptance, even love, a desire to be accepted by us for whatever reason.
Somewhere amidst our crude renditions of The Stones, N’Sync, and Lady GaGa, Kayosan with her skirt neatly folded and legs crossed, perched on the sofa as if it were a chaise in His Imperial Majesty the Emperor's castle, she lifted the microphone gently to her lips and sang a soul shattering version of “House of the Rising Sun”.
The whole room that moments before was milling, talking, laughing, dancing, came to a halt, or seemed to, to watch Kayosan as she flooded the room with her deep sonorous voice, rolling her shoulders up with every belting lyric, pulling the song from somewhere deep inside, sending her left cheek trembling.
The woman observing meekly in the corner, causing me to feel mildly uncomfortable was now irreversibly transformed. Her lips, a fluttering red river that revealed all her emotions and the beautiful thoughts and images held in her mind, quivered over each word and made her whole face beautiful.
When I looked away and just listened, the song came from a haggard ex-hells angel who had killed a man, not a sophisticated Japanese woman who taught music lessons and Japanese to foreigners, for something to do with her time, a volunteer, she told me.

At my first lesson, I found her waiting for me at a coffee shop, looking around with droopy, wet eyes. I gracelessly piled myself into the chair across from her, a few things sliding from my bag. I smiled and all small talk I was prepared to have was brushed aside as she pushed two books in front of me and went into an explanation that I didn’t understand other than that students she had in the past always used those books.
One of the books was called “Japanese for Busy People” and I started to laugh considering how busy I considered myself, I started to tell her this, she was already telling me about the next book, a book of Kana, the Japanese phonetic alphabets. She slid her thumb down the rows of the curving Hiragana letters reading each aloud, having me repeat, stopping at “n” and “wa” and “z”, telling me these sounds aren’t like English, Japanese don’t use their abdomen or lips to form the sounds, the sounds come from minimal effort and just happen as if from nowhere.
She lead me through the activity book, “so, so, so,” she said as I spelled words correctly. My mind was complete putty in her hands and I was worried I wouldn’t remember a letter, I would disappoint her, she would think I was wasting her time. My brain struggled trying to remember the straight and bland Katakana letters.
A few letters were no problem, but as she added more, others spilled out like alphabet soup and were forgotten. She asked me if I was okay, I said I was okay and she said okay, one more, my boxing coach, putting me in for one more round of sparring, pushing me past myself a little harder, a little further than I could on my own.
As we left after that first meeting I felt so grateful to her, I wanted to ask her about herself, to not feel this strangeness. In front of the train station I searched my brain on how to form a sentence, she waited until I haltingly produced ramen o tabetai, “I want to eat ramen” to which she became excited and shuffled me into the closest ramen shop.
Between slurps of oily hot noodles she asked me how I liked Kimitsu, the town I lived in, and I started telling her how I liked being able to ride my bike out into the woods, she sighed and I felt like I was telling her I liked to watch grass die. She motioned to the chef that she wanted to pay.
“Tell him oishkatta ‘it was delicious’,” she said nudging me.
“Oishkatta,” I said hesitantly. The chef nodded.

Our lessons continued awkwardly, I thought each might be the last, but without fail she always asked me to meet again, and I always did. I wondered why she was so generous with me, because with whom had I ever been generous?
It would take three months and the arrival of Kelly, my husband, until Kayo invited me to her house. An event which I had both longed for and feared as I imagined there to be a large albeit silent ordeal in the doorway concerning the removal of our shoes with me and/or Kelly inevitably doing something wrong followed by stooping into a dark cavernous tatami room where we would sit at a kotatsu in a world of secret unbreakable customs, slowly but surely breaking each one.
She met us outside the train station, her eyes pinched and searching upwards at the schedule like a lost puppy. On the way to her car we had the usual conversation like backstroking through lumpy oatmeal. Me with my American casualness, asking first always how she is doing which seems too abrupt a question but a question without which I could never manage to start a conversation.
I asked her about an email she had sent me in Japanese which was written with Kanji, the third and final 2,131 character basic level writing system, the Chinese characters, the bane of my existence. She began explaining it to me as we walked.
“You know Chiba, this one,” she said running up to a train station sign and pointing to a Kanji, her finger tracing frantically along its criss-crossing lines. I nodded slowly, I knew Chiba, the prefecture I lived in, but really, I didn’t recognize any Kanji. “Here is Chiba and here station and here,” she ran her fingers around an empty box, “this means a mouth, it’s like an exit, so North, this way, North exit. You see?”
I didn’t.
We drove through her neighborhood like most residential areas in Japan, clean, indistinct boxes of apartments and intermittent secret homes, and she pulled up to an out of place lawn butted against what turned out to be her house. She led us into her living room where an unpretentious tan leather sofa rested among stacks of books and CD’s and a few scattered pictures, the whole room somewhat resembling an upper-class goodwill.
Kelly and I stood lingering, eyeing her embroidered Alabama and USA pillows. Kayo darted in her kitchen, banged some cupboards and clanged a few pots, shot back out, jumped straight onto her piano bench, lifted the piano cover and bent her outstretched fingers over the keys, playing a few random notes. I asked her if that was her husband playing the cello in the picture leaning atop her piano.
“So, so, so,” she said, absently telling us he always chooses music that is too difficult for him to play. “Oh yes, now let’s sing,” she said abruptly as if it were what she was trying to remember all along.
My interest in her embroidered pillows suddenly intensified. Kelly grinned uncomfortably.
“Okay, Erin will sing ‘Amazing Grace’.”
Are you kidding me?
I laughed and waved my hand, saying a silent prayer that she wouldn’t press any further.
“Okay, please dance,” she said smiling. I thought of the first time she met me, booty dancing to Snoop Dogg at karaoke, did she expect me to stand in the middle of her living room on the cold wood floor and get low to piano music? I picked a piece of lint from my sock.
“Can you tango?” She asked Kelly, giving up on me.
“Tango?” he echoed.
“He can waltz,” I said and grabbed him by the hand and pulled him off the sofa, figuring this was our best way out of anything more humiliating. We laughed in spite of ourselves, and waddled and spun across the living room, and for a moment between giggles, in each other’s arms, we were at our wedding with all eyes on us for our first dance, an orb of love floating between our chests, the world falling away.

I mentioned at a lesson that my coworker, Kevin, had tried to rent a cello but couldn’t. I asked if she knew where he could, and a few months later, we were in Kayo’s living room, Kevin bolt upright straddling Kayo's husband's cello, holding the massive instrument for the first time since middle school. I sat at the dining room table with a package of white calligraphy paper, a fat bamboo-handled paintbrush, a bucket of black ink and instructions to paint Kanji and to meditate to the sound of Kevin's cello.
“How do you do this stroke,” I asked whisking my hand through the air. Kayo stared at me blankly for a second and without answering ran over to Kevin and set up his music sheets.
“Ugh,” I huffed under my breath, slicking the white paper in front of me. I glared at Kevin and picked up a paintbrush, swirling its bristles into the abyss of ink, trying to let my mind relax, to meditate as Kayo had suggested. I held the brush over my paper and looked from paper to the Kanji I chose from lack of any direction, the one for “water”, back to paper and to Kanji once more. As I set my brush down and began the sequence of strokes, a violent squeal like a duck being tortured pierced from Kevin's cello across the room and sent my line into an indecent puddle, a low-budget Rorschach.
I did this repeatedly until Kayo scurried over to have a look. She sucked air through her teeth, thinking, the sound of Kevin’s cello screeching behind her, and grabbed a pile of newspaper, which she started cutting in halves. “So, so, how about newspaper?” she said, moving the nice calligraphy paper to the other side of the table. “Do BIG stroke, ko, using your whole body.” She made a move like she was churning butter and smiled, teeth clenched.

Books and copies from books and burnt CD’s and sound files written with Kayo’s voice stacked from the floor and shelves of my apartment into insurmountable mountains. I sat in front of Kayosan at another lesson and couldn’t learn one more word or rule or Kanji. Instead, she told me a story about the first time Bill Clinton visited Japan.
“The Prime Minister was so nervous, ‘Whoa! An American president, come to Japan!’” she mimicked and explained, “He wanted to try to speak some English and he practiced a lot, but he was really nervous. When he shook the President’s hand he said, ‘h…h…h… who are you?’"
I laughed.
“This is kind of strange thing, isn’t it- ‘who are you?’ You don’t say this, is this right?”
I agreed and told her it’d be a strange thing to say, maybe only in a really dramatic situation would someone say “who are you,” like if a man just revealed to his wife that he wasn’t really a banker, but had been a spy or a male stripper for the whole of their marriage.
She stared at me blankly.
“It was in the newspaper, ‘Who are you,’ dayo,” she said chuckling. “But ‘who are you’ is really, ko, pushy, right?”
I couldn’t understand her pronunciation of ‘pushy’.
“I really need to be careful with pronunciation sometimes,” she said.
I wrinkled my forehead.
“Pushy, puu-shy,” she repeated.
I didn’t get it.
“Like- pussy dayo.”
I was stunned, I put my head down on the table laughing, I looked back up and I saw for the first time, a real person, a friend.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but, Kevin, the most focused I had ever seen him, unearthed his forgotten cello talent and I continued to work on calligraphy, the two of us becoming fixtures at Kayo’s house almost every weekend.
One particular weekend, as I practiced the Kanji meaning “to come” over and over on shreds of newspaper, with Kevin playing the same beautifully sad song over and over, something happened. I felt a smile rise in me, watching the charcoal swirl in wet circles on the suzuri stone and my brush wetted in the black ink it formed. I held the brush above the paper, knowing what strokes to do, where to apply the pressure, how to move my body, I didn’t hesitating as I dove my brush onto the paper. No strokes could be erased, corrected, what I painted was indelible, and for a moment, seconds or possibly years, I understood what I was doing.
I lifted my brush from the paper and leaned back to see what I had done, I sensed the connection of all things in the black strokes and the space surrounding them, because for the first time, it was lovely. I fist pumped the air triumphantly, and held it up for someone to see, but no one saw, and I didn't care.

A week after the March 11 earthquake, we had a party with some friends, Miki and Keiko, and Kayo’s husband, Keizusan, trying to get our minds off gamma rays and nuclear core reactors and little families riding the tiled roofs of their house as they floated away on dirty waves.
Miki and Keiko had met Kayo before and were excited to go to her house.
“Oh, she is rich Japanese,” Miki said.
Miki asked me what her house was like and I said jokingly that it was bigger than my apartment, which was barely one small room.
“The whole building?” she said, thinking I meant Kayo’s house was bigger than my entire 36-unit apartment complex. “It’s like palace?” her eyes lit up.
Kayo was outside her house on the street waiting for us in her pastel rose patterned apron and broken corduroy house slippers. Keizusan, as small as Kayo with a face wrinkled into a permanent smile, welcomed us in and shuffled around getting us drinks and trying to keep up with Kayo who was already on the piano poking at the keys, directing Kevin on the cello, telling Keizu what food and drinks to get us, looking for different music, looking for her glasses all while trying to extract from each of her guests what their performing talents were.
Kevin and Keizusan played a piece together on the cello, Kevin’s face clenched in focus on the music sheet, his mouth hanging slightly open and head jerking in agreement to the notes. Keizu behind his cello the same size as his body, his mouth pursed into a kissing smile, flirting with the music, eyes empty black tunnels, transported to some place none of us could reach but wherever it was he brought back a sound that, together with Kevin’s sound, made our hearts cry.
Kayo was at her happiest when her house was full of people playing music or painting or dancing or singing together. One evening a group of old women, one old man, one young chorus teacher and aspiring actor, Kevin and I filled her house. The women showcased their talents on the piano and sang, trying to see who could come closest to shattering Keizu’s crystal whisky glasses as they went through the usual gambit of songs together, awkwardly closing their mouths around the English lyrics to, “Amazing Grace” and “You Raise Me Up”, Kevin sang duets and played "Kojonotsuki", an old meloncholic Japanese song about a moon over a crumbled castle, and two women kneeled beside a long instrument called a koto like the giant neck of a cello, as big as a grown man, that laid on the floor as they plucked its thick strings, an instrument made to be listened to under flowering cherry blossom trees.
That night, after the guests had trickled out, Kayo, exhausted, sat on her piano bench straight enough to balance a book on her head, and fell asleep with lips still curled in a smile like Buddah. I beckoned Kevin to come see, and we laughed, she didn’t know how happy she made us.

Before leaving Japan, I came to her house where she was keeping some luggage for me, as she does for many teachers finished passing through Japan, on their way back to America or Canada or England. Repacking my things, I found the silver wig I had worn at the club the night before, and I brought it to Kayo to try on.
She put it on and stood with her arms to her sides waiting for a reaction from Kevin and me, a thick strand of black hair stuck out at the front. We told her and she swiped her hand across her face, pulling more hair out. She smiled at us expectantly.
“What do you think?” she said.
“Kayo, there’s a piece of hair right here,” Kevin said reaching toward her.
“So, so, so, okay, I will…” she turned and plodded up the stairs.
Running back down, beaming, the wig giving her a shining auora, I handed her my Elton John-esq sunglasses and we all agreed she looked like a celebrity. Kevin took her picture and we told her she looked like a rockstar.
That word, rockstar, sent a switch off in her, she sprinted to her piano and laid into the keys heavy and loud playing “House of the Rising Sun” singing a little too fast, holding back a rage of excitement, and just as quickly as she started, she gave the keys a final push and was finished. I told her to keep the wig.
“Good,” because she had a class reunion that night and, “One of my ex-boyfriends will be there,” she said chuckling.
I instantly thought of all the times I was going to wish I hadn't given the wig away. I wasn’t generous, but Kayo made me want to be, and I wasn’t brave like Kayosan either, who sang rock and roll and broke rules, laughing in the face of status quo and flinging open her doors to the unpredictable foreigner, grabbing them by the arm and, unabashedly, teaching them of beauty.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Earthquake Day One

At the river, an old man in a shiny blue jacket said good morning, ohayou gozaimasu. A woman pedaled her bike as if through sand across the bridge, river walkers walked by and pretended not to stare. Here we all were, on this archipelago, rifted from the mainland and set out to sea, set apart and all alone.
At work Kevin told Tomoko, the school manager, on March 18th the moon is supposed to be really big, really close to the earth, a perigee moon. He said he hoped this didn't cause a big earthquake because a lot Japanese friends said there haven’t been enough little earthquakes this year to diffuse a big earthquake. Tomoko said that this scared her, and the sincerity in her voice gave me goosebumps.
"Well, I hope nothing happens March 18th," Kevin said passively. "I hope it's a clear night."
I stood in front of the copier, gazing out the window, thinking about the perigee moon. I looked down, the copier was wobbling.
"Look, it's an earthquake," I said, pointing at the copier. "Isn't that weird?"
"Look, Keviiin!" Tomoko shouted into Kevin's classroom. "Earthquake!"
She pointed to the coat rack, the hangers clinking together.
The noises around us grew louder, violent, banging doors, clattering venetian blinds, hundreds of little things slapping against the walls. We froze, staring at each other, waiting for it to fade, but it didn't.
It went on minute after minute, we were on the fourth floor, the top floor of the building, swaying like a drunk salaryman. I ran into my classroom to shut off my heater and the floor was unsteady, like a boat, rocking around on big rolling waves.
“Let’s go under the desk,” I finally said, pulling out the rolling chairs.
Tomoko and Kevin quietly obliged, bending themselves half under the desk and half outside keeping an eye on the shaking ceiling. I tucked myself completely under the desk, and felt the bulging pulse in my neck, realizing for the first time I was scared. I imagined the ceiling crashing down, everything collapsing around us, would this desk protect us when the world caved in?
I waited, wide-eyed, searching my mind for a smarter survival strategy. Before I could think of anything better, the noise quieted, the violent shaking passed, leaving us in a building trembling with memory.
I crawled out from under the desk and roamed the school. I picked up a small wood plaque that fell off a shelf, a metal rod that keeled over from a forgotten corner, a tin box that squeezed itself out from a tower of boxes still standing in my classroom.
Nothing was harmed, nothing broke, no furniture toppled, not even a book fell off the bookshelf. Everything was okay, and I wanted to cry. I saw tears unshed collecting in Kevin and Tomoko’s eyes. The fragile world we build, that we call life, was taken by the neck and jerked around and there was nothing anyone could do but wait for it to end, not knowing what the end would be.
In the dark place that was pushing up tears was the knowledge that our world was not solid, no matter how hard we try. The solid ground we stand on waved underneath us like water washing away our trust with reality. But no one cried, ever, because what would we cry for except every emotion?
As the numbing shock wore off and we began to realize what happened, Kevin’s student walked in and sat down to talk to Tomoko.
“I feel like I’m gonna puke,” Kevin said. “And now he’s here.” He gestured to his student who he’s afraid of, who wears white towels wrapped around his head and who Kevin thinks is yakuza, Japanese mafia.
I felt the student shouldn’t have been there, and we shouldn’t either, but wondered where else we would go. Kevin’s student looked unperturbed, his face calm and his booming voice steady, making me question if the earthquake really happened, but as I learned later eavesdropping into his class, he was scared too.

The day continued, laced with aftershocks, but we stayed, rarely acknowledging that the building felt like it rested on Jell-O. Intermittently the earth grumbled loudly, causing everyone to stop, look, wait, laugh nervously, carry on.
Stories circulated of tsunamis no taller than a 5-year-old child sweeping out towns, oil refinery explosions, mushroom clouds, muted black chemical skies dripping with fire. Stories from my students, of a co-worker who complained he felt sick and was about to go home when the earthquake hit. My student mimed an upset stomach as she told me, her husband grinned. “He say he will go to home, but then, earthquake happen and we tell him, ‘oh it was just earthquake make you feel sick!’”
“He stay!” her husband said, nodding, laughing loudly, wanting to laugh, and not think how nauseous we all felt.
“How is your home?” I asked.
“It is okay,” she reassured. “Books fell off, and his mother say she won’t clean. Probably there are more earthquake she say books will fall again so… she leave.” They sat back in their chairs and laughed some more until shortly there was nothing more to laugh about.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


It rained all morning in Kimitsu before Omatsuri, the harvest festival, a day that mikoshi, portable shrines, are freed from their musty storage barns and paraded through town on proud shoulders, the gods silently waving hello.
A team of mikoshi carriers persisted throughout the morning, practicing in mud puddled pavement, synching their movements with their chants so together they could lift and shake and toss the mikoshi through the streets and back to the Goryo shrine.
Murmurs of the festival being canceled dissolved into a boiling yellow sky. Remaining bystanders peeled off layers of jackets and sweatshirts, smiling breaths full of grassy air as the mikoshi arrived unceremoniously on the flatbed of a truck. I had seen mikoshi before, always as a clinking gold streak floating through the night on a sea of sweaty drunk men, but never anything like this. This was the most beautiful mikoshi I had ever seen.
It was a shrine, with its millions of intricate and enigmatic details, boiled down to two tons and dipped in gold. A bird curling its wings as it lifted itself through the sky, shone in the sunlight on the apex of the roof, a sprig of unhusked rice in its beak, gently swayed in the breeze. Thick ropes, bold red and purple, like two fat pythons coiled around each other, twisted from under the bird and fell over the four sides of the roof, ending in straight and jaunty tassels like marti gras wigs.
The mikoshi carriers lingered nearby on a street corner in their traditional happi robes, tied low around their hips with a cloth belt, torsos looking long, some happi hung open and bellies stuck out, some happi were army green, some a light blue overlaid with a navy blue design like the bottom of a weaved basket. They all wore the same white cotton shorts hovering above meaty quadriceps, and cloth shoes called tabi, white and mud stained, cleft at the big toe like deer hooves that clung gracefully to the pavement.
They gathered together and lifted the mikoshi off the flatbed, their progress wobbly, precarious, nervous strain flashed from face to face as they rested it onto a heavy wood platform. I tried to spot Kevin, the only foreigner in the group and his outspoken Karate teacher Yukio, but they were swallowed under the mikoshi in the mass of bodies.
With the mikoshi safely in place on its platform, the leader stood in front, set apart by his mustard-colored robe, a crescent of kneeling men curled around him, their eyes on the ground and ears turned up like dishes catching every drop of wisdom from his melodious speech, distinctly Japanese, quick and even, coming to a halt at regular intervals with a barely perceptible nod of the head, speech like precise pounding of keys on a typewriter stopping at each end to pull back the bar.
When he was finished the men clapped their hands tersely in sync. With the final clap they stood up and took their places under the heavy wood support beams that crossed under the shrine. The men chanted loud and strong back and forth and with a great heave they sent the portable shrine afloat on their hands and down onto their shoulders. The golden bird rocked violently, gold curtains spilled from all sides and the gods peeked out from dark corners, saying hello to cars as they waited through green lights for the mikoshi to pass.
A mass of legs like a caterpillar scurried under the shrine, to the start of the festival street lined with booths selling chocobanana, candied apples, cotton candy, whirlpools of super-balls for children to ladle out, and fare cooked on greasy cast iron, takoyaki, obanyaki, yakisoba. They eased the mikshoi onto its wood platform and hung around it, speaking easily to each other in scattered groups, faces shining, course hands smoking stiff cigarettes, sitting on the curb regally with legs spread as they drank cans of warm beer and sakè ladled out of a drum into paper cups.
Yukio brought me some saké, it tasted like a fresh cut lawn, the men use it to purify themselves before carrying the mikoshi, Yukio told me. The mikoshi carriers regrouped and chanted and moaned and shouted, “hoota, hoota!” and lifted the mikoshi back onto their shoulders. They carried the mikoshi up and down the block a few yards, stopping to spin it around, tilt it up and down and making it dance. The crowd took a subdued interest, but it quickly scattered to the food stands and the carriers’ chants faded into the din.
The mikoshi carriers bent under the hot sun and two tons of shrine, no help from the crowd. Apropos nothing, their chanting grew louder, heftier, they pumped the mikoshi up and down becoming more excited with each lift, their eyes gleamed and voices melded into a powerful series of grunts from the heart of the earth, stilling the crowds with the electricity circling through them. With all eyes now on the mikoshi, their voices became a crescendo of bellowing shrieks that sent the mikoshi sailing through the air.
All was calm as the shrine floated for one full second of complete trust and insanity, two tons of metal and god hovering a foot above a hundred outstretched fingertips. Everyone held their breath until the mikoshi landed squarely back into the palms of the carriers, releasing the crowd into an outpour of delighted squeals and cheers.

The sky eventually tired and yawned a heavy blue, blanketing the crowd with a calm indigo light. A procession of tired children and mothers with babies on their hips, pairs of chatting old women, groups of texting teens and staggering drunk men followed the glow of soft paper lanterns leading to the Goryo shrine.
It was dark by the time we reached the shrine. There was already a crowd of people waiting, flutes whistling ancient cadences along with the low rhythmic bellows from teams of taiko players, raising blunt wood sticks high above their heads and pounding them in a rapid, effortless circles of rhythm against the wide face of the drum. The mikoshi carriers, their hair and happi drenched in sweat, did a few more lifts and twirls with the mikoshi before lifting it up wide stone steps and resting it finally in the white gravel courtyard of the shrine.
I entered the shrine grounds for the first time after having passed it nearly everyday for the last few months. Gruesome dragon-like statues gazed out from roof corners, the top of the staircase, the door frame, opened, yellow light spilled out. I peered in at the simple wood paneled interior and tried to wrap my mind around the millions of symbols, the shiny back altar engraved in gold ivy, stacked with piles of oranges, bottles of sho-chu, drums of sake; incense snaking up and vanishing, blooming gold lotuses hovering in the foreground, red candles flickering on heavy ebony stands next to a taiko drum, a minature scene under a smaller shrine within the shrine.
The mikoshi carriers gathered under a tent at tables set up with trays of fried food and beer. Yukio invited me in the tent and it seemed strange, like an honor I hadn’t earned. As the men laughed and ate and drank the leader in the mustard-colored robe stood up and gave a speech, afterward more men stood up and spoke from their tables, the tent roared with laughter from the stories told about the day. The thought crossed my mind that they would want Kevin to make a speech and just as I imagined this, I noticed the mustard-robed man look over to our table in the back.
“What’s he saying?” I asked Yukio.
“You have to say something about the day, tell what you thought.”
Kevin and I shrieked, and all heads turned toward our table, the laughter and noise suddenly drained out of the tent leaving an expectant silence to fill. Kevin stood up and I can’t remember what he said because I was so nervous that I was going to have to talk and I had nothing to say about my impression because I didn't understand it then. Kevin was finished and I stood up and took a deep breath as I gazed over a sea of green robes, open faces.
“You’re all strong men,” I eventually said. Yukio’s voice came from somewhere behind me, translating for a while. The men laughed making me wonder what Yukio said. I looked at the group of men before me, salary men, dentists, lawyers, teachers who had been one animal, a riot, a river, an ecstasy of minds under the tension of a mikoshi, capable of anything, but soon their minds would separate and the night would fade with the steam from their morning cup of tea. I stood wishing for words where there were only these thoughts. “Omoshirokatta,” I said instead, it was fun and interesting.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mt. Fuji

On the last bus from Tokyo to the 5th station of Mt. Fuji, a subdued nervous excitement traveled down the aisles, through the seats. Plastic wrappers crackled in the silence as we ate 7-11 snacks, fervently, putting a little extra rice in our bellies for the dark journey ahead.
A Japanese girl sat next to me and glanced repeatedly over to her mother who stood outside waving, she waved back limply and stared down at her oversized pack. The mother waited, back stiff, the ugliness of the yellow bus terminal light shattering on her high cheekbones. The girl seemed about to cry, her breath caught in her chest while her mother nodded tenderly with pursed lips, they quelled their pained excitement with delicate hands clenched together, eyes wet and tearless.
I eyed the girl's massive backpack wedged between her wiry legs and the seat in front of her, graphite climbing poles stuck out the side, magenta and grey hiking boots hung from the top- there wasn't a speck of dirt, a frayed thread, a scratch, a smudge, to be found on any of it. I thought she must be taking a long trip, going on a less beaten path that required a lot of gear.
As the highway blurred past, I pieced together a plan with my haphazard Japanese of how to find out what trail this girl was taking, why her pack was so much larger than my flannel backpack, why her boots were so official next to my old running shoes, why her farewell was so tender, so definite compared to my send off of "see you guys later" "oh, where you going?" "Fuji" "Oh, right, have fun".
I decided the best way was- "Ichiban? (first) make a climbing motion with two fingers, Fuji?"
"Oh yes," she replied in a soft, sweet voice.
I asked if she was camping on the mountain as I unnecessarily drew a tent shape in the air and pointed to her pack.
"No, no." She stopped abruptly and gave me a drowning look, begging me to let her stop speaking English.
"Up and down, no stop?"
"Yes, I hope so," she said hesitantly. I sighed, understanding, but not.

I ascended the Yoshida trail from the 5th station a few days past the official close of climbing season, in hopes there would be less people. Setting out, I felt a twinge of frustration as a chorus of giddy college age Japanese whooped and hollered and laughed and squealed behind me, their headlamps bouncing over stones like weak disco light. Rumor says there can be as many as 10,000 people on the mountain at once, so many people that you have to wait in line on the trail while you climb up the mountain. This struck me as a travesty, as sacrilegious to wait in line on a mountain like a ride for Disneyland- clumping myself together with 10,000 people seemed like the antithesis of the vast natural space my American soul craved.
As I waited for the group to pass I gazed out above the clouds, above the towns surrounding Mt. Fuji- city lights sparkling below, the stars sparkling above. The moon pierced the sky- illuminating my way and seeping through dark shadows cast by the arch of trees. I shuffled across crumbled lava, the trees faded revealing the dark gentle figure of Fujisan, a rotund black silhouette looming against the cobalt sky.
I hiked around the first bend of the switchback carved into the side of the mountain and gazed upward to see the path unfold into a hypnotic series of countless more bends and climbs. I looked up to the barren peak, it looked so far away, a long snake of lights crawled up its side, headlamps on every point of the trail, all at different stages in their journey, beads of time, past present and future strung on the same continuum.
The college group cheered each other around corners, "OK ok OK ok OK ok OK ok," they chanted back and forth. The elevation rose rapidly and noises from them sputtered and faded until all that was left was the occasional uttering- tsukareta (tired) muzucashi (difficult) daijobu? (you okay?) daijobu, daijobu.
I felt a cool emptiness in my chest as I carried myself up, the pull of gravity seemed stronger. I walked beside an old man and when he turned to face me, light from his headlamp spilled into the deep wrinkles around his eyes and I saw the emptiness was there too.
"Where from?" the old man asked me, half giggling.
I answered him and silence dropped between us for a moment- the silence of me knowing exactly where he was from, him trying to recall more English phrases learned years ago.
"First time, Fuji?" he asked.
I smiled and nodded, saving my breath which had become sparse. He told me it was his sixth time which, according to Japanese lore, makes him insane.
Gombatte I told him, good luck, and breezed past him with long crushing strides. "See you later," he said, pulling on his walking poles, sliding his feet into the dirt an inch at a time, his forward movement barely perceptible.
Yeah right, I thought.
I weaved my way through Japanese who climbed slow and steady, every movement planned through the prodding tips of poles, careful, unchanging for a flat groomed path or the side of a boulder; so different from the foreigners who bounded up the path, arms waving, small bursts of effort over rocks, unsteady, hurling bodies over terrain without thought, without a plan.
We met again, turtles and hares, at each mountain hut, rest stops strewn along the trail thirty minutes apart, large decks out front for vampires to sit and collect. People squeezed together on benches, expensive gear, richly woven in electric blues and purples and yellows, not yet tainted by wear, a runway for a Columbia fashion show.
A woman crouched next to a mountain hut and quietly vomited while her friend patted her back. A father fixed his young son's coat, the boy wore a serious expression, the dad glanced at me with pride filled eyes. The rest stops grew quieter and quieter as we went up, only the occasional gasp of atsui from crowds entering, samui they'd mumble minutes later as sweat turned to ice.
Time got lost somewhere in this process of climbing, emptying, breathing, waiting at mountain huts until my sweat turned cold, dodging mountain sickness like so many waves ebbing toward me on the shore until I finally reached the last station. Eye level with the Big Dipper, I looked to see the peak, absorbed in the black sky, the only indication of the top the discontinuation of headlamps.
Taking a rest on a bench before my final ascent, the crazy old man I met earlier sat next to me and giggled. He offered me a piece of Ghana chocolate, I gingerly peeled away the gold foil with throbbing, inflated hands. He told me through a huge grin that it was his first time climbing Mt. Fuji during the night. "See sunrise," he said, the excitement in his voice a contagious cheer.
I sat chewing on that hard chocolate, like a generous outstretched hand pulling me into the circle of climbers that I had thought of as barriers between me and the beauty of Mt. Fuji. As I looked around at all of their quiet struggles that matched mine, and the joy it was bringing them, I felt a break in my resistance to sharing this mountain, I felt myself melting into a part of something larger, into a current of awe and respect for this mountain that multiplied with every reflected glance and shared whisper.
I thanked the old man for the chocolate and made for the top during the last hour of night, feeling the sun deep in the earth ready to push out the stars and peel off the thick blackness that wrapped us in a mystery. Halfway up, the trail thickened with people until there was an impenetrable clog of bodies. We waited in groups huddled together around each bend in the trail until it was our turn to walk to the next bend where we stopped and waited some more without pushing or grumbling, the peak in sight, but unattainable still. It didn't matter anymore, the line that I had dreaded, we were 10,000 climbers with two thoughts- the top, the sunrise. We were like fans at a concert, a church congregation, feeding quietly from one another's joy.
As I stood with toes balanced on the nubby side of a boulder, searching for a way through the people in front of me, a small gasp came from the crowds and everything suddenly stopped. I looked up the mountain and saw everyone sitting down wherever they happened to be, I turned around and saw the first muddy red grumble of the sun stretch across the horizon. I found a spot to the side of the trail next to a group who was already boiling water for coffee and noodles, taking pictures and switching layers of clothing, unraveling blankets and seating pads. I understood then why the packs were so big.
The world around transformed into something not real, wisps of pastel pinks and purples, oranges and blues, the clouds waiting on the horizon a too-perfect canvas for the strokes of swirling sunlight, below a cotton blanket of clouds nestled amidst the shady tips of purple and blue mountains, a swoosh-shaped lake glowing sleepily below as soft morning light settled over its tiny ripples. The sky grew lighter in anticipation, shooting up neon orange and outpouring tender brightness that had been forgotten through the dark hours. We held our breath until at last the crowd let out a satisfied cry as an oily pink ball sailed through the clouds. Its beauty seared through every fold in my brain until I couldn't imagine how there could be anything wrong or impure about a world whose sun rose everyday so loving and strong.
The girl on the bus had given me a glove warmer, but my hands were so cold I somehow managed to make it stick to itself instead of my gloves, turning it into a cold useless lump. I started to shake and had no choice but to keep walking- I waded through people staring at the freshly risen sun, stationary bodies like fallen soldiers on a battelfield. I made it to the top alone and kept walking, I saw the sky, how blue it was, and passed through streams of faces wide awake, wet gleaming eyes, unrestrained smiles- hearts filled with mecca. As I walked along the rim, I carried my tears, in heavy pools in my under eyelids, until from the weight of 10,000 elevated souls, they broke free.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Vegetarian Robuts

A warm, drizzly night in Tokyo, specifically Roppongi, I was getting some fresh air outside the club where my friends and I were dancing to the same forty American pop songs through smoke from smoke machines and smoking cigarettes. Under the covering of an orange metal stairwell I met Raghevndra- wearing a heavy leather cowboy hat, more like something Crocodile Dundee would wear, spotted with dark stains from the rain, it was too big for his little face I thought, but it fit perfectly in Roppongi.
Our conversation ensued the way conversations and momentary friendships seem usually to begin in Roppongi- with a question of where you're from. He was from somewhere between North India and South India so it was like he was from nowhere, he said. Maybe many foreigners in Roppongi feel from nowhere, I thought. We talked for a while about his country, he told me to go there to get some appreciation and get some spiritual thing. I told him I thought I already had those things, but I could always use more.
He explained to me more about his country, but his crispy sober words started to blur together into the thumping din of the night, I said I was going to find my friends and shuffled back toward the club, but Kevin stopped me and, I don't know how, maybe because Kevin had to tell Raghevndra how much he enjoyed his cowboy hat, Raghevndra's friends and my friends became friends and since we were all friends we decided to skip the club and go find sushi.
Over plates of fish-less sushi and cups of separated green tea we discovered Raghevndra and his friends were living in Tokyo, working and studying as robotics engineers. Raghevndra told me about his baby (a robot named NAO that can dance to Michael Jackson), he told me he was making it learn. I laughed because I thought he was kidding. Why would you want a robot to learn? That could only mean destruction, right?
"Oh no," he said in his sing-song voice. "For example, we want to teach the robot to cut fruit, okay, and learn to cut differently shaped fruit without the needing to be programmed for different fruits."
He said "different" in three syllables, the way you're supposed to I guess, lilting the middle "er" that sounded more like "ehr", it's nice, people usually say "diff-rent" instead of "diff-er-ent" like how Raghvendra would say it. Even so, my eyes widened in fear at the thought of a robot that could learn. What's to stop it from learning until it learns how to be discontent and it learns its source of discontentment and learns how to annihilate the ones who brought it into this hurtful world...
"You're freaking me out man."
He looked me in the eye like I was a child, I looked back into the light brown eyes of a person who would help destroy the human race.
He spouted off a million soft "no's" and told me his robot was his baby, the smile never leaving his face, he might have grabbed for his wallet to show me a picture and I might have told him he was making it worse referring to robots like that.
He pleaded with me that robots were made in order to help people, he didn't understand my fear. I didn't understand my fear either. What has a robot ever done to hurt me? What have robots ever done except help achieve the objectives of mankind and not their own metal, cold-hearted desires? But still, a robot that is learning on its own- scary. We went back and forth about this for a while until the whole table was involved.
"They can help with an elderly family member," said Shubh.
"But that's so cold, those poor old people with no one to love them!" I said.
"But the robots will love them!"
We weren't getting anywhere.
Josh put our conflict into words better than anyone else as we glowered in our separate robot-loving and robot-fearing camps. He laughed and said, yeah it's weird, but people in Japan love robots and think of them as like friends who are there to help and Americans just think they're out to get us.
This blanket statement quenched the flames of our heated battle momentarily, but not for long, at least not for me.
From my limited perspective, Japan seems more advanced, or at least more efficient, than America in many ways. Things just seem more thought out, amazingly well-thought, and more put-together.
I once bought a to-go coffee at a coffee shop, the barista poured me a cup and instead of just putting a lid on it and handing it to me, she plugged the sip hole with this stirring spoon that created a perfect seal, and placed it in a paper bag with a solitary creamer the size of a peanut m&m, a pack of sugar, and a moist towel to clean my hands. She neatly folded the top of the bag, taped it shut, put this bag in a plastic bag to which she gave the handles a dexterous twist as one last measure of security for my coffee.
This made a deep impression on me. It was so wasteful, I was just going to drink the coffee in the food court outside. She asked if I wanted "take-out-o" and sometimes when asked if I want something I just nod because I'm afraid I won't know the best way to say "no". I would have been fine without a lid at all, but the thought and care put into making sure my coffee wouldn't spill and that I'd have everything I needed was zen-like in a way, or in the very least it was more thoughtful than anything I've seen in a middle-class American coffee shop. Since this day, my view of Japan as a highly thoughtful society has yet to be challenged.
But I wonder if the Japanese view of robots is another instance of progressive thought or if it is the exact opposite? Is this possibly a case of unimaginative thinking? Has the thought of a robot revolt crossed their mind, and have their engineers ever considered Frankenstein? Or have they already measured these things and come to the conclusion that the benefits far outweigh any possible paranoid costs? Maybe my fear of robots is indicative of superstitious out-dated thought like how people once feared falling off the edge of earth.
Perhaps I should try to love robots, even though they can't love me back, yet. But every sinew of my body screams against this notion, it's like I'm programed to fear intelligence in anything inhuman. But really, humans can be pretty inhuman too sometimes. A robot that will care for the elderly seems a lot nicer than some people, including myself.
We cooled off on the robot talk, I guess the robot-loving camp gave up on convincing the robot-fearing camp of anything for the time being. We finished our sushi and went outside. Shubh was amazed, "look," he said pointing to the sky, smiling hugely like a child, "it's morning."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I didn't really want to go to Disneyland. I didn't want to spend the money or force myself to have fun. I found myself drawn more toward stocking up at the dollar store, so I went. I rode the train alone, not feeling the least bit excited and not knowing what to expect. Two young girls with their grandma sat on the bench across from me, clothed in Minnie paraphernalia, not looking especially overwhelmed with anticipation. I took this as an ominous sign.
I stepped off the train and headed towards big friendly English signs (too big and friendly), guided along a boardwalk, passing mothers holding their little Snow White daughters' hands, in the other hand a bag full of souvenirs. I walked through the ticket gate, the guards smiling and beckoning me in like I was Walt himself, checking the contents of my backpack with one fell touch of a white-gloved hand, no sifting through personal items in the happiest place on earth. Sweet Eore autographing pages of custom made Disney autograph books for ecstatic little girls, happy little boys. I started to feel floating in my chest. I didn't try to stop it.
I met my friends Paola and Kevin and we waded through crowds, trying to get a glimpse of the Easter parade, we stood on a ledge, why wasn't everyone on this ledge? What a great view of Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum. "Ichi ni san, ichi ni san," they sang, I sang along until an employee gently guided us off the ledge, back down into the blinding masses. We wandered aimlessly, I collided into everyone, walking to a different beat, stuttering like my feet had a speech impediment. We rode Dumbo and furtively captured the airlifted moment forever. No pictures please on the Dumbo ride, said a laminated sheet handed to us by an employee, because, after all, we could drop our cameras.
In line for Splash Mountain, my second ride of the day, first if you don't count Dumbo, we heard a rumor that it was a three hour wait, but what else was there to do but wait in line for a few hours, for a few seconds of agony, a few of pleasure, this is life, this is progress.
In line: A circle of laughing young women with fuzzy leopard print Minnie ears, bleached orange hair and Harajuku-style floral pastel skirts; three preppy toddlers in navy polos embroidered with skulls, squealing with delight, playing jun-ken, rock paper scissors, with their grandma. Sugar highed kids swinging the line partition rope, whipping the back of my thighs; line weary zombie kids on a sugar crash, tugging absently on the rope, scraping the back of my thighs; screaming kids who've hit the ultimate low of fun, sun, walking, waiting, candy, decisions; kids with video games, families, friends. An American mom demanding an employee to tell her how long the line will take, she touches his arm and thanks him, he looks at me, he looks like he doesn't know what to think.
An East Indian man in front of me bathed himself in the plastic log drinking fountain, splashing excess water from his nose and mouth cleaning onto my leg. I was planning on getting splashed, but not like this. By the third hour we were friends with the Bangladeshi leg splasher and his eleven year old niece, let's call her Shoopie. I taught Shoopie a three step hand slap game, three different slaps repeated over and over, faster and faster, until hands synch into one fluid movement. Shoopie watched Paola and I catch each other's rhythms, our hands melding together into a circle. Shoopie tried, each slap seperate from the next, segmented into one- stop, two- stop, three-stop, counting aloud, stiff as a board, perplexed. Let go Shoopie, I wanted to tell her. She taught me chopsticks, a finger game of math and strategy, and beat me easily every time.
We asked her why she was at Disneyland on a school day, why there were so many kids in general there on a school day. "Today we have the day off of school because we have finished our sports competitions. For my international school they gave us a discount."
We laughed ironically. "Great," I said, "we came to Disneyland on kids-get-in-free day."
"No, no, I didn't get in free," Shoopie spoke up with her lilting speech, "it was only a discount."
We were a few people away from the entrance, Shoopie's uncle motioned to us and then at them and said, "together." I smiled. We were a group. I offered him some of Paola's Chips Ahoy. Shoopie read the label and sadly told us they couldn't eat it because they were Islamic and there was pork in it. I gave them Paola's Soyjoys instead and we officially became friends.
The five of us shared a log boat, snaking through caves of purple black-lit beehives, bees swarming around like heated molecules, maniacal foxes, barbequed rabbits, birds on crack, birds with some wisdom, zipidy-doo-dah in Japanese and finally down a waterfall shooting us back to daylight. We shuffled through the exit, wondering if it was worth it. We looked at our waterfall picture on the Splash Mountain screens. We laughed at Shoopie, so scared that she tried to hide in the bottom of the boat, the camera catching only the top of her head, shining raven feather black and blue hair.
We said goodbye, never asking names or e-mails, though we felt a closeness, we knew what it was, we shared time together and we shared a moment and no one felt like pretending it would be more than that.
More ice cream, food, parades, the lines thinned, kids-get-in-free day was nearing an end no more four hour waits. We rode Space Mountain, why is everything a mountain? I screamed myself horse, the laser lights played with my eyes, "Let's do it again!" I declared seven seconds into the ride. We skipped through the exit, chattering excitedly, high for a little bit.
We wandered around, looking for the next high. The princess' castle lit up the foggy night so other-worldly blue, but none of our cameras could catch it and we started to fade. We split up somehow and I found myself alone in line for the tea cups. Fireworks started. I ditched our place in line and soaked them in and soaked my face. I didn't realize how much I missed the mystery of fireworks, or maybe I was just getting tired.
It was time to go. We stumbled out of Disneyland, pulled into gift shops, copper disc press shops, candy shops, cookie shops, each on the verge of our own breakdown. We cleared the shops and the urge to consume. A feeling of satiated happiness infected us as we left the park, our legs tired, heads and cameras fuzzy with memories, stomachs sick from sugar and grease, faces aching from smiling. We walked to the train, filled with salary men.