Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Coming Home

Thus ends my Japan blog.

I entered San Francisco at around 9:00AM, and came to Vegas around 2:00 PM. The desert was bright. I kept squinting. The light hurt my eyes more than the cigarette smoke, which, by now, I had become accustomed too.

My mother and my grandma met me in Vegas, and we spent the first few days gambling. I won nothing. Grandma won $150 twice—even so, she just barely broke even. At Vegas, I ate a Mexican Platter and pancakes—first time in a while—and drank a Strawberry Margarita and another Pina Colada—this one that actually tasted like it had rum in it.

I went back to Victorville; I visited Redlands. I handed out souvenirs. I spoke to people I hadn’t seen in half a year. I organized my pictures into a photo album.

I cleaned my room with a vengance, going through every box in my closet and unsentimentally throwing out everything I felt I could do without—old papers, pictures, clothes, books, cards, and jewelry. My surge of anti-materialism, brought about by 5 months of living sparsely in Japan, left my room more organized than it had ever been, if not completely hollowed bare. (Few people could see much of a change outwardly, but inwardly—inside closet, desk, and drawers—I have a lot more space.)

I’ve yet to show anyone my collection of Japan pictures—some 1500 strong—and few people ask to see it. I don’t consciously set out to talk about Japan, but it slips out in little ways—in comparisons mostly. Some shallow comparisons, like the lack of good public transportation ion California, and some stronger ones. I miss things like the sense of harmony and calmness I felt in Japan: the hospitality of green tea and the relaxation of a hot bath.

What had been real only a few weeks ago has faded into memories. Now the world that has enveloped me is the land of So Cal: the constant ache of sunshine, large houses, and Mexican food. My home, for better or worse. The long summer stretches in front of me, with promises of intense heat and much work. And after that, my last year of college.

But, after that? Once graduated, will I stay in California? Will I go back to Japan? That’s the decision I face. That’s the dilemma I face. Someday I’ll return to Japan: I want to see Tokyo and visit the places I’ve been to. But will I return as a tourist.

Or will Japan be my home once more?

Note: This blog was written at the end of May.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Farewell Japan

Saturday, May 20, 2006-Sunday, May 21, 2006

Part I: Fireworks

On Saturday, I played fire works with my family.

The kids asked me to. Everyone—except Mayumi—went into the backyard, which was small and bare. It was just barely cold outside and a little windy. Hideaki lit a single candle and opened a pack of slim firecrackers.

I hadn’t played with fireworks since I was 5 or 6, so Megumi showed me how. She showed me how to hold the sparklers to the candle flame until they lit, sputtering lightning white, and how to use these fireworks to light other sparklers or re-light the candle when the breeze blew it out. She also showed me how to use a very thin, firework, hardly bigger than a piece of string.

You hold it from the top, dangling the bottom over the flame until it begins to crackle a bit. This crackling subsides and a small orange ball forms on the end of the firework. You wait. Suddenly, around the edges of your firework, orange sparks of light begin to sizzle. They grow quickly, erupting like orange tumbleweeds, snapping and crackling, your own tiny firework show. You’re still watching these fireworks, when the glowing ball suddenly drops, and the firework show has ended.

While I was entranced with this, Kengo, pyromaniac that he is, lit a piece of cardboard on fire. When the candle blew out, we’d light our fireworks on there. When I wasn’t twirling around the sparklers, I spoke to Hideaki about how fireworks are highly illegal in California. He, in turn, gave me some of the dangling fireworks to smuggle back home*.

Meanwhile, Mayumi was in the house, reading a book I had just brought back from the graduation ceremony, earlier that day. Our teachers had put it together for us, a compilation of our essays, haikus, and private messages. We had received it around the time we received our certificates of completion or participation (if you hadn’t studied for the whole year). It had been a formal event, like a graduation ceremony. But afterwards we had a party.

It was—Saturday, May 20th—my last full day in Japan. I had already said goodbye to my friends. I had said goodbye to my teachers and my school. It had seemed unreal to me. “This will be the last time we set foot on Nanzan,” she said, as we walked through a line of sakura trees, green and leafy in May. The statement had no meaning to me. Even though I had been telling myself I’d be leaving Japan for the last month and a half, still, I couldn’t comprehend it. Japan was my whole world. How to comprehend it wouldn’t be there anymore?

Part II: The Airport

My host family took me to the airport the next day. They treated me to conveyor-belt sushi, and we said our goodbyes at the gate. I had a whole speech prepared, but they spoke first. Mayumi wished me good health, and Hideaki wished me good luck. We shook hands.

“Osewa ni narimashita,” I said. “Hontou ni arigatou gozaimashita. Wasurenai de kudasai.”**

I stumbled through the gate with my carry-on bag, showing the guards my passport and handing in my alien registration.

After security checks, the airport opened into wide open spaces, with a few last minute shops and a window showing the airplanes. Wheeling my carry-on to my destination, it finally struck me.

I might never see them again.

I began to tear up.

As I boarded flight UA 830, my feelings were very different from what they had been the last time I’d boarded the plane. I wasn’t anxious. Not even a little.

I loved Japan and my host family. And I was really going to miss them.

And it’s not as though I can just return, I thought. Maybe to Japan. But to Nagoya? To the Araki’s household?

No, it’s not that easy.

They were my family for five months. They will continue on as a unit. Only I will be broken apart. And I may never see them again.

Under the heaviness of this sadness, anxiety seemed rather small.

Part III: The End of Something

And so, with a mighty roar, the plane took off. I had a window seat and watched until we were above the clouds.

First, all I could see was the ocean. I could see the chops in the waves, glimmers of white, and boats the size of my hand. Then we turned toward land.

The land near the coast looked as flat as a crepe or the crust of a Japanese pizza. As we flew toward the main island, a few mountains emerged. I tried to figure out where Nagoya was; I was hoping to see Nagoya Castle or maybe the TV Tower of Sakae. But I couldn’t find it. And eventually all the houses looked like beadwork and rice paddies became like patches.

I saw a long train, thinner than a toothpick, slowly, lazily heading for a mountain. At first I thought it might be a JR train, but it didn’t seem to be stopping. Then I thought, maybe it’s a bullet train, and I remembered my trip to Hiroshima.

I wanted to see the whole island of Japan spread out before me like a map, but it was not to be. Before I could even locate a city I knew, we hit the clouds. The clouds enveloped us like lumpy foam. I tried to glean what was underneath it; occasionally I caught a glimpse of a city. But soon, all I saw was water.

*I would later set some off in Redlands, when I visited my friends, just before May term ended.

**"You took care of me, and I really appreciated it. Please don’t forget me."

Kyoto, Part II

Excitement

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Even before my alarm clock buzzed, I woke up. It was 6:00 AM.

I ate packages of bread and jello fruit cups in my hotel for breakfast. By 6:30 my keys were sitting on the lobby desk with the others and I was strolling happily to the bus stop.

I caught an early—and innumerably less-crowded—bus. I had to pay the full fare of 220 yen, since I had neglected to buy an all-day pass. As I looked out the window, I saw the giant orange torii standing astride the street. I pulled the bell. This was my first stop of the day: Heian-jingu.

The shrine was built in the 19th century to commemorate 1000 years since the imperial capital had moved to Kyoto* and was built in true Heian-style. The walls were white, with orange trim and blue-green glistening tiles. From the top of doorways hung thick rope and strings of paper and blue lanterns with animals across the glass. The grounds were white rocky sand, swept, that crunched under my shoes, and two fountains—one of a dragon and one of a bear—guarded the shrine.

My guidebook had said the shrine opened at sunrise, which was true. However, the shrine gardens didn’t open until 8:30. I was early. After thoroughly photographing Heian-Jingu, I left the grounds and wandered the larger area. Only a little ways off were a line of stands selling souvenirs. They were open.

At the very first stand was a cute little obaasan**, straightening out her wares. She was quite outgoing, and we talked. In the end, I bought two beautiful cloths—one with embroidered with sakura and the other showing children playing—as well as a couple of Kyoto cat dolls for my cousins.

At last, the shrine gardens opened, and I was the first to go in. I walked down a woody path; I passed through many bamboo verandas, originally built for fuji*** and now overflowing with green. I came to a lake.

The lake was beautiful. On its curved edges stood many straight strands of purple or white-and-purple irises and blooms of pink and white lotus floated atop the water. In the middle of the lake was a little island, made of bushes, with one small pagoda inside it. To get to the island, I had to hop, hop, hop, across large, flat, round rocks, jutting up from the smooth water surface. It felt adventuresome, and I didn’t fall into the lake.

Coming back from the island onto the main trail, I walked across a brown, roofed bridge. I saw a turtle in the water. Some middle school kids threw food to the koi and the fish splashed and splashed for more.

As I exited Heian-Jingu, it began to sprinkle. Fortunately, I had brought my umbrella this time.

Instead of taking the bus to Nanzen-ji, my next stop, I decided to walk along the canal and save money****. It was a pleasant walk. There was a fountain in the canal and an abstract work of art in gold. Everything was verdant.

Through trees, through the huge wooden gate*****, I came to Nanzen-ji, a secret brown temple hidden in the woods.

But to the right of the temple, hiding coyly between the red and green trees, stood a long, arched aqueduct, made of brick. The brick reminded me of the Meiji era******; additionally, I loved the contrast between the old and the relatively new, the spiritual and the practical. I flitted through the arches, playfully. But I was a little quieter when I walked up to Nanzen-ji.

I walked the marked route between the inside and outside of the temple. I looked at empty rooms with ancient paintings of tigers bounding through bamboo forests. I sat on a porch to look at a small rock garden. I found personality in moss that grew on the temple grounds and two grinning stone oni******* heads, draped carelessly on the temple’s base.

I had eluded the crowd with Heian-jingu; I had eluded the crowd with Nanzen-ji. But now it was past noon, and the tourists were growing thicker.

There was one small temple I wanted to see with no strong tourist attachments: Mibu-dera. But the reason I wanted to see it made me feel like blushing.

In the chaos between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the modern Meiji-era, there lived a band of tragic-romantic samurai called the Shinsengumi. Wearing striped, light-blue jackets, they roamed the streets of Kyoto, restoring order with their bloody swords. I have a school-girlish fascination with this group, and I knew that they had established themselves at Mibu Temple.

And so I was called on an historical pilgrimage to Mibu-temple, an obscure dot on my tourist map. I took a bus to the southwest section of the town and followed an old woman deep into a residential zone. It began to rain harder.

Mibu-dera was a plain temple with only a clay spiral at the top to distinguish it. Small, clay figurines crowded the spiral like ghosts. But I found an entrance to a garden that had the names of Shinsengumi leaders on a stone and a statue of its commander, Kondo Isami. So I was satisfied.

I took a bus to Kyoto Station. I could have grabbed an early dinner. But I wanted more. This was my last tourist day in Kyoto; I wanted to stuff my mind with as much culture as I could get.

I walked to Sanjuusangendo. It was still raining: the insides of my shoes were sunk with water and my feet squelched within them. But I had already spent 660 yen on bus fees, and I refused to spend any more. My legs ached, but I pressed on.

I got lost only once; I tried to take a short cut and found myself in a narrow, dark residential area. I turned around and followed the main street. Eventually, I found tourists and used them to maneuver my way to Sanjuusangendo.

Sanjuusangendo consisted of one brown, long, long building and a little pond on the other side. Rain poured down and the tourists were all heading inside the temple. I took off my shoes and followed them in.

In my guidebook, I had read the Sanjuusangendo was famous for the kannon, an image of Buddha. The kannon, I discovered as I stepped into the hall, is a man-sized gold statue with thirty arms: two main ones in a prayerful pose and smaller ones holding various objects. It has a spiky halo and a crown with small heads on it.

Hundreds, thousands of these statues lined the hall. How can I describe the effect of so many rows and columns of gold? In front of the kannon stood wooden statues, made in the shapes of various deities. These beautiful statues were intricate and fluid. But what amazed me most were the eyes: they were made of crystal and stuffed with cotton, so they looked like real eyes.

The hall smelled of incense and flowers lay in front of the statues. In the middle of the hall was giant Buddha seated peacefully in a lotus, the principal image of the Kannon.

Tourists filled Sanjuusangendo, and I didn’t care. I delighted in this find; I loved the artistic craftsmanship of the statues.
My last stop in Kyoto was Fushimi Inari, a shrine to the god of rice in the outskirts of Kyoto. My friend had recommended this place to me.

By the time, I got to Fushimi Inari, it was getting dark and raining thick. Sleek, stone foxes with utensils in their mouths, the messenger of Inari, littered the orange shrine. Up the mountain, a thousand orange torii lined the mountain, crowded so close together they became a tunnel.

I ran up the slippery walkway, watching pines flicker from the outside. There was something spooky about being alone in the mountains, but I liked it. I panted. Droplets fell from the tops of torii, and a thin mist was rising.

The next morning I packed my bag, checked out, and went to Nara, an hour or so from Kyoto. I visited Todaiji Hall, the home of the Big Buddha. I also went to a pleasant garden and a museum featuring an exhibit on Buddhist statues.

Then, I took the train home.

Once, when I was coming to Maibara, I got on the wrong train. The train stopped short of my transfer point. The conductor assured me that another train would come and carry me the rest of the distance. So, I waited.

It was dark. I tried reading, but I spent more time looking at the clock. I watched each train come. Then, each train left. Some were out of order. Some passed right through the station.

I waited for a long time, watching minutes accumulate to an hour. I wondered how long ran from here to Nagoya, what was the last one that would come, before I was stuck for the night here, on the cold platform, in the middle of nowhere.

At last a train came and I went home to my host family.

*When the capital moved from Nara to Kyoto, it marked the beginning of the Heian era. However, I believe by the time Heian-Jingu was built, the imperial family had already moved to Tokyo.

**Grandmother, old woman

***Wisteria; unfortunately, I had missed the fuji by a couple of weeks and now all the purple flowers had withered away.

****Yes, I’m cheap.

*****By gate, I don’t mean fence or any sort of enclosing structure. I mean a massive doorway, about the size and shape of a temple, but without any rooms on the first story.

******During which time buildings were made of brick, for the sake of progress and fire safety.

*******Demons, but (in this case) cute ones

Kyoto, Part I

Anxiety

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

When I decided early on that, with my limited time and money, I could visit either Kyoto or Tokyo, I chose Kyoto. For the next three months, I planned my trip intently, researching hotels, tourist attractions, and the cost of transportation.
As the day came closer, I asked the ticket seller at the J.R. station the route and transfers from Ozone station to Kyoto. I went shopping for water bottles, bread, and jello fruit cups. I packed my short, rolling suitcase and charged my camera.

This was first solo trip outside the city since Meijimura. I was nervous.

On Tuesday, May 16, I woke up at 5:00 AM. I got dressed, put my camera in my purse, and rolled my luggage downstairs.

Amazingly, my host mother was already awake. She served me an early breakfast of coffee and sweet bread.

“Itterashai. Ki o tsukete*,” my host mother called out to me as I left.

I walked alone to the station. The street was dim but not completely empty. Someone rode by on a bicycle. An old woman waited at the stop walk.

The Ozone station, surrounded by bakeries, bookstores, and odd shops, seemed quiet. It was too early for anything to be open, for anyone to be shopping. But the J.R. station was open and so was its small information booth. Men in blue uniforms and white gloves were already inside. I explained as best I could that I wanted a ticket—a plain old J.R. ticket**—from Ozone to Kyoto, and one of these men charged me 2500 yen (about $25.00) for a small piece of paper I held onto tightly. I rang the stub through the wicket and ascended the stairs onto the platform.

People stood waiting on the platform. I stood next to the train schedule and watched the clock. I caught the 6:12 train leaving from Ozone, and I rode it to Kanayama, about ten minutes, then transferred.

I had never been on this route before, but it would be okay. I stuck my luggage near my legs and opened up the second volume of Hikaru No Go. Outside, hills, green, green hills textures with ripening trees, glowed faintly in the sunlight.
From Kanayama to Maibara, where I transferred, was a 2-hour ride, and from Maibara to Kyoto station was another hour. When I finally got off, my heart pounded as I came out through the J.R. Gates.

Kyoto station was larger than I thought it’d be. There were several travel agencies on the first floor, but it was only 9:30 and most of them were still closed. Even the Kyoto city tourist office was closed. I found lockers and stowed away my luggage without much trouble. But when I stepped outside, the open, modern city of Kyoto intimidated me. There were skyscrapers all around me, and tourists jammed around large, plastic bus routes, which I could make neither heads nor tails of.
I went back inside. I bought myself hot chocolate and warm sugary dough balls at a nearby café.

Finally it was 10:00 AM, and I ducked into the Kyoto office of tourism for my complimentary map and my 500-yen all day bus pass. Now all that remained was navigating the buses. I decided to go on the “Raku” or “Fun” Bus, which hit most of the major tourist destinations in northeast and southeast Kyoto. A whole herd of high school students, dressed in the typical uniform of high-collar, gold-button jackets or cutesy sailor blouses and skirts, came in with me.

I wanted to see Ginkakuji, the so-called “Silver Pavilion” where a rich nobleman had tried and failed to cover his whole pleasure estate in silver. It’s a popular tourist destination, located in northeast Kyoto. I had heard that Kyoto buses were quick and efficient, and so I’d expected to reach Ginkakuji in fifteen minutes or so. But we just kept going.

The bus turned off the main street and turned back on it, stopping often to load or unload passengers and announcing, in Japanese and English, when we came to a famous tourist destination. I studied my map tensely and stared out the window at the unknown city. The bus kept assuring me Ginkakuji was just a little further away.

Ginkakuji was the last stop. Unfortunately, the bus didn’t take me directly to the Silver Pavilion. Instead, it let us all off—me and the group of school kids—in the middle of the nowhere. A sign said Ginkakuji was only a short walk away. But I didn’t know how to get there.

Fortunately, the school kids did. They walked off and I followed them. A light rain was falling, but I’d left my umbrella in my luggage and was forced to make do with my sweater’s hood. We strolled past souvenir stalls and food and ice cream stands.
Finally, we came to Ginkakuji. It was a working tourist destination. The people there took my money and handed me an English brochure, which I couldn’t yet read, because of the rain.

The Silver Pavilion, for all it’s glorified name, was really just a few beautiful, brown houses with a lined field of sand, a garden, and a small trail leading partially up the mountain. And it was crowded. Those school kids flooded the entryway, so I moved up the trail into the hill, where I could see the temple laid out before me. But more people came, so I kept moving. The trail led down the mountain, around the garden one last time, and, before I knew it, back outside the gates. I had seen all of Ginkakuji in less than a half hour.

A bit disappointed, I wandered back through the stalls of gift sellers, buying postcards and bookmarks. I found the bus stop and went back to Kyoto Station.

It was nearing noon. I was supposed to check in to my hotel at 11:00, but the extended bus ride had delayed me. It was my first reservation, and I was haunted by the fear that, if I missed my check-in time, they might give away my room. I got my luggage and my printed-out directions to my hotel.

I realized I was on the wrong side of Kyoto Station. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no way around the station: buildings blocked me out. Eventually, I found a way in through the station, but it was very confusing: entrances to the Shinkansen blocked my path more than once. And then I got sucked into a narrow, never-ending row, restaurants to the right and left of me, down, down, down, leading to nowhere.

I finally broke outside, hot and flustered. I walked down a street that grew less and less crowded and found my hotel.

The hotel was small and cheap, different from the ryokans I’d stayed at. I went into the lobby, a square room decorated with Meiko*** posters. The desk had a bell and a box filled with keys. The woman at the desk spoke English, and she had not given away my room. I rode the cramped elevator up.

I opened the door to my room. It wasn’t the Inuyama Ryokan. The walls were stained, the room was tiny, and everything was old. The water in the bathroom had been turned off for the day, and the toilet made a strange, ancient groan that lasted long after being flushed. But it had a refrigerator and T.V. and it was, after all, a room: a place to sleep and store my stuff. After entertaining so many thoughts of losing my reservation and having no place to stay, I was relieved. I treated myself to a lunch of sukiyaki at a cheap, clean store nearby.

It was about two when I got back to the bus stop and headed for Kiyomizu-dera, my next tourist destination. The bus, again, let me off in the middle of nowhere, and I, again, followed the other tourists (and signs) through backstreets filled with tourist junk.

Kiyomizu-dera was on a hill. I was beginning to get footsore, but I climbed. A few girls, dressed in geisha outfits, posed near the temple while photographers took pictures of them****. More distressingly, I noticed swells of school kids taking pictures near the architecture.

Kiyomizu-dera is a temple. The front buildings are painted in vermillion and white, while the buildings toward the end are more soberly brown. There are bells and water dragon fountains and small, clay statues dressed in red. But I didn’t really enjoy the temple, because every inch of was packed with tourists. I swayed between them and squeezed my way through the temple.

There was a path outside the temple that led to a Japanese cemetery of tall, thin grave markers, huddled close together. A few, unpopular food stands were near it. I followed the path into a woody area away from the crowds, until I became afraid.
When I left Kiyomizu-dera, I was tired, but I wanted to do at least one more tourist-y thing and make good use of my all-day bus pass. So, I went to Gion.

Gion is the place to go to see a geisha—the only place that foreigners can catch a glimpse of them. Mystique says that Gion should be a beautiful section of Kyoto, ancient tea houses carefully preserved. In reality, it’s rather seedy.

The main, loud, traffic-jammed street ran too close to the shops. I felt vulnerable on the sidewalk, so I kept moving. I went down a back street to look at some art galleries before they closed. But the galleries made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t actually buy anything, so I felt embarrassed to go in. And the street was too narrow, quiet, and empty. It felt like an alley.

All day, I had felt nervous. All day, I felt vulnerable. Kyoto was unfamiliar and I was by myself. I knew know one, spoke to know one, and I was afraid. I didn’t wanting to be standing in a place like an alley: female, foreign, and alone. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was go back to my room, pull the covers over my head, and sleep off this whole miserable experience. I left the back street, crossed the main road, and searched for a bus stop.

The shrine’s torii was the same, bright orange as the torii in Miyajima. I stumbled across it as I tried to find a bus. I think it was the familiarity of the torii that drew me in. I wanted to be near something I knew. So, one last time, I pushed aside my fear and entered the shrine.

The Gion shrine had bells and stone lions. It wasn’t exceptional and it wasn’t particularly comforting. I walked further in to flat area that said “Permanent Refugee Area.” I puzzled at that.

Then, the landscape shifted, and I was in a park.

Fresh, purple irises clumped together at the edge of pond. While odd, interesting stones poked from the water, a white duck swam. On the other side of the pond, I could see lush, leafy trees and verdant hills. Two Japanese women dressed in bright kimonos crossed a stone bridge.

And yet those details cannot describe the beauty of the scene unfolded before me, or the serenity I felt upon looking at it. After all my anxiety, the feeling pressed within me all the stronger. I felt refreshed.

I explored the park and found soft-shelled turtles, small waterfalls and stepping stones, pink flowers and moss-covered stone lanterns. I found a tree bent back like a bow and a huge weeping willow tree. I found statues of proud samurai whose names I could not read. And I felt happy.

Eventually, I went back to Kyoto Station. I ate tonkatsu***** in a bright restaurant, where a friendly woman said to me, “irasshaimase, dozo.******” I had a blue ice cream snow cone for desert. Then I returned to my hotel, snuggled into my futon, and fell asleep before 10:00.

*“Goodbye. Be careful,” loosely translated. “Itterashai” is actually the customary phrase used when someone is leaving the house. The person leaving says “ittekimasu.”

**As opposed to a more expensive shinkansen—bullet train—ticket.

***Meiko are the apprentices of Geisha. The only place you can find a Geisha today is in a small section of Kyoto called Gion, which I’ll get to later.

****This is a tourist service offered to girls: pay them a certain amount of money to dress up and walk around the most famous areas of Kyoto, feeling like a glamorous geisha of old times. Well, sort of.

*****Breaded, fried pork

******“Welcome. Please [come in].”

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Tales of a Bookworm

In the first week of May, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are national holidays, and for Nanzan students, Tuesday, Founder’s Day, is a holiday, too. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, a weeklong holiday is inserted into our schedule, right before finals. Is this sheer brilliance or sheer lunacy? Who can say? But this phenomenon is known as Golden Week, and I had plans for it, oh yes, I had plans. *

On Monday, after Japanese classes**, my friends and I discussed it over lunch. I had recently run out of fantasy books and proposed a trip on Tuesday to Sakae, the department store capital of Nagoya, to buy some more. In particular, I wanted to buy The Golem’s Eye, the second of the Bartimaeus trilogy. (I bought the first book, The Amulet of Samarkand, way back in February; it’s mentioned briefly and rather inaccurately in my blog.) My friends had no objection to this, but there were other things to be done on Tuesday. In particular, everyone (including me) wanted to hit a karaoke parlor and most (I wasn’t too adamant about it) wanted to go to an antique fair. They pointed out that since it was Golden Week stores should be open later, and I would have plenty of time to do my book shopping after karaoke and antiquing. Under such logic, what could I say? I agreed, although I felt uneasy about cramming three such events into a single day.

After lunch, I had shodo for an hour and a half. Julie was in my class. After calligraphy, I wanted to go straight home, but Julie, who wanted company, made me a deal I couldn’t easily refuse. If I hung out with her in the computer lab for a while, she would show me how to find the Irinaka Book-Off.

It comes to my attention, that I have yet to explain to you, my dear audience, the happy occurrence that is Book-Off. Book-Off is a chain of used bookstores, found across Nagoya (and other places in Japan) that sells manga (Japanese comics), CDs, and DVDs at discount prices. I’ve spoken of the price of manga before, and let me remind you that, whereas in America one book costs $7.95, in Japan one new book goes for 390 yen. That being said, Book-Off sells used books from 250 to 105 yen, depending on condition and supply. Even though it takes me hours and several agonizing glances at my dictionary, I can read and (mostly) understand a Japanese manga. And when I can find books for a fourth of the American price, well, it’s difficult to refuse such a temptation.

Now the interesting thing about used bookstores is that their supply may be erratic from place to place. In the case of Book-Off, there are several “staples” of the most popular manga, but some books and especially CDs and DVDs are hard to find. In particular, I was hunting for a Rurouni Kenshin*** soundtrack CD; I had found one in the Ozone Book-Off I frequent, but not the one I was looking for. (I bought it anyway—Rurouni Kenshin is Rurouni Kenshin.)

In fact, I had been planning to go to the Ozone Book-Off that afternoon to pick up book four and maybe five of Hikaru no Go****, a series I’m reading, so Julie’s suggestion did not run entirely contrary to my own plans (and she knew it). We played in the computer lab for forty-five minutes, and then began the 20-minute walk to Irinaka.

The first thing I did was sigh at the long shelves, crammed with Naruto, Yu-Gi-Oh, One Piece, Rurouni Kenshin, Death Note, Yu-Yu Hakushu, Hikaru no Go—and this was only the Shonen Jump section. ***** The sight of all the lovely books—regardless of whether or not I could read them—filled me with withy contentment. Julie, more practically, had discovered a sale section in the front of the store, where they had compiled sets or even entire series for outrageously low prices. She shifted through these, but I headed to the CD section, where I scoured the shelves for Rurouni Kenshin.

I was successful. I found the Season Two Soundtrack for 1000 yen. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but it was close enough.

“Guess what I found,” said Julie coming up behind me.

I turned around. She had found a Hikaru no Go set, books 1-10, for 500 yen.

Pause and consider that the American equivalent would not buy so much as one book. Pause and consider these books were being sold for less than fifty cents each. Pause and consider that this is a series that, although I know they have them in English, I cannot find in America.

The only dilemma was luggage space. Ten books were rather bulky. I argued this against Julie, but my words were futile. In the end, I bought the series and happily towed them home, 20 minutes from Irinaka to Nanzan, twenty minutes from Nanzan to the station, ten minutes from the station to my house, in the bright May sun.

The next day, a chilly Tuesday, I wisely bought an all-day subway pass****** and went to Ueda to meet my friends for karaoke. There were seven of us. We met at 1:00.

Karaoke, in Japan, is different from that of America. Karaoke parlors rent out rooms so that no one other than your party need hear you sing. Alena and Andrea, twins from class, had found a parlor that rented rooms for 100 yen per person per hour—very cheap.

We all piled into a small smoky room with a T.V. in a corner and a couple fat catalogs on the table, and sat down on the couches. About half of us sang, while the other half paged through the catalogs for songs we all knew and respected. I was one of those who sang, though the microphones they gave us traumatized me by squeaking in a high-pitched manner through my moving rendition of “Desperado.” Also, my lungs were out of shape and by the time we all sang the last song, “American Pie,” I was coughing. Anyway, we got cut off halfway through because our hour was up.

Overall, it wasn’t as fun as I thought it’d be. But maybe under the right conditions….

From there, we went to the antique fair. Julie wanted to find old Tokugawa Era books that she could translate. (Julie’s crazy.) She didn’t find what she was looking for, but we stayed until five, at which point my eyes hurt from looking and the stands were being covered and closed.

We were all very hungry, but Stephanie needed to get to an international ATM. Julie knew one in Kanayama. So off we went. (My all day pass was beginning to pay for itself already.) At Kanayama, though there were a thousand small restaurants floating around station, we somehow ended up eating dinner in the same place where I had ordered my disappointing pizza. (I warned my friends, and everyone stuck to pasta or salad.) Because the waiters filled our glasses with water regularly—a rare occurrence in Japan—, my friends loved this place. I thought it a bit expensive and small-portioned.

Now it was leaning towards seven and I was frantic to get to Sakae before the stores closed. Fortunately, we made good time on the subway and plowed our way to our destination. At Sakae the group paused briefly—did we want to go to the 100-yen shop first? It was closer.

At which point, I took firm control of the situation. I needed my book. We were going to Maruzen.

Maruzen is a relatively small three-story department store, which Julie had showed me just a month ago. The first floor is filled with stationary, postcards, fans, and quaint overpriced Japanese art trinkets. The first time I came, I spent a good half an hour or so squealing over cards with tiny fans inserted in them. And all this is but the first story.

The third story holds one of the largest foreign book sections I had seen: an entire wall and four separate shelves, in addition. They actually had a fantasy section that would rival those of smaller bookstores. And their selection of Japanese language, literature, and history books surpasses that of Barnes and Noble.

But to continue, my leadership ensured we got to Maruzen without further distraction; I then lead my friends up the escalators, round the corner, and into the foreign book section—and ran headlong into the most wonderful book sale I had ever seen.

Now normally, I hate book sales, as stores tend to dump only hardbacks (which are bulky and expensive, even with price cuts) and the most unreadable books into “bargain” bins. This sale was different. For some inexplicable reason, Maruzen had taken a good half of their foreign merchandise and cut the prices 30%-50%. Good books were being sold at reasonable rates. As proof, I found my coveted The Golem’s Eye for 700 yen—in all probability, cheaper than in America. (I remind you that in Japan English books are marked up some 25% more than in America.)

I was so gleeful at this acquisition that I picked up a book of short stories that Julie recommended to me and pawed through the Japanese history. I may have made a larger purchase had not the store announced (first in Japanese, than in English) that it would be closing in five minutes. I paid for my two books and my friends made their purchases as well. It was 8:00.

For the next hour, my friends and I sat on the roof of Oasis 21, a shopping center next to Sakae’s station. The stores of Oasis 21 are all below level, and the entire roof is one large body of water. During the day you can look through the water and see the blurred forms of people walking below, and every half an hour or so quick sprays skip the surface. But at night, it’s quiet and spacious. Looking up you can see the billboards light up: a giant piano silently playing itself, a red Coca-Cola sign, a building with strips of light that turn rainbow colors. The TV Tower rises above all, emitting a green beacon.

Waking up Wednesday morning, and I had planned to do research, but I had a bright, new book sitting on my nightstand. Why start the day plowing through dense volumes of smelly, old library books when the gentle plot of a soft-backed fiction beckons you? For an hour or so, I made myself cozy in my bed and read.

Later, once I had dressed and eaten breakfast, the book was still fitted to my hand, and I thought, it’s still early. I’ll just read a bit more. (Gentle reader, can you not at once see the beginning of the addiction I was soon to fall into and indeed already falling?) And as the hours vanished and a crease grew in the book’s spine, I thought just a bit more. Just one more chapter. Just let me see what happens next. Just a little more…

And so the book seduced me, and I was happy. It had been a while since a book had thus ensnared me, and there is no pleasanter way to pass a morning and half an afternoon than in the embrace of a masterful storyteller.

Jonathan Stroud’s The Golem’s Eye was a thoroughly enjoyable book. That being said, I must share the story with you. Though it pains me, I will try to be brief.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy takes place in an alternate London, where magicians rule the general populace. Their power comes from ensnaring djinni and other spirits to do their bidding. But this is all background.

Nathaniel, a.k.a. John Mandrake, is one young magician (14 years old in The Golem’s Eye, younger in The Amulet of Smarkand) who chooses as his particular servant a djinni named Bartimaeus. To my incredible delight, both Nathaniel and Bartimaeus are anti-heroes*******; whatsmore they are anti-heroes that don’t get along. Nathaniel bosses and Bartimaeus sasses; it is deliciously amusing. In the second book, the one I spent all Wednesday reading, a third character is introduced by the name of Kitty. Kitty is a tough girl who has a resistance to magic and hates the magicians (who, by the way, are a rather evil, conniving, greedy, power-hungry, totalitarianistic lot). Naturally, she gets along quite well with Nathaniel.

In the beginning, faced with the enormous task of introducing Kitty’s background, the book trudges. It takes time for Nathaniel and Bartimaeus to meet again (one hundred pages) and even longer for Kitty and Nathaniel to meet (a good three hundred pages after that). But once everyone is thrown in the pot together, the story is irresistible.

Oh, I forgot to mention the plot. A powerful something has been destroying magician’s shops in London. (It won’t be giving much away to say that this creature is a Golem.) Nathaniel, who’s in charge of the investigation, summons Bartimaeus to help him. In the meantime, Kitty and other members of the “Resistance” plot a disastrous raid on the tomb of the most powerful British magician. Eventually, these two story lines are entwined.

The story’s climax has action, danger, and adventure (etc., etc.), but it also, surprisingly, centered on moral choices. I can’t say more than that without giving too much away. It was a great book, a complete book, but it left several mysteries yet to be unraveled. More compelling than the mysteries, however, are the characters themselves. I want to know how they end up. And I really want to see them meet again and, as it says on the back of the book “explosively collide.”

On Friday I went fishing with my host family, caught nothing myself, and ended up sunning myself on a large rock, shading my eyes with a borrowed hat and reading the second book I bought. It was intellectually intriguing, but the stories themselves were lacking. Then again, on Sunday, I made another trip to Sakae, hoping to catch a glimpse of the third of The Bartimaeus Trilogy. I did, to my happiness find it (Ptolemy’s Gate), but at 2500 yen it was too expensive.

I spent Thursday and Saturday in reading as well, but of a different sort. Begrudgingly, I opened the dense volumes of old library books, and began my research.

* Actually, my plans were boring: I thought I’d use the time to research and write my economics report. Fortunately for you, dear reader, my plans got shuffled around a bit.
** Yes, on that lone Monday, we did have classes. Fortunately, they were light. We had a party in Japanese class, which was more of a talent show; we watched our classmates perform, ate snacks, and talked to Nihonjin.
*** For those of you who don’t know, Rurouni Kenshin is a manga/ anime set in the Meiji Era that I enjoy. The books are still being translated in the United States, but the series finished seven years ago in Japan. I heartily recommend the series to anyone interested, and will gladly lecture you about the Bakumatsu and Restoration, should you be interested.
**** The series is set in modern times, with substantial Heian references, and revolves around the Japanese strategy game of Go. It should be noted that, though I had at that point already bought books 1,2, and 3, I had only read the first book. That had taken me at least six hours, split up over several days.
***** Shonen Jump is the name of the publisher (like Marvel or D.C.); in this case, it’s the one I most frequently read. Ironically, “Shonen” is the title given to a teenage boy.
****** All day passes cost 740 yen. Each time you ride the subway, it costs at least 200 yen (even for a single stop), but never more than 290 (even if you transfer five times, pass every stop, and ride the subway all day—though why you’d want to do that is beyond me). Thus, if you go to three or four different places, the pass basically pays for itself.
******* Most people reading this blog will already know that anti-heroes are my favorite kind of character. On another note, Bartimaeus, the character, often uses footnotes (such as these) to give the audience vital information or make a sarcastic remark. If you grow tired of my footnotes, you can blame him, as that’s where I got the idea to use them.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Weather in Japan (Update)

On May 1st, for the first time in ages, I went to school without a jacket.

The change in the weather has surprised me. To be sure, it’s been some time since winter left. The cold no longer lingers like a phantom in every room, in every crack, and I no longer spend nights sleeping like a corpse, not moving less any breath of my body’s heat escape. Spring came and the days warmed to tolerably cool. April arrived and water poured from the sky. (Now, at last, the meaning of the old rhyme makes sense.) But May has brought with it a new kind of weather, a new kind of warmth.

It’s a warmth which, like the first juicy bite of a strawberry, tastes of summer.

Now, I come home and unabashedly down several glasses of ice water, before rushing up to my room to open the windows. At night, despite the breeze, I tumbling around, kicking off blankets, squirming to avoid the heat. During the day, my mind cannot concentrate on work. Go play, go play. That is the constant cry of summer. And in the first cool relief of evening, when the crickets chirp, people take slow walks and laugh.

Thus far, the days of May have been mostly sunny, although it’s supposed to rain all next week. When it does rains it feels a little cooler outside; but on the following day, the city is soggy with humidity.

Now is the season for butterflies. That, I suppose, is the only real drawback of May. The butterflies are large and yellow or light blue with elaborate designs on their wings. Occasionally, they fly straight at me and I have to duck and dodge to avoid them.

On the other hand, the ensuing April showers have made the trees burst into full blossom: a crown of bright green leaves. Even as the sakura petals fell, green shoots had been pushing through the black branches, and now the trees are stuffed with leaves. I have never seen anything like it. Trees in Southern California, like the grass and flowers, are always in season; they are never gloomy in the winter, never brittle and bare. But neither are they so alive in the summer. Rows and rows of trees, the bright green crowding out the sky, and yellow, yellow dandelions dotting the ground below.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Tidbits

(Note: This was first written on Sunday, April 30th. Today refers to Sunday, yesterday to Saturday.)

Bar-b-que

Today, when we went to Hideaki’s parents’ house to cut down a tree branch that was in danger of hitting the roof, it was spontaneously suggested that we have “bar-b-que” for lunch.

The men chopped up the extraneous branch and burned it in an indentation in the ground. When the branch got nice and hot—when it turned a charred grey but was still glowing like a coal—they put in a clay flowerpot and put a grill covering over it. On this, they cooked thin strips of meat, small fish, and cut vegetables.

I sat or at times lay on the tatami mat and cushion in a room which, when the sliding door was open, overlooked the grill. Wisps of white ash and the smell of smoke blew in with the breeze. The men would pass us plates of recently cooked meat and vegetables and we would dip these into a dark, sweet sauce and eat them warm. I especially enjoyed the potatoes, boiled first, then buttered and wrapped in aluminum foil and grilled for five minutes more—I seasoned it with salt and pepper before I ate it. There were also tender strips of beef, marinated in sauce, and chicken and sausages, which burst juice when you bit into them. And there were soft mushrooms and slices of pumpkin.

Mayumi served me orange juice and chilled ocha, and Hideaki’s genki (lively, energetic) mother ran around, telling “Becky-san” to eat more. Near me, Megumi drew. For desert I had strawberry Hagen-daas, and afterwards, I lay contentedly on a cushion and began writing. Mayumi sat with me, quietly staring outside where the scent of smoke still lingered and listening to the sound of wind.

Mexican Food

Several people have asked me how making Mexican food for the family has been. So I shall tell you: I suffer a minor heart attack every time I make the family dinner.

Yesterday, for example, I was going to make hard and soft tacos for the second time, but we had run out of corn tortillas and none of the import stores had any. So I decided to switch to burritos. But wouldn’t you know, the flour tortillas my family had sent me were moldy. So I made five hard tacos, and used the left over meat and the beans I had heated to make a bean dip. Mayumi had bought tortilla chips, so we all ate nachos. I, in the meantime, was perspiring quietly to myself about whether my family would like it and whether I had made enough food. The answer was, yes, they did like it, and, no, I hadn’t made enough. As proof, after eating all the tacos, a bag of chips, and a small casserole dish of bean dip, my family still had room for a couple bowls of rice, miso soup, and a plate of sashimi.

By far, my most successful Mexican dinner was the first one. I made hard and soft tacos for my family on the 9th of April, along with refried beans and Spanish rice. Before I had even begun to cook, I was having nightmares about not being able to find a cheese grater. (By the way, Mayumi bought pre-shredded cheese.) Why was I so nervous? Simple; it was the first time cooking for my family and the first time Kengo and Megumi would ever eat Mexican food. Add to the fact that I didn’t even have proper measuring cups, and you can see why I began to fidget.

In fact, I spent a good few minutes debating in my head how I was going to serve the food. In my family tacos and burritos are a make-your-own affair; I lay out the ingredients and everyone puts in the amount beans, cheese, vegetables, etc. that they desire. I had qualms about serving food to my family in this way, primarily because, A. I didn’t know whether Kengo and Megumi would even know how to make their own tacos, and B. the table seemed too small for pans of beans, rice, and meat; bowls of tomatoes and lettuce; a package of cheese; and plates, cups and silverware. So, I made each plate up individually. And I, again, made up each individual plate when they requested seconds.

The unhappy result of which was that I was tired from running back and forth all through dinner, and by the time I sat down to eat, my own food had long gotten cold. But everyone seemed to enjoy the food, especially the soft tacos. Hideaki said I should open my own Mexican restaurant in Nagoya. Both he and Mayumi were very grateful to eat Mexican food again. That filled me with a warm, fuzzy glow that not even the inevitable stack of dirty dishes could drown out.

I also made huevos rancheros on Easter, but that didn’t go over too well. Megumi thought the enchilada sauce was too spicy and couldn’t eat it. And no one could pronounce the name of the dish.

Karage and Chahan

In Japan, the school year ends in February and begins again in April. So, for two months, while the Japanese students were off playing, we Ryuugakusei (exchange students) had all of Nanzan’s campus to ourselves.

Sadly, this state could not last.

With the return of the Nihonjin (Japanese people) and, especially, the influx of freshmen, my world has gotten crowded before I even step on campus. The subway is now jam-packed with students, especially on the 8:30 and 3:30 trains. Every day, as I exit the subway, I have to fight off hoards of people handing out tissues and fliers. These annoying solicitors, who I mentioned in a previous post, had left for most of winter, but returned in full force in the spring, stronger than ever; every day, every day, I have to pass through a “bridge” of at least six of them. And on campus, the streets, computer labs, and cafeterias are crowded.

The good news is that some of the smaller eating places, which had closed when the students left, are now open again. My favorite and, by far, the best of these places is the Croissant Café. My friends and I eat there everyday for lunch.

The specialty of the café is actually ramen, but I don’t care much for ramen and my friends rarely eat it. Instead we nearly always order karage chicken and chahan rice.

Karage is Japan’s version of fried chicken. According to Julie (who gave me the recipe), it’s breaded with a combination of fine corn meal, flour, garlic, and ginger; once it comes out of the frying pan, hot, it’s tender and juicy. Most everywhere on campus sells karage for about a dollar, but the Croissant Café’s is the cheapest and the best.

The Chahan, or Chinese-style rice, is excellent too. You can either buy a half set for 200 yen or a full set (which comes with a small cup of egg drop soup) for 350. The rice itself is warm and buttery and peppery, with little pieces of ham stuck here and there.

Though I’ve tried ramen and hayashi rice (plain white rice covered with a vaguely sweet sauce) on occasion, generally, I just order karage and chahan. Not the healthiest lunch, I know, but it is quite delicious. Afterwards, I like to get a Giant sundae cone, which, despite its name, is only moderate in size, but at 100 yen, a pretty good deal.

Monday, April 24, 2006

A Story

Kinuyo and the Kitsune

…What comes from there to pervade my being
is voices and voices of peddlers at twilight time,
mixed with the smell of lonely rainfall of late autumn,
voices and voices of various lives….*


It had been three days since Kinuyo’s mother had gone out to buy some eggs from Mrs. Yamamoto, a friend, across the town. She hadn’t returned.

Her mother had left in the early evening. Kinuyo had chopped the green onions and boiled the rice; she had fried what remained of the meat and made tea. Then she waited until the tea grew cold and the sky grew dark. The late autumn wind sent a shiver through her thin shawl. From somewhere deep within the streets, she heard a cry and running, someone scampering like a rat through the streets. Dogs howled.

And still her mother hadn’t returned.

The second day, after she came home from work, Kinuyo had swept the house and mended a tear in her mother’s slippers. She had bought soba from a small shop nearby and heated it up for the both of them.
“Maybe yesterday some trouble on the street kept her from coming home last night,” she told a scruffy orange dog who was sniffing around the maple tree in front of their house. “Perhaps a scuffle between the imperial troops and a Shougitai spy. I’d say a robber, but,” Kinuyo smiled briefly, “they don’t seem to be good at catching them.”

The dog gazed out into street; it barked once, and then it went back to sniffing the tree.

Kinuyo sighed. The thought of robbers was forcing in the unpleasant reality of the situation. Perhaps her mother had spent the night at her friend’s house and, from there, had gone straight to her place of work, which was different than Kinuyo’s. Perhaps the reason she was so late was because she had stopped by the jail to visit Kinuyo’s brother or had found a moving family who was willing to sell cloth for a new kimono at an extremely low price. Perhaps… but that perhaps was fading, fainter and fainter, as the sky turned a murky black.

Kinuyo knew one girl who had lost her father and two brothers in the battle of Ueno Hill; they had not come back one evening, and the girl had continued working as though nothing had ever happened.

Quietly, Kinuyo blew out her lantern and went to bed. She left the soba out for her mother. But when, in the morning, she found the soba cold and untouched, Kinuyo knew she must act.

Outside, the dog was still there, curled up asleep next to the tree. It looked up as Kinuyo walked up and sleepily wagged its tail. Kinuyo fed it the rest of the soba. The dog ate joyously and licked Kinuyo’s fingers.

“You were a good friend yesterday,” she said, patting its rough fur. “You kept me from loneliness. If times were better, maybe we could keep you.”

Kinuyo stood. “I must find my mother, now,” she told the dog. “Go chase squirrels and play. After all,” she said wryly, “it is said that the streets of Edo now belong to you and your friends.”

The dog, finished with the soba, barked happily. And, just as Kinuyo told it, it began to run….

* * *

A young girl of about twelve stood in the middle of the street. She wore a beautiful white kimono, delicate as a crane’s feathers and richly garnished, but her thick black hair settled carelessly on her shoulders. She seemed odd, just standing in the dusty street, as people all around her tripped and trudged here and there: another day’s work while the sun was still warm.

“Hello,” said Kinuyo to the girl. “Are you lost?” Her first thought was that the girl might be a daughter of a lower samurai, but then Kinuyo remembered that most of Tokugawa’s retainers had left two months ago, pulling carts filled with goods behind them. A merchant’s daughter then?

The girl tilted her head and studied Kinuyo with bight black eyes. Slowly, a wide grin seeped across her narrow, pretty face.

“I’m not lost,” she said, in a clear, surprisingly forceful voice. “I like to saunter the streets of Tokyo on my own.”

“Not many people refer to the city as Tokyo,” said Kinuyo lightly, though the girl’s open manner disturbed her. “Besides, you shouldn’t be alone. There’s no one left to govern Edo, and the streets are no longer safe.”

“That,” the girl said loudly, “is why I like it.” She smiled again, showing her teeth this time, then turned quickly on her heal and ran off: her legs sticking out ungainly through the flaps of her kimono, her hair streaming out around her like the wild stems of grass.

No one, not one of the people on the street even turned around to look. Only Kinuyo stared and shook her head quietly to herself. What had happened to the soul of Edo that the people allowed girls to behave in such an exposed and reckless manner?

She remembered when she was young, when the city still flowed with life and people, and she squealed to catch a glimpse of a samurai with his two swords at his hip. Her father had always admired the samurai and taught her to respect the Tokugawa family, the city’s protectors. He taught her what he knew of bushido, stories of loyalty and courage and sacrifice. She had listened to him sometimes when he worked, sketching scenes of Edo to be carved into woodblocks.

Kinuyo smiled, remembering the smell of paper and ink that had followed her father. She liked looking at his pictures, especially the ones he had made before she was born. Those had seemed brighter somehow. But she thought all his pictures were beautiful and told him so. He laughed at this.

Once he had told her that she reminded him of a butterfly in the spring, fluttering happily from flower to flower with no notion they would wilt. “That is all very well for now,” he said, “but when grow older you must learn to restrain your joy and sorrow both and bear with life with a calm and patient soul. Remember, little Kinu, only a pomegranate gapes his mouth and shows the contents of his heart.”

Kinuyo’s throat pricked. She brushed memories away like a sigh. It did no good to reminisce; Kinuyo had to find her mother. She would go to Mrs. Motoyama’s house first, the friend her mother had visited three days ago, to see if she knew where her mother had gone. Perhaps her mother was still there, ill or a twisted leg. If not there, Kinuyo could check the hospitals…or with the police….

“You said the streets weren’t safe,” said a voice, ringing through Kinuyo’s thoughts. “So why are you still on them?”

Kinuyo looked up. It was that same strange girl again, leering at Kinuyo from across the street.

“It’s not just robbers and murders running about with no one doing anything to stop them,” said the girl, hopping on one foot and crossing over to wear Kinuyo walked.
“You have to watch out for the police as well. You never know when they might walk up to you in broad daylight and arrest someone you love for conspiring against the government.”

Kinuyo decided the girl must be out of her head and walked quickly, trying to avoid her. But like a dog or a drunken man, the girl followed her, scampering at the edge of her hem with her strangely bright eyes and her mouth moving in a malicious smile.

“Just like they arrested your brother,” the girl said.

Kinuyo stopped.

The girl laughed and shook her head like an animal. “Got him for distributing political cartoons. Sent him to jail for criticizing the new government. Poor Kinuyo; murderers flocking into the city and no strong men left to protect you.”

“Who are you?” Kinuyo asked softly. Her insides had gone very cold and her heart thudded painfully.

The girl’s grin faded. Her face grew serious under her straight hair. “I know where your mother is,” she said, and stared up at her with dark round eyes.

The shock of those words had pushed all air from Kinuyo’s lungs. For a moment she couldn’t breathe.

“Do you want to know?” the girl asked. “I’ll tell you.”

Kinuyo didn’t, couldn’t quite move. She managed to jerk her body to the side as the girl came up to her, mild as a fawn, and whispered softly in her ear,

“She’s beneath the ground, dead and buried. Just like your father.”

In a flash of anger, Kinuyo’s hand was suddenly raised, but the girl was already running now, running through the dusty street, cackling over her shoulder, “They’re all gone, your entire family! You’re alone now, completely alone!”

“Wait,” yelled Kinuyo, but the girl darted between some buildings and was gone. The last thing Kinuyo saw was a moving streak of red against the white of her kimono. A tail!

“Kitsune!” Kinuyo cried. She sucked in her breath.

The people on the street moved past her, not looking, not asking, and Kinuyo stared at the buildings where the fox-girl had disappeared. Slowly, she took a step forward towards Mrs. Yamamoto’s house. Then another, willing her body to move.

Her hand was shaking.

* * *

There was a small limp tree in front of Mrs. Yamamoto’s house. The few leaves it produced for the summer were already starting to wilt and crack. But the sight of the familiar wooden house with blue roof titles reassured her. Kinuyo knocked on the door: a quick, nervous rap, rap.

“Yes, yes,” came Mrs. Yamamoto’s voice, from within the house. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Kinuyo let out her breath. At least Mrs. Yamamoto’s voice hadn’t change: it was still soft and cracked as old leather. She shook her head a little; what had she expected after all? Did she think she’d hear the voice of that strange kitsune-girl in her place?

But the thought of the fox continued to make Kinuyo uneasy. The seconds stretched like an afternoon shadow as Kinuyo stood, waiting for Mrs. Yamamoto. Fear bubbled through her: vague and insistent, like the steady ache of a nerve.

“Mrs. Yamamoto?” She knocked again.

Rap. Rap. The sound was dull and distorted, as though in the space between each rap, a withered leaf was slowly gliding to the ground.

“She not there, anymore,” said the girl.

Kinuyo turned around. The girl was standing beside the tree, her face pointed and serious, except for a small smile, a slight curve of the mouth, creeping on her face.

“Kitsune,” said Kinuyo, with all the boldness she could muster, “why do you mock me? What have I done?” The words fell flat from her mouth into the autumn sunshine, and the girl ignored them.

“I was lying before,” she said. “Your mother didn’t die. But she came close it.” She rocked on her heals. “Not long after she left this place, a group of robbers met her. Rough men. They struck her over the head and beat her senseless and stole the few copper coins that she kept on her. The eggs she had bought earlier dropped and cracked on the street. And when the robbers left, your poor mother lay cold and bleeding on the street, for crows to pick at and the dogs to lick.”

Kinuyo folded her hands. They were shaking again, more violently than before, and her legs were shaking too and her innards quivered; she was sure she was going to pitch forward at any moment. With all her strength, she held herself erect.

The girl tilted her head, black hair falling across her face, and peered critically at Kinuyo. “You’re a hard-hearted one,” she declared, “to listen and say nothing.”

“It’s a lie.”

“It’s not a lie,” the girl replied indignantly. “I found her. And she would have died if I hadn’t taken her in and taken care of her. But I won’t take care of her anymore; it’s tiresome and now you’ve called me a liar. So I think I’ll just leave her there to die.”

Warm tears form at the edges of Kinuyo’s eyes. She curled her fist and blinked quickly, but, though they didn’t drop, neither did they leave her. Kinuyo felt as though everything she loved was being ripped from her grasp, and she was standing powerless to stop it.

“I can bring you to her.” The girl was suddenly close.

Kinuyo opened her mouth, but didn’t know what she could say. Without thinking, she glanced back at Mrs. Yamamoto’s house.

The girl laughed suddenly, a cruel and melodious sound that sent cold sweat down Kinuyo’s back, a sound too rich, too full of power and strength for a little girl.

“I’m not waiting for that old lady. And I’m not waiting for you either.” Her hair flying out, the girl began to run.

“Wait!” yelled Kinuyo. And suddenly she was running, chasing the fox through the streets of Edo in the middle of the day. Yes, it was a fox; she was certain now; she could see its red tail poking out as the girl ran. She was quick. Kinuyo sucked in her breath and fired her legs, but the fox only seemed to be getting further ahead.

Around her, the streets began to change. The small wooden stores became strange and tall, made of square red stone, lying side by side. The streets were filled with black carriages and people walked past her, some in normal clothes, some in strange and foreign dress. Once she heard a loud rumbling and a shriek, and caught a glimpse of a black demon moving with rapid pace, some huge monstrosity that had neither eyes nor face, that filled the sky with thick smoke.

“In here.”

Coughing, Kinuyo darted after the fox into a red building. Inside, it was cold and dark; the windows let in neither light nor heat. Kinuyo could only just see enough to see the figure of her mother, sprawled on the floor.

“Mother!” Kinuyo ran to her and held her in her arms.

Her mother’s soft skin was bruised and her hair was matted with dried blood, but what frightened Kinuyo the most was the way she slept. She didn’t seem to be breathing, yet her body was warm. It felt like a deep enchantment, one that Kinuyo couldn’t break.

The kitsune-girl, still in the room, perched in the corner, spoke. “You were born the year the black ships came, were you not?” she asked Kinuyo.

“My mother,” said Kinuyo. “What have you done? Please, wake her up.”

The girl shook her head, her mouth twisting in amusement. “Poor Kinuyo. To be born in an age of change and chaos. But you’re deluding yourself.”

Anger swelled in Kinuyo’s chest, anger and confusion, the whole world swirled hysterically inside her chest. “If you won’t help me, then leave me alone!” she found herself yelling. “Stop tormenting me!”

The girl laughed, but softly. Her eyes were beady and bright. “Kinuyo didn’t cry when her father died.” Its voice was like a song.

“Leave me alone!”

“Kinuyo didn’t cry when her father died,” said the fox said again, its voice low. It was beginning to glow, its skin flushing red.
“And when her brother was thrown in jail
she didn’t make a sound.
She holds onto an age that isn’t hers,
and when she grieves, her face is glass.”

Kinuyo pressed her hands against her ears, but it did stop the song from penetrating. The fox was glowing brighter and brighter, its human forming melting away like snow. Now only a fox remained, its round, black eyes boring into her. And still the fox sang.
“Little Kinu will not open her mouth for fear
she will become a pomegranate.
How hard it must be for poor, poor Kinuyo,
to hold on tightest to what she never had.
How does she keep from going mad?”

Abruptly, the fox stopped. For the first time, it looked at her with some sympathy. Then it rushed at her.

In the clarity of that single moment, Kinuyo knew the fox meant to enter her heart and possess her body. Yet, she could not move, not even to flinch.

The fox stopped. It’s hair stood up on its back and it hissed and spat. From somewhere that seemed very far away, Kinuyo heard a loud, earthy growl. Then suddenly a blur of orange matted fur past her, and the fox was running, running away. The illusion was melting, the room growing brighter, the walls becoming solid wood, and suddenly her mother groaned and took a breath.

Suddenly Kinuyo pitched forward, like a puppet who’s strings had been cut. All strength she’d had in her vanished, and she felt blood rising to her head, heart pumping inside her stomach. Distantly there was barking, but she couldn’t hear it. Her senses were muddled and confused. Like the day her father died. When her brother brought him back with knife wounds through his throat and chest, handbills from “heaven’s army” floated in the street, like clouds in the mud. Emotions were rising like steam, but now she couldn’t control it. On that day, outside, everyone dancing the dance of madmen, shouting, “Ain’t it great! Ain’t it great!”

* * *

The orange dog had chased the fox away, and now it spent several minutes barking triumphantly. Once it was satisfied, it loped over to Kinuyo, ready to lick her fingers and receive a well-deserved pat of the head. But she was crying. Lying in a heap, her body writhed and she sobbed and sobbed.
Puzzled, the dog gently nuzzled her.

*This poem isn’t mine. It’s written by Saisei Muro, part of “An Unfinished Poem.” I found it in Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry, a birthday present from Ashley.

Notes

First, let me profusely apologize for not getting the Easter blog up sooner. I had (as alluded to earlier) a short story for Art and Culture class due last Friday. Though I did not, in fact, leave everything until the last minute, some aspect of my personality (call it perfectionism or professional pride) kept me writing all week long, trying to make a good story out of bits of information and a vague idea. I had to get up at 5 AM Friday morning, but I finished my story.

Consequently, after writing all morning, taking a grueling midterm (which is what my Japanese teachers called a four page reading and grammar test), spending my afternoon running errands, going to Culture class, and finally coming home, exhausted, at 6:15 PM, knowing that I would have to get up at 6:30 to begin the weekend-long field trip to Shizuoka—well, after all that, I just didn’t have the mental energy to type up a blog entry on Friday night.

(In case you’re wondering, the trip to Shizuoka was wonderful, despite sitting on a bus for about 9 hours the first day, driving back and forth. The Japanese countryside is really beautiful, the mountains full of trees. I have no words to describe it. On this trip, we saw Mount Fuji, briefly, from the back of a boat, and explored a cave, among other things. At one point, I got to cross this narrow white suspension bridge over a pool of bright blue water. It was thrilling and just a little scary.)

But anyway, I’ve decided to let you read my story. I already gave it to someone (Julie) to read, and she enjoyed it. It wasn’t perfect—she gave me suggestions for future corrections—but it should be all right. If you have any comments or suggestions about the story, please let me know.

The following is notes about history and folklore that I refer to in my story. I think it might be better to skip this until after you’ve read the story and refer to it only if there’s something you don’t understand.

In 1852 Matthew Perry sailed to Japan on his “black ships” to “open” the country to American trade. Up until then Japan, a military government headed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, had little relations with any foreign country; as a result, they were militarily inferior to the U.S. and other countries. Perry succeeded in his goal. Consequently, as Japan was forced to sign treaty after treaty with foreign countries to avoid war, the Tokugawa bakufu’s (military government) weakness was revealed. A few lower samurais managed to overthrow the Tokugawa regime and restore the Emperor to power. This is known as the Meiji Restoration.

My story takes place in the year 1868, the first year of Meiji. Early in the year the samurai leaders representing the Emperor took over Edo, Tokugawa’s capital, and effectively completed their revolution. There was still some resistance within the city, however; a hostile press and a guerilla movement popped up. By the summer, the new government defeated the guerillas in Edo in the battle of Ueno Hill and censored the press. The Tokugawa family was forced to leave, along with most of their retainers, causing the city to lose a good chunk of their population. Around this time, they decided to rename the city Tokyo and move the Emperor there; Tokyo would be their new capital.

Edo, in the meantime, had been having a rough time since the black ships arrived. They suffered plagues, fires, riots, and depreciating value of their money. They didn’t believe the Shogun could protect them, but they were skeptical about the new government as well. From late 1867 to early 1868 a stream of thieves and murderers came into the city. As late as early autumn, the new government was powerless to curtail these lawless men. In the winter of 1867, the people expressed their frustration by randomly taking to the street shouting “Ii janai! Ii janai!” or “Ain’t it great! Ain’t it great!” and dancing and reveling. By winter of 1868, however, the atmosphere had just begun to settle down.

And now, a word about Kitsune.
Kitsune is another word for fox. Specifically, I am referring to a sort of spirit fox found in Japanese folklore. These beasts, while 100% fox (and still afraid of dogs, consequently), are capable of many tricks, including transforming into humans. They also have the ability to possess humans. They tend to be tricksters and rather malicious, though there are kind foxes as well.

Easter

Sunday April 16, 2006

A week earlier, I received a care package from my family. Besides well supplying me with Mexican food ingredients (taco shells, beans, enchilada sauce, seasoning, Spanish rice, and two kinds of tortillas), they had also sent me an egg-dying kit, plastic eggs, and Easter candy.

You see where this is headed.

My host family had never celebrated Easter. The holiday doesn’t really exist in Japan, with only 1% of the population Christian. They knew (at least the adults) a little about the religious purpose behind the holiday and might have been at least vaguely familiar with the tradition of coloring eggs. But I still had to explain a lot, everything from how eggs were dyed and not painted, to why candy was put in plastic eggs, to why a bunny was shown (on the egg-dying kit) with eggs when rabbits were very clearly mammals. I explained as best as I could in Japanese and, when that failed me, in English. Still, some concepts, like how dye worked, never really came through.

But we planned to dye eggs Saturday evening and hide them Easter Sunday.

On Saturday, my host family was out for the day. Everyone except Kengo was going to Hideaki’s mother’s house, an hour away, to use her sewing machine; Kengo was going out withy a friend. I was staying home to do laundry and get some research done for the historical fiction short story I had to turn in for Art and Culture class. Mayumi was going to try to buy and boil eggs at her mother-in-law’s house and bring them back—which was clearly ridiculous—so I volunteered to go shopping and take care of everything.

That Saturday I had a nice lunch at Saizariya, which is a nice (and cheap!) Italian chain in Japan. After eating, I went to the grocery store and bought twenty eggs (they came in packs of ten), Styrofoam cups for putting the dye into (sorry Jenny; there wasn’t anything else), and deserts for my family (out of the goodness of my heart). I went home, hung my laundry up to dry and boiled and boiled those eggs.

I broke four, which much distressed me; I considered 20 a small number as it was (only four per person) and would have bought more, but the prospect of having to eat them all held me back. As it was, it took my host family a month to eat a box of chocolates my real family would have finished in two days. And hard-boiled eggs would not last a month.

After I set the eggs in the refrigerator to chill, I washed the plastic eggs and filled them with candy. Then I did the dishes. By the time I finished, I was feeling both tired and appreciative; tired from the work, appreciative for all the times I never had to do that work (thanks Mom!).

By 7:00 my family was ready to start, except that Kengo still hadn’t returned. My family decided to start (and later finish) without him.

It was the first Easter that I was in charge of the festivities and this filled me with a responsible, bustling spirit. I wandered to and fro, boiling water, setting out newspaper, and laying out the contents of the egg-dying kit. I had some problems with measuring cups. The kit said 1/2-cup warm water plus 1 TBSP vinegar for blue, green, and yellow; but Japan is on the metric system and I couldn’t do conversions. Fortunately precision is not important to me, so I dumped what seemed like a good amount and let the tablets dissolve.

My host family was amazed. They had never seen anything like this before.

I went about explaining the aesthetics of egg dyeing: how to first draw pictures with white crayons on the egg surface, how to hold the egg longer in the dye for a richer color, how to embellish with stickers after the egg had dried. In addition, this particular egg-dyeing kit came with a “special” second way of coloring eggs, which involved using a sponge to paint the surface with runny dye. I demonstrated both methods and then stepped back and let them play.

First, they drew pictures and put the egg in dye: the standard method, but before long, they began to get creative.

I explained to Hideaki how to dye the egg two different colors and he threw himself into making half-and-half eggs: perfecting the method. Once he managed to dye an egg three different colors, an impressive feat.

Mayumi, in the meantime, had experimented with the sponge-on second method; but the blue and yellow dye ran inelegantly around her pale red egg and she wasn’t happy with the results. Rather than give the egg up for lost, she stuck the whole thing into blue dye, the strongest color, to see what would happen. The egg turned a beautiful shade of purple, the runny streaks turning into intriguing tie-dye.

Megumi, of course, was having the most fun. She tried everything: the half-and-half, the sponge-on. Once she stuck her egg in green dye and then in yellow and then back in green, making it light green. She began to sponge-on green dye in small spots around her egg; but then finding, her fingers more effective at transferring the dye, she carefully and meticulously speckled the egg with her fingerprints.

She called this egg her “ichiban gambari” egg—loosely translated, the egg into which the most effort had been put. She was very proud of it.

I thought we should save some eggs for Kengo, put I was overruled.

The next morning, at about ten-thirty, we hid eggs.

The kids caught on quickly and began discussing boundaries before we even suggested they go outside. We were hiding eggs inside the house, and the kids decided that any room would be fine except for my room, Hideaki’s room, the tatami room, and the toilet. Then they went outside to help their father hose down the car.

I took the plastic eggs. Mayumi took the hard-boiled eggs. I made good use of camouflage, a trick I had learned from years of egg hunting and hiding.

We let the kids in.

It was good there were two of them. I think if there had only been a single kid, the egg hunt would have been a very boring event. The kid would have strolled leisurely throughout the house, while we stood by, trying not to give too much of a hint.

But with two kids it was a race.

Kengo and Megumi raced through the house, tearing around cabinets, shouting “atta!” (Here it is!) every time they found an egg. The most amusing thing to happen was that I had found some lime green yarn in the kid’s room that was the exact same color as one of my plastic eggs. I hid the egg inside the yarn, so that the thread was over it, but you could still see the bulky form of the egg poking out. The egg was obvious, except for the camouflage. Yet Kengo passed it three times, one time even shuffling the yarn around, and it wasn’t until Mayumi and I began to laugh, that he figured it out.

All and all it was a fun day.

Megumi and Kengo came out even, except that Megumi had more plastic eggs. Kengo, on the other hand, had Megumi’s “ichiban gambari” egg. Once when he was examining a different egg, he dropped it near if not on top of Megumi’s egg. We heard a crack.

Instantly, Megumi snatched her egg back and examined it. Kengo said it was all right, but Megumi wasn’t satisfied with that and inspected the egg herself. She couldn’t find any cracks, but she refused to give it back to Kengo. And when he protested, she gave him one of her plainer eggs.

This amused me.

She force traded other eggs for her painstakingly decorated ones that Kengo now claimed. Then she put her eggs on the cardboard rings I had punched out the night before and displayed them proudly on the table.



Addendum:

That night I made huevos rancheros, which used up half a can of enchilada sauce but no hard-boiled eggs.

It turned out that my host family ate hard-boiled eggs much faster than chocolate (quite the opposite from my real family). Hideaki ate several plain; Mayumi made egg salad sandwiches and potato salad for dinner one night, and another night Kengo stuck the remainder in a pot with meat and broth. The eggs were gone in less than a week. The Easter candy, however, continues to linger on.

A few days later, when Kengo was studying and Mayumi and Hideaki had gone to a beer-tasting event, I had my first real conversation with Megumi. We talked about her sticker-making machine and she made me one with my name on it. Watashiwa honto ni ureshikatta. I was really happy.

Thinking of celebrating Easter with my host family, I couldn’t help but think of how I had celebrated Hinamatsuri or Girl’s Day with them. It made me happy, contented, that I was able to share American culture with them in some fun, tangible way. I wrote in my journal that day, “I think she [Megumi] enjoyed Easter the most, and that makes me happy. I hope that even if she forgets me, she’ll remember this event.” And I still, do hope that too.

Because, it doesn’t feel like enough just to take back a greater understanding of Japanese culture. I want to give them something, too.

Monday, April 17, 2006

It's Called Procrastination

So I was poking around the nonfiction section* of the library yesterday, when I found a book called "You Know You've Been in Japan Too Long...." by Bill Mutranowski. It is a self-proclaimed "hilarious look at foriegners who arrived in Japan...and forgot to leave."

Now, the question is, have I been in Japan too long? I've selected five excerpts from the book to test myself against. Have I been in Japan too long? We shall see....

"You Know You've Been in Japan Too Long When...."

"You frantically plow your way onto a packed commuter train, because you know there won't be another one for another four and a half minutes."

Hah, ha. Ahem. All right, I would have to answer yes to this, though circumstances are a little different. First, the trains come every ten minutes, a much long wait than four and a half, and second, I don't so much push as leap gracefully into the train before the doors shut.

"You have actually seen a geisha."

No. I've seen a few women dressed as geisha and a few more wearing kimonos, but to see an actual, real Geisha I'd have to park myself outside of Gion in Kyouto and hope I got lucky. So far, I've only been to Kyouto once and that was a highly structured school tour. But who knows? I'm going overnight in May.

"The term 'gaijin' no longer fazes you."

I'd have to answer no to this one as well. I do refer to myself as a gaijin--an outside person--as do my classmates; in fact, we use it far more often than the Japanese. That being said, I still don't particularily like being an "outside person," nor the idea that I'll never be an inside person. Because, you see, the opposite of "outside person" here is not "inside person." It's Nihonjin, "Japanese person."

"You don't mind seeing the same comedian on 14 different programs in the same week."

My host family watches a lot of commedy shows/variety shows/game shows? in the evenings and sooner or later you notice that the commedians are always the same people: the guy who wears black vinyl tank top and short shorts and sings YMCA; the girl with a green mohawk, orange side-burns, and purple jump suit; the monotone girl who sings "nandemoiidesuyo". They are on several times a week. So, yes this statement is almost literally true. And no, I don't mind them. After all, I can't understand them anyway, but familiarity breeds comfort, so I'm fairly comfortable with them.

"You assume your gaijin friends will like the 'funky curried egg, spicy potato and double mayonaise' pizza as much as you."

NO! NEVER WILL I ENDORSE THE PIZZA OF DOOM! Cough. Yes, these pizzas do exist. Remember the disappointing pizza I write about earlier. That was just the icing on the cake. Corn, potatoes and mayonaise are staples of Japanese pizza. And while they are not horrible to the taste, eventually you just want a slice of thick-crust, real tomato sauce, motzerella cheese, pepperoni pizza. Safe, normal, American pizzas do exist in Japan, but you have to dig up a Dominos or Pizza Hut to find them. Good luck with that.

The test results are in. By a slim margin of three to two, it has been decided that I have not been in Japan too long. Only long enough to miss real pizza.

*This should inform you that I have a paper due soon, and I am thoughtfully spending my procrastination minutes writing you this entry. Though I do read non-fiction for fun, I would be more apt to poke around a bookstore than a library to get some reading materials. Libraries are for (boring) research only. Point in fact, I do have a paper due this Friday, an eight page historical fiction in which I'm hoping to incorporate myth elements. Which is why you are getting this entry now and (hopefully) a real entry by Friday evening.