The Last Eatery in Japan

This is the last photo I took in Japan. I turned around and snapped a picture of the FaSoLa Cafe, just before going through Gate ?? at Narita Airport, down the jetway, and onto my plane.

There is something fascinating about the FaSoLa. You experience Japan as an apparently endless succession of restaurants, cafes, bistros, snack bars, patisseries, and ice cream stands — but actually it isn’t endless, and the little cafe at Narita (the FaSoLa, in this case), just yards from your gate, is the Last Station. Here you can park your carry-on bag and sit down at a clean table for one last aloe-laden grape drink and yakisoba, while the last few minutes of Japanese television you are apt to see for a while provides the backdrop. Then, you wipe your mouth, take your tray to the collection counter, make sure the table is tidy for the next guest — and leave a spiritual imprint of yourself there, while picking up a little memory in return. You walk just a few steps, through the gate, down the jetway, and through the main hatch.

The next time you walk through it, as you deplane, the FaSoLa won’t be there anymore. It will have transformed into a bank of Burger Kings, Jamba Juices, and Quiznos.’ You’ll be in America, as if you never left — except for the little bit of yourself that you gave to the FaSoLa and the little bit of it that you brought with you.

Japan Journal: How to Bathe in an Onsen (Hot Springs Bath)

Here are a few pearls of wisdom concerning hot springs bathing in Japan.

  1. Know Before You Go. Try to distinguish between a mere communal bathhouse (OHURO) and a true hot springs bath (ONSEN). The latter, of course, will require access to a volcanic vent of some kind; but most towns with onsen will advertise them heavily, for they are a huge part of the tourist industry.
  2. Learn the Rules of the House. Onsen can be complicated. The larger establishments will have a small locker at the entrance, in which you store your shoes. Put in your 100 yen (which is usually returned when you leave) and take your key. Then, check your shoe locker key when you buy your entrance ticket and get your main locker key, which will usually be on a wristband (cause you gonna be nekkid in a minute, with no pocket to put it in). You will also need to know what amenities (like soap and shampoo) the house has available, either for free or for purchase; if they are not provided, you will have to bring them. Most experienced bathers invest in plastic baskets for their soap, shampoo, and towels. If they live in an onsen town like Hakodate (where I am now), they keep their baskets in their cars, enabling them to bathe on a whim, without having to return home for supplies (or for bathing). At any rate, when you enter the locker room, find your locker and put everything in it but your locker key. Smaller onsen might have wicker baskets instead of lockers, in which case, you might feel more comfortable leaving your wallet in the car or at home. Some bathers carry a washcloth into the bath area proper, to employ as a fig leaf, but you can go in buck nekkid, with nothing but the locker key around your wrist, and no one will call you daffy.
  3. The Washing. As most Americans know, in Japan, you don’t wash in the tub; you wash before getting in the tub. At an onsen, you do your washing while seated on a little stool at a washing station, which includes a hand-held shower head and a larger spigot for filling a little plastic or wooden bucket, also provided. The washing stations are in a row, before a long mirror. You will have to sit your ass down on the little stool, which is about six inches off the ground. Americans, unaccustomed to squatting, may find the action difficult; and Americans also tend to be more portly than the average Japanese, in which case they will find their bellies on their laps – or their laps on their bellies. Anyway, in this rather unnatural posture, you will wash yourself. You may use the hand-held shower sprayer, or you may fill your little bucket with water and dump it over yourself. You usually can control the water temperature, but many of the “on” levers are time-sensitive and will shut the water off after a few seconds, sometimes leaving you with a face full of soapsuds. This mode of washing is not as efficient as an American shower. You will find it especially challenging, whether you are portly or not – I should say no matter how portly you are – to wash and rinse your nether parts, while sitting on the stool. You may want to get back to your feet to do it, but rising again will require some exertion and will result in your standing nekkid next to another man, with his head about waist-high. Therefore, you will probably just have to discover some way to get the water down there while seated. The hand-held nozzle will do the trick, if you are aggressive with it, but you will have to get over your self-consciousness (if you still have any, that is) and forget how it looks. Warning: Some of the larger establishments might have one or two American-style showers in the room, and you will be tempted to sneak into one of these and get your washing done much faster; but these showers are for rinsing off the onsen water when you’re all done. If you use soap in there, you may get a talking to (by a nekkid man), as I did once, supposedly because you will have created a slip hazard with your soap but really because it’s not fair for you to shampoo and wash efficiently while no one else can. You must conform to the custom of the house, even if it means lathering and rinsing your bum, one cheek at a time, while doing a gyrating lap dance with a water jet, sitting on a low plastic stool with a hole in the middle of it.
  4. The Soaking. Now that you’re squeaky clean, you’re ready for the onsen proper. All onsen will have at least one indoor pool, and most will also have an outdoor pool. If there is more than one indoor pool, they probably contain water of different temperatures, usually medium, scalding, and boiling. There may also be a special, “herbal” pool featuring a treatment du jour such as aloe, lavender, chamomile, and so on; and some bathhouses include a pool of cold water, for polar bears. Go ahead and try as many as there are (except the polar bear water). The hotter baths you will only be able to stand for a minute or so. Note that when you move while immersed, you will get burned. This is because your body is cooling the water; so when you move your leg, for example, you are moving it out of cooler water and into the real soup. Stay in each pool until you are miserable, and then move to the next one. When you feel that your chest has turned into a pot roast, it’s time to step outside.
  5. The Air. Here is where your experience will turn delightful. The outdoor pool, if there is one, will be situated on a terrace or in an enclosed garden-like area. By all means, take an additional soak in the outdoor pool, but your objective, after your body temperature is maxed out, will be to get out of the water (take it easy as you climb out, or you might faint) and to find a nice place to sit down, where you won’t be disturbed. It may be a rock (which will leave an interesting pattern on your tooshie) or a lawn chair (the plastic will feel icky at first contact – splash some onsen water on it first) or a flat tree stump. Your body will be so hot that the season won’t matter; you can stay out in the open, even in winter. I myself enjoy winter bathing for the unique experience of hanging out nekkid in the falling snow, with the public address playing atmospheric music-box sounds, and ice forming in my hair. Even in summer, though, the air feels marvelous (it will always be cooler than what you’ve just been in), and if the sulfur of the onsen has done its work, your lungs will have opened, cleared, and expanded to such a degree that every deep inhalation will seem to fill your whole body, your whole world, your whole soul. You will lose your anchor to the earth and expect to float off the ground. If you are in a truly exquisite onsen, the outdoor pool will have been designed with a dreamlike view. A few hours ago, I was perched on a rock next to the outdoor pool at the Isaribikan, hollowed out and euphoric, gazing across at Mount Hakodate, all sparkling at night, while squid boats bearing isaribi (the bright squid-attracting lights that give the Isaribikan its name) rounded Cape Tachimachi and formed a dotted line across the water (just like in the photo, except that I’m a man and I was out of the water). My skin was tingling, as it dried in the caressing breeze.
  6. The Rinse. The light, unlocked feeling will stay with you, even after you remember yourself and sense that it’s time to go to rejoin your family or friends. You will need to rinse the sulfur water off, back at a washing station or in the shower, if there is one. As you do so, you may wish to try one last sensual experiment: Use the plastic or wooden bucket to douse yourself with cool water. It sure feels nice running through your hair and down your back. Then, dry off, get dressed, and go home feeling like a million bucks.
  7. Answers to Questions You May Be Afraid to Ask. Many Americans fantasize about uninhibited exotics and assume that coed bathing is common in Japan. It isn’t. About 99% of Japanese onsen, every one I’ve visited, are segregated by sex. If you happen to find a KONYOKU (coed onsen), it will probably be empty or filled with elderly people who, presumably, aren’t the reason you want to go. If you want to get nekkid with your significant other (of the opposite sex), you can try a family (KAZOKU) onsen, but you will find it about as romantic as an ordinary bathroom, which is pretty much what it is. I’m also not sure if groups of unrelated people would be allowed into a family onsen. There is one other thing you may try (besides going someplace really sleazy, in which case, I can provide no insight): At some of the outdoor onsen, the male and female pools are separated only by a partition; it may be possible, if no one else is around, to lean out beyond the partition and give your friend(s) on the other side a little peep show.
  8. One More Thing. Until recently, tattoos in Japan would mark a man as a gangster and a woman as a prostitute. Attitudes concerning tattoos are changing, but many onsen may still bar your entry, if you have one. Once, however, I was at a large onsen, toward closing time, and suddenly, about twenty men with full-back tattoos came in all at once. I suppose that that particular onsen had made some kind of deal with the yakuza, allowing their members to get in for a few minutes before the end of business. So there I was, standing nekkid in the shower, surrounded by twenty gangsters. In the event, I didn’t look at them, and they didn’t look at me. It was as though there were a nekkid gentlemen’s agreement.

Taiwan Journal: Really Beginning to See the Light

Background: When I lived in Taiwan as a youth (1988-92), I worked at a local shipping company, and “Susie” was in the sales department – outside sales (calling on clients, not just handling the paperwork in the office), an unusual job for a woman. She had an untamed, Amazonian beauty (how surprised I was, seeing her years later [as narrated below], to find her shorter than I am). Back in the day, I had feebly hit on her a couple of times, unaware or uninterested in the fact that she was living with a guy; but then I actually started to hang out with her and her boyfriend, “Joe,” at their bar, named Joe’s Place. He was a lot of fun. By the time I left Taiwan, they were married, and she was pregnant. During my 2010 research trip to Taiwan, I got in touch with her again. She explained that she was divorced from Joe, who’d become a journalist on the Mainland. Her son, whom she’d raised alone, had recently been killed in a car accident. What follows is the last diary entry of my 2010 trip.

 

Friday, April 16, 2010 – Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

The plan today was to have lunch with Susie, but she’d cheesed on me, fanged my gezi [‘released my pigeon,’ i.e., stood me up], by eleven, after I’d spent two days relishing the fantasy of being her hero, her shoulder to cry on, her saving ray of warmth.

There was a vague fallback position of my hanging around until fiveish and trying her again. So I ran downtown for a fast Mos Burger (the 五彩 burger I wanted was apparently a seasonal thing, available only through last Sunday, when I’d decided I loved it). I read in my Times a review of Kick Ass, and the old Spontaneity kicked in. I began playing the game of Taipei one last time. I feinted toward Taida Hospital; then I doubled back to the Station, buying a shirt and a 方大同 CD in record time and then taking the [Taipei Metro] to magnetic 西門町, where I checked out all five theatres and finally bought a ticket at the old 絕色, with only an hour to kill. I was enjoying myself and also enjoying childish revenge on Susie (ditching her back, in other words), while feeling a little guilty about it at the same time.

I loved the film.

I called her from the stairwell on the way out. She invited me to Neihu, where I would have enough time to be with her for five minutes before having to rush off to keep my dinner date with [another couple of friends]. Rockpile’s ‘Girls Talk,’ recently my manic soundtrack, began to play in my head again, and I raced off to the Ximending station [of the Metro], out the Ban/Nan [line], transferring to the Wen/Hu [line], up those long escalators (where I saw the best leg effect ever: transparent black stockings over long anorexic legs, coming up well above the knee and terminating in a fancy pattern just an inch or two below the hem of the young lady’s short shorts, leaving an thin band of exposed flesh between the shorts and the darker pattern at the top of the stockings) since you’re not supposed to see the fancy pattern at all, it was like she was wearing her underwear around her calves)

The little car curved and sped, and I ran down the escalator, and soon there was Susie, and all was forgiven, and we hugged, and we walked back to her yingchou [social meeting with clients], and she observed that I wasn’t a boy anymore, and she smelled of drink, and we reached the yingchou, where I worked the group for a while in the customary manner.

Five minutes passed, and Susie said she’d drive me all the way to Nangang for my big dinner. We got in her Toyota, and she began telling me about how she’d raised her son alone – raised him to be her ex-husband’s son, even sending him to the mainland to spend Chinese New Year’s with his dad. She soon realized that (but could not understand why) her ex-husband wasn’t acting like a father; so she stopped sending the boy to him. When Joe took five days to return to Taiwan to see his body, she gave up trying to understand.

But she didn’t give up trying to return her son to her ex-husband’s family, where Chinese Culture deemed he belonged. I listened with no clear idea what this meant, whether he would take their name or be interred among their graves. No one, not her ex, nor anyone from his family, has come to claim the boy and take him from her. And yet she thinks she must return him to them.

She was crying.

Her Singaporean boyfriend called and at the end of their conversation she said ‘I love you’ to him three times. I’d never heard a Chinese woman say it to her man, not even once.

Susie said I should go home and raise my daughter, and that’s what I’m going to do tomorrow.

Taiwan Journal: Beginning to See the Light

This entry is from my third trip to Taiwan, the loneliest and saddest, for, this time, I had left a family behind. I was trying as best I could to do academic research, but, as the following account reveals, I was mostly just making a fool of myself. The only bright side was that I gradually came to realize what was important to me and to act my age.

Wednesday, March 30, 2010 – Taipei, Taiwan, ROC

Yesterday, I got super mad at [a certain academic institution], because I’d asked them to write me a letter of introduction [for use during an upcoming side trip to mainland China], and they never did.

I had rushed, by taxi, to [said academic institution], and then I rushed to Taiwan University to meet [scholar] Peter Wang. We chatted on the terrace of the Starbucks overlooking Roosevelt Road.

He left at around five. I wasn’t ready to go home yet, being in need of female conversation. I just can’t stand being alone.

There was a girl to my left with a short, untucked shirt and red panties. She had an English language reader, and I considered asking her if I could help with it, but that would have been too much, so I just sat there, waiting for someone to come to me.

Someone did: a Taiwanese-Canadian and her Siberian friend. They wanted to interview me for a documentary they were doing about temporary expats. They didn’t say they wanted to talk to me, but something about my aura convinced them that I would be a willing subject.

The ensuing conversation was very intense and exhausting, though not very articulate. I just spewed and spewed my life story and felt very accomplished and important.

As to importance, I said that my time living in Taiwan [1988-92] was “absolutely the most important thing I’ve ever done.” At this declaration, my interlocutors, instead of beaming at me with awe, seemed to roll their eyes. Maybe they were wondering why I didn’t say that marrying my wife and raising my daughter were the most important things.

I sure thought that living in Taiwan was the most important thing I’d ever done, but that was when I was a youth, when marriage and having children seemed contemptibly ordinary, and when crafting an extraordinary life was the do-or-die objective.

Now I just feel like a schmuck.

China Journal: The Hunan Condition

Tuesday, August 24, 1999 – Beijing

Recently, I found myself in Hunan Province for a Ming dynasty history conference. I believe the conference took place in the otherwise insignificant Shimen County because of its proximity to the reputed final resting place of Li Zicheng [the rebel who destroyed the Ming dynasty].

In any case, the event was hovered over by a cohort of culture cadres anxious to soak up some gravitas from the luminous personages now gracing their satrapy. It was also swarming with reporters trying to do the same thing, although the latter group had special plans for me, the sole gringo, namely: making me appear to be some kind of benighted barbarian seeking Chinese wisdom. I did not comply with their request for an interview, nor did I confirm the rumor that I’d been seen carrying a loaf of bread to my hotel room because I couldn’t eat Chinese food. It intrigues me how opposite assumptions operate on the same plane: Foreigners are expected to be attracted to Chinese culture, but they are not expected to be able to absorb it (not in the form of Chinese food, anyway), due to congenital differences.

The conference proper was inspiring if a little overly formal. All the intellectuals participating identified with their Ming dynasty antecedents. They railed against arbitrary rule and implied that, if only government would recognize true talent, then all under heaven would be pacified. Their class allegiance prompted me to spout off a little about historical objectivity (I remarked that righteous scholars failed to save the Ming dynasty and even had the effrontery to suggest that they might have killed it). I also ventured to observe that their brand of opposition to the government was based on elitism, not democracy. As I pontificated to someone later (boy, was I getting full of myself), democracy, by giving everyone the ballot, neutralizes the power of the Ph.D.

The academic portion of the retreat completed, touring commenced. We visited what was said to be the Peach Blossom Spring immortalized by Tao Yuanming, and I soon found myself having a perfect experience. It was a relatively unspoiled place, and the weather was cool and misty, calling up various Daoist feelings of being one with nature and making me seek to emulate Tao’s fisherman by doing a little enthusiastic exploring. At what was represented to be the actual spring, a pool under a waterfall, I quickly disrobed and took a little dip with the stone turtle they have there. I felt greatly refreshed, and I admit I also enjoyed the notoriety I earned as the crazy young American. It started to rain, which made me even happier, and I got my fortune told at a nearby Daoist temple, which seemed to provide a certain religious meaning to the whole thing.

The next day, our group of scholars moved to Zhangjiajie. We toured the Chinese version of Luray Caverns. This time, I was not quite as alone as I’d been: In standard eunuch fashion, I fell in with a group of four young ladies from Taiwan, hovering on the periphery of their approach-avoidance gravitational pull; and I actually had a pretty good time with the impressive cave and the lovely company. When the ladies slowed down in the shopping area outside the cave, though, I became aware that I was reverting to the role of hungry dog, hanging around, waiting for whatever table scraps of attention they might throw down to me; and so I took my leave of them, bought a dress for Yuka [then my fiancée, now my wife], and escorted [senior scholar] Wei Qingyuan back to the waiting bus.

That night at the hotel, after dinner, I developed a headache and began asking females for aspirin. One of the Taiwanese ladies said she had some in her room. On the way thither, we passed the hotel’s massage parlor, where the pubescent hostesses were scantily clad and the light chaser framing the doorway had already been turned on. Upon reaching the Taiwanese ladies’ room (where the other three waited; it seemed they always stuck together for protection), I received the promised pills, and an awkward moment ensued, as my canine tendency began to reassert itself; but they sent me on my way rather decisively, with a final “Goodnight,” while closing and locking the door behind me.

In spite of the less than voluntary mode of my departure, I was still glad on the whole to be away from their debilitating presence. The problem now, as I returned to my room, was how to spend the rest of the evening in the very uncomfortable hotel. I decided to write a letter to Yuka.

The phone rang. It was one of the young hostesses from the massage parlor, asking if I required any servicing. I demurred. I said I had a girlfriend. She said it didn’t matter. I twisted in the wind for another minute or so, the tenacious young lady refusing to let me off the hook. Finally, I blurted one last “Sorry” and hung up the phone over her protests. Then, I sat down on the bed and repeated, as a mantra, the phrase “Nerves of steel.”

The phone rang every fifteen minutes or so, until around eleven. I didn’t answer.

The following day, we took a nature walk, along a path following a river in the woods. I was very impressed with the park, though the lack of any literary or religious significance kept my happiness from overflowing into euphoria. Also, I made it a point to escape from the group, especially the four Formosan ladies, and to enjoy the place with the peace of mind enabled by solitude. I did bump into the Formosan Four upon emerging from the woods at the end of the trail, and they said they missed my company. Whether they were trying to be polite or cruel, I really can’t say.