Japan Journal: My Home Away from Home is Hard to Write Home About

I am once again summering in Hakodate, Japan, and you’d think I’d have plenty to blog about, but the place is so familiar to me that nothing stands out enough to qualify as blog-worthy, and I’m not sure I’d want (or am able) to write a travelogue about places I frequent. I could write about the Kantaro sushi restaurant, right on the water, with floor to ceiling plate glass windows, where the fish comes by on a conveyor belt but where we order directly with the chefs anyway, to request less rice or more wasabi or just fresher fish that hasn’t been going around on a conveyor belt. I’m still partial to engawa (fluke, or flounder, fin), especially the braised variety, although they’ve got a miso-encrusted version out now too. They also have real deal eel this year, not just anago, although I really ain’t particular. Of course, we’ve also eaten ramen and soba. The soba place we went to was a bit out of town, where the potato fields and mountains are and where the air is very fresh. My wife was wearing a white hempen gown from Taiwan, and I was wearing a Japanese samue robe, and we looked like cultists. While we waited on the porch for our table, folks coming to eat didn’t know what to make of us and asked my (Japanese) wife nervous questions in English. After we were shown to our table, I ordered wasabi soba and was given a wasabi root to grate, before the noodles arrived. I ground down almost all of it, but most of it adhered to the grater. The hostess advised me to apply the hot stuff directly to my noodles, but I could not scrape off enough of it to amount to more than a little schmeer, which seemed absurd, considering the amount of labor I had expended and the mountain of the stuff I had produced, and I began to giggle and chortle. It was like a waiter at an Italian restaurant asking if you wanted parmesan cheese on your pasta and then, instead of sprinkling it on your food, putting it on his beard, standing over your table, and shaking his head. I laughed all the way home, and we had a story (and something to blog about, but I guess you had to be there). Driving around to all these places to eat, it helps to have a little music, but the local radio DJs can’t stop talking, at least twenty minutes for every two minute fifty second song they play. I resort to the collection of CDs I’ve kept here, but most of them are good only at night (Miles Davis, Radiohead, A.A. Bondy). On a visit to the immense Tsutaya bookstore (another frequent destination for our money), I enquired about the background music playing there and ended up the proud owner of ‘B Side,’ a CD by the French jazz-soul singer Hyleen; so now everything we see sounds like the French background jazz typical of Japan. We paid early visits to breathtaking Cape Tachimachi and Motomachi (the old part of town) and the warehouse district (which sounds not like French background jazz but like music boxes). As for the establishments we have tried, there is a certain sameness about them, as they all tend to be teahouses or French patisseries; but they all have their own unique vibe, in many cases conforming to the old buildings in which they’re located. (We even enjoyed some hōjicha in a rustic teahouse set up in the old wooden quarantine building, overlooking the harbor.) Now that I think about it, Hakodate has a lot of character for this reason. It makes do with what’s already here and avoids conformity to the Starbuck’s style. While engaged in all this consumption and self-pampering, I can’t help but to reflect on how unsustainable it all seems. Maybe it’s just me – I sure don’t know how I’m going to pay for all these croissants and flounder fins – but I think it’s also Japan and maybe Western civilization in general: a 24/7 food channel and Ariana Grande concert, demographically stagnated, over-indulged, effete, and bankrupt. I might as well enjoy it while I can.


25 Random Things About Me

I know this is scraping the bottom of the barrel and probably a faux pas, but I need to use every tool in the box to keep my blog going; so here is my version of the dreaded list that was going around Facebook several years ago. The final few questions in the preceding Writer’s Interview have made me think of it, and I remember my friends liking it. I hope you do too.

1. I’ve never worn braces or had any cavities.

2. I have fat and crooked fingers.

3. I once swam the length of Highland Lake, in Maine, four miles, in four hours.

7. I once drove from New Haven to Baltimore in four hours and five minutes, and the five minutes was for gas.

5. I’ve lived in Baltimore, Middletown (CT), Beijing, Nanjing, Taipei, New York, New Haven, Hakodate, Colorado Springs, and Mobile.

6. My favorite urban nightscape is Baltimore, viewed from Federal Hill (‘Who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy’ — Allen Ginsberg, who was writing about seeing it in the daytime). Runner up: Hong Kong, viewed from the New World Plaza. Second runner up: Hakodate, from Mt. Hakodate.

4. My first dance was with ___________. The Place: Girard’s. The song: ‘Double Vision,’ by Foreigner. Whose Bar Mitzvah was it? I don’t remember.

8. I get my 4s and 7s mixed up.

9. I have a recurring dream about the decay of my body, usually involving my teeth falling out.

10. The coolest establishment I ever frequented was the Sometime Cafe, in Hualian, Taiwan. It was very dark; the music was so alternative, I’d never heard anything like it in the US; and there was a free movie around 8 PM.

11. I don’t use deodorant.

12. The biggest tragedy of my life has been the overproduced quality of Cowboy Junkies records, after ‘Lay It Down.’ In other words: I’m lucky.

13. The weirdest thing I’ve ever done for money was to read the poetry of Mao Zedong, in English, into a tape recorder, for a Taiwanese man.

14. I’m ambivalent about writing these kinds of notes for Facebook. I’m both reluctant and compelled to share them. They seem more appropriate for a diary, but a diary is like a tree falling in the forest with no one listening, and at the end of the day, I don’t want my life to be like that.

15. The most famous people I’ve ever shaken hands with are Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Zappa.

16. I’ve skinnydipped on Mt. Tai and in the Peach Blossom Spring, in China. On both occasions, I was inspired by the beauty of the natural surroundings, succumbed to the inspiration in public and in broad daylight, and somehow managed to escape deportation (as well as any real expression of disapproval). Lucky again.

17. I prefer cats to dogs and Dvorak to Brahms.

18. The weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten is lamb fries (breaded, fried sheep testicles), in Oklahoma City. Gene and I were tricked into eating them by our host, who had been going on at length about how much he enjoyed them, but actually, he’d never eaten them. After we began munching on the things, he turned around, grinned, and said, ‘You guys are sick.’ Of course, they tasted like chicken.

19. I always cry when the Blue Meanies take over Pepperland.

20. The funniest book I’ve ever read is The Sot Weed Factor, by John Barth, although the funniest passage I’ve ever read is Mark Twain’s description of a Turkish bath, in The Innocents Abroad.

21. I don’t do drugs but enjoy hallucinating while listening to music half asleep. Once I was dozing in a Freedom Services car before a pickup, and I had some kind of Bach thing for two violins going in the player. The music faded into a vision of two guys loading a truck. The films 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould and Dead Man work too.

22. I have an overactive gag reflex and a morbid fear of vomiting. As a result, it is impossible for anyone to get my throat culture without a fistfight, and I tend to postpone the inevitable, in case of a stomach bug.

23. Actually, there was this one night, I had to unload a Mexican dinner, heavy on the salsa. I was a little off target, coming to the toilet, and the remains of my meal ran in crimson rivulets down the outside of the bowl, like the ‘legs’ in a glass of fine wine. For some reason, I was naked (probably either because I’d thrown up on my clothes or because I’d removed them so as not to throw up on them). It was kind of erotic, writhing nude under the covers, discharging this blood-red liquid all night. In the morning, I felt very spiritually enriched.

24. Oh yeah, there was this other time, much earlier, in Taiwan. I was in Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park, breaking up with my girlfriend for the twelfth time. She used the expression pei he du (配合度), which I figured out meant ‘compatibility,’ and I turned it effectively against her: ‘We have no pei he du,’ I asserted. After it was over, I found myself wanting a snack, so I strode into the Burger King across Guangfu Street, for a chicken burger. That night, around two, I felt the telltale, metallic, queasiness in the pit of my stomach, a little minty, growing mintier still with all the Gelusel I popped, in the aforesaid effort to postpone the inevitable. It was no good: an hour later, I was throwing up out of my nose (a phenomenon I describe as vomiting while in the process of vomiting), leaving a moustache of spinach on my upper lip. I was at it all night. In the morning, I wasn’t able to go to work. My landlady went out and bought me some shu pao, a tasteless electrolyte replenisher for athletes, but it wasn’t an appropriate treatment, for I was still purging. I ended up cabbing it to the Taiwan Adventist Hospital, where they administered a saline IV. The Adventists give you a saline IV for almost everything, as their chief concern is to prevent dehydration. As it turned out, either because of the dehydration or the drugs I was also taking, I became unbelievably restless, to the point of being unable to stop moving. When seated, I rocked incessantly; when standing, I paced. I suffered under these conditions for two or three days, visiting the hospital repeatedly. Receiving IVs while being unable to still myself was a species of torture. I watched the solution drip, drip, drip, with excruciating slowness, wide eyed and grinding my teeth in suspense. I invited myself to my American friend’s apartment, because he had air conditioning and cable TV. One night I paced around his living room, watching Rebel Without a Cause, until I exhausted myself and fell asleep. Also, like an idiot, I called my not-quite-ex-girlfriend, thinking that I was dying and not wanting to die alone. Finally recovering my health after a few days, I took the bus into work. As the bus passed the Burger King, I saw that it was closed, sealed shut, with newspapers covering all the doors and windows.

25. I have green eyes.

My Millionth Meditation on the Rain, Part III: Shared Experience and Stimuli

The rain does more than simply to eliminate glare, blare, and the stress that comes with them. It also adds something: a feeling of community that comes from the knowledge that everyone is under the same umbrella. When the rain comes, everyone stops doing his own thing and begins doing the same thing, dealing with the weather. Although I think of myself as an individualist, I must admit to taking comfort in the conforming, equalizing potential of a good shower.

One of my favorite activities is watching an approaching storm on the radar.

Advancing Front

What a cure for loneliness! The front isn’t just advancing on me; it’s advancing on us. So there is an us, after all.

Of course, let’s hope none of us gets hurt or flooded out of his house; but, barring true disaster, it’s always fun to face inclement weather together. A lot of these feelings of excitement hark back to grade school “snow days” back home (in Baltimore, not Mobile), which involved such a consistent set of rituals – listening to the list of school closings on AM radio; jumping for joy when our school was announced; trying unsuccessfully to go back to sleep; marveling at the bluish-white hue of the daylight; rushing outside to play, build snowmen, and shovel the walk; soaking our gloves and socks – that they were virtually group activities, even though classmates rarely got together. Even without the snow, and well past childhood, the anticipation and experience of even a modest rainfall seems to invoke a sociable giddiness. “Well, here we go, dashing to our cars.” And then, off we go, dashing to our cars, separately yet similarly.

The limiting of experience to that which is predictably communal is an effect that can have many causes, not just the rain. National holidays serve the same purpose, especially Thanksgiving. We can assume that a great many people will be traveling on Wednesday (and I really like that everyone reading this sentence knows that “Wednesday” means “the day before Thanksgiving”), cooking and eating on Thursday, and (nowadays) maybe even going shopping on Friday. We’ve all done these things ourselves; so we know what people are going through. We can even call our friends to ask what time Grandma is coming and to check on the turkey.

Like the limiting of experience, the limiting of stimuli often produces communalizing effects; although rain might not necessarily be a factor, darkness, which accompanies rain, would seem to be essential. Sometimes, the exposure of different individuals to similar stimuli yields surprisingly resemblant reactions. One evening, for example, I was driving back home with my brother, after we’d both seen a movie together. A drizzle was falling, leaving little to see, aside from streetlights and traffic signals. Suddenly and simultaneously, we both blurted, “Bay-ah-beeee SNAAAYakes,” the first line of the Frank Zappa song “Baby Snakes.” Fairly freaked out, I broke off and started howling at the coincidence.

My brother, however, was quite nonchalant about it. “It’s not that extraordinary,” he said. “We’ve got similar brains, we just saw the same movie, we both like Zappa, and we’re looking at the same stuff. Naturally, we would respond to the environment in the same way.”

“With ‘Baby Snakes’?”


In fact, nighttime drives and daytime rains are interchangeable for purposes of this discussion, in that they work equally well to limit environmental stimuli and thus encourage shared reactions and a sense of togetherness. Nothing brings two minds closer together than the luminousness of the car dashboard at night. During a transcontinental drive, my friend Gene and I supped at a diner in Flagstaff and then drove off into the desert, en route to the Grand Canyon. It was pitch black – we might as well have been in outer space – save only for the dash. The audible world was likewise monopolized by the radio: A local station was broadcasting an old dramatization of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson (?), which, in the absence of anything else to listen to, was very absorbing; and Gene and I reacted to it with near uniformity (although we didn’t quite reach “Baby Snakes” territory). Between the glow of the dashboard and the roll call of votes to impeach (and, necessarily, nothing else), Gene and I must have been nearly of the same mind.

I am aware of the availability of sensory deprivation capsules and might like to try spending some time in one. However, two considerations dissuade me. First, it would feel too much like lying down in a coffin, and I’m not into that. Second, I would prefer some company in the capsule, or perhaps in a separate capsule, with identical simple images, like the moon or a car dashboard, projected inside, and the same Dvorak quartet or antique radio drama coming over the speakers.

Or I’ll just wait for the next rainy day.

A Lesson from the Annals of Personal Hygiene, Illustrating the Virtue of Perseverance

Bothered of late by hardened bits of mucus in my nasal passages, I resolved to irrigate the latter with my trusty Ocean Spray saline solution, which I purchased from Rite Aid in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1984. Locating the familiar orange and white plastic bottle after a brief search of my cluttered bathroom closet, I inserted it into my left nostril (I’m left handed) and squeezed. A thin jet of solution erupted from some unseen puncture in the bottle and shot directly into my left eye. Somewhat jarred, I let loose the usual exclamations and maledictions, to register my shock and discomfort.

Now, I am a man not easily dissuaded from my course, once I have chosen it. Furthermore, I have found that the lowering of expectations, and of standards, is the key to fulfillment and happiness, in the full range of human endeavor. In this particular adventure, saline solution did in fact reach the intended target (my left nostril), and so as far as I was concerned, the operation was a success. Getting shot in the eye, while a misfortune, was simply one of those things I have learned to tolerate, certainly no occasion for despair – or for reevaluating the situation. Nothing was really wrong, in other words.

Accordingly, I transferred the apparatus to my right nostril, to complete my project. At the first application of pressure, the entire bottom half of the bottle exploded, launching a massive payload of spilth into my gaping, protesting mouth. The viscous liquid had a dreadful, musty taste, which seemed to convey to every corner of my being all the wintry malaise accumulated in that bottle since the Reagan administration, when it was first used. It also rained downward onto my clavicle and shoulder, soaking my woolen turtleneck sweater and feeling very clammy and nasty.

My howling could be heard at the Rite Aid in Middletown, Connecticut.

My Millionth Meditation on the Rain, Part II: Sound

When the rain actually starts, extraneous sounds are banished, along with excessive light. A heavy downpour produces a dynamic variety of white noise, which, unlike mere static, fluctuates in intensity, with each pelting sheet; while lighter rain serenades us with the patter of individual drops. In either case, the effect is calming: it muffles external clamor, and it also harmonizes us to more natural rhythms.

I remember when I was a boy, if ever we were out driving in the rain, upon our return home, Dad would turn off the engine, and the wipers and radio would fall silent, too. Before running for the house, we would always sit for a moment, listening to the gently drumming rain on the roof. Nothing else was of any concern, during that precious interval.

Is the rain a mantra or drone that, in focusing our attention upon it, diverts us from our travails and other vexations? If so, I can imagine nothing as efficacious.

Poor Little Boy in New York City

One particularly bleak day in New York, I walked down Broadway to a stationery store. My plan for the weekend was to buy a purple pen and thus salvage a tiny part of my individuality.

As I completed the transaction at the counter, I noticed a young mother conducting her six year old son away from a set of shelves against the wall, where there were a number of stuffed animals on display. When they reached the counter, next to me on the right, the boy could not see over it. He looked up at the shopkeeper and pointed back at the stuffed animals.

‘Excuse me,’ he said in a fledgling, timorous voice. ‘How much is the big brown teddy bear?’

The proprietor, an Asian man in his fifties, didn’t answer. Perhaps he was only accustomed to fielding questions from adults, and he looked up, not very interestedly, at the boy’s mother, just to see if she endorsed his inquiry.

She ignored both her son’s voice and the man’s eyes, though, fiddling instead with her pocketbook.

‘Excuse me,’ the boy tried again. ‘How much is the big brown teddy bear? The big brown one.’

I checked awkwardly back and forth between the shopkeeper and the mother, waiting for one of them to attend to the boy.  Neither one did. The woman had found her wallet by then and was completing her purchase. She held her head unnaturally high, looking only at the man behind the register, determined never to direct even a single downward glance at her son, as though endeavoring to avoid eye contact with a panhandler. Her impatience and discomfort were becoming obvious; still she managed to keep pretending nobody was there. The boy continued to say ‘Excuse me….Excuse me,’ in his plaintive voice, until he finally gave it up. He looked down and around at nothing in particular, a resigned, hopeless look on his face, similar to the expression worn by King Kong before he falls off the Empire State Building.

By the time I made it to the door, I was crying. Halfway down the block, on the sidewalk, I almost fell down. I leaned over for support against the side of the building for a while, gasping and sobbing. I gave myself about five seconds. Then I pulled myself together and started walking up Broadway again.

My Millionth Meditation on the Rain, Part I: Light

Yuka says it’s because I have light-colored (green) eyes, but for whatever reason, I find glaring sunlight very oppressive, especially during the morning commute, with the sun just on the horizon and always in my face, slamming, boring into me. The southern haze is an all-subsuming intensity, light without color.

A cloudy sky can tame the sun’s tyranny, allowing all under its dominion to retain its natural shade. Perhaps it’s merely because the graininess of the air is removed as a factor (just as nighttime dispels the opaqueness of the atmosphere and permits us to see the heavens); perhaps it’s that everything we see is bathed, not drowned, in the light that remains; yet the world appears more clearly.

Though I’m no photographer, maybe all I’m talking about is the difference between an overexposed and a properly-exposed picture. Mellower light brings out subtlety, of hue and of texture. It makes our surroundings seem softer, more whole, and more interesting. I don’t think I’m exactly echoing Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, for he loved darkness for its capacity to conceal, and I, for its capacity to reveal. A better example from art would be Closely Watched Trains, a dark, black and white film, whose visual elements seem almost glowing, almost touchable.

Overcast itself can be beautifully marbled and inlaid, converting the overexposed world to a vast hall with an ornate ceiling. Like a soft, familiar blanket, it provides cover and comfort.

This old painting, from my parents’ house, perhaps illustrates what I’m trying to say about the glowing richness of subdued light.

Mellow Sky Painting

It’s so hospitable and friendly (“lovely, dark, and deep”?). Harsh sunlight would wash it all away.