09 December 2005

(Red Journal Excerpt 8 - Japan)

I really wish I spoke Japanese because I feel the familiarity of English slipping away the more I immerse myself in the viscera of this rich culture, and am almost more satisfied communicating without it. I prefer the smiles, nods, or hearing the few Japanese words or phrases I do know over and over again. It's reminding me of how non-verbal communication felt with [her] and how it took each of us to a deeper layer in our mind, subconsciousness rising to the surface with the noise of words falling somewhere underneath.

Everything has been so amazing, beginning from the moment I stepped into a sunset on "the land of the rising sun." Ken and Aya met me in the concourse, and he stood holding my album in his hand, looking around blankly from behind the railing. We took care of my rail pass and hopped into a van which drove us to Osaki, where I'd be staying the night at the "P-Vine Guest House." It's an apartment they own on the ground floor of a complex alongside a canal, and everything in it is about three or four inches too short, making my face invisible in mirrors and precariously close to the tops of doorways. Other than a small table in the kitchen and one or two card chairs, there is no furniture and no art on any of the walls. A television sits on the floor next to thin mattresses set up for me to use, taken from a pile of bedding sitting atop tatami mats in the other room.

We went to a nearby mall and bought breakfast for tomorrow morning: a rice ball with flakes of salmon, a box of different small sandwiches on crustless white bread, a large, pale red apple, and a bottle of Suntory mineral water to wash it all down. We shared a delicious dinner in the mall- a tempura box- and I read my journal that night until I fell asleep with it open in my hands. I awoke at 3:30 AM, so I flipped through the twelve television stations and listened through my set on the computer, then finished what my eyes were too heavy to read before.

Aya took me to Tokyo station and we sat drinking tea, talking about blood types and how they are the analog to astrology for the Japanese- I don't even know my type! It was a little rainy as the Shinkansen headed to Kanazawa, making the illuminated kanji drip along my window. And Friday, just like Saturday in Fukuoka and Sunday in Hiroshima, began the routine: arrive by train, find the promoter in the station, soundcheck at the venue, eat dinner, then return to the club and drink Asahi and shouchou and perform, eventually crashing at a hotel or the promoter's house late in the night. The audience and other artists were so absolutely welcoming and kind that I am sorry I didn't bring gifts; it felt imbalanced, and I couldn't emphasize enough how grateful I was to be among them and sharing my music. Adventures before and after the shows had me eating raw chicken; sharing music and movie tastes with a progressively drunker promoter as I ate boiled clams, sashimi, and shared his oden; and in Hiroshima, enjoying okonomi-yaki and an after-show dinner with a huge group drunkenly eating hamburgers.

Yesterday was my first day off, and I spent it in Hiroshima: a beautiful city whose violent history haunted me and sometimes gave me an undeserved feeling of guilt. I thought of how fucking ruthless it was to use the atomic bomb- wasn't there something human enough inside of the people who made that decision to stop it? I imagined horrible images, especially when I saw the elderly, knowing they may have been round to witness the aftermath.

We ate an early lunch of yaki-tori and udon at a restaurant next to an enormous Santa Claus, and their menu featured "Jew Ear." I still have no idea what on earth this could possibly be other than a horrendous and inadvertently offensive translation of a derogatory statement? Like, pig ear or something? [Note: I have come to find out "Jew Ear" is a type of mushroom!] Either way, we enjoyed delicious food as we dined outside with our legs crossed underneath a heated table. Then, we drove to Kintakyo, a series of bridges over the water, and took a ferry to Miyajima, a beautiful and sacred island with an abundance of deer and blood-red leaves splashing against autumn's yellows, greens, and browns. I ate kaki (clam) and walked alongside camera-happy Japanese dotted with gai-jin, all enamored with the deer. Some of the does begged for food, while others sat lazily by, disinterested with their fans among the passersby.

I arrived at my hotel- Hotel 28- and said goodbye to my gracious hosts Hanada and his friend Junko. I bought a 1000 yen television card which afforded me viewing access to adult entertainment: the Rainbow and Ruby channels. I lay sipping an Asahi switching between the two, getting bored with the melodramatic and censored fucking but becoming completely confused by footage of Japanese women showing their armpits in stairwells (or in the backs of cars), then having sex after plucking or shaving them clean. Figuring I just wasn't drunk enough to enjoy the programming, I took the elevator to the public bath where I alternated between the hot pool and shower until I was sufficiently exhausted. I napped, then was awakened by a phone call from DJ Ken, a nice guy whom I met last night.

I checked him in, then brought him to my tiny room where we shared a joint. We were both stoned to the extent that we stood in a stationary elevator until- after a bit of conversation- I realized we were not, in fact, moving! I was floating and a bit uncomfortable. The outside air was colder than it had ever been, and I couldn't tell if the tension in my chest came from shivering or my rapidly beating heart. I paid attention to the tiniest details of my new friend's voice: the way he made a deep hum before beginning a sentence and grunted for "yes," and the sound of English filtered through his hesitant speech.

We made it to a small bar where he asked something I didn't understand, and we stayed only briefly. Before we left, we stood near the stairwell and spoke to a keyboardist he knew. Behind our conversation was the crystalline meandering of "In A Silent Way"'s keyboards, and nostalgic comfort filled my heart. I wanted to stay and listen to the entirety of the album, but we soon descended to the street. I reminisced about drives in the ravines when Joe and I would listen to that music backwards due to some beautifully fortunate glitch with his Honda Civic's tapedeck.

Then, in the warmth of a nearby cafe named Citron, we ordered pizza made with sweet mochi and cheese, hot soup, and delicious cocktails prepared with green tea liquor and milk. In my inebriated state I worried about the caffeine, but realized the more I drank the less I'd care.

Soon, we left to go to "the Edge" where we'd stay for the rest of the night and into the morning, listening to the DJ's selections of jazz loudly cleave at the stillness of the underground lounge. The DJ was an adorable girl named Yoshimi, and I wondered what each record was as soon as she put the needle down. That trend continued with the next DJ who played a record by an obscure French band named Cortex that I recognized from a Madvillain 7". Never before had I been to a club that played jazz on such a banging system! It was really inspiring.

I got back to the hotel after drinking a few more cocktails: a Bailey's on the rocks, an Asahi, and finally, another green tea drink, this time mixed with oolong tea. I fell asleep with the television on, watching a beautiful girl named Mihiro being interviewed and then pleasured for my viewing enjoyment. Yawn.

Ken was 40 minutes late to pick me up the next morning. I had showered, eaten breakfast that made me mildly paranoid due to its inclusion of a raw egg, but soon I was punching away in the old school Nintendo hit, "Mike Tyson's Punch Out." My 200 yen ran out halfway through a bout with Bald Bull, the furthest along I've ever gotten! I narrowly made my train- at least, what I thought was my train. I boarded a Nozomi bound for the same route, but the conductor informed me I had to exit at the next station to transfer to an ordinary train (my rail pass didn't cover that high-class of a ride!). Ten minutes later, I was on the right train, and slept on and off on my peaceful journey to Tokyo.

Aya met me at the station as I confusedly waited against a column in a sea of commuters, and we went to the P-Vine office to meet the staff and check email. We arrived late to the dinner that followed. Everyone was very nice. I met Kai- a Japanese woman who was raised in America- and had the first conversation involving another fluent English speaker since my arrival! A beautiful girl from the sales department named Mai sat opposite me, and smiled and nodded at what I said to Kai and the others though I doubt she understood. I drank a couple of beers and had delicious soup, noodles, sashimi, and finally a live fish.

It lay curled on a plate with a long, sharp stick lanced through the back of its tail and into its throat to keep it stationary. Its flesh was sliced off and placed delicately underneath a small, yellow flower next to its body as it stared at me with blank, glassy eyes. It didn't move at first, but soon its fin began to quiver, its tail flapped, and most disturbingly, it breathed dry air through the gills on its neck. It was barbaric and quite disgusting, to be honest, but I tried to put myself in a different frame of mind. In other cultures, it's just a sign of freshness to see the creature's body. They'll hang rabbits in a window, even nail a lamb through its feet to wooden planks outside of a butcher shop like the one you saw in Portugal, and it means something else. But here, sitting among new friends watching the last minutes of life twitch in the suffocation of this fish, cultural perspective went to shit: it was just sad, plain and simple. Yet, paradoxically, it was delicious! Following dinner, most of us went to a tiny bar in Shibuya called Roku ("6") for delicious shouchou distilled from sweet potatoes, and I went home happily drunk.

Ken, Koki, and Kaz came to the apartment at 2, and we went together to Asakusa to see the shrine and eat delicious okonomi-yaki and monja. We sipped Yebisu on our cruise along the river in Tokyo, and the colored lights from skyline advertisements danced mechanically in the waves. I spent the next day alone, taking the subway to Ueno and visiting the Imperial Park. I saw the Hokusai exhibit at the Tokyo National Museum which was frustratingly crowded, but beautiful nonetheless. I then went to the zoo and walked from cage to cage, hearing all the young girls on dates with their beaus squealing "kawaii" and pointing at the animals. After only having eaten a pork bun as a snack, I was starving, and sat down to dinner at a second-floor restaurant next to the train station. A man sat alone at the table next to me and watched as I wrote.

"Vely small writing," he said as he pointed to a page of my scrawl, squinting his eyes and screwing up his face. We started talking, and soon I was laughing as he explained in terribly broken English -using emphatic charades- that he didn't really care for electronic music. He told me he had a Gibson Les Paul that he enjoyed playing, and named a few guitarists that would probably be the first to pop up in a Google search for guitarist: "Elic Crapton, Santana, and Jimmy Page." He was a television producer who had traveled extensively in the United States. The only thing strained in our conversation, though minimal in content, was his face as he searched for the right word in a mind clouded with Sapporo. And then, looking at the flyer I presented him for my show the next evening, he began a long monologue in Japanese with his eyes averted and mine beginning to dart nervously away from him. It was as if he forgot I was there and started waxing poetic about God-knows-what, but something felt slightly frightening about it: his mind was somewhere else, and maybe someplace dangerous.

I flashed on my bizarre decision to pick up a mental patient from Cafe Express and drive him the four blocks he was afraid to walk to his hospital. He feared the cracks in the sidewalk. As he sat in the front seat of my mom's Mercedes, his jaw clicked violently back and forth, the joint in his sunken cheek like a loose metal bolt. When I asked if he was OK, he ignored me and stared straight ahead into the green nothingness of suburbia and the red light I wished would change at the intersection. Yet, as soon as I brought up a different topic of conversation, the clicking stopped as suddenly as it had started, and he calmly and eloquently answered my question. This new situation (a stranger speaking to himself in a language I didn't understand as he completely ignored me) was the same: his mind went to that non-place where you forget you aren't alone. His eyes lost spark and glazed over, and his fingers pushed and pulled the flyer along the veneer. Finally, he returned inside of himself and asked me a question, or at least looked at me (I can't remember), then offered to pay my bill. I obliged. He wanted to pay for my cab to Osaki, but I kindly refused, saying goodbye and walking briskly down the stairs.

I rode to Shibuya to see a movie: "In Her Shoes" with Cameron Diaz. It was hardly worth the 17 dollars I spent to see it, and sadly, the price was the least of the movie's glaring problems, including the fact it was even made! The film totally sucked, although it still managed to make me cry; I believe that feat is becoming easier and easier as I get older. The next day, Ken and Aya brought me to Frames- a bright restaurant and bar in Shibuya- to meet with a writer and photographer from Nylon Japan. Aya translated the writer's questions from Japanese, and then took notes as I answered to relay my response back to him. With my face a little flushed from the cassis and plum shouchou I had during the interview, they took photos of me outside against a painting of a flower while I held a real one in my hand. I got tired of normally posing with the flower and decided to start taking it apart, chewing the leaves and petals as the camera clicked away. The onlookers snickered.

We went to Warszawa (the record store that helped book my tour) and dropped my stuff off before heading to lunch at a sushi bar whose plates rotated invitingly on a conveyor belt, each with a different color or pattern to indicate price. As with every meal I've had, it was delicious. Ken and I went into a Manga shop and looked around at insane wares: a Sailor Moon outfit for hundreds of dollars, action figures, bizarre anime porn (which, like other porn in Japan, is censored), and rows of rows of comic books. Ken explained the shop was "for nerd."

My show that night went beautifully. I felt so happy that most everyone I had met from P-Vine was there to dance and cheer me on. After dropping my stuff at the apartment, Ken and I took the last train back to Shibuya. We killed a little time to have beer, raw tofu, and skewers of chicken meat, cartilage, and heart. I suppose I would've liked to know what I was eating before I put it in my mouth, but maybe it was easier to stomach in retrospect. The heart tasted like a mix of beef and liver and, although I doubt I'll ever eat it again, it wasn't bad at all!

We went via bus to an all-night party that was packed with a couple thousand people listening to corny jazz and house. I wandered off to get another drink as Ken stayed to watch the live act in the main room, and met some young gai-jin at the bar. She had supposedly ordered a cocktail but was served a shot. For some reason, I didn't want to talk to her at all, and only motioned with my hand that she should drink it, as if I didn't speak English. I don't know why I almost go out of my way to avoid other westerners, but it's almost out of reflex.

We did speak. She was blond, and stood with a brunette who was celebrating her 21st birthday. They were taking a semester abroad from a small college in Minnesota I had never heard of, and had paid forty dollars each to get in that night. The birthday girl was flanked by two nerdy looking schoolmates lingering stupidly by as I talked to her and her much prettier blond friend, Marie. "Find her a nice Japanese boy," I said as I walked away towards the crowded stairwell and the noise to meet Ken. The next band unfortunately also sucked, and my attention was waning terribly. I thought I'd try a different room.

Navigating through seated and standing people, I squeezed into a dark and sweaty room where a DJ maintained the loud, crowd-moving pulse. Faces were lit intermittently by strobe flashes and colored beams, making the dancing appear as a series of photographs. And, among the changing still-lifes was Marie and her friends up near the front, not really dancing. I made my way around her, getting slight eye contact but sneaking past to stand about five feet away. Then, as she moved slowly in my direction, it became four feet, three and two, until my hand rested on the small of her back with her large breast pressed against my bicep. She smiled, and we did all the talking necessary to lead into the kiss- a few routine sentences. It's not that I am completely growing out of random encounters like that because I still enjoy the thrill of the chase, but it's all just so meaningless, and knowing that has made the desire fade ever-so-slightly.

As we embraced, I thought of [omitted] and how I wished it was her instead of this blond from South Dakota who I'd never care to see again and leave minutes later. I wondered what she was doing at that moment - if she was waking up or if she thought of me. I imagined her rubbing the sleep from her eyes and fumbling to find her broken glasses at her bedside, then stretching and lumbering quietly barefoot to brush her teeth. And it's funny, because I think that turned me on more than that stranger pressed against me.

Ken and I made our way out and passed Marie, with whom I shared a brief goodbye involving a kiss on the cheek and a few pleasantries ("thanks much, have fun in Japan"). Ken suggested I stay, to which I shook my head and kept moving forwards.

The only thing I remembered about getting home was that, as usual, choosing the correct exit at Osaki Station baffled me, and I wrongfully followed the canal away from my apartment and towards the previous station, Gotanda! The worst part- worse than it being six in the morning- was that I desperately had to use the toilet. It was such an imminent situation that I actually entertained the idea of squatting behind a vending machine and waiting until I returned to my apartment to clean myself. There wasn't a soul around except for a homeless guy I had passed and a few random stragglers like me, so these dark streets became more and more alluring as a bathroom with every strained step in the wrong direction. I was eventually pointed along the right path, and I made it to my apartment and onto the toilet with flying colors.

The next day was a huge fog, but I managed to navigate a confusing mall to find the theatre showing Natalie Portman in "Free Zone" as part of the Tokyo Film Festival. The layers of language and translation were so thick that witnessing Hebrew and Arabic translated into English, and then again into Japanese on an adjacent screen, was an even more engaging spectacle than the film itself! I wondered how much of the true drama between the Jews and the Palestinians was conveyed, or how much the Japanese cared to know about it in the first place. I suppose it didn't really matter- the movie was great, as was each actress' performance.

Koki met me at the theatre, and accompanied me to dinner of Okinawan cuisine. We had shouchou and beer, and shared salad, pigs ears, sea grapes (which were so beautiful I wish I had brought my camera along), and laughed about music and some of our favorites. I had plum ice cream for dessert, and thankfully it helped to mask the taste of raw liver I had tasted from our neighbor's plate. And after hunting down an internet cafe and doing a little emailing, I was ready for bed.

The next day I left for Kyoto, taking an extra day to sight-see around the beautiful and historic second capital. Ai- a bartender at Metro (the club I'd play the next evening)- met me at the station, and he and I spent the entire day together going to temples and wandering around the streets brimming with shops and people. One street had a line packed solidly of mainly Japanese waiting to view the illuminated temple Kiyumizu, making the remaining space for traffic so cramped you'd swear there was a rollercoaster- or a riot- nearby! We sampled some of the Japanese treats along the way: a delicious green tea cream-puff of sorts, and a sweet bean paste wrapped in translucent dough.

I grabbed some cash at the hotel and we went to Rub-A-Dub, a tiny Jamaican- and Reggae-themed pub nearby where I washed down jerk chicken donburi with Guinness and Red Stripe to a loud dub soundtrack. There was an interesting older Welshman there named Geraint, and he had been living in Japan for the past 30 years. Now married with children, we talked about how his original plan of coming to Japan just for one year didn't quite go as planned!

Ai and I walked to Club Metro and drank for free, which is always dangerous; of course, I got wasted. I talked about philosophy with some Italian girl for quite a while, and that was funny for a couple of reasons: it was terrifically loud in there, and she spoke only broken English anyhow. I don't know how much we were able to communicate to each other, but I was too drunk to really remember anyway.

And, I paid for it the next day with a huge hangover and a throat so parched that I wandered to the front desk wearing only the little bathrobe they left for me, my green Asics, and my eyes red, half-open, and crusty. I had to do laundry, so I started the wash cycle and did my best to press the buttons (all in kanji) in the correct order. I found a nice spot for some tempura udon and oolong cha. The tables all had a little shelf filled with pornographic magazines underneath, so I flipped through one while I waited and sipped the hot tea. Most of it was manga, but there was a good deal of photos as well. I found it odd to be leafing through porn at a restaurant (especially at lunch!), but figured they wouldn't have put them there if they didn't want them read. I guess if it's good to slurp your soup, westerners' concept of proper table manners may as well include indulging in a touch of pornography, no?

I wandered around alone all day, finding a graveyard with rows of beautiful flower-covered sites. I thought of [omitted]. She had asked me to ring a bell for her, and next to the graveyard was a huge one located within a tower. I was timid and asked permission- there was no one else around and I didn't know if it was a public bell, you know? I didn't want to be the ugly American and ring some bell that hasn't sounded in hundreds of years and awaken ancient gods from their slumber. Well, with great relief and pleasure, I took the knotted rope in both hands and, with a small prayer and thanks, sent a wooden shaft swinging into motion. The low, pure hum of the bell resounded forever; I leaned in close to feel the vibrations tickle my ear until they became still in the quiet outdoors. I got lost in shopping center mazes where red lanterns hung round hand-washing pools, and incense smoke swirled towards shrines. It struck me as sad that this was my last full day in Japan.

My soundcheck was uneventful, but I was brought a plate of meats and cheeses, and offered a very sweet dessert from the bar. Ai and I went upstairs to a great little bar called ETW. I had Baileys, listened to Stevie Wonder and Aphex Twin, and filled out a survey choosing a word describing love for each letter of the alphabet: "all-encompassing, brightest, deserved, mother," etc. Soon enough, I was back downstairs wearing earplugs, drinking tequila and sodas, and watching without listening. I got pretty drunk- more drunk than I had been prior to a show that entire trip- and performed to a full and eager room.

I had flirted the entire night with one girl whose name escaped me seconds after she cupped my ear to tell me, but suddenly she was gone, and I was sitting against the back wall with the bartender, a petite girl who wore a short skirt over her jeans and had been smiling at me since we first saw each other. It was nearly three in the morning and we were going out to dinner. She said she'd meet me when she finished closing. As I ate plate after plate of okonomi-yaki and other tapas-style entrees, my burning eyes kept closing and I often forgot where I was, only jolted into awareness within I was addressed within the constant stream of unintelligible conversation. And when we were almost finished- and I was ready to collapse alone- she arrived, shyly smiling at me as she took a seat at the table behind me. A blur of events that followed included settling our check, splitting up in separate cabs, and arriving at the hotel. Ai, [the bartender] and I remained together as I got my room key, and then Ai said goodbye, leaving her and I to take the elevator upstairs alone- and together.

I still can't believe this all happened only a week ago, but it's safe to say I have trouble believing any of it happened at all. Only as I glued and taped in tickets, flyers, and other pieces of Japan into my scrapbook, or shared the images with my friends over the internet, did all this seem less like a dream I didn't want to awaken from quite yet. But there it is, and I have just over a week back in New York before I leave again- this time for Chicago. The red wine, lack of sleep, and last tugs of jet lag are making it harder and harder to keep writing, so I think I'll click the ink pen closed and call it a night.


Thank you a million times for this experience and for the others that will soon follow.