Take The Last Train To Clarksville

As I left Japan, speeding towards the airport on the express train, I took one last blurry picture out the window. I thought it expressed my mood perfectly, with the train conductor standing alone, with a bowed head, beside an empty train carriage with open doors.





Click the arrow on the player below to hear Last Train to Clarksville by The Plastics





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I like to listen to The Plastics when I’m in Japan, they were the first Punk band in Japan, their 1979 album still expresses a lot of the Postmodern bizarreness of living in Japan. I played the album for one of my friends, and he asked me, “is this all there is, a Japanese band singing American songs in bad English?” I told him that in Japan, people practically live their lives in trains, so a Japanese band singing Last Train To Clarksville has an entirely different meaning.

I like to listen to this particular song as I take my last train ride to the airport. When I heard this song, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of loss, not because I was leaving Japan, but because I had to go back to America. I never have culture shock going to Japan, I get it severely when I come back to the US. My instant reaction is that everyone in America is so rude and inconsiderate, they ignore all the little social rituals that make life easier for everyone.

I knew I was back in the US when I tried to get off the plane. I was stuck in the Coach section way in the back of the plane, and it was a long 11 hour flight from Tokyo to Dallas. It took a long time for everyone ahead of us to deplane, all I could think about was getting off, getting past Customs, and popping outside the terminal for a cigarette. Just as the the forward sections were clearing and Coach passengers filled the aisles, there was an announcement over the speakers that the Customs asked that each passenger have their passports in hand as they exited the plane. I pulled mine out of my shirt pocket. But there was an elderly couple ahead of me, towing luggage bigger than the suitcases I checked through, they immediately dropped them in the aisle, started unzipping them, and searching for their passports, like it never occurred to them that they would need their passports upon arrival in the US. I watched for about 90 seconds as the entire plane ahead of them cleared out, leaving me and the entire Coach section stuck behind these two idiots. People behind me started shoving in frustration.

Now in a situation like this in Japan, you would merely say “orimasu,” which literally means “I’m exiting,” and people move to let you pass by. I tried saying what the phrase would really mean in this context, and in my politest tone, said, “pardon me, if you’re not ready to deplane, please step aside and allow others to pass.” In response, the short, fat old man screamed at me, “what did you say to my wife? If you talk to her like that again, I’ll smash your face in!” His wife, standing between us, looked mortified. I said nothing in response, I merely stood there holding up my own passport. They leisurely searched their luggage, and after a few more minutes, finally located their passports, and deplaned.

In Japan, about the worst thing you could possibly do is cause inconvenience to a large group of others through your own selfish actions. And about 50 of us in Coach were inconvenienced because these idiots decided to block the aisles to hunt for their passports. But I laughed and laughed when I saw Instant Karma in action, I got waved through Customs without a search, while Mr. and Mrs. Asshole got sent for a full luggage search.

But it could always be worse. And shortly, it was worse, oh so much worse. But I will spare you the horror of listening to my story about being jammed into a seat next to a sweaty 450 lb man on the second leg of my flight home. I once rode in a cargo plane full of goats, and this flight was much worse. Enough said.

So excuse me if I vent. It will take me weeks to get over the trauma of my trip back home. And now that I’m back, I’m totally jet lagged, I’m exhausted. It will take me a while to decompress before I can process my photos and write about the more pleasant experiences I had in Japan.

I’m Not Going To Die

My friends have been bugging me for an update since I haven’t been posting much lately. So I suppose it is appropriate for me to declare a return to health, and that I am not going to die. My horrible rash has pretty much disappeared, it was not Toxic Shock or anything fatal. I’ll ascribe it to either a toxic shellfish I ate (it was delicious anyway), or perhaps to overwork from too much walking.

I have so much to post about, but I figured I should wait until I get home and can put up with photo galleries with the stories, my busted laptop is not up to the task. And my hotel’s Mac is difficult to use, the Japanese keyboard has the punctuation in all the wrong places, it’s OK for short posts, but for lengthy writing, it drives me crazy.

As I discussed in an earlier post, I decided to take along Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad,” and his travelogues usually set the tone for my own travel writing. I got to about chapter 2, and Twain makes extensive remarks about how the burden of writing a travel diary is the worst curse one could wish upon a tourist. I’ll have to dig up the exact quote, it was hilarious, and it seemed like a sensible warning. So I pretty much gave up on daily diary writing, and I even stopped reading Twain’s novel. I can either focus on experiencing Japan, or on writing about it. And I have been places where no gaijin has gone before. I can’t wait for this trip to end, so I can write about it all.

There Was Beer in the Soda Machine

It’s been a busy week, with too much happening to write about it now. But now it’s friday night, and time to relax. One thing I noticed about this neighborhood, there are beer and sake vending machines on the street. Of course Japan is famous for liquor vending machines, but I heard they were made illegal a while ago, unless they had restricted access like inside a convenience store where the proprietors can keep the minors away from the machine. But in this neighborhood, there are still open, unrestricted liquor vending machines, they even sell liters of sake and whiskey in large bottles, which would explain the high number of drunken homeless bums in the area.

So at 9 PM I figure I’ll pop across the street and buy a One-Cup sake, pop it in the microwave and have some atsukan. But when I put 200 Yen in the machine, all I get is a couple of beeps and my money back. And now I notice the sign I never bothered to read, the machine automatically turns off at 8PM. Damn.

Update: I went back in the daytime when I can read the instructions more clearly. You have to scan your Japanese driver’s license and input your thumbprint. So no sake machines will work for me. Damn.

Hakubutsukan

There is no finer way to begin one’s excursion in Japan than at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. It is always the first stop on my Japan itinerary. This huge complex of museums will tax the resources of even the hardiest museumgoers, each exhibit is a treasurehouse that could take a lifetime of study to fully comprehend, and there are three buildings full of exhibits.

I intended to begin my visit as I always do, purchasing sushi at the vendors near Ueno station for a lunchtime picnic, to fortify myself for the exertions of the museum. Unfortunately, the sushi vendors are all closed for reconstruction, so a beer and a few sticks of yakitori will have to suffice. As I sat in front of the museum, relaxing and munching away, I was surprised to hear three different groups of Japanese ladies stroll past, declaring “it’s just like America!” Nothing could have surprised me more than such a declaration, I could not comprehend how they could think such a thing. Perhaps it was the presence of foreigners in the park? Even my own presence? But finally one group of women pointed a finger towards a group of pine trees, apparently they evoked an image of America.

I finished my picnic and walked over to a water fountain to rinse off the sticky yakitori sauce, I turned the knob but no water came out. I turned the knob the other direction, and suddenly a column of water shot out, to a height of 20 feet. From behind me, I heard the sound of dozens of girls giggling, a huge tour group of women were walking together towards the museum, arriving unseen behind me, just in time to watch my little spectacle. I finished rinsing my fingers, and with some regret, I realized my picnic had delayed me enough to put me behind the largest crowds at the exhibits.

And there is the biggest problem with Japanese museums: the people who go to see them. Japanese museumgoers are the worst museumgoers in the world. They crush together, pushing up against the glass walls that protect the exhibits from the crowds. They wear big floppy hats and fan themselves with the museum programs, blocking the view of the exhibits. They stand and stare at long scrolls, walking slowly down the cases to insure that nobody else can go past, they carefully inspect every character, in the deluded belief that they can actually read 10th century Chinese. They crowd around the display cards, paying more attention to the description of the art object than the object itself.

My sister once told me some very sensible advice about such museums, she said that when faced with an embarrassment of riches, one cannot see everything, or the really great art objects will fail to make an impression. Our memories of great works are diluted with thousands of impressions of lesser works. You must focus on the objects you really want to see, and pass by the rest without tarrying. It is better to have a few strong memories of great works, than to leave the museum with a mass of muddled memories that all merge together.

And so this is how I approached the Tokyo National Museum, and I will focus on a few highlights. The big blockbuster show was a display of shingon mandalas from Mount Koya. Many of these objects are designated as Culturally Significant Objects, as one can observe by the red legend in the corners of the display cards. I cannot begin to explain the practices of esoteric shingon except by means of a simple metaphor, it is a meditative practice analogous to solving a 9×9 Rubik’s Cube in your head, and every facet of the little cubes is colored, and you have to align all the colors, even those facing the interior of the big cube. It is a recipe for madness, a massive misinterpretation of buddhism. Oh well, every religion must have its fringe crazies.

One of the strangest objects in the show was a long scroll of purple paper with writing in black ink. There were many such scrolls in this exhibit, but this one was annotated in the strangest way, it had white dots placed on top of each kanji character. There was no pattern in the white dots that I could discern, they were placed at various positions on top of the kanji, and occasionally a white kanji character was written aside the black text as an annotation, so these markings were obviously intended as an aid to the priests that read the scrolls. My educated guess is that the dots corresponded to the 9 quadrants of the shingon mandala, and were intended to remind the reader of what meditative image should be evoked as each kanji was read. My guess is probably incorrect, but life is too short to investigate such arcane matters, unless one is a priest at Mount Koyo.

But let us avert our attention from the overcrowded blockbuster exhibit, and turn to the galleries, where we can stroll in a more leisurely fashion without the jostling crowds. Each gallery contains the finest examples of Japanese art, and in considerable quantity. Here is a gallery of lacquerware, the finest collection in the world, not just one gallery, but three full galleries. Here is a collection of fine hair combs produced in the Edo era, they are in perfect condition despite their age, each one is cut with the finest teeth that would be difficult to produce even with modern technology, and there is not just one comb, there are 30 identical combs. Here is a collection of ancient paintings on silk, they are so old and faded that the images can hardly be seen, but they are all remounted in fresh silk brocade frames, just as they have been periodically restored into new frames every hundred years or so. Here is a huge gallery of Chinese bronze dating back to the Sung dynasty, oh dear, this collection isn’t nearly as good as the Art Institute of Chicago. Oh well, one cannot have everything, and this is Japan, not China, so what did you expect? Here is a huge gallery of tea vessels, each object is intended for solitary contemplation during the tea ceremony, but in such quantity, they lose their impact by sheer weight of numbers. How can one experience the sublime, when the quiet whisper of a million objects combines into a deafening shout? Let us retire from these galleries, and seek a sharper focus.

I am always fascinated by evidence of the collision between Eastern and Western cultures, and there was a nice example in an exhibit of early medical textbooks illustrating the latest knowledge obtained from Dutch doctors. Another nearby gallery shows objects produced in the 15th century for Jesuit priests, one famous object is a christian altarpiece in lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a distinctively Japanese style. Nothing could more vividly demonstrate the incongruity of importing christianity to Asia, a region where the predominant religions (as well as lacquerware techniques) predate christianity by several millennium.

My particular favorite exhibit was a group of rubbings of inscriptions on Chinese stone monuments. These monuments were intended for use as a source for reproduction by taking impressions on paper, in a sense, they are the first printing presses. And some of these particular rubbings date back to 300 B.C. and are widely known as the prototypes for all kanji characters. Let me reiterate, these monuments date back thousands of years and were quite old and worn when the impressions in this exhibit were made, the rubbings are relatively modern at merely 2300 years old. It is relatively common to see these images reproduced today in kanji copybooks, and indeed, some of the stones were carved specifically to mass produce examples of finely written kanji for others to copy. But it can be heartbreaking to see such an exhibit, when some of the paper objects are mere fragments, with burned edges. We cannot possibly know what else was lost, surely there was far more to this artwork than the few square inches of unburnt paper we see today.

And as the evening approaches, I myself am feeling a little burnt at the edges. My feet are blistered, my back is aching from hauling my bag over my shoulder, I should have checked it in a coin locker. It is time to limp back to my hotel, this has been far more amusement than any one body can bear.

Nihonchaku

I arrived in Asakusa, and it looks like I’ll have good computer access so I’ll be able to blog during the trip. Maybe I’ll even be able to post some pictures if I can get my laptop up and running on their network. That would be a nice switch from this little iMac/233 I’m using now.

Not much to say yet, since I’ve just arrived and haven’t seen anything except the insides of some trains and my room. If anyone in Tokyo wants to meet up, drop me an email (look for the link on the left side of this page, just under the search box).

BlogTV: Gyarumoji, Japanese Girls’ Symbols

Disinfotainment brings you another strange video from FujiTV (4 min, Japanese subtitles only) of interest primarily to linguists and Japanese language students. The subject of this video is gyarumoji, “girl’s characters,” and since these characters are mostly shown on small cel phone screens, much of this writing will only be visible to high-bandwidth viewers. But keep watching, some examples are visible in large print. I guarantee you will be able to read a bit of gyarumoji by the time you finish watching this video, even if you only have a 56k modem. Pay close attention and you may even notice that Cliche Kitty flashes across the screen!

Teenage Japanese girls have a long tradition of making themselves incomprehensible to adults through the use of obscure slang and speech patterns. But lately, a new fad has arisen, the use of foreign character sets to represent hiragana characters. These characters were first used in text transmissions through cel phone messaging, but now has spread to other media. I have often argued that Japanese media corporations are commonly used to disseminate new language forms, and this video shows how the process works, through new technology, and through a novel use of old technology.

We start our exploration in a trendy karaoke box in Shibuya, where several girls are singing along to karaoke subtitles written in gyarumoji. But first let’s go out on the streets of Shibuya and talk to a few girls, and see some gyarumoji users and how they send messages to each other. Our reporter locates a few girls who demonstrate the characters and we see a few real messages on their cel phone screens, with subtitles so we can see what the strange characters represent. The girls proudly declare that their mothers can’t read these characters, so our reporter sets out with a simple message in gyarumoji, konnichi wa (hello), and asks some adults if they can read it. They are all baffled by the strange writing. One of the young gyarumoji users even admits that she only knows 2 people who can read it.

Let’s return to the karaoke box, and watch our reporter try to keep up with the strange subtitles. She is barely an adult herself, but the gulf of a mere few years has set her far apart linguistically from these youngsters. After fumbling with the lyrics, one of the young girls grabs the microphone from the reporter, and resumes singing with her exclusive cadre of girlfriends who are initiated into the intricacies of this incomprehensible writing system.

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Others

From the Mainichi Online:

…on June 11, a total of 5.95 million yen was anonymously posted to five public offices — 1 million yen each to the Ministry of Finance, the Meteorological Agency, the Social Insurance Agency and the Board of Audit of Japan, and 950,000 yen to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. One million yen was also posted to the Gunma Prefectural Library. In each of the cases, the parcels of money bore a June 10 postmark from the Takasaki Post Office in Gunma Prefecture.

There is only one glaring omission from this news story, an interview with the clever clerk that opened the envelope for the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Important Announcement for World Cup Journalists

Disinfotainment offers this important piece of news to international journalists and media outlets covering the World Cup: it’s over. Brazil won. Nobody cares anymore. There is no need to continue coverage of the games, there are no more games. There are no more victory rallies. There is nothing to report. Of course, this has not stopped the media (particularly the Japanese media) from continuing to report on the World Cup. I regret to inform these “journalists” that nothing they write will have any relevance to the the games. They were over two days ago. So get over it. The world is full of important news, a two-day-old game is not news.

BlogTV: The Old Man and the War Against The Trees

Japanese society is formalized in many respects, the Japanese language has many ritualized aspects that shape every social interaction. A complex system of “keigo” (respect language) is used in every spoken interaction, and this confrontation between a cranky old man and Tokyo city officials is a perfect example. Even a direct confrontation must be done in the most indirect, nonoffensive manner. The old man speaks gruffly in rough abusive words like “bakatare” (asshole) while the officials are always polite, bowing and saying “shitsurei itashimasu” (pardon my rudeness) even after the old man throws one of them in front of a car.

This old man is furious because because leaves fall on his house and in his gutters and he has to sweep them from his genkan. The genkan is an area inside the front door of every home, where you must take your shoes off and “ascend” into the house. Even though these trees are by a stream across the street, he decides to cut the problem off at its source. He has been sawing limbs off the trees since last autumn, and the city officials are trying to get him to stop it. All along the stream, there is a majestic row of greenery, except in a zone of sickly, gnarled trees for about a block around his house.

Now it is spring, and time for a followup. New damage to the trees is clearly visible, massive limbs have been sawed off, leaving ragged stumps poking in the air. The TV crew asks the old man what he’s doing and he boasts that he’s going to kill the trees and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop him. I wonder how much of this story would have happened without the camera crew egging him on. The old man calls up to tell the City off, with the cameras watching. The City officials know that he’s been cutting down branches, he says there are no lower branches left, so now he’s just going to kill the trees outright. He speaks a guttural “rachaakane-ya,” a corruption of “rachi ga akanai” which is an idiom for “the gate is closed,” he is declaring an end to negotiations. The city official responds with about the politest keigo you can use for a prohibition, “kono toki moshiagemashita you ni.. ano.. katte ni o-kiri ni naru you na koto wa narazu.” Keigo expressions do not translate well, but literally, it says, “at this time, we have humbly told you things such as.. umm.. doing such things as cutting whatever you want, don’t do that.” The old man explodes and starts yelling, “yarimasu! bakayarou!” (I’m going to do it! Asshole!)

Now with extra courage from the TV camera behind him, he goes over and takes a little hand axe over and starts chopping the bark all around the circumference of the tree so it will dry up and die. Soon a delegation from the City shows up to try to get the guy to stop vandalizing the trees. The obsequious official gets nowhere with his polite approach, the old man threatens to punch him. To defuse the situation, an even more polite woman says, “shokubutsu wo sonshou suru koto wa kinjirarete orimasu node, sore wa shinai you ni onegai itashimasu.” Another extremely indirect prohibition, “things such as cutting of trees are humbly prohibited, we beg your indulgence to not do things like that.” She’s practically begging him not to hurt the trees. He shoves his nose right in her face and starts howling, “nan datte?! ningen wa ii no ka dou natte mo.” (What did you say? The People are always right, no matter what). So he gets mad and throws them out into the street, tossing one of them right in front of an oncoming car. The old man retreats into his yard and closes the gate, literally the “gate is closed” to the City officials. They bow and walk off. The officials explain in the politest possible way that this guy has been warned before, and now he is in a heap of trouble. The video ends with the guy wistfully looking up into the canopy of green leaves, he obviously has only one thought: how long until this tree is dead? Even with the denuded trees, this is a shady and peaceful spot to rest alongside a river, a rare enough thing in Tokyo to make it worth preserving. But the old man can only see one thing, a living garbage factory with only one purpose: to foul his genkan. But even if he kills the trees, the dead leaves will still end up in his genkan.

Postscript: I had presumed that this old man was shown on TV to ridicule the extremeness of his views, but alas, it appears that this is more common than I had suspected. I have been informed that the cutting of trees to remove autumn litter is a subject in Alex Kerr’s new book Dogs and Demons. Apparently it is a fairly widespread practice to cut the limbs off trees just before the leaves fall, the trees gradually become top-heavy and stunted. Through anti-environmental acts like this, Kerr argues Japan is at war against nature and itself.

Thank Kami-sama for Seven Eleven

My brother asked me if they had convenience stores in Japan like 7-11. Yes they do, and they are Nirvana.
Back when I was a student in Japan, I stayed at a small temple way out in the country, the host family was on the edge of the poverty line. I was starving to death, there was never enough food. And what food there was, was always the same: squid. I remember eating squid breakfast lunch and dinner, sometimes 5 or 6 meals in a row. Last night’s leftover squid was there on my plate for breakfast. Squid sashimi, broiled, baked, stuffed, shredded, dehydrated, I’ve consumed about every single edible product you can make out of squid. I love squid, and it is the local specialty, it was at peak season and cheap, but you can only eat so much squid. Over the course of a few weeks, I lost about 30 pounds.
So at every opportunity, on my 45 minute walks to and from school, I would search for other sources of food. Alas, that route mostly took me through the fishmarket, where the specialty was fresh squid. The best things I could find were some horrible vending machines near the train station selling hot canned coffee, Pocky, etc. I even considered eating a colorless food supplement gel bar called "Calorie-Mate" but I was never desperate enough to try it. I used to take different routes every day trying to find a decent place to eat breakfast or even a good vending machine. And then early one morning I was walking along a route I’d been before, and hey, I never noticed there was a 7-11 here, and I was just down this road yesterday! So I walked right up, the automatic door swept open, and I walked right in.
And I was right, there was no 7-11 here yesterday. Yesterday it was a cinder block shell, today it is a fully equipped 7-11 store with a sign up on top, everything in place and fully stocked. I walked in and abruptly landed right in the middle of the new boss giving the grand opening speech to his 5 employees, all assembled in a line wearing their 7-11 uniforms. Everything came to a halt. Ooops. With a few bows and a little "gomen" they understood I was not a crazy gaijin and could understand their language. The boss bowed and said he was sorry but they were not open yet, please come back tomorrow. I very politely said I was sorry to trouble them and I would come back. Darn it, no breakfast today. But from that day on, I was a regular customer. Finally I had something besides squid to eat.
I told that story to my brother, and he said I should have given them a US $1 bill and told them of the tradition of framing the first dollar a company earns and hanging it near the cash register. Then the Japanese store’s little talisman would be a US Greenback. I laughed and wished I’d thought of that. And then I realized, I didn’t have any US money at the time.