A case for boredom

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Ginichiro: “Good morning – or evening – and welcome back from the break. If you’re just tuning in, welcome to PenBenBenPen with Pen Ginichiro and Benzaiten. This is the last half of the show where we answer emails from the listeners.”

Benzaiten: “Today we’ve got just enough time for about two or three, I think. I guess it depends how long Huck lets us stay up.”

Huck: (Murmur in the background.)

G: “You say that now? It’s already 2:53 a.m….huh? the neighbors?…no, we know…well, if Lunaire hadn’t made a mess with the mochi maker then we could have pre-recorded this instead of going live… Sorry. Yeah, Benny, 3 might be Huck’s limit this-morning-tonight.”

B: “Can we start off with the one written by ‘Tujiko Noriko Fan 516’?

G: “Sure, wanna answer it, then?”

B: “Yeah!”

G: “Alright, then I’ll read it off.

‘Dear PenBenBenPen,

I used to write to you by the name, “Lazuras’ Nursery Limes.” Remember me? I once asked for advice about where to put those lilies my neighbor gave me, and another time I told you I’d donate a lime-a-limerick to your festival cocktail booth.

Recently, I’ve got my hands full and I can’t seem to dish off the load. Just so much time. So much potential boredom hiding around the corner. So I tweet, I twitch, I tik, I tok, I snap, I chat, I gram, …just grabbing the lowhanging fruits between me and boredom. Any thoughts? I’d like to kick the habit. Any suggestions for fun activities, or maybe some more of your crazy cocktail recipes? Those were fun! I wish you’d share wacky cocktail recipes again. Anyhow, looking forward to your response.

Best,

Tujiko Noriko Fan 516’

Aww, that’s so sweet of Laz-..Tujiko Noriko Fan 516. Haven’t heard from them in a couple of months! Well, Benzaiten’s up to bat.”

B: “Hmm, not sure you’re gonna like what I have to say. First of all, thanks again for listening and sending in mail. It’s good to hear from you, Tujiko Noriko Fan 516! Ok. Here I go.

I’ve got a case for boredom. It’s locked shut with ten thousand locks: each a unique key. Tinkering about with it won’t do you any good, to get in. That’s where the boredome is, though: complete with its own stratosphere and subterraneous plate shifting, grinding of teeth, and molten priorities. I like to keep it locked down. Until it bores out an’ runs loose. It takes forever, though, if you ignore it. Genius never strikes under spotlight, and boredom never boils unless you watch it. Sit there. You can’t tinker with it, though. Tinkering just puts off the wait. You gotta wait till it bores out. Someone’s gotta watch it boil over. Watch the bubbles come as they will, as you willn’t. It’s not about your will, in the end.”

Diary – 5/17/2020

It takes me great effort to put together a meal. If I have to, I can cook; but it’s nothing to write home about. During this time I find myself looking forward to eating other people’s cooking… and not simply because mine is bad, but because eating someone else’s cooking is like getting to chat over hot toddies and heartfelt silences, or a private audience listening to someone perform their music, or seeing someone act their truth on stage. So, this weekend I took a midday jaunt outside to pick up some noodles. Being cooped up inside for so much of the past two months, I barely had a chance to register that spring was well done, and summer was already maxing out 2nd gear. The 28 degree Celsius high-noon sun threatened to lift the skin right off my scalp, so I returned home for a baseball cap.

When I eventually arrived at the noodle shop – tucked between the store of timed-out oddities and the 24 hour grocer – it took about half a minute for my eyes to adjust to the cavernous kitchen opening in from the take-out window. I couldn’t tell if anyone was there.

“Good afternoon.” I took off my baseball cap to get a better view. Cool air from the empty kitchen window greeted the sweat accumulating on my brow beneath the midday heat.

Haaai! Just a minute!” A voice came from way in the back. Still no sight of anyone.

My eyes continued adjusting. I could just make out the calmness of the kitchen. Like a catalog photo: unnaturally clean.

A short woman appeared from the darkness with handkerchief overhead and mask over mouth. Between the cloth, a pair of eyes pulling on well worn wrinkles. “Hi! What would you like?”

“Can I get the tempura set to go?”

“Udon, or soba?”

“Udon.”

“Right-right. Please have a seat and we’ll bring it out to you. It’ll take about 15 minutes though. Hardly anything’s made, except the noodles.”

Have a seat? The shop looked closed inside.

“Ah, the bench over there.” She leaned out the window and pointed to a little bench near the entrance. “I’ll bring you some iced tea for the wait. Go on, take a seat.”

While I refrained from using the washcloth she brought out after I took a seat, I couldn’t resist the iced barley tea. One can only take in so much sun without something to wet the whistle. At least I was getting some much-needed vitamin D.

I waited. Sounds of someone else cooking escaped the kitchen. I closed my eyes, and exhaled, wilting a little but pleasurably so.

I made it about ¾ of the way down the barley tea by the time she came out of the kitchen: a neatly packaged meal in one hand and a transaction tray in the other.

I received them both, and fished for appropriate change.

“It’s hot, yeah? This sun and all…” she said.

“Yep. But getting some good food like this is just the trick on hot days.”

The small talk visibly surprised her, and she suddenly softened. “Wait, …do you live around here?”

“Yeah, just down the corner, kind of across from the Inari shrine.”

“Really? That’s so near!”

“Every time I go to get groceries I walk past here, so – since you were open today…”

Masked and handkerchiefed, the stretching of wrinkles around her eyes conveyed warmth. “Thanks.”

I nod-bowed and put my mask back on. “Take care,” I picked up the meal and started off.

You take care!” She giggled. Probably because customers don’t normally tell the cooks and staff to “take care” in Japanese.

How long had it been since someone stopped in? How long had it been since I stopped in somewhere for a meal?

It’s dangerously easy to get into the routine of buying the same types of foods. I bought a beer for the first time in about …two and a half months… Since I came to Japan again-again. I feel like that one beer had quite an effect on me when I woke up. No pain. Just a little duller than normal. Maybe my system is just not used to beer anymore. Maybe that’s thanks to how much sake I’ve had instead.

Anyhow, today I feel like I can’t concentrate, but every time I go to my “to do” list, I’ve “to done it” – at least, as much as I should reasonably do it. Should I lesson plan and material create for the next unit starting next month? Should I rough draft my portfolio work due at the end of the month? Done did, chicken little.

All the while, I really know why I “can’t concentrate.” It’s not last night’s beer, I can tell you that. Have you ever been hung over so bad that your body heroically discharges your evils from whence they came? Hard to stop, isn’t it. You could try to hold it back, but it wouldn’t do you much good. I think I’ve had a case over there in the corner, but I haven’t been watching it appropriately. Seeing as I’m getting hung up on the to-do-littles and mutil-taskimins, maybe I’ve got a case of indigestion.

It’s really all about this writing I have to do. You might be thinking, well, Huck, now that the portfolio rough draft is in – you can get started right away on editing, revising, and final drafting that puppy! But what was the point of getting the work done if there isn’t a pause between the work? Constant work kills quality. All things need pause.

If I don’t stop working on the portfolio, I’ll never get to that writing I have to do, for example. Time for a pause.

My students are finding too much pause in their lives, now. So they say.

Wednesday mornings I’m staying after class to just chat for a half an hour. Just for this one course. No one gets credit for it. There’s no academic reward, on paper, anyway. It’s the one day of the week where I don’t have a class immediately after the first period, so – why the hell not? I’d like to say there’s some research evidence to support this move – but there isn’t: students complained that they couldn’t do the mandatory extra-curricular for-a-grade chats with me during said mandatory-extra-curricular for-a-grade chat classes I conduct. There are 50 other teachers, and half of them are probably offering similar chat courses outside of their own normal courses as well. My students are like guests at a 5-star hotel buffet: none of the options are going to do them wrong, but they still find themselves looking for something familiar. If you were a freshman in your first semester, would you feel more comfortable talking to your class’ English teacher instead of a teacher from another class? Maybe.

Who knows why they really brought it up. Who knows why I offered more of my time. I’m not sure any of that really matters at the moment. To be frank, I’m lucky to have someone to talk to besides the oddballs I live with.

Near the end of one of these post-class chats, May said, “but – sometime soon – I will run out of things to watch… on youtube, Netflix.”

“What will you do when you run out of things to do?” I asked

June was quick to answer, “I’ll just buy other things.”

Ginichiro: “Ok, here’s one. Writer’s name: Fezzywig’s Hop.

‘Dear PenBenBenPen,

Lately I’ve been having trouble sleeping. Have you ever taken medicine to help yourself sleep? I went to pick some up from the pharmacy, but I freaked out when I saw the line inside. I’m not gonna wait 15 minutes in line inside a pharmacy with 20 other people roaming the store, are you crazy?

I abandoned that mission. By time I got home I had another quart of ice cream in the freezer. That’s three now. I’ve opened two of them already, and neither is even half finished. Strawberry banana, blue moon, and coconut crisp.

When you’re in isolation the 4 o’clock raven conference is a nightingale madrigal. That shrieking baby, a sign of life. A sign that time is rapidly passing, for someone. My time is stopped, and yet I’m getting more and more of it. Before you know it, I’ll have a fourth opened yet unfinished ice cream carton. Rocky road?

So, I’ve been listening to your show – before going to bed – hoping you’ll put me to sleep. Which brings me back to the point above. What do you suggest for getting better sleep?

Sincerely,

Fezzywig’s Hop’

Alright, Benny, you got anything?”

Benzaiten: “Hmm. Sure, you can medicate yourself to sleep. You can also medicate yourself to death. Not sure I would recommend either, but they are possibilities. Some are taking advantage of one or the other – maybe both.

I don’t think either will solve your problem. I don’t think you have a problem, either. I’m sure you’ve thought of all the obvious: fresh air, healthy food, moderate exercise, lot’s of water, hot baths at least twice a week, making a habit of waking up at the same time everyday.

Here’s some other things you could do. Abandon hope, for a minute. Abandon hope that your lack of sleep can be fixed – if only as an experiment.

Do you remember how long it took to arrive “there?” I’d hate to presume you had caretakers as a child…but I’m pretty sure every child knows at least one time when you simply never arrived “there.”

I used to ask my mom all the time in the car, “Are we there yet?”

It may not look like it, because you’re at home – almost all the time.

But you’re not really at home. You’re on your way somewhere. Whatever home meant to you in the past is being rewritten day in day in day in day in day in…and we won’t see the daylights-out for a while. Home has changed even for the luckiest and it looks like – chances are – you’re not the luckiest. I can help you out with that. Luck’s my purview.

Ice cream will distract you from feeling, but it won’t actually make you feel better. Medicine will knock you out, but you’ll just put off abandoning hope for another night. Helpful for some folk, honestly. Depends entirely on the situation.

But for you, I recommend two things:

The first thing: Observe and document your feelings and thoughts throughout the day for one month. You can use old fashioned diary writing, or audio recording, collaging, laundrying, or rust scrubbing, potato peeling, even video conferencing if you’re not totally burned out on it, …whatever. Just keep track. Notice the changes.

The second thing is: during that time, do what you feel you have to do. Get on that Rocky Road! Go ahead, knock yourself out.

Then, feel the damn things. Notice your changes. Keep track. Every couple of days look back at everything, take it all in. Make your own changes.

The very essence of what “home” is and who “you” are in that space is on a radical journey. You’re not there yet. There’s no shortcut there, either. First you have to keep watch, feel the damn things, and notice. We aren’t there yet. But you can sleep along the way, before we arrive. It’s alright. Go ahead. You’re allowed sleep before you arrive.’

G: “Some ball of yarn for Fezzywig there Benzaiten.”

B: “Fezzywig’s Hop.”

G: “My bad. Alright, Gin here. I’ll be answering the next letter.”

B: “I get to have a go at this one? It’s short, looks like…

‘Dear PenBenBenPen,

Everyone I know keeps talking about all the things famous people accomplished during their isolation and quarantine. I feel like there is so much pressure to produce something incredible. I almost feel guilty at the end of the day when all I’ve done is barely keep it together.

What do you think? I feel like I’m wasting time, like I should be improving. But every day ends and I don’t feel like I’ve made progress towards achieving anything out of the norm.

Warmly,

Lauren’

Well, Pen, what are your thoughts on this one?”

G: “…Have you ever heard those references to Shakespeare writing a masterpiece during quarantine? That’s bullshit. Shakespeare didn’t write a masterpiece during quarantine. That’s not how creation and creativity work. Shakespeare’s entire life before that quarantine was the preparation for that masterpiece. The masterpiece didn’t come out of a period of time so short as a quarantine: it came from all of Shakespeare’s experience, devotion to craft, study, practice, and knowledge leading up to that quarantine.

Make a masterpiece now that you’re in quarantine? …Quarantine is not the time to beat yourself up over not producing something miraculous.

If you use this time to accomplish things, that’s ok. But there’s no argument for ‘this is the time to evolve into the real you.’ This is not ‘the time’ to create your masterpiece. That’s not how it works. Every creation is a result of the entirety of your life leading up to that moment. Also, masterpieces aren’t necessarily creations in the first place. ‘Masterpieces’ are a thing of evaluation, canon, reputation…Focus on sustainable creation that fulfills you, not on insubstantial standards that deplete you.

Well, I think that’s all the time we have today. Benzaiten, anything to add before we wrap up?”

B: “Yeah. This concerns Fezziwig’s Hop as well as Lauren. While I agree that you probably shouldn’t get anxious about being maximally productive during this time – as there are greater concerns to deal with – having this time may help you reassess your productivity. Sometimes you have to get down on that yoga mat before you can see the dusty spots you habitually miss when you sweep. If you always clean the room with the door swung open, when will you clean the floor hidden between the door and the wall? Dust builds where the eye doesn’t know it doesn’t see.”

G: “So, they should do yoga?”

B: “No. No, it’s about assessing habits and routines, and adding a few new ones to help the mind gain new perspective. That will likely do more for them than only having one fixed, and honestly unfair, goal in view. …Even when you think you’re actively doing something about the situation, there are all sorts of ways in which your habits, perspective, and subconscious assumptions keep you from fully achieving what you set out to do…”

G: “Huck, what would we do without Benzaiten around?”

(Muffled noise heard in the background.)

B: “Thanks listeners and writers alike, it’s been a pleasure to sort through your mail, especially now that we’re all just here for the time, being.”

G: “Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll join us on the next broadcast of PenBenBenPen. Until then, be well.”

 

 

 

 

List of 32: We take a break from our usual programming to bring you this message from our sponsor, Huckleberry Grimm.

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We take a break from our usual programming to bring you this message from our sponsor, Huckleberry Grimm.

It’s my 32 second birthday, and I haven’t written anything in English for a while. Naturally, it is appropriate – then – to offer a list of 32 of my favorite Japanese dishes, meals, drinks, ingredients, or simply things that one can enjoy in Japan.

Why?

People often ask about my favorite Japanese foods, or new things that I’ve tried. Ramen and sushi are frequently asked about, too. I love ramen. I love sushi. But there is a world of Japanese cuisine that I’m just as smitten with that extends beyond these two genres of gastronomic performance art.

So, in no particular order, here are 32 of my favorite ingestibles from Japan. And this isn’t even exhaustive. Just wait till I turn 100. (I didn’t even have space for O-chazuke!)

  1. ごぼうGobo (Burdock root)

Skinny, Hairy, Lanky, Bougie: Burdock. It’s a root thing.

  1. 沢庵漬け Takuwan zuke

Yellow pickled daikon. Oh, sweet Mothers of Invention.

  1. 乾物 kanbutsu Dried goods for the pantry

Example: Dried squid for when your soups need that extra kick of sea brine and umami.

Example: Dried gourd strips for when you need to bind food items up, or tie them shut. Strong, elastic, practical, edible.

Example: Konbu varieties because dashi is the wellspring of creative cooking life.

I know what you’re thinking: yes, all cuisines have dried goods. Yes, they do. Such is the way of sustenance and subsistence. Have you filled your pantry with the dried goods sold in grocery stores here? Your cooking will never be the same. Ever.

  1. 寒天 Kanten

Seaweed makes for excellent jelly products that also happen to contain a lot of fiber.

  1. 茶碗蒸し Chawanmushi

Savory egg custard stuffed with an assortment of treasures like mushrooms, or herbs, or shrimp, or white fish, or whatever the doctor foraged/caught that day.

  1. 胡麻和え goma ae

A ‘dressing’ which is more like a ‘tossing’ which is like an imagine if you crushed up sesame seeds, mixed them with savory sauces and a hint of sweetness now rub it all over any vegetable of your choice kind of thing.

Word to the wise: goma ae is like peanut butter for adults and is the perfect addition to that boring fresh vegetable side dish you just laid down to rest.

  1. 紫蘇 Shiso

I don’t think we have a word to describe the flavor of shiso in English. It is a leaf thing, but not an herb. It’s like if mint had an electrically enigmatic cousin who you just knew had the knowledge of where the lucky charms are hidden but it would be taboo to ask and reveal your knowledge of their secret knowledge thereby putting everyone at risk. That’s shiso.

25.ミョウガ・茗荷 myoga

So, you like ginger, eh? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: myoga.

24. あら汁 arajiru

あら(ara) refers to the scraps of fish left over after butchering and preparing the “good” parts. 汁(shiru) means soup. Yes, the sh- in ‘soup’ often becomes j- because linguistics is probably not the reason you are reading this.

  1. たれ tare

The word ‘tare’ in Japanese cuisine can be so many things. It’s usually some variation on a soy-sauce based sauce. Also, can we stop calling soy sauce a sauce? It’s not very saucy, is it? Isn’t there a viscosity requirement for something to be considered a sauce? Anyhow, tares come in many varieties and are multipurpose. In sum, it is a viscous sauce made largely from fermented soy product liquid.  Not to be confused with soy sauce.

  1. 大根おろし Daikon oroshi

Grated daikon. Sweet Potato of Time, what a difference this makes to some dishes. With a drop of ponzu on top? Good Gourd, someone turn on the AC.

  1. ポン酢 ponzu

If you’ve never heard of ponzu, just never let anyone make you do ponzu shots. I know drinking vinegar is a fad and all, but this might be a bit too citrusy for even the tartest cider vinegar enthusiasts out there.

  1. 焼き芋 yaki-imo

Japan’s equivalent to our hometown’s feel for corn on the cobb. If you’ve never had the pleasure of a freshly grilled sweet potato. End of sentence. Full stop. Fin.

  1. 洋麺屋五右衛門和風パスタ goemonwafuupasuta

Hey, I know this is gonna hurt so you might want to sit down. What if western pasta tasted better with a Japanese cuisine twist? Well, it does. And there’s a place to get it – named after the Robin Hood of Japan, Goemon! No. No. Goemon is not a pokemon. He was a bandit whose influence was so feared by the government that they slaughtered all of his relatives and relations. And now the dominant hegemony and capitalist empires have appropriated the heroic narratives of his life to proliferate some mighty fine pasta all across Japan.

  1. もんじゃ焼き monjayaki

I love this so much, once I even forgot I loved it. It’s so close to my heart, I slipped into taking it for granted – forgetting that it is one of the most fun foods to play around with. Sorry, Monjayaki.  You deserved better.

  1. 塩昆布 shio konbu

Watch out crutons, there’s a new topping in town. Put shio konbu on your salads, your pastas, your ochazukes, your risottos…let this garnish your stairway to heaven. *Use in moderation*

  1. 糠漬け nukazuke

Like pickling projects? Like creating a system of organisms to preserve your food, or transform it?

Then nooking your veggies in Nuka is for you! I’m just waiting for the home foodie trend to graduate from sourdough starters to nuka beds for nukazuke.

  1. 会話の場、和 kaiwa no ba, wa

Japanese conversations are regulated by a sense of ba which could literally be translated as “place,” but functionally impacts conversation a bit more than where it takes place. It’s a bit closer to the sense that the conversation is a space, and that all speakers present contribute to that space as an event rather than the linear back and forth, incessant one-upmanship, and I-statement powerplay posturing of most English speaking conversations.

Don’t even get me started on 和, wa (harmony).

  1. デミグラス demiglasu

Yes. Yes, demiglace is a western thing. You’ll just find it done more often in Japan than in most western cuisine.

Also. Miso demiglace? Sweet Pickle does that hit the spot on a rainy November evening.

  1. 味噌 miso

To think I’d have gotten this far and forgotten to list miso. What a world of miso there is to explore. If you’ve only cooked with one type of miso, go get your mind blown. Go. Now.

  1. 分からない wakaranai

“I don’t know.” The Japanese language is much more accepting of people being honest about what they know, and what they don’t know. The English-speaking world could use more of that, instead of feeling that we need to defend our self-assumed status as omniscient and in the right while also being more informed on a scale which is linear with us at the extreme of more and everyone else at the extreme of less.

When asked a question in English, you’d rather be caught dead than to say, “I don’t know.” Likewise, you must defend whatever position you came into the conversation with at all costs – why? Pride? Power? A false belief in a stable, fixed, and singular identity which – by the way – was in the right before this conversation even started? Check. Check. And Check.

  1. ねばねば nebaneba

All things sticky, slimy, and gooey. So much wonderfully delicious and sticky foods to boost your gut biome. Slimy okra, slimy yamaimo, slimy soybeans, slimy mushrooms…the list goes on and on my friends.

  1. アイス aisu

Ice cream, itself, in Japan isn’t actually that good.

But the toppings and flavorings are absolutely dynamite.

Have you ever had a thick and mildly sweetened shoyu sauce/syrup on top of vanilla ice cream?

Good gables.

Sweet summer melon flavored ice cream with honeycomb on top?

Maaaaaaaa(d)re mia.

  1. なんでも卵かけ putting raw egg on everything and anything

Udon? Throw an egg on it. Soba? Throw an egg on it. Rice? Throw an egg on it. Pork cutlet? Throw an egg on it. Pasta? (and I don’t mean jussss carbonara, I mean flippin any pasta dish) Throw an egg on it. Yeah, that Genovese will astral project with a little help from Gudetama.

Chocolate? Don’t know. Haven’t tried.

  1. 梅干し umeboshi

Dried plums…but not like any prune you’ve had. Umeboshi are smaller, and sour, and a little rough on the outside, but chewy on the inside, and chewing them results in juicy fruit snack experience.

Umeboshi’s are a journey. Get in for the ride.

(I know there was a section for ‘dried goods’ above, but these little plums deserved their own section.)

  1. タイ焼き taiyaki

The language of love cooked into a sweet-bean stuffed waffle that’s the shape of a sea bream.

  1. カレーパン karee pan

Curry, inside a doughnut-like bread which has then been lightly breaded with crumbs and sealed by the heat of a frying pan.

Don’t get the convenience store versions of this.

Go and get a legit curry bread somewhere.

It will bring a whole new meaning to the term “buddha belly.”

  1. 懐石料理 kaiseki ryouri

Look it up. Many of the reasons that Japanese cuisine is considered a world heritage can be found in this culinary tradition.

  1. 精進料理 Shoujin ryori

The first character compound involves “spirit+progress” which means “asceticism” or “devotion and diligence” depending on the context. The second character compound is “cuisine/cooking.”

Cuisine for ascetics. Think your palette is too needy for vegan food? Think again.

Also, Sesame pudding for dessert? Get. Out. Of. Here.

  1. 思いやり omoiyari

Omoiyari is about ‘considerateness.’ Empathy. The ability to imagine what limitations, restrictions, difficulties, etc. impact the other people you interact with. Having a trained and developed intelligence regarding, “what has/is the other person going through/ have to do in order for _____?” would really benefit my home culture.

That’s just one facet of omoiyari. If you’re intrigued, I highly recommend a personal investigation. Omoiyari makes the world a better place.

  1. ハイボール highball

Yes, that simple cocktail from the universe of yesteryear still holds court in Japan. Highballs and highball variations are everywhere.

Perfect on muggy summer nights.

  1. せんべい senbei

Have you ever had an octopus senbei (タコせんべい)? A shrimp senbei (エビせんべい)? They are at least the size of two of your faces.

Senbei’s come in all shapes, sizes, flavors, and wrappings. Oh, so much wrapping.

  1. 天ぷら tempura

Did I already cover this? No? Good. You probably know what tempura is.

But you probably haven’t experienced the world of tempura.

It’s like deep fried foods in the USA. Deep fried foods isn’t just chicken and pork.

It’s pickles.

It’s beer battered cheese curds.

It’s twinkies and oreos.

Now, think of how crafty the culinary arts are in Japan. Imagine the things they do with tempura. (see #26 ‘shiso’)

  1. ナッツ等 All things nuts, ginnnan, and a singular devotion to Montblanc 

I never thought I’d get into things like mont blanc. Then I moved to Japan.

But, it doesn’t stop there.

There are just so many nutty things hidden in Japanese cuisine in places you might not expect.

So, you go to a grilled chicken joint.

You mostly get skewers upon skewers of delicious chicken bits or veggies.

When you leave, the thing you remember most – though – is the satisfying texture and aroma of the grilled innards of gingko tree nut. (銀杏Ginnan)

Huh.

  1. マスク着用 Masuku chakuyou

Wearing a mask because

a. 会話の場、和 kaiwa no ba – Against all English language logic, solipsism is a joke and other people do in fact exist. The health and well-being of other people is our prerogative.

b. 分からない wakaranai – we still have very little understanding about this virus and no available cure for the masses. There is so much we don’t know about it. We know so little, we often don’t even know when we have Covid-19. So, better wear a mask, just in case.

c. 思いやり omoiyari – Does the person I’m talking to have kids? Are they pregnant? Is their partner pregnant? Do they live with the elderly? Do they live, actually, with anyone? Maybe I should wear a mask, because there’s a possibility that we’ll never know I’m contagious and passing this virus on to the people I meet who’s lives (and family lives) might be irrevocably changed or taken away as a consequence.

 

3. 日本酒 nihonshu

I did it. I turned the page. I took out the trash. I turned 32.

My body just does not process certain alcohols like it used to. (I love you whisky, and you too, whiskey, but, we gotta talk about ‘space.’)

Nihonshu (called ‘sake’ in English) happens to be really easy on my body.

It also has a wide sphere of flavor variety to offer the aforementioned needy palette. I don’t think you’ll really be able to get your hands on good ‘rice wine’ in the USA unless you have insane cash. Even then, I’m not sure you’ll get much variety. Most of the sake sold in the USA is actually made in California and mass produced for chain restaurants.

You’ll just have to come to Japan and ‘tour around’ (Challenge: Try buying sake from a different prefecture each time) to taste a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view. No one can tell us no, or which sake is ‘gold.’ It’s all a go, in this whole new world: nihonshu.

  1. ハヤシオムライス hayashi omlette rice

I didn’t grow up in Japan, but when I eat hayashi omlette rice I feel like I’m a 6-year-old boy eating grandma’s cooking in that tiny kitchen with the view of the trees and the squirrels messing up the bird feeders and that flooring and the wooden chairs which were just a bit too big for my frame and the chair arms would get in the way of my elbows and the cat would jump on the table and Mom and Gma would be talking by the sink and the flavor of nostalgia just overwhelms you. Did I mention the perfectly fluffed egg omlette? Oh, Tokimo, Sweet Potato of Time!

Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnd

#1. 和菓子: wagashi

Traditional Japanese ‘snacks and treats’

Example:

餅・モチ mochi

Lude Jaw described it as ‘Elasticity inglutimate.’

You may be thinking, “Oh, but Huck! We alllllll know mochi.”

But, there’s much more to ‘mochi’ than mochi daifuku and mochi ice cream sold at your – well, not your neighborhood – but that neighborhood with the Trader Joe’s.

Further, you’ll find mochi in all sorts of unexpected places.

Footnote unhinged: Mochi is often used in savory dishes (nabe, monjyayaki), and it delivers a satisfying crunch if you play your cards right.

For starters, here’s a page that lists ten types of mochi.

Mochi, in a word?

Flexibility.

Stretchiness.

Adaptability.

Versatility.

In other words…

Complementary.

Collaborative.

Tenacious.

Forgiving.

Boundless.

Receptive.

Supportive.

It comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Sometimes mochi are very different feeling on the inside…

but, they’re all divine.

 

Thanks for listening.

And now, we’ll return to our usual broadcasting.

 

 

The new year in Kawagoe, a trip to Izumo shrine

14

Hikawa Shrine

The line for Hikawa shrine fanned out from the shrine gates and into the edges of the highway wrapping around the high concrete walls which enclosed the premises. Hundreds of people nestled against the walls, respectfully shuffling towards the entrance. They took up a two-foot-wide stretch on the border of the road. When a car came past, the crowd scrunched up even more.

People of all ages, families of all sizes, but mostly Japanese, slowly packed into the shrine complex. Hikawa shrine is at the northern end of a long touristy stretch in Kawagoe called “Little Edo.” The neighborhoods retain many structures from previous eras in Japan which start in the Edo period and move through other famous periods like the Taisho and Showa eras. Some royal Edo era buildings were physically picked up and moved to Kawagoe and – as such – this is one of the few places in Japan where one can witness actual Edo architecture of its time.

It’s January first, 2020, and all of these people are out about town visiting shrines and temples like this Hikawa shrine for the Hatsumoude tradition. Hatsumoude (初詣) is a tradition where families and individuals make their first trip to a Shinto shrine in the year. New year’s traditions in Japan are full of firsts: first view of sunrise, first trip to a shrine, first dream of the new year.

This may be a first for Japan: the first time that a penguin and a deity of the arts stroll into a shrine for hatsumoude. Benzaiten carried Gin close to her body, like a basketball under her arm. The sound of her hard, wooden shoes punctuated their entrance among the shuffle. Above them two torii gates, each made of stone. Beneath each sturdy gate hung a thick rope. Hanging from the rope, a series folded holy papers. The shuffling crowd further halted each time someone paused to politely bow before entering the gates. A thin stream of guests exiting the shrine complex would turn around as they leave and bow as well.

The shuffle scooted and scattered a little as the crowds visited a temizuya just inside the shrine grounds. Here, families waited their turn patiently in the 8-degree Celsius winter morning to wash their hands (and sometimes mouths) with cold fountain water.

The large shuffling crowd led straight up to the main shrine where folks waited their turn to toss in a coin to the offering box, bow twice, clap their hands to announce their arrival to the deities living within the shrine, offer their prayers, sometimes clap again to close their prayer, and then bow again before leaving.

Benzaiten cued up with Gin underarm. She wore a knit cap, a red yarn sweater, and a long olive-green jacket with fake fur lining the hood which draped over her shoulders. The jacket was un-zipped which revealed large block university letters: UCLA. Both hands were tucked warmly into her pockets. The left hand clutched a few coins which she set aside for today’s shrine and temple visits. 5, 50, or 100 yen here and there don’t really amount to much, but on days like today Benzaiten would be visiting several shrines and temples. At each place she would be spending about 300 to 500 yen. There was a lot to do during Hatsumoude visits: purchasing ema boards (votive prayer boards) to write on, buying o-mikuji (paper fortune slips), fishing for fortunes, buying hitokage dolls to send down the river of purification, purchasing purifying incense at temples, and offering money to coffers. She felt for a 5 yen coin in her pocket: those were the lucky ones.

The line ahead slowly decreased, and the line behind amassed. Looking around, the other entrance to the grounds was marked by a dozen food stalls: yakisoba, chocolate covered bananas, takoyaki, grilled sweet potatoes, amazake (there are several kinds but they are all typically a warm, fermented rice drink), skewered yaki-dango (grilled rice mochi dumplings, sometimes coated in a sweet and savory soy based sauce).

The row of praying folk in ahead of Benzaiten and Gin slowly dispersed. She put Gin down and gave him a coin to offer. They tossed in their coins and bowed twice each. Benzaiten clapped her hands, Gin clapped his flippers together. They both prayed.

Benzaiten put her hands together and lowered her head. I’m really just here to express my gratitude.

Gin put his flippers together and closed his eyes. Heartfelt and warm well wishes to me family on the Antarctic. That and abundant krill and fishies for the young ones.

When each finished, they bowed silently and left the offering zone of the main hall.

Unlike the entrance of the shrine complex, the rest of the area was quiet chaos. Groups of people moved back and forth across the grounds to take part in the various Hatsumoude activities. Children fished for small plastic fish in a large bowl. Each little fishy carried a fortune in its belly. Across from the fishing pool, people where laying small paper dolls in the river of a small landscape garden. First, the visitors would blow three times upon the paper doll, then they would rub the doll on the areas of their body which needed healing or purifying, and finally they would lay the doll down in the stream where it would quietly float downstream beneath a miniature torii gate straddling the water. The dolls would disintegrate by time they passed the gate. Debris from the disintegrated bodies built up like misty clouds on the other side of the gate, further down the river. Even further down the river, the water ran clean.

Up and behind the landscape garden, transients huddled beneath a small roof. Their cigarettes and vapes left a small trail of fragrance floating over the food stalls on the opposite side of the wall near the entrance.

On the other side of the shrine grounds a small line formed for o-mikuji and ema. To the side of the fortune slip line about 15 people gathered in an old building to take a break from the cold. Two or three space heaters glowed orange and red.

Just a little bit further from the rest shack, a small trail led back around the main halls. On the end of the property a long series of smaller shrines hosted praying guests. Unlike the main shrine, these were more personable and served the guests’ specific desires: one for good business, one for fertility, one for healing. Each wooden shrine was in the shape of a small house or hall.

In front of one such house, a pair of foxes. Inside their house, a crowd of baby foxes. Even further beyond the family of foxes, two giant trees towered over the rear of the main hall. The two trees were bound together by a thick rope, similar to the ones hanging from the stone torii gates at the front entrance.

With total absence of order, families and couples moved between these parts of the shrine grounds. Benzaiten and Gin walked flipper in hand trying not to get separated in the crowd.

Naritasan Betsuin

“Sorry, Buddha,” a woman ladled cold water from the pond below and poured it over the head of a Fudo Myo-O (不動明王) statue. In the king’s right hand was a large sword with tip pointing up to the heavens, and his left arm’s fist rested on hip with elbow extended out. This was a “mizu kake fudou son” (水かけ不動尊). Instead of offering money here, one may pour water over the statue’s head as an offering. As the water ran over the statue’s head and body, the statue maintained a quiet fierceness.

Gomen, ne,” the woman reiterated as she finished pouring the ice cold water over the crown of the statue.

A man next to the woman kneeled down next to the pond, where dozens of turtles roamed about below.

“They seem pretty tough; I wouldn’t worry too much.” He said.

She smiled, putting the ladle back in its resting spot, “But I feel bad for him, it must be so cold!”  When the ladle was back in its place, she crouched down next to the man. Without a word, they each extended a had to each other. One palm up, one palm down: a snug fit. Ripples reached out from the corner of the pond where a turtle slipped beneath the water.

Next to the pond and statue of “The unmoving wise king” stood a 5-foot-tall shrine to Benzaiten, originally the Hindu goddess Saraswati and now Japanese syncretic deity between Buddhism and Shintoism. She is one of the seven lucky gods, and deity of literary arts and music to boot. Unlike the unshakeable, unbreakable wise king – Benzaiten wasn’t left to deal with the elements. She rested inside a wooden house which stood on stilts above the edge of the pond.

Far back behind Benzaiten’s shrine and past the Fudo Myo-O statue was a shrine which seemed to be dedicated to ‘Mizuko’ (水子): children lost pre-birth. The couple moved from the Fudo statue back towards this Mizuko shrine, where they made an offering and prayed. They stayed awhile there as if a part of home rested there. In the pond, baby turtles climbed onto the backs of adult turtles.

Kitain and Toushougu

Benzaiten shuffled over a bridge lined with orange edo-era looking streetlamps. Across the bridge, she entered a maze of food stalls and vendors. She couldn’t see much above the crowd, so Gin gave directions from his perch. Benzaiten’s fur-lined hood made for an excellent pouch to nest in.

Some vendors were the same as at other shrines and temples selling typical Japanese street food, but here and there a few stalls sold local goods that one might see in Kawagoe’s traditional Japanese sweets & snacks alleys. As per Gin’s directions, the two shared a couple skewers of yakidango (焼き団子) and warm amasake (甘酒). People like to point to Japan as a place which exemplifies highly codified social etiquette. “You can’t do this, must do this this way, if you do this that’s a faux pas.” Really, it’s not much more codified than anywhere else. Everything everywhere among everyone is highly codified. But that’s the power of generations verbalizing, re-inscribing, and reifying.

“You can’t walk and eat in Japan because it’s seen as rude, but you can just drink beer in the street! Isn’t that crazy?” is the kind of thing you might hear a tourist remark over and over. Well, that’s not quite the full story. All rules are subject to their time, place, population, and occasion: such is the case with eating while walking in public. Here at the temples and shrines on the first of January, everywhere you look you’ll find families eating and drinking as they walk around the outskirts of the holy premises. It’s tradition.

Izumo Taisha

In front of Lunaglaire a 900-meter-long wooden staircase slowly ramped up on three-meter-wide wooden pillars. She could hardly comprehend where trees could grow so thick in Japan, and – wherever they grew – how they got here to Izumo. The low angle of approach only made the staircase look longer and the shrine at the end seem taller. As the staircase itself hid the main hall’s pillared foundation from view, this massive shrine hall seemed to hang suspended in the air 45 meters above the ground.

 

With the sun unseen, twilight set in soft against grey winter clouds. There was no distinction between where one cloud began and another ended, there was simply one continent of clouds bringing the twilight sky in close to the earth.

Compared to a normal staircase, feline lunaire didn’t use as much effort to get up each step. Still, just looking at the length of the distance left ahead of her though brought on physical premonition of how tired she would be once she stood in front of the main hall of the shrine.

“Izumo” (出雲), where the world of deities and myths was supposed to connect to the common world, “Yamato” (大和).

Luna’s back and hips began to ache. She knew her paws would feel it tomorrow. Not too far away small birds flew in circles.

The smell of seaweed and saltwater lightly coming in underneath the more obvious woodland smells coming in from below. Cedar and spruce. The smell of the earth baking under the sun all afternoon and evening.

In the silence, silly curiosities amused her. Making this epic approach to the Izumo shrine was like getting off an international flight into new territory: Which side of the walkway should I walk on? Do I pass on the left or the right? Who cedes the right of way, those coming up or down the stairs? Or does it depend on celestial status? What takes the hand: mortal versus celestial status, or direction of passage on the mountain?

Up ahead, a figure passed one of the lamps at the end of the bridge. The brief absence of flame from Luna’s vision was enough to catch her attention, but she still couldn’t quite make out who the figure was at this distance 700 meters away. Who ever it was, they had it easy, coming gently down the stairs.

The feloon kept pace. 652 meters. Mercury wondered who this person, or identity, was. Did they come bearing all the worries she had? Did they come on the high or low tide of their personal challenges? Did they find themselves envying the success and opportunities others enjoy as if automated to do so… before they even had a chance to think before their judgement leaped forward?  647 meters. Did they understand all of the things they knew they should do, and yet find themselves unable to take action? Did they keep in touch with everyone as successfully as the world requests of us? 636 meters.

Where were they born? To whom? What did they think of their childhood? 625 meters. Who were the ones that got away? Who is/are the one now? 612 meters. Who was their first, and she didn’t mean first love, but their first real loss…first tragic grief? 589 meters. Is the world beyond the clouds free of anxiety? 544 meters. Why do the deities even bother coming down to Izumo for conference en masse? Indeed, do they even come? 499 meters.

What do they make of our new year? Does it stir them just as it does us? Are they overcome with traditions and nostalgia while also ecstatic with hope for the imminent future? 421 meters.  Do they yearn needlessly? 387 meters. Do aspirations serve them well, or are they simply useless vanities in a world without care? Is their world actually a world without care? 370 meters. Do they fear for dwindling resources? Are their bodies born to die? 313 meters.

What are their most cherished memories? Do deities feel joy, and – if so – what is it that stirs them, moves them, exhilarates them? 284 meters. How do they perceive the delights of the mundane world? Is there anything missing from their world that we enjoy without a second thought? 265 meters. How far would they go to aid their kin, or friend? 247 meters. What are their secret struggles? Which versions of themselves are played per social force and which are nurtured per social support? 209 meters.

Which story would entertain them again, and again, and again? Which story heard once has lasted them a lifetime? 188 meters. Have they ever taken a nap beneath the half-filtered sunlight of a maple tree sprouting leaves in early spring? 153 meters. What do they think of cats? 137 meters. What is that one joke they can tell and it always gets a laugh? Do deities tell jokes? 101 meters.

Suddenly, the deity stopped. Instinctively, Luna stopped silver in response.

It called out to her. “Can you stop?”

Perplexed, Pierrot of hair stood on her haunches. “Stop?” One ear twitched.

The deity again took up their gentle descent. “To stop thinking at me. I haven’t had a moment of peace since I stepped down from Izumo. Quite a shame if you consider this wonderful night view. If you have a thought or prayer for me, I’ll be audience to it, of course; but don’t you think it’s a little unfair to think so many questions at me knowing that you can’t hear my thoughtful responses in return?”

“I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t make it through half of your questions before the next one came on.”

Luna sped up to the feet of the deity and rubbed the length of her spine across the deity’s shins. The mercurial one didn’t have a good answer, so they just plopped down, belly out.

Benzaiten smiled and bent down, petting the soft belly of the beast. “Well, now you know. See, we can speak just fine. This way we’re both given an opportunity to voice ourselves. Now, which question do you want me to answer first?”

The Lune thought for a moment. She lifted a paw and dabbed at the deity’s petting hand. Her tail made whimsy above the wooden staircase.

Benzaiten sat down, letting her legs hang off the edge of the giant staircase. The clouds began to thin leaving just hints of the brightest stars and planets. Loonaire gingerly crawled into Benzaiten’s lap, but not without first tapping Benzaiten’s lap to test the firmness of this soon-to-be nest. She swirled up into a moonish reflection.

“Well, let’s start with this one: What do you think of cats?”

 

Kamakura: Kannon and Benzaiten

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Prelude from an Intermission

“A cure for false senses of fatalism. A conical, golden homage via Fibonacci’s sequence’s marriage to Indra’s net. Like a lotus blooming in a muddy pond, the first buds of spring bursting through winter’s last snow: a fresh mint sprig rising from whip cream captivity. Accompanying the mint and completing the ikebana, a fresh raspberry. Then it comes into view, the golden form and structure holding it all together. The form is surprisingly thick and soft. What is the sound of one hand clapping? Answer: crepe souffles. This wrap approximates that break from duality as good as any. In between the crepe folds, a cushion of cream, then a layer of matcha lined along the spiral fold. You’re pulled into a vortex of intertextuality. Derrida’s hauntology became the central focus of a book chapter we studied while investigating the presence and importance of ghosts in post “3.11” nuclear catastrophe literature in Japan. Then, POW!!! A block of tiramisu. The shape of a sugar cube, the crunch and give of chicharron, the flavor of tiramisu. These flavors and these textures…a sneaky uppercut delivered by a fatty cherub. You didn’t see it coming, but it was right there beneath your nose in front of you this whole time. Then another layer of dense, freshly whipped sweet cream (not the aerosol version). Delicate and dreamy, you’d be tempted to bathe in it. If you rearrange the letters in Kannon Coffee you get, “Instant K.O.” Another galaxy of matcha glitter rings around the fluffy void and suddenly SMACK! CRACKLE! CRUNCH! A cereal asteroid belt crosses the cream flowing between the folds of this ‘approximately-crepe-souffles.’ It’s a rocky ride, but you keep crunching and smacking. The asteroids somehow stay nestled into the conical confines of the crepe wrap. To think that all this Fibonacci mayhem and ultra-culinary-violence is contained by a paper wrapper, like a shrapnel bomb of fragile sweets wrapped in Christmas present paper. The clock is ticking, and the time between now and your imminent enlightandsweetwhipment diminishing like sand sauntering into a black hole.

It happened in a flash,…it’s bright…mabushii!…you lift an arm to protect your eyes but it’s no use. Kannon has redeemed your soul through their ultrapatisserieviolence con passione. The last bites await you, a tiramisu reminiscent of the texture of fudge, matcha which grasps and clutches before giving, and a final pillow so fresh and so creamy. All, all tucked neatly into a crepe. It’s unclear where it ends. You are left with no choice but to ride out the spiral. Nebula on the left – Orion on the right…And, all at once, your feet are stepping forward…you’re already a block away from Kannon Coffee…You must have blacked out, unconscious for the past minute and a half. What a fearsome breach into paradise. What awesome power. Enlightenment is not all pink roses piped on cupcakes; it seems.”

Part VI

Luna glared tin. A neon light flickered. The tubes imprinted “Cabaret” deep into the darkness. Pink sat heavy in her sockets. She moved on. Empty alley ways about as wide as a modern minivan bent inwards on each other. Box shaped houses stacked on box shaped bars, taverns, cabarets, camera shops, “Snack” bars, Dagashi snack shops, ramen stands, Showa era diners, government offices, and post offices. Boxes on boxes all the way up to the side lit sky. Sky stackers. If it weren’t for these miraculous feats of human ingenuity, the heavens might fall and crush us. Black mold, rust, and water marks unified the boxish cacophony.

In a flicker, metal crashed on rooftop several blocks over. Mercury disappeared beneath a trash can and clutched onto the space between the bottom of the trash bin and the moist concrete beneath her.

Her nose at attention. Post-crash, a quick scatter of silence, and then muffled hums and dins returned from inside the cabaret and jazz boxes. Sil very much preferred silence. Footsteps hid easy in between the beats and cymbal strikes. There’s very little more dangerous than white noise. It silences minutiae. It stifles attention. Its curtain makes light the heaviest footsteps.

Breeze stopped tickling her whiskers. Oni was close. Close enough to block the wind. Not hard to imagine, given that it stood 9 meters tall.

A bar door opened. The ground beneath the Lune appeared to bend.

With the breeze blocked, the jazz unhinged, and the view obscured from beneath the trash bin, Luna had little to work with. The stillness of the air – though – meant that the Oni was practically on top of her, standing still where the ground bent in like a trampoline.

Then it hit her. Agarwood. Sandalwood. It wasn’t carried on the breeze. It was falling from the creature next to her. The ground in front of the trash strained more beneath the beast. The trash can itself began to slip downwards, and Feloon’s heart inflated.

The ground snapped back and wobbled. A rush of air pulled scents upwards from all directions. The lid of the trash bin flew off leaving a trail of debris. In the wake of the violence, the breeze returned. The smell of temple incense vanished. The ground reclaimed itself. The demon was gone.

Part VII

“Adults, 400 yen. Children, 200 yen,” read the sign.

Huck and Gin approached the gate. Curiosity hung on the gatekeeper’s face, and filled every wrinkle radiating outwards from her smile. “One adult?” she asked.

“One adult,” Huck lifted Gin up. “What’s the entrance fee for penguins?”

Without pause, she replied, “Penguins enter free.”

“You hear that, Gin?” Huck asked. Gin, of course, played stuffed. No need to draw problematic attention here.

“Funny little creature you got there.” The gatekeeper said. Then she turned to her younger colleague who collected tickets. “What a cute children’s toy!” Gin grimaced.

Huck paid up, and they walked out into the opening gardens at Hasedera in Kamakura. No matter how many times Huck came here, it was always beautiful enough to restore a few layers of hope, and dispel a few modern curses: apathy, malaise, over-fullness. The gardens opened up slowly. Among the attractions, legions of selfie taking tourists. Few greater places to people watch, than well preserved historical temple complexes. Nevertheless, behind the glare and flare, their faces do light up with sincere happiness which they’ll pass on to others.

Huck’s internal monologue broke. Splashes, sips, and gulps broke humanity’s spell over him. Those sounds only meant one thing. And it was bad.

“Gin! Get away from the pond!” Huck yelled. The lower echelons of group-selfie tourists suddenly broke rank and stood stupefied by Huck’s holler. What they saw next only added to their confusion. Gin’s beak moved like a motor at the mouth of the pond, drinking up whatever mossy essence he could. He knew he had to be quick, with Huck on his tail. Huck reached for Gin, who was bent over a wooden bridge above the Koi fish pond, and grabbed onto Gin’s tail.

“Gin! This is not the time!” Huck said through clenched teeth. With full force, he lifted the chubby penguin backwards out of the pond. Gin gasped for air.

“Well when is the time? We’ve been in transit for over two hours and I haven’t had anything to drink since we left.” Gin brushed moss off of his torso and shook moisture off his head sending an echo of vibrations down through layers of chub. “It’s hot – I’m tired – here’s water – why not drink?”

Huck picked up Gin and held him like a football at his elbow. “Why not? Two reasons: One, if other tourists realize you’re a real penguin – we’re French toast. Two, have you seen the size of those Koi fish?”

Gin looked hungrily over Huck’s arm. “Yeah, looks like quite the feast.”

“Yep, and that’s precisely what they’re thinking when they see you. C’mon. Up we go. You can drink at the ponds up ahead where massive carp aren’t sharking around; but only if you can do it on the sly.”

Part VIII

“Let me tell you about the worst date I’ve spent in my life. We spent nearly 10 hours together in near silence. When I tried to make small talk, the only responses I got were defensive, rude, and judgmental. They also cut off any intention of continuing the conversation. It was immediately obvious that something was off when I met up with her at the train station before getting on the bus. Nevertheless, I thought it would be best to feel things out and not make any assumptions or jump to rash conclusions without talking things out. Then we got on the bus. I put my hand out for her to grab. She swiftly touched my hand only to pull hers back saying, “your hand is freezing!” That was the only thing she said to me on the entire forty-five minute bus ride to Disney. Her hands folded in her lap. Mine folded in my lap. Both of us already understanding that we were no longer a couple, and that this was going to be a very long day. I tried to make the best of it. She did not.

Apparently, she thought that my character was too, “take it easy.” After the day in public ended and we finally had the chance to talk in moderate privacy, I asked her if something had happened to explain the feel and mood that oppressed the day. She brought up our previous date, the one a month earlier, two weeks before her national certification exam test for architects. Her first objection was that she was under the impression that I “hadn’t even googled” the architecture certification test she was preparing for. I suppose, instead of asking her many questions about her work and about her journey preparing for this test, I should have just looked it up on google instead. Apparently, I shouldn’t have asked about it when we spent time together. Rather, the fact that I asked her many times in person about the test which seemed so important to her was evidence that I hadn’t googled the topic.

The second objection: I asked her if she would set aside a little time to take a breather leading up to the exam, or perhaps set aside an evening to spend with one of her friends. This was the nail in the coffin, the straw that broke the camel’s back, the pinch of salt the blew the sommelier’s palette. To her, this meant that I didn’t understand the severity of the situation. It was precisely that moment, apparently, that she decided she no longer wanted to date me. Since we didn’t see each other for a month after that moment, she might’ve carried that sentiment inside until we met up on Christmas Eve to go to Disney Land. Who knows how such a feeling could have evolved over those five weeks.

I can see things from her side. I only wish she had communicated those sentiments earlier, much earlier, instead of agreeing to spend a whole day with me at Disney Sea a month later. The benefit of not drawing conclusions and assumptions based on conversations within one’s own head is that the poisons we are capable of conjuring don’t colonize our own psyches. The outcome – us breaking up – would probably not have changed. To be frank, we had gotten to know each other well enough to know that we simply weren’t the best match. I knew it, she knew it. It was brief, but we tried; and that’s ok. That is precisely why neither of us deserved to spend such a miserable day together at one of the most magical places on earth: Tokyo Disney Sea. They fact that I was still impressed with the theme park despite the company I kept is a surprising testament to the quality of Disney Sea. I’d like to go back with partners who project less of their own dark and twisted fantasies onto the miraculous canvas about us. As Mickey Mouse said during the final show-stopper event, “To think that imagination could be this powerful!” Agreed, Mickey. Agreed. I’ve certainly been the one inventing and imagining and conjuring and festering inside without actually talking to the person directly about it. It’s not pretty, that side of imagination, and the real-world outcomes are even less pleasing. Hopefully we both find a way to gain from this experience as we go our separate ways…”

Part VIIII

The great felune made swift scurries from the corner of one alley end to another. Around each corner another “Snack Bar,” another ramen shop, and other futuristic expectations explored through the steam punky means available only to the late 1950’s. With a fine breeze, she could finally make paws and whiskers out of her surroundings. Chicken, Pork, ginger, garlic, and green onion held fast onto everything. The dusty incense left a faint trail despite the heavy hog presence. She hoped that the funk would help disguise her own scent, and keep the Oni guessing.

No matter which trail she wove, or which traces she followed, this cramped neighborhood continued extending in all directions. In each alleyway, the same things: bars, cabarets, ramen shops, retail shops, snack shops, and pubs. More than anything, though, ramen shops. Mercury had never had ramen, but the smell of it everywhere started to work magic on her appetite and she craved food. Was this part of the Oni’s intent? Lure her out with food, only to catch her when she’s preying about? It was too dangerous to hunt out in the open, she’d only be exposed. She couldn’t lose this game. She tensed up. Luna glare held onto the ground below her as if the sky would swallow her whole up. Then, the answer came to her on the breeze. The Oni certainly left trails of sandalwood and agarwood, but what if all of those traces weren’t just left by the Oni. If this was Japan of a future passed, there should be a temple or two around even in this dingy night-life neighborhood.

Luna glared. The Oni was only an “oni” as per the rules of the game at hand, and she was only prey as far as the tenets of the game at play. It betrayed both of their natures.

Luna considered her options. At this time of night, she couldn’t risk running silver about the neon lit streets. The Oni would catch her glow from afar in an instant. Perhaps that was the Oni’s intention – bring her to a setting which disadvantaged her nature. Oni must have forgotten that the moon also has a dark side.

Our filoon lunaired. Nothing left a shadow as it ran along the edges, corners, and alleyways in search of temples.

Part X

Huck and Gin arrived at the top of the temple complex. Outside the main hall for Kannon, a wide cauldron, filled with ash, had sticks of lit incense sticking straight up. The smoke from each stick of incense gathered and bundled into a mass beneath the roof over the cauldron. As the cloud outgrew its nest, trails of smoke slipped over the edges and up towards the heavens. The scent of agarwood and sandalwood filled Huck and Gin’s noses.

The two of them passed the incense and approached the main Kannon hall. The darkness inside the hall was only emphasized by the clarity of the early winter sky outside. Once inside the entrance, their eyes took a moment to adjust.

“Remind me, what should I know about Kannon’s?” Gin asked.

“Well, they’re the kind of person that could reach the peak of a mountain all by themselves, but they decide to help others reach the peak instead. Kannon in Japan are typically feminine or androgynous bodhisattvas. Some call them “goddesses of mercy,” and they’re quite popular. In a land populated with male deity statues, it’s nice to see Kannon around. That’s pretty much all I know, that and that there are a wide variety of Kannon’s out there to learn about.”

The two of them approached the imposing golden statue. About its feet, typical Buddhist temple sights: a chair for reading sutras, a drum for rituals, two massive golden lotus plants – one on each side of the Kannon, candles. The statue seemed to glow in the darkness as their eyes adjusted.

As each of them made eye contact with the Kannon, their mouths dropped wide open. In awe, each of them exclaimed:

“A mustached Kannon?” Huck said.

“Eleven heads?” Gin said

“A penguin?” Kannon said. This may be the first time ever in which Hasedera Kannon’s mouth opened up.

“Really? I’ve never seen such a mustache on a Kannon” Huck continued in disbelief.

“And who are you to judge? Why wouldn’t I have a mustache?” Kannon said.

A mustache?” Gin exclaimed. “No, let’s see here, you’ve got 1, 2, 3…” Gin began counting.

“It’s not bad, I just didn’t expect you to have facial hair,” Huck said.

“Not my problem then, is it? Don’t type cast based on previous experiences. Simple as that,” the Kannon crossed their six arms.

“11 mustaches, 22 if you count the fact that each mustache is stylistically split in half, 33 if you count the little soul patch that goes with each mustache. Thir-ty-three.” Gin’s eyes opened wide. “Huck, do you think I could grow a mustache like that?”

“No, you’re an Adelie penguin. Adelies don’t have –”

“Hey, did I not just say, ‘Don’t type cast’?” the Kannon laughed. “In all the years this statue has been here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a penguin come to the hall. I’m honored.”

Gin bowed, one arm tucked beneath and one arm in the air. “It’s my pleasure to bestow greatness upon you.”

Luna glare peeked her head out of Huck’s backpack. “What’s so special about penguins?”

The Kannon’s eyes grew wide, “A kitten just addressed me?”

“Hey, now who’s type casting?” Huck said.

“Kittens come in here at night all the time. They just never talk to me. They talk to just about everyone else. They come in and talk to the monks, the people who clean up the temple grounds, and the staff. Now and again they chat with the tourists. They just never talk to me.”

“Maybe it’s the mustaches,” Gin said.

“It’s not the mustaches,” Luna said.

“This might be the best visit I’ve had in ages. How about we celebrate this visit? I want to be able remember this rare occasion once you’re gone.”

“Hey, we’ve only just arrived,” Huck said.

“Exactly,” said Kannon. “Most people just arrive, stare blankly at my face, and then move on through the temple grounds. I don’t usually have much time with my guests.”

“Don’t the animals talk to you?” Luna asked.

“Sure. Just about everyone still talks to me – except humans and cats,” the Kannon sat down. “I think it’s just one of those ages. I try not to take it personally.”

Silence overtook the group. No one knew how to respond. The growing silence only made it harder to find something to say. The statue’s glow was truly something to behold. Even sitting down, it still towered several meters over the three visitors. Luna slipped out of Huck’s backpack and scurried around the floor. The cool ground felt refreshing after napping against Huck’s warm back. Luna took in the beauty of the hall, and the iconography of the Kannon. She spoke first.

“Well, what would you like to do to mark this special occasion?”

The Kannon’s face went blank. When visitors do spend time in the hall, the Kannon focuses intently on attending to relieving their suffering and answering their wishes. For ages, day after day the Kannon listened to peoples’ desires and hopes. Now, someone at long last was lending Kannon an ear.

The Kannon stood back up and re-assumed its elegant pose.

Luna’s ears twitched.

“What do I want…” the Kannon closed their eyes. Years of standing in place, waiting for visitors to come…

A sly grin came across the giant’s face.

“Onigokko,” whispered the Kannon.

“Huh?” Gin looked around for an explanation but received none.

Luna’s face overcome with fear, and Huck’s overcome with nervous excitement.

“Onigokko?” Huck asked the Kannon. “Here, on the temple grounds?”

“So says the group who drank water from our ponds!” The Kannon laughed. “No, I’ll set the stage. Each of you will play against me in a different place and at a different time. The game doesn’t end until I’ve found each one of you.”

“Isn’t there a way for us to win?” Gin asked.

“Not really.”

“Not even if we catch you by your tail?” Luna asked.

“Don’t have a tail.”

“How about your mustaches?” Gin asked.

“…sure, why not.”

“Gin! His mustaches? Are you crazy? Why don’t we just go nuts and change it to their eyelashes then, huh?” Huck didn’t know how to convey to Gin that they were dealing with a divine being of immense power, not just your average neighborhood pal.

“No, I like the penguin’s idea. If you can somehow grasp my mustache without me noticing, then you all deserve to win. I’ll probably find you first, anyway. Shall we begin?”

“Sure, we might as well get started,” Huck said, but there was no one there to respond. There was no Kannon, no hall, no Gin, and no Feloona Glaire. Instead, Huck found himself standing on a hill in a park with a clear view of sprawling cities and webs of railways leading up to the silhouette of Mount Fuji far in the distance against a rose-colored sun in set. Opposing the sun stood innumerable glossy apartment complexes. Each reflected the colors of the sunset back at the hazy horizon. Bridges tethered the buildings together 5, 10, and 15 floors up. Below them, massive mall complexes shrouded in blankets of green gardens and unnaturally abundant foliage. Hidden beneath the forced foliage, unnatural illumination.

If Huck wanted to succeed in hiding from the Kannon, standing out here in the open sun wasn’t his best bet. Entering the materialist madness of FutakoTamagawa was… Still, this was not the Futakotamagawa that he knew. Everything that Huck disliked about Japan used to be summed up with a bow by this station-mall-living complex. It was the perfect expression of capitalism unhinged. By the looks of it now, it evolved into an even more imposing beast. Whenever now was.

Part XI

“Den of Odin.” Gin took in a whiff of air. Spices. Butter. Chocolate. Popcorn. Flavored popcorn. Nothing of oden. Definitely nothing of ‘Odin’s Oden’ in Hachioji. The popcorn didn’t smell bad, though. It actually smelled pretty good. Gin followed his beak. Above the “Den of Odin” sign, a massive robotic statue of Odin singing about his various flavored popcorns. Smiling teenagers worked the stand. They handily took on wave after wave of cravenous guests. Gin could only imagine how the smell of those popcorn flavors would get eternally stained into the employees work clothes.

He turned around. A veritable Vesuvius fumed against the azure above.

A volcano? Where’ve I gone to? Gin thought. Looking around, he saw all matter of impossibles collaged together: a fairy tale version of an old Italian city, a fairy tale version of an Arabian palace, a fairy tale version of Mayan ruins in Mexico, a fairy tale version of “2,000 leagues beneath sea” at sea level, a western European castle sitting between the Volcano and a broad spread lake which turns into a New York City harbor circa the early 1900’s. A giant dog and a giant mouse smiled wide as they posed for photos with families. Exuberant song and dance across the lake somehow lifted the energy here, now. Wherever that was.

Part XII

Kannon could not believe what laid before their eyes. Bundles of incense in numbers they’ve never seen. The sustaining scent of sandalwood and agarwood was so heavy that Kannon could no longer sense the heavy ramen smell that previously oppressed everything else. The Kannon’s stomach growled. Kannon wanted to continue the game, but they couldn’t let such an opportunity pass. In all their ages, never before had they seen such a feast laid out before them. Given the circumstances, when would that happen again?

Kannon took a seat in the courtyard of what appeared to be an ordinary neighborhood temple, in this unrealized future of the past to which they called upon for this game of hide and seek. Kannon bathed in the aromas. Years of standing tall, shouldering other’s suffering…

Kannon felt warm, as tension relaxed. The denseness of the incense obscured their vision. The extremes of the temple structure’s roof and gates stuck out, but the courtyard entrance was even swallowed up. That was good. A little privacy was just what the Kannon needed. How long had it been? Standing there for all to see?

Kannon’s shoulders felt warm. Some sort of peace seemed to vibrate from inside out. Waves of relaxation came over Kannon.

“I didn’t even know I wanted this,” Kannon thought, stroking their mustaches. “But now that I have it…”

Kannon’s eyes suddenly opened wide. They listened deeply to the peace reverberating throughout their body. Kannon looked at their own hands, folded beneath them in their lap and on their knees.

Luna glare purred devilishly. Wrapped around Kannon’s shoulders, she continued stroking Kannon’s mustaches.

Kannon looked at the incredible amount of incense being offered up in the courtyard. They took in a deep breath, enjoying the relaxing warmth offered by the felune. Kannon closed their eyes and smiled, “Thanks.”

“What do you mean? You just lost, didn’t you?” Luna lightly scratched Kannon’s cheek with a gnarly side tooth.

“Of course. Can I not still be thankful?” Kannon closed their eyes. “Filoonaire, I know the conditions for ending our game have been cleared…but, can I have just two more minutes before pulling everyone back to Hasedera?”

There was no response. Just a deep purr on Kannon’s shoulders. Getting all this incense gathered from the various temples in this otherworldly neighborhood was no small feat, and to accomplish it without being found by Kannon was a true feat.

The Kannon didn’t bother waking the mercurial. They both deserved just a little bit more of a rest. Besides, Kannon was still chasing both Huck and Gin far, far away. If they found out that the group had won already, Kannon wouldn’t get to fully enjoy their game of Onigokko. A little more fun wouldn’t hurt, would it? At least enough to be unforgettable was all Kannon was asking for.

Part XIII

A peculiar silence reigned over Odin’s Oden. Huck, Luna, and Gin were mid-feast, and third beer. Finn, reading in the corner, as per usual. Odin, attending to the guests, as per usual. Manny, not to be seen. Without the white noise, Odin’s Oden took on a mildly sacred tone. The murmur of simmering oden foods, the din of dishes and glasses. Perhaps this was the oden den’s true face, as it was before the monologuing maniac arrived. Odin didn’t seem in any worse or better mood, though; judging by Odin alone, it was as if nothing was different at all.

Luna pulled some squid off a skewer. “So, in the end, how was your holiday hell-land in Futako tamagawa?”

Huck rested his beer glass on the table and stared at its emptiness. “It was pretty rough, to be honest. As I hid among the ritzy department stores, I could see Kannon searching for me…looking behind plants, asking customers if they had seen me, …I even watched them take a break to eat some freshly made taiyaki…”

“Bet they won’t get a chance to do that for a while,” Gin said.

“Exactly. And they probably won’t get a chance to play hide-and-seek like this for…who knows how long. When I saw how happy they were eating taiyaki, I decided to milk as much as possible out of the experience.”

“What, you guys go shopping together?” Luna asked.

“Shopping? Can you imagine me, enjoying shopping at Futakotamagawa?”

“Nope.” Gin answered.

“I just did my best to keep an eye on Kannon while staying safely out of sight. It was harder than I thought. They’re a curious beast.”

“Bodhisattva.” Gin said.

“Sorry, curious bodhisattva. Odin, could we get another round?” Huck asked.

“あいよ,” Odin grabbed the guests’ empty glasses, rinsed them out, and poured a new set of draft.

“But, after a while, I just couldn’t stomach the department store any longer, so I just walked right up to Kannon, tapped them on the shoulder and asked if we could go home.”

“What, it just ended like that?” Gin asked.

“Was he just waiting for you to come find him?” Luna asked.

Odin placed a new draft in front of each guest.

“Cheers, folks” Luna raised her glass.

“Cheers” Huck and Gin joined in.

Huck continued, “I think so. It seems that, somehow, by time I caught sight of Kannon eating taiyaki, you had already caught his mustache, Filoone. To be honest, I think they knew where I was hiding, and they knew that I wanted them to enjoy their time outside of that dark temple hall. Even so, I think that Kannon had pretty much gotten their fill and was just as ready to leave the cavern of crooked-capitalist-chimeras as I was by the end. How about you Gin? How’d Disney sea end up?”

“It was a little overwhelming. Animals of sizes and proportions I’ve never seen were terrorizing the area. Tourists were sequestered in small dark rooms and subjected to computerized musical propaganda. Other tourists were locked in a small chamber where they were roasted by a sea turtle with incredibly caustic humor. Some tourists were even strapped into a some sort of motion sickness torture device…one of which railed right into the center of the volcano…I don’t think I’ll ever forget their screams…it was horrible!…that’s when I tried to find Kannon. I rushed around like Alice with her head cut off looking for them. At some point, I think it was in the Arabian palace area, I caught a glimpse of Kannon. Kannon’s shoulders were a bit broader, and their skin a bit bluer…but when I saw that mustache I was sure it was Kannon, so I raced over to them, leaped up, and grabbed onto their mustache like all hell.”

Huck, Luna, and Odin exchanged worried glances. Finn turned a page in their book.

“Kannon, or – who I thought was Kannon -, screamed and thrashed about, making threats to turn me into a monkey or something, and then I took a deep look at the man’s face…let’s just say that I got the wrong man. The mustachioed blue man chased me right out of the palace. And that’s when I saw Kannon.”

“Good thing you found him, don’t think you’d be much a match for a genie,” Luna interjected.

“A what?” Gin asked.

“A genie.” Odin answered.

“Oh, well, the Jeany seemed to give up the chase once he chased me across the bridge into the next area. But anyway, so then I saw the real Kannon, right? I started waving my arms and jumping up and down, shouting out to him.”

“Hard to imagine you jumping, honestly,” Huck said between swigs.

“And I caught his attention!” Gin kept up his story, ignoring Huck entirely. “It was so peculiar. The Kannon just looked so happy. I imagine my face was one of total dread. Anyway, we started walking towards each other.”

“Well, I’m glad you two were reunited. Sounds like a hellish place.” Luna said.

“Tell me about it,” Huck said quietly, and took a swig.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. I was about 10 feet away from Kannon when someone grabbed my neck from behind. They yanked me upwards and ran off towards the Mayan Jungle. I wiggled around, trying to loosen their grip, but –”

“Who was it?” Huck asked.

“A schoolgirl. Nine, maybe ten years old.” Gin answered.

“Oof. No way she was gonna let go of you, huh?” Luna pierced a new cut of simmered konyakku and placed it in her bowl of assorted oden goods.

“It was heartwarming, though, watching Kannon chase after us throughout the various worlds. If I had known that the best way to hide from Kannon would be in the clutches of a little girl, I would have signed up sooner.”

“How did the penguin-napping end?” Huck asked.

“Eventually, the girl found her parents, and told them about her new “toy”…which, by the way, I’m still a little bitter about…but anyway, she explained how she found this cute “stuffed animal” outside of the Jenny’s castle. By the time her parents figured out that she’d stolen me from somewhere, Kannon was able to catch up and explain that I was ‘his toy’ …which, by the way, I still object to…but anyway, Kannon was somehow able to smooth things over and the girl, albeit reluctantly, handed me over to Kannon. So, effectively, Kannon won. But, that little girl really gave Kannon a run for their money!”

Odin poured himself a glass of warm amazake and held it softly between his palms. He looked down into the thick and cloudy brew. “Sounds like you had quite the day in Kamakura.”

“Well, after Hasedera we didn’t have much time to do anything else really.” Huck said.

Luna cleaned her whiskers. “But, it was worth it, wasn’t it?”

“It was. I hope our celebration of the occasion will last long in Kannon’s memory,” Huck said.

“Don’t look so long,” Odin said. “It’s not like you won’t see Kannon again. Afterall, you’ll be in Saitama soon, right?”

“Huh?” Gin asked.

“Last time you all came in here, that was the good news? Right? You found a steadier job in Saitama?” Odin asked.

“Yep, when we move back to Japan in March, we’ll be moving to Saitama – most likely.”

“If that’s the case, I hear there are a few Kannon hanging around Kawagoe. You should stop by them and say hello,” Odin said. “There’s the Shusse Kannon, the Cute Kannon…”

“…the cute Kannon?…” Gin asked.

“I kid you not.” Odin smiled.

“That’s good news – we’ll be working near Kawagoe – way out there in the boonies of Saitama.” Huck looked up at the menu above the bar.

“Boonies? It may be far from here, but Kawagoe is still a bigger city than where you’re from. It’s even more of a city than your college town.” Luna said.

“Fried rice and dumplings, please,” Huck ordered from Odin and then turned to Luna, “True, but when you compare it to the next biggest metropolis nearby…”

“What, Tokyo?” Gin said. “Come one, that’s not fair. The Kanto metropolis makes even New York look like a mid-western state’s capitol city.”

“Exactly. And that’s why it makes a little city center like Kawagoe look that much smaller,” Huck said. “But – don’t get me wrong – I’m looking forward to it. I’ve wanted this job for a while now.”

“Tokyo, Yokohama, now Saitama…we’re making our rounds in Kanto, aren’t we?” Gin said.

Luna glared at Gin, “What are you talking about? This is your first time in Japan.”

“I’ve seen my fair share of the area,” Gin said. “I’m excited to see what Saitama offers.”

Finn turned another page in their book.

Huck took advantage of the silence. “I guess this is as good a time as any…Speaking of news, I’ve got some bad news.”

“What, you and your girlfriend broke up?” Odin asked as he placed a warm plate of fried rice and a platter of dumplings down on the bar.

“No, that’s probably for the best. Good news, I think. The bad news is that I finally went to the doctor recently to get a check up about the pain in my stomach.” Huck took a swig of beer and devoured a dumpling.

Without Manny around, there was nothing to hide the loud smacking and juicy chewing from Huck’s mouth. Finn’s eyes looked up from his book.

Odin kept his eyes down as he cleaned his wok.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like a chronic disease or fatal condition or anything.” Huck continued. “But it’s pretty bad.”

Luna jumped into Huck’s lap and curled into a ball. Gin stood tall on his bar stool and put an arm on Huck’s shoulder. “What is it?”

“I’ve apparently got a book inside me.”

Gin, Luna, and Odin exchanged silent looks. Finn stared at the words in his book, not reading a thing.

Huck continued. “It came up on the X-ray. It’s been sitting there, growing instead of digesting in my system for …who knows how long now… The doctor thinks that it’s been in there for a few years now. It’s not even good, it’s pretty bad. He says it’s crass, poorly organized, and aimless.”

Finn snapped their book shut. “Odin, whisky please. 5, straight.”

Odin, still cleaning up the kitchen, looked up and nodded to Finn.

Luna started pawing at Huck’s middle-aged midsection. “So, you’ve got a bad book inside you. Big whoop. If you talk around, I think you’ll find that a lot of people walk around with shitty books inside them.”

“No, that’s the thing, …if we just leave it in there, it’ll only get worse. He says that I’ve got to act fast if I don’t want it to become something terrible. I don’t want to grow old with a terrible book festering inside me.”

Gin sat back down on the bar stool and folded their arms on the bar. “Isn’t there some kind of way to just purge the bad book out of your system?”

“The healthiest was is to just write it out, he says. It’s already gone beyond the stage where a solid hurl, vomit, or wretch would do the trick.”

Odin pulled five whisky glasses down from the rack above. “Well, here’s to growing pains. Drink up everyone. Drink’s on Finn.”

The doors slid open and a gust of mid-winter air rushed in. Finn buttoned up his jacket.

The sound of hard heels hit the den’s wooden floor.

Luna leaped from Huck’s lap and back onto her stool.

The sliding doors closed with a silent tuck.

Odin, “Gin, have you met Benzaiten?”

“We made brief acquaintance in Kamakura,” Benzaiten said. Gin blushed.

“Good to see you, Ben.” Huck said.

Odin looked to Finn, “Finn, can we make it six?”

Finn nodded, “Of course. Pull down another glass.”

“What’s the occasion?” Benzaiten asked.

“Good luck,” Luna said.

Benzaiten grinned and took a seat at the end of the bar next to Gin.

Back from Abandoned

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I

“I’ve decided that the 1 in 31 stands for 1st. And 1sts. My first year on the other side of 30. First year of major jobs after finishing my master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages. First move abroad in my 30’s. First time seriously dating in a couple of years. First time living in Yokohama. First time teaching at a Japanese university. First time traveling and living with a penguin. First time taking on a work of music as immaculate as Bach’s Chaconne in D minor (originally for violin). First year in life without any of my grandparents on the earth. First time going to a public evacuation shelter due to ‘inclement’ weather. First time eating tempura matsutake mushrooms on top of a bowl of rice drizzled with sweet and salty ‘tare’ sauce. My god. Imagine diving off a diving board straight down twenty feet into a mountainous pile of sun baked autumn leaves only to find that instead of resting in a bed of burnt hues the crisp crust gives way and you find yourself instead suspended against  an upward draft of earthy aromas before you open your eyes and find yourself chewing on the most delightful paradox of satisfyingly fleshy yet mildly sweet umami brimmed crunch. LSD. 2CI. LED. Blue Light Eyes. Don’t need none of that if you can give me just one more of those lightly battered, gently deep fried, savory textural masterpieces. (Scream it from the rooftops, Stevie). But first, something to ground me, pull me back in from this astral projected state. 1st time that cheap and greasy food has lifted me to the astral plane. Yep, it’s a year of firsts.

  • AJ”

The fool moon, grinning like a lunatic and wired on Yokohama’s electric devotion, dripped silver along the streets. Gin shifted under it’s weight and pull. Each step was a tight rope act. A bag of groceries on the left hip, bouncing at odds with his end.  A work bag slung over his right. The peculiar shifts in weight caused his straw hat to tip this way and that, splashes and pitter patters of silver lighting the brim. Luna glare rolled along the rubber cat’s cradle strung out above. A fine cat’s cradle for Alice, were she still with us.

“Well now…think I’m lost.” It came from the path behind. Startled, Gin swiftly looked up and spun around. The grocery bag bounced awkwardly against his hip. The work bag groaned.

An older man, dressed in Rugby world cup regalia (including a brand new Rugby World Cup baseball cap), had his head tilted slightly to the side as it nodded up and down. He stood in the middle of the road, lightly unstable. “Must be that pure ole loon air,” he said.

“Well, the rugby stadium is in the other direction, I can tell you that,” Gin said.

“Oh, this? I’m just a volunteer,” the man replied. “I’m too old to run about the field.” He pulled his fanny pack up and over his shoulder. It hung like a bungee jumper post parabolic climax. As soon as he opened the main hull, a horde of crumpled receipts and lint like material grasped for dear life at zippers edge less they should fall to certain death.

Gin felt mercurial gaze drip on his bald head from above. Luna glare. He waited for the older man to retrieve the searchable, but he itched beneath the social etiquette – hoping to find his hat and clean himself of the madness misting electric from the wires above.

“Ha!” in the man’s right hand a neon ticket stood proud. Even though it was 8:23 p.m., the green neon ticket stood goblit in pale light. In bold text, the ticket read: Volunteer food voucher.

“Just trying to cash in on my work today. You see the volunteer tent?”

“Nope. I live just down this road, and I can tell you that there’s nothing else this way but homes, gardens and…just about that really.”

“…Must have overshot it,” The older man added. He became increasingly lost for words as the capricious beams soaked in. “Hey, your Japanese – ain’t – bad.” His voice trailed off the beaten path.

“Hmm?”

“Nothing.”

“You lost?”

“Yep.”

Gin looked at his groceries, work bag. He slowly put them down on the roadside next to where his straw hat fell off his head. “I’ll help you get back to the main part of town. It’s not far.”

The man just nodded, as before. Head and step, tilted-lilted less.

II

Gin returned back down the alleys away cashing in Apollo’s nuissancerey for that of the grin feloone sprawling out belly boasted at the heavens. He picked up his things from the road crevice. Groceries. Work bag. Straw hat. The first, indifferent. The second, effete. The third, long awaiting a warm crown after being abandoned to the chill of night.

Tonight, winter drew it’s first breath. The song of crickets froze mid-air. The city drones slowed to a whisper. Gnarly tailed alley cats nested next to each other like yarn balls behind bushes. “Old man winter.” At it’s inception, it’s hard to see the doom and gloom stitched into that misnomer. The end of winter is as unnoticeable as the instant we fall into deep sleep. It’s impossible to catch winter’s end, exactly; but, that first breath is unmistakable.

Just like the cicadaeian rhythymns of late summer, or the tempura matsutake mushrooms of fall, the birth of winter stimulates uniquely. Bright lights. Clean air. Comforts only available during the cold. Packets of onsen style bath mix for your tiny apartment bathtub. Walking into a coffee shop from the cold only to find that you’re now in Guam and there’s nowhere to put your jacket and sweater not to mention there’s nothing to do about the other two layers you’ve got tucked in. The sound of ridiculous winter drinks being made. Nuttier than thou art Plum chocolate salted caramel slurpaccinos and the constant flow of canned Christmas over steamed sugar buns. Three xmas songs: the one this xmas, last xmas, and the one that’s about it’s gonna be a very special Christmas for me.

After winter draws its first breath and chippers into the cheer of things, the temperature drops ten degrees. The walk home is just a little further, the groceries a little heavier. Luna glare clearer. Closer.

The desire for noodles in hot soup higher.

Somewhere in the body there’s miscommunication between the hot-soup-noodle appetite increase come late November and the body’s decision to flood the chakras, channels, and sinuses alike with mucous matter. There are few greater frustrations than wanting to properly slurp up noodles covered in thick soup only to find that your nasal passages are too blocked for the mechanics to work.

Nevertheless, around this time of year ramen booths are still booked. More than ever, it seems. Slurps and sniffles in concert with the running of hot water, the bubbling of soup stock, the rinsing of freshly cooked noodles, the friction of butcher string tethering chashu together, the smacking of lips, the blowing of noses, the rings of the register, the cyclic canon of “Welcome, How many?” and “would you like a paper apron?”, the folding of soup dowsed paper aprons, the clank of empty ramen bowls nesting, the person way on the other side of the restaurant searching their coin purse for appropriate change. Ramen shops tend to be quiet as Christmas eve this time of year. Folk flock to booths as if some ancient medicine subsidized by the government were being dished out to cure a rare and fatal plague scourging society. Get it now, or perish.

Gin lifted one foot, checking the sole. From crown to foot, soaked. He ducked under the ramen shop awning and whipped up a phone. The list of open wifi scrolled into view. The connection was crispy, but Gin sifted out a neighborhood bath submerged deep in the maps. “Fuyumi,”…”Winter Beauty.” It was seven-minute walk in the rain from the awning of the ramen joint. Was it worth the cold seven-minute walk in the rain, being soaked like this? Was it worth the train ride and walk home soaked like this without first taking a hot bath? Horse a piece. If he went home now he’d have about an hour to study, pleasure-read, clean, do laundry, practice music, and maybe simply relax before involuntarily crashing hard for the night; but, given how tired he was now, even if he did go straight home he wouldn’t have the energy to do any of those things. Then again, if he went to the neighborhood bath-house now he definitely wouldn’t have time later to get any of those things done, either. Gin lifted his other foot and checked the other sole. Beads of cold water dropped from his face to the left and to the right. The umbrella scrunched up upon itself. “Some Monday, huh?”

All of this rain brought back memories of September, now a whole world away. Huck landed in Japan on the heels of a typhoon in early September. For nearly a month longer, typhoon after typhoon came – each one bringing with it more rain than he saw all two years he spent in Seattle further confirming his hunch that Seattlites truly don’t know what rain is. How did two months slip by under the radar? It had to be the effect of days like this – 12 hours door to door and feeling like a zombie on the bookends of 8 sleepy hours between them. Whole weeks that happen in a gesture, weekends rainwhirled in. Now, suddenly winter and only two more months before going home for February between semesters at work. Just trying to figure out whether to visit the bathhouse or head home, and another couple of days passed. Loon air’s open gaze already thinning mischievous and curling at the edges. Gin opened his umbrella. It protested with mild discomfort. Wednesday.

Walking towards Fuyumi (Winter Beauty Bathhouse) Gin passed by the sweet bread bakery, the patisserie, the YMCA, the dumpling house, the cram school, the grocery store, and the Szechuan restaurant. Thursday. In one of the puddles, the word, “pocomo.” The other day, Gin stopped into the telecaster pocomo and inquired loosely about joining their pack.

“If you’d like to start a plan with us that’s fantastic step this way step right up here’s a number please wait while we immediately send someone your way kneeling in front of you with a catalog Here I am nice to serve you today will you be wanting a two year plan or a plan that exceeds two years Two years? If so you’ll save about 2000 yen per month once you figure in taxes would you like to pay all at once for the phone by the way or divide the cost up into installments if so would you like to pay them over 6 12 18 24 or 36 months First pay the phone off in cash? Thursday I see Thank you very much When you buy the phone you’ll have the option of buying insurance packs the first of which just covers destruction of the phone or malfunctioning there are three tiers one for damage up to 5000 yen one for damage up to 10000 yen one for damage up to 20000 yen hardly anyone ever needs that but it’s better to be sacked than sorry which will you be choosing in any case once you buy insurance on physical damage you’ll want to couple it with these two other packs one is digital privacy security which comes in five tiers each with their own payment plan according to security measures provided there’s also paranoia and anxiety insurance for which we offer 7 different payment tiers from 500 yen a month to 2500 yen a month It’s great Just by making each payment per month you’ll feel more at ease and secure Try it! It’s on us on you! Will you also be Friday interested in screen covers? We have waterproof ones, waterproof scratch-proof ones, waterproof scratch-proof blue light filtering ones, waterproof scratch-proof blue light filtering bi-focal ones, waterproof scratch-proof blue light filtering centrifugal vortex and waterproof scratch-proof blue light filtering convex mind lubricating scratch and sniff ones as well! Wanna buy that new cologne but want to smell-check it first? No Problem! As an extra bonus we’ll throw in a humidifying function as well for these cold months in the apartment Data plans come in half a gig, two thirds a gig, a gig and two thirds, three gigs, almost but not quite 4 gigs, 5 gigs, and 20 gigs The bottom plan starts at 2000 yen per month and each tier up costs an additional 1000 yen not including tax Would you be inclined to nestle your crunchable into a phone case Naturally we have a wide selection of cases on the wall Some have a cover that folds over the screen and some don’t they are all pretty sturdy but the main difference, and I should make this as clear and crystalline, is the price The bottom row of the rack starts at 980 yen and each rack going up costs an extra 1000 yen We have a separate insurance for the phone cases The hierarchy of insurance is limited though so you won’t benefit from the good conscience bought as you would, say, purchasing our premium phone + case + digital security + screen protector insurance pack which goes for just 2000 yen per month If you would like to make phone calls we have 4 different plans 500 yen a month to make unlimited phone calls provided that none exceeds 2 minutes, 700  a month for phone calls up to 5 minutes a shot, and 1000 yen a month for unlimited calling What’s that? You would like to buy our cheapest smartphone with Saturday cash today, take the minimal phone insurance, forgo the digital insurance, buy the scratch-proof screen cover, the simple transparent phone case – this one can’t take phone rings mind you! – 3 gigs a month of data, and phone calls up to 2 minutes long? What’s that? You’d like to have a moment to think about your options? I’m sorry we don’t have that service capacity at our shop Here’s a catalog You can think it over at home, but for everyday you wait before signing up a contract it costs a different …how did you guess? Yes! There are different tiers for the duration you wait before buying a phone with us Wow  Your Japanese is really something else Yes, you can wait 1 day for 486 yen and then it’s an extra 100 yen for each day you wait If you wait more than 3 weeks though we will bill you for our time which you’ve – or might have – wasted The fine for not immediately making a choice is 5000 yen but in the end its not such a bad deal considering that that’s almost as much money as the company needs to pay me to spend these 3 minutes speed-dialing you into our pack As we say better sacked Sunday than sorry.”

The door scruffled across the wet floor mat. The pusher became a bower, 90 degrees at the hip, and Gin cut a black silhouette into the rain with umbrella above and bag beside.

Monday. “Some Monday,” Gin spoke aloud, eyes still fixed on the pocomo just a block before Fuyumi Bathhouse. Tuesday. The doors to Fuyumi opened, Gin stepped up to the plate, put his choux’s into the box number 8, payed to stay (470 yen), requested a Wednesday towel, and passed beneath the blue noren marked with the word “Man.” Thursday. Heaven awaited. 30 minutes of washing, scrubbing, rinsing, soaking, and Friday comfort. The days came on hard and full, and lately Saturday Sunday Gin couldn’t tell if he was getting Monday fatter, more Tuesday constipated, or simply Wednesday stressed; but, by Thursday this time he figured it was a mixture of all three. Friday. Nothing hot baths, soba noodles, and strong cups of tea couldn’t solve. Saturday.

III

“12/1 – Ongoing “Todo” list

Dailies: practice music, write diary, study Japanese, read new books, write blog, do laundry, clean the house, prepare for classes, prepare-cook-cleanup meals, see friends, date a special lady, do tourist things with friends here on that tourist visa times 3 three four times over, forcibly sit oneself down for occasional R&R (restrained relaxation), get out and see nature, get out and see the city

  • Buy Christmas gifts/cards
  • Buy new work shirt and undershirts
  • Did I say clean the apartment? Oh! We need new moist towelettes for swiffering the wood floor
  • Penguin food
  • Food for two
  • Pay monthly debt
  • Buy new glasses and/or a phone
  • Catch glimpse of eternal beauty as early to rise sun fills a blade of grass from the bottom up
  • Grade papers
  • Stock up for The Big One
  • Figure out the name of that song that’s been stuck in your head every day after eating at the school cafeteria
  • Get a physical, go to the dentist, et cetera
  • Remember that I’m 31 already
  • What’s that thing I was supposed to remember to do again?
  • Try Mont Blanc at Mont Blanc in Jiyugaoka
  • Go get quality coffee somewhere far, far from here
  • Plan a winter holiday that wastes neither money nor opportunity”

 

IV

“Bloop. Bloop. Sha-boooop!. You’ve reached the FreeChat of Cosmo Kurage. If you’d like to leave a general message, click the smiling panda. If you’d like to inquire about instaglam business opportunities, click the bloated influencer. If you’d like to make an appointment, click the snorkeling swan sticker. If you’d like to get a drink after work, click the sultry hippopotamus. Please leave a message after your stamp, sticker, or emoji.”

A little fork-edged square appeared on Gin’s forehead. For however much Cosmo was an old friend, Gin was too old to keep up with current friendship rituals: not because he couldn’t, because he couldn’t be bothered. Gin swiped backwards through the menu. He arrived at Cosmo’s profile. Extraterrestrial jellyfish have finally achieved their 15 blips of universal fame, huh? Gin thought. How many billions of light years had to pass before supra-atmospheric jellyfish could get the limelight? Social media was the perfect platform. Cosmo’s profile had 9,999,999 followers. Surely, they had more – the current instaglam simply didn’t have enough fingers to count on. Gin couldn’t remember how many followers he had. Friends, mostly. 100? 200? A typical penguin family is very small: 4 or 5 people, at most. But the penguin community back home-frozen-home numbers into the hundreds, easily. Such would explain the extent of his followers. Japan was a decent journey from home, and – while there was less glamor in Gin’s profile than Cosmo’s – there was certainly an abundance of folk following who were ‘family.’ What if they had an app called instafam instead of instaglam? Names determine means.

Gin’s legs were not made for stairs. Nor were they made for gripping ground made sleek by rain drenched gingko and maple leaves. From birth, a clumsy beast he was. He disappeared his interface apparatus. The smell of wet leaves came on softly and comforted him despite the unpleasant squish beneath. Making his way up stairs, a young man passed on the right. With each step the young man seemed to squash an imaginary cockroach with a vengeance. Had Gin Tethered, he’d upload a video of this strange phenomenon, would he?

With each squish Gin made up a stair, the young man made about two or three squashes. The attitude reminded Gin of a few students from a few years back. When practicing past participles, students might say things like, “Have you ever been to get me out of here?” Another frequent one was, “Which do you prefer, I was sent here against my will.” Recently though, a true gem hit the fan, (and we quote) “the wording is unclear hits the face.” Squash. Squash.

It’s times like these when certain strains of Buddhist mythology really take the cake. At this moment, young man, you’re embodying quite the hateful deity. That’s alright. We’ll see what the next moment brings. Hang in there, friend.

The sounds of cockroaches dying disappeared as Gin crested the summit. Immediately, icy wind enveloped him. Wet, freezing, tired. Cold and snowy, that Gin could do; but, rain wasn’t really his thing. He wasn’t born to weather a constant mesh wetness coming from the wrong direction.

Nose nestled to chest, Gin persevered until he came to tonight’s red lantern. He ducked beneath the noren hanging outside the door. He entered, turning around slightly to slide the door shut with a silent tuck. The smell of oden embraced him, and he submitted his fight to the coat rack.

V

Inside Odin’s ODen, Pearloon and Huck leaning forward on barstools over rectangular fields of oden. Each a nose hovering above the savory soup simmered goods. Squid. Tofu. Egg. Meatballs. Fish-matter. Dumplinged something or others. An assorted array of soul-warming goods, as per usual. Fin in the corner, reading a book as per usual. Manny, born on fortune’s holiday, white-man-monologuing and narcissistically-implicitly-power-positioning as per usual. There was no juke box, no empty orchestra, no bubble pop piped in at Odin’s ODen. The white noise of Manny’s socially oblivious and insipid blather did the trick though. The content was just bland enough to not really catch your attention, yet it was loud and constant enough that you wouldn’t feel awkward conversing with your partners in public. Most importantly, you wouldn’t feel self-conscious about the sloppy smacking noises elicited from consuming oden.

Gin made an attempt to climb up the barstool. He wasn’t born for vertical challenges which prohibited the aid of water or inertia. Huck and Lunaglare handed him purchase.

Rocking atop his stool, Gin looked to Odin. “Three hibiki’s. One straight, two highballs.”

“Ohhh! It’s our lucky day, Pearl!” Huck smiled with delight.

The fuzzy filoone glimmered like the grinch, eyes watery with a mercurial glaze. Gin’s straw hat rested on her crown.

“Friends, I’ve got good news,” Gin said. “But first, whisky and oden.”