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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.”