It seems we’re strangers only to ourselves, when everyone is sure in their assumptions about those around them.
Sitting in New Dug with a pour of whisky over a baseball sized spherical jewel, I came to think about when we’re strangers only to ourselves. A solipsist reasons themselves to be the truly alive individual, and all other beings to be part of their mind. My favorite entertainer said a hundred times too many to his own self indulgent delight, “It would be fascinating to see a room full of solipsists arguing about which one of them was really the only one alive!” followed, of course, by hearty diaphragm driven open throat laughter.
I have a friend who would, in this scenario, invariably point out that this thought is relatively meaningless and juvenile – its only use being how it reveals me to be an asinine individual who believes so thoroughly in his assumptions about people both being creatures of disagreeable assumption and creatures fooled into believing their shallow perceptions of others to be reliably equitable to what is, all there is, all that can be. This, of course, makes me an inconsiderate ass. However, it can’t be helped, or shouldn’t be helped rather, that as individuals we are only audience to a small amount of information that constitutes who we are, that comprises our exterior and interior presence, that shapes our interior and exterior absence.
Only a fool would believe themselves fully capable of unobstructedly and digestibly receiving all available information about their interior identity. Similarly, however “self-aware” someone may seem concerning their outward actions, let’s be honest – one simply can’t fully observe oneself to take in and process all that information to a degree which we often give ourselves and others credit for. Extremely self conscious individuals have this strange habit of conceitedly deciding that those dumb, happy fools are entirely unaware of the shit-show that is their perpetual tomfoolery. But, who are these self pro-claimed self conscious individuals kidding? Based on what standard do they consider themselves more self aware?
Anyway, what got me to my asinine thought, was actually something less selfish and self centered than may be painted above.
This week I got a haircut. It was Thursday, which means it was my personal ‘Saturday’ and which also meant that it was rainy. There are two requirements for my weekends in Japan: one, that it starts on Thursday; two, that it will rain for half of the time I have off. When I explained this to the barber he laughed and called me, “雨男(ame-otoko)” which crudely translates as RainMan. He continued, “Ame-Otoko, wherever they go – rain follows.”
I had to look it up, to see if this was just a joke or something inherited by way of experiencing Japanese culture. Sure enough, all sorts of serious and not so serious articles, jokes, books, and yahoo forum, “am I a rain man?” style things showed up when I searched, “雨男” online. Whatever the cultural context that I still don’t quite grasp, the name seems to fit as rain pursues my vacation time here. It was the same way in Spain, last year, as I travelled. Realistically though, that’s just because I don’t stay in when it rains; rather, I defiantly and stubbornly go about my business.
Still, this barber’s Japanese upbringing equipped him with this label that just so happened to appropriately fit my presence in his world. Of course, one can go on complaining about how rain always comes on their weekend; but, why didn’t I consider the implicit mutuality – that I bring rain to my vacation time? That assumption is just as founded as mine; or, equally illogical and likely not a rule that regulates anything.
So I came to humorously thinking about all the things unknown to me that are so real to others based on my actions, words, or unactions, unspokens, and so forth. Just considering all the assumptions both benign and otherwise that people make of each other and then act upon…the whole uncontrolled mess of subconscious collective social interaction is such a living, developing beast one almost feels like they’re not in on the game – that you can’t keep up. There’s simply so much we don’t know that’s so real to so other people, it is a database so incomprehensible that one could by comparison be considered the very person with least information about themself.
You see, this is the danger of listening to jazz and drinking whisky on a rainy day – you can get lost in words about nothing grasping for nothing. There’s a Lostness about it. Recently I’ve heard multiple co-workers mention this idea to me, “There are three types of people who work here: Japanophiles, Party Animals, and Lost-In-Their-Twenties.”One time, a close friend said, “A.J., have you ever considered that everybody thinks you’re retarded but no one tells you?” We both laughed, and its comments like these that make me wonder, “Maybe I am really that stupid. I just don’t get it.” Keeping that in mind, I thought again about those three classifications of Come-to-Work-In-Japan types.
Sure, I’ve met plenty of foreigners here. Japanophiles? Yeah. Party goers, Bro’s, and even more Bro’s? Yep. Lost in their twenties? I guess, it can’t be helped. Getting to Japan and staying there with some sort of financial stability is a tough gig, so to defy these difficulties with some resilience one needs a bit of inner Japan-Crazy, whatever it may be. For some people it’s stereotypes like martial arts, traditional arts, anime, manga, J-Pop, and other classified ‘Geek Fanfare’. For others, the interest in Japan is not so stereotypically thought to be a stereotypical interest in Japan. Second, because going to Japan requires a strange blend of independence and a lack of roots, the majority of folks who make it here are in their twenties. It’s the safest time to leave the nest knowing that you can come back – that you may be forced back, that you may decide to come back. It’s the easiest time to leave everything and everyone behind. At this age, leaving people and places doesn’t feel final and it doesn’t feel like the end of anything. We still carry the past with us, as I carried my past to Spain in a number of ways. This day and age, being in your twenties provides the perfect conditions – it seems – for one to take actions that appear to have no certainty, no purpose, no goal, no starting point, and which accumulate nothing. Thus, the majority of English speaking people who come to Japan do so in their twenties. People in their twenties party. That’s the natural way of things, and what a miserable disaster this world would be if the youth didn’t celebrate life with wild, exuberant, debauchery. Now, I’m not forgiving douchebaggery – just the debauchery. So, in some ways every Native English speaking person I meet here is in some way a Japanophile, a party-goer, and ‘lost’ in their twenties.
Concerning the Lostness: What can I say? The first half of tonight’s story I spent relating my Idiodessy rising on the tumultuous riffage of bebop, sailing about whisky’s four corners that wrap around these obsessively hand carved spherical ice cubes. Yeah, lost in thought is where I often find myself here. Both of my friends who mentioned the three prerequisites or consequences of coming to Japan and working seemed to vouch for being lost in their twenties.
Yet, judging by the older generations’ actions as chronicled by that living, breathing, changing phenomenon that is history, who the fuck isn’t lost? Of course you’re lost. How couldn’t you be? Can you find you? Can anyone find you? No, there’s no end in that – thank god. Suppose you did find you, or suppose someone found you – what would you do, anyway? What would you be? Who the hell is it, that can be grasped? Whoever they are, I’m not interested. I’m addicted to the pleasures of curiosity, of seeking the boundaries of ignorance, becoming-developing-evolving happening to happening and being audience to others doing the same thing – getting lost – is thrilling.
There’s a great deal of pain involved in this Lostness, and everyone feels it. It’s amazing to see what people do with it.
Lately, I went back to Art Space Bar Buena for back-to-back Saturday/Sunday events. The Saturday event was a DJ mix tape social. Several ambient, industrial, and noise music DJ’s took turns spinning material as aficionados socialized over drinks in the bar. Now, a few nights ago I told you about my first trip to Art Space Bar Buena; this Saturday event, I was able to talk to one of the artists that I saw perform. It was the sound designer from my favorite performance that December night!
There were many highlights from this Saturday’s event. I met some local musicians and talked about their work, about their processes and development, and about their aesthetic opinions. (Add a check mark to that Japan-To-Do list.) I was introduced to two of the bartenders who were exceptionally welcoming. I got to hear some quality live music, and that’s pretty damn rare anywhere in the world at any time these days. Let’s not deny that an estimated UnwaveringMajority% of people in the world are simply and without exaggeration musically illiterate in the same way that 99% of the world has no quality understanding of mathematics above simple calculus, and in the same way that the overwhelming majority of humans are illiterate in the language of physics, chemistry, agriculture, painting, conveying emotions, solving complex crimes, writing novels, or not being a total snob. Most people, given a stylus, produce mediocre works of savage art-catastrophy at best when asked to draw. In the same way, it can be exhausting to walk in a world where nearly everyone’s musical literacy is equivalent to nursery rhymes, singing the abc’s, or maybe a Goosebumps Choose Your Own Ending, constantly having to say, “Wow! Look at you!” as one says to a child who fits the star piece toy in the matching star piece hole.
So, coming to music events at Bar Buena are a rare treat. The people I talk to give me valuable information about Tokyo’s music world which will undoubtedly lead to new mini-adventures on my predictably rainy days off.
After approximately one month’s time, my first time back to Art Space Bar Buena was a healthy combination of good vibes, good tunes, good people, and a little liquor to wash it all down. Since I had no scratch paper with me, I borrowed some of the advertisements on the stand table next to the entrance. Bar Buena advertises a good deal of other shows and venues happening around town. Taking a few of the postcard printed exhibit ad’s and borrowing a pen from the bartender, I asked people to jot down suggested music, venues and artists I should check into if I want to get to know Tokyo better. By the end of the night I had a messy pile of scratch paper and notes which chronicled the pleasant conversation I made with the Sasaki-san and Keita-san. One of the advertisements that I used to take notes revealed that the very next night there would be an exhibit opening party for an acrylic artist from Yokohama. Five musical acts, live painting, and an exhibit opening seemed too good to pass up; so the next day I popped into Bar Buena.
Immediately the vibe was distinct from the previous two shows I saw. First of all, the previous two shows were dimly lit cavernous hollows for the listing swells of noise music to ambulate somniferously. Previously, the walls were largely blank, absorbing all the absent energy as every docile beast does. This night all the house lights were on and the walls were straddled by firm expressions of women in blue clouded pink wells, patina rain jacketed abyss obstructions, and eyefuls of ambiguity. All painted with exuberant tones. Oddly, the paintings made me wrestle between focusing on solemn opaque expressions hiding all that could be told and focusing on abstractly coy textural flourishes. Just like the barber pointed out to me, and perhaps the inverse of Joseph Campbell’s book “The Inner Reaches of Outer Space,” this young lady’s paintings perfectly captured that essence of the outer reaches of inner space. Our wordless invasion of the world around us was here colored out everywhere but where we expect to find it – the eyes. Everywhere in her paintings the women seemed to be challenging in an nonthreatening way, to look for more – to see what she was, and where she was. Nearly every portrait was a women coolly looking out towards the viewer’s direction (but not necessarily at the viewer, much more like we were really in the painting – framed by four bland lines – and the women had no choice but to observe us and our surroundings through this small aperture) painted in clean contours but surrounded by the bold variations of her outer space. This young woman’s art is the marriage of Accessible and Challenging. To me, one of the most signature qualities of Japanese contemporary artists is that they understand how to make challenging art accessible, where in the West accessible art is synonymous with shallow, low quality, or perfunctory. Japanese contemporary artists have this peculiar defiance towards the dime-a-dozen merely destructive contemporary conventions of the avant garde art world; instead, they offer the progressive in constructive manners, and make their complex challenges accessible to a wide audience.
This Sunday’s music acts were largely singer songwriters: the first three acts vocalists with acoustic guitars, the last two acts vocalists with piano and electronics. The color, light, and acoustic nature of this Bar Buena event was about as different as it could get from the previous night’s performance. Another stand out feature was that, for the first time in a long time, the female performers of the evening outnumbered the male performers 2 to 1. Funny enough, I’d been talking quite a bit about discrimination and equality with folks recently at my yet to be named mysterious source of income. On one hand, I’ve learned a bit from Japanese women about the gender inequalities in Japan but to be honest I’ve so little information that I won’t venture to make a comment on it, yet. However, I wonder what I might learn if I get a chance to talk with some of the female performers of Tokyo; I bet they’d have a great deal to share on gender inequality in Japan. While it was refreshing to be in a room surrounded by artists, singers, songwriters and supportive college friends there was one glaring uncomfortability for me; since I last checked, I’m still a 26 year old perma-5-o’clock-shadow blonde haired blue eyed freak with unnaturally pale Wiscon-skin. Not that that’s an inconvenience, but when the age of the performers and the audience is mainly comprised by 20 or 21 year old women one can’t help but feel like That Guy.
You see, in Japan ‘That Guy’ is a boring, startlingly white cultured, talentless hack who came to Japan wondering if maybe, just maybe, he’d have luck with women if he left his home country. Let me tell ya, I’ve met an overwhelming (or rather underwhelming) lot of That Guy’s in Japan.
As much as I’d like to say that I’m not That Guy, it’s pretty hard not to feel like one in a situation like this. So, I simply enjoyed the performances and the exhibited art while not bothering anyone. I happen to like this Bar Buena quite a bit, and it would be a shame if they came to find me an unwelcome presence because my ghoulish whiteboyness scares people off.
Beyond this however is the juice of the event: creation and communication. I got lucky, again, witnessing a collaboration of mediums in action, the sharing of human stories, and the various manifestations of feelings that occur when one reacts to the throes of life with stylus or song. As a guitar player I’ve always thought that vocalists were lucky. How wonderful to so directly share your experience in song. The breadth and range of audience that one reaches synthesizing verbal language with musical language is truly something to envy.
I spent most of the event doing what I normally do at gigs like this, observing in a state of awe and marvel wondering about the context of this person’s life. What occurred that brought them to this emotion? Who did they know that inspired them to go in front of others and tell this story? How did they get here? What difficulties and pleasures do they bring to the stories of other people around them? Everyone has a story, and witnessing performances is just one way to appreciate how incredible a human life is. Feeling-contemplating all the factors that go into or comprise a performance-performer at that time-place is quite the trip.
So in some ways I’ve been getting out and being less of a stranger, but feeling more like one. Apparently it’s a sentiment felt even by native Tokyo-ites. Everyone’s crammed together but alone. The Christmas holidays here, reminded me of what might await us when all this poorly meditated mechanization and digitization of human life closes in faster and faster on our lives. Christmas here, as well in the U.S.A., is marked by footsteps left by the unavoidable Ghost of Consumerism Mass; this month(s) long holy observance, where we remind ourselves what drives the world’s pleasures and pains. In a way, to consume or draw in the world around us is part of the beauty of life. The unending chain reaction that matter and space go through is founded on transforming and consuming. For the time being, the more our social lives are based on digital media it’s hard to miss that we spend more and more time in a gluttonous digital rage taking in unbounded and questionably nutritious information. In relation, we notice how little our world consumes us – though. In order to be a part of this process, we must be consumed, digested, and transformed. Honestly, can we say that our generation is doing as much offering as they are taking? Hardly. And its showing up in tangible, personal, and intimate social interactions. From social media people have learned the pleasurable power of taking what’s there to take, without being held responsible for giving in return – and one wonders where this will lead us or bind us into. I’m not gonna go on any longer about the unhealthy imbalance between creators and consumers in our world for this evening’s tale is coming to an end and I’d like to talk a little about Christmas and New Year’s in Japan. Thus, in order to talk a bit about the winter holidays, it’s necessary to introduce a friend.
Don Quixote. He’s legendary. Few have such adoring and loyal fans. Stepping out for another overpriced coffee and underwhelming fix for my caffeine needs, I crossed paths with Don Quixote. I stopped, considering whether or not to inspect his wears for a new muffler or scarf seeing as my kashmir one keeps lending fuzz to my scruffy stubble giving people the impression that I sleep under highway tunnels and inspect recycle bags for limitless bounty.
In this dry mid winter, the scarf’s fuzz and fiber has overgrown all of my belongings. And yet, there I was, standing in front of Don Quixote, unable to step in and see if the little one had anything more practical for me. Right now, I intend to focus my extra cash towards the bare necessities: food and coffee. I didn’t really need a different muffler, but it certainly would be convenient if only to get the fibrous situation off my mind, my slippers, my futon, my shoes, both my suit jackets, and my only good sweater. Somehow, maybe thanks to Claude’s blessings this summer, only my guitar case has gone untouched by the kashmir monster’s influence.
There are a few sad things about Don Quixote, I’d say. A few sad things and one redeeming thing. In Spain, all the stores that sell the cheapest goods made from cheapest things are associated with the Chinese families that run them – in fact their called, “chinos.” Ironically, the store in Japan where you can find just about anything for a sweet and low price is called Don Quixote, after the most famous Spaniard. How is it, that the most famous Spaniard came to be a fictitious protagonist in a novel? Wait. Nope: Yep. How did that come to be? What’s more startling and less impressive is how the most famous Spaniard came to be the name of the cheap goods store in Japan where one can find anything you want and everything you weren’t aware existed.
The aforementioned redeeming factor is that the Japanese Don Quixote is a boss penguin. There it is, the trump card in my book: Penguins. And in Japan Don Q is quite the legend. You’ll see his face everywhere, hear his songs coming out to play at the wee hours of Kabukicho’s mornings, and generally spawning sedated pandemonium over the daunting influx of consumers. The Japanese Don Quixote has brought many new understandings into the picture when I think of the Errant Knight, much like the recent Rain-Man Ame-Otoko label has done for me recently. Mainly though, seeing Don Q in Japan triggers this reaction during our most consumerist season: What can’t you buy, and what won’t you buy?
Christmas varies in flavor around the world, but somehow the mid-winter economic boost in retail stores worldwide is probably the most common ritual shared among the varied celebrants. Everything I’ve come to associate with Christmas outside of quality family time and a solid Christmas meal was available in Japan: lit up streets, ubiquitous sales of dubious sincerity, themed food and drink specials, hot Christmas jazz piped in everywhere and Christmas pop tunes piped in everywhere else, wreaths, special outdoor food marts, empty city streets, post cards and letters flying to and fro, visits to temple… You see, if you take away the superimposed Jesus from our Christmas rituals which were long ago assembled from various pagan winter solstice traditions, our Christmas celebration and the Japanese New Year bear a striking resemblance. The Kadomatsu and Shimekazari (much like wreaths: hung upon doors, temple entrances, shop windows, et cetera), Nengajyo (much like Christmas cards: well wishing, holiday congratulating), Otoshidama (much like gifts: a little bit of cash given to kids), Osechi-ryouri (seasonal celebratory foods! Like going to Christmas markets to eat food and drink the good stuff? So do the Japanese fo New Year’s), Hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year: people wait in long lines IN THE FREEZING COLD), and Toshikoshi soba are just a few of the New Years traditions.
It happened to be pretty damn cold New Year’s Eve and I just wanted something hot and steamy to help me relax before going to a few New Year’s parties that night. A few nights before, on Christmas Eve, I was treated so wonderfully to the cooking of my friends sister-in-law. So far, I haven’t gone a year without Christmas dinner yet – and this year was no exception, thanks to their generosity (and kitchen skills!) However, like any other Christmas Eve meal, the next few days my body desired some less heavy meals.
As I walked down Okubo Dori, my stomach became distracted by the soba shop near the Chuo Line Okubo Station north exit. My lord, I needed it – and I was gonna have it. Thoughtlessly, I committed my first act of New Year’s observance as a resident in Japan: Toshikoshi Soba. Soba noodles are supposedly good for your digestion, and are pretty low calorie. That, combined with their delicious soup, sounded like just what my body needed if I was going to overcome the Christmas season indulgences and continue on drinking for New Year’s. There are many reasons people can use to justify Toshikoshi Soba among them long life, good luck, and purification. However, a reason not to partake, heard I not.
In the days following, which are still technically the New Year’s Holiday in Japan, I went to hear the Emperor make a speech with two trouble makers you’ve heard of before: Bobby and Brett. We stood in line like the good sheep of the nation waiting to hear the words of the nation’s demi-god. As it turns out though, he wasn’t so epic. In fact he was pretty quiet, mild natured, and laid back. In a way I guess that’s what one should expect of Japan’s Emperor. After listening to the Emperor address the nation with blessings and congratulations, we stopped over to a shrine to eat some street food, drink celebratory sake (free! however, a donation is most welcome), and get bitten ever so softly by the Shishi gaurdian lion for a dose of good luck, and to just hang out. Holidays don’t last forever, and neither does the opportunity to wander around soaking up the winter sun.
For example, today I’m on holiday and sure enough it’s rai-
well, not quite. I guess all my wussy complaining finally found the right ears. It’s not raining today. Rather, I woke up to hear the sounds of snow gathering in the courtyard outside my window. Little yuzu trees covered in snow. Stone paths hiding away. Puddles emerging from the mud. A lone chair coats a new colorless. For someone brought up in Wisconsin, I couldn’t help but get inspired and giddy when I saw the first snow of the year. I got my umbrella, some flashcards, and my backpack ready to head out.
I walked down the street towards ShinOkubo Station and jaywalked across Okubo Dori like any good resident does here in Hyakunincho. Jaywalking is rather frowned upon in this city, and it’s unusual to witness someone go about it like it don’t mean a thing. But this town’s got some swing, after all. Hyakunincho is downgraded by most Tokyo-ites as a lesser town – largely due to its Korean and Chinese population. They think it’s dirty, dangerous, and all sorts of other things. I suppose, in some respects, maybe they’re on to something for if you go to Hyakunincho you just might see someone jaywalk. (!) Granted, one night as I walked home I passed a group of three young men sitting down and listening to Daft Punk while smoking a spliff. Maybe I should have reported them for openly listening to Daft Punk so loudly at night. You see, so far it seems that people here are very courteous towards their neighbors by not making any audible noises at night (i.e. low birth rate). So, seeing three college aged kids sitting down on the curb smoking marijuana while listening to Daft Punk in the street where everyone can hear them is a pretty wild offense.
Keeping that in mind as I jaywalked across Okubo Dori in front of the neighborhood police box, I couldn’t help but notice how awesome the local shrine looked in the recently fallen snow. Hyakunincho’s shrine is tiny, but entirely charming. Taking a few pictures of the shrine I remembered the Lion Guardian that ever so sweetly bit my head to give me good luck, and took a few photos of the now snow dusted lion gaurdian statues at the shrine – someday I’ll tell a worthwhile story, and these photos would help me convey the memory.
My goal wasn’t the shrine, however. I hadn’t been back to the neighborhood cafe bar in about a week or so as I’ve either been out to work before they open up in the morning or out exploring other parts of Tokyo during the past week’s unusually pleasant weather in the morning before work. When my weekends are trapped by rain, or rather when I – a rain man – trap my weekends into rain, it’s hard to go out and explore Tokyo. So, I make use of my free mornings before work to scope out various nooks and crannies of the labyrinth.
Plus it was snowing, and I couldn’t think of a cozier place to spend the morning than at Vivo. Vivo’s atmosphere is pretty welcoming and comfortable compared to other cafes around and it has floor to ceiling windows that look out onto their awning covered, family size table accommodating, brick floor laid patio that empties out onto the needle thin alley. It’s good for people watching, getting lost in thoughts and Idiodesseys, and – of course – watching the weather. Today’s snow, I just had to watch for a while and relax.
A while back I had talked with one of the baristas about our favorite espresso drinks. After telling Ako-san that I really liked macchiatos, she fixed one up for me and made me feel at home in a new place. This time, I asked her to make me the drink she likes best – a tall macchiato. It was a great drink to accompany some relaxed conversation and watch the snow fall. Towards the end of the conversation my eyes were attracted to the end of the bar just right of where I was sitting. There’s usually a few wine bottles displayed, a miniature globe of the earth, and a photo from some alley in Spain. Today, all the usual suspects were gathered there with one additional player: a black kitten stuffed animal wearing a near neon pink bow tie. It was a curious little thing, with a curious expression, curiously sitting atop the globe as if watching over everything, wide eyed and ready to jump.
“Does she have a name?” I asked Ako-san.
“Huh? The cat? No, not yet,” she said, “but please, name her if you’d like!”
I took another good look at her. On a snowy day like today I couldn’t help but look at this feline taking care of the earth, this black cat bearing bold colors, without thinking of Persephone. Maybe that’s weird, maybe its not. It really doesn’t matter, though anyway, does it?
“Persephone.” I said.
“Persephone?” Ako-san replied.
“Yeah, what’ya think? It seems to fit this little kitten, yeah?” I asked.
We talked about about Persephone, the Greek deity, about how even though she’s the queen ruler of the underworld – she’s also responsible for the resurgence of life after winter with it’s bleak snowy days like today. She’s a perfect beacon not necessarily of hope but of faith in nature’s processes watching over the world.
Apparently the matter of naming the kitty and whether or not ‘Persephone’ will stick must be presented to Keita-san, Vivo Okubo’s manager. But even so, I got to pay it forward, Mr. Barber-san in Shimokitazawa. He brought a new cultural context into my understanding of my presence here in Japan, and I’ve brought some of my culture into view for others making new understandings of their surroundings available – even if its just concerning a black kitty stuffed animal sitting atop a globe. We all get a little lost this time of the year, in the cold isolating darkness of midwinter. Christmas and New Year’s are designed to help us both remember and celebrate the magic of life when we’re most likely to forget and despair. Things start over, start again. It’s a time we spend sharing things with each other, as well as a buffer against becoming a stranger both to others and ourselves.
It’s a slow process, but the more I put myself out there and meet people, the easier it gets. I’m becoming less of a stranger to Tokyo and Tokyo , as I learn how I’m perceived ( however embarrassing the perception), is making me less of a stranger to myself, in a way.