Good evening. I apologize half-heartedly for rushing, breezing, sneezing, careening and on all accounts ignoring all tempo marks as I told you about the first day of my trip to Nikko. While Monday was spent largely taking off my hat to nature’s handlesswork, Tuesday I spent in a mild rapture thanks to the supreme wood works protected at the world heritage sites. Temples, Shrines, Mausoleums, kitschy ‘love’ shrines, well worn museums, and of course the ancient Yuba restaurants lining surrounding the area.
Waking up on the brighter side, I walked off towards the complex. Once again the fresh air of Nikko infiltrated all the recesses of my mind and left them feeling all fulfilled and fuzzy like. Nice crisp breaths, the sound of the main river bending through town beneath the bridges, a few cars politely stop-lighting, a cup of coffee at the shop inside of the museum. Somewhere towards the front of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums he writes about how fantastic it is to climb up a mountain side and stop for a pancake breakfast with coffee mid morning. Of all the Kerouac things to remember this is the only impression which I’ve carried with me over the years with total admiration. Forget the booze. Forget the girls. Forget the spinning stars. Forget the half-baked beatnickies. Bring on the fresh morning mountain air, pancakes, and coffee. As life adds up, that seems to really be what it’s all about.
With that sort of mentality I traded my coffee in for a ticket to the greater Toshogu shrine and temple complex. As always, a large Touri gate stradled a set of stairs behind which the deity guarded gate hid snugly in the fury trees. Even upon entrance one is immediately hit by the difference in wood work here. Chinese motifs seem to swarm out from within the wood structures. As during university I studied music history and music theory with a little bit of ethnic studies …directed by a focus on music, I don’t have the expertise to tell you just what makesNikko’s carvings and architecture important, relevant, gorgeous, and inspiring.
The delicate yet century surviving figures weaving in and out of each other remind me most of looking at a painting while hallucinating. You know it’s just a painting, but all of a sudden the depth and space of the painting opens up. The figures appear to suddenly assume an animated suspension. They seem incredibly alive as they pose, allowing you to walk around them to appreciate their manipulation of empty space from all perspectives. I suppose a more contemporary thing to reference would be 3D printing as is all the rage these days, but that’s still a bit sterile. The last time I felt so inspired by a man made structure I was in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Both structures were intended to overwhelm the senses of their ‘guests’, and the success of their vision to amaze us continues hundreds of years later even in states of decay.
However, the Japanese are working very hard to repair the site. In some spots you could see the transition from the heavily weathered and damaged areas of the structure to the repaired sections. Based on what I saw, we’ll have to wait a year or two to see the finished work, but when it’s done it will be astonishing. From a foreigner’s perspective, there are incredible amounts of interesting things to see in Japan though most people only have both the time and money to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto. However, should you be able to fit it in, Nikko definitely deserves your attention.
My October 18th through October 20th trip to Nikko was marked on both ends by taking the Spacia train from Kitasenju. One thing for which I applaud the Japanese is their appreciation of train travel: local trains are all business, but as soon as you get on a speedy train you better have some beer and grub for the journey. Lunch boxes, yakitori, onigiri, salty snacks, iced tea, coffee, beer, beer, beer. This is the common fare. Imagine, taking a high speed train from Chicago to the Grand Canyon. Chicago to Memphis. Or Chicago to Quebec in Canada! …all the while sipping on a refreshing beer after a hard day’s work. That’s the stuff dreams are made of, my friends.
Getting back to Tokyo meant a return to routine and test prepping. In December I’ll be taking a language proficiency test much above my ability, and it’s kind of exciting. Yet that also means I’ve been spending most of my free time studying when not working. You can be doin whacha love t’do, but too much routine is too much routine and the weekend away was just what the …
…gas build up, migraine, nausea, woozy, shakes, chills, vomiting, tingling numbness, loss of motor control, an ambulance ride, ER trip, taxi home, and the Doctor ordered me some meds. That’s what the doc ordered, as about a week after my trip to Nikko I ate something which didn’t like me very much. The feeling was mutual, I’d say, considering my body’s reaction. Three full days have passed since the Monday night’s incident and my body feels largely recovered but I’ll admit it took quite a bit out of me.
If anything, dealing with the ambulance and ER here was a very hard and clear reminder of where I live. Well, more so who I live with. All of the things I admire about Japanese society as well as all of the things that I find disappointing about Japanese society came up in one thrilling ride. In a way I experienced all of the major culture shocks I’ve had along the way in the matter of 6 hours magnified by my physical condition which was feverishly unstable.
Now that that’s all winding down, I’m looking towards what’s ahead. Though I absolutely hated assignment books in school, when it comes to personal accomplishments as an adult it seems time and time again I’ve created lists of goals, plans to fulfill them, done what I could, and then relied on the help of others to help me get through it. Due to my Wednesday through Sunday work schedule, searching for things to do with other people on Mondays or Tuesdays has proven to be absolutely fruitless. Zip. Zilch. However, as some of you know, I’ve been trying to find a Shakuhachi teacher for quite some time. Finally, after almost a year of being here, this Tuesday I’ll have my first Shakuhachi lesson. Pretty damn exciting. The album notes and writings of famous jazzers which inspired elementary school aged trumpeting AJ tipped me on to traditional Japanese arts, as well as the sound of the Shakuhachi flute. Ever since first hearing the music, I wanted to try it out. In some ways which I can’t quite explain, just as I grew out of the sounds of the electric guitar and grew into the sounds of the classical guitar – the part of me that was a trumpet player always wanted to have a go at this whole bamboo flute thing.
I guess it’s kind of like the time that I went to la Valle de Jerte in Extremadura to see the cherry blossoms despite the cold rains. This year has been all sorts of exceptionally high and low experiences. So many adventures spent with family and friends in situations I would never have imagined years before. On the other hand it has without a doubt been the most isolating lifestyle I’ve ever lived. Believe me the successes outweigh the hard knocks but the knocks have been steady. Nevertheless I’ve still got things to do, and I’m not ready to throw in the towel until I give’em my absolute best shot. Also I’ve sorta made a contract with a friend who once re-inspired me to be true to myself, and following through on those promises feels exceptionally rewarding.
So, pretty soon I have finally tested my Japanese proficiency and started Shakuhachi lessons. What else is going on these days? Fall in Japan is treating me well. The late summer festivals simply bleed into the fall season as every weekend since the late August I’ve seen some sort of festival somewhere. It all started with small neighborhood festivals where the community hoists a mikoshi (where the enshrined deity sleeps) on their collective backs and marches it around. Depending on the shrine from which it comes, the particular festival, and the neighborhood which holds the event it might be accompanied by parades, dances, and fairs. As they carry around the deity sometimes they play games with it to amuse the enshrined spirit. It’s really a fun thing to watch. In some ways it reminded me of Easter processions in Caceres. Granted the somber mood of the Easter processions is a little different that the mikoshi carrying in Japan; I don’t think an already dying Jesus would like to be shaken around as he hangs from a cross, and Mother Mary has enough worries on her mind as it is.
Apart from the neighborhood shrine festivals as well as the Obon festivals there are tons of other things going on. In Nakano, there have been back to back festivals for various events: supporting nearby agriculture, Okinawa culture festivals, a special display of very artistic floats from this year’s Nebuta festival, and not so typical things like a weekend long Japanese Anime music festivals replete with Karaoke stars (for realz, these people are stars), DJ’s, cosplayers, and otaku’s doing their signature “otagei” dance. Like many Japanese words, the word otagei comes from the words otaku and geisha. If you split the words and then mash them up you get ota-gei meaning something akin to otaku-art. They perform these oddball and highly enthusiastic dances when their favorite idol (or aspiring idol) gets on stage to perform their songs. You may recall several nights ago when I told you about the Maidreaming incident, as well as the time that my friend Cindy and I decided to late night hop around Akihabara with the purpose of checking out a maid café. It was hyperdelica unfiltered. Once you get in there, you are the umcouth minority who doesn’t understand the common vernacular nor the proper customs, manners, and unspoken rules. There was one very clear spoken rule which we got at the entrance where a maid went from her meowing character to instant intimidator and said in really fine English, “No touching the girls.” After a moment of reinforcing her message with very sincere eyes, she meowed back into character. Now, they are playing the role of maids…but it’s clearly their show, their restaurant, and their business. Now, the main attraction featured at that café was the singing and dancing of the various maids and the light stick wielding otakus cheering the idols on with their otagei dance certainly marked my memory of the evening. So, this weekend as I came home mentally drained from work I stepped out of the train station and into the idol/anime/cosplay/otaku occupation of downtown Nakano. It was cool, and refreshing from the inundation of vanilla normalcy that sedates me every Saturday and the extremely stressful Sundays I spend with a mixture of totally obedient and emotionally frustrated children.
I have a student who, being Chinese growing up in Japan, faces some serious challenges in life. The kid is brilliant and learns eagerly, asking me what’s this what’s that what’re ya doin why you doin that …both in and out of class. When I ask him how he’s doing, he responds, “What was it again? Oh yeah – I’m ANGRY PUNCH!” Of course he’s angry punch. He’s six years old and sent into a room away from his mom (his only protection in an ostensibly anti-Chinese society) where a funny looking Wisconsin boy talks at him in English. Not Chinese, and not Japanese. In general, the kids in this class don’t get that their parents want them in the class. In fact they think it’s the reverse: that some group of people takes them against their will, and if they sufficiently perform silly tasks speaking in meaningless jibberish they will be returned to their families. I’ve heard them say to their parents through the glass windows, “Don’t worry Mom, Don’t worry Dad, I’m almost out! Just wait a little longer and they’ll let me out!” These brave kids, in the midst of the nightmare, still try to comfort their parents who are helplessly watching the whole thing play out. Depending on their age, they just don’t get the concept (and why should they?) of why they’re in the room. The subsequent stress from the dramas that play out makes me crave two things by the end of Sunday, my last day of the work week: I want whisky or coffee, and a real hot bath.
That’s where I am reminded at how satisfied I am with the neighborhood I’m living in. It’s not only super convenient for getting around Tokyo but it also has all the things that I crave when I want to relax without travelling on the trains which the work week teaches me to avoid. Need that sento bath? Need that fine cuppa coffee? Need that exquisite beer to pamper your socks off? Need to get away from the crowds? Need that dose of subculture and weird? Nice parks to walk to? Neighbors who say hello how ya doin? Quiet nights? Night view of Shinjuku? Home made fresh ramen noodles paired with the finest quality chashu and tsukemen soup momma earth has to offer? Wine bars? Nihonshu bars? Green path? Book shops to feed my addiction fueled collection? It’s all there.
Hanging around Nakano is cheaper than going out to the typical Shinjuku or Shibuya zones without the mass crowds of high school girls and the rather persistent presence of foreign bros going about their bro business. Nakano is a pretty relaxing place to spend the weekends and get over the crazy weeks of teaching. Getting out to hike is much more soul-satisfying; however, when this is home, staying in is quite luxurious. In stereotypical Tokyo style, nothing is inconvenient and the yellow-brick sidewalks never lead you astray.
In about ten days it will be a full year since I came to this place. It feels like the years after university have passed not like a river but like ever morphing clouds and my sense of time is all scattered and stretched out by irregular periods of intensity and repose. I’m honestly not sure the feel of time will truly hit me until I come back to Japan after the holidays and spend my second New Year’s Eve in Japan. Somehow I just don’t have the words to express just what this past year was; perhaps we can talk about that next time we convene on Night the Tenth.