A good friend recently asked me a glorious question, and since both my job and school are on vacation at the moment I’ve had some time to think it out. From a long unheard friend, I might add, and put rather plainly, simply and vulnerably. For someone who, for whatever reasons or motivations, avoids talking in direct powerless/defenseless ways at whatever cost I made it my personal wicked agenda to only engage with her if she makes an effort to put it out on the table. When she does it she’s so powerful.
It’s a rather dirty thing to do, but sometimes that warm glass of water is the only thing that’s going evoke the poisons from their perches. Being an agent of projectile vomiting isn’t necessarily the prettiest metaphor, is it? Anyhow, she recently asked me for a glass of really warm salty water, and the question which surfaced was, “Do you ever get lonely there?” To which I responded, “Yes.”
Since then, just what types of loneliness I may be feeling in Japan became a part of my environment, background, and attention. People feel various sorts of lonely no matter where they are, or who they’re with. The presence of some loneliness necessarily goes with being human, and being alive. In the not so united States in North America, I felt loneliness born of the inability to share with others equal values of perspectives and priorities politically, philosophically, and psychologically. I have a feeling it’s a common affliction among people raised in the United States precisely because of its cultures and sociopolitical divisions.
In Spain, loneliness was born out of how distinctly opposite understandings and comprehensions of friendship were compared to my Wisconsin upbringing. No matter how loving, welcoming, touchy-feely, instantaneously inclusive, free-conversing, free-critiquing, no-bullshit-straight-ahead sincerity was involved in rather miraculous friendships, more vertical understandings of each other were rather taboo. After a life in the United States which trained me to identify my best friends as those individuals with whom I share extremely intimate one-on-one conversations, seeing that this type of conversation was actually bothersome to Spaniards gave birth to a certain loneliness that I only felt in Spain.
So, now back to my friend’s inquiry about life in Japan: “Do you ever feel lonely there?”
Yes. I do, and the peculiar loneliness felt here compared those back home or in Spain intrigues me. After several months of working here, I found myself front row to serious anomaly on the late train coming home from work in Hachioji, or as another co-worker once put it, “Shin-Osaka.” It’s so incredibly far away from where I live, not because of duration but because there are no rapid or express trains on the way towards my town late at night. Just local, stop everywhere kinda trains. The constant stop and go makes for a blissless eternity. Anyway, during one such cross-Atlantic voyage the most unexpected thing happened. I felt someone touch me, and rest there. In fact, my neighbor had found a luxury pillow in my bony shoulder. Poor thing. Overworked, over-commuted and exhausted. Everyone on the train knows it, feels it, gets it: Tokyo can be draining, and trains are one of the only places Japanese will do something very un-Japanese by completely falling asleep on the person next to them. Japanese people are touchless, small-talkless, and largely personable-less which is great when you feel like being left the fuck alone. Yet, because of this, any time someone does touch me it seems like I’m witnessing the Northern Lights, or some sort of revolution. Granted, when I go hopping around bars people often make small talk with me, and woman like to touch the hair on my arms saying, “It’s so golden!” Students in my kids classes try to hug me, foreign friends will give very brief hugs as hello’s or goodbye’s, and on very rare occasions a Japanese person will touch my arm during conversation. However my life in Japan is contactless, touchless, un-physical when compared to the United States and especially to Spain. Even eyes can’t meet. As a consequence of this culture’s touchless norm during communication, I’ve come to feel a certain physical loneliness.
On the one hand I’m also a single man and so it can be said that feeling physical loneliness is just part of the game, but – think about all the communicative roles touch plays in your life, and now imagine that they all disappeared both as a set of tools for you to use and as a common understanding among those around you. The absence of this incredibly powerful method of communication creates a physical loneliness entirely separate from a romantic physical loneliness. Whereas both the U.S. and Spain were at times overloading and suffocating, Japan can be (and famously so) isolating.
The Japanese culture’s norms for and appreciation of touch differ vastly from the Wisconsinite culture which raised me.Now, in the various walks of life in Tokyo very few of them allow you to go on about your business without obscene commutes. Commuting a total of two hours a day is a common minimum among the people I meet here in Japan. Everyone lives far from each other, and commutes quite a ways. This is just one reason that massive stress is involved when trying to catch trains. People run absurdly to catch a train that connects to another train which changes over to their destination at precisely the right time. It’s fascinating to watch. People run here. Isn’t that fascinating? Speedy efficiency, time/space management. Everything is maxed out and at a premium in Tokyo. Now, this phenomenon isn’t actually that Japanese which is why I bring it up later on. This is the city. The big city. Actually, Tokyo is kinda The Big City. This is big city life.
While there’s a lot more that can be said about loneliness as a result of not having family or lifelong friends here in Japan as well as the result of being single, this doesn’t seem to be the time for those things. As it is, focusing on just that one emotion and its relation to my experience in Japan has been rather taxing – this is enough for now. After all I’ve got things like summer blue skies, fantastic espresso, a trip to the ice skating rink, meeting my college roommate one night for drinks in the last place I’d expect to see him, a day trip to the gorgeous city of Kamakura, lots of guitar playing, a dangerous burrito desire, language studying, discovering new neighborhoods on humid walks, going to a certain special bar one last time before it closes up, listening to hours upon hours of Erykah Badu and D’Angelo because I can’t go to the Summer Sonic concert this Sunday, going to see a friend perform contemporary art dance, going to my favorite art bar, going to the Flying Teapot to hopefully catch some avant garde music, a couple night walks, how I’m going to finish up my summer vacation, and things like that – you see I’ve got things like that on my mind. My friend asked me a great question, and hopefully she’s pleased with how I answered. Which leads me to say: if you ever want to ask me a question, please do.
Let’s start with the blue skies. Some precious summer blues with their funky high-rise cumulus clouds accumulating in every corner of the visible sky – it’s been a real treat lately. Even though their persistence spells “dry”, it’ll be autumn soon enough – and then winter – and then Tokyo’s incessant cold rains will have their way again. Therefore, I’ve been putting on the good vibes via mp3, wav, FLAC, or whathave you, and taking strolls around. I’ve found some extensive waterside walkways, one of which extends from East Koenji just past Asagaya. That wouldn’t necessarily be very far, except that the path swerves and winds doing something so uncommonly granted by life in Tokyo: enjoyment at the loss of efficiency. It feels so good to put on some slow grooves and meander through the tree covered path. People here may be ‘stinky-water’, as they say, meaning a bit standoffish, but even when bits of nature are forced to inhabit unnatural fittings everything seems to lock in step and reach out for extended embraces. Trees are too beautiful. Everything from moss, fungi, to squirrels and hawks make use of them to live, and the trees just keep on keeping on, giving all they can give. There aren’t too many humans like that. There are parents of course, but I’m starting to understand that once a human becomes a parent they become some kind of super human and they don’t deserve to be lumped in with the rest of us.
When I’m not out being an old man who enjoys his mildly wooded walks, I’m still an espresso fiend. A bean hog. A know-it-all coffee brat. What the hell is Specialty, anway? Looking back, we used to use the word “special” to talk about someone in a nice way while still perfectly conveying our shallow judgments of other people. Anyway, few things are enjoyable on a day off like taking out time to do absolutely nothing and enjoy some specialty coffee. Over the past months I’ve raided shops all over Tokyo. Starting with my friends Saeric, we hit up a great deal of places that are in the know. Our collective favorite may have been Kayaba Coffee. Quality, Vibe, Location, Company. We also checked out the uncountables of Harajuku, Omotesando, and Shibuya. It was a great deal of fun, and since then I’ve done a great deal of exploring and haphazardly stumbled upon many a chalkboarded, minimalist chrome-cement-wooded, X divided emblem printed, baseball cap wearing, really smug coffee shops. I’ve also visited quite a few that have none of that character. Further, as relayed a couple nights before, I do love visiting the old-old fashioned ma n’ pop style Kissa where I can exchange the flannel-smug for a flannel drip. At this point, my favorite place to grab a really well made pour over coffee is right here in Nakano. Just beyond the hip bar lined Renga Zaka, in the Ole’ Peach Orchard Neighborhood Meeting Hall corner – one can stop into Muto Coffee Roastery. Two people run the show. They roast their own beans, which doesn’t always mean excellency – but when it does it means supremacy. These people pour their love and soul into their coffee from start to finish and it pays off: both in quality of experience and in the 548 yen it costs. Still, much better than the pour over coffee I’ve paid even higher prices for in Shibuya, Harajuku, and Omotesando. Now, there is a rather expensive joint in Shibuya that serves up really stellar coffee: Fuglen. (Besides the main store near Yoyogi Park, in Harajuku their coffee can also be had just around the corner from Streamer Coffee in a super chic bar that has outdoor seating in the corridor between two fancy lookin’ retail buildings.) The Fuglen store near Yoyogi park brews a solid cup of coffee. Here and there, I treat myself after a long week of School/Work by sipping on some high priced brews.
Notice, not a word on espresso here, yet. While many a store offers stellar latte art, the most important aspect – the espresso itself – has always been a bit lacking. Not terrible, not bad – just a little subpar. I’ll admit, while there’s a lot of good espresso around compared to what you can get at the ubiquitous Detour’s, Starbuckies, ProntoTonto’s, and whathave you – after being spoiled by working at Bradbury’s Coffee Shop back home – I just can’t get no satisfaction. But all that changed upon a recent walk over the hills and through the hills to Nakano’s Broadway we go. In the deep dark woods of this subculture mecha shopping center, I realized that there were two entire floors I had previously neglected.
What had I stumbled upon? Why, what pretty grinders you have. Why, what a sleek Marzocco you have. Why, what tempting cocktails and craft beer you have. “All the better to eat your money with,” said the big bad wolf. Yeah, Takashi Murakami, whose art is truly hyperdelica at its finest, he sponsored a Fuglen coffee shop smack dab in the middle of all the weird subculture shops and rather provocative art galleries. This Fuglen shop, called Bar Zingaro perhaps after the Zingaro subculture art galleries, also has Tim Wendelboe roasted coffee on tap. Ungh. For the first time in a very long time I had espresso in Tokyo that was better than passable, more notable than inoffensive. Notes, aromas, texture, feel, temperature, balance. Whoever Goldilocks was behind the counter, she knows how to extract espresso. That’s the thing here in Tokyo. Tokyo has money. They have all the money needed to buy an image, to look the bill and foot it. Yet, not many Tokyo establishments follow through with care, quality, soul, effort. It’s just like anywhere else in the world, really. The global culture loves to look. We’ve bought into an understanding of life that is deplorably, often repulsively so, visually based. Anyhow, point of the story, I ran into the big bad wolf and she served me the best espresso I’ve had in Tokyo.
This past week, my old college roommate stopped into Tokyo and we were able to meet for some soba, sushi, and sparkling wine one of these hot summer nights. I hadn’t seen Suresh for years, so when he filled me in on his life I was rather startled as to how much I had missed. There are few more agreeable people than Suresh. One of the few Americans that isn’t trying to be someone, who isn’t narcissistic, a self-serving moralist, or trying to one-up everyone around them. Yeah, the game of constant one-up-manship: I don’t miss that. Suresh blew my mind. Since we last talked in Madison he had done the following: self-educated himself to get a new job and move out to work in IT on the east coast while living at a Co-op (go Suresh!), after a year and a half quit (go Suresh!)to take a travel break (Go Suresh!) whereupon his first destination was, “Hey, why don’t I go live for six months in Jordan?” (Go Suresh!). Once his Visa to live in Jordan ran out he set up shop in Hong Kong from which he’s been travelling all around (Go Suresh!). What’s next? He’ plans to live in rural China for a few months before travelling to Singapore to meet up with his sister and father. Man. Talking with Suresh after so many years was in itself a beautiful thing, but this new travelling-Buddha-like happiness that emanated from him was inspiring. He’s doing it, and it’s clearly doing wonders for him. In a weird way, I’m really proud of him for taking up such a big journey. More so, I’m extremely happy to see one of my friends so satisfied with life. I’m impressed, and moved. Go Suresh. The stories of his travels were inspiring, and extreme – all told through his typical good humored, unpretentious Suresh-style narration. It seems that about once every two months I get to see a friend from abroad here, and it’s surreally rejuvenating each time.
Speaking of rejuvenating, during our conversation he asked me about the music scene here in Tokyo and whether I had found any good live music. If it weren’t for the live music here I’d be in big trouble, especially at the mercy of the extremely regulated J-Pop domestic music market. For a while I was renting a great deal of cd’s from a rental store and picking up swaths of music from a different genre each week all in hopes of getting a better grasp of the J-Music scenes. Japan has an absolutely massive domestic music industry. I find its volume to be quite impressive. However, even more so what I find most impressive about the Japanese music industry is the cultivation of extraordinarily high BPM’s. Across the board, regardless of genre there is a trend towards really high BPM music. This is, of course, only in relation to the music I’m familiar with as the tempo change is made aware to me largely when I step down off the J-Pop clouds and set foot back on familiar grounds. Not only is there a trend towards high BPM, but a heavy handed rhythmic approach that hits every beat like a morphine button: on the head and impatient for the next pulse. Most music begins, without being given the chance to become. Rhythms are straight as a laser, flat as a pancake, and clean as a sterilized swab. Really front heavy, on the beat music leaves little room for [insert Humanity here], as these traits belong to military march music. A surprising amount of pop music around the world involves listening to militarized melodies march on into a policed state of oblivion. Are these lines wide enough? Good. Music and culture go hand in hand.
So why is this relevant to rejuvenation? Because none of that lifelessness pertains to the live shows I’ve been seeing here. I continue to see all sorts of faith-in-humanity restoring performances. The bottom dollar isn’t always the bottom line, and when I can afford to check out live shows I get a whole different perspective of what it means to be Tokyo-ite. You know what they say, don’t trust the media. More so, an unbalanced diet of cultural narratives makes Jack a dull boy. In that vein, the bartender that served Suresh and I wine that night also happens to be a contemporary dance performer and choreographer. I’m really excited to see her perform this weekend! I’m sure I’ll have something good to report on it come another night, but for now I must confess that this evening’s time is running short.
Before we part, I’d like to share with you a tidbit from this week’s vacation. After 27 years, I finally made it to the giant Buddha statue in the wonderfully historic city of Kamakura on the coast of Japan. There were tons of tourists taking photos of the statue and moving on moving on. I was curious to know what the unmoving Buddha was looking at so contentedly. Turning around, it became evident that the statue was taking in the ocean, going nowhere. Good on Buddha. So before I headed home I paid my respects by visiting the beach, getting in the water and going nowhere for a while. The sounds: laughter, water cresting, tide pulling, sand drying, birds calling, tents flapping, the sky opening. The feels: cool sand meshing with veritable freshly made ash-hot torched sand, capricious ocean bay winds, tired feet, straight back, massive sun, distantly bent horizon, curious and tireless tides, happiness.