Japan Report

Hydrangeas everywhere
Every time I take a major trip, I think, that was the trip of trips.  I certainly thought that of Burma, which was in so many ways sublime, except for having my fingernail sliced open. This trip to Japan was incredible, too, and I am so grateful that my life circumstances have changed to give me the chance to spend meaningful lengths of time there, so I can steep myself again in a place that is already so much a part of my psyche. Something in me has been progressively changing…perhaps it is a result of my physical distance from the place…now when I am there I am REALLY there, I plunge in, I roll about in it, I’m greedy for it, I just suck it in, I’m full of rapture and amazement at all those little things I guess I started to take for granted when I lived there…the hydrangeas planted along the side of the railway tracks on the Inokashira line, the way little plastic packets full of sauce and stuff are designed to open smoothly and easily, the warm feeling of being enclosed in a group of Japanese friends, their kind and avid enthusiasm, the socks…oh!  the socks! I could go on.
NHK at my inn in Beppu
There were  moments, and I knew there would be, when I asked myself, did I do the right thing by not accepting the Tokyo job?  Finally, I think I did, and that is somewhat affirmed by conversations with expats there. While it is true that in many (maybe even most) ways I prefer the daily life there, especially the fact that there is some kind of whimsical charm or beauty wherever one directs one’s eyes, I think that New York is probably a better place for me to be. But perhaps I am making a virtue out of necessity? I don’t know. I love the performative formality of Japan. I love the ceremony of transactions and behaviors there. I love the courtesy. I love the courtesy even when it is a kind of net of lies. But I also know that if I lived there I would begin to feel that there was another kind of net of nervous self-consciousness surrounding me.  In a way it is a beautiful thing; it entails always thinking of others and how not to inconvenience them. It would be very good if more societies (like this one – GOD – people are so HORRID here) (some of them) could adopt such a principle, at least to some extent.  But it also involves a great deal of strain and tension.  One sees it in the Japanese people and both admires and feels sorry for them. They are also wonderfully well-groomed, and that is a pleasure! Everyone looks as if they just stepped out of the pages of a magazine, the young guys with their carefully gelled, mussed-up hairdos so they look like anime characters…the women with their exquisitely penciled eyebrows, a most delicate calligraphy. What can I say? I am in love with the place.
Suteki-na hito at the Tokyo International Doll Show
After staying for a couple of nights with my friends Atsushi and Akemi and their kids Kyosuke and Mahoro in their sweet home in Chiba, I started the first week with a whirlwind tour of the places I mentioned in my previous post: Sogenji, a zen temple in Okayama; Beppu, to visit my friend and former band member Yasuyuki, now a prominent radio entrepreneur, and also to bathe in the hot springs; Nagasaki, whose unique atmosphere I had not yet tasted; and the marvelous art island Naoshima, to which I want to return as soon as is humanly possible.
At Sogenji, I stayed on a hard plank bed in a spartan little room, and wandered about the grounds, admiring the heron hanging out in the landscaping by the lovely temple pond. In the morning I breakfasted with the monks, most of whom were from countries other than Japan, and many of whom were super-handsome.  The breakfast was intensely ceremonial, and involved a ritual passing of the dishes, sutra-chanting, and the cleaning of the three bowls allotted to each person with takuwan.  The shojin ryori (temple cuisine) was so delicious that I made the kenchin-jiru (a kind of hearty soup of vegetables and tofu) when I got to Tokyo.
The lake and heron at Sogenji
In Beppu I stayed in a pretty little inn with exquisite kaiseki and a private hot spring. I don’t mind sharing a space with other bathers – in fact, this is one of the traditional pleasures of Japan­–but I really felt like a princess having the whole beautiful space to myself! It was not really expensive.  Especially with the current exchange rate, Japan seemed mostly very reasonable. My greatest expense, I think, was train and bus fare while I was in Tokyo.  They do not have a NY style metrocard. I easily spent $20 a day just on getting around. Yasuyuki drove me around the green landscape, up a lovely mountain and then to Yufuin, an elegant little town that reminded me of a tiny Kyoto.

Welcome to Beppu!
Breakfast in Beppu
I had one fine day in Nagasaki, investigating the old colonial mansion on a hill, Glover Garden, and wandering through Chinatown. The next day, when I visited the Atomic Bomb museum, was pouring down rain, and this seemed fittingly melancholy for such an experience. I moved through the museum very slowly, and spent a good deal of time watching the videos of the survivors’ testimony as well as, toward the end of the exhibit, video interviews with people who live near nuclear facilities and near testing grounds, and who have suffered as a result. As when I visited Hiroshima, I could not help but note the charm of the recovered city and the kindness of the residents. It does tug at the heart.
Glover Garden in Nagasaki
I did not mind visiting Japan during the rainy season, since it was so green and there were gorgeous hydrangeas (second mention) everywhere.  And once again I was able to see the irises at Meiji Koen! Next time I go during this time of year (and it looks as if this will be next year!), I will bring the rain boots I bought toward the end of my trip, having suffered soaked shoes and socks one too many times.  I also bought the loveliest imaginable umbrellas, since the umbrellas sold here in the states are vulgar and hideous things, for the most part. I think that if one has the right rain paraphernalia, a rainy day can be a beautiful thing, except for the havoc it wreaks on my Jewess hair.
Irises in Meiji-koen
If you do nothing else in life or visit no other place, please visit Naoshima.  The combination of the exquisite natural scenery and the  artwork is idyllic.  Apparently there are other art islands, such as Teshima, in the area there. and I wished I had had a longer time to stay there.  It was a bit of a trek to get there…an hour or more out of Okayama and then another half hour or so on the ferry, but so very worth it. My favorite thing out of many favorite things there was this public bath that had been turned into a whimsical work of collage art/sculpture, and was still functional as a bath!  At the bottom of the tubs were inlaid images of antique Japanese woodcut porn!  How cool!  And there was a life-size elephant sculpture atop the wall that divided the men’s and women’s bath sections! I stayed in a wonderful little guest house in the port town in a perfect room with a tokonoma, and talked to Hiro, the assistant proprietor there, for at least a couple of hours about various intercultural and philosophical matters.
Scenery at Naoshima
I love how after I am in Japan for a week or so, I can feel my Japanese re-blooming.  Of course I still stumble over grammar and vocabulary sometimes, but it starts to feel more and more natural.  By the end of the trip I was talking to myself in Japanese.
Reversible Destiny Loft, Mitaka
Staying for a month in a Reversible Destiny loft was…incredible.  The colors were gay and fine, and I was always happy to wake up among them. At first I was wary of the wavy floor, and afraid of stubbing my toe, but I didn’t even once.  It felt a bit like a very clean version of camping.  I loved how the center of the apartment was a kitchen, and when I had friends over for a little party, I pretended I was a mama-san with my own “sunakku” bar. 
Mama-san
The layout really fostered a kind of intense communication, as I had noticed when I visited many years ago and talked with Arakawa in one of the lofts – he also was behind the kitchen counter as if a proprietor – but then I suppose no communication with Arakawa could be anything but intense. But my favorite part, really, about being there was getting to know the staff there, the graceful Momoyo Honma, as well as Enomoto-san and Matsuda-san, who became my friends as well as my language pupils. I feel ambivalent, honestly, about the notion of living forever, and am unsure about the extent to which an architectural construct might extend one’s life…but what moved me most about being there was the fact that this extraordinary vision of Arakawa and Madeline’s was real, and so tangible!  I could live in it! I touched its cool surfaces of many textures! I made food in it! I found that I even made a little nest in it, a favorite spot where I would curl up and read my Isabella Bird book on my iPad, or write in my pink notebook. It was more comfortable than I had expected, although I did feel that a couple of minor things about the space were a bit…bullying…in terms of forcing me to change some physical habits…but I’m not sure I was there long enough to know whether those changes had any salubrious effect on me. I hope so!
Vegetable field in Mitaka
The lofts are located on the edge of Tokyo, in an area that has both big box stores and vegetable fields!  On one side, there was a KFC and McDonald’s, and on the other, bamboo groves. Literally one block from the lofts, I watched a woman dig potatoes in her field, next to which was a convenience store where I bought bottles of water and occasional daifuku and kanten. This sort of peaceful contradiction is indeed one of my favorite things about the country…
I explored a lot. Of course I spent a lot of time in my old haunts…Shimokitazawa, Shinjuku, Kichijoji, Shibuya…but I also went farther afield.  I went to a spa in Toshima-en called Niwa-no-yu, and another spa near the lofts, in Jindaiji. I went to Sugamo, known as the “Old ladies’ Harajuku.” I visited a luxury apartment in Azabu-juban. I went to the Tokyo International Doll and Miniature Show.
Tokyo Tower 
I climbed Mt. Takao: a tough route. I hung out with my friend Marcellus on a super-rainy day in Kamakura, and at the Tokyo American club with my friend Jeffrey. I walked through Shinjuku san-chome with my ex, Masaya. I browsed shops in Koenji and Nishi-Ogikubo, getting into interesting conversations with the shopkeepers.  I followed the trail of Gegege no Kitaro in Chofu. I went to a sento kind of by chance one evening in Sendagi because my feet and back were hurting from simply walking around too much. An older guy with missing teeth tried to pick me up in Ueno park. I ate really delicious yaki-zakana everywhere, but particularly this new place I found in Takadano-baba.  I hung out with my former student Nham in Omotesando and Shibuya. I gave a reading in Aoyama, and met some fascinating Japanese poets. I visited the writers Eric and Naoko Selland and their beautiful basenji Rita out in Machida…and just…really…had a splendid time. And, oh,  look at this beautiful cafe I found in Nezu!
So now here I am back in this benighted country. We are having a heat wave. The Martin case is on everyone’s mind. I just got in a stupid facebook argument about it. I spent the first few days I was back cleaning up cat pee…for Nemo had peed on many of the couch cushions…I felt, during the cleaning…that I was living in a bottle of vinegar…and noticing he was very thin, I thought to take him to the vet.  It turns out he is hyperthyroid, and must have a rather costly procedure done to cure him. I don’t mind so much the expense, although it will be a bit tough to manage. I’m just sad that he has been suffering, and feel bad that my absence must have made him even more stressed out. You know…suddenly…I’m plunged back into my reality! Because this city feels like such an awful, smelly mess, I am fixing up my apartment, caressing it into greater order and beauty.  And I have sewn the first of many new skirts with fabric bought in Japan.  Onward, then, to August…and then…to autumn!
The weird little guys on the fabric in the lower left are “kobito-zukan” – my new fetish
Poor little Nemo…

1400 or so more pictures here!

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One thought on “Japan Report

  1. This was a great read and great photos too. Thanks for taking the time to write, and to share. That fabric, from which you've sewn a skirt is tremendous: extremely good or impressive; excellent. — S. Fama

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