Archive for August, 2017

Yu. Yuuu!

Sanmachi Suji District

We are in Takayama; it’s evening. We are at a bar called Torio’s, enjoying air conditioning and cold beers after a day of walking around in the intense heat. Elevator versions of popular oldies, as are now disconcertingly labeled songs I grew up with, are quietly emanating from a portal somewhere. The bar is half full of paunchy Japanese men, whose tone suggests that they are telling dirty stories and jokes. They smoke a lot and sip on mixed drinks. The room is otherwise quiet, spread out, mute, antiseptic, in the way a restaurant at a Holiday Inn might be. The combination screams late 1980s Bar Mitzvah rather than a pub you would find in a Japanese mountain town. Instead of sipping a 600 Yen beer, I feel as though I should be working up the nerve to ask Wendy Abrahms to dance and trying to sneak a screwdriver from my friend’s geri-rebellious grandfather.

It’s been a great day. Though it’s only a few streets, you can lose yourself in Takayama’s Sanmachi Suji District for a good hour or two amongst its sake breweries, restaurants, and shops. Takayama was largely isolated up here in the mountains, so a great deal of it does resemble turn of 20th century Japan. We did a tour of a museum with a wonderful guide who spoke like Mr. Bean, and we hiked up to Takayama Castle, which is now just a stone base up in the woods.

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The Good Guys vs the Bad Guys

I grew up with a very clear picture of what a Nazi was. They were bad guys with German accents who wore small hats and army uniforms and were often being punched in the face by Indiana Jones. They were scary and aggressive but got repaid for their Nazism by getting killed by and sucked into the Ark of the Covenant. When Nazis did make the mistake of being on American soil, they were being run off a bridge by Elwood and Jake Blues. I knew just who they were and one thing was absolutely clear: they were the bad guys, and we were the good guys.

What happened in Charlottesville was a horrible situation rife with eerie aspects. To see Nazism this open in the U.S. is disgusting. To see an open white supremacist praise Donald Trump was right up there in its current day dystopian aspect as well. To watch someone drive a car into people was indescribably horrifying. Then, the president, the guy who is supposed to be our leader and the guy who can’t seem to stop himself from calling out actors, musicians, reality TV stars, and models, to see him actively not call out Nazis and then literally run away from questions on the events of the day, was like a scene in a Philip K. Dick book.

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Summer with the Borgias

You are Assimilated

The following is a recreation of a conversation between my aunt and an employee at the local supermarket moments after an unfortunate accident took out our chicken. It is important to note that since my aunt is on the phone, all I can do is make educated guesses as to the chicken guy’s responses. Plus, I was pretty well lit.

Aunt: Do you have whole cooked chickens?

Chicken Guy: Yes we do, ma’am.

Aunt: Oh, great. They’re cooked?

Chicken Guy: Uh….yes ma’am.

Aunt: Do we need to reserve one?

Chicken Guy: You want to…reserve a chicken?

Aunt: Yes. This is an emergency. (She says in a serious tone of voice, which conveys that she is not joking and that my family does not fuck around when it claims to be undergoing a gastronomical emergency).

At this point my other aunt and I, who are also in the kitchen, emit a series of otter-sounding guffaws. We laugh so hard that we had to stop what we were doing, which was deciding who to blame for the chicken emergency (it’s the aunt on the phone, by the way, and then by proxy, her son).

Though this might sound like a scene out of the Borgias do Christmas, I have been back visiting my family for two weeks, thus I have had time to reacclimate and then reassimilate to the craziness.

In the first week of being home, some things were hard to get back into. There’s the morning argument between my sister, mother, and I for the “squatty potty” the footrest which assists in the ease of bowel movements. I’m not used to sharing my jerryrigged one, as my cat hasn’t figured out how to use it yet. Additionally, the fact that my sister and mother have gotten married to each other took a little getting used to. They work together to raise my sister’s wonderful little rugrats, and as a result have fallen into a domestic partnership. They speak like a couple, argue like a couple, negotiate and compromise like a couple. In a week I expect to be giving them couple’s therapy (now, Mom, what I hear Amanda saying is that while she appreciates you, maybe some space is needed before requesting the squatty potty…)

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What the…?

Who the hell are you calling drunk!?

The ATM emits a warm harp welcome as I enter my card. Not for the first time (by a long shot) since I have arrived in Japan, I say: “what the…?” I don’t have time to dawdle, there is a task afoot, and the ATM’s music lets me know that. It plays during the entire process, so that each button I hit is met with a song that makes me feel like a sword-wielding character named Zelda on an adventure.

After the harp welcome, I am awarded little tunes at each touch of a button (English – wawawaaaaa, withdrawal – wooowhoowhoooo, 40,000 Yen – habadabadabaaaaa, checking – frimfrimfreeeeeeeee). And then the gravity conveyed by string chords in D as ATM deliberates over whether I am worthy of cash. I wait with baited breath, as does the woman waiting behind me, who has unwittingly become invested in my monetary adventure. When the happy, excited tune of success plays (bleebleebleeeebleeeeeee) I release my breath and wipe my brow of sweat. The woman resists the urge to hug me. I take my cash and walk away, emotionally spent. Later, when I realize that I abandoned the woman on her financial trek, I feel genuinely bad.

Like many of you, I have found that every trip to a foreign land has its “What the…?” moments. What the…? Is the most genuine query of confusion. There is no humor, no wit, there is only confusion at seeing or dealing with something completely baffling.  I said it when I got caught up in a surprise lamb stampede in Petra, and being offered the head of goat to prove the freshness of lunch in Ethiopia.

Japan, I say with confidence, is a What the…? country. There are toilets with so many buttons that it’s like pooping in a mercury capsule. These buttons cause water to be sprayed at your butt, music to cover up the sounds, and heat to toast your buns. The bathrooms may be chock full of “what the…?” things, but they are ingenious. The sink on the back of the toilet serves the dual purpose of cleaning your hands and filling the tank at once.

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Golden Gais (gais is pronounced guys, not gays. I think)

Do you see Godzilla? (photo by Mark Kaufman)

Shinjuku is intensely Japanese. sounds like an idiotic statement from an idiotic idiot, but I had trouble coming up with a comprehensive adjective list. At night it’s not only a brightly lit neon assault on the senses, but it further overwhelms with sound. Loud music plays from seemingly nowhere, ditties come from open shop doors, and buskers play outside pedestrian tunnels as thousands of people storm past. The soon-to-be-deaf sit idly in arcades that blare an impossible cacophony of electric rings.

Godzilla peeks over a building at us from above a movie poster advertising a Michael Bay film. His film posters translate perfectly into Japanese, just a glimpse tells me it’s going to be a stupid vapid piece of shit. Michael Bay sucks in every language, perhaps he should put that on his resume.

In the midst of the intensity, I look at Mark and he nods; we both understand. One of the best aspects of traveling with Mark, is that he and I are very similar travelers. We like to walk as much as possible, both finding it the best means by which to see and digest a city or a place. We are early risers and low maintenance in terms of time needed in the morning. We know when it’s time to take a break, and if you have ever been on a trip with one person who wanted to go go go and another who wanted to chill chill chill, then you fully understand the importance of this mutual understanding. We are at the same level of adventurous and know when to give the other space. Byproducts of this travel connection meant that by day two of our trip we were reading each other’s minds, when it was time to go, leave a museum, tell a salesperson “no,” and, in this case, time to get the fuck to a quieter place and have a drink.

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