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Note: これは日本で初めての経験だった。それは後で、より複雑になった。

I could not stay in Formosa any longer. My ever-sympathetic employers canceled my visa and withheld my bonus out of spite. That I taught the kids to read a foreign language somehow counted for less than my not teaching them Chinese manners, which I remained willfully ignorant of anyway. This was hardly the whole problem though. My affairs, business and personal, rapidly disintegrated into the Straights. I longed for Susan while she reconnected with her husband in Hsinchu. Clingy Natasha in Taipei bored me with her trendiness. Elsa refused my request to return to New York. After our disasterous week attempting to reconcile in Europe, I lamented and understood. So there was no job, no partner, and no interest in staying much longer. Being homeless in Taiwan had its moments, yet the whole experience drained my spirit after a month. The last night I spent there, I yanked some easy trade out of a club in Da’an. Tired of imposing on my friends and needed to relieve my ambient frustration. I could not be bothered to learn her name. Too much on my mind.

The JAL flight left Chiang-Kai Shek [it has since been renamed, much like the people in this story] with precision. I knew from the interior of the 767 that I would need to raise my game to make it in Tokyo. Economy felt like first-class: wide leather seats, digital media screens, charming stewardesses plying me with udon and sake. I wrote a poem and read a few chapters of Mishima’s Runaway Horses until we landed at Narita. I traded the last of my NTD for JPY and stepped out in to the evening. Out of the tropics now, the chill and the wind recalled the northern latitudes of my familiarly. I pulled a skully over my head and caught the train to Ueno. A challenge had been issued by Japan. Soon learned how hard.

Tokyo’s lights burned into view in a hour’s time. To this day, I will never understand why the world’s largest city placed its largest airport so far away from downtown. I guess the residents needed sleep uninterrupted by descending aircraft. This would never become an issue for me. Rest is the luxury of the secure.

I checked into a private room at the hostel. I don’t mind sharing a bathroom, but could never deal with five snoring Scandinavians that seem to post up in every budget joint in Asia. It came to thirty bucks a night and they did not take cards. I paid for two in cash and they said a day-by-day thing would be cool after that. I took a shower and flipped my gear. Way too charged up to crash at that point. Arriving in Tokyo presented the fulfillment of a dream in some respects. I had to see if Murikami’s work reflected any reality at all. Disturbing how right he is.

In the common room, I drank a Kirin with some knucklehead Aussie who had been pushed out of Korea for stealing a jeep or something. The kid was unhinged, so I asked him for advice. “What place has the most neon?” I inquired. “Try Shinjuku, I guess.” was his reply. Sounded about right.

Rolled out the west side on the Marunouchi line, hungry and restless. Many visitors grow bewildered when they emerge from Shinjuku station into the flashing dreamscape of Edo’s largest transit hub. I suppose the pace and energy overwhelms them. Such people have probably never been to Times Square, to say nothing of Mong Kok. Not suggesting Shinjuku is bush league, far from it. The junction jumped with a pace that any urbanite could appreciate. Time for some action.

I wandered into a crowded lunch counter. Hadn’t had a decent piece of beef since arriving in Asia, so the sizzling skillets I spied from the window dismissed my initial thoughts of sushi. I sat down and asked for a steak and a beer, thinking this would prove a simple exchange. Then a kindly waitress showed me how to work the vending machine, which processed all the orders. Silly me, thinking I would do business with a human. This was Japan after all, land of the automated. My Japanese was poor at the time, but we figured out “rare” after a minute of pidgin. I had been warned about the prices in Japan, but they seemed no more extravagant than those in New York. And after Paris, a steak and a beer for ten bucks seemed like a bargain. Europe – forever slow and expensive.

Satiated and excited, I left the restaurant and perused the backstreets that flowed out from the station. Most of the stores were closed by that time (ten pm), but all the other businesses teemed with Friday night trade. Coffee houses, noodle stalls, even the bakeries blared with aroma and music. I asked a stranger to take my photo on a footbridge so “it would last longer”. I stepped into a dive and sat down next to an attractive girl in a leather jacket. Her boyfriend got cranky after I chatted her up for a minute, but I had no designs on her. Just asking directions. He was a skinhead and probably over thirty. I told him that scene was long over. He told me “Skins have a lot of pride” with some menace. I referenced some Richard Allen books and he calmed down. His girl asked me how long I had been in Japan. I said three hours. They laughed and pointed me north. The direction that defined the day.

I made my way to a faux Irish pub three floors up in a commercial building. The place had nice oak appointments, filled with people of several stripes. Some business dorks in their suits held court on the corner of the bar. The Times Square facade “Today Suntory toasts…” was all I could think of. Older expats ate dinner with their native wives, likely bemused by the Shepard’s pie that sat before them instead of a proper meal. I sat down at the bar with a Super Dry. Asked the guy next to me what was up. Still orienteering, my favorite outdoor activity. Someday I’ll get that merit badge!

He stopped me and said, “You have a central New York accent. Utica? From the Bing myself.”

“The ‘Cuse, actually.” I replied, impressed. No one has ever before or since has identified my origins so exactly on just the nuance in my voice. I thought it was merely neutral North American, yet somehow he parsed it. Now I had a running buddy. For the night at least, I felt content to let him show me the ropes. Again, I needed to raise my game and a guide would prove valuable. Began raising it immediately.

We turned from the bar an surveyed the scene. I suggested we make some new friends. He concurred and asked whom. I shot my eyes toward two twenty somethings who were sitting on the same side of a table in the back, leaving the other side vacant. He nodded. The bar was getting crowded anyway, so the entree was perfect. I strolled over and lit their cigarettes before one could reach the lighter in her purse. Asked for a spare and lit up also. Let the guy from Binghamton, Nate, fetch us all drinks. We exchanged names and became fast friends. A little cordiality shocks people in this day and age.

Misa had the body. Yuri had the face. I let Nate choose, since I was the neophyte. He went with Yuri, which worked out regarding my tastes. Worked out well. Until it didn’t.

Nate suggested we cut out to his spot in Suginami. Said he had a bottle and a DJ set at a club at 2am. The girls were down, so we cut out to the train. Probably was the last of the night. Unlike NYC, the trains stop around one. In Japan you party until midnight or six am. There is no middle ground. That can be taken in a number of ways.

The club in Suginami ended up being a skinny three story affair. Almost no dance floor, but a rooftop where the expats smoked weed and bitched about life in Japan. I demurred on both counts, not about to kill my first impressions of the place with jaded perspectives or drug-induced self-consciousness. I kept the girls company while Nate started up with some trance on the system. I suppose his mix was reasonable, though I am no expert on techno and its many genres. All disco to me.

His bottle proved to be tequila and he insisted we drink it with tonic. I have never since imbibed this concoction, and I do not recommend it. Misa took pity on me and bought me a Grand Turismo while Nate was in the sound booth. I danced with both of them and we kept busy until his set finished. By then the place was thinning out and the trains were starting up again. I got all their digits on paper since with only twelve hours in the country I had no celly. Hopped on the train and switched to the Yamanote line at Shibuya. When you make it back around seven AM, you know it was an enjoyable evening. Usually.

Crashed at the spot in Ueno for a few hours. Came out of the fever dream in a pool, as usual. Washed up and threw on my leather. I had to see the Ginza. It was too late to hit Tsukiji by then, as the fish mongers clear out by ten or so. Besides I grew more interested in investigating whether Osamu Dazai was fronting or not with his investigation of the place. This piece is written in his style and is dedicated to him. Both of us are No Longer Human.

Ginza proved a bit more staid than advertised. Fine buildings and cafes to be sure, yet somehow it lacked the energy and opulence so celebrated in the novels I’d read. Perhaps they reflected the previous century’s dynamism, as opposed to the complacent success of contemporary Japan. All the same, I spied a kaiten sushi joint and decided it was time for some tuna. It occurred to me then that I had burned through all my cash from Taiwan and needed to draw from my New York account. This proved no issue, as Citibank kept me covered. Ginza had a branch in dark blue with the old logo. The hard font invited me in with familiarity. Inside, just like 111th street and Broadway. Shudder.

I tried my card five times. I knew I had a couple of large liquid at the very least, and more besides in equities. The machine still showed me no love. “I cannot perform the requested transaction” it replied in three languages. So there I was. In the most expensive city in the world. In the middle of its most expensive district. And I had just one Soseki in my pocket [Natsume Soseki is a great author who graces the thousand yen note]. I would be homeless again in twenty-four hours. Japan’s challenge like a judo throw. Raise your game. While broke.

It was Saturday, so the bank floor stood locked out. Yet there were two kindly ladies working the lobby who spoke passable English and tried their best to help me. Service in Tokyo is all they say it is. They put me on the phone with New York. A sleepy Puetro Rican (3am there) checked my account in the accent of the D train. He told me I had money, but there must be something wrong with my card. I asked for an immediate replacement. He said I was not a platinum card holder, so it would take a month. He then inquired why I only had one card and one account. I said something offensive I am sure. I thanked the ladies and stumbled back out into the Ginza. Hundred yen udon, not sushi, was the plan now. And I needed one quickly.

The sun descended into the February overcast. I grew anxious and zipped up my leather. Walking past an endless series of shopping malls, I decided to try an experiment. Still rocking the discman and the time. Decided I needed some new beats. Found an HMV and picked up The Lost Tapes [an uneven collection, though superior to God’s Son] and bought it with the same credit card that the bank had fiercely rejected only hours ago. When it went through, I felt relieved that I had some access. Then realized there would still be some essentials that could not be funded this way. For all its advanced technology, Japan (and Asia in general) relies highly on paper currency. When people don’t constantly mug each other you can have it like that. I would need to figure out transportation and accommodation at the very least, both of which appeared cash dependent.Unless I rented a car or stayed in a five-star. My game was not even close to that yet. Someday it would be, but somewhere else. Today it is not even close.

I strolled in another expat bar in the district. Thought someone could help me figure it out. Perhaps myself. The bartender assured me that I could pay with a credit card. I perused the English language magazines until I spied an Canadian reading Pillars of the Earth. Told him I was taking up a collection to build a cathedral. He agreed to let me pick up his tab in exchange for cash. “You’ve sent me on my way!” He exclaimed as I encouraged him to order a double. He had sent me on mine. Thanks brother. Whoever you are.

Retrieving my paper from the night before, I called up Misa at a public phone. I suppose I lost face when I explained my situation. Felt like I had very little anyway. Misa seemed sympathetic and proposed we meet in Ueno park. She wanted to show me the cafe where Mori Ogai held court. I did not see anything special about the place, though I had a similar opinion of The Wild Geese, a work whose concept I liked more than its execution. Possibly the translator’s fault, as it is one of the toughest in the Meiji canon. Relieved when she arrived promptly and everything went smoothly. Further relieved after kissing on the footbridge near the zoo.  She asked me what I wanted to do. As if I had any choice.

I grabbed my stuff from the hostel. Wasn’t much anyway, just some suits from a life once lived and a laptop that probably has some very interesting writing on it. All have been cast into the wilderness by now. Misa showed me how to more efficiently get across the city and onto the Seibu line. Her place was an efficiency in Nakano. Looked like a mansion on a hill to me, by which I mean the English definition of “mansion”. Not the Japanese ワンルームマンション, which is in fact what it was. I suppose it makes for a graceful euphemism when you can call fifteen square meters a “mansion”. Clever Japanese marketing.

The room did not seem small however. Misa made tea on the burner and I perused the bookshelf. I had read all her Harry Potters with Elsa back in New York, so we speculated on the last installments. I took down Snow Country and flipped through the familiar pages. She told me Kawabata seems completely different when rendered into English. This insight would prove defining during my time in Japan.

My job and accommodations would not open up for a week. Misa cared for me in typical Japanese fashion. I took the train with her in the morning and had strolled the entire Yamanote line on foot by the end of the work week. We went out for Yakiniku in her neighborhood. We copied Basho’s Haikus with calligraphy pens I bought in Kyobashi. They were much easier to work than the brushes Susan and I played with in Taiwan. We discussed writing and fashion over tea and shochu. And I held her as we spoke softly in the darkness. Rolled up the futon when day broke. Tokyo itself provided enough experiences for me to return to her each evening with many questions. Misa gave me a full education. I remain grateful for all of them. Except the last. Proved the most critical.

By the time my job started in Numazu, my game seemed sufficently raised. I had a girlfriend with a place just off of Shinjuku. A working knowledge of the subways, the JR lines, and even some of the department store rails. I finally got my sushi, and I had not run over my credit limit. When Misa kissed me good-bye at Shinagawa, I knew I had met the challenge issued by Nippon. As the Shinkansen shot me down the Tokaido, I knew I’d return the capital as soon as I could. Sometimes you hit the ground running. Then you trip.

A week later, I returned to Shinjuku. I had some salary now and all my affairs were in order. Misa met me a yakitori spot off the main drag. The look on her face seemed pained. I asked her what troubled her. The answer was obvious.

“I cannot be with you. You are going to do so well in Japan. You don’t need me any more.” She elaborated.

In protest I returned, “You were very kind to me when I really needed someone. I enjoyed spending time with you. You showed me so much. These are qualities most people don’t have. Now that I am more established I thought we could be together. I could repay your kindness.”

“You can repay my kindness by doing your best in Japan. You will meet someone better than me. Treat her as you would have treated me.” It was all she could offer. That and a final night in her apartment, since I had made no other arrangements. We made love a final time that morning and took the Seibu to Shinjuku. Parted without kissing. I walked south to the Meiji shrine. Paid five hundred yen and wrote her name in characters on a prayer block. Later experience would teach me that she was probably married or a kept woman of a wealthy salary man. I would never know. I growled and wept like the stray dog I was. In the most crowded city in the world, I realized I was completely alone.

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Note: This will become a one act play to be produced in the summer of 2011

Dear Minako,

I had to send this letter in the company’s envelope. This way it will look like all your other mail, so at least you will open it. Please forgive me for tricking you. I knew you would recognize my poor kanji and throw it away otherwise.

You told me never to write to you again. I have kept that promise for a year now. I have stayed in Osaka, away from you and your family in Nara. When we last met, you gave me that bonsai I admired from the florist in Umeda. He told me I would need to water and prune it every month or so. I am writing because lately even this has proved too much for me.  Last week, I left a window open and it littered the floor with dead needles. Brown and faded.

You put it in my hands on the train platform in Namba. I understood you meant for me to take root somewhere, though you could never be a part of that forest. This has also become impossible. I had to leave the old place in Kami-shinjo and move into a hotel in Nishinari. Deep in the city, I can lose myself in the crowds heading to station or the stores in Shinsaibashi and not think about how different it is now. How different I am after knowing you.

You told me to take care of the tree, that so long as I kept it strong and beautiful our memories would remain so. Like all memories, I kept it well and close for the first few months. As the seasons changed and the weather turned cold, I found myself ignoring the plant as though somehow I could neglect thoughts of you. It kept growing, bigger and more chaotic than ever. I decided to water it again. With my blood.

I no longer think I can care for the tree. With your permission, I would like to plant it in Tennoji park near the zoo where we spent that last perfect day together. Do you remember how excited I became after seeing the animals? We were supposed to go for kushi-katsu, but I lost my appetite for food. Now, I can no longer walk through Shinsekai without thinking of that day. Perhaps if I plant the tree there, it will take hold and the spirit of that moment shall come to reside there – away from both of us. I will remember to water it each month when I bleed.

One day perhaps you will take your son to the zoo. While he will be captivated by the elephants and giraffes, maybe you will notice a tiny tree near the fence, more like a bush. If it has survived, perhaps you will remember that particular time when we comforted each other. If it frosts over and refuses to grow, perhaps our memories too will wilt and pass into the dust. If I leave it in the park, this is the best we can hope for.

With Sorrow,

Risa

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Note: 私はこの悲しい物語が正確であると信じています。 これは書いて苦痛だった。Cultural references with parentheticals, geographics without.

The JR Seishun Juhachi Kippu costs a little more than ichi-man [ten thousand yen]. Offered during the holidays, it allows one to ride as many trains as desired for five days – excepting the Shinkansen [bullet train]. The intent is to help university students get home affordably. Like most things I found there, I perverted the ticket’s intention to suit my tastes. School and home both were foreign concepts to me by the time I got to Japan anyway. Driven out of both you lose the taste for them.

Its name, in translation,  was “Youth Eighteen Ticket”. Chiaki and I were both well past that stage. I was pushing thirty and she was probably past it. Yet neither felt connected enough to have anything better to do during the new year’s holiday, than to ride around on Japan Railways like loser college kids. Except we had no place to return to, no one to greet us at the station. An adventurous spirit in lieu of solace.

In Japan, New Year’s is supposed to be spent with one’s family visiting shrines and making mochi [rice crakers]. Perhaps Chiaki blew off such plans because she just liked me. Simple loneliness makes more sense. We both had affects that thrust us into sharp relief against the conservative background that surrounded us. In the Japanese parlance, we were both nails that stood out from the plane. Needed to be pounded down.

For a Japanese woman of her generation, Chiaki was about as close to a “hippie chick” as one could get. I remember her always in long flowery skirts and permed auburn hair. She had a little place in the mountains, near Gotemba, mostly for the view. She had no reservations about being with a foreigner, although I believe I was the first she’d known in a while. As I admired her essence, I saw the longing in her and tried to relieve it. Recognized the feeling all too well.

In many ways, she was the most emotionally distinct person I knew in the prefecture. Growing closer, she let her honne [true feelings] out a bit more than I was prepared for. Probably thought a gai-jin [foreigner, literally outsider] would prefer she dispense with the tatemae [decorum] that frames life in Japan. Vulnerable people take chances – like an impulsive five-day train tour to edge of the island. While everyone else was going home, we ran away. Such are the wages of alienation.

On the evening of December 30th, 2004, we met at the train station in Fuji city. We knew we were heading west, with Hiroshima as a goal [500 km direct, though longer as train tracks followed Honshu’s jagged coastline]. She gripped my hand tighter as the night train pulled into Fuji. It was small and cold.

We must have been quite a sight. The tickets did not guarantee  seating and with new year’s upon us, the “home liner” was standing room only as it rumbled down the Tokaido line. Japanese do not go in for PDAs either, so I am sure we turned a few heads as I pawed at her on the floor of the vestibule. We were both excited and impatient as the train whipped past the smaller cities along the Honshu coast. I leaned against the cold doorframe and held her tightly, watching Shizuoka’s industrial corridor melt into the soft country side of southern Aichi. Dawn broke over Nagoya, where we decided to take a break. I pulled her into an alley and kissed her hungrily. The energy of the adventure still new enough she did not resist.  Going from impulsive to reckless proves an easy transition.

In the daytime, the trains ran local. They also terminated at odd places, like Gifu where we picked up some drinks, and Maibara – the end of the Tokaido.  Trains ran slowly through Kansai, as the density of the population demanded each bedroom community be served during the morning rush. Though the going dragged on the commuter rails, there were no assigned seats. Since we boarded first, we were able to sit down (in a chair at least) for the first time in twelve hours. I put my arm around her and we leaned on each other and tried to fall asleep though the constant braking jarred us every ten minutes. The whole metropolitan landscape surged in intensity as Kyoto approached, apexed in Osaka, and dissolved into green hills once Kobe was behind us. Dazed by motion and  alcohol, the snowy climes of Hyogo emerged in a blur as we gained elevation and lost temperature. We grew quiet and weary from the constant vibrations.

The landscape became rugged and snowcapped. Foehn winds kicking off the mountains blasted us awake every time the doors opened.  She shivered and laid her head on my forearm. I was too tall for her to use my shoulder. She shut her eyes and I stroked her hair, regretting that we did not have time to see Himeji castle as the train pulled further west into Okayama. There, the first  foreigner I had seen got on the train with his girl. I sized her up, preferred mine, and wondered what had brought him here. Gai-jin play the comparison game all over the country, always considering whether the other has a larger piece. I had little to envy from such countryside expatriates, they were always the most peculiar and usually went native if they stuck around.  Never my style, as my linguistic ability will attest. Too tired to actually engage in conversation, I watched them get off a few hours later at some snowy village station. Even when they were also onboard, we continued to receive the bulk of the stares. I felt immune and Chiaki played along, or grew too exhausted to care about the rurals’ appropriations of her choices. Suppose it does not matter now.

Hiroshima stood in the last purple twilight of 2004. We stumbled out of the station and somehow found the hotel Chiaki booked for us. After almost twenty-four hours of motion, the rhythm of the railway continued to course through our blood. We purged those vibrations as night fell.

Chiaki waxed repeatedly about Hiroshima-no Okonomiyaki [Japanese pancake noodle dish done in the regional style, supposedly the best version of it], so it was imperative we head downtown to find the authentic griddle. We found one that satisfied her and I drank a beer, smiling politely. Walking back to the hotel along the river, we held hands in silence, catching timid glances at each other like school crushes. The ride and the release put us out of sorts – almost not believing where we were in that moment. Or in my case who.

As we passed the Peace Dome [atomic memorial], a light snow began to fall. Chiaki laughed and stretched out her arms to catch the descending flakes. I smiled knowing this was the equivalent of a “white christmas” for her. I spun her about and we danced a step before kissing in snowfall. In a place where everything felt limited by propriety, this moment achieved the unvarnished expression of our sentiments. In that sense, we were perfect for ten seconds. More than one usually is allowed each year, in my experience. Proved fleeting, like all things. Japanese know this well.

On the first day of 2005, we took the ferry to Miyajima. The red pillars jutted out of the water in a symmetrical precision that could move even the most indifferent barbarian. This being the most important shrine in the region, we milled through thousands of pilgrims and had our picture taken at various locales. I marveled at how jaded we stood in contrast to this ancient place. Chiaki lit incense and while I washed my hands according to the ritual. In spite of the crowds, we found a certain peace staring into the water.  We were on holiday now, relieved we had no trains to catch. Yet somehow I knew we were already leaving the station.

We rambled back to Kansai and used up the rest of the tickets touring about until we ran out of money. We weren’t broke, but for typically officious reasons the Japanese ATMs refused to dispense cash during the holiday period. We also got on each others’ nerves after ninety-six hours in direct proximity and kissed good-bye at Fuji station. The next time I visited her in Gotemba, she had put our photo on her desktop. I knew then I could no longer salve her lonliness. Thought ephemerality pervaded Japanese culture. Her heart was not part of that territory. I could not chart it. Not where I was going.

Six months later, Chiaki arrived unannounced in Osaka. I took her to an Izakaya [Japanese diner] and tried meekly to explain. The next day, I left her tears at the station. She took the Shinkansen home. Gomen Nasai, Chiaki-Chan…

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