Thursday, August 31, 2006

Onna Hirona

I’m glad August is over. It’s just not my month. Last August, Krazy Katherine (a.k.a. India Girl, where I had met her on vacation) descended upon Tokyo for what would be my most unpleasant week that year. You won’t find a blog about it. I tend not to write about romance or disaster. But just days after I wrote about both, my heart would ache again. I figured the best way to forget about dating disaster girl would be to hit the clubs and find a new onna, or woman.

Hirona and I had made eye contact earlier, so I moved in when I saw an open seat on the couch next to her. Her friend was passing out on a pile of bags on the other side. I know enough Japanese for the first three minutes of any conversation, but I quickly reverted to English to verify what I thought I heard.

When she said she lived in Omiya (50 minutes north of central Tokyo), I added that’s not far from where I teach. Then she said the name of her former high school. It sounded familiar. It was my school! She woke up her friend and former classmate to share the news. His English was good, too. I speak with authority when I say they that didn’t learn it in high school. We both graduated in 1998, but it seems like some old timers have been teaching since the school’s inception in 1947 (and dressing like it, too). We played the “do you know so-and-so sensei?” game, and one rang a bell.

“Hey, do you still have your school uniform?” I suddenly asked.

She looked at me and smiled. Then I looked down and frowned. What kind of perverted question was that? I’m not into that. I mean, I’m a teacher. I can’t be into that.

“You must be very popular at school,” she said.

“Well, sort of. With the high school girls a little bit. But my junior high kids could care less about me. In fact, a few girls openly dislike me.”

I told her she should come for a reunion. Then I had a better (read: worse) idea. Displaying affection at school is strictly forbidden. In fact, displaying affection anywhere while in uniform is strictly forbidden. Last year two junior high students were suspended because they were seen touching lips in town.

“On the last day, I want to kiss you in the middle of the courtyard at school,” I said. “Bring your friend, too.” It would be a legendary sayonara moment, and the final affront to what has been a less than pleasurable teaching experience.

Wanting to speed up that moment, we danced with the help of several gin and tonics. Things got a little blurry. She kept checking on her friend. And I kept loosing her in the dark crowd until I thought they had left.

I flipped open my phone and scrolled to “H.” Hidomi…Hika…Hillary…Hiro…Hirona (X). I use that designation to remind myself never to call someone with whom I politely traded numbers. But I was totally into Hirona. Then I remembered I had met a different Hirona earlier that night.

“You’re the most beautiful guy I’ve seen in Japan,” she had said at the bar. She obviously didn’t get out enough, so I walked away after she asked for my number.

I couldn’t believe that I had spent hours with the good Hirona and forgot to get her number. All I knew is the region where she lived. That gave me one chance.

I pushed out of the club, and made a beeline to Shinjuku station. I bought a ticket for a train I would never take. The time printed on the stub was 04:45. I went up the platform, eerily silent and hazy just before sunup. It was still too early for service, but I wasn’t going anywhere for a while. I planted myself at the foot of the stairs to the two tracks with trains bound for Omiya. She would have to pass through here to get home, or so I hoped.

My phone buzzed with a message. It was Hirona. Hirona (X). I kicked myself, and maintained a vigil. The trickle of partygoers passing by went in and out of focus. I kept anticipating a purple and white striped shirt would come bouncing along. She was just a normal girl, nothing outstanding other than our high school connection, but the thought of another lost opportunity made me hold out hope. The odds of finding her in the world’s largest train station were slim to none, but that hadn’t stopped dating disaster girl’s ex-boyfriend from randomly spotting us together outside of it.

Two-toned pinging noises from the ticket turnstiles increased with frequency. The station gradually revved to life. Takao, 6:35, track 7. Utsunomiya, 6:42, track 4. Shin-Kiba, 6:44, track 5. Chiba, 6:51, track 11. Announcements flashed for trains fanning out from the world’s largest metropolis. At 7:00 I conceded defeat.

The station attendant looked at me. Yes, I had bought a ticket from the same station that I was now leaving. It was a long story, and didn’t feel like breaking out my survival Nihon-go and asking for “money, please.”

Walking home, I began murmuring the “Somewhere Out There” song. It had been playing in Jonathan’s restaurant (think Denny’s) where I had eaten alone just prior to clubbing. Alone again under the pale sunlight, the evening had come full circle.

Time to climb another mountain....

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Mt. Mitake

Continued from last post.

The next morning I awoke at 6 a.m. with a dry mouth and pounding headache. I had to get out of here. Anywhere but here. Fresh air would clear my mind, and hopefully erase last night’s episode.

An aging orange Chuo line train would lead me out of town. Actually, I technically wasn’t leaving metropolitan Tokyo, but was heading for a corner remote enough to wipe the bars off my cell phone.

I rode the train for two hours to the edge of my Japan Rail map. At Mitake Station I set out on a two-mile walk, some of it up a 15% grade. Nobody clued me into the bus service until it passed me. A six-minute cable car ride hoisted me up to 930 meters. After a 15-minute walk through a mountaintop village, I climbed 300 stairs to reach my destination: Musashi Mitake Shrine. A red X had replaced blue bars on my phone. I felt better already.

Here at this Edo-era shrine to the God of farming, I sat down and scribbled two pages of notes that evolved into the Dating Disaster blog. I capped the pen, and chugged a water. The cool mountain air buoyed my heavy heart. I had the day to myself, and was unreachable to the outside world.

Mount Mitake offered peace, quiet, and solitude. Although thanks to elementary school day-trippers, it was hard to feel alone. Packs of them in color-coded caps clambered up and down the stairs, pausing to raise thermoses of green tea to their lips.

I initiated konnichiwa greetings, and got high-pitched group responses. I’ll always remember the pudgy boy lagging behind. Sweat rolled off his face as he puttered down the stairs.

"Konnichiwa!” I said, breaking his concentration.

He looked up from the handrail and stared. “Who are you?” he sneered in Japanese. Kids are priceless.

The only good thing about the humidity was an excuse to spoon up kakigori, my favorite summertime treat. At a shop on the mountain I asked for green tea flavored shaved ice, which wasn’t on the menu. The only flavor I could make out was strawberry, so I settled for that. I relaxed at table with a panoramic view of the green valley below. I had just been hiking in the woods, where I sang to a captive audience of trees and rocks.

The friendly proprieter urged me to return again, and on my way out handed me seasonal brochures with the moutain ablaze in autum orange and spring’s pink cherry blossoms. So long as I don’t have any more dating disasters, I’ll relish this as my only visit.

For more scenes from Mitake-san, click here.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Dating Disaster

Wednesday couldn’t come fast enough. I had been waiting a week for dinner, over which time we had traded about 30 text messages. She was the perfect combination of lively, stylish, Japanese, proficient in English, and just a year younger.

Not yet hungry for dinner, we decided to get a drink first. The Hub, a British-style pub chain offered us a barrel to stand over in the middle of the smoking section. Hardly the right atmosphere. The next place sounded more promising. The only thing I could read on the sign for the fifth floor restaurant was “private dining,” written in English.

We checked our shoes at the door, walked past a waterfall, and then on top of a dry rock garden encased in glass. She did all of the ordering from our private booth.

My cell phone buzzed with a text message, but I didn’t budge. When hers buzzed, she looked. We chatted over beer while shelling wet peanuts (wet seems to be the custom here). She buzzed again, and typed back. Korean style pancakes arrived. She buzzed. Tuna and scallion maki rolls arrived. She excused herself. Fried cartilage came. I nibbled and waited.

When she returned, I remarked on the cartilage’s crunchiness as being kori-kori. She smiled and asked if I liked it, but didn’t hear my response. She was buzzing.

“Your friend?” I asked, forcing a smile.

“Yes,” she said while fiddling with her phone.

Perhaps something bad had happened. It had, but for me. In one of the busiest parts of a city home to of 32 million, somehow her Japanese ex of two years had spotted us together. He was mad, and letting her know about it. They had recently split, but not for much longer.

“You miss him?”

She took a sip, buzzed, and rose up clutching her phone. I stared at my beer. It was half empty. I have trouble finding my friends at a designated time and place, so how could this be? I’ve had chance encounters here before, but doesn’t this sort of thing only happen on TV dramas? A week’s worth of anticipation had evaporated within an hour. Just as I was about to reach for my wallet and leave ¥2000 ($17) on the table, she returned. We silently headed to get our shoes.

She removed my Pumas from the locker and arranged them on the floor. She turned to pay the bill – in its entirety.

Gomen-ne,” she apologized.

I stood by the elevator waiting for her to get her shoes, also Puma.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” she said flatly. “Gomen-ne.”

I slammed the down arrow button. Outside, neon lights everywhere added to my shock. Cars, signs, vending machines. Everything was lit up and swirling in my mind. People rushed by from all directions. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Sitting on the sidewalk with a beer sounded good. Then I could roll into traffic.

Instead I walked home and had a second chance encounter. I bumped into Takahiro. His piercing feline eyes always make me feel uneasy. A tank top with the phrase “I’m not gay, but my boyfriend is” clung to his muscular chest. His shiny face reflected the neon lights. He has a plastic look, but is too young for cosmetic surgery. Jess once said that he was 24, but he looked older, perhaps because he had been playing the scene for too long.

Takahiro was pacing on the corner. Diego hadn’t arrived, and couldn’t be reached by phone. Diego had Taka’s esctacy and his money. I told him something bad had just happened to me.

“Ohhh, what’s wrong? Did you get AIDS?” he shrugged as if popping advil would do the trick. Takahiro has a great way of putting problems into perspective. After I told him of my heartbreak, he shared his dating news: yesterday afternoon he spent 12 hours banging the brains out of some German guy.

“But yesteday was Tuesday! Didn’t you have work?”

“It was my day off. I needed it. I was so tired from the weekend.”

He then gratuitiously recounted his clubbing-esctacy-meth-afterparty-sex-filled weekend. He flipped open his phone to show his conquests of chisled white men who could have walked out of a Calvin Klein ad. They were just from the weekend.

Was this supposed to be making me feel better? We ducked into the nearest bar for a beer and waited for Diego. Once the goods arrived, Takahiro dumped me. I walked the long way home.

* * *

“Go Tell It on the Mountain” is a gospel song. That Jesus Christ was born doesn’t have anything to do with my situation, but the title is fitting for how I coped the following day. Find out next week.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Under the Bridge

My favorite place in Tokyo is not where you’d expect. It’s not in the shade of blooming sakura trees lining Ueno Park. It’s not atop the Mori Tower sky deck. Nor is it on the tranquil grounds of an Edo shrine. Rather, it sits unceremoniously in the shadows, below bustling Tokyo life.

My favorite place is underneath Ryogoku Junction overpass. Here, Expressways 9 (Mukojimasen) and 6 (Komatsugawasen) merge over the Sumida River as vehicles circulate into the beating heart of Tokyo.
The overpass marks the border of Koto and Sumida wards. Sky blue tarpaulins of displaced urban campers color the opposite bank, which lies in Chuo ward. This spot along the Sumidagawa terrace offers glimpses of mundane activities in three different wards at once. Here I reflect on my relationship to this dynamic city passing me by.

To be frank, the Sumidagawa is no Seine. Commercial barges traffic this working river with unremarkable views, but look into the murky water and the Sumida’s character will surface.

This corner of the river’s terrace is outfitted with child-size concrete stools encircling a round table. The shape reminds me of a small-scale Stonehenge tea party, without the teacups or bucolic English countryside. Instead, trucks rumble above, sounding off at the bottleneck traffic. An ambulance requests permission to pass (It’s Japan, of course they ask – and politely so). I gaze up at perfectly aligned rows of rivets in steely harmony with their surroundings. Water laps the expressway’s concrete pillars below. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

This is also the point on my jogging route where I pause before turning around. Shaded from the sun, I catch cross-breezes while stretching out my throbbing knees. I stop to survey the land and water, and the multi-colored bridges spanning the two. Pod-like water buses shuttle people between Asakusa and Odaiba. I wave to small pleasure craft operators or even the rare foolhardy jet skier.

Activities under the bridge vary depending on the time and day. During the week, salarymen chow down on o-bento. Anglers cast lines. A retiree practices Tai Chi. A homeless man rests out the midday heat. An amateur artist paints watercolors worthy of framing. A woman strums a traditional string instrument.

In the evening, couples pose for pictures as the sky glows orange. Under the cover of darkness youth ignite firecrackers, leaving charred remnants as evidence.

On warm weekends, the aging set in bucket hats and parasols stroll along the riverbank while shirtless men sunbathe on the benches. In winter, the homeless wrapped in blankets angle lounge chairs towards the sun. On Sunday, which seems to be designated dog-walking day, tiny pooches groomed to the teeth strut manicured paws and hair barrettes to owners parading their own canine pride. Wet noses rub; compliments are traded.

I value the Sumidagawa terrace for its colorful touches, like graffiti, bridges, and blooming bushes. The terrace provides ample jogging space, sheltering me from hard stares I otherwise receive on narrow city sidewalks when darting around old ladies laden with groceries. This narrow patch of green and gravel disrupts the mismatched concrete blanketing Tokyo. A bamboo grove or mountaintop it’s not, but beneath Ryogoku Junction overpass is my choice for a Zen moment.

Click here for a slideshow of scenes from the Sumidagawa.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

Making Sense of Japanese Supermarkets

I arrived in Tokyo from New York tired, alone, without a job and, worst of all, hungry. Eerily realistic plastic food displayed in restaurant windows wasn’t much help. I was clueless as to what the replica was imitating. Even picture menus puzzled. I needed someplace to inspect goods up close, and preferably under bright lights. I needed a supermarket.

Here, senses of smell, taste or touch come in handy when sight alone proves insufficient. Unable to crack Japanese labels, I play the grocery guessing game, which entails crossing fingers and tossing an item into my basket. I’ve made two memorable mistakes.

I have an acute weakness for dried baby sardines inserted into Japanese snack mixes. True to my American roots, I buy in bulk. Elated upon discovering an extra large bag of little fish, I unwittingly purchased – and partially consumed – cat food, which got a rise out of a Japanese friend who declined a nibble.

I am also guilty of gulping what I thought was a can of refreshing “Italian lemon and California lime” soda. A few minutes later it hit me – in the head, as I stumbled around my apartment in a Suntory stupor.

A chore anywhere else in the world, grocery shopping in Japan transforms routine into cultural phenomenon. My local branch of the Akafudado chain is no exception. The experience begins right outside the supermarket’s automatic doors. A lady with a generous smile peddles a cart of ¥100 (85 cents) skewers of grilled animal parts unknown. Some are tasty, others crunchy. One triggered a gag reflex.

Skewer lady competes with the singing meat display near the frozen food aisle inside. A portable stereo mimics the meat. It chirps at shoppers, “we like meat, take your pick” in a treble that only Alvin & The Chipmunks can match. One might expect higher prices and lack of music to drive skewer lady out of business. But jingles can backfire.

The voices were cute, at first. But the tune turned repetitive, and then harassing. Now I restrain myself from gouging out eardrums with nearby toothpicks just to make the voices stop.

I take refuge out of earshot in the snack food section. Despite serving sizes fit for a gerbil, rice crackers, cookies and traditional sweets come individually wrapped within larger packages. It’s the equivalent of encasing each Dorito in plastic (which hasn’t been done here…yet). While the concern for freshness is admirable, the means to achieve it are an environmentalist’s nightmare.

Indeed, Japan is the land of small portions. Although now I’ve adjusted to thinking of their size as sensibly adequate, I used to eat at McDonald’s just to get enough calories. Sympathetic supermarket workers have taken notice.

“Delicious,” I said to one, satisfied after sampling his seafood salad. I reached for a container marked ¥462 ($4), but the employee pulled it out of my hands. He pried open the lid to slip in additional shrimp, jellyfish and cellophane noodles, but left the price sticker unchanged.

Another time, a young man at the gyoza station flagged me down for a taste test. After dishing out seconds, he directed my attention to baskets lined with clear plastic bags filled with what looked like melting intestines.

Ika,” he said. It sure didn’t look like squid. He jabbed a toothpick into the basket brimming with pinkish worms, and extended the slimy offering. Although raw fish is a favorite food, even I paused at the sight of this freebie.

“Mexico,” he said, jiggling it. Mexican squid? What the hell, I thought, closing my eyes as it slithered onto my tongue and down the hatch. “Indonesia,” he pointed at the next basket. Just swallow, I told myself. “Japan,” he said with hometown pride, reaching for yet another toothpick. After cleansing the palate with some seaweed from Hokkaido, I thanked him for the world tour.

Free samples subsidize my strategy of eating supermarket cheap. Why pay more when you can’t afford it? Cutting costs on food in one of the world’s most expensive cities is a necessity. At Akafudado, I barrel down the aisles with Olympic athleticism in search of tofu, gyoza or anything left unwrapped. Insider’s tip: making a few rounds amounts to a free appetizer.

I then head to the rear of the building (dangerously close to the singing meat) to select a bento box entrée. I regularly set my cell phone alarm to ring for 7 p.m. This begins the evening competition with salarymen and bargain-hunting biddies to snatch up marked down items. One reduced by ¥75 (65 cents) catches the eye. I never know quite what I’m buying, but bento beggars can’t be choosers.

While queuing for the register, people peer into my basket to see what the foreigner is feeding on for dinner. Doritos and Coke? On the contrary: bento, edamame, walnuts and sardine mix and a drink. I feel the urge to defend my strawberry milk selection by staring back and saying, “Yeah, well nice radish, lady!” It’s usually the thickness of my lower leg (or daikon ashi, but don’t say that “radish-legged” insult to a woman).

The checkout line gives me time to whip out my point card. It offers few financial rewards. Instead, the card confers status. I deliberately fiddle with it to advertise that I live here, too, and am not some stray tourist with the temerity to forage among the locals.

Arms saddled with plastic bags, I exit past the ¥290 ($2.50) apples. Murmurs of singing meat fade away. Skewer lady’s grill smokes as a customer looks on. Although often ignorant as to the species of mammal, vegetable or fish I’ve purchased, one thing’s for sure: grocery shopping in Japan sure works up an appetite.