Thursday, September 28, 2006

Sayonara to Summer

In half an hour? The Japanese aren’t known for their spontaneity, but here Kensuke was inviting me to a BBQ two days after he saved my life. It was the last day of summer before I returned to work. Soon I would only be able to feel the sunshine from the wrong side of classroom windows.

The night we met at DJ’s place, Kensuke mentioned his favorite park near where we live. I counted the homeless people sleeping on benches in Yotsuya Sannencho Park. No sign of grills. No sign of him either.

Once he arrived at our designated meeting point, he led me away through twisting alleys with quiet homes bathed in soft afternoon light. A park like none I have seen in the capital came into view. A bamboo fence enclosed a gravel lot. In one corner, trees shaded a small shrine. Businessmen and elementary school children stopped by to summon the spirits.

Dark splotches dotted the back of Kensuke’s Bob Marley t-shirt. A towel wrapped around his neck soaked up the last of summer’s sweat. Our feet crunched on pebbles as we approached his four friends sitting around a hibachi. Two sat leaning against the fence sharing earphones like Siamese twins.

The cook rose up from sitting on the cooler to welcome me with a cold Yebisu beer. I recognized the tanned and mustached boy from DJ’s place. The grill sizzled with an assortment of meat, which he piled generously onto my paper plate before I took a “padded” seat on a flattened cardboard box.

This being a city that has repeatedly burned down over its long, fire-prone history, cooking devices were banned in the park. Helicopters chattering above added to the cook’s paranoia, which he voiced in Japanese.

“If the police come, you run,” translated a slim 19-year-old who has the Friday night shift at Kensuke’s restaurant. He pulled back his long auburn hair with a tortoiseshell headband and continued, “You are teacher.”

We all laughed. Water sources close at hand quelled any risk of fire. Near the shrine was a manual water pump, and much of this small sanctuary was filled with a dirty pond home to some resilient goldfish and one fearsome Kappa water monster, or so the boys told me.

This mythical creature lurks in rivers and ponds, and preys upon humans by gently sucking out their entrails through the anus (distended rectums of drowning victims is evidence). Only cucumbers can combat a Kappa’s hunger for humans, so pocket a good supply the next time you take a dip.

The hot plate sizzled with pork, sausages, smelt fish, and veggies. A record player studded with Sapporo bottle caps turned out reggae beats. I held my own as we talked in Japanese about various subjects like music, cars, and girls. They said Japanese Olympic gold medal skater Arakawa had a “horror face.” I charged that American Britney Spears was dumb and ugly. However, we came to agreement that Sharapova was one fine piece of Russian meat.

Aside from the imported Jamaican music, the park, food, company, and conversation felt like the real Japan. Although always an outsider here, for a few hours on the last day of summer I felt incorporated into Japanese life.

It didn’t last long. I suddenly urged to cry out in my native language. Surrounded by the Japanese atmosphere, I wanted to reassert my identity. I grabbed my Yebisu beer can, and thumbed away the beaded sweat. I read the English label aloud like I was at a poetry reading. Even the earphone twins tuned in to listen. Unable to digest my words, they captively swallowed them whole.

“You are so cool,” the cook smiled following my impassioned delivery.

I took a refreshing sip before returning the compliment with an empty plate.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Gossiping with a View

Five months had passed since we last screamed at infamous Kanokita School kids together. It was time for a reunion. Ms. Hattori, who was last seen on the blog changing classroom tactics, invited me to dinner and drinks on the 24th floor of a hotel overlooking drab suburbs receeding north of Tokyo.

She showed up in a black suit, and I in a short-sleeve shirt and hiking pants, which didn’t seem to faze the tuxedoed servers. I also came with an appetite for all-you-can-stomach appetizers and drinks. Ms. Hattori came with a stack of 300 loose photos from her summer vacation trip. Seeking school gossip rather than a slideshow, I suggested that we look at them later over coffee, hoping that moment would never come.

Photos or not, she couldn’t tell me enough about the Australian way of life during her homestay in Carins where she brushed up on English and volunteered at some schools.

“Do you know Holiday Inn?” she asked like it was the holy grail of hotels. I nodded. “I ate seafood buffet at Holiday Inn. It was dericious!”

Armed with glossy illustrations, out came pictures of platefuls of half-eaten food (one for every dinner down under), the airport tarmac, bus stops without timetables, a park bench. My favorite was of her with her fleshy host mother posing on red satin sheets. I slugged back another Moscow Mule (quite refreshing in the summer heat), and excused myself to the sushi platter.

With my chopsticks around some squid, she leaned over and told me that I couldn’t tell anyone. About what, feeding peacocks in the host family’s backyard? No, about her entire trip. This wasn’t an ordinary summer vacation. It was a guarded secret that only the principal knew. Apparently Kanokita had taken its toll on the green teacher. Those kids could drive anyone to an early retirement. She flipped open her phone and showed me a picture.

“Looks like confetti on the floor,” I said.

“That’s my worksheet!” she cried.

Ahh, how I miss those kids. Well, she didn’t, and instead of a recommended week of stress therapy in the hospital, she fanagled four in Oz.

Despite the respite from work, she was full of school news. First the good: Kanokita captured the Tokyo tennis title. The young Omiyada “handicapped class” teacher I played basketball with got married. A shotgun wedding was rumored.

Then the bad: one of the 9th graders stole a bicycle. Others were caught smoking on the top floor, having broken a wall and set something on fire. That both the fire and police departments responded was apparently a bigger deal than just the usual visit from Tonka toy-like fire engines.

And last, the ugly: April’s test results were in for Tokyo’s junior high schools. Kanokita ranked last – in the ward, and in the entire city. The average school scored a 70. Kanokika’s rowdy neighbor Nakamizu placed second to last in the ward with a 34. Kanokita scratched out a 30, the lowest of anywhere in the world’s largest metropolis.

The news was confirmed a week later at a fireworks display. For the festival, Ms. Hattori wore her summer yukata, and I wrapped myself in a Burmese longyi, which got more than a few stares on the subway ride over. As fireworks exploded overhead, Ms. Hattori’s friend, an English teacher at Nakamizu said how demoralized her school felt about coming in last.

“But you weren’t last,” I pointed out.

“Well, everyone knows that Kanokita is the worst, so they don’t really count.”

Worst or first, those mischievous kids remain close to my heart.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Night Kensuke Saved My Life

DJ’s party is always a good place to meet Japanese people. Last month’s theme was “virgin honeymoon,” and featured a mural of a pumpkin-headed woman in a mini-skirt swinging an ax. Illuminated under black lights, it came closer to Halloween than honeymoon.

Unlike past events when I helped pass out flyers on the corner to suspected English-speakers, this party was a closed event. The bar was trying to keep a low profile – from the cops. Apparently they had visited on another night, which was enough to spook DJ & Co. of a follow-up at their monthly event.

Usually I don’t have a connection to the people I meet, but I shared something in common with Kensuke. He lives down the road from me, and works at an izakaya in between our apartments. He invited me for dinner two nights later.

Wisps of a goatee decorated his young face. Soft, wide almond eyes invited friendship. He seemed like the sort of person you could become friends with instantly. He dressed like an apprentice in the restaurant’s t-shirt and a tightly rolled headband that crowned his head like a halo. He accompanied the chef on frequent smoking breaks in the kitchen. In 35 years I could see him in the chef’s grease-stained apron with the frying pan in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

The chef, 59 and grandfatherly, spoke just a few words of English, so we stuck to basic Japanese. Not knowing what to order, I expressed basic preferences, namely that “I like fish and meat.” He took it from there. The boiled and bony mystery fish was disappointing, but five assorted yakitori skewers made up for it.

Kensuke brought me a raw egg to use as a dipping sauce for the meat. Raw eggs are a common and flavorful garnish in Japan. I draw the line at eating raw chicken. Away I dipped, only to have Kensuke correct me that only one of the five skewered meats was meant to be egged.

Three hours of limited Japanese conversation ensued. Kensuke asked if I wanted to finish off my meal with some sake. It went down smoother than water. The chef scolded him upon learning that he had poured from the most expensive bottle. Master wrote it off on the house.

The owner of the restaurant had one more present before I called it a night. Master reminded me of someone who would have attended Woodstock. Concert posters, t-shirts, and autographed photos lined the walls. A long, bony face sat atop a lollipop frame. A rolled-up headband also circled his head, and his lips squeezed a lit cigarette.

From a box of individually wrapped sweets, he presented me with a pastry from Sendai. He had trouble opening the plastic wrapping. At a BBQ the next day, Kensuke would tell me that Master was roaring drunk as per usual, although he hid it well. He sliced through the wrapping with scissors, and put the pastry on a plate in front of me. He turned his attention to a small packet that came wrapped with the pastry.

Master’s fingers obstructed my view, but I was pretty sure it was a dessicant, boldly labeled “DO NOT EAT” in both languages. Master cut it open.

“Excuse me, what is that?” I quivered in Japanese.

“Sauce,” he said, dumping black powder onto my white pastry. I cringed. The powder looked like mold, and had some seasame seeds mixed in. Was he trying to kill me? I hadn’t even paid the bill yet.

Although still very much a foreigner, I now see through Japanese eyes. Master’s pastry put me in a pickle. I thanked him for his generosity, and prepared to save face by stuffing mine. My gut churned at what a sense of cultural dignity moved me to eat. I could stomach the aches. Besides, I was still on summer vacation, and had a free day to burn at the doctor’s or hospital if necessary.

I stalled by nusing the last of my sake. I trusted its guidance. I reasoned turning the pastry over and picking at the untainted side, and conceding fullness before I fully poisoned myself.

My hand hovered above the plate. Just then Kensuke came out of the kitchen. He was holding the crumpled packed Master had thrown away. He politely suggested to his boss that maybe the special sauce wasn’t designed for digestion.

Hai, hai, hai,” Master chuckled off the minor mistake, slapping me on the back. He staggered to the back of the room to fix me up with a pristine pastry.

I turned to Kensuke and mouthed thanks. The incident shook me up, not because of Master’s mistake, but at how I had nearly convinced myself to nibble around poisoned food to maintain the important Japanese concept of harmony.

Master and chef bid me farewell, encouraging me to return again. Thanks to a life-saver named Kensuke, I intend to do just that.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Saw Mountain

There’s something about seeing Buddha that always puts me in a good mood. Maybe it’s his restful pose, assuring gesture, or level mind free from desire. Whatever it is, he makes for a good role model if there ever was one.

Although Japan’s population is 84 percent Shinto/Buddhist, it’s a secular society. So unlike other Asian nations, Buddhas are few and far between the massive department and electronic store temples enshrining Japan’s dominant consumer culture. Of Japan’s two famous Buddhas, I already made a pilgrimage to Kotoku-in in Kamakura. Todai-ji’s Buddha in the ancient capital of Nara is even larger (60 feet). I will pay respects later this month when my parents visit.

Rising more than 100 feet is Japan’s largest daibutsu, yet also its most obscure (unreferenced in Let’s Go). Nihon-ji temple dates from 725 A.D., but its Buddha arrived 1,058 years later. This stone beheamouth sits about halfway up Nokogiri-yama, or “Saw Mountain,” so called because it’s shaped like the teeth of a saw thanks to bygone quarries chipping chunks out of the mountain’s face.

The mountain is only 329 meters (1079 feet) high. Getting up took a few minutes in a cable car. Getting there took three hours. To halve my transportation costs, I opted for local trains that required four transfers, one taking an unprecedented 45 minutes (I’ve never had to wait that long for a train here). My destination was worth the wait.

Cool mountain air whisked away sweat as I soaked up panoramic views of Tokyo Bay. Hawks soared overhead in cloudless skies. Sunlight percolating through the leaves lit shady footpaths. I walked alone along mountainside paths, but 1,500 stone arhat figurines (novice buddhas) – each said to have a different expression – kept me company. They were wedged into rocky ledges and perched on trees. Moss, lichen, and faith held them in place. If I had to be a statue (and hopefully not one of the headless variety), this would be where I’d want to sit gathering moss.

Later I found another Buddha-like icon carved into the mountain. A 30-foot high image of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, towered from within an alcove. Dating from the 1960s, however, it’s a recent addition to the mountain’s attractions.

Under the watchful gazes of Buddha and Kannon, I paused for water and to reflect on life. Around 4:30 I climbed down the mountain and happened upon a beach. I stopped first at a 7-11 for dinner: soba noodles, a riceball, and a “freeze lemon -196C” chu-hai (canned cocktail). You know, just the essentials. I sat and sipped on the beach as daylight departed. It wasn’t Thailand, but it wasn’t Tokyo either, and that’s all that mattered.

Click here for more scenes from Nokogiri-yama.