10 years

March 8, 2011

Ten years ago today I set foot in Japan for the first time. I had forgotten it’s been so long, but last weekend, looking for a sketchbook, I found my journal with “3.08.’01-3.21.’01″ on the cover. Ten years is a nice reminder that things get as close to whole as they can. Plus I can roll out some photos.

Rather than share stories, like the arrests or the one with the double-six pack and the rubber ducky, or wallow in nostalgia for Kratie’s ramen shop with the Motown jukebox, instead I have this, a thought on traveling capped with a story:

Unlike some people with a deep interest in the place, I first went to Japan by chance. I didn’t want to move there. I’d never really wanted to travel at all, and as a kid in the back pew I feared God would make me a missionary somewhere humid. Yet by chance in college, my town had a sister city. I made some Japanese friends and got into the language. Then two other friends left to teach there. When one had a spare ticket, I scraped together some cash, took off from my dead-end job, and found myself in Nagoya.

An unexpected gift: the trip cut me loose. I had lived much of my 20s paralyzed, for reasons I will never understand, but I got free when I got off the plane. Two breezy weeks of parties, puking in an elementary school bathroom with a traveler’s flu, struggling up a mountain in a Daihatsu clown car, and sushi by the river, all whisked by. Then I had a moment in the check-in line for my return flight. Nagoya’s no Changi, but I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the scope of the place, connections to everywhere, like I was inside the lens when it zooms to wide, or on the edge of the world stretching all the way out. When I got home Japan felt more real than home. Bumbling around two nowhere towns for two weeks threaded the place into me, so for the first time in my life I was tangled not just in the barbed wire I’d grown up with.

Of course, Japan’s an island of peaks and lowlands. My two friends had transformed, escaped the traps in their old lives, and found brilliant new ones in a brilliant new country. Those two weeks live vividly in my memory, still a high point in my life. In my journal, I wrote it down in lyrical prose mawkish enough that I’d like to pat younger me on the head and flick the thing into the ocean. In my defense, it was Spring, when the sky pukes cherry blossoms.

But then the rainy season kicks in, followed by summer in the lowlands’ thick, stagnant air. You get maybe a week of nice fall colors before the bitterly humid winter. And you get a visa and a job and there’s paperwork and boneheaded managers and piles of laundry, and when you get deathly sick on your birthday your girlfriend takes care of you, cleans your apartment even, but you both secretly know you’ll go your own ways after dragging out the fights in a couple of months. Japan’s not brilliant or new, just another place you find yourself despite how foreigners like me have rubbed it down with glitter. I should have learned to welcome entropy by that point in my life, but I still had notions.

After my contract ended I went back to traveling, from Osaka to Chiba to Shikoku to Kurume.

Traveling you see the world and wear yourself out. I was trying to exhaust the possibilities and myself; I had come to Japan to transform, to escape the traps in my life, armed with someone else’s country and an elaborate script of self-mythologies. So I worked on farms and burned through cities. When my visa expired, I left, worked and saved, and came back. When it didn’t work I did it again.

I still didn’t know that change comes not with noise, effort, and action, but quiet. Fortunately, traveling a lot means you’re trapped with yourself and the noise in your head. So there are just two options. One’s to hear it and stop listening, which I still didn’t know to do. The other? Muting it for the people you meet.

I met dozens and dozens of people. Curious locals on the train, foreigners standing out in the crowd, mad farmers needing a hand, friends of friends of friends welcoming me as I passed through. I always knew I’d go my own way, so our interactions had the sharpness of a camera’s flash. Dark, but light engraving silver with shocked smiles in fierce detail, but dark again. Everything disappears, except for its moment when it just is, when it’s eternal.

(Eternity being “a quality of”, not “a length of.”)

Some people I met just briefly, like the eloquent gentleman from New Orleans in a Tokyo bar. Others became friends, like Miho, my next-door neighbor I never talked to until I had moved away. We all shared moments like eating salmon belly at Pikolo or taking out a tree stump, having an awkward conversation in the Angel Detector (Gautel & Karaïndros, 1992-97), watching Buffalo Daughter in a haze after talking over future plans at a bar. And I seem to have talked to everyone about future plans, mine and theirs, because everyone I met seemed indeterminate. Some were foreign, like the two-meter Mancunian, some local, like Yuki, a photographer biding time as a hosteler. Everyone was moving on. We all knew that the soil back home let you grow in just one or two directions, fenced by accidents of geography; transplanted, it seemed possible to go not anywhere, but everywhere, like kudzu metastasizing across the South. Fortunately, such world-eating drive eventually consumes itself. Then we’re left with our selves as we are, with our valuable wounds and the ties we share.

Speaking of ties, at some point in Japan I heard a Chinese folktale about the “red string of fate,” probably on a TV drama. It ties you to your soul mate, and has become quite the cliché in Asian pop. Maybe different colored threads should tie you to everyone else. Maybe they stitch up the wounds too. At the very least I like to think of one person’s life as the weft threading through others’ lives. Whether you’re the weft or the warp depends on your perspective, and the shape of the whole, whether a tapestry or just rags stitched together in a frayed mess, remains mysterious. Still, I miss everyone I’ve met, even when I’ve not kept up. How strange that we ever met in Japan, that we have fragments like this (click it) scattered through our lives:

This one you can click on and then it's in a room and there are people there and I'm in there and it's a bright beautiful day in scenic Okazaki

To end, I hope I take this with me.

Back in Shikoku, a few years after I’d set foot in Japan, I had a grand day out with a young woman from London. Nothing scandalous–Andy came along. She’d helped run this nonprofit farm for a couple of years, and he and I had stopped by to work for a few weeks. One day we got sick of the rural grind, so we went to dig some bamboo shoots for dinner.

Bamboo’s a miracle, really– it grows anywhere, vigorously, in culms stronger than their weight in steel. If you get to them early, they’re delicious. But you have to dig around the big culms just so. We walked a few hundred meters to a precarious grove and dug around just so.

No shoots. Eventually we asked a neighbor to save us from ourselves. He explained the only time-honored and sensible way of digging shoots. His father’s father had dug this way, take no ko, Japanese tradition, etc etc. He made no sense. Some other neighbors, looking to escape whatever chores had trapped them, came over. Turns out his way was wrong, because each farmer had his own time-honored and sensible way of digging for shoots. They made even less sense. So we all agreed it was a bad day for digging and went our own ways.

Walking home, Andy, Gin and I sat down in the middle of the road. We weren’t tired or anything. We could see rainclouds gathering on the other side of the valley, just over the ridge. It got a touch dark, and then, with wind in the trees and the bamboo, for reasons I will never understand and always cherish, the three of us fell asleep.

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