Thursday, October 14, 2010

One of the Crowd - 'A Year in Fukushima' Post #2

Pop Quiz: Which of these things is not like the others? Christmas, your birthday, Happy Hour, Income Tax Day. Think hard before you decide, because your first guess will be wrong.

I can already hear the smartypants answers.

'I got it! It's your birthday because it's the only one not capitalized!' Wrong, grammar police, everyone's birthday is capitalized. 'Okay wise guy, then it's Christmas because it's the only one that's religious!' Great, here comes the ACLU. 'Tax Day, of course,' the level-headed majority will confidently assert. 'Because it's not fun.' All right, sure, the lead-up isn't a party but come on, who doesn't get a kick out of sticking it to the IRS once a year? Come on Uncle Sam, fork it over. It's even better when a guy like Dubya starts tossing everyone an extra $300 to offset the ugly budget surplus he inherits.

'Then the answer must be Happy Hour, because,'s the only alliterative event, ha ha!' Not for Joe Blow born on February 4th or Sue Blew born on November 9th.

The answer is in fact Happy Hour. Because it is the only one that happens more than once a year. Until you have kids that is. And then it becomes a once-a-year occasion, and like all the others a very special event indeed.

IRS audits notwithstanding.

As birthdays and Christmas and Happy Hours are celebrated with as much fervor here in Japan as Labor Day is in the States, and I honestly have no idea when Japan's Tax Day is, I have been forced to find other yearly occasions to look forward to. My favorites are springtime cherry blossom parties, sumo tournaments and October. Why do I like October? Used to be because of my birthday, until I turned 40. Now it is because October is when Fukushima holds its annual Aki Matsuri, their Fall Festival.

I had only been in Japan six weeks the first time I witnessed the barrage of drums, flutes and people in split-toed booties shouting and pulling huge wooden carts draped with red lanterns through the streets. At this point even a trip to the 7-11 was still a relative voyage into the unknown, if only for those unidentifiable chunks of food floating in square metal tubs filled with murky brown liquid next to the register. At my first festival, standing in the middle of a swarm of people shouting words found in no existing Japanese dictionary and taking pictures of the backs of each others' heads with their cell phones, I felt I was in another world. And indeed I was. This, I thought, was why I had come to Japan.

Fast forward to the following Spring. A student of mine asks me if I want to go out for yakitori after class. 'Have you ever been to a yakitori bar?' she says in the exact same tone people use when they ask me, nine years after moving here, if I am able to use chopsticks. 'No, I haven't,' I answer truthfully and thus without a hint of sarcasm. An hour later we were walking into Hanawa-san's yakitori joint.

I mainly listened and filled my face as my friend (she was very nice but this was not a date as far as I was concerned) and Hanawa-san spoke in a language I still struggle with to this day. What did they talk about? To this day I don't have a clue. It was only once we'd left that my friend explained that Hanawa-san wanted me to join their neighborhood group for the festival that Fall. I stormed back inside to tell him 'Hell yeah.' Then I had to wait for my friend to come in and translate.

That Fall I walked into what was to that point the greatest day of my life in Japan. Everyone swarmed around me, smiling and shaking hands (it's funny, I could just tell they weren't used to shaking hands, with anyone). They asked me my name and my age and my blood type. Someone handed me a beer. Someone else slipped a happi (festival jacket) over my arms and onto my shoulders. The older women hid their huge smiles with their hands; the younger girls giggled and snapped pictures with their cell phones. Little kids plucked at my arm hair. And all I had done was show up, with a bag of fruit from the supermarket and a bottle of mid-range sake which Hanawa-san hurriedly placed next to the mountain of food and the forest of sake bottles already on the table.

Before we set out for the streets I was ushered up the ladder to the top of the dashi (the wooden wagon with the red lanterns all over) so Watanabe-san could take a few souvenir photos for me. Later on I was told to climb aboard again, this time to sit at the O-daiko, the huge drum, and pose for a couple more memory shots, this time with Hanawa-san. Aside from this – and the ambitious flow of beer and sake still being poured my way – I was left to mix in as just another member of the Ban-se-cho crowd.

Kind of prophetic.

This past weekend I participated in the Fall Festival once again, the seventh time I would don the dark blue Ban-se-cho happi – though I'd have to pull it on myself. Everyone still knows my name, except for the young kids who weren't even born the first time I joined the party. Sadly, there are still some people whose names I don't know, which is a bit inconvenient not to mention potentially embarrassing when I have to ask one of them from the back of the dashi for another beer. Yeah, this is my seventh year...yeah, nice to see you again...Um, what's your name again? That's right, of course, hey anymore asahi in that box?... Most everyone says hi to me when I show up now, but they no longer swarm. The girls can't be bothered taking my picture, they've all got text messages to send. I even have to get my own sake half the time. No one offers anymore to take a picture of me on the dashi, or even just let me pound on the taiko a little. 'Just get back there and start pushing,' they say. The only time I go up on top now is to help clean up after the girls have had all the fun riding around town singing and laughing and eating and drinking and not having to push. I am invited to climb the ladder at the end of the last night of the festival every year though only to help haul down the impossibly heavy generator that has been powering all the light bulbs in all those red lanterns.

With two sons now I've become even more invisible.

But I think I rather like it this way. The rock star treatment was fun the first time around – and as I continue traveling Japan it still happens occasionally. After seven festivals, though, it would be pretty odd to be regarded as anyone special. And in Japan, where the common lament among foreigners is that making them feel like foreigners is what the Japanese do best, I feel pretty good about being regarded as just one of the Ban-se-cho crowd.

Though I'd still like another crack at that taiko.

Odds and ends:
That first year I decided not to spring for the $100 for my own Ban-se-cho happi, thinking I might not be around the next year. For seven festivals I've asked to borrow someone's extra happi, giving the same excuse every time. Meanwhile my mom has one in a closet in New Jersey, an impromptu gift from a tipsy Hanawa-san at a party after my wedding. I could steal it next time I'm home, but then I think nah, I probably won't be in Japan much longer...

On the third and final day of the festival everyone gathers in the morning to carry the Mikoshi, the miniature shrine, around town on their shoulders. This mikoshi is wrapped in white and purple cloth, has a tinny, rattly rooster frozen in a permanent squawk on top, and weighs about the same as a Volkswagen. This shrine is mounted on four long 6x6 pieces of black-painted wood, which rest (bounce, really, or slam down) on the shoulders of as many people as can squeeze under it. As I am taller than most Japanese people, mine is the first shoulder the Volkswagen slams down onto with each collective step we take, and by the end of the day my spine resembles a piece of macaroni. I also have a permanent scar on one shoulder. (This year I passed on the mikoshi.)

When a family member passes away, it is customary in Japan to refrain from taking part in any sort of festival for the year. Sadly, Hanawa-san was conspicuously absent this past weekend.

The day after my first Aki Matsuri I spotted myself in the feature picture on the front page of the Minpo, Fukushima's newspaper; I was talking to my then-girlfriend Mayumi. This past Monday a very small me was in the front page picture again, along with the rest of Ban-se-cho and a few thousand other people. This time I was carrying my son.

As with every other year, I'm now sitting at home, wondering if I've joined my friends for the last time.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Marking Time - 'A Year in Fukushima' Post #1

The running joke (no longer funny if it ever was in the first place) is that my life in Japan amounts to an extended working vacation. Really, the only funny thing in this (funny ironic, not funny chuckle-snort) is that the term working vacation makes no sense to me. Either (a) you are on vacation but you are so busy or wound up or both that you bring your work with you (‘Come on Dad, let's go in the water!’‘Hold on Jimmy, just gotta clean up this report and fudge I mean balance the quarterlies.’) or (b) you are extremely unproductive and/or the people in the surrounding cubicles have threatened to stage a walk-out if you don't stop resting your nose on the top ledge and saying in your Mr. Magoo voice I see you've been playing Farmville again and your boss as a last resort before canning your butt has sent you off to see how you perform in what he calls an 'alternate environment.'

Or (c) you have landed a job in a foreign country, which feels like a vacation but the reality is you go to work and then you spend your free time in novel ways until you have been abroad so long the novel has become routine. And you decide you need a vacation.

Personally I prefer vacationing in places I've never been. My wife has taken such a liking to family though I find myself heading back stateside more and more. Having babies she wants to show off only intensifies her strange affinity for New Jersey. This past month, however, we spent in California, taking advantage of an invitation to a friend's wedding and the generous hospitality of my sister in San Bernadino. I've always thought if I ever move back to the US it would be somewhere out in the wide open west, despite the underlying cultural epidemic grounded in over-sized pickups, reality TV and tattoo magazines. Bottom line though, I'd much rather be a couple hours from Yosemite than a couple minutes from Wal-Mart.

When I was in college in Washington, DC I would go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas break. Getting off the highway, driving down Route 10 and Ridgedale Avenue and Cambridge Road and into my driveway, I would look around at everything that hadn't changed and marvel at how different it all seemed. At night I'd lay down in the same bed I'd slept in my entire life, and even with my eyes closed and the room dark it all felt different somehow. Even with that same sag in the middle of the mattress. Going from Japan back to the States gives the same sort of effect, only on a magnified scale. Why are the people at the airport so surly? The New York subway has gotten so grimy and dirty. Hey when did the girls at the bars all get so chubby? To be fair, the same sort of thing happens when I return to Japan. The muzak at the supermarket has never been as annoying as it was this morning.

But this is all prelude. Being away from a place we are to any degree familiar with, and then returning to that place, the way we see and perceive things – and, if we care to, the way we think about our surroundings, from the material to the intangible – it all tends to change. Two weeks ago the apples in the Safeway in San Mateo resembled all the apples I'd ever seen before, yet now they were ridiculously shiny, which made me notice how perfect the entire produce section looked, which stirred in me a momentary sense of gratitude for having been born in a land of such plenty, though I then began to wonder how natural all this natural food really was. And it has probably looked like this since before I was born, I just never thought about it until I spent some time perusing the markets of southeast Asia. Two days ago, back in Japan after a month in America, I looked at a rice field and saw something I'd never seen before.

The rice looked the same as it always does in the Fall – tall and golden and top-heavy. Bending down, pointing out to my son how the color meant the rice was ready to be harvested so we can eat it, something else entirely occurred to me.

This is how I have come to mark time.

When I was a kid the constructs of weeks and months were defined by artificial means: Summer is over because school is starting; sales on candy, Halloween's on the way; songs on the radio mean that soon it will be Christmas. Super Bowl, Opening Day, Fourth of July fireworks. We go to the beach every August. These are the things that ushered in the seasons. As an adult the signals are less spirited: TGIF and long Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends; mowing the lawn and shoveling the driveway; sarcastic birthday cards. The seasonal weather of course can not be ignored – unless you live in a place that has none – but even these can seem to defy our ability to clearly perceive the passing of time: Summer's over already? God, will the cold ever let up? Where the heck did Spring go? And the weeks and months and years march on, right under our noses.

Japan has established her own markers: company bonuses in April and December; six sumo tournaments a year; work-related gatherings called Bo-nen-kai, which translates into 'forget about the year parties' and amounts to eating and drinking with your co-workers in the spirit of collectively accepting the fact that everyone has basically sacrificed their lives for the well-being of the city water system or the department store or the oil seal manufacturing industry.

Yet in Japan there are also more sublime reminders of the passing of time and the eternal essence of existence (if I may wax esoteric). There is the springtime tradition of O-hanami, well-known even outside of Japan as the eagerly-anticipated custom of getting together with family friends and colleagues to eat, drink, talk, sing karaoke and otherwise enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the flowering cherry blossoms. Some people may even pause to appreciate the short-lived blossom season as an allusion to the fleeting nature of life on Earth for all living things, though most people seem to be more interested in simply having a good time and letting off steam and forgetting that they have sacrificed their lives for the good of the city water system.

Another Japanese remembrance of time tied to nature is that the vernal and autumnal equinoxes are official national holidays. And they do not move them around to allow for three-day weekends either. June 21st is on a Tuesday this year? Okay, work and school on Monday then a day off to enjoy the sun as it hangs over the equator. That is, if Dad isn't going in to work to check on the water flow valves just to be safe, and little Hiroyuki isn't going off to cram school for a special eight-hour pre-calc tutorial to make sure he's ready for the middle school entrance exam next March.

As I am neither preparing for any sort of entrance exams nor have I sacrificed my adult life for any utility whatsoever, thus nullifying my chances to truly appreciate meteorological days off, to receive bonuses or go to Bo-nen-kai, I see my time passing in rice and peaches.

The phenomenon is certainly not unique to me or to Japan; people who work closely with the land or the sea, who watch and depend on the heavens as a matter of health and survival, will probably measure time's passing similarly. Only it is something I never experienced until I came to Japan. And it never really occurred to me until I walked past that rice field two days ago.

My wife's parents live on a peach farm, and are able to grow a tremendous amount of vegetables for themselves. What I suppose I knew but never appreciated until I started hanging around the farm is how certain things grow at certain times of the year. In the cold of winter people are outside hanging persimmon to dry and taking in the hakusai, a lettuce-like leafy pale green vegetable that goes into so much winter-time cooking around here. It's fresh, it's organic, and my mother-in-law can do wonders with it. But it only grows for so many weeks; when there's no more hakusai to be had, I know that Spring is on the way. Which means strawberries will for a while be plentiful and cheap. As the peach trees begin to bud in April it is time to start working on them. It takes a couple of weeks to pare down the number of peach buds on each branch of each tree; fewer peaches on the branches mean larger peaches, not to mention much less work in June when the peaches need to be individually covered in bags made of old newspaper (there's a company who makes them and sells them by the hundreds of thousands, and that's all they do) to keep the sunlight off them so they don't turn red and lose their sweetness. For forty years my wife's parents tended to over two hundred peach trees – about a hundred thousand peaches. Every year they put those little bags on the peaches. One at a time, by hand. When my father-in-law got sick two summers ago we all pitched in to save the family's harvest and income. I now have a monumental respect for farmers.

After a relative respite in July the peaches are ready for picking in August. No problem, I figured. I was all thumbs getting those stupid little bags on those stupid little pre-peaches but I can certainly pick them and put them in crates. Or so I thought until I saw that peaches don't grow at all the same speed. On every tree and every branch, peaches grow at varying rates. This is still a mystery to me; I wanted to ask but my mother-in-law just told me to get picking. So we made our rounds, checking all the peaches on all two hundred trees, picking only the big ones. The small ones we would get on subsequent rounds when they were bigger, heavier, and thus worth more as they sell by weight. But wait too long to pick them and they grow soft and are therefore unsellable as they won't make it through the transportation process without getting brown and mushy and nasty. When the picking is finally done that means Fall is just around the corner. This means that the nashi, the Japanese pears, are just about in season. Then the weather turns colder and the apples begin to ripen.

Through all this, the rice fields turn from swaths of brown to massive squares of irrigated water, to pools with neat lines of green sprouts sticking up through the surface. Soon the fields are thick with rows of growing shoots, which turn a beautiful green before becoming  heavenly golden sheaves. Which are in due time cut and gathered, leaving bare fields of earth once again. And another season has passed.

This weekend Fukushima holds its annual Inari Shrine Fall Festival. We will go downtown and meet with friends to drink, talk, laugh and dress up in our traditional festival garb. We will yell and sing to celebrate another year's blessings, pulling through the streets these huge wooden floats, dripping with red lanterns on all sides. The sound of drums and flutes will fill the air. Age-old Japan will be visible everywhere, mixed in with the hum of electric generators for the lanterns and cases and cases of Asahi beer. It's Fall in Fukushima. Winter is on the way.

I biked past that same rice field this morning, on the way to the supermarket. There's nothing there now but two huge squares of mud, lined with the brown remains of the rice plants that have been harvested once again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How I'm spending my 10th year in Japan.

I read somewhere that Dan Brown spent nine years researching and writing The DaVinci Code. Nine years! For all the research and writing. Dan, you shameless slacker. I've devoted an entire nine years just to the researching of the various shades of mystery comprising the cultural anomaly known to most outsiders as Japan. (Those of us who live here tend to use the more accurate term ‘This F+++ing Place.’) Only now do I feel the time is right to nail down and expose in words the secrets imbued in this silly society.

It's true I've paused now and again to offer my sometimes witty and always superficial insights into my adopted home – an underdeveloped habit which by all evidence has kept both people who have been reading my stuff irascibly satiated if not outwardly hostile. But beyond my early, impetuous mass emails to the folks back home and my recent and impossibly ungraceful back flip into the blogosphere (and, if my memory is correct, a sake-induced letter-writing frenzy somewhere in the middle there) I've managed to keep my trite perceptions to a blessed minimum. Today, however, I decided this had to change. I'm not sure who would want to follow me through a year of unraveling life in small-town Japan, but why let that stop me? I've traveled alone before.

I've been meaning to do this since those first few days and weeks here in Zipang, when everything was fresh, new and exciting – like the sight of a pair of a drunken salarymen on stolen bicycles, clattering wire baskets and aluminum fenders, rumbling over the bumpy yellow blind people strips in the sidewalk, flying at me like two human knuckleballs (this all makes sense once you've experienced it, trust me). But just like assigning my students homework and filing my income taxes, week after week and year after year writing it all down was something I just never quite got around to.

True to rational form, I get to it in the midst of a wild bout of jet-lag.

They say by and large people are driven to act not by the potential for gain but by the fear of loss. And it is the prospect of leaving Japan, the ever more tangible sense that my time here is running short, that spurs me on to this year-long endeavor. (It was also the idea of maybe moving back stateside that put me back in touch with Uncle Sam after seven years.) (I'm still leaning toward Europe though.) I've got no schedule set. I don't have the vaguest idea when I might find myself packing up the family and heading for the horizon. But returning to Japan yesterday, more than any other time I've returned from a place that made infinitely more sense to me, I felt the need to take a good look around me, to see and understand this f+++ing place better than I have for the last nine years.

Ironically, starting now, this may be the most uninteresting of my years here in Japan. This is not to say life will be boring with two little boys in the house, one of them just beginning to crawl and the other preparing to stomp on his fingers if he goes near his toys. But this sort of thing is the same anywhere, just with slightly different toys and health care systems. In previous years I biked over mountains and alongside oceans; taught doctors, businessmen and professors during the week and chatted with farmers and fishermen on the weekend; lived and worked in a dozen cities and partied in many more; witnessed centuries-old traditions and slept in temples twice as aged; dated a truck driver. And while much of this makes for good stories to tell (and better stories to keep secret) they comprise a disjointed tale of what it means to live in this ridiculous, amazing land.

Just what I need, another writing project to add to the pile.

If either of you is beginning to worry (or thank the Lord) that I am changing my tune here, let me add that I fully internd to continue tossing out half-witted, entirely superficial bits from time to time, about whatever I feel the world needs to know at that specific moment. But starting today – or okay, whenever the jet-lag eases – I'm going on a year-long literary walk around Japan, in search of the things I've missed these past nine years.

I hope you'll come along.

Both of you.