おやすみなさい, 家 /Goodnight House

August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Goodbye Kyoto. I’m on the tatami floor of our little house, waiting around. Outside it’s good weather for broiling chickens in the open air. Hot, I mean. It’s getting dark. The laundry is on the line: couch covers, cushions, towels. The place is an empty shell waiting for some new and lucky soul to move in and sleep on the bed we once slept on, cook in the kitchen we once cooked in.



We’re catching the night bus out of here in 5 hours.

Today was a day. The delivery woman came and took away our bags. The power man came. The gas man came too. I cooked pasta. The gas man came again and said: “NO. Please stop using the gas. I turned it off this morning”. Or was he saying: “I will always love you. Come back to Kyoto and please call me about gas or other concerns.” It could have been either.

Sitting in the hospital again today (a quick unexpected visit – nothing horrid) I thought no, I haven’t gotten any good at understanding what people are saying to me in Japanese. But I am quite a lot better at guessing what’s being said.

The water man came. “Are you done? I’ll turn it off now” I guess he said. I said yes but he could tell it was more like ‘not really’ so he left it on. At lunch time he came again. “Are you done?” he said and I gave another unconvincing yes. The washing machine thud-thudded suspiciously in the dark of the house behind me. Now it’s seven in the evening and the taps are still working. Tomorrow he’ll come again and knock on the door and nobody will come. With relief, he will lift the metal plate and turn the water off. He’ll say: “Oh, they really are gone,” or perhaps, I’m guessing, something like: “Sweet gaijin with your foolish days of water. You were good to this city – come back to us will you? Drink freely from the tap. Float in rivers of the silvery stuff; it comes straight from the cool living pipes beneath this city we’ve both loved. A city one of us has loved and lost.”

But it’s impossible to lose a city, I might say back to him. He’ll gingerly reach out a hand, rest it on my back and say: “Oh, but I am the water man”.

The gas man too, is cruel but fair. I can’t cook here any more and there will be no more mornings waking to the sound of the kids in the kindergarten next door singing good morning, good morning, good morning everyone.

Dance / ダンス

July 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Outside it’s been pouring like a monsoon all day. I watched it sloshing the streets from the train at 9:00 am, from a conference room on the 9th floor of Kyoto Station, from the 4th floor of the hospital on Maruta-machi. Through the open doors of Calori Caffe on Senbon-dori I ate lunch and watched the rain make warm soupish puddles. Beside me in the restaurant a woman in a floral dress performed a tap-tapping therapy on the woman opposite her. At some point they both began weeping into their food and consoling one another but by then I’d stopped noticing.

Before I left, the owner of Calori (glorious, enamouring) poured a generous slush of Calvedos directly into my coffee and told me to take care – sending me off into the ocean with a fresh umbrella and a small packet of meringues. “Who cuts your hair?” I asked her last time I was there. She cuts it herself, with a razor – number three undercut.  I haven’t had a haircut since coming to Japan. Even at home I am afraid of making conversation with hairdressers.

I swam up Marata-machi, past the school kids shining like fish, their shirts stuck to their raw skin.  I stayed at the hospital long after it got dark, pushing aside the heavy pink curtains to look at the sheets of water falling onto the intersection below.

When she checked into hospital  – my girlfriend with the broken (now scraped clean, pushed back together, and held in place by metal and screws) leg – I wrote 友達 in misspelt hiragana in the space on the forms marked “relationship to patient”. My friend. The nurses come and go and say hello to me – the good friend. One of the nurses (charming, alert) is 24. “So young! You are so young,” I say.

We make talk in a hesitant mixture of Japanese and English. “Do you have a boyfriend?” she asks. “New Zealand boys are handsome. Who is more handsome?” I tell her Japanese boys are the most handsome. Shamefully, I have performed this conversation more times than I care to count since moving to Japan and never once bothered to correct a person. “Beatiful,” she says, “so beautiful,” but I don’t know if she means us, or our country, or the beautiful men of Japan.

The very young nurses spend their days tending to the very old and the dying. In every room is the sound of a nurse saying:食べて、がんばって。Please eat. You can eat. You must try harder. Is your stomach sore? Eat. Even with my limited Japanese I can understand these exchanges. Language is unnecessary.  It is the same dance in hospitals the world over.  Hospitals are as predictable as airports.

I think of my Great Aunt in a hospital in Dunoon a few years back. I was staying in her little house, in a sleeping bag on the floor, and I would visit her on the ward every day. Go away, she would tell me. Do things. Don’t be stuck in here with me. Sufficiently banished, I would go up to a castle or park and then come back and tell her all about it. In return she’d fill in the historic details and flesh out my stories. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Argyll and Invarary. The nurses listened too. In their variously stroppy or lilting Scottish accents they’d interrupt with calls for her to eat more. Every time I enter a hospital anywhere I walk right back into that winter, riding the bus around the lip of Loch Eck, looking for stories to offer on my return.

In the Japanese hospital I am not much comfort to anyone. What I want to do is dress up in a sequined tuxedo and dance my way out of the place. But it was a camp dance routine that got us to this point in the first place. A shirtless man dropped my girlfriend off a stage. Every time I wheel her around the local streets in our borrowed wheel chair the neighbors stop to ask what happened and comment on how painful it must be. They say “Did you fall off your bike?” and we shake our heads no and mime the dangerous act of dancing in high-heels.

Last weekend – before we knew that the broken leg would need surgery – I wheeled my girlfriend all the way to a packed out performance by the Takarazuka Revue. It was standing room only tickets for us but we’d brought our own chair so the joke’s on them.

Here is where I might be tempted to declare with some honesty that Japanese otokoyaku are the most handsome men of all.  They are women dressed as men, embracing the style, form, and strength of the perfect romantic male lead. This year the all-singing all-dancing all-female Takarazuka Revue celebrates its 100th anniversary as a company. One hundred years of scandal and gender flips and elaborate feathered costumes.  Takarazuka is so successful that they have five casts performing all over the country in multiple purpose-built theatres to audiences that sell out well in advance.

What I do at the hospital to cheer myself up is imagine the nurses in their starched white hats and  uniforms as a can-can can line of musumeyaku (the girls or “daughters” of the Takarazuka company who play only female roles). In the elaborate theatrical musical of our current lives I would strut virtuously from ward to ward bringing chocolates and cola and boxes of youghurt back and forth to my wounded love. I would belt out huge solos about the boldness and justice of our love and gesture in manly ways to all the swooning nurses as they walked by, enamoured of me.  I would jostle and wrestle and laugh with all the male doctors – all of them dressed in matching blue sequined scrubs.

At night when I leave the ward, my girlfriend’s bed emerges from the centre of the stage on a huge raised platform, lit by a single spotlight. It moves higher and higher. The audience waits, watches, crunches their toes with the anxiety of pretending not to know how our melodramatic story might end. A single, ringing note emerges from the O-circle of her mouth; hundreds of glittering stars fall from the makeshift sky.

Takarazuka, as one might have guessed, has an almost entirely female fan base. While there are no male performers in the company, the owners, directors, choreographers, set designers and members of the orchestra can be and are men. For years the company has apparently attempted to circumscribe the lesbian connotations of the show and control its reception. But what can you do about a show where women kiss other women?

True fans choose and obsess over a particular cast member, joining her fan club and viewing her every performance. Fan clubs meet together in the lobby before shows. They sit together and watch together and wait together for a glimpse of their idol when the show is over. We were lucky enough to see otokoyaku (male-role-actress) Kazuho So play her last role before she retires from the company. I thought as she delivered her final song that members of her fan club might storm the stage or weep, but they simply applauded loudly, arduously, in perfect time.

The fan clubs are just one aspect of perfectly orchestrated marketing; much like pop-sensation AKB48, the music and the shows are attached to cults of personality. In the Takarazuka gift-shop located in the theater building you can buy photographs of cast members living their normal lives. There are magazines detailing their favorite clothes and recipes. Their images outside the shows are as finely crafted and rigidly policed as their images during performance. And the company carefully skirts the boundaries of appropriate, exploiting the androgynous appeal of the actresses with tantalising, sultry posters – knowing full well the power and signification of the poses the women assume. This is how to have your dyke and eat it too.

But the show is  also performative on another front, allowing the actresses to rehearse something peculiarly Western; the modern half of the double billing we saw oozed with something of the Vegas variety show – without any apparent sense of irony. In the melodramatic Western Musical performances the company is known for the women are performing not as Japanese men but as sauntering, sultry Frenchmen out to seduce, or as double-breasted-suit-wearing American gigolos come a’ calling.

And what are all those women in the audience looking for? I looked around me when I was there. They were middle aged mothers of probable children; housewives out for a Sunday’s escape; sisters; couples (certainly); groups of old school friends; ladies who lunch. Inside the theatre we were all transported but I’m not sure they were going to the same place I was. Certainly there is something unmistakably sexual happening on stage for those who are there to look for it. But there’s also something painstakingly traditional; the very nature of the boy-meets-girl love story they insist on telling here necessitates a particularly stringent (if blatantly undercut) enforcement of old gender roles.

After the show I rushed about the gift shop, staggered by the curious piles of memorobilia. Overwhelmed and unsure of what to buy I came away with a post-card picture from Takarazuka’s rendition of Gone With The Wind. I intend to send it to my sister, who is a fan of the original.

Takarazuka. Nothing could be further from the reality of my dingy, sequin-less post beside the raised bed of my partner of five years, waiting for her to brush her teeth and spit into a cup. Or from my weary cycle home through the rain, her dirty laundry tucked into a plastic bag in the basket of my bike. That is unless you consider the remarkable performances we’ve made in our lives for the various colleagues, hotel clerks, nurses, or mild acquaintances who believe us to be the closest, the very dearest of friends. It’s sometimes that much easier – that much more empowering – to pretend to be something you are not.

A Third Woman in Black.

June 21, 2014 § 2 Comments

I’ve transferred to another train.

Beside me is a woman all in black and another one in black opposite her. And beside the woman opposite is the third woman in black.

They are going, one might suspect, to a funeral.

But just when you think they might be traveling together one of them leaps up and out of the doors and onto the platform.

I’m not sure even the two of them are together. If they are, they aren’t speaking. One doesn’t, I suppose, on the way to a funeral.

Oh, but here again is my stop. Goodbye you ladies in black traveling alone together.

In Search of Lost Time

June 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m riding the train home. Next to me a man in blue jeans and a blue cotton shirt is playing with his phone. On his cotton lap there’s a cotton bag.

The sky has turned plain old cloudy and a little electric. Everything is newly green with summer. Green is bursting out of everything. Green is lining the streets and trees and fields and the sides of overgrown buildings. Green is in people’s hair and in their teeth and up their noses. Dogs are starting to bloom in other more eclectic shades of green: olives, teals. It is all very much summer. Right now the sideways light of afternoon is shining through the leaves and over the rice paddies and all the green has gone electric with light.

I’m thinking too of a curious moment from yesterday.

In one of my Friday night classes there’s a kid with a pet hamster named Hamu. Last night he wrote “I don’t have a pet” in his textbook. I said, “But what about Hamu?”

There was a long pause.

“Whats’s ‘dead’ in English?” he asked.

“Oh no! He died. I’m sorry,” I said solemnly.

Another pause.

“I’m sorry” he said.

It struck me later that he probably thought I was telling him to apologise. He wouldn’t know that we use ‘sorry’ to commiserate with a person who has lost something.

He thinks, therefore, that I made him apologise to me for killing Hamu the hamster.

I’m thinking of the comedy of escalating death in Barthleme’s story ‘The School’.

You haven’t read it? I’m sorry.

Oh but here is my stop.

The 14 Minutes / 14分

June 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m writing from a train. It’s 8:36 a.m. Saturday. The sky is a puff of damp hot miso soup or even paste – white and creamy. Beside me a girl in cotton slacks and a blue cotton shirt is performing the ritualistic taking of medicines – a little paper bag of powder, two pills, now a cap-full of cough syrup. I could lean over and tell her all about my pneumonia – performing again that ritualistic attempt to narrate myself away from the trauma – a commuter with an albatross of a different sort.

But I’m busy and she has a weak lung to hide from us.

What I’ve just realised is that regardless of whether I catch the 8:04 train, or the 8:18 train to work I will arrive…… at exactly

…..the same


Don’t ask questions about how this could be – it’s complicated. Just listen: I have wasted 14 minutes of my life every Saturday morning since October of last year. That’s close to 8 months – or 32 weeks. Shave off five days worth of holidays or days off and that’s still 27×14=378 minutes. Or 6 hours and 18 minutes.

How strange to feel suddenly alert to waste. もったいない is the Japanese I think, for ‘what a waste’ I’ve made of this here. Is it? The breakfasts I might have enjoyed. The showers I might have had. The lost tumbles in and out of a loosely defined sleep in tangled, happy sheets. The pure sleep. The sleep. Here go hours of my life surrendered on these tracks. Riding and riding and riding through the stupid mornings.

This mistake takes the shape of every other dumb mistake I have made – a summation of my life’s inattention to the obvious – a barking great iteration of how we come to lose things.

Oh but here is my stop.

The Fox Boys / キツネの男の子

June 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

There were three of them. We heard them before we saw them – whooping in the forest. And we laughed at the sound of voices crying << 行きましょう >>  and << 頑張る >> in the valley. “Let’s go.” “Go hard”. In a moment they were behind us as pounding footsteps and then we were moving aside to let them pass.

They were three boys like foxes, thin as poles and holding sticks to keep them standing as they ran through the woods of Wakayama. When they passed we moved aside and laughed and smiled and they laughed back, slowing just briefly to flash the whites of their grins at us.  They disappeared down the path, their packs shaking their backs – tails up.

Once they were gone the woods went quiet. We were walking the Nakahechi trail on the Kumano Kodo.  On our backs our tent, sleeping bags and food – our everything for the four days of camping.

Here is lore: beware of trickery in the woods. Stop at a popular picnic spot with two onigiri: one for yourself and one for the spirits. Never eat the last bite of your meal or drink the last sip of a sake cup. The foxes might be hungry. If they are unappeased they might play tricks on you – assuming human form to lead you away from your path.

That night we made camp and slept zipped together in our purple, too-thin sleeping-bags, cold as tofu. In the morning they were there again – our fox boys. We saw them walking toward the trail head. “Walk with us” they called, laughing. We knew they’d be running half the way. I said, “We’re taking the bus to the trail-head on the other side of this tunnel. We’re cheating a little today.”

“Oh you are cheats!” the fox boys laughed back at us. For a moment I doubted myself. I wanted to follow them up that steep incline and away. But I knew, even leaving at 7:00 a.m, we’d be pushing it to make the next campsite before nightfall. They were gone before I could answer.

We took our time that morning, stopping often to adjust our packs, reading every sign. At 10.00 we laid out a picnic mat beside the track and sat down for morning tea. Again we heard them before we saw them. Then they were running down and around a bend and almost into us. “Hello,” we cried. They’d caught us already.

They were three friends down from Tokyo – young company workers. They’d be running the track all the way from Takijiri on the West coast through Kumano Honga Taisha at the centre and then down to the waterfall – Nachi Tashi – on the South East tip.

One of them had been to New Zealand. He’d done the Milford in mid-winter: “I was in a river, in my underwear, holding my backpack up over my head to stop it getting wet. I was totally frozen and I thought oh, I have planned quite badly here.”

Together we took photographs and ate scroggin and talked about the walk.

After that we thought of them but didn’t see them again. We left the cool mysterious shade of the woods and the light changed. The afternoons’ walking took us through rolling hills and tea plantations. The farmers had laid out their tea for drying and all along the streets were blue tarps and the earthy smell of sun on tea leaves.



We saw, finally, the big gate marking the end of our day’s hike and the mid-point of theirs. They’d have run past it and on to something better but we stopped and took time, looking at it first from the hills above and up close in the late afternoon.



That night in our tent, inspired by the boys, we discussed the possibility of pushing on to the next part of the trail. What if we just kept on walking all the way to Nachi Taisha? We’d intended to bus down there but if the boys could walk it couldn’t we? But the rain began in the early morning and carried through the day. Our plans changed and changed again; we were lost on the wrong trail and came accidentally down into a sleepy onsen town. Any hopes of making it to the next leg were stupid and dashed. It was as if the departure of the fox boys had cast a new damp cloud over everything.P1100764

Other folks might say the spirits of that peninsula kept us safe. By the time we mistakenly reached the onsen town we knew that one of our jackets wasn’t waterproof. P was soaked through to the bone. Instead of an unplanned day hiking cold and unprepared through the mountains we took a long hot soak and ate perfectly boiled onsen eggs.

Down at the spot where the eggs were cooking a man carefully plunged a giant sack of them into the water. “Nobody, NOBODY, can eat 50 eggs” I said quietly to myself as I tried to sneak a quiet photograph of this mysterious figure.


For the rest of the weekend I thought about our fox boys and how they were doing in the rain.

What was it about those boys? They reminded me of friends I had in university. But I couldn’t tell if my relation to them was one of recognition or admiration or envy.  Joyous, lithe, fit as bucks. How good to be three friends laughing in the woods – far away from that life trying to be a salary man in the rush of Tokyo.



Japanese For Everyday Life Lesson 77: Collecting a Medical Certificate for Your Girlfriend After She Breaks Her Leg:

June 15, 2014 § Leave a comment


Small memory tricks and mental associations will help with your ability to recall vocabulary later on. 


Ok. Medical Certificate is しんだんしょ. SHINDAN-SHO. Shindan-sho. Like dance your shin for sure. Shindan-sho. Shin dan-shoshindanshoshindansho. Ummm so “I’m here for P’s medical certificate….”. No, just “Please prepare P’s medical certificate.” That would be:  ピの 診断書 おねがいします.



Shin-dun-shoe please shindanshoe I need a shindunshoooo for you. Loo loor ra roo roo boo. Shib-dun-sho, for the P P please. Wooo Hoo ship-dun shoe. Shabu shabu shabu shabu.


Always remember to smile. 


“こんにちは。お元気ですか?。。。 ピのしゃびしやぶおねがいします。”

(Hello. Are you well? P’s thinly sliced pieces of beef boiled in water please.)

Space / スペース

May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Every day when I get off my train and emerge from the station I see this painting on the ground.

This is a space for the disabled and for people with broken hearts, I think. Is your aching heart very big? Does it encompass the full size of your chest? Stop here for a moment and rest.

Hey. Cheer up. Things could be worse. This is also the space for the once abducted. Some people have been implanted with sonic beacons. All night their bellies strobe in twin white lines – sending an SOS out across the universe. Other people try to catch their attention  – people standing much further away. “Stop strobing” – they yell, waving their arms about, “Can’t you cut that out?”

This is a space for the alienated and for the heart-broken.

On the other side of my commute not two blocks from my house is a much smaller sign I pass almost every day. It’s down at about ankle length and fastened to the side of a spotless building that went up a couple of weeks ago: THE POINT OF ESCAPE EQUIPMENT DOWN NO PUT AROUND HERE it says.


There’s a sadness here too. “No put around here no more,” I hum to myself when I pass it. These are the long lost and more true lyrics to that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song. “Whatever you’re looking for, HEY…..no put around here no more.” The building is some kind of medical office. Nurses and doctors stand outside in their uniforms smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking from their cold cans of BOSS coffee. They further obscure my already very mysterious sign with their small ankles.

“Hey! No put around here!” I want to say to them, but I’m sure they can read the sign for themselves.

They don’t care. You can’t police a space with signs unless the signs are very very good, or well connected to some kind of emotive social contract.


A man gets on a train with a broken heart. He sits down in the green priority seating area, four places reserved for those who, through physical fate or through lack of emotional will, can no longer partake wholeheartedly in the daily Battle Royale for a commuter seat. Opposite him is a woman who is happy and has one leg shorter than the other. The third of the four spaces is occupied by a marhmellowed old lady with a shopping trolley. Now get this clear: she only sat down after four people coaxed her to the seat and insisted she take it. “I don’t really need it. I’m fine. I really don’t,” she mumbled. She tried to give the seat to the declining grey haired businessman before finally collapsing breathlessly into it and saying quietly: “Just for one stop”.

To admit that you need the priority seat is to confront something in yourself that you might not be ready to accept.

To be offered the priority seat is to learn what people can tell just by looking at you.

The fourth seat is occupied by a schoolgirl in a softball uniform who wasn’t raised well enough to know not to sit here. She cannot possibly have a broken heart AND be playing Candy Crush. But then I suppose girls’ softball teams are a breeding ground for sorry romantic disappointments. She masks her pain well.

Four people, united in a seating area but ignoring one another for fear of recognition.


These are the boundaries we all police and sometimes cross.

At a concert, in the dark, you see the line for the ladies’ toilets stretching like a pulsating anaconda across the floodlit field and you dart quickly to an empty men’s stall. It’s thrilling!

At an unfamiliar tourist attraction in broad daylight you wonder nonchalantly into a toilet and are confronted by a wall of faces asking: “What are you doing in MY TOILET?”. When this happens you feel like you have invaded something sacred. Blood rushes to your head as you walk out backwards, do your business in the other toilet and then run to tell your friends what’s just happened.

How powerful the social contract of gendered spaces. How difficult to trespass or overcome.

At night, out and about, you know instinctively when to hold your partner’s hand and when to keep your body language to that of the ‘just-friends. “Hey!” somebody might yell at you from a bar across the street: “No put around here!” And they might spit on the street afterwards, for emphasis.

You don’t need a sign for this.


Our social spaces are choreographed with steps we’ve all rehearsed since childhood.  The dance is more rigid when there are hundreds of people crowded on the stage. And when it comes to the great dances of social etiquette Kyoto station is the Metropolitan Ballet. Osaka Central? Well that’s Tap Dogs.

The signs. I can’t begin to explain the discombobulating array of greens and yellows and whites and text and announcements. Boarding locations are marked by white triangles and numbers one through seven. Stand on the white triangle behind the yellow line. Stand on the green octagon behind the purple flower. Put one hand on the orange oval before pressing the button to open the door to the fast train. Turn off your phone. Focus. Don’t mess this up!


But the broken-hearted person on the green background? That’s my absolute favorite sign. It’s a quiet reminder in this busy world, rushing, caught on platforms between trains and deadlines. Stop. Take a moment. You are surrounded by people – some happy, some sad, some drowning under the weight of an aching heart. Look at their faces and make a small space for them.

Department of Governmental Gratitudinal Encouragement

May 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

A while back I get this note in the post; it’s a small green rectangle and it says, in a polite little block off to one side:

¥24, 570

It’s not a bill because there’s no bar-code. RULE: If something shows up at my house with a bar-code that’s how I know to pay it. If I’m lucky it’ll say ガス in big letters (that’s Japanese for GASU). That’s how I know I’m paying my gas bill. Anything else I just pay. Somebody could send me a bill for a cat-grooming service and I’d probably go out and pay it. I might recognise the word “cat”, but being unable to recognise any of the rest of the words I’d just assume it had to do with a local stray-cat tax and pay up.

RULE: Don’t question it. Questions only lead to interactions and interactions lead to humilations. Best practice is to go ahead and pay for the neighbor to have her cat washed.

Back to the green rectangle with the number on it: after some deductions the most I could fathom was that it had to do with healthcare. I pay a bit in contributions to the national healthcare system here. When I moved to Kyoto the bills got so big that my boss (who subsidises these payments) made me go down in person to the local body office and ask them if they’d made a mistake. Here’s how that went:

“This bill…..ummmm…… my company buys it……so…….ummmmmm.”

(この会計は。。。。あの。。。。私の会社は。。。。  かえます。。。。だから。。。あの)

The clerk looked at me sideways through one tired eye. Her other eye looked elsewhere. But kindly. She hadn’t understood what I was trying to say but she was getting paid to sit at that desk. I soldiered on, motivated by my deep disproportionate fear of authority (i.e. my boss): “It’s a little expensive. Is is a little expensive? I’m sorry, I don’t really speak Japanese. Thank you.”


Conferring ensued. Papers were rustled.

It WAS a little expensive, they said. MY GOODNESS, they said (or the Japanese equivalent, but expressed mostly with eyebrows). Dramatic apologies were made. I felt vindicated. Paperwork was done. A team of people assisted in rectifying the horrific error. Stamps were issued. Bows were solemnly taken on both sides. They would send me a new bill. I apologised again for my bad Japanese and for inconveniencing them. They apologised for not speaking English and inconveniencing me with their being inconvenienced. The whole thing took hours. I felt elated. I had managed my finances. I had interacted!

A few weeks later my newly revised bill came.

My contributions were reduced by approximately ¥700 a month for the remainder of the year. That’s a bi-monthly cup of coffee.

Not Worth it

But back again to the green rectangle of paper with the number on it: a mystery. I mulled over it for a while. When these bits of paper arrive I like to put them in my tote bag and lug them around with me until their symbolic weight becomes unbearable and I resolve to ask for help. Finally I asked my boss to look over the document and explain it to me. I dragged it sheepishly from the bottom of my bag, crumpled and stained with days of anxious fondling.

“Oh this? This is just a reminder from the government explaining how much money they spent on your healthcare last year. They started to send these a few years ago, to make people think about it.”

That’s right! Earlier this year I spent a time at the good doctor’s office getting my chest x-rayed and telling people I was a little hospital.

This year the Japanese government paid:


towards my treatment for bacterial pneumonia. The paper stating the fact is very unassuming :


Hey, it says. You there. This is what it cost us to treat you this year.

Granted, I paid about five times that amount in national healthcare contributions. But I don’t mind so much. Japan has a lot of old people. I’m happy to pay my share of Yamada San’s 電気** treatments.

“Sit back Mr. Yamada!” I would like to say. “This one’s on me.” And maybe, just maybe, he’d smile at me with no teeth and say nothing.

Here then, no more nor less profound than a rabbit poised half-way between a hand and a hat, is my thought for today: what if YOU got a letter every now and then reminding you how much your very own government spends on you?

What do I think of my little green rectangle of gratitude-encouragement? This could be good: the masked costs of healthcare unveiled to nations of ungrateful open-mouthed reprobates – and perhaps equally a government department held accountable for its spending. But it’s also a little curiously specific.

One of the largest employers in the world is Britain’s NHS (not far behind MacDonald’s, The People’s Liberation Army in China, and the US Department of Defense).  What if  Britons got a little advisory in the mail saying “Oi, you lot on the NHS. Pipe down now! Have I got healthcare-related news for you!”

But I’ve been to a British post office. This sort of extreme efficiency is unlikely to happen. Sorry England. I’ve never loved you more than when covered in snow but your post-offices can be godawful and you know it. Postman Pat is either a curiously ironic national icon, or a performance piece we have yet to truly comprehend.

The NHS on the other hand – the original inspiration for Queen Ursula  in “The Little Mermaid” – is a sea monster of beauty and wonder to be celebrated and feared by all.

Once I was on the tube in London – The Northern Line – and a drunk middle aged lady was saying, in a slurred voice, to her hairy elderly date “You can’t swim the Channel dear. You’re a fool.It’s simply frozen!” Her stockings were thick and tight and so was her skirt. Her head lolled. Her date looked at me as if he were looking through a fish-tank of murky water. “And you can’t get leaches on the NHS. They’ll never pay for that lot. No. YOU SIMPLY CAN”T GET LEACHES ON THE NHS.” Her voice was high pitched, travelling eerily through the dark tunnels as the doors opened and closed onto empty winter platforms. Her date looked towards the side of one of my eyes. “No,” he said. “S’pose not.”

I knew that deep in his slowly beating heart he wanted to swim the Channel in winter. And at my expense.

“Go for it. I’ve got this one”, I’d say today if I could.

I’ll pay for the pneumonia. I’ll even pay for leaches, good sir. I’m happy to pay for it all.


*You think the Japanese is put here to be impressive, but I put it in to help people that genuinely speak and read Japanese to laugh harder at me better understand the comedy of my situation.

**This is some kind of exciting electricity treatment. Whenever I was at the local clinic getting my IV cocktail there’d be a pack of old guys waiting behind a pink plastic curtain for their “denki”. They’d be chatting away happily with the nurses about the weather – which – confusingly – is “tenki” in Japanese.


Catch It. Just catch it.

May 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

I saw her face first – bright and looking at me from out of the dark. She was crouching near a gutter on the street, her arms outstretched toward something. I was walking home and a part of her face caught a streetlight. A moment later and a little closer I saw her dog. It was skinny and small and brown. I don’t know dogs. Was it a miniature greyhound, perhaps? Some kind of thin skeletal racing dog? The woman was looking up and her small ratty dog had assumed an awkward pose. His neck was arched back so that he could look at me, but his hind was down and his legs were parted. It was as if the dog had taken modeling advice from Tyra Banks and was now trying and failing to assume a Tyra pose.

“It’s a bit awkard,” Nigel Barker might say to the dog from the judge’s table. “It doesn’t say ‘sexy’ to me. You look…..scared”.

It was a warm, dry evening. The streets smelled of sweet pot plants blooming and the damp soil of recently watered gardens. I was walking home from the train station and simply enjoying the mild night air. The woman appeared to me quite suddenly, down there in the dark. Instinctively I smiled at her and issued the standard “こんばんは” as I approached.

Closer still I saw it. The turd. It was oozing slowly and delicately from the polite dog’s floral anus. I would like to say that I heard the hot soft turd plop onto the plastic in her outstretched arms, or that I could see the lines of heat radiating from it but it was dark and I had my earphones in. Were I to stand before a jury as a witness certain issues of reliability might be drawn out. I might even doubt myself for a second. But no. Really. I saw the woman catch the dog’s solemn parade of – what do you call it? Poop? A log? A brownie? Dookie? –  birthed like a moist brown baby into her waiting hands.

And what a receiver she was. Hands at the ready, something told me she’d never missed a catch in her waking life. With perfect professionalism she rustled that hot mess into her plastic bag and dissapeared the thing away into the depths of her handbag faster than a nervous preacher doing his business at an orgy.

And that was the moment I knew that living in a good neighborhood – nay, a good society – means knowing you can trust your neighbor to catch her dog’s falling shit before it hits the concrete curb.

I’d been listening to a collection of David Sedaris stories that week, and in one story he mentioned that he’d once seen a women in Tokyo wash down the pavement with a bottle of water after her dog marked its territory there. This surprised him, but to me it has become the norm. I would balk if I saw a person walking a dog in my neighborhood WITHOUT their trusty bottle of hosing water. I’ll admit I was a little taken aback when I saw the woman gently manhandle the turd from hand to handbag without so much as a wink but now, after some serious consideration, I think this is how things should be.

People all over the world are picking up their dog’s stools even as I type this. And yet so often even the most well-intentioned citizens leave a skid and it’s bound to get on your foot. In a fully realised social contract the only truly polite thing for dog enthusiasts to do is to stop that load from ever touching the ground.

Now I am decidedly NOT claiming (as so many textbooks and over-zealous Japanese teachers responsible for fifth form field trips do) that Japan is the mystical land of the polite. No. Everywhere has a version of polite. Here in Japan I have seen a woman pick the nose of her sleeping four year old son on the train and then wipe the crusted yellow snot onto the leg of her pants. He son slept happily all the while, splayed out like a slide guitar on her open lap.

P has seen a man wash his croc at the public cooking area of busy campsite in Wakayama. His croc clean, he proceeded to wash his foot.  He had to lift one leg up into the sink.  “Other people were trying to clean their teeth and rinse their rice” said P, returning to our tent a little horrified.

And why didn’t he wash the other foot? Wakayama is a mysterious place.

A croc is a plastic kind of shoe. (For those who worried that it might be a polite lesbian synonym for a penis.)

What I am really saying is that this woman with the dog provoked in me a very deep question. My question is this:

In what way am I stepping up to catch my own version of the hot turd?

In what way am I reaching out my hands and saying: “Hey world – I’ve got my own little spot of space here but I’m gonna do right by it”. This neighbor made me want to clean my home and and look after my friends. She made me want to be a better listener. She made me want to take the skills I do have and realise how powerful and privileged I am. She inspired me to properly rinse out my recycling and make sure dogs don’t get into my food scraps on rubbish day. PEOPLE I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH: either double-bag that stinky waste or throw it on the compost pile. And if it’s rotting soup or past-it kimchi flush it down the toilet.

With my inspirational dog-walker in mind I thought about all of the times I’ve let other people catch the downstream stink of what I’ve created. Physically, emotionally, metaphorically, we all need to learn the value of holding our plastic bags up in the cool night air and catching the bowel movements of this sorry world before they fall.

Therefore, it is with my skinny pink arms outstretched to the community that I stand, having finally assumed responsibility for myself. I knew all along that coming to Japan might help me to start to feel, finally, like a real grown-up human being. But it wasn’t until I saw my lady that night, so delicate and tender in the gutter, that I understood what it might truly mean to be a responsible adult.