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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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
STEP ONE: RESEARCH AND REHEARSE THE VOCABULARY.
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: ﾋﾟの 診断書 おねがいします.
STEP TWO: BEFORE YOU ARRIVE, REHEARSE AND REPEAT.
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.
STEP THREE: APPROACH CONFIDENTLY AND MAKE YOUR REQUEST POLITELY.
Always remember to smile.
(Hello. Are you well? P’s thinly sliced pieces of beef boiled in water please.)