Two Holidays.

April 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ll tell you about the other holiday first.

A while back we drove up to Jigokudani monkey park. All her life, since before the womb I think, P has wanted to watch a snow monkey take a hot bath. I was interested in the monkeys for sure. But I also wanted to take the waters in a famous old onsen town called Yamanouchi. It’s a town not too far from the monkey park. Here you can move about from one onsen to another healing yourself of various ailments and melting away old layers of skin and spiritual junk. Against all odds I’ve become OK with the public nudity of shared bathing. I was looking forward to the glamour of a whole town to soak about in. So without too much fuss we rented a car and drove up.

Once done with the panic of getting onto the expressway we listened in a mutual contented silence to “The Poisenwood Bible” on audio book. This is how road trips are done. It was a book I’d read twice before  – in high school first I think. Listening to it, I perceived all the comedy and irony I’d missed as a Dead Serious Young Reader of Books. So many very serious books are hysterical on a second reading. If you read something dark and dire now that you once loved in high school you will either find comedy in it, or hate it, or feel embarrassed that you ever loved it at all (all of this excepting Virginia Woolf).

It was dark when we pulled up to our cheap, unusual hotel. A pair of old codgers had been running the place into the ground for years and I didn’t mind them. The woman at the front desk resembled a small embittered troll whose best years were long gone. I loved her most of all and she clearly hated me with a mirrored passion. Standing crookedly beside me her head reached the height of my hip bones. I tend to look kindly on all old people but this mistaken bias is only the gross result of an infantalising ageist culture; like any other demographic group a fair proportion of the elderly are statistically likely to be horrid, grumpy and mean. My years in public service ought to have taught me to be just as weary and judgmental of them as I am of children and academics.

Her much cheerier, taller husband skulked away into the blackness of their dirty hotel very quickly and was not seen again. His presence brought to mind that of a helpful down-trodden spider trying to make good on the futile dream of a crumbling web. I amused myself later on, in the hotel room, reading reviews of the hotel online and laughing at comments like “DO NOT STAY HERE” and “I  DIDN”T THINK PLACES LIKE THIS COULD EXIST IN JAPAN. SO DIRTY. PLEASE AVOID”. Meanwhile, P disappeared to the upper floors to inspect their bathing room. Her inspection results came back in under five minutes: disgusting, a stairwell lined with junk and fire hazards, a bathtub like an advert for a Tetanus shot.

They were on odd old pair trying to get by in a world that was moving too fast for them. I wasn’t fussed by the place. But it did inspire a deep desire to bathe and feel cleaner.

There are nine public bathouses in Yamanouchi sprinkled around within a short walking distance. If you stay at one of the local guest houses you are issued with a key and are free to roam from bath to bath in nothing but a Yukata, some sandals and a lick of class. The baths are easily spotted, with two entrances side by side – one side for men and the other for women. I snapped a couple of pictures the morning after:



We took to the dark, quiet streets armed with a key. The grouchy hotelier had advised us to head to bath number six. Number four was on the way and we stopped in there first. Just as I got inside and began to undress I realised I’d left my towel back in the hotel room. I trundled back to see my faithful troll. Every time I left the room I had to deposit my key with her at the front desk. She seemed to resent even the mildest interaction with guests and yet she rigidly enforced this key regime.

“Towel. It is lost and found in the hotel room,” I said in my horrid Japanese. I was recycling words I’d used when I’d lost my wallet a few days back; I knew it wasn’t quite right but I figured she’d infer. She did. She gave me a towel and headed back to her TV soapie. I strode back out into the winter night, chillier now. Back at the baths I undressed, made my way in and saw P naked and attempting (failing) to lounge casually beside the tiny box of steaming water; she was goosebumped like a raw bird and her teeth appeared to be shaking. One other woman peered beady-eyed at her from inside the bath – probably eager for us to make some or other mistake of etiquette.

“I can’t get in, I haven’t washed. I need the soap,” she said. “Did you bring the soap?”  I hadn’t. I plodded back out, donned my yukata, and went in search of the key to our room. There were no showers or hoses or taps in the bathhouse – just a little stool and a bucket with which to take water from inside the bath and wash yourself. Until she’d soaped up and rinsed off P was stranded. But the troll and I were becoming fast enemies and she had learned to avoid me. I found her eventually – lurking in the hotel kitchen cooking herself a stew. “The soap” I said. And nothing else this time, barring a few excuse mes and pleases. She limped towards the front desk and retrieved my key for me.

When I returned to the bath house P had turned a mild purple. She washed frantically. The other guest left a moment later. That was good. I’m getting fairly experienced with onsens but this was not your usual. I’d expected something a little less….a little more….it was a very old and very local experience and those tubs were intimate as anything. After ten minutes of soaking we decided to move on to house number six – the recommended spot. There’d been something decidedly soupish and unpleasant about number four and I was quietly hoping things at six would be different.

The mistress of the hotel clearly had it in for us. Number six was empty and very pretty but it was empty for a reason. The water was blindingly, excruciatingly hot. I couldn’t get my body to go in. But I was determined. I went in up to my thighs, danced around in pain and climbed out like a lobster escaping the chef.

Things were turning out on the traumatic side. This was not what I’d envisaged. We wondered around on the streets for a bit until it got too cold. I left P to take in the rest of the bathhouse circuit while I lay beside the heater in our pokey hotel room, drinking beer and regaining a sense of my own body. Going up and down the stairwells I half expected to look up and see the smiling husband suspended on the edge of a thread, watching me.

Later we ate dinner in a delicious local izakaya – still dressed in our Yukata but this time with thermals on underneath. I was done with the whipping snow-kissed wind getting up in under my robe.  It was a green lantern restaurant and the stereo played Peter Frampton. “Ooooh baby I love you way. Every day” he said. I ate a mushroom on a stick and thought deeply about the Congo.

The next day we saw them –  the monkeys. And after the monkeys we drove all the way home. Before the monkeys we ate two perfectly soft-boiled eggs, cooked in the hot waters of the local springs.




During our drive we speculated about the fate and the history of the hotel couple. Had they married in a fit of passion and bought the place together on a whim? Had there been a swinging heyday? She was a beautiful young jazz enthusiast and he was her ardent fan. At night the hotel was filled with celebrity guests seeking shelter from the madness of the city. Those were the days. They drank whiskey together and he kept her glass topped up. A monkey smoked a cigar at the hotel bar. He loved her, couldn’t she see that? They were happy then, before it all became too much.


Fallen Words / 落語

April 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Some guy I met when I first came to Japan told me that while I was here my English would get worse. “You’ll start messing up. You’ll forget words. You have to keep your English up or it’ll just go.” I obeyed, forsaking all study of Japanese for the more pertinent task of maintaining my grasp on my apparently at-risk native tongue.

(Speaking of tongues, today I ate natto and didn’t hate it. It’s growing on me –  much as something yeasty grows on a fermented bean).

I spend on average two hours commuting – five days a week. That’s ten hours a week of pure unadulterated audio and media consumption. You may remember me from such commuter tweets as:



Mostly I listen to English language podcasts (to stave off the threat of losing my language….) or read or pretend to look busy while gazing bleary and bug-eyed out the widow. Some days after teaching the wee ones for five hours straight  – with not even the merest sniff of a coffee break – I’m practically catatonic on the train. I can barely lift my beer to my scarred, exhausted, chapped lips (excuse me while I play a violin the size of a thimble and quietly weep into the dark night).

The train hurtles traumatically through the tunnels between Otsu and Yamashina, past the sleeping wooden houses and toward home – the eternal reverse succession of commuting trains.

I’m a podcast fiend. Have been for years. 80-90% of my conversations begin with “I was listening to this show about…” or “Did you hear that one about…”. It’s humiliating. I’m half robot. But but but did you hear the one about colors? Here are my top five recommended podcast episodes – guaranteed to get you hooked on wasting your life and shutting out the sounds of a daily life you hope to ignore. Are you on a train? Are you standing or leaning or rollicking or glaring at somebody? Do you hate everything and everything around you with the 10% of your being willing to be utterly subsumed by hatred and rage? Right. Time to listen to a podcast.

1. COLORS (Radiolab): In which we discover that blue is the NEWEST color. And Keats blames science for removing the poetry from rainbows. Sound is great at explaining science.

2. ARMS TRADER (This American Life):  In which the American Government gets the Russians to sell a nuclear missile to a guy in a hotel room. The missile is on the bed in the hotel room. Original audio footage makes us go …seriously? This happened?

3. BUBBLE HOUSES (99% Invisible):A girl lives in a house the shape of a bubble. Feels embarassed. Doesn’t realise her place in history. Laughter. “Cathy lived in one of the double bubbles”.

4. MUMMY WAS A WILD GAME HUNTER: (The Moth): Wild. Amusing. Nostalgic. Loony. Wonderful – as only spoken stories can be.

5: SACRIFICE: THE STORY OF SARS (BBC Science Hour): Technically from the BBC Radio documentary series, I first heard this because I subscribe to the Science Hour podcast. It’s dramatic and thoughtful and odd and perfectly exemplifies how something we might ordinarily not think or read about in any real depth can suddenly fascinate us. Oh science, you sexy minx. Also, I have always been obsessed by epidemics. If you haven’t watched the documentary “How to Survive a Plague” then why on earth are you wasting your time reading this shoddy blog?

I could go on with my list. Top 10. Top 20. I’m sad that shows like Nerdette or Planet Money or Welcome to Nightvale are missing from it. Whatever. Once you are a podcast nerd you will find these things for yourself. You’ll be hunting for something to give you that wild high feeling you get when you hear some great sound production – some perfectly orchestrated telling of a story. You’ll learn that you can’t bare silence. What have you become? Don’t look at me like that with your ears exploded. You have only yourself to blame.

In Japan there is the art of Rakugo (落語)  – a kind of story-telling that I know nothing about and literally learned about this week. The name translates to falling words, or falling language – so I hear and see. A person sits alone on a stage and tells a story. He might use a fan as a prop. There are many styles: sometimes the teller delivers a traditional story and sometimes they tell an original fable crafted to coincide with current affairs and political events. The stories are anchored by a deep and sometimes comical punch-line. But it’s not to be confused with stand-up comedy. They usually sit down, for one thing. Storytellers come and go – in and out of fashion. The storyteller relies entirely on their own wits. The story is, at the very least, a dialouge between two or more characters. It’s fiction, but generally pertinent.

All of this brings to mind stories about story-telling that I enjoy. There’s Benjamin saying: “More and more often there is an embarassment all around us when then wish to hear a story is expressed” and then there’s somewhere where I read that Raymond Carver was a born story-teller, always holding a room with some or other elaborate tale. I can’t find the line about that. But there’s an interview with him from 1988 where he talks about listening to his father tell stories.

The best podcasts are telling us stories in sophisticated ways – choosing a way to narrate that story with audio clips, sound effects, plotting – they slow down and speed up time and they deliver something to us, something very careful and good. Are they shaking off the discomfort of story-telling? Will there be a time when we can all sit about under our kotatsus, eating our bowls of squid, mustard and whipped up natto and talking about the times when we did things and other things happened as a result? Or when strangers did things, and although we could not predict the ending we were transfixed by the possibilities and the beauties and the unfolding inner lives of these others – connected all of them like the long snotty fermented strings of natto. Just listen. Please listen. 聞いてください.




Starbucks. Fridges. Panic.

April 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m blogging on an iPhone from inside a Starbucks. What have I become? Japan has taught me about judgement. Japan has shown me compromise. I don’t even call this compromise anymore. I call it coffee. The only coffee that brings me any comfort.

Today I am filled with all kinds of uncompromising panic. I have set The Fridge out on street. You will recall that the junk-fridge stands in our house as a symbol of all the things we are incapable of. I finally made arrangements. But the guys supposedly coming to get it hadn’t shown up by the time I left the house this morning. I left in a tizz and frazzle and sighing all over the place.

Desperately, I taped an envelope of cash to the side of it. Will they take the lump away or will it be squatting out there on the pavement when I return home tonight? Will it be hunched there like a knife-wielding youth in an alleyway – ready to plunge a symbolic blade of failure deep into my lumbering, pink, incompetent heart.

Inside the Starbucks it is very warm. My routine order is CARAMERU MAKIATO, HOTTO, SHORTO. ONEGAISHIMAaasu. All of my being aches with suspense and the quiet silent knowledge that they haven’t taken it. The fridge. I am looking out of the Starbucks window. Cars are passing. So much depends on the red fridge beside the brown sliding doors.

Even the excitement of finally having to tape a brown envelope of cash to the back of something is lost here, now, in the true disappointment of context. This is not an under-cover drug bust. This is not an elaborate escape from the long sultry fingers of a blackmailtrix. This is large refuse disposal at its most dull.

Once, at a Starbucks near Kyoto station the cashier complimented my Japanese. Once, at a Starbucks in Naha, readying for a flight home, a cashier treated me with utter disdain. It was offensive. Even the local Japanese people behind me in the line looked at her sideways. She was accusing me of some or other line-jumping business. Then I pronounced my HOTTO SHORTO order in my best possible Japanese so that she could just see I knew her game and had understood everything so there take that! Guess she was just too sick of lousy tourists asking for a HOT SHORT. But I suppose we have all at some point along the line had just about enough of people’s failures – and of our own. Girl in Naha with the ugly face telling me off, I forgive you. You weren’t ugly at all. You were my server.

I have entered a phase of bargaining. If I am rid of the fridge I will donate to charity. I will recycle more. I will just be a better person at everything.

If the fridge remains I will be humbled. Angered. Saddened. Unable to continue in this struggle against illiteracy. I will be awash with shame. I will be anguished. I will be over-produced. I will be slow motion.

A man has come over and given me a free banana caramel frappacino jumping jiffy amaze juice. And also its less humble chocolate twin – another small frappacino in a plastic cuplet. Two cuplets.

Once, in a Starbucks in Yasu, I was beside myself with the difficulties of everything in my frankly objectively simple but truly subjectively terrifying life and a man gave me two free samples.

But what are we if we cannot strap up our belts and turn our faces to the ruddy sunshine and plod on – even in the tired shadows and spiritual tithings of our fridge-ridden houses of rubble? Friends, we cannot win every battle. There was a time in my life when I could order nothing other than a trim-milk flat white with an assurance it would be properly double-shotted. I had an Alcatel One-Touch Easy until my third year of university. These things can change. Our superiorities are quickly surrendered when we are confronted with a hapless sense of our small-fishedness. New battles. New values.  Look at me now. Looks like we made it. Look how far we’ve come now baby.

That’s the song. Playing. From the Starbucks radio. I’ve completely lost any sense of focus. Starbucks is entirely distracting. But stop judging me for a moment and just think, for a minute, please.

I’m going to take out my kindle and read on regardless. The fate of the fridge – the fate of everything – sits heavily on my two thin shoulders with their skinny clavicles indented in the subdued shape of wearily acknowledged doom.



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