Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Got quoted in the NYT

While I was in Japan, my cousin Alphie put me in contact with an old college chum of his named Ken Belson.  He's a reporter for the New York Times, and lives in Tokyo.  I ended up giving a short interview over the phone about my experiences traveling Japan.  Long story short, a few of my lines made it in.

New York Times- To Japan or NOT?

Sorry in advance about saying my friends "blew it out of proportion."  I know you were all just looking out for me.

Soupy twist,


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

AV Supplemental, part II 1/2

Here's a snippet from the gig I had in Osaka back in July.  It's just one song, and it's not a video (just audio with pictures).  The tune is mine, and it's called 'Tea With Bud.'  The bassist is Izumi Thorn, and the drummers name escapes me (sorry man, wherever you are... you played great, though!).  I'll put more tracks up as I get them from Izumi, although I imagine he's super busy right now as he's about to move to Boston to start at Berklee College of Music.  Anywhere, here's the link...

Tea With Bud (Live in Osaka)

Miss you guys.

Soupy twist,

Saturday, August 20, 2011

AV Supplemental, part II

Read below for the real blog, but here's some vids from Tokyo.  Most of them are... well, not that interesting.  I was focused on taking pictures, not videos.  Still, enjoy.  Go to my Facebook and see the pictures if you want.  I've got them all uploaded from Japan.

Ramen thing in Ueno

Bear trike in Ueno (for Isaac)
A view of Scramble Square- 
Crossing Scramble Square (feat. Ayaka!)

Soupy twist,

Friday, August 19, 2011

More thrilling stories of adventure and intrigue! or… The rest of my travels in Japan

At the moment I’m halfway around the world from where I was when I made my last post.  I’m in Prague, Czech Republic.  A lot has happened in between posts.  I plan on recapping my final weeks in Japan in detail, then start posting regular but VERY brief entries about Europe (a paragraph or so at the most)  I’m glad I’ll have a documented account of my time in Japan, but Europe is a bit different.  I’m really just a tourist here.  In Japan I was certainly a tourist as well, but there was something more.  I was learning about the culture, the language, making friends, and discovering a place that I one day want to call home.  As such, this is the LAST epic post.  All others will TRULY be brief.

Anyway, let’s go back to a time no so long ago in a land that feels oh so far away…

When last I wrote I had just set down in Tokyo.  That night I ended up just drinking the last of my energy away at the hostel bar before retiring my room.  The next morning I set out to see the city with James from Bristol, who I’d met the night before.  We were a good pair: he spoke quite a bit more Japanese than I did, but this was his first day in the country, and I knew a little more regarding the lay of the land.

First we visited Sensoji Temple, just on the other side of the bridge.  It was a Saturday, and as such the place was jam packed with tourists and worshippers alike.  We fought through the crowd and managed to get into the temple.  Afterwards, we walked around the rest of the area a bit, including a pricey underground mall (where a single papaya can run you over 6000 yen!).  The mall connected to the subway, and so we bought a ticket to Shinjuku and made our way there.

Emerging onto the street, we were met with bustling throngs of people and the merciless heat of the sun.  Girls on the street were handing out paper fans with ads on them, and I snatched one up (it was appropriately advertising air conditioners).  After heading across the main square, we ducked down some side streets.  Passing watermelon-piece vendors, we perused a few local shops and eateries before eating at a Chinese place.  It wasn’t the best for a first meal in Japan, but it was good and cheap.

We got a bit turned around after that, but we eventually made our way over to Shinjuku Central Park.  There was a nice shrine there, complete with a homeless camp on the other side of the road.  After watching some very orderly kids do BMX tricks (they would take turns doing tricks while the other two watched) we walked over to the Metropolitan Govt. Building, a massive structure that looked to me like something out of anime.  There was a free observatory on the 40-something-th floor, and after being packed into the elevator like so many sardines, we were treated to pretty decent (albeit muggy) view of Tokyo.

Returning to our hostel, we met up (and had a few beers with) Alex from Australia, Tanya from upstate New York, and Laurent from France.  After a while we found ourselves at a nearby bar, attempting to figure out how to operate the automatic drink machine.  At some point after that, we (minus Laurent, who had to fly home the next morning) were on a train heading to Roppongi, the Gaslamp of Tokyo.  It was the last train there with none going back, so we were committing ourselves to a night out.

Roppongi is complete sensory overload.  As you walk down the street you find your eyes being assaulted by all kinds of flashing neon displays (both on buildings and on the people walking by).  Your ears are subjected to the various mega-woofers that blare the dance music out of every open door, as well as the hustlers who nag you every block in one language or another.  Your sense of smell is overpowered by perfume, cologne, and the faint aroma of garbage rotting somewhere nearby.  As for taste and touch, you get hit with that once you enter a club.  The drinks are over-sweetened (like a lot of things in Japan), and if the place is packed, you’ll likely be tasting sweat as well (yours, if not someone else’s).  A Tokyo dance club on a Saturday night is like a Tokyo metro on a Monday morning: stuffed to capacity with bodies all jostling around with nowhere to move.  For once I didn’t have to worry about my inability to dance.  I could barely lift my foot of the ground.

After being knocked about and deafened for a few hours, James and I emerged to find Tanya and Alex had vamoosed.  We looked for them a bit, but figured they had left on their own accord.  It was sometime before 3AM, and the first train wasn’t before 5.  We ate at a Saizeriya (like a Japanese Coco’s) for cheap, then sat outside a Family Mart for a bit before at last being allowed on the subway.  Everyone on the subway was in the same boat as us.  We all looked like zombified tramps and derelicts.  There was some confusion, and it took us over an hour to get back home (it should have taken 30 minutes, and I fear the error was probably mine).  Persevering, we arrived sometime after 6 and crashed hard.

I arose shortly after the crack of noon.  Upon checking my email I discovered I had a message from Simon, the British-born but Tokyo-bound pianist I’d met in Osaka.  There was a session that day in Ochanomizu (“Tea’s Water”) that he was hosting, and there’d be a private session after that if I wanted to attend.  I threw on some clothes, glanced briefly at the incredibly confusing subway map (which looked like a multi-colored plate of spaghetti), and then set forth.  Finding it with surprising ease, I discovered the area is saturated in music shops, selling everything from instruments, to CDs, to sheet music.  There were several repair shops in view, and Simon later told me the largest jazz record store in the world was just around the corner, although I knew I had to stay away (I would go broke there in a minute).  Everyone on the street had some sort of instrument either on their back or under there arm.

I found the club and ducked downstairs.  Simon was on piano (he’s also a killin’ sax player), and there was a Japanese drummer and electric bassist rounding out the house band.  They were sounding good, and I sat down with my ginger ale (remember the previous nights events) and listened.  I was really digging his melodic sense.  He blends sing-ability and out-playing really well, and his solos really go places.  We chatted in between having to play, and we got to do some playing together as well (with him on sax).  Also in attendance at the session was an American drummer who I’d played with at the session at ‘Le Club Jazz’ in Kyoto.  He runs the masters program at McGill University in Tokyo, but his family lives in Kyoto (hence my meeting him there).  He knows Al, too, from the Gael.  Small world, eh?

After that session was over and done with we headed topside, grabbed a couple of ‘road pops’ (beers from the combini), and hopped a few subways over to… well, I really don’t know.  I think it was fairly outside the city center.  It was a nice neighborhood, and with Simon’s Iphone blazing a trail through the suburbs we came upon a local community center.  The other musicians were upstairs setting up.  There was trumpeter Mike (from Canada), bassist/tubist Pat (from New Jersey), and a Japanese drummer named Shingo Yamaguchi.  We played a bunch of tunes I never play, or songs I do play but in keys I don’t.  They all play really well together, and it was fun getting to jam with a real band instead of a rag-tag ensemble of players at a session.  Simon split early, but the rest of us played for a little longer before calling it.  After breaking down and cleaning up, Mike, Pat and I went to a Saizeriya before Pat put me back on the train for Asakusa.

The next morning after practicing piano for a bit I decided to try and see the Emperors Palace/Gardens.  I took a few subway rides, then trekked a bit topside in the sun only to find that the place is closed on Mondays.  I milled around for a while before eventually running into two guys from NYC, Allen and Tri (knowing the place was closed, I heard one of them say something like “Should we tell him?” as I walked past).  Being near Tokyo Tower, we decided to head over there instead.  We could see it through some buildings, but the size of it was misleading in terms of its actual closeness.  It took sometime getting there, and it was a bit confusing making our way through the streets.

The topmost observatory was a bit spendy, so we opted for the lower, more modestly price observatory instead.  The view was worth it, much nicer than the Met. Bldg. a few days earlier.  You could see clear across the city on one side and to Mt. Fuji on the other (Fujisan was covered in clouds, but you knew it was there).  The way down was slightly confusing, as the elevators deposited us on floors we didn’t ask to go to (including one where there was a wax museum or some reason).  Once arriving streetside we ate a cheap, ticket-machine-operated place, then got some German beers (they were quite expensive, and we backpackers were clearly not the typical clientele of the establishment, as evident by the sour looks we received).  After beer we parted ways.  I headed back to Asakusa for a bit before venturing out to the Eastern edge of Tokyo to a place called Kichijoji.  Alan Gleason, the American bassist I’d met in Hiroshima told me about a jazz club out that way that had a Monday night session.

Incidentally, my train to the place was the most crowded of my entire journey into Japan.  I had less than 1 square-foot of space to somehow squeeze my presence into.  Hands (not my own) would occasionally find themselves brushing up against my lower half, as I’m sure mine did as well.  On the plus side I didn’t have to hold unto anything for balance.  When the train would come to a halt everyone would just lean into everyone else (I felt bad for the poor people at the head of the car)

The club was called MEG, and it was located about 10 minutes from the train station down some small backstreets.  After paying the STEEP cover (complete with a nasty two drink minimum) I plopped down in the nearest seat.  The musicians weren’t as good as the ones from the other jam, save for the drummer.  He had lived in New York for many years and spoke perfect English.  We talked quite a bit, and got to play some too.  I felt bad for the sole bassist, as he got quite a workout.  The horn players were decent, but really not that great.  There were two other really fine pianists, though, including a lovely but terribly clumsy girl (she nearly tripped and fell on three occasions going to and from the piano bench).  Also in attendance was the Japanese Louie Armstrong, who I took quite a liking to.  I played some good stuff and some crap, but overall I had a good time.

There was some confusion in getting home, but I was helped out by an Australian of Japanese extraction (upon my appearing confused, he turned to me and said, “Oy, need some help, mate?”).  With his girlfriend’s assistance (she knew the trains a bit better than he), I made all the right connections and once back in Sumida-ku quickly made my way to the hostel bar, where I wound up drinking with some Norwegians until about 4:30 AM (we made entirely too much noise).  Quite pissed I returned to my room only to find James and Alex about to set out and watch the sunrise from the river.  I threw my lot in with them and we drank a few more beers by the shore, talking gibberish and watching the glow of the purple-blue sky slowly transform into a truly beautiful dawn.

James split early, and when Alex I returned to the hostel we met Amy (also an Aussie) quite amused/alarmed by a comatose James talking to himself.  We assessed that the situation was under control, and at Alex’s suggestion headed to the Ueno Zoo (go figure).  It was only three subway stops away and we arrived to be the first people let into the place, which means we got to see the pandas immediately following their being woken up (it was Amy’s first time seeing a panda).  The elephants were going nuts, kicking up all kinds of dust into the air, and a mama gorilla had a staring contest with Alex for quite a while (it was actually kind of creepy… their eyes are so expressive).  For an inner-city zoo it was actually pretty good, although the okapis where nowhere to be seen!  I nearly feel asleep standing up while in the monkey house and again in front of the bat enclosure, but I caught my second wind.  I was hit on by a (forgive me) hideous and slightly mentally unsecure old-woman with teeth that would make a jackrabbit with a sweet-tooth look like a dental model.  My lack of Japanese didn’t stop her advances, couldn’t stop them more like.  Eventually she vamoosed.  Alex stayed around to wait for Danish girl that would maybe show up (she didn’t), and Amy and I went to get some grub back in Asakusa.

After a few hours nap Alex (now back from the zoo), Amy, James, and Japanese fellow named Yu headed out for sushi and some night strolling.  The place we chose was a sushi-go-round (conveyor belt sushi), and our little entourage was taking all the cheap plates.  This became an issue, and they put up little blockers that diverted the sushi away from our end of the table and down to the other end via a small side track. It was Amy’s first time eating sushi, too, and she was not keen on it.  

After wandering around Sensoji at night we went back to the hostel and finding our way down to the hostel bar.  There we met an older American (whose name sadly escapes me at this point) who’s been living in Tokyo for some time.  His Japanese was perfect, and he was generous with drinks (I played a few tunes for him on the keyboard).  He’d been to San Diego before, too, and even used to frequent Manhattan, the bar/restaurant inside the Empress Hotel in La Jolla.  I had the unfortunate job therefore of informing him that Arturo (the former manager there), who he remembered vividly, had since died.  

Thinking of Arturo always makes me sad.  He was a great man, to me especially.  I was young (am young), and deserved no special treatment, and he was always the best to me.  The story of his last days is a tragic one, but that’s for another time…

Somehow a whole cadre of us wound up on the other side of the bridge a karaoke club.  My memory of that night is a little hazy, but I do remember there being an international bunch in the private room: James (English), Alex and Amy (Australian), Sif (Danish), Anna (Polish), a Brazilian guy, a Norwegian dude, and myself the other older American.  There were LOTS of drinks, and lots of drunken singing and staggering around.  The older guy paid for most of it, but vanished before I got to properly thank him.  There was no funny stuff, but I wonder what happened to him.  He was quite worried about work the next morning.  We wound up drinking on the bridge and watching yet another sunrise before I at last attempted a proper rest.

Not unreasonably I got up quite late the following morning (or afternoon, to be specific).  After a bit a set out to collect a few items I’d need to climb Fuji the next day.  I wandered around Ueno for ages, unable to find anything that wouldn’t run me well over $100.  Eventually, I discovered the magical cheapness that is Uniqulo.  The clothes there are good, reasonably hip, but above all dirt cheap (by Japan standards, that is).  I got myself a windbreaker, some socks, a couple of t-shirts (including a Lee Morgan one!), then jumped on the train for Shibuya.

The Park Hyatt Hotel, where Simon plays six nights a week, was surprisingly difficult to find.  I totally overshot it, but was saved by a chance encounter with an Australian girl who pointed me in the right direction.  The place is beyond swanky.  It’s beyond classy.  It’s… so nice, a commoner like me doesn’t even possess the vocabulary to properly describe it.  It looks like something out of a movie, which it is.  Sophie Coppola filmed ‘Lost in Translation’ there, and the New York Bar up on the 52nd floor (where I was headed) was featured prominently in the film.  The place was a bit of a maze, but after changing elevators a couple of times I arrived at the top.  Simon was nice enough to knock off the cover charge, so I sat down directly in front of the band and ordered a glass of my favorite scotch.  I had to do this right.

The trio was tight.  They’d been playing together for years now, although with a different singer (the old one had just suffered a stroke a few weeks prior).  The bassist was English as well, but the drummer and the new singer were American.  I got to meet all of them in between sets.  It was a nice, chill night, dripping in class and sophistication… okay, maybe not, but it was still quite nice.  Upon bidding my farewells and taking a few shots of the city at night (the view was tops), I descended back through the labyrinth.  I inquired with the man at the desk about the way back to Shinjuku station.  I asked in perfect Japanese, and was given a response in perfect Japanese that I no hope of comprehending.  Upon my look of confusion, the man smiled and gave it again in perfect English.  Feeling slightly foolish, I made my way back to the station in time to catch one of the last trains.

The next morning I quickly showered, packed, and made my once again to Shinjuku station.  I was supposed to meet Sarah Brown (who I know from the music program at SDSU) and her cousin Michelle there at some prescribed hour, although I was running late.  I found a payphone upon arrival, called Michelle (who has a phone because she lives in Japan teaching English) to discovered that they were also late.  The station was packed with people trying to catch, change, or disembark from either the trains or buses.  It was a sea of moving bodies that, after some time, we managed to hook up.  They were carrying aid supplies from home along with their personal belongings, and with my oversized pack we were hauling an impressive load.  We deposited most of it in a coin locker, purchased some potations for the coming days adventures, and boarded our bus for Fujisan.

Having not met Michelle before, we got acquainted a bit on the bus.  She’d been working in Japan for a few years now as an ESL (‘English as a Second Language’), and had studied the language for near on ten.  As such, she possessed a near mastery of the language (as far as I was concerned, anyway).  She would be our guide/local expert for the next couple of weeks, but I don’t mean to reduce her to that.  She’s a bright and spirited girl with a head for adventure and good works.  I’m grateful for the time we got to spend together.

We arrived at Go-gome (the 5th station) some hours later.  We ate a bit of grub, then sacked out on some benches.  Sarah was quite a bit jet lagged, and I hadn’t had much sleep the night before either.  After a while, we arose and started our ascent.  At first the path was beautiful.  Trees and small streams dotted the landscape, and the view of the land below was amazing.  Gradually, though, as we crossed over the tree-line, the place started looking more and more like the moon.  Soon it was only rocks.  The sun set shortly after we crossed into the wasteland.  We started passing the huts, which offered the most basic accommodation for exorbitant prices (5000 JPY!).  Sarah and I were firmly set against spending go-sen-en, so we pushed on.  Occasionally we would rest outside the huts, looking through the windows at the folks gathered around the fire sipping tea.  Still, we had some fun conversations with the folks working there (Michelle was our translator).

Did I mention it was cold?  I didn’t?  Alright, allow me to say that a night on the slopes of Fuji, even in summertime, is bloody FREEZING!  Actually, to be fair, my misery was mostly due to my inadequate mountaineering gear.  Even with all my layers on it wasn’t enough.  The only way to stay warm was to keep moving, which we did our best to do.  Eventually though, the night got the better of us.  We attempted a few hours sleep outside a small rest station.  I think I was the only successful one, managing an astonishing twenty-minute nap.  After rising, we pushed on.  The sky had started to glow behind us.  We were nearly to the top when we hit a traffic jam.  Everyone wanted to get to the summit for the sunrise, and as such, the trail was little backed up.  The hikers were a fairly diverse bunch.  Old and young, Japanese and foreign, loners and groups.  There was even a group of SDF guys, laden down with gear.

I got separated from Sarah and Michelle in that final push, but eventually I arrived at the top.  I didn’t take long to find them amongst the ragtag ensemble assembled at the summit.  All eyes faced East.  Shortly before the show started, a man in traditional dress hoisted the Japanese flag, and somewhere others sang out the National anthem.  The glow grew warmer on the horizon until a small ball of light formed.  Gradually it rose, and it turned red for a moment against the sky.  You could feel its now direct rays on your face (which was much needed, as I was still quite cold).  It was a truly glorious and impressive sight.

In the light we could see more of our surroundings.  In places, the summit truly looks like a Martian landscape, though it’s not without traces of humanity.  Where we watched the sunrise stood a large cluster of stone buildings, including a temple, a couple of ramen shops, a bathroom complex, some storage rooms, and some sleeping/living quarters (the staff stays on the mountain for months at a time).  There was even a vending machine.  We went into one of the ramen shops.  I passed out before I was served.  After being awakened and finishing we stumble back out into the morning sun.  The day was slowly heating up, but it was a good temperature then.  We laid down on a bench near the edge.  I was out for about 2 hours.

When we woke, Michelle announced that it was time for the toast.  I have to go back a bit here.  Back to Osaka, actually…

Shortly after arriving in Japan back in mid-May I received a message from Sarah.  We know each other from SDSU, although we didn’t actually go to college together.  She came into the program the semester after I had graduated, but I hung around State for near on two years playing in ensembles and on recitals (I was also mooching off the practice rooms, to which I have never returned the key).  In fact, I was about the campus so much that even before I left people were asking me, “Hey Ed, when do you graduate?”  Anyway, Sarah and I saw each other quite often on campus, and off as well at parties and such, namely those hosted by a certain guitar playin’ champ named Ricky.

In her message she said that she told me… well, hey, see for yourself:

“Ok so imagine this:
It's 1945, shortly after the Japanese surrender, and my grandpa is stationed in Japan. On day he and a couple buddies steal a case of beer from the mess hall, drive the army jeep up Mt. Fujiyama and proceed to drink the war away on top of Japan's highest peak...
Now fast forward to July 13th, 2011:
I land in Tokyo, bus to Mt Fuji with my cousin Michelle and proceed to hike through the night to reach the 3776mm (12389 ft) summit for sunrise and toast our grandpa with a couple of "stolen" beers...
Keep your schedule open the 14-16th, because you ARE coming on this hiking expedition if you are on the same island!

After Fuji, Michelle and I will be hitting up some friends in Tokyo and cruising the city, and then we're heading up to Sendai to help with the relief for a week before I fly out July 27th.”

At the time I honestly didn’t think I’d still be in Japan come late July, but as the trip unfolded and evolved the prospect sounded like a good thing to do.  In fact, it sounded amazing.  I got in contact with her and her cousin Michelle sometime during my stay on Okinawa and got the details straight, including my participation in the Sendai portion of the trip.  There was a lot to organize, especially for the volunteering work.  The group they were working with was a Christian one, and I had get something called a ‘Pastoral Reference’ (basically a statement from a religious figure saying I was a decent person).  Luckily, I work for a church, and this was quite easy to obtain.

After a lot of emails I now found myself on standing on the summit of the tallest mountain in Japan just after dawn with two good friends and a cold beer in my hand.  It was a good moment, though it was much more special for the Brown girls.  As it happens, since the sending of that first email and our meeting, their grandfather had died.  This had become a memorial service.  I’m glad I was there, and the moment made me think about my own family, thousands of miles away (not mention thousands of meters below).  If you’re reading this Mother, Baba, Grandpa, Chip, and Karen, I love you all very much, and I miss you all dearly.

On a small note, when we bought our beer I made sure to select Asahi.  It means ‘sunrise’ in Japanese.

We stood around the rim of the volcano and looked in, as well as took a lot of photos.  Sarah and Michelle have a penchant for ‘jumping pictures.’  We leapt around on the edge of the crater for a bit (maybe not the best idea) before hiking around the rim to the post office.  Yes, you heard me right.  Fujisan has a post office.  You can mail a letter and will say it came from the top of Mt. Fuji.  Sarah and Michelle had something to mail to their families, so we went.  It too was made entirely of rocks.  After mailing the letter we made our way up to the weather station where the actual prominence is (the road up to this place was nothing but dirt and rocks, and so we moved at a snail’s pace).  The view from the station was breathtaking.  The land below looked like another world, and when you looked ahead of you all you saw was clouds.

We now faced a problem.  It was almost noon, and the last bus for Tokyo left at 3:00.  The typical descent takes between 4.5 and 5.5 hours, so we were told.  The way down the mountain is steep, and not suited for a run.  If we wanted to make that bus, though, we’d have to shag ass, and that’s what we did.  Sarah (who is incidentally an acclaimed and award-winning track-and-fielder) had no problems blazing a dusty trail down the mountain.  Michelle and I had to follow in her wake and bring up the rear.  Rocks kept getting in my damn shoes, and it was really irking me how easy it was for Sarah (pure jealousy, I’m aware).  Still, if it wasn’t for her pace-setting skill, we’d have never made the bus.  I’m quite grateful to her dragging us down the mountain like that, otherwise it’d be a long walk back to Tokyo.

We made it back down to the 5th station by about 2:30, which gave us time to take care of some errands, namely the buying of the bus ticket (a task allotted to Michelle), and trash disposal, which I handled.  Before we had begun our ascent, we had had tried to throw away our garbage, only to find that (not unlike the rest of Japan) there are no trashcans.  You’re expected to bring your garbage home with you, as being halfway up a giant mountain, they don’t want to dispose of it.  Not wanting to haul it up the mountain, we hid it behind a pile of wood prior to climbing.  I went to retrieve it, but as I was leaving a lady (I swear the same one that had told us yesterday to take our rubbish home with us) took it from me, smiling, and went to dispose of it.  I confusedly thanked her and headed out to find Michelle and Sarah.

There was some traffic back to Tokyo, but arrived in one piece back on the streets of Shinjuku.  After retrieving our bags we took a few subway stops to Michelle’s friend’s apartment, where we’d be staying the next two nights.  Yoshi and Yu live directly adjacent to Tokyo tower (the view from the living room is pretty amazing).  As it happened they were having sort of a dinner party that night.  Everyone got nametags, and had to give a formal introduction of themselves, their dreams, what they’ve been interested in recently, etc… Michelle, Sarah, and I were the only English speakers there, but Michelle acted as translator both to and from Japanese (quite impressive).  Once again my short repertoire of Japanese went over quite well:

“Kombanwa.  Hajimamashite.  Yoroshiku onegaishimas.  Watashi no nomae wa Eduwado desu.  Niju-yon sai desu.  Amerika-jin desu.  Piano o hikimasu.”

Each phrase, though admittedly super basic, was met with an “Ohhhhhhhh!” from the crowd.  After this, I fell back on Michelle’s bilingual ability.  After we all introduced ourselves and ate a bit of dinner (which was GREAT!) we divided into smaller groups.  In them we discussed our lives, our dreams, what we wanted, our future goals in life, etc… (I should say we were instructed to, as these were sort of ice-breaking parlor games).  What’s more, we commented on what the other people had said.  Even though Sarah, Michelle, and I comprised the group, and we DID know each other, it was good to get to know the two people I’d be spending over a week with.  We also chatted it up with some of the others in broken English/Japanese, and after all was over, we each gave another speech about what we enjoyed most about the night.  It was quite a fun evening, and I’ll never forget it.

There was also a tiny earthquake during the party.  It lasted maybe 10 seconds, but we all felt it.  We switched on the news to listen for tsunami warning.  One never came.  Everyone carried about their business.  It was impressive.  There had apparently been a 7.4 several days earlier, but I had slept through it.

The next morning Yoshi took us to Asakusa to see Sensoji Temple (this was my 3rd time visiting the site, but my first with a camera).  We strolled through the market for an hour, with Sarah picking up various souvenirs as we went.  We actually spent more time in the market leading up to the temple than we did in the temple itself!  Ah well, it was all fun.  An hour or so later we met Eriko, who’d been at the party the previous night, down the street for sushi.  It was a standup place, but the quality was great.  Sarah became somewhat obsessed with the shredding daikon they apply to several pieces.  I tried many new things for the first time including… well, I hesitate to mention it… whale.  I figured my eating one small piece of (raw) whale wasn’t going to have a noticeable effect on the whaling industry one way or the other.  As it happens, it was quite tasty.  It wasn’t the best piece of sushi I’ve ever eaten, but actually it had an interesting flavor and texture.  I hate to say I kind of like it.

We parted ways with Eriko after that and made our way via metro to the Edo Museum, which documents the history of Tokyo (formerly known as Edo).  It was here where Sarah’s nickname for me came into being.  I don’t feel to need to say what it is.  The museum itself was quite massive, enclosing the façade of a kabuki theatre, the Nihonbashi (Japanese bridge), a large stone building from the Meiji era, as well as many other exhibitions.  Everything had a sign in English, too.

After the museum we met up with Yu and went to an Itzakya (a sort of Japanese pub.  They kept bringing out plate after place of amazing food.  I’m at loss to describe it, partially due to me not always knowing what it was.  It was all delicious, though, and the beer and laughs made it all go down even better.  It was one of the best meals of the trip, both due to the food itself, the company around the table, and even the staff, who were a riot.

The next morning we left Yoshi and Yu’s place (after taking even MORE pictures on the roof and making entries in a friendship book belonging to Yoshi) and headed back to Shinjuku station where we re-deposited our crap in some coin lockers and met up with Wataru, another friend of Michelle’s.  He took us from there to Harajuku, which is like the young-person’s fashion capital of Japan.  It’s famous for people showing up in (to our Western eyes) some of craziest outfits and getups.  Google it to see what I mean.  Unfortunately, there weren’t many to see that day, but we caught a few.  We also scoped out a few shops, and Wataru gave us a basic rundown of contemporary Japanese fashion… which I’m hard pressed to remember at this point.  I remember three styles: ‘Forest Girl,’ ‘Princess,’ and ‘Schoolgirl.’  The last one’s pretty obvious, but the others defy description, or perhaps it’s just my piss-poor fashion sense that makes me unable to describe.  I like Japanese fashion, though, even when it’s strange.  Perhaps even more so when it’s strange.

We ate some crepes in the shade before heading over to the Meiji Shrine.  It sits inside a park populated by tall, tall trees.  It was cool in there.  Beautiful, too, and it was difficult to imagine we were still in downtown Tokyo.  It was like we’d suddenly traveled way outside of the city to the forest (save for the distant rumbling of car and trains).  There was a traditional wedding inside the shrine, which we watched a part of (the bride’s headpiece was of particular interest to me… just Google it… yeah, I’m lazy).

From there we went to the main park in the center of the city and rested in the shade of some trees.  I passed out on a rock looking up at the sky, and when I awoke I found we were joined by Yoshi and Yu again.  We headed into the Emperor’s gardens for a while.  Wataru and I helped each with learning our respective secondary languages as we walked, though his English is quite good (he was explaining basic concepts to me and I was explaining nitty-gritty type stuff to him).  I taught him what ‘terms of venery’ are, something which I know is useless, but told him if he can say things like ‘a pride of lions’ or a ‘gaggle of geese’ it’d be quite impressive to an English speaker... maybe…

After being kicked out of the gardens at closing time we beat feet for Akihabara, the anime/computer/video game/movie/electronics capital of Japan, if not the world.  It’s a home for all things otaku (just look it up, will you?).  There’s so much foot traffic around there that they actually close the streets to cars.  We only saw a small fraction of the place.  It goes out in all directions down tiny side-streets and alleyways.  We ducked into a small shop selling various trinkets and paraphernalia from everything from anime, to video games, to model train sets.  Some of it was a bit of a nostalgia fest for me, although the anime stuff made me want to start watch it more.  There’s an acclaimed director named Hayao Miyazaki (quite famous in the US as well as Japan) whose films I plan on having a marathon with upon my eventual return to the US.

Yoshi had to leave, sadly, but the rest of us visited a ‘maid café.’  It was a bizarre experience.  The whole staff was young girls (some had to be teenagers, if that) dressed as maids.  They spoke in Japanese, but in essence they said things to you like, “Ah, welcome home, please have a seat, master.”  For a price you can take your picture with one of the girls, but any sort of physical contact is forbidden (as is asking for numbers, work schedules, etc…). It was weirdsville.  Besides the two girls in our group, the rest of the patrons were men.  The intended clientele was pretty obvious.  I suppose it’s a harmless enough thing, but it’s just strange to see.  The food and drinks were quite expensive as well, even for Japan, but it’s the environment you pay for I guess.

After the café we went and got purikura.  I’m not sure if that’s correct, grammatically speaking, but basically it means we got our pictures taken in one of these special photo booths.  You all cram in and pose for a few shots, then afterwards you can alter your appearance and color/decorate the picture.  It was pretty fun, but it took us two pictures to figure out where we had to stand all get in the shot.  One strange thing about the booths: they automatically whiten your skin color (which mean’s I looked like flipping Casper), and there’s an option to widen eyes on some of them.  I think the later is meant to imitate the way eyes are drawn in anime, but the former is just a fashion trend (there’s skin whitening powder and cream… total opposite of the US).

Yu split for home and rest of us headed to Wataru’s place WAY outside of Tokyo proper.  It was in a quiet college town.  If that sounds like an oxymoron to you, just remember it’s Japan we’re talking about here.  The school is called Hosei University (pronounced Jose), and Wataru goes there.  He lives a goodly little walk away from the station in some nice apartments with a girl and guy, both of whom speak quite decent English.  They had an amazing meal prepared for us, and we played quite an epic game of Jenga (another oxymoron, right?).  After some hanging out we all drifted off to bed.

In the morning Wataru took us back to the train station and saw us off, even running down the platform and waving to us as the train left the station (waving goodbye to the last possible minute is the norm there).  We arrived in Shinjuku station to find the place even more of madhouse than usual.  The Japanese women’s football team had won the world championship the day/night before, and people were going crazy.  It was on every TV, and newspaper men were handing out free papers with the headline/picture on it.  It was a good day for Japan, I think.  They needed that win, more than we did (I didn’t even know they had beat the US until several days later… ironic, huh?).

Our bus left from, as it turned out, a hop, skip, and near breakneck run across the whole station complex.  Running with all our bags (which we’d just collected once more from the coin lockers), we just barely made it on the bus.  It was a six hour ride up to Sendai.  Sarah ate a lot of ice cream and slept a lot.  I stared out the window, studied some more Japanese, then also passed out.  I was awake when the bus went through Fukushima, though.  We may have stopped there for a break, too.  I’m not sure.  We weren’t close to the plant, though.  No need to fear.  People were still walking around, riding bikes, driving cars.  The disaster was a ways away, more towards the coast than we were.

We arrived in Sendai with plenty of time to spare.  While Michelle made arrangements via the phone I set out to find trashcans.  It took me 15 minutes to locate receptacles that would accept the different kinds of trash we were packing.  I had to find three.  Apparently the Japanese removed something like 90% of their bins after September 11th.  They were afraid of a trashcan bomb, I suppose.  It’s a bit annoying, and it’s one of the few things I dislike about Japan (that and natto… have I mentioned that already?  I think I have.  Just Google it…).

Some girls who were interviewing foreign volunteers coming to Sendai came up to us.  They took some pictures, then showed us the way to 100 yen shop where Michelle and I bought the last of our supplies (hats, gloves, sunscreen, etc…).  Walking through the station with our massive load earned us a good deal of strange looks.  We looked like asses.  I was on smile-and-shrug detail to everyone who stared at us in disbelief, usually causing them to laugh (if they weren’t laughing already, that is).  Soon we were on a local train for Rifu, a nearby town closer to the coast.  Upon arrival, we were greeted with the most amazing sunset I’d ever seen.  The sky turned a stunning orange.  It looked as thought it were on fire.  After our ride failed to show up, Michelle made a call.  They told us to take a taxi to camp, and that they’d foot the bill.

The campsite was a former summer camp (think ‘Meatballs’) that has been taken over as a base for the tsunami relief effort.  It was quite nice.  The beds were comfortable, the place wasn’t freezing or sweltering, and best of all, there was really nice upright piano in the main room.  The latter fact sold me on the place.  After dinner (which was delicious and cooked by a team from Singapore) Sarah and I made a beeline for the piano.  I played tunes for hours, and couldn’t have been happier.  I miss playing music.  That melodica, though helpful and fun, really doesn’t cut it.  I need piano.

The next morning, after a devotional (I mentioned this was a religious organization… I played the piano for the hymn-singing) and a briefing on the day’s activities, we headed out to work.  Sarah, Michelle, Wataru (different guy… it’s a common name... he’s a seminary student form Tokyo), and Irene (from Singapore) drove out to a town called Wakabayashi. Irene was our driver and spoke fluent English.  Watatru spoke only a few words.  Once in the town we went to a farm owned by Oichi-san.  It consisted of a main house, several sheds, some greenhouses, and at least two fields (maybe more… I wasn’t sure how many in the area were his).  The farm has been in his family for generations.  He and his family (a wife, two daughters, his mother, and dog) all lived there.  It’s about 2km from the coast.

When the Earthquake hit the damage was bad, not massive.  Injuries were also low.  However, the power was knocked out, and with that communications were also cut.  Oichi-san was a volunteer with the fire department, and after the quake immediately switched on the radio where he heard the tsunami warning.  For some reason, the sirens in that part of the coast had not gone off, so he ran from house to house for about half an hour shouting the warning to everyone he could get to before the wave hit.  He was back at his house then, and managed to make it to the second floor.  His family, luckily, was away.  He got to the roof somehow, and even managed to save his dog just as he was about to be washed away.  He was stuck on the roof for a day or two.  About a hundred people from that town were washed away.  Some have not been found, and probably will never be.

On a side note, the dog Louie/Rouie (the whole Japanese R-L thing can be quite confusing to a Westerner’s ear and tongue, I think) used to be a happy and extremely friendly dog to everyone that would visit the farm.  Since the tsunami, though, he barks at strangers and bites anyone who gets too close.  He took a bite of my foot, actually.  Fortunately my shoes were quite thick.  I only mention this to illustrate the devastating effects of the tsunami: even the animals were traumatized.

The land around the farm was all flat.  Indeed it was mostly other farms and fields, in addition to a small cemetery (now in runs), some damaged homes, and an elementary school, where I should say that thankfully ALL of the children survived (there were other schools with completely the opposite result).  Out in the fields was everything.  The obvious objects were the cars and the boats, carried inland by the tsunami and left there to rot in the fields.  Over the next couple days I would see a cuckoo clock, clothes, VHS tapes, home movies, magazines, books, an oven, a vacuum cleaner (wound round a tree), and pretty much everything else that had been inside the homes nearer to the coast.  I kept having to remind myself it as all real, and not a movie set.   Fortunately, the first crews in had likely removed all the bodies, or those that would be found, anyway.  We wouldn’t have to deal with that.

It was a strange harvest.

That day we worked in what once was the greenhouse, pulling weeds out of the soil so Oichi-san could plant there again.  We kept the nearby radio on for news of another tsunami.  After lunch we switched to the nearby field where we pulled some debris out of it for hours.  There were lots of little tiny things: bits of trash bags, metal, stone, sticks, plastic, etc…  After a while bagged up all of our findings, had coffee with Oichi-san and made for home.  Once there, we had debriefing, dinner, then I played the piano for a bit before trundling off to bed.

We were lucky that day, and would remain lucky for the rest of our week.  The weather was overcast and cool the entire length of our stay, with the exception of one day where it was sunny but not hot.  The previous week had been a scorcher, and many of the volunteers had suffered heatstroke (five in one day).  Like I said, we were lucky.

Another typhoon (no. 3 for me) made landfall that night, and we thought we’d have no work the next day.  As it happens, it let up or moved on, and so we went out.  I was split up from Sarah and Michelle.  They went to help tear the drywall out of a house somewhere even more badly hit than Wakabayashi.  I was on gardening detail.  The weeds around the camp were heavily encroaching on the road and needed to be cut.  I was a little let down, to be honest.  I knew it was a job that needed to be done, but I selfishly wanted to do something a little more interesting than being a glorified gardener.  

I accepted my duty, though.  Myself and two Japanese guys went down in a truck to the other side of the lake where the road to the camp started.  After hopping out of the truck the lead guy laid out three tools on the ground: weedwhackers.  Basically they were large, shoulder mounted, gas-powered buzz-saws that were controlled with a throttle.  They looked something like this -, however there was no sort of protection around the blade (it was just a fast-spinning saw).  After thinking: “There’s no way he’s gonna’ let me use this thing without some sort of qualification,” he bends over and gives me the following instructional speech:

“Open.  Close.  On.  Off.  Pull.  Stop.”

And that was my crash course in using this potentially deadly weapon.  He then pointed to one side of the road where weeds were particularly overgrown and turned around and walked away.  I slung the thing over my shoulders, opened the throttle, and cranked on the blade.  As the rapidly spinning blade started slicing the weeds like so much tissue paper, I suddenly realized I was going to have a fun day.  I tore into the weeds with relish.  I hacked and slashed as though it were my purpose in life itself, stopping only to refuel my machine (and once for lunch).  I particularly enjoyed cutting down the large weeds (some taller than me) that obscured the view of the lake.  With each felling my view got better and better.

I was also totally alone, with no one in sight.  This was great because I could vent a bit.  If I have a vice (remember I don’t smoke anymore) it’s cursing, and being with Sarah and Michelle and now especially with being in a Christian organization I had to censor myself.  However, there was no one around at the moment, and even if they were, they couldn’t hear me over the noise of the buzz saw and the tearing of grass and weeds.  I probably sounded insane, but then again, you couldn’t hear me.  If a tree falls in the forest, eh?

It felt like an aggressive form of Xen, but I quite enjoyed my day as a glorified gardener.  We did a good job, too.  Between the three of us we cleared the road to the camp of any obstructions.  I was in a good headspace, too.  It was a day of somewhat hard work, something I rarely do even at home.  The only bad thing was the vibrations from the machine.  Gripping it for 7 hours had left my hands permanently in a clenched position.  I had to have someone pry them flat again upon reaching the cabin.

The following day we went out to Oichi-san’s farm again, this time minus Irene but plus Alea, who’d arrived the previous night.  She’s also from San Diego and teaches English in Japan.  She and Sarah and met once sometime many months before and had proposed meeting up.  That day we worked in another one of Oichi-san’s fields, this one farther out.  The debris in this field were larger, the major one being a 20-25 meter tall (at least) tree that was in the middle of the field.  It had been carried nearly 2km from the coast, with it’s root system still attached.  We spent the first half of the day getting the debris off of/out of the ground and untangled from the tree, and the second part weeding and de-twigging the ground.  By the end of it, the field looked quite good… that is, except for the massive tree in the middle of it.  Oichi-san was quite happy, and said he wished he could plant right now because it looked so good.  That made me happy, really happy.

I had brought my melodica and Sarah her flute.  We played a little for Oichi-san, and he told us about his daughters, who both play in band (one even plays tuba!).  There was a piano in the house, before it had been washed away.  He used to like listening to his daughters play while he worked out in the fields.  He rewarded us once more with coffee before we left.  After stopping for ice-cream we headed back to base in the unfortunately named ‘CRASH Car’ (it belongs to the organization, which is called ‘CRASH Japan’).  I think we were a bit rowdy (that is, for a bunch of Christians and myself, who was putting on the robes, so to speak).  Poor Wataru wanted to sleep, and I think we put him off a bit, but in the end it was okay.  He had even earned a nickname at this point: ‘Manjack.’  It’s a long story, but basically it stems from my incorrect use of the term to describe an adventurous, skilled, and gallant figure.  This is not correct, and the meaning originally comes form English cricket terminology, but still, it sounds good, right?  We went out later on in Alea’s car to do some laundry.  There was a massage chair in Laundromat, 15 minutes for 100 yen.  It was best 100 yen I’d ever spent.  It was damn near orgasmic, and I made kind of a fool of myself with my auditory exclamations of joy and pleasure.  Still, after the previous days work, it was just what the doctor ordered.

The following day found us once again at Oichi-san’s, this time with So from Okinawa, who we’d nicknamed ‘Chainsaw.’  This name was slightly more apt, as he did have a chainsaw with him.  For me, I spent the entire day in the garden pulling/cutting weeds.  At one point Chainsaw, Michelle, and Sarah went out with Oichi-san to the tree in the field and after some struggle managed to cut it in a few crucial places, thus enabling most of to be carted away in time.  My day was spent, once again, staring into the Earth, but it was a good day of hard work.

I also spent good deal of time looking out at the scene around me, across the surreal plain that leads to the sea.  It was strange.  Even after three days’ work the place did not look different.  It’s something that’s hard to deal with: you can’t see change there in a short amount of time.  There’s no such thing as instant gratification in relief work.  It’s a long process, and it’s going to take Japan years to recover from this.  When we left at the end of day we knew we weren’t coming back there, and it was anti-climatic not see any sort of dramatic difference, but I guess I couldn’t have expected that.  I do know from others who have been there longer that things were a lot worse.  After all, this was four months post quake/tsunami.  Besides all the physical clean-up and rebuilding that’s been done, people have also told me the spirit of the people is a lot stronger now.  People who lost loved ones are still blown apart, but in terms of hope for the future, there’s a lot more of it these days.  That’s good to know.  I know Japan can and will recover.  It’s only a matter of time.

After we left we drove over to Matsushima Bay.  The view of the bay and the islands is supposed to be one of the three most beautiful views in all of Japan (so was Miyajima, by the way… 2 out of 3 isn’t bad for one trip, eh?).  There’s an onsen there, too, which everyone went to but me.  I’ve been ripped on for not taking to onsens (they’re hot baths that draw their water from the natural hot springs that saturate Japan), but that’ll be for another trip.  I wandered out around the bay for an hour, staring out the scenery and the fishing boats in the harbor (this place had been hard hit by the tsunami, and the damage was visible).  I think there’s a lot of clam/oyster harvesting in the area, as evident by the millions of shells I saw tied up near the buildings.  

At one point I crossed a bridge to this small island.  There was a still semi-functional JCG (Japanese Coast Guard) dock there, but other than that, the whole island was controlled about 500 seagulls.  There were about 20 of them perched on the bridge, and after not much thinking at all, I charged at them, arms waving.  They lifted off in a wave pattern.  It was beautiful.  What I didn’t count on, though, was their sudden takeoff startled the other 480 birds, who also suddenly took to the sky.  Now I was directly below twenty-five-score or more frightened seagulls.  You can a wild guess what seagulls do when they’re scared.  We do the same.  

I started hear the splatters all around me on the pavement.  Panicking, I spotted a newly built but barely standing bathroom not far away.  I made a mad dash for the cover of its small awning, serpentining the whole way.  Miraculously I managed to reach it unblemished.  There I waited out the shit-storm (literally) for about 15 minutes.  The pitter-patter on the roof sounded exactly like rain, and I was hesitant to leave my shelter until eventually enough of them landed and I felt it was safe to leave.  The birds were once more on the bridge, but this time I steered clear.

The following day’s morning briefing was a little strange.  All the other teams had left, and it was only us, the camp manager, and few locals left.  Sarah, Michelle, Alea, Wataru, So, one of dudes who I’d cut grass with the previous day, and myself boarded the crash car and drove out to Ishinomaki.  This place had been hit hard, or parts of it had, anyway.  There’s a nearby river which overflowed due to the tsunami, causing widespread devastation.  Once again, the place has been cleaned up a lot since the days immediately following the tsunami, but it’s still like a warzone.  The creepy thing is all the clocks are stopped at the same time.

Before we drove through the damaged part of town we visited a church.  There was a warehouse in the back full of supplies for refuges: clothes, food, toiletries, toys, tools, etc...  People would be coming there tomorrow to take what they needed, and all was in total disarray.  We spent a few hours attempting to put all the like things together and making labels.  I’m not sure if we finished, but we left it much better than we found it.  We then headed over to a ramen shop and got some lunch before driving through the destroyed part of town.

After a while we passed through the damaged section to another place that was mostly undamaged.  Here was a community center where we were supposed to play with a group of the kids who were put here in temporary housing post-quake.  However, the local city council was having a meeting, so we relocated to a park (I was bummed because there was a keyboard there I would have gotten to use).  We met some other volunteers and the kids and headed down the street to a small park.   It was raining a bit, but that was okay.  There was also a small quake, but it barely registered. 

The kids were all young, between maybe 4 and 8 years old.  I took out my melodica, which some of them were amused by (secretly, I was more impressed by the ones who thought it was silly).  First there were some songs, for which I was provided sheet music.  There was a pastor there who played guitar, Sarah played flute, and I chimed in on my intrepid red rabble-rouser of a melodica.  The kids knew the words.  I just played the chords, but would occasionally throw in some fast line (much to the children’s amusement, I think).  After that there was a sermon in Japanese, which I needless to say couldn’t follow.

After that it was madness.  Having only spent only the smallest time around small children (around only one child, really), I felt a little awkward and overwhelmed.  They have SO much energy!  They were running around at lightspeed, doing this, climbing that, kicking that.  It’s astonishing.  They were so happy to have some big people to play with though.  This one girl (I’m guessing maybe four or five) latched unto me.  She was all over the place.  She wanted to be put up here or down there, or thrown this, or to hang or swing on that.  It was nuts, and it took a while for me to relax, to be honest (I’m always petrified of them crying or hurting themselves… I couldn’t stand that to be my fault).  After a bit I relaxed and really started having fun as well.  It turned into one of the best days of the trip, even better than my gardening day.

We played for a few hours before finally packing in.  Chainsaw stayed behind, as he worked for the church there.  It was a long drive back to the city, but conversation was lively (at least, after we passed back through the devastation).  That night there was talk of going to jazz concert in Sendai, but as it happened, the price was something incredibly steep (like 2500 yen… for amateurs, even), so we all headed out for a bit of sushi instead with the camp leader, Mayumi (everybody sans my gardening buddy who had to head home to his wife and kid.  The place was pretty cheap and mighty delicious, and we had a lot of fun.  After heading out for ice-cream and a bit of horsing around in alocal department store, we returned to camp and got a good night’s sleep.

I left the next morning.  Michelle was sick, so I said goodbye to her at the base.  Alea, Sarah, and Mayumi drove me down to the station and saw me on the correct train.  I was glad to have gotten to do a bit of help.  I hadn’t planned on going anywhere NEAR the disaster area, but as the trip had progressed and I was shown unbelievable amounts of kindness by the Japanese, I began to think twice.  I remembered Sarah’s offer about Fuji, and what lay beyond seemed like it was something worth doing.  I’m so glad I did, and I’m so thankful to Sarah and Michelle for letting me tag along.  It was a really special experience, one completely unlike any other I’ve had. 

I road it back to Sendai city, ate cheap combini breakfast, bought my bus ticket, and six glorious hours on the highway later I was back in Tokyo.  I made my back to Asakusa (I had booked two more nights at the hostel I had been in before), and checked in.  After chatting briefly with Sterling (from Virginia, but NOT Sterling, Virginia… that’d have been too much) and her boyfriend Waffes (yes), I left to meet up with Yuko, my good fellow jazz piano-playing friend from San Diego who’s from/lives now in Tokyo.

Incidentally, the subway stop where I was supposed to meet up with Yuko was called Takadanobaba, which sounds to me like something Jabba the Hut would say.  Think about it…

We went up to a tiny place where we sat in our own room.  We hadn’t seen each other in ages.  Her English had improved greatly since last we met.  The change was even more dramatic as I can remember the night we met (over three years ago) and she spoke nearly nothing.  Eventually her friend Rumi joined us.  She’d lived in San Diego, gone to SDSU, and plays jazz piano as well.  It was nice little bunch at that table.

After dinner we went to INTRO, a nearby jazz club which happened to be hosting a session that night.  The house band (especially the pianist) was killing.  There were sax players galore, one of which was pure soul, while another was pure wank.  The bassist was an ANIMAL!  He was super deep on Mingus, but he clearly had his New York chops in order (I suppose Tokyo would be the NYC of the East, anyway).  He was also the only bassist, and was a machine.  A couple of the drummers were decent too, but of course, there was the usual cadre of singers in attendance.  I play maybe four or five songs, and though I wasn’t happy with my playing, I had fun.  

I’m glad Yuko took me there.  Rumi left (sadly), and Yuko and I rode the subway back home, though she got off before me.  I’m so glad she made time to see me.  I was worried after leaving Tokyo the first time for Sendai I wouldn’t get to see her, but luckily, everything worked out.  If she doesn’t come back to San Diego soon (which I hope she does), I’ll have yet another reason to come back to Japan.  I ended the evening in the hostel bar, a dark beer in my hand (this bar was of the few I could find in all of Japan that served dark beer from the tap).  I chatted with a Dutch guy for bit (he also played piano), before going to bed.

The next morning I heading down to Shibuya station.  I had plans to meet Ayaka there, another friend and pianist/mallet player from San Diego who was Tokyo-bound for the summer.  We had plans to meet by the Hachijo Statue (Hachijo was a famous dog who waited every day by the train station for his master to return, even though his master was dead).  It’s a famous meeting point, actually.  Dozens of people were milling about it, waiting for their friends to turn up.  I found Ayaka soon enough.  Once again, a familiar face was a welcome sight, one that I swear I never take for granted again.

We came to the famous scramble square outside of Shibuya Station: an eight-sided intersection which is the most traversed in all the world.  Over a million people cross it daily.  We managed to survive a crossing and went to get some ramen and gyoza (a meal I’m quite taken with).  After that, we strolled around the shopping districts, ducking into this store or that and marveling (I was marveling, at least) at all the products.  Each side-street gave way to another one, and with heat being brutal, we found ourselves seeking the AC more than the stores’ wares.

Eventually we would up at a place I’d been avoiding my entire stay in Japan: Starbucks.  I made an exception to my policy for a pretty good reason.  This Starbucks was on a second story that directly overlooked the aforementioned intersection and provided us with a perfect view of the massive crossings that occur every two minutes or so.  It reminded me of ‘Braveheart,’ or something, with hundreds of buddies suddenly rushing towards each other.  We finished our small frappe-crappa-whatsits and then made our own crossing.

We took the subway after that, but she got off before me.  She’ll be back in San Diego when I get back.  I managed to make it home and wound up one last time in the hostel bar.  I had intended to drink away the last of my yen, but I didn’t feel like drinking that much (I tried pretty hard, though).  Myself and the Dutch guy played piano back and forth for a while.  He was leaving Japan the next day as well, and like me, regretted having to go.  I had come to love this country, and even though my grip on the language was weak and there were/are many gaps in my knowledge of the culture, I loved the process of discovery and learning.  I had come to find Japan like my home.  I missed my friends and my family, sometimes to the point of utter despair, but I didn’t miss America much, if at all.  I want to call Japan my home someday, and if I can’t do that, than I want to spend much more time here.

The next morning I checked out of the hostel, but dawdled around the hostel all afternoon packing and getting info for the flight, as well as making conversation with Sterling, who was attempting to figure out how she was going to find her host family.  I had been collecting all my 1, 5, and 10 yen coins with the intent to donate them, but could not find anyone at the last minute, so I gave them to Sterling instead (she was probably more deserving than the bums on the street near the bridge).  I ate lunch from a combini (not bad, but not a proper last meal), mailed some stuff home, then eventually set out for Narita Airport. 

I hadn’t left myself any time for getting on a wrong train or getting lost, so I was bit stressed out on the ride over.  Narita was actually a bit farther out of town than I had thought, too.  As such I just barely made my connecting flight to Shanghai.   I spent the last of my yen on a Calorie Mate bar and some Pocky (a truly shitty last meal in Japan), and hopped on the plane.  I’ve officially lost my taste for flying, but it was short.  

I had four hour layover to look forward to Pudong Airport (I also had Chinese customs to look forward to, but they were surprisingly friendly… I was weirded out).  I was counting on Youtube to save me from boredom, but I forgot about China’s fear of things like that (Facebook, Youtube, etc…).  It was blocked.  Luckily, I met a Jana from Germany, who was also traveling alone.  Her English was good (again, making me feel like an ass), and the time flew by.  Once on the flight to Germany time slowed right back down again, though.  I barely slept, but all was well upon arrival.  I cleared German customs without incident.  I also saw Jana on the flipside, and we walked through the airport together to our respective trains.  My last leg to my hostel in Frankfurt was easy, and strolling around the streets of Germany was a surreal experience.  Where were the combines?  The ramen shops?  The J-pop blaring out of the speakers?  The crazy hair dos and super suits?  The mad fashion?  The temples?  The shrines?  Why wasn’t everyone on a bike?

I now found myself in strange situation that I still find myself dealing with: I now missed Japan as much as I missed home.  It’s not so good, to be honest.

Okay, that is IT!  My God, if you read all that, I owe you a steak.  In a while, I’ll post something about what I’ve been up to in Europe, but right now, it’s happy hours, and beers are 20 Czech Krona.

Soupy twist,

Friday, July 8, 2011

Welcome to the Islands

Cue some slat key guitar music and the hula girls.  Slice open the nearest coconut and pour some rum in it.  Stretch yourself out on the beach and don your shades.

Okay, so maybe it’s not quite so extreme, but Okinawan life is definitely noticeably different from mainland Japan.  For one thing, they speak a strong dialect here known as Okinawan Hogan (spelling?).  It’s sort of a mix between Japanese and the old language that was spoken in the Ryukyus before they were annexed by Japan in the late 19th century during the Meji Restoration.  Not that I can understand much anyway, but I can certainly hear a difference.  The pace on the island is decidedly more relaxed and easy going, and of course all the locals are bronze gods, making me stand out even more.

I arrived about 8 or 9 PM at a small ferry port in Naha, the capital city (population about 300K).  Stepping off the boat into the night air felt like I was walking into a jungle.  The humidity was ungodly.  I was sweating profusely before I’d even reached the end of the gangplank.  Inside the terminal building, I tried to make sense of where I was/where I was supposed to go.  The directions on the website had been vague, to put it mildly.  They only showed where the hostel/guesthouse was in relation to other things, and not to anywhere tourists (their main customers, one would think) would be coming in from, i.e. the airport, the bus terminal, or one of the ferry ports.  I picked up a map in the terminal building, but it was a cartoonish thing with silly drawings not done to scale.  I used it and some piss-poor Japanese to cull some directions out of a portly port security guard, then headed down the road.

Stopping briefly to listen to an old sanshin player on the beach who was singing and playing to the water, I sweated all the way down to Asahibashi-eki (‘Sunrise-bridge-station,’ and yes, I translated that myself… hopefully, I’m right).  The monorail system is the one train system in all of the islands, but it’s quite nice.  After I boarded, I saw nearly everyone in the car was wearing Hawaiin/Aloha shirts.  I was later informed (via my cuz Alphie) that Okinawans claim these as their creation, and though they are popular on the islands, they were really first made by Japanese living in Hawaii (from old kimono fabric).  I meant to get one, both for practicality’s sake and as a souvenir, but never got around to it.

I got of at Asato station, which was one of the landmarks on my hand-drawn map.  Once there, it was easy to find the place, and I was at the front door in about six or seven minutes.  Mori-san, the owner of the hostel, greeted me.  He, like the owners of past guesthouses I’ve stayed in, was a really nice guy.  He would go out of his way (sometimes WAY out) to help you and see you had a good time.  The place itself was a bit of a dive, cosmetically-speaking, and maybe the building wasn’t quite up to code, but that was okay.  There was a bed, a kitchen, a bathroom, a shower, some WIFI, and I made friends with the other folks in the guesthouse.  Besides, Mori-san was a truly excellent host.

Before moving on with (not) thrilling stories, I should mention that shortly before arriving I was informed via a Facebook message that Dylan Savage, a really great drummer I’d done some gigs with back in San Diego, was living on Okinawa.  I knew he was in Japan, but didn’t know where exactly.  I wrote him an email, mentioning I was coming down, and would be arriving on the 23rd.  Wouldn’t you know it that, just my luck, he was moving to Seattle on the 19th?  Ah well, ships in the night, I guess.  He gave me the names of some jazz clubs I should hit up, as well as put me in contact with a few of his friends.  It was definitely worth getting in contact with him, though I’m dearly sorry we missed each other.

Shortly after arriving and depositing my stuff, I headed out to a jazz bar Mori-san told me about.  The night air hung heavily over the city, and I found myself perspiring just walking down the street (even at 10PM).  After returning to Asato Station, I turned down a seedy looking street.  I passed bars, brothels, and itzakayas before eventually spotting the sign for ‘Harvest Moon.’  I jogged up the stairs and entered the place.  It was as small as small can be, cluttered and quaint, but they had somehow managed smuggled a grand piano in there. 

It was my first time realizing that Okinawa must be either a piano tuners hell or heaven, depending on how much he/she likes his job.  It’s all but impossible to keep a piano in tune on the island, what with the insane humidity and the constant shifts in weather.  I ended up playing about five pianos in Naha, and none of them were even close to being in tune.  I don’t blame the club owners, though.  It’d be like trying to keep your shoes dry on the Titanic.

Anyway, the band consisted of a guitarist and upright bassist, later joined by Mitchy (Mitchiko), the owner and a decent singer.  The guitarist also sang, and even though his jazz wasn’t the greatest, he played every style.  He’s a well rounded professional.  He even had some harmonies worked out with Mitchy.  The bassist, Akira, was all over the place in turns of time and intonation, but his solos were actually interesting, and he was surprising adept with the bow (he bowed the melody to ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, and I must admit he sounded quite nice).  ‘Harvest Moon’ turned out to be more of a piano bar than a jazz club, but I stayed for a drink, sat in on a few tunes, and had a good time.  No one spoke English that well, but we got by with a mix.

The next day I decided to explore Kokusai Dori, the big international street and party district of the city.  It’s one of the most touristy areas I’ve ever seen.  Every other joint is either a souvenir shop or a Blue Seal ice cream parlor.  There were some 100 Yen shops (I bought a new wallet at one), a couple of music shops, and tons, and tons of bars and clubs.  I turned off Kokusai Dori and down Heiwadori, a covered shopping arcade, which eventually took me to a small public market.  This place was filled with locals, yelling and bartering, and stank to the heavens of fish.  In the midst of this chaos, I found a small gyoza shop, and ordered a cheap meal of gyoza, rice, and miso.

I started noticing many Americans, all clearly in the military.  Regardless of their distinguishing haircuts, I was able to spot them half a block away.  I’ve become quite adept at spotting the Americans.  I can’t explain how I know exactly, but I’m always right.  You know your own tribe, I guess.  Incidentally, I was constantly asked by locals once upon my stating ‘watashi wa Amerika-jin desu’ if I was in the military, to which I replied (and demonstrated), “No, I have hair.”  I then performed a pantomime buzz cut to further get my point across.  This usually induced some laughter.  At any rate, they were glad I wasn’t in the military, so I thought.

Later that night I went out, despite the typhoon was just offshore and due to make landfall in a few hours.  I ended up back on Heiwadori, and then at a small eatery, where I found myself invited to sit a table with a couple of old guys from Nagoya.  They were both scuba divers, and had come to Oki to do that.  I had ordered a beer (‘Orion’ beer is the staple on Oki, is brewed on the island, and boy, do I hate it!), as well as a few communal snacks.  We all tucked in.  Once again, their English was limited to only a few words, but we got by, and had some laughs. 

There was a family of four from Hong Kong at the table next to us, evidently trying to determine if a dish contained shrimp or not.  One of the women turned to me and asked me if I knew the Japanese word for shrimp, to which I only started laughing.  There are two Japanese guys at the table, and she decides to try and ask the white kid!  I suppose she heard me say a few things in Japanese and assumed I actually spoke it.  I told her draw one and show it to one of my tablemates.  Meanwhile, one of the guys got it in his head she was asking about pickles, and when she showed him the shrimp, he only got confused.  Myself and the other guy were laughing the entire time.

After taking some pictures (which I just recently received), I walked back to Kams’s Jazz Bar, quite near my place.  I was told about the club by both the karate instructor on the boat and by Dylan. The owner, Kamura-san, was supposed to be playing piano that night with a bassist, but when I arrived, I found the place empty except for the bartender.  Apparently, they canceled the live music because of the typhoon.  Let down, I sat at the bar and ordered a beer (more Orion).  After a bit of talking (she remembered Dylan from when he used to play there), she let me play a few tunes.  I hung around a bit, talked with some girls who arrived, played some more piano, then got really tired and headed home. 

As I stepped unto the street, I found myself in the middle of a full blown typhoon.  I was soaked within a minute of walking, and my umbrella was totally destroyed by the wind within two blocks.  I was standing in the middle of a crosswalk when the thing completely blew apart.  A nearby cab driver, warm and dry in his vehicle, was laughing at me.  Let down for the second time in one evening, I headed back to the guesthouse, where the sight of me in the doorway, soaked to the bone and carrying the tattered remnants of my umbrella produced another row of laughter.  I headed upstairs, dried off, then watched a movie with a few of the guests.  It was one of those American urban dance movies that were so popular this past decade.  It was called ‘Honey,’ and no, I had no say in the selection.

Sometime the next morning, Mark arrived.  He’s from Northern Ireland, and had been WWOOF-ing (‘World-wide Opportunities in Organic Farming,’ I think… or something like… basically, it’s like volunteered serfdom) on Okinawa for a week at a farm somewhere on the Northern part of the main island.  I showed him down Kokusai dori, down pretty much the same route I’d taken the day before.  We ate some crepes (like damn!), and I made a mental note of the location of two jazz clubs (‘Guuwa’ and ‘Parkers Mood,’ both of which had also been recommended to me by Dylan).  It was quite humid, and super windy, which eventually drove us back to our place.

Later, back the hostel, a gaggle of American girls showed up (trust me, it’s the appropriate term of venery).  They were all from the Midwest (Ohio, I think), and they worked on one of the bases as swim instructors/lifeguards for the military children.  They were all blonde, super tan, and with the exception of Kim, their names all ended in ‘ie/y’ sound (Ashley, Chloe, Kelsea, and Ellie).  I’m actually rather surprised I was able to keep them all straight.  Erin, another traveler from Buffalo, also showed up.  She was just as pale as me (though, I think I have her beat), and decidedly less loud and uber-American then the other girls.

We headed out on the town.  For the second time that day I gave a tour of Kokusai Dori.  The girls started quaffing Chu-his, these disgustingly sweet but highly alcoholic canned creations.  I’ve tried them before.  They taste like bad candy, but if you want to get plastered, it’s the most economic way.  The base-girls all lived in a box, so to speak (not Erin, I should say).  They were reluctant to go anywhere that wasn’t heavily Americanized, but all such eateries were too expensive, so I dragged them to the gyoza shop I had found earlier.  They were reluctant to go in (even the coin machine confused them), but eventually we all ate a bit of food for a cheap price, and they seemed to like it.  They’d been on Okinawa for months and THIS was the first time they’d gone to see the island.  I was amazed.  They all had this amazing and, quite frankly, easy opportunity to see a completely different world and they all they wanted was Starbucks, McDonalds, American-ized dance clubs, etc… Go figure.  Again, Erin was a traveler like me, and was always pro-exploration.  Unfortunately, she left to go home to sleep halfway through the evening.

We wandered up and down Kokusai Dori, stopping and talking on and off again with the Marines we met along the way (one was from Ocean Beach, haha!).  At one place towards the end of the strip, we all sampled some Habu Sake, which is brewed with a dead Habu snake in it (the worm in the Tequila bottle kind of pales in comparison to a dead, venomous snake in a jar of sake).  As a matter of fact, they slit the venom sacks open so the venom gets absorbed into the sake.  This has two effects: 1) If drunk regularly, you’ll eventually develop an immunity to Habu bites, and 2) You get messed up easily (people who work in the jungles on Oki drink it for the former reason).  We all only had a bit, but I could see if I kept drinking the stuff I’d be blotto soon enough.

We had a few beers at REHAB, an international bar.  Apart from the decently varied beer selection, I felt like I was In America.  The décor, the music, and everyone at my table was American.  What’s more, we were all being loud as anything.  Japan is a quiet country, and so I felt really strange at first, but it was a international bar.  Everyone was loud, so I raised my glass and voice in concert with the ambience.  It turned out I was the eldest at the table, which I seldom am.  Everyone was in their teens to early twenties.  I was also the only one not associated with the military (the girls lived on base, and the other folks who we had fallen in with were Marines).  I felt almost as out of place as I would have been if I was alone in a Japanese bar.

Sometime later we went to a dance club.  It was small, and the American music was so loud it made your organs shift around inside you.  Though not my scene at all, I had a good time.  I figured since this trip was all about trying new things, this counted (even though it was something I could be doing at home).  We danced and drank for I don’t know how long before eventually heading home.  It was a fun and unexpected night.

The next day, Erin and I went out and explored some of the city.  We walked over to the ferry port to check on prices for going out to the closer islands, and damn, they were expensive.  It was late in the day anyway, so we went over to this garden instead.  You’d think I’d be sick of gardens by now, but these were really nice.  Like many parts of Okinawan life/culture, it was very Chinese influenced.  Before the Ryukyus were part of Japan, they had maintained a very close relationship to China.  In fact, he islands were the first stop on the trade route between China and mainland Japan and/or Korea.  Even today, you can see the Chinese influence in the architecture, taste it in the food, and hear it in the language (I couldn’t quite manage the last one, though).

We wandered around the city before heading back to guesthouse, though we first made a stop at a large bookshop with an English language section where I finally bought a good book on learning Japanese.  I’ve been making better progress since then.  I spent most of the rest of the day cracking into the book, and at night, headed out to Guuwa (the jazz club) with Erin and Japanese guy named Yu in tow.  Guuwa was opened and owned for almost 40 years by a man named Fumio Yara, a Okinawan born pianist who played there almost nightly.  He died 6 months ago, and his son has taken over the club, not to mention the piano bench, being a good pianist himself.  We met Mark at the club, and sat down for the tail end of the first set.  During the interval, I approached the drummer (who spoke English very well and knew Dylan).  I chatted with him a while, telling him I was a piano player. 

I won’t lie.  My intent was to be asked to sit in for a tune or two, and I got what I wanted… and then some.  When the next set started up, I found myself at the piano on the first song.  The band was pretty good, and I was enjoying myself thoroughly.  After the second tune, I looked for the hook to come and sweep me off the bench, but it didn’t appear.  It didn’t show up after the third tune either, or the fourth.  A little over an hour later, the set ended.  They let me play the whole time.  I was rather surprised, but pleased.  I had gone over well with the players, the audience, and my small cadre of friends at the table (who hadn’t heard me play before).  It was quite fun.  I chatted briefly with Fumio’s son and the drummer, Katsuya, before heading back to the hostel (a good 2km away).

Monday Erin and I went to the beach.  I arrived unprepared, and had to set off to find shorts (which took me about 40 minutes… I wandered into the love hotel district it took me a while to get out).  After I returned, I donned my new trunks and set foot unto the sand.  The beach itself, the only one in Naha, was pretty piss poor.  It was short, and the view was blocked off by two concrete bridges.  Still, the water felt warm and it was good to have a swim.  I did a few laps using the old breaststroke until I was goo tired.  Afterwards, Erin and I headed off to see a few shrines and temples and get some food before making our way back to the hostel.

It was hot as hell the next day.  I spent most it indoors, before at last braving the weather and going to Shuri Castle.  What stands there today is a reconstruction, the original (heavily restored itself) having been completely obliterated in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.  I met a Parisian there named Glen (an odd name for a Frenchman), and we walked around the castle grounds together.  Upon entering the inner courtyard, the Chinese influence can be sensed immediately (I sensed it anyway).  In case, it’s plain that it’s not a typical Japanese-looking castle, though it was certainly beautiful.  Glen and I walked around the Shuri area awhile before catching monorail back to central Naha, exchanging email addresses before we parted.  Later that night Erin and I followed Mark to ‘The Eager Beaver,’ a Canadian pub/guijin hangout a few blocks off of Kokusai Dori.  The beer was good, the food was alright, and it was quiz night.  We did alright, placing in third (not bad considering we were by the far the youngest players).

Erin left the next day for the North, and I spent most of the day indoors, catching up on backlogged emails and doing some planning for the rest of the trip (boring as it was, there were some matters that needed attending).   That night I went back to ‘Harvest Moon.’  Again, it was piano bar night, with some jazz thrown in as a bonus.  There were a bunch of singers in attendance doing their various pop songs, all of which were older American songs (some I’d never heard of).  I don’t mean to knock it.  They were actually quite good, even in their pronunciation (with the sole exception of one girls rendition of the Beatles classic “Letter B”).  I spent a long time talking with the pianist, who spoke English well, in addition to being not only a fine piano player but a damn good accompanist.  The man on my left was slightly drunk (when he came in, I think), but was exceptionally nice.  He gave me a glass or two of Awamori, a strong saki and a local favorite, and tried in vain to explain the concept of ‘wabi-sabi’ to me.  I played about six tunes with Mitchy and one solo number.

Still, even if none of that happened, it would have been worth coming that night just to see this one guy sing.  I think he was pretty loaded, but he was definitely a happy drunk if he was.  He did the strangest version of ‘Desperado’ I think I’ve ever heard.  His speech was barely intelligible, his body movements would have made Joe Cocker look like Christopher Reeves, but the funny thing was in terms of pitch, time, and dynamics he was actually spot on.  It was simultaneously ridiculous and amazing.  I was fighting back the urge to burst out laughing the entire time, and yet my applause at the finale was in earnest.  He did three more songs in a similar fashion, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.

The next day was a doozy.  I took the monorail to the airport in an attempt to rent a car.  That endeavor was a failure, as everything was booked solid.  Determined to make good use of my day, I took the monorail back towards central Naha, but got off at Onoyama-Koen Station.  From there, I exited into the heat and the sun and the skin-destroying power of its rays.  What followed was four of five hours worth of marching around the city.  My first goal was to find a cheap place to eat lunch, which I did on the far side of the river (at a Yoshinoya… oh yay).  After that I headed back through the dirtiest little park, laden with trash and the homeless, both baking in hot tropical sun. 

Frying all the way, I crossed a second bridge back to the other side of the river, eventually making my way over to a dingy little neighborhood.  Partly a shanty town, it was nestled into the side of a hill.  Alongside the hill were many small, stone mausoleums, as well as a few things that looked like they might have been old pill boxes (machinegun nests), though I couldn’t be certain.  They were all slowing being overrun by the plants, and being deteriorated by the wind and rain.  Not surprising, as most of the buildings on the island look exceptionally weathered.

From here I started walking uphill towards the South.  I had no map, but I remember seeing one somewhere saying the old HQ of the Japanese Navy on Okinawa was located somewhere in the direction I was heading.  I trudged about 3km uphill, cooking in the suns heat until I at least reached the top of the mountain.  Now a memorial park, the HQ was not a building as I had thought, but a series of underground bunkers and tunnels.  By the time I actually neared the entrance, I was horribly burnt, sweating profusely, and dead tired.  I approached a family of Americans (again, I picked them out from afar), and asked where I was.  I wasn’t sure I had actually found the place.  I must have looked like hell on toast, and I remember thinking from the sound of my voice I was quite harried.  They told me I was at the HQ, and I thanked them.  They asked me several times if I was okay.  I said yes, and after I went and got a drink of water, washed up, and laid down under a tree for thirty minutes that was true.

After my brief respite I headed down into the bunker.  I was walking into a tomb, pretty much.  4000 somewhat soldiers died down there in the final days of the battle, many by their own hand.  The man in charge, a rear admiral, wrote two letters (one to his family, and one to the Japanese military saying they should treat the Okinawan people with great respect for the sacrifice and the hardships they endured whilst bearing the brunt of the American invasion) before shooting himself.  Other officers did the same or used grenades (you can still the fragment marks on the wall).  The pictures and exhibits were humbling, and they did a very good job documenting the battle from both sides, with most atrocities and failures discussed quite openly.

On another note (and I feel guilty about this), but the bunker was also a good place because of the great acoustics and because of the AC.  God bless them, that bunker was probably about 60 degrees.

I left the bunker and headed up the observation platform to get a good look at Naha.  I could see all the way to the airport (which shares it’s single runway with the SDF base next door, so you could witness military fighters taking off or landing moments after passenger jets) to Shuri Castle to the East. Beyond the airport, you could see out over the beautiful sky and ocean along the Western Coast.  Not particularly wanting to walk another 3 kilometers back to the subway, I dawdled there quite some time before finally heading back down the mountain.  I stopped along the way for some sunscreen and aloe (the former of which was too-little-too-late and the latter was now a necessity). 

Back at the hostel, I rested a few hours.  Mori-san arranged a bus trip for me the next day that would take me around the Northern half of the island, including a visit to the aquarium (very famous, very large… more whale sharks).  I had to meet the bus someplace strange, but close.  I went over to where he had described, and found a large bus station.  Assuming that was the stop, I started to head back when it started to rain.  Caught in the open, I had little choice but to head back to the hostel, grumpy at being sunburned and now rained on in a matter of hours.  Welcome to the tropics.

After picking up some grub at the grocery store and having a spot of dinner, I thought I’d head out, get some gifts for Henry and Clara (I ended up getting them these coin purses made out of dead frogs… gross, but funny) and then hit up Kam’s again.  After purchasing said frogs and returning to KAMs, I discovered them closed, enough though it was 30 minutes until the music was supposed to start.  I headed over to Bar Firenzie and had drink, chewing the fat with a Tokyo politician and the bartender, who had passion for hydroponics.  I went back to Kam’s after one beer to find it still closed.  Annoyed, I decided to check out Parkers Mood instead, on the opposite end of Kokusai Dori.

I came in on the tail of the first set.  The owner, Kosuke Johma, was on guitar (he’s really nice, slick, and he swings).  He was playing with an alto player.  Good stuff.  After the set finished, he came over and we talked.  He spoke some English, and to my surprise asked me if I was Dylan’s friend, and if I played piano.  Apparently Dylan let them know I was coming, and I felt stupid for not having come here sooner.  The next set I was up, with Kosuke playing Fender bass instead of guitar.  The place was dead, but that was fine.  We did another set after that, with me playing duos with Kosuke (now back on guitar) and the sax player.  To my surprise, when I left, I wasn’t charged for the beer, and was asked to come back again next night and play the whole set.  I had BS-ed another gig.

The next morning… oh, the next morning.  What started off well (my actually getting up at 8am and making it out the door by 8:30) soon gave way to a series of unfortunate and stupid mistakes.  I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it so say, I missed the tour bus.  I then tried In vain to book another, only to find out that there was only one for that day, and I had already missed it.  Upon trying to rent a car, I found that I’d either need to rent it for 6 hours (too little time), or 24 (too much time, as I couldn’t return it until the place opened at 9am, at which point I’d be on a plane bound for Kobe).  Defeated and dripping sweat, I slouched back to the hostel.

I was sulking in the lobby when Mori-san came in.  He felt bad because he thought the directions he’d given me to the bus stop weren’t adequate enough.  I assured him they were, and that I was to blame.  I had resigned myself to spending the day inside, planning out the rest of my trip so that this wouldn’t happen again.  What happened next took me completely by surprise: for the cost of gas, Mori-san offered to drive me to the North and back!

A few minutes later we were in his car, speeding out of Naha (FINALLY!) along Route 58 heading North along the coast.  We drove past two or three bases along the way, including Camp Foster (where the swim instructor girls lived) and Kadena Airbase.  There were small villages, dense swaths of jungle, mountains, the emerald green waters of the sea, and long stretches of beautiful beach.  I had been in Naha so long, and quite frankly, I forgot I was on a tropical island.  We stopped briefly at some cliffs before pushing North towards a small beach Mori-san knew of.

The beach was on a tiny island just offshore that could be reached via bridge.  As a matter of fact, the beach itself stretched underneath that bridge.  The water was shallow and clear, good for snorkeling (unlike myself).  I donned my trunks, applied the mask and snorkel, and waded out.  The water was nice and warm.  There were tiny fish swimming about, and as I made my way around the coral, I found some other types of sea life as well (starfish, sea slugs, crabs, etc…).  When I neared one of the muscle-encrusted pillars I noticed something black attached to the stone.  I poked my head underwater to see what it was, and was greeted with the sight of an ugly, spiny, black anemone about 6 inches from my face.  I backpedaled hurriedly, avoiding getting stuck (I would later discover at the aquarium that these things were VERY venomous, would be extremely painful, and would require a hospital visit).  As I swam away though, I cut the soles of my feet on some coral.  They still hurt.  I suck at snorkeling.

We left the island and headed for the aquarium.  Mori-san knew the back roads, and we wound our way North through sugarcane fields.  For lunch, we stopped at a place called ‘Sky Pizza,’ or ‘Pizza in the Sky.’  Something like that.  Like the name implies, it’s high up on a mountain, and the view was supposed to be spectacular.  I had actually heard about it from a Marine I’d met halfway up Mt. Misen a few weeks earlier.  Mori-san knew exactly where it was, and soon we sitting at an outside table, eating damn good pizza, having beers, and gazing down the mountain and out across the blue-green sea.  You’d be hard pressed to find a pizza joint anywhere in the world with a nicer view.

Churaumi Aquarium was not far away.  We made it time for the dolphin show.  As we were taking our seats, I spotted a familiar face.  Well, part of a familiar face.  To the tell the truth, I recognized Erin primarily by the sunhat she had wisely pulled down over her face.  She had hitchhiked her way from Naha to Beach Rock Village, and was apparently the only guest there (tourism really has dropped post-quake/tsunami).  We sat in silence during the dolphin show, myself being unexpectedly entertained.  They had the usually troupe of bottle-noses, but with them also was a pair of False Killer Whales.  These dolphins were far more massive then their more common, slightly more spry counterparts, but they could move as well.  I had no idea dolphins could jump 15 feet out of the water.

I’m aware I sound like a total dweeb, but I really enjoyed the dolphin show, alright?

After the show and a visit to see the turtles and manatees, Mori-san gave Erin a lift back to her camp (I know, right?) and I went into the aquarium.  I won’t bore you with all the details of this really interesting tank or that really interesting one.  The only thing I’ll attempt to describe is their grand exhibit: in the main tank there are three whale sharks (one of them over 10 meters at least), half a dozen full sized manta rays, sharks, tuna, large silvery schools of sardines, and dozens of others.  In regards to the tanks size, imagine the SDSU Music Building.  Now imagine slicing it in half, vertically.  That would be about the size of it, I’d say.  I sat there, reclining in my chair, watching the scnene for at least an hour before hurrying back to meet Mori-san.

I’ll always be grateful that that man.  He went far, far out of his way for me.  I really owe him, and I hope someday I can repay that debt, or at least ‘pay it forward,’ as they say.

We got on the road and headed back to Naha.  It took us a little over two hours to reach the hostel, by which time it was almost 9.  I ran inside, threw my bag on the bed, put on some pants, and came running back down.  Mori-san graciously drove me to Parkers Mood (sadly, that was the last I saw him, as I left early in the AM the next day).  I hurried upstairs, but there was no need.  Apparently, the show was starting closer to 10 instead.  Unlike the night before, the place had maybe a dozen people in it.  I chatted with the bassist and a few girls.  One spoke English and worked part time at the club, while other hardly spoke any English, but played piano.  During the interval, she asked me to teach her something about voicings.  I don’t communicate musical concepts very well in English, let alone when I have to communicate them to someone who doesn’t speak English.  Can you imagine trying to teach some Rick Helzer stuff to someone who doesn’t speak your language?  I used a system of drawings of hands with numbers (signifying the intervals) by each finger to show some basic 2-5-1 voicings.  She got it.  I was relieved.

Musically, the night was great.  The bass player had a limited knowledge of tunes, but he kept good time, implied changes well, and was overall a decent player.  Koskue was shredding.  He actually has a tour with Peter Washington later this year.  He says he’s scared, but he’s got no need to be.  He swings, he knows tunes, he knows endings, he can flow, and he’s a really nice guy.  At the end of the night, not only was I given food and beer, but I actually got 3000 yen.  I had made money for the first time in 2 months, and got to do it playing music in a foreign country.  Needless to say, 3000 yen isn’t much (especially in Japan), but it whetted my appetite.  I wished I could do more gigs over here.

The following day consisted of some pretty insane traveling.  I woke up at 6am, packed, left the guesthouse, and caught a monorail to the airport.  From there, I boarded my flight for Kobe.  After landing in Kobe, I took another monorail to Sannomiya Station.  There I caught a train (Hanshin or Hankyu, I don’t remember) for Osaka Namba, and from there a subway to Dobutsuen-Mae.  During this somewhat convoluted trip (which went perfectly except for me losing my umbrella in Kobe), I had my first two conversations in pure Japanese.  Granted, they were really, really simple, but still…

Conversation #1- Naha Airport, 8:20 AM, a small café

Me- Sumimasen.  <pointing to ‘yakisoba’ the menu> Kore wa o kudasai.
Lady- <in disbelief> Kore?
Me- Hai.  Yakisoba o kudasai.
Lady- <more disbelief> Yakisoba?
Me- So desu.
Lady- Hai.
Me- Arigato.

(apparently, yakisoba is NOT a breakfast food, but I was very hungry, and it was cheap… or, ‘yasuidesu!’)

Conversation #2- Sannomiya Station, 11:20 AM, near the platforms

Me- <approaching the Station Attendant> Sumimasen.  Watashi wa Osaka Namba ni ikimas.
Station Attendant- Hai.  Houmu san
Me- San, desu ka?  Ano densha wa Osaka Namba ni ikimaska.
Station Agent- Hai.
Me- <heading towards platform no. 3> Arigato gozimasu!

Again, let me stress that these are phrases mastered by three-year-olds, but dammit, I felt proud.

After arriving back in Osaka, I checked into my old digs at the Hotel Mikado, but immediately headed up North to Umeda Station.  From there I caught the train to Ishibashi, and from there to Minoh (I got into a sort of conversation with some kids on the train, but I wasn’t able to understand enough of what they were saying/asking).  Soon after arriving and applying aloe (I was still quite burnt), I met Alphie, Henry, and Clara at the station.  We ran some errands, during which time I starting to limp.  My left ankle had been bothering me for some time, and it was acting up again.  The kids showed me to the house, and I sat on the couch to start massaging my aching ankle.  I think I maybe pulled a tendon.

Keiko’s piano had just been tuned and worked on, but the rug underneath it needed moving.  With Alphie and I lifting, Keiko and the kids managed to get the rug pulled out.  When last I saw the piano, it was equipped with a number of sound dampeners.  These had now been removed, and combined with the piano now resting on a solid wood foundation, in a largely wooden house, and freshly tuned made it great to play.  It still had it’s dark character, but it was no longer overwhelmingly dark.  The touch was different as well, slightly more the lighter side (perfect for me).  I played a bit before and after dinner, which was delicious.  Later we took a group photo by the piano, having to redo it a couple of times because Henry and Clara kept putting bunny ears on each other. 

After dinner I had a short phone interview for the New York Times to an old college friend of Alphies.  The reporter was doing a piece on the state of tourism in post-quake Japan.  I believe he’s going to use a quote of mine for the article.  As the night got on, the kids had to go to bed.  The whole family walked me over to the station and saw me off.  I don’t believe I’m coming back this way for a while (not on this trip, anyway), so I was quite sad to leave.  It was one of the best surprises of this trip: a whole new part of my family.  They alone are reason enough for me to come back one day, and soon.

When I arrived back in Osaka, I beat feet for Bricks.  Tohyama-san was quite surprised to see me again, but he remembered me (and still sold me cheap beer!).  I found myself seated between a guy who I’d met before who spoke practically no English and another whole spoke some.  I got to practice all my newly acquired Japanese phrases on them.  Even though they probably sounded off, it’s quite fun bouncing what you’ve just learning off people.  That’s the main reason I’m enjoying learning Japanese: I’m actually immersed in the environment.  If I were home studying, it’d be stale, but here, it’s alive and organic.  I love it, and could definitely see myself getting a good grip of the spoken language in a year.

The next day was spent around the Mikado.  The gig Izumi (the bassist I’d met in Osaka) had secured was that night.  It was too hot to go anywhere, so I just stayed in, practiced melodica, did a bit of laundry (I washed the closest thing I had to nice clothes) and brainstormed a bit for gig.  A little after 5, I went over to Shin-Immamiya and took the JR Loop to Kyobashi.  I was supposed to meet Izumi outside the turnstile-thing (it’s a little more high-tech than that here in Japan, but ‘turnstile-thing’ will suffice), but unfortunately, there were two of them.  I spent about 10 minutes walking back and forth, attempting to spot an upright bass through the crowd.  Eventually, he found me, and after getting completely turned around, we eventually found Beehive, the club.

Heading upstairs, we me Nakata, our drummer.  He spoke no English, but he was a good player.  We rehearsed a tune of his, plus some of mine, stopping when people started to arrive.  There were a number of familiar faces in the crowd, including: Reiko Aoki (a singer I’d met at Jazz Ya), Thomas Posner (the Canadian bassist/ESL teacher), Koda (Izumi’s friend and killer pianist), and Miki, who was my guide and companion in Nara.  There were five or six others there as well.  It was so nice to see all these people again.  I had met them all on my first time through Osaka, and it was truly kind of them to come out and see me again.

In between chatting with them, Izumi and I devised a set list.  I ended up MC-ing, in English.  I did a terrible job, mostly because I was attempting to use some Japanese I didn’t have a grip on yet (ie- I kept saying “Ohashibori,” instead of ‘Ohisashibori,” where ‘ohashi’ means chopsticks…).  I also kept forgetting the drummers name, which doesn’t look good when you’re a band leader (granted, I had only met him an hour ago, but still).  As the night went on, I got more and more relaxed.  The music went well.  We pulled off some standards, and my tunes turned out pretty good, though for the other guys sakes, I was leading quite strongly.  I was hammering out the form, but the audience seemed to like it.  Subtle I was not, but I guess everyone dug it.

FYI, I had the drummer use Isaac’s ‘Elvin-timps’ riff on the end of ‘In My Throat (My Heart).’  I had to point to the chart and act out what I wanted.  After a while, he got it, and when we played the tune, he nailed it.  It was particularly impressive, since in lieu of mallets, he was using an extra pair of sticks with small felt Os around the tips.

Umiharu came in right at the end.  We had a little session afterwards, with Koda, Umiharu, and Thomas all playing.  I caught up with Miki some more before she had to go, as well as met Izumi’s parents.  We took some pictures, got paid (about 3300 yen), and split.  Thomas, Umiharu, and I headed over to a 24-hour ramen place with all-you-can-eat garlic and kimchi.  I completely overdid it on those.  I think I put seven or eight cloves in my ramen, and ate about four of them raw.  I had a little garlic baby in my stomach when I left, and I stank for at least a day and half afterwards (my breath smelled like burning garbage by a public toilet in Detroit in July).  Still, man oh man, was it gooooooddddd.

I lazed about the next day as well.  I chatted some in the lobby with Gonsalvo (from Mexico) and Alvin (from San Diego, believe it or not).  I was able to give Alvin directions to several things he wanted to find, and give him general advice on this, his first trip to Japan (much in the same way Franz had given me upon my first arrival at the Mikado some eight weeks before).  After spending most of the day indoors, I decided too late to head to the see the Umeda Sky Building.  It began to drizzle when I got to Namba, and by the time I made it to Umeda, it was pouring.  In addition to that, I couldn’t even FIND the thing, once again demonstrating my inability to find the exceptionally large and painful obvious (like Osakajo before).  Defeated, I had dinner, then took the train to Tannimachi Kyu-Chome and headed for SUB, the jazz club inside the subway station I had visited once on my earlier visit to Osaka. 

They had live music that night, with the owner and bassist NIshiyama-san (‘West Mountain’) leading the group.  Yuke, the bartender and terrific pianist, remembered me, and I once again rather immodestly used the opportunity to demonstrate all the Japanese I’d learnt since last seeing her.  I talked to Nishiyama during the break.  He spoke English, but I had barely any idea WHAT he was talking about.  He was pretty far out, but nice.  He got me up for the next set, and I played the entire time.  The trumpeter and I talked some after the show, and I spoke again with Yuke one more time before making my back to the Mikado on the last train (actually making my connection this time).

After waking up and packing, I milled around the lobby until I could raise Al on the phone.  Soon after I was on a train racing towards Kyoto, not even having to consult Al or my notes for directions (I remembered the way from last month).  I arrived at Al’s shortly after 3, though he left shortly afterwards for Osaka.  I spent the night in and around Al’s neighborhood.  The next night was the monthly open mic at the Gael.  ‘The Kornhauser Brothers,’ back by popular demand, once again thrilled the masses (though not quite as much as the Michael Jackson impersonator).  We closed the place, leaving sometime around 3:30 with Benny and his wife (a great jazz singer).  I’m glad I got see Benny and a few of the ex-pats that hang around the Gael again, as well as some of the staff that work there.  Mostly, though, it was good to play with Al again.

The following day (AKA yesterday) I had planned to sight-see.  I was debating between two temples.  Eventually, the tsuyu decided for me: neither, as it was raining like hell.  Al and I had lunch with Alphie at Kyoto University (where he works), and I spent the rest of the day booking airplane tickets and planning for this trips future (which is looking quite bright).  After getting ramen and gyoza with Al, I bid my farewell and headed to the station.  With Al’s instructions, I found my bus for Tokyo, departing at 10:30PM and arriving in Shinjuku at around 6:30AM.  This was my first night bus.  It was cheap, and that was pretty much it.  I slept little, and very poorly.

We pulled in to Shinjuku later this morning.  Finding the humidity near unbearable, I sought out the nearest subway tunnel.  Once there, I crisscrossed a labyrinth of paths, tunnels, and underground shopping complexes until at last I reached a station I could use to get to the line that would take me to Asakusa station.  I hit morning rush spot on.  The train was so packed my nose was almost poking the back of some guys head.  Once I was topside in Asakusa, I was able to navigate with ease to the hostel, only to find it closed.  I meandered around the streets for an hour or until the reception desk opened.  I discovered this place has a bar inside it, with a keyboard (not a very good one, but at least its here).  I’ve already logged in a few hours practice time, and seeing as how it’s still hot outside, I think I’ll practice some more.  I’ve missed getting to just sit down and play at length.  I haven’t done it months.

Whew!  If you read all that, congratulations.  You clearly have a lot of time on your hands, though I’m sorry you spent it reading a dull account of my daily activities.  I really need to cut back.  I’m going to have a novel by the time this trip is over.

Soupy twist,