Through the Lens Thursday: The First Train Out

Though I didn’t think so when I was growing up, I had a really good childhood. I can’t remember a year when we didn’t take at least one trip. Sometimes it was only as far as Gettysburg, PA, though often we’d make the 20-hour trek to Walt Disney World, some 1,100 miles south of my home in Western New York.

I hated how early we had to get up to make our trips. Getting to Disney meant leaving at three in the morning; that way we could make most of the trip by midnight. Gettysburg, only a five-hour tour in the motorized carriage, still required beating the sun. Especially in my oilier, grumpier teen years, I was not fun to get going, I’d bet.

Now, though, there are few things I like more than getting up early for a trip. The world smells and looks completely different at sunrise. Muggy summer air blowing through the train windows, sweet with hints of flowers and baby crops, makes the perfect companion to processed orange juice at 6 A.M.

Especially here in Japan, where everyone is so close together, it’s hard to find a time in the day when you aren’t hearing what others are up to. Catching the first train, then, is a cure for a few things: nostalgia, the insanity that comes with constant ambient noise, and the need to see the world without it looking back.

Rice Paddies Sabae

International Romance in the Time of Tinder

There is nothing wrong with the Japanese countryside. My window frames the chain of mountains encircling Sabae City, offering a spectacular view as I wake with the sun each morning. Unlike my Tokyo-based friends, getting to work doesn’t require that I literally be stuffed into the narrow metal frame of the local train. For those reasons and many others, I’d say that I prefer this rural existence to the city life.

The only downside to teaching and living in the backwoods of the Province of Pokémon is the difficulty of forming new relationships, both romantic and platonic. The big issue is the disparity between my demographic and that to which the majority of my fellow Sabaeans (Sabae-ites?) belong; though I’m stepping dangerously close to 30, I’m still in my twenties. My social circle these days has been reduced to 50-year-old bar patrons and the occasional hangout with an illustrator and a writer I met at the cultural center.

It’s nothing to complain about, not really; friends in any form are welcome. Even so, if there is one thing that will eventually drive me back home into the embrace of ‘Murica, it’s the difficult social situation. Just how bad is it? I’ve started using Tinder. Continue reading →

On the Cop-Out of Creative Anxiety

Words from the Road started out as a way for me to get my feet wet in the world of travel writing. I’d just joined Matador Network’s “MatadorU” writing program, and I was getting some positive reviews and really great constructive criticism on how I could get better in this field. I never finished the program.

Somewhere along the way I started getting requests for submissions. Posts, like this one about getting by in Japan with a thin wallet, had reps from a few different travel sites asking for a slightly different take on the subject for publication. I started each new riff on the topic with a lot of excitement for my opportunities. Deadlines were missed without explanation. Slowly but surely, requests for articles slowed to a trickle before the ground around me cracked with drought. This blog, likewise, turned into a derelict, rarely taken care of but for when the mood randomly struck me once or twice a month. Sensing a trend?

Words from the Road: Madrid to Barcelona morphed into Kyoto to Tokyo by necessity, and that’s fine. Even that, the most ambitious project with many supporters waiting for its completion, remains incomplete, though it’s actually quite far along. More on that in the coming weeks. Continue reading →

Tokyo by Bullet

Tokyo stinks of fish and beer — at least, this tiny compartmentalized version of Japan’s first city does. The thin, gray plastic armrest beneath the window looking out at a metropolis in hyperlapse is adorned with a half-empty can of Asahi Super Dry, the sent of chilled malt filling the immediate area with the scent of a night out. The freshly opened package of squid jerky — saki ika in local parlance — blankets the compartment in a salty, sweet haze, invisible to the eye, but dense enough that the passenger in the seat next to me visibly tilts away from the noxious vittles.

I’m genuinely sorry to bother her, but I can’t be bothered to say as much. I press my head to the convex glass of the window, just in time to see the crimson spire of Tokyo Tower make a few brief appearances between man-made mountains climbing increasingly higher toward the sky; the rain, so light it’s nearly a mist, catches the orange-yellow glow off the tower, seeming to set the atmosphere alight around it.

The frame of the landmark inspires equal parts excitement and regret as it teases its appearance, the Cloverfield Monster in my own personal kaiju revival film. The stink of cheap self-medication, the want for something more than a small room full of people you barely know for eight hours of training — this is all I know of the capital. These experiences make Anthony Bourdain out to be a liar; where is the revelation, the “life before acid and life after acid” I was promised in so many travelogues? I see only the cinereal high rise punctuated by the occasional alleyway. Where are the neon-inflamed pathways that Lost in Translation promised?

Tokyo, seen at the speed of a bullet train, at least, hardly seems the part it’s so often allowed to play.

A New Year of a Different Sort

Music so loud your innards feel like they might explode. The stink of alcohol and cigarette smoke. The push to find someone to kiss or go home with by midnight. It’s New Year’s Eve in America.

A half day earlier and 10,000 miles away, an old man, lips curling dryly over toothless gums, piles kindling of pine and cedar on top of struggling embers. He bends low to the fire, using it to light a hand-rolled cigarette between his lips. It’s 20 minutes to midnight, and it’s his job to make sure the fledgling fire erupts into a true bonfire by the time the bells begin to bellow from the shrine in the New Year. The deluge, switching back and forth between rain and heavy snow, isn’t making the task any easier.

Shinmei Fire

“Another 15 minutes,” the shrine’s crier, stirring a vat of sweetened rice porridge beneath a dripping tent, shouts.

The news that 2015 is still so far off is greeted differently around the fire. The wet wood now spews thick, gray smoke that causes attendees to cough. The fire-starter, apparently given up on the notion of a tower of excited flames, mumbles something about 2014 having been a good year for his son. A small girl, no more than three feet tall, coughs her way through a rendition of “Ari no Mama De,” the Japanese version of “Let It Go” from the globally ubiquitous “Frozen.”

She’s been dancing as she sings beneath an umbrella adorned with Elsa and Anna, the sisters from Disney’s musical and commercial phenomenon. She decides to change one of the song’s most important parts: its ending. Usually sung as “the cold never bothered me, anyway,” she’s clearly had enough of the ceaseless shards of snow hitting her exposed cheek like subzero bee-stings. “The cold is bothering me, anyway,” she chants. Her creative license is met with giggles from the ring of spectators around the billowing logs.

Smoke fills the shrine grounds as visitors arrive for hatsumoude, the first prayer of the New Year.

Smoke fills the shrine grounds as visitors arrive for hatsumoude, the first prayer of the New Year.

Over the next 10 minutes, the sound of boots pushing into wet gravel intensifies, as the parking lot fills with cars. Greetings of “congratulations,” meant in a way that sounds suspiciously like “so glad you didn’t die this year” seem to bounce like pinballs from mouth to mouth, reveler to reveler.

Weirdly, I think, no one walks with a strange slouch in their gait. The rush to get the next drink, the next infusion of mind-numbing buzz, is replaced by that to wash hands, get in line, and offer a prayer for health, happiness, and success. The  warmth of huddling families takes the place of the grasping hands looking for the nearest mouth to kiss.

The single strike of an unseen drum cuts through any conversation. The hiss of wet wood and the irregular popping of hot stones beneath the dying fire serve as background music for the silent scene. The crier, having left the rice porridge to someone else, begins to count down from 10. Each new number brings a hollow beat from that same unseen drum at a more rapid pace.

The crier runs out of numbers, and the drum goes silent. The metallic ring of wooden mallet on bronze bell rumbles lowly from the small building across from the shrine itself, only slightly illuminated by the orange glow of a single hanging lantern. It’s 2015 in Japan.

A prayer, a small donation, and a blessing later, and most are on their way back home to get out of the cold. There, they’ll talk of their hopes for the new year, while osechi ryouri, a selection of dishes reserved for the holiday, is enjoyed a la carte. Hot tea, warm conversations, and clear minds help to set the intention, the tone of the annual reset. No blackout or awkward morning farewell required.

Young Reporters at the Shinto Shrine

Making YouTube videos has become one of my passions. No, it hasn’t quite reached the level of obsession and madness as my writing; I don’t find myself waking up in a panic if I haven’t made a video in a day, hardly something I can say when I haven’t written anything for a while. Still, though, the behemoth content and social media service fills a need for community and a visual creative outlet in a way that still surprises me.

For one of my most recent videos, I walked the mile or so to my local Shinto shrine to film a travelogue of sorts. Shinmei shrine is thick with the look and feel of history. A thatched roof cottage-like home sits in one corner of the property. The yellowed exterior and disheveled hay top of this Uryu family home, the oldest of all family homes in Fukui prefecture, tells a story of a much older Japan. 315 years older.

uryu home sabae

The centuries old Uryu family home.

Continue reading →

Drumsticks Crackling in a Vat of Oil

I knew that Christmas would be different in Japan. Yes, I expected the tears to drown me out of my apartment when I couldn’t get home to be with my family, and I planned ahead for the resulting need for cheap liquor. The one thing, I think, I never really planned for were the things that turned out to be great about Christmas abroad.

Japan and KFC: The Holiday Love Affair

The traditional Christmas dinner ’round these parts is a tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a plethora of sides. It’s incongruous enough to have me wondering whether I’ve accidentally moved to the Deep South instead of rural Japan to teach for the year. I don’t want to dive too deeply into why KFC is so popular a yuletide meal — GaijinPot does a pretty good job of that — but it basically breaks down to the rise of technology and great marketing. Apparently, that’s all it takes to convince a 99.99% non-Christian country to not only celebrate Christmas, but to do so with a bucket of delicious Frankfort Fried Grease.  Continue reading →