To hell with all that work. It was time to get the out of here. A vacation was never better deserved, what with 11 hour days (9 hours teaching) over the previous month. I say, if it weren’t for the kids, I would have gone completely batty. Human rights violations, I tell you, these poor kids completely amazed when I told them about the summers of some short trips, swimming and screwing around with friends, constantly ducking my summer reading in order to live a little. Seems so unfair for these kids to have their future planned out for them in such rigid—and often brutal—terms.
I walk the streets of Japan
Till I get lost
‘cause it doesn’t remind me
I have been listening to Audioslave quite a bit lately and these lyrics seem apropos, as Cornell’s lyrics have that quality. So much work, though, there wasn’t much to really remember, except Punchy’s visit, the DMZ; and one thing difficult to forget: the resonating absence of Janine. The colors and details became blunt and even non-existent, looking into the beyond—the 1000 yard intensive stare—counting the days minutes seconds until a solo hop over to Osaka and Kyoto. I kept hoping that moment would come before I quite literally crawled out of my skin from lack of my own routine. That moment is slowly returning, the vacation a chance to get my head straight, reacquaint myself with priorities.
Had a few farewell beers with Matt and a couple others worth their salt, the priorities were clear as I hopped a plane the next morning. On a plane, the only destinations known were the places of rest for the first three nights. After that, only wandering the streets and the alleyways and subways and trains and busses was planned. Like reading a review of a movie before I see it, I tend to limit my reading on destinations when traveling, excepting the transportation systems. I just don’t want to be hedged into sights that only the throngs go to; I want to be surprised, I want to wander, I want to keep my mind sharp—or, as the case may have been for this trip, re-sharpen mind—on the constant lookout for characters and buildings of shady or intriguing nature to describe or shoot a photo of.
Landed Kansai Airport afternoon of 23. The random kindnesses of an older Japanese couple got me on the right train. And after a few bounces in the wrong direction, I finally found the Guesthouse U-en, the recently opened small hostel in the Osaka Castle area in the east central part of the city. Shortly after I checked in, lay down in front of a fan to get the humidity off me, I struck up a conversation with two fellas on their third week of four in Japan. Lo and behold, they were from California. One—the blonde dude—was named Nick. The other guy was named Ian. If I believed in serendipity, that would have been enough to hang with them. (Imagine little Ian hangin’ with Uncle Nick in Osaka. Man, I miss that kid.) But they were simply good cats in the last stages of university, Nick a Bakersfield resident, finished with video game design degree and Ian an English major at UCSC with emphasis in creative writing. The co-owner, Kana—a twenty nine year old Japanese woman who spoke spot-on English—was taking Nick and Ian to some seedy part of town—Shinsakai (“New Town”) so of course I went along with them.
As far as I could tell, this was a textile and/or machine factory area of town, the blue collars working screwed hours. Anyhow, we went to a locals-only standing-only grill that served up various little dishes like cow intestine and liver and flank, tofu, and squid. The workers and proprietor both accommodating, especially since Kana was our eyes and ears and voice. Stayed there for an hour or so, eating and drinking and having hilarious half-translated conversations. Then went along to the younger, cleaner area of Namba in search of some live music. To no avail. Made our way back to Shinsaki and some shady underground seven-seater bar that played seventies and eighties music to our request as it was a slow night. We sat and talked shit till 230 or 3 about music, books and the future of biotechnics (no, not L. Ron Hubbard).
Early-ish on morning of 24 cruised solo to Osaka Castle. Was touristy, but spotted a few characters. Fellow with pigeons for friends and another some clown-dunce who will stand there, stock-still until given a yen or two (not my yen, mind you) and pound on his plastic drum with plush drumsticks for a couple minutes. Really believed in what he did, as insane as it seemed. But, if the committed were always committed, there’d be no entertainment for others.
Back at the guesthouse, Nick and Ian still sleeping, I ate a bit and read. They soon got up, and I convinced them to roll with me to Kyoto—they’d been planning to head back up to Tokyo. They were able to book beds at the Bakpak Hostel for the couple nights I was going to stay there. We treaded lightly in the evening—a little worse for the wear from the previous night—looking at the crowd and area around the hostel, the Kamo River lined with restaurants with deck seating, had some sushi that, up to that point, was the best I’d ever had, though the presentation and atmosphere lacked—as it often does at a sushi boat.
It would not be until the day of 25 that I would truly appreciate the beauty of Kyoto, that smaller, cleaner, more cultural sister city to Osaka. Traditional houses were still intact, untouched by Allied bombing decades ago. We rented bikes for the day (500 yen=$4.30 USD). North along the Kamo—traditional houses mingled with the more modern, willows and other trees abundant—to where the Takano River joined it, went to a shrine. Traditional wedding in progress gave the somewhat run-of-the mill Shimigamo Shrine—seen one temple or shrine, seen them all, the architecture not varying much from one to the other in Korea or Japan, so far as I could tell. Went across town, cruising with the locals, ringing the bells, occasionally wobbling our way around and through the foot traffic, both Nick and Ian having little wipeouts to the uncontrolled laughter of all three of us, getting relief from the heat and humidity from the air moving in our faces. Found our meandering way to some golden shrine which was actually a summer home for some pimpin’ sho-guns three or four hundred years ago. The pond surrounding it was spotted with tiny islands and a single tree, the rest of the area was landscaped to perfection. So, glad to be proven wrong, seen one shrine, you haven’t seen them all.
When street commanding, never go back the way you come. Cruised through Imperial Park but soon needed a break from the sound of heat: cicadas, the ugly insects that sound like psychotic, crack-headed birds. Visited the cool confines of a microbrewery/sake microdistillery in the home of an old sho-gun that was large and well-constructed for defense from rival sho-guns.
That night, went for sushi again, this time on the bikes, this time in an area on the banks of the Kamo where restaurants lined narrow streets, a place with atmosphere, the restaurant a place with melt-on-your-tongue hamachi and maguro, life-threatening but delicious blowfish and the treat for any sushi gourmet: toro (fatty tuna). We bought the chefs a few beers and they flowed some samples of various this and that. Two hours later, we hopped the bikes, and I got reminding of why I don’t go clubbing. After an hour of that, Ian peeled off, Nick and I went to some unpopulated bar after cruising the backstreets some more. Talked of women, plans, ideals, their fruitions or lack thereof.
Day of 26, after ditching a plan to go far south to a coastal town called Kushimoto (time the biggest factor), I went on Ian’s recommendation for a coastal town a couple hours closer on the bus, Shirahama. So, after a meal and the ultranationalists-ultraisolationists in black vans emblazoned with the Rising Sun saying that all foreigners should be expelled from the homeland, Ian and Nick headed off to Tokyo and I went south to Tanabe, a little town just north of Shirahama that had a hostel. On the way out of Osaka on the bus, I did most of my sightseeing, truly grasping the size and resulting importance in Japan as a massive industrial port. It took four bridges and forty-five minutes on the freeway to get out of the city limits.
While I probably could have stayed in Kyoto for another couple days, I wanted a chance to diffuse a bit, having been on the go for most of the first three days and otherwise wanting to get away from the urban metropolis life to which I am so accustomed. And on the three hour bus ride to Tanabe, I reacquainted myself with the characters of my book, what they had done and what they were going to do. I had not thought about the novel much in the past month.
Upon arrival in Tanabe in late afternoon, I decided to check out the motels near the station for a central location. Found one reasonably priced. Still in reacquainting mode, I took to the dark streets that were occasionally lit by vending machines with beer (of course, I had to partake in this novelty). This quiet fishing town and its many shops were both Sunday night calm and Sunday night pulsating from the recently departed weekend crowd. Silence welcome. Subtle movements and shadows good fuel for imagination.
Morning of 27, paid for another night at Nankairo Hotel. More walking in the bright heat, in search of more fuel. Walked through fishery docks and found my way to a cemetery. Burial grounds seem a recurring theme in my east Asia wanderings, yet this motif has no clear meaning. And then onto the sparsely populated and otherworldly tide pools of Cape Tenjinzaki, a pair of scuba divers, a lone fisherwoman, a lone lighthouse rising from the tidal flat, tiny fish in tiny pools, a few other wanderers.
After a couple hours, I make it back to my hotel to get a change of clothes and then catch a bus down to the beach at Shirahama, thoughts of reacquainting myself with the beloved Pacific in its rough invitingness that I’ve not seen in over a year. Though the beach was crowded, the waters calmer—given its location in that little bay—I dropped my pack, got in the warm water and floated and swam a bit in a less populated cove of the beach area. Sat in the shade of a rock most of the afternoon, reading and watching the people. A young Japanese girl of 15 came up and sat next to me wanting to practice her English. I obliged for a half hour. She hardly said a thing. Surely her mother had sent her over. She soon scurried off. Funny. The previous night and the two nights following, I had dreams where I actually woke myself up talking or yelling, trying to teach English to Asian ESL mutes.
Morning of 28, decided to head back to Osaka and Guesthouse U-en, as my flight was leaving the following afternoon and I had no interest in rushing back up and ruining my reacquainting state. Wrote some postcards, had a coffee and a conversation with the proprietor while waiting for my bus. Rolled into the Guesthouse U-en around 5pm and Kana had no room for me, all ten beds booked for the night. She gave me directions to a cheap hotel in Shinsaki—that “New Town” of my first night in Osaka—and I took a small room at the New Annex Hotel for 2100 yen in the company of clacking trains and the first couple innings of the Osaka Tigers baseball game on TV, across the street from street shops and Pachinko dens (Pachinko is a game I will have to try some day; the Japanese seem to love it; it’s some sort of gambling slot game with silver balls). But those “casinos” were too loud and bright. After a couple more innings of the ballgame and a dinner of chicken don-kaas (pounded flat chicken breast breaded and fried topped with gravy—oh the gut, oh the arteries, oh the goodness), it was into the shadowy alleyways again for a walk amongst smell of stale piss and refuse of the occasional homeless. Some things don’t change from SF to NY to Chicago to Seoul. Back in the hotel room, the ballgame ended after 12 innings in a tie. A tie in baseball.
Next day of 29, after a light breakfast and an attempt to rid myself of all that damned coin money on various small items (the smallest bill being 1000 yen), I got to Kansai Airport, with the thoughts of coming back here for a longer, more in-depth immersion in the culture—its kind people, excruciatingly beautiful-tasting raw fish and millennia of history—not to mention, bringing someone who might keep me from too much time in darkened alleys. Was double-took by the immigration officer looking at my fat-faced passport photo, watched a couple women get dragged into the bowels of Japanese customs, had a couple coffees and passed the time rationing the last seventy pages of a book Uncle Dave sent me, Going After Cacciato. Back “home” now. Reminded of all things important, whether near or far. Reacquainted with routine and ritual.