Monday, December 26, 2005

Merry Christmas / メリクリスマス

As you know, I've been on a trip for several months. Looking back on it, other than a few stops here and there, I've been on the move since I went to Yosemite with my mom in May.

You've seen where I've gone, and you may have noticed that a great number of my pictures do not have other people in them. Esthetically, I like to take pictures of either people or places - the only time I mix the two is usually for other people's sake. But I look back now, and though I miss the places I've been to, it is the people that really made a place worth visiting, it is the people (of course) that I went to see.

I have a tendency to be standoffish, somewhat cold much of the time. I don't choose to be that way, at least not most of the time; nevertheless, I am. So I am very lucky that I have friends who can see beyond that, that I do care for them, and that they, not the cities I visit, the books I read, the websites I look at, etc., are not what is important, though I often get distracted and confused into thinking they are. Though I really loved visiting the sites and shrines of San Francisco, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Kansas, Tokyo, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Ise, and Hiroshima, it is the people I spent time with there that were important. When I was alone in Tokyo for the last couple of months, I really began to wonder what the point was, and one day I realized - you are nothing without the ones you love.

Not a new realization, but I forget sometimes, I guess. I think I can do things by myself, and very often I can because I've learned to be alone - but the grocery store you visit with a good friend is a million times more enjoyable than the greatest temple.

So I wanted to do a tribute to all of my friends. Sorry if it takes up all your bandwidth. I realize you don't all know each other, but know this: every one of these people is a magnificent human being, and I am grateful to know them. If your picture is not in here, I hope you won't be insulted - most of these are from my trip, and many of the pictures I took didn't turn out.

I start with my parents, because I've known them the longest, and am most grateful to them for making me who I am.

I love you all. I thank you so much.


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Sorry about the wait

I met my dad a couple of days ago here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We're leaving tomorrow, but we did a few things, and I took a few pictures.

Yesterday we went to see petroglyphs. The petroglyphs are images scratched into rock as long ago as 1000-2000 years ago, though most of them are from about 500 years ago. Still others are from a few days ago, as "vandals" like to write their names on rocks, too.

You can see a snake in the middle of the picture, and this next shows a rat with a rattle (my dad enjoyed the pun) on a more solitary rock.

Today we went to Santa Fe.

New Mexico certainly has a singular style.

But wait... that looks like... yes...

A building I saw in Oji, in Tokyo. Eerie, isn't it?
I have yet to figure out the plan of this building. Just when I think I find a symmetry to it, I find some balcony or wall that breaks that symmetry. It looks as if it grew organically.

We took in the church with the miraculous staircase in Santa Fe.

It's said that builders, confounded by the small size of the chapel, couldn't build a way up to the second floor loft, and so the nuns prayed for help. Soon thereafter a man came and built the staircase (minus the banister - that was built later for ease of use), a marvel to architects, according to the prerecorded guide given in the chapel. It is rather impressive.

This Mary that caught my eye ("Maria Conquistadora") is outside a basilica in Santa Fe.

We breezed through Santa Fe in a couple of hours, and with time to spare, we decided to head to the Taos pueblo. Unfortunately, the pueblo was closed - people live in the pueblo, and they close some times for religious and other occasions. However, it wasn't a complete loss, as we had a chance to see the sun set on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (that's "Blood of Christ," so you know).

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Jet lag blues

Jet lag is killing me. I had no problem when I went to Japan: I was able to sleep on the plane, and though I was a bit groggy the first day, I quickly got into the swing of things. Then, of course, I was in a new, fascinating place, and on vacation; now I'm in San Francisco, dealing with responsibilities and stuff. Or, trying to deal, though I keep falling asleep.

I have a few last shots of Tokyo.

I found this place walking in my neighborhood in Morishita. It's kind of rare you find a place as odd as this in the more conservative eastern area of Tokyo. Anyway, thought it was hilarious. I went to their website, and yet I'm still not sure what they do.

Two nights before I left I went out with Yuko and Sachi again, in Shibuya. Sachi arranged it, and made sure it was all you can drink: she knows I like my beer. It was a good, if somewhat sad, time. Not much gets Yuko down, though, as you can see in the picture.

Finally, the night before I left Takatoshi took a break from his final graduation paper to take me for a drive around the city. I hadn't been to Odaiba yet, so we went there, among other places. The picture above is of Odaiba.

The next day, Takashi (NB: Takashi and Takatoshi are two different people) went with me, despite a terrible hangover - he ended up throwing up on the train! Poor guy. We'd hoped to grab a meal together before we left, but I had various problems come up because I changed my ticket and there just wasn't enough time and, well, Takashi just had things come up... Next time's on me, Takashi.

I haven't done much since I got back, but I've continued to take pictures. I feel a little weird: I've lived in SF for almost six years, so SF seems mundane, and yet there certainly are a bunch of beautiful places here (duh).

This first is from the Taqueria Cancun, the best burrito place in the world, maybe. I had actually ordered, waited for, and eaten half of a burrito before I noticed this new display.

I'm staying at my friend Amanda's place this week, in the Sunset; she, by coincidence, is in Kansas this week, so I've got a room to myself for the first time in nearly six months.

Her place is near this church.

Amanda's place is also near the best part of San Francisco, other than its proximity to Mt. Tamalpais: Golden Gate park. I always find something new if I let myself wander (and it's hard not to wander there). This area made me think maybe I'd see a brontosaurus come out of the water.

The quaint Shakespeare garden.

My travels aren't over yet.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
- Tolkien

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Two things I'm happy about

Beer and coffee. My two remaining vices after I quit smoking.

And they've got both here. Widmer Hefeweizen and Kalani French Roast. Yay.

I had a hefeweizen for the first time in several months last night, and it tasted like heaven. The food in Japan may taste better, but the beer here is heads and shoulders above the sludge in Japan (sorry). I need to figure out a way to get them to import Widmer (hmm...)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Densha Otoko

I'm still in Japan - my body is in Japanese Standard Time, and my spirit still walks along the Sumida River.

Also, I've been watching a Japanese drama to remind me of Tokyo.

First, a word about Japanese dramas. They are very different from those we have in the US. For example, they are generally light-hearted, with larger, more dramatic plot elements surrounded by much lighter episodes. In addition, they are more of what we think of as mini-series - each episode leads to the following one, and the story ends within a certain number of episodes (usually 12-13, I've been told, but I'm not sure of the number). Compared to a drama such as, say, NYPD Blue (sorry, I'm dating myself, I haven't followed a drama since Rick(y) Shroeder started on NB), the Japanese dramas are focused, light, and limited.

I don't usually like them that much, though I watch them often to improve my listening skills.

"Densha Otoko," or "Train Man" (Train Man sounds slightly menacing, whereas "Densha Otoko" is not at all; instead, it is supposed to be like a comic-book character) is quite a phenomenon in Japan: first it was a book, then a manga, then a series (the one I'm watching now), and it has recently become a movie. The series is a bit silly, with perhaps the most popular actress in Japan as the love interest to one of the nerdiest characters you'll ever meet, but the phenomenon intrigued me from the first moment.

I first started watching at Shinsuke's house in Hiroshima - while he was out, I looked through his collection and found Densha Otoko. I had seen the cover of the book in Kinokuniya in San Francisco's Japan town, but I never looked inside. I would have, had I looked, been much more interested, as I'll explain later; for the moment though, it seemed like perhaps it was a thriller or a story of a philosophical man who rides the trains.

It is quite different. Basically, it is a love story, about a nerd who stood up to a scary drunk for the sake of a beautiful woman. Very sentimental, cute, but not enough to keep me interested. I would have turned it off long ago were it not for one thing: the chat room discussions that dominate the story, and are the entire text of the book.

It is a revolutionary idea: the book is written entirely as if it were the logs of a chatroom. I'm not sure how many people that read this have ever seen a chat room, but they've been around as long as the Internet has, and they are a quietly continuing society that has created new communities that cross borders and unite people with very different backgrounds. One person writes a line, then another answers; sometimes, many people will react all at once. I have a little experience with chat rooms, but they have been, almost to a one, full of abusive and arrogant talk that gets very old; however, the chat room that makes up Densha Otoko are full of people who have been cast aside, or feel they do not fit in society at large, and who encourage each other in their lives.

These people are called otaku, a word which literally means (your) house, but has come to mean something else, as well: a person, usually with an obsession for anime, manga, sports, or some other narrow focus, who stays at home most of the time, indulging that obsession. You might compare it to someone who does legos or builds train sets. In Japan they are a growing group, and have a certain amount of economic power, as you can see if you go to Akihabara in Tokyo.

In any case, as I've said, it is this focus on the chatrooms that I am really interested in: this collection of "otaku" encourage "Densha," as they call him (people usually use false names or handles or remain anonymous in chatrooms: "Densha" was anonymous until he told his chatroom buddies how he helped the woman on the train and she gave him her phone number, at which point he was christened "Densha Otoko"). They each have their own specialties, and they offer advice as they can, and while each maintains an "otaku" persona that protects them from the outside world, they sincerely wish "Densha" well, and revel at each success in his very difficult first attempts at dating.

Many of the people in the story are abused or have some psychological trauma that keeps them from feeling comfortable outside; it is very encouraging to see this story, however sentimental, of them banding together to help each other out. It is clear, too, by the popularity of the story that, as sentimental as it may be, there are a number of people who are not otaku who perhaps wish they could be a part of communities that help and encourage rather than shame and undermine.

Unfortunately, as far as I know none of the Densha products have been translated: the book, in particular, would difficult to translate as it relies on an understanding of the world of the otaku, still very stigmatized throughout the world but very common in Japan. Perhaps one day it will be translated; I think it more likely that an English speaking artist will use the story as a basis for their own creation, as there are large cultural differences that would not translate well for an American audience overall.

Monday, December 12, 2005


Since I know everyone is on the edge of their seat wondering how my trip went, I'll just say quickly that I'm back in SF, exhausted at the moment, but doing fine and having a cappucino at Muddy Waters. I kind of feel like I never left, but there are definitely subtle differences I notice here and there.

More tomorrow, maybe.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Friday, December 09, 2005

Winter comes

Winter has come to my home town (Lawrence, Kansas):

Tower Cam

Winter is also falling on my trip. Appropriately, serendipitously, I ran into an article about Tokyo's famous graveyard, Zoshigaya, the other day, and since there are graves for Izumi Kyoka, Natsume Soseki, and Lafcadio Hearn there, I decided to go.

I complained a lot about it when I lived there, but I really miss Oji. Of course, it wasn't the city of Oji but my immediate surroundings in the dorm I was staying that destroyed my fun, and in the end Kitaku, the northern part of Tokyo proper, has really stayed with me. I've wanted to visit the neighborhood there again, with its tiny alleys and bonsai gardens.

As the Arakawa tram line, which stops at the Zoshigaya cemetery, goes through Oji, I decided to stop in and take some pictures of the area, both for memories later in the US and further on and also for an article on Oji I am hoping to write one day. Despite a fairly rich variety of interesting shots available, I only managed to get a few good, or at least representative, pictures.

I started in Kaminakazato ("Above middle village").

The Keihin-Tohoku line stops here just before Oji, and this is where I used to get off. I enjoyed wandering around the neighborhood, and I wandered a lot - I think only one time in three weeks did I not get lost. I got lost for a few minutes this time, too. Note: bring a compass with you to Tokyo: having one has saved me hours of trouble!

There is a railroad crossing on the way to my "old" neighborhood, and just past that is a bear.

He looks a bit worn, but people take care of him. When it rains, someone always gives him an umbrella.

Next is Sakaecho (prosperity village), where I stayed. And here is the guest house.

Here's a random shot (well, "carefully selected shot" is closer to the mark, but hey) from the streets of Sakaecho.

While on my trip through Kaminakazato, Sakaecho, Horifune ("Storehouse boat"?), and Oji, I ran into quite a few cats. So you know, the cat population is not controlled as well here as it is in the US, and you will often see packs of them. These, I think, are house cats, but if you go to Ueno park in particular, you will see quite a few semi-tame cats.

When I got to Oji, I jumped on the Arakawa train, the last tram line in Tokyo. It is, like the trams in San Francisco, slow, crowded, and fairly cheap. It is a good way to see northern Tokyo, but you will almost certainly have to stand, which becomes quite uncomfortable after a while.

The sign says "Waseda." Waseda is the second most prestigious university in Japan, after Tokyo University. It is the terminal for the westbound trains.

It took me forever to figure out what the sign says, because the normal reading would be Hayainada or something like that. It means "Field of Early Ripening Rice."

The train brought me to Zoshigaya finally.

It is a beautiful cemetery, and it reminded me that funereal ceremonies are the first material evidence we have of ancient religion - that, as far as we know, culture begins with funerals and the ultimate mystery of life, death. Thus the sense of wonder and connection to the past that descended on me as soon as I entered

This is the grave of a certain Murakami family - I don't know which one, as the Murakami name is fairly common. I chose it because of the beauty of its surroundings.

It took me a while to find my bearings and get a map - the cemetery isn't exactly huge, but you definitely need a map. Luckily, all the famous people are listed.

My first stop was the grave of Izumi Kyoka, my idol, mentor, subject of study, source of confusion and frustration. I thought he was fairly unknown, as he is far overshadowed by other authors such as Natsume Soseki, also buried here. But he has been easy to find. And I don't just mean because he's dead and thus doesn't move much- he has shown up numerous times during this trip: most notably, on my first trip to the book district in Jinbocho, and in my conversation with the director of the school I interviewed with last week.

Seeing his grave was very moving. In some way I felt it crossed the hundred years between his books and myself to be at his tombstone. I decided I needed to do something to commemorate the occasion. I went and bought a bouquet and incense, and though his grave had been visited recently and someone had put fresh flowers in both votive vases, I took the two colors essential to his writings, red and white, and floated them in the middle basin.

I saved the rest of the bouquet for Soseki's overly ostentatious tomb. He and his family are buried here.

The last grave, that of Lafcadio Hearn's, I was able to visit, but the picture didn't come out. His grave shows his Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo, and I was a little worried I hadn't found the right grave, but I checked later and was relieved to find out it was correct.

These last few pictures are just more atmospheric settings.

It was a good day, a sort of closing ceremony for my trip. I was able to revisit my old home, a place I feel will stay with me for some time, and visit the final stops of three of the most important dead people in my literary life: Hearn, who was so important in the early literary contact between the West and Japan and who single-handedly made it possible for a young Jesse to discover the ghostly world of old Japan - the man who symbolizes, for me, the unattainable goal of integrating into Japanese culture; Natsume Souseki, the author whose "Ten Nights of Dreams" initiated me into the Meiji era fantasy that has sustained me, and will continue to sustain me, for some time; and Izumi Kyoka, the shadow, the mystic voice of the Meiji era.

I ended the day by going to Kinokuniya (the bookstore), the place I've visited the most on this trip, to pick up a book detailing the Tokaido, a path from Edo (old Tokyo, remember) to Kyoto, through Hiroshige's block prints. This I bought as a supplement to another book, Shank's Mare, which follows two scoundrel travelers on the Tokaido. I got a manga of that to read through quickly before I read the real story written in Edo-period Japanese. By the way, quickly, in this case, means a couple of pages a day as opposed to a page a week (as in the case of Kyoka).

This trip in general, and the visit to Oji and Zoshigaya in particular, have really clarified something for me: Japan, unlike so many other interests, is not a passing phase. I may go back to the US, I may even stay there for some time to come, but Japan will always be there. From literature to toilet-shaped toys, Japan's special gifts to the world will fascinate me for some time to come.