07-19-2004
Kobe, James Blueland
 
I'm dizzy with jet lag & may nod off at any moment. Forgive me if this entry seems a little disjointed.

We got home at 6:00 last night after a twelve hour flight which I spent questioning why on earth I was going home. I left: a crowd of the friendliest, most hospitable people I've met; a lovely woman, a shiatsu masseuse, who told me over our last lunch that she thought I was very handsome when I played the drums; a country where there's no crime, where direct but tactful communication is not only valued but assumed, and where most everyone appears to take genuine pleasure and pride in what they do; so I can come home and clean up the mess my cats have made of the damned apartment. I was truly sad and confused for almost the entire flight home.

When we actually touched down, though, I started feeling better. Chicago's a multicultural city, which I'm into; and there's no multiculturalism in Japan. The cats aren't so bad. The weather's almost exactly the same. And there are a few other factors at work to keep me in place for a while. Still, the tendency of mildly disaffected or curious honkies heading to Japan to teach English and sow their oats is now mighty easy for me to understand.

Anyway - last report was from Tokyo, I think, the morning before we left town. Kim and Isseki met us at the hotel, as they did most every morning, to guide us to the train station & bullet train for Kobe. I think I forgot to mention the Shinkansen trains earlier:

They're crazy looking things. They run as frequently as a subway. They pull into the train station, then pull out, then they accelerate, and they keep accelerating until they're going nearly 200 miles per hour. It should feel safer than flying since you're much closer to the ground, but the newness is a little terrifying, and since in Chicago the trains are always smashing into one another & there's always some yahoo throwing bricks off bridges, I assumed we'd never get off the train alive. But Japan is different than Chicago. They say there's never been a fatal accident on a Shinkansen train, and even though I know that's total bullshit, it's still reassuring. It's also reassuring when the conductor or the engineer or the young woman bringing your delicious bento-box lunch gives a polite bow, without fail, when entering or leaving each car; and does this without a look of oh-my-god-why-do-they-make-me-do-this on his or her face. What a crazy world this is.

There is only one time when I saw the brilliance of Japanese customer service break down, and that was when good customer service would require the breaking of rules. Customer service is all-important, but rules are number one. For example: if you leave your shoulder bag, with your wallet & passport in it, on a bullet train bound for Hakata, your are seriously screwed, because though the train will stop in Himeji and Okayama and Hiroshima, the bag itself, though it has been found by the politely bowing bento-box woman, must travel clear to Hakata before it can be removed from the train. Nothing can be done about this; and not only that, the guy at the Shinkansen train is not especially sorry about it. Though Isseki said that the guy was being an asshole, so maybe we found the one person in all of Kobe who hates his job. Damned fool luck!

Have I made it clear that I left my passport and wallet on a train bound for Hakata? It's true. But somehow the bag was taken off the train in Hiroshima; and while there was still no possible way the bag could be tossed onto the next Kobe-bound train, something I found absurd, this at least cut my commute in half. With much help from Isseki, who thankfully found the whole experience as dumb and comical as I did, I got on a Hiroshima-bound bullet train, spent my last few hundred yen on a bottle of water and a can of Sapporo, and looked out the window for a little over an hour.

It's an incredible thing to ride these trains through the hills and mountains of Japan. You enter a tunnel, and maybe the tunnel breaks briefly for a yards-wide valley—and in this tiny valley are rice paddies, a road, houses, shops, etc. Every square foot that can be developed, has been developed. This would be grotesque if the developments were all industrial, or mining, or that sort of crap; but these little settlements, with rice paddies and bike-paths and tiny cemeteries crammed into a hillside, were charming. I was even so lucky as to see a flock of maybe 100 white cranes sitting close together on treetops near the train tracks. As soon as I could see what they were, they were gone; we were moving at 180 miles per hour. But even for a moment it was a site to behold.

In Hiroshima, I found my way to the lost and found, & as soon as I entered the room the man was coming to me with my bag. It was a good feeling. He indicated to me that he'd need to see some identification; but of course all of my identification was in the bag, so he passed it over to me. (This is a different subject, but given all the English text on clothing and menus and signs, and given that the Japanese are required to take something like six years of English in school, I was amazed by how few people spoke English well enough to have a conversation. One reason for this, I heard it said, is that these six years of English are spent learning to read and write & learning grammar, but almost never learning to speak. Plus, the Japanese would rather say nothing than say the wrong thing, or make a mistake when saying the right thing. So there you go.)

Anyway—I'm an optimistic guy. Not unrealistic, but generally optimistic. If I know all will be well in the end, a bad situation is a source of amusement and adventure for me. (Perhaps I should only ever travel alone.) So when I started this penniless, credit-cardless, passport-free trip to Hiroshima, I knew that all would be well, as long as they weren't lying about having my bag, or as long as they didn't have the wrong bag. This was why seeing my bag was a good feeling. But when the man handed me my bag so I could show him my ID, and when I reached into the bag and found that both my wallet and passport were not in the bag, I had a remarkable moment of absolute pessimism: my knees buckled, my heart raced, my skin went cold. This was quickly replaced with the knowledge that it was warm outside so I could sleep on a bench, that hitch-hiking in Japan is apparently a breeze, and that the consulate had said I could probably get a temporary passport on Tuesday morning in Osaka... but, you know, fuck that shit. So the guy, seeing my panic, went and scrambled through the lost-and-found bin, looked on shelves, asked around... and finally he came back to me, opened a compartment in my bag that I didn't even know about, and pulled out my precious official crud that they'd hid there for safe keeping.

I cannot exaggerate my sense of relief. I walked around Hiroshima for a few hours, lost my camera, and took the train back to Kobe.

I was fired up, of course, & I went to the only open club I could find, about thirty yards from our hotel. I was the only gaijen in the room, but I drank vodka and danced and eventually relaxed, and when I walked outside, the ravens were beginning their morning descent onto the streets of Kobe. Overall, it wasn't the adventure I would've asked for; but it was good livin'.

For our last night in Japan we were treated to one of the most remarkable meals in what's turned out to be a pretty long history of remarkable meals. (Another aside, a story that I don't believe I ever told here: many years ago we ate a meal at Elias Corner in Queens, at a table crammed with 16 people in this tiny corner restaurant filled with noisy Greeks. It was the first time I really ate and really enjoyed seafood, all this incredible grilled fish—it was blissful, all this eating and drinking and shouting, and all the fish was so fascinating and delicious. This was when Andy was in school at the UW, and at one point he said, "I'm a philosophy major, so I can tell with certainty that this is what life's all about." This is the case with many aging indie rock bands, and it is certainly the case with us.) Kobe is, of course, the home of the beer-fed and gently massaged Kobe beef, which, uncooked, looks something like this:

Only we were eating long strips of the stuff, which looked something like bacon, and something like red-and-white straight-grained hardwood. We ate this beef in sukiyaki, which was prepared at our table by a classy, comical man who's apparently independently wealthy, but who likes to wait tables now and then—keeps him in touch with the common folk or something. He cooked, and laughed to himself mysteriously, and we ate this buttery beef and mushrooms and cabbage, all steamed in water and sukiyaki sauce and dipped in raw egg, and it was aggressively indulgent and delicious.

The show in Kobe reminded me of the first time I ever played in Missoula with Silkworm. I was used to playing terrible shows on Tuesday nights for six people or less, but at the Moose Lodge in Missoula we were suddenly rock stars, with people jumping up and down & singing along, etc. We had surprisingly good crowds at all of the shows in Japan, so it wasn't such a shocker that there were people in attendance; but the exuberance and delight of the crowd was something that's rare to see. How our inaccessible music and grumpy old selves could help to make people so happy is beyond me, but it felt good. The stage was hotter than hell; we were all sweating buckets, and I had to constantly change the set list so as not to destory myself physically; and I felt we had to struggle at times to keep our shit together musically. But the show was such a pleasure.

Okay, this has gone on more than long enough. We stayed up late at James Blueland, drank and smoked and talked about nothing with all these sweet new friends. The next morning we wandered the streets yet again, then met this same gang for another enjoyable meal—okonomiyaki, which looks like this:

I never understood how to approach a woman in Japan until the moment when, over lunch, a woman I'd been trying to wordlessly flirt with for two days stated calmly through a translator that she thought I was handsome, that she was interested in me, but that I seemed like maybe I was a playboy and could I explain myself please? It was comical and touching, and it made me sad that I didn't think to employ a translator & try the direct approach with her many days earlier. Tragically, it was too late; we were going to catch our plane. And besides, I'd already fully established my reputation as "dangerous," (according to one of the other women at the table), which is a terrible reputation to have when you've magically avoided getting yourself in any kind of danger. Perhaps the next trip to Japan will bring real trouble. I will be waiting impatiently to find out.

It's been a day or so since I started this, and I'm feeling a little more accepting of this more ordinary life I lead. This life is not so extraordinary as the week I just spent in Japan, playing rock music to appreciative crowds, making new friends, feeling an inordinate amount of love and affection. But, you know, life's not as consistent as all that; and as they say, if it were always so ragin', how would you know the difference? You got to be able to slow down a little if you want to appreciate the times when things are really moving. That is as much philosophizing as I have ever done in these pages, which should indicate to you just how deeply enjoyable this trip was. Huge thanks to Isseki and Kim and Ogu and everyone else who helped to make it happen, and to everyone who made these few days and nights so pleasurable.


Back to the list