Japan Stories Here and Nanao - the next story
Finding the Conch
written and put on site 5/31/04
Journeys bring power and love back into you.
-Jalal Al-Din Rumi:
On a mid January mid-afternoon, amid the 747 (tons?) surrounding me, light as a ballerina, the silver behemoth miraculously slid down on one of Narita airport’s heavily guarded runways. Meanwhile, I peered out the window hoping to catch a glimpse of furious farmers and ageing radical youth scaling walls, still trying to sabotage this sprawling encroachment. They've been fighting this airport for decades. I think. Or have they given up.
Giving and receiving thanks to and from the friendly, hard-working crew and captain, I deplaned, a word I frequently think about when leaving an airplane, deplaned to the gate’s metal-walled passenger loading corridor thus entering atmosphere the nature of which I’d completely forgotten in the months of travel in Southeast Asian tropics, North Indian autumn, and even Western Australian winter – the brisk waker-upper of clinching cold.
Brimming with excitement at being back in my home-away-from-homeland, I bounced through unwary customs, money change, baggage retrieval, baggage storage, baggage delivery, and the JR (Japan Rail) office. At the latter I received the two week rail pass bought in Kuala Lumpur (can’t buy them in-country) plus a schedule and reserved seat on the next train to Tokyo. Each transaction went efficiently, smartly, pleasantly to me to be again with those who humbly take such pride in their duty. And, though I had forgotten a lot of what Japanese I once knew, I could still communicate with them in their own language if that was needed which it was at baggage storage and baggage delivery. At these two adjacent counters I learned it cost half as much to ship my unneeded stuff ahead to Rinsoin and back as to leave it there on a shelf.
Baggage delivery – takyubin. I love it. You see straining tourists with all their luggables and nimble Japanese with mere shoulder-bags and purses because the locals send their heavy items ahead. It’s like UPS but much cheaper and more widespread. So I crammed everything I could into the rolling rectangular shopping bag I’d bought in Singapore’s Chinatown for $12. Even got the bulk of my combo backpack\rolling suitcase in there, after zipping off the smaller backpack from it to hold what I’d need for two weeks in Japan. Actually, it doesn't roll now. Indian Airlines owes me - since the flight to Delhi in late September. Ah, light travel – a skill I’d honed well for half a year. The perky uniformed young lady brought out a form and asked me where the shipment was going and when I said, "I don’t know," she and her co-worker stood silently smiling. I thought I’d brought my Japanese info from America but I hadn’t been able to find it. But I knew the name – Rinsoin in Yaizu, Sakamoto district as I remembered. Maybe it's 1400 Sakamoto. The abbot’s name – Hoitsu Suzuki. While they checked their Japan-wide address book, I went off to the ATM way down at the other end of the third floor. When I returned, yen bills in hand, they had the form all filled except for my name. They’d even called the temple so now the Suzukis knew I was coming. I’d wanted to call them myself but, oh well, they’re used to visitors. And now I had Rinsoin’s phone number.
On the way to the train I passed through the new corridors and echoing vast chambers. Narita is one of the less impressive big city airports, but it was much improved from ten years before when they still had only one big room with no seats and, I believe, only one runway. Now there were two terminals. I wished I’d flown into the new Osaka International which I hear was voted by some prestigious architecture group one of the ten great structures of the twentieth century. But Narita was Japan so I was happy. Narita must also be further from the city it serves than any other major world airport – it used to take three or four hours to get into Tokyo. Now there's an express train that stops at both terminals inside the airport.
I reached into the breast pocket of the tan zippered lightweight jacket that Clay had given me for my birthday the year before and which had well served me on the cool moments of this trip, pulled out the blue rail pass and opened it up to expose the inner details to the attendant who waved me on. Carefully I returned it to its rightful place, aware of its irreplacability and high value. It cost about $400 but would save me half that much as long as I hung on to it. I’ve heard of people who’d lost them the first day. Ouch. I checked my other precious items – the reading glasses in the thin gold-colored metal oval case that I’d cherished all the way from Delhi, my flat Guatemalan? cotton cum Velcro money and passport pouch tied to my belt and hanging inside my pants, pen and small notebook in shirt pocket.
The train pulled out of its airport cave and swiftly entered the last hour of daylight. In regal comfort I watched the factories, houses, roads, and farmland whoosh by as we headed on to Shinjuku, the first of two stops. A woman with a cart came down the isle and I bought some squid and sake. The dark business suited man next to me nodded in sleep. I retrieved a pocket Japanese language book I’d bought at the Singapore Airport and reviewed vocabulary and phrases from the point I'd left off up in the sky. I took out my notebook and reviewed the info on where I was headed.
After changing to another line at cavernous bustling Shinjuku Station, the doors opened at Kokubunji Station, so named for nearby Kokubun temple. Cold, cold, cold. Nippy, invigorating. Street not too big - mainly memory presents waves of Japanese people walking by in the nightness. There were shiny cars and taxis and bicycles too but not too much for the narrow streets that ran off here and there from the main two lane one before me. Seeming to lean in from all sides were low rise buildings sporting brilliantly glittering and colorful lit signs at every level - say up to ten stories. All I knew was that I was looking for a guy named Hiro who ran a bar named Horagai near this station. I realized for the first time that finding this place was going to be no easy task. I’d had a simple unquestioned image of a place across the street from the station which the first person I asked would point to and with a sign I could read. It was more of a haystack than that. Which of all these streets jutting this way and that would it be, and on which floor – some buildings had a dozen bars with a dozen signs. It could be blocks away. Was I even on the correct side of the station? I realized my task was like looking for a noodle in a dumpster. So how could I narrow it down? I reviewed the facts I knew, the relevant and irrelevant history.
I’d met a Japanese hippie of my age name Nado San in Veranasi. He was traveling with his son of twenty. They didn’t speak much English so we spoke in Japanese. After we’d talked a while I asked Nado if, by chance, he knew Nanao Sakaki who is sort of the godfather of Japanese hippies. "Ah! Yes!" he replied with enthusiasm, "He is my dai sempai!" [great senior – like a revered older brother in some fraternity or school or group] It turned out that Nado and I had other friends, or people whose names we at least knew, in common, such as Sogyu in Kyoto who I’d been told could lead me to Nanao. But Nado said that all I’d have to do is go to Horagai, an old hippie bar started in the sixties and ask Hiro, founder and owner, how to get hold of Nanao. He said it was near Kokubunji Station. That sounded like a good way to start off Japan. I stared into the sign-cluttered streets.
Of course, if I failed to find it after a while I could say, go back to the station and ask them to look it up in the phone book, but that's a little harder to do in Japan than in America - they tend to number buildings chronologically rather than according to location and streets don't always seem to have names. Sometimes addresses seem more like directions (as in "would you please give me directions to Horagai?"), I always feel like it's all jumbled but they get where they want to go and so do I. Usually.
I walked down to the street and started eyeing people as they passed. I’d heard from friends that Japan had changed since I lived there, that since the economic bubble burst the young people exhibited more individual expression and less conformity. That seemed to be true on this street too – still a pretty conservative, quiet, crowd with a lot of black clothes and short black hair but more colors and variety in the way they dressed, more originality and variety in hair styles, and, I was to learn, they were more open. I’d noticed this in the students I’d met in America in recent years as well. They were more open and also they spoke much better English that I had encountered when I’d lived there from ’88 to ’92. I also realized that there seemed, at least in this cross-section of the population, to be fewer traditional older folks. Made sense. Disappearing like WWII vets. Will there some day be none to remind us of their much-to-cherish past? I stopped a handful of young people who looked to be in their twenties and asked if they knew of Horagai. None of them knew, but I was just as interested in checking them out. A couple of them did answer in pretty good English. They seemed not as intimidated by a Westerner as in the past – less shy. I don’t shy away from first impressions. These sorts of sociological observations are often best made at the first of a trip. Soon I’ll forget that they’re Japanese and I’m American and the basic similarity of people deeper down and uniqueness of each person will dominate the cultural distinctions. After a while, were all just folks. That may be why a lot of good travel writing is said to be done by people who go to a country for a couple of weeks.
I took off my small backpack and got my one sweater out, a black one of medium thickness, and put it on and zipped my jacket up over it. My ears were cold. My hands were cold. Enough sociology, meteorology prevailed. I looked at the passersby with a new intent. I decided I should watch out for someone older who was the hippest I could find. Ah, a Grateful Dead sweatshirt – no, too stylish. And then a guy with slightly long hair and a heavy jacket came by and I begged his pardon. "Excuse me," I said - in Japanese of course, "but do you know of a bar in this neighborhood named Horagai?"
"Horagai?!" he answered with enthusiasm, "I’m forty-three years old and I’ve been going there since I was sixteen!"
He took me off with him down the street telling me what a great place it was and all the interesting people he’d met there through the years. He led me about four short blocks away into the catacomb of streets and stopped at a door on a side-street with a tiny unlit sign and said he’d love to come in with me but had a date to keep. I opened the door and walked up a dark stairway to enter a small dark establishment with old wooden tables and chairs and a casually dressed man around my age behind the bar washing glasses in a sink. There was no one else. I took a stool and we exchanged pleasantries which is a good word for greetings and light conversation with Japanese.
He was indeed Hiro. I told him that Nado had sent me.
"Oh, Nado San! I hear he’s back from India. He’s at home in Shikoku now but he’s coming up here for a poetry reading next month."
So we talked about people and names and places. How was Nado and how was India and about translator Shin Yoshifuku and Etsuko in Hawaii and wild man monk Ryuho Yamada terminally ill with cancer in California and Soho had died and he’d heard of translator Tanaka but didn’t know him and he knew Sogyu in Kyoto well and yes he knew where Nanao was. Nanao, a poet among other attributes, would be coming to the poetry reading too - and reading too - but I'd be gone by then. Hiro got on one of those neat, old-fashioned plump pink piggish pay phones - though he didn't have to put money in it - and made a call and soon had arranged for a friend to help me get to Nanao the next day. He offered his phone for any calls I needed to make so I called up Rinsoin and talked to Chitose, Hoitsu’s wife, and she said she’d been so surprised to get the call from the airport earlier that day to say my stuff was on the way and when will I get there. Hiro asked me where I was staying and I said wherever and he invited me to stay with him and I accepted with gratitude. I ate and drank and he made little dishes and we jabbered. I learned that horagai means conch shell.
At about seven other people started to arrive and Hiro put some blues on. He poured me shochu, clear distilled potato (or sometimes rice) spirits stronger than sake which they often call nihon-shu (Japanese sake – sake just means spirits) and he kept giving me oden to munch on – boiled salty vegetables and fish cake – and other down-home local munchies. And there was endless talk about – I can’t remember, they’re more into good feeling than information – but I have a vague memory of people and places and things and events and Bush who they thought was crazy and 911 and Iraq where they didn’t want their soldiers to go and the Japanese economy which they said was way down and poetry and books and music and movies and philosophy and anything anyone wanted to say. I ran off for an hour and a half to an internet place they told me of to check my email and see what was new in the world and it was a fascinating side-trip of Japaneseness surrounding me and I returned there were more people and there was more shochu and gnoshes.
At one o'clock Hiro closed up and refused to take any money and took me with him to his tiny little apartment. We sat at a low table on the floor and he brought out squid and rice cakes and sake and we talked till three in the morning. His girlfriend, a singer, was sleeping in the bedroom, the only other room, and he got a futon and sheets and soft fat comforter and pillow out of a closet and made me a bed.
As we’d agreed, he awoke me at eight in the morning and we drank green tea and then he walked me to the train station. On the way we had coffee and croissants and finally I could pay for something. At the station he wrote out a schedule for me in kanji, Japanese Chinese characters, and romanji, English letters, with a bunch of different trains and one bus I had to take to get to the south end of the Izu peninsula. It wasn't that far away and it was not much out of the way to Yaizu and the Suzukis. But there were a number of transfers to be made and it would take all day. I thanked him profusely for his generosity and kindness and went off to the platform, buying a copy of the Japan Times on the way. All day I rode trains and read the paper and studied Japanese and talked to people and ate and drank tea and looked out the windows and walked through stations asking directions to the next platform. I’d go to Japan just to do that.
A friend of my mother’s just got back from being in Tokyo and she said that people were rude and she kissed the ground when she returned but I don’t experience it that way at all. Morning rush hour in Tokyo is famous for the crushing crowds and people are sleepy and impersonal and push up against each other a lot, but they are perfectly at home in a crowd and if one goes with the flow one can experience people being together in a quite harmonious flow that does include getting squeezed and pressed along. Like being in heavy traffic, one has to watch where one is going and weave in and out and stand up a lot on the local trains, but these people are pros at it and I quite enjoy being there with them in such sardinish conveyance in which I loose myself.
From Shinjuku station there was the other side of Japan rail travel – the joy of the Shinkansen, the bullet train – and the joy of having a rail pass which covers getting a designated seat in a reserved car. And on the Hikari Super Express I smoothly flew out of the megatropolis south on the slightly above the elevated unimpeded tracks looking down on countryside and villages. I like the slower trains too and just at dark one of them dropped me off at a seaside hot springs resort town where I bought a telephone card, slipped it in the phone's slot - much more convenient than having to dial all those numbers with other countries phone cards - and placed a call to a number Hiro had given me. I’d be on the next bus to the end of the peninsula and a man named Kenji at the other end told me which stop to get off at. I bought a glass of sake at the station and drank it while sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. The driver told me when to get off and there was long-haired friendly Kenji waiting. I got in his van and he drove me into the hilly countryside past orchards and woodlands up a narrow drive with occasional mirrors to aid in seeing approaching cars. He took a driveway into an estate with lovely landscaped gardens to an old wooden building which he said was a pig barn. He called out, opened the door, and there was Nanao standing on an earthen floor, long gray beard, bright eyes, and a big welcome. He had no phone and no idea I was coming. He smiled broadly.
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