LA to Tokyo In Just 21 Short Years

August 19, 2009

I left Los Angeles for Japan in August of 1985, finally arriving in November…November 2006, that is. It was a long, circuitous journey that I could neither have anticipated nor predicted. I had just gotten married earlier that summer, and we had a small (very small, by today’s measure) amount of money saved for a honeymoon. We decided that our fortunes would be made teaching English in Japan, and so we began to get our ducks in a row for the extended stay abroad. We converted several hundred dollars into yen, we honed our chopstick technique in a number of LA’s Asian dives, and we bought maps and budget-travel books to peruse over green tea in our Mid-Wilshire apartment.

As Cyndi had never traveled outside North America, I suggested that, rather than a trans-Pacific crossing, perhaps a trip eastward, via Europe, might be in order, so she could acquire her beginner traveler’s chops in less alien surroundings. The airfares were not terribly different, and it would mean that we would have well-stamped passports to show off to our American friends and acquaintances upon arrival in Japan. Not that we had any American friends and acquaintances there, mind you, but sooner or later we would, and we didn’t want to display virgin passports when the time came for show-and-tell.

So we loaded up our trusty Plymouth Champ (when was the last time you heard of one of those?) and headed off to New York, by way of Cyndi’s grandparents’ place in Idaho, Yellowstone Park, Mt. Rushmore, Chicago, Detroit, and Niagara Falls. Even if we had turned around there, it would have been a respectable honeymoon, but we still had two-thirds of the world ahead of us. We left the car in Pennsylvania at my uncle’s place and caught the $99 flight from JFK to Brussels; People’s Express was the airline, as I recall. It was basically a Greyhound with wings, but it didn’t crash, and it was really cheap, my two main flight criteria in those days.

It was in Brussels that our new best friend Claude (pronounced “Cloud” in the French manner) talked us into a detour. It should be mentioned here that Claude was a used-car salesman, and (surprise, surprise) he had a car that would be “chust right” for us, a three-year-old Peugeot 305 with only 18,000 kilometers on it, driven back and forth to school by one elderly teacher. He told us, with great sincerity, that we could buy this wondrous vehicle from him, drive it wherever we wanted to go in Europe for a month, then take it to West Africa and sell it for double what we paid for it. And, if we bought it now and hustled southward, we would be just in time to beat the rainy (read: monsoon) season that drenches West Africa, rendering car travel difficult if not impossible.

Clearly there was no time to waste on silly things like planning, provisioning or having our heads examined. We forked over some cash and, snap, just like that we were the proud, albeit somewhat dubious, owners of an anonymous beige four-door sedan in purportedly mint condition. We got on the road the following day, keeping to the backroads down through France, Spain, Gibraltar and Portugal, before doubling back into Spain to catch the ferry to Morocco. I guess we were the better part of a month in Europe, then easily another six weeks or more working our way south across the Algerian Sahara Desert and into Central West Africa. Other than a flat tire in Spain, the car performed flawlessly.

We spent Christmas in Togo. If you look at a map of Africa, and think of the northwest as an outstretched arm, Togo would be the armpit. That is not an editorial comment, just a statement of fact; infer what you will. We stayed at a small pension in the capital, Lome, a place noted in our guidebook as a rollicking hangout for seamen and prostitutes; it thoroughly lived up to its billing. We sent a telegram to my parents for Christmas, using a bit of our precious dwindling stash of dollars: “MERRY CHRISTMAS STOP SAFE IN TOGO STOP LOVE B AND C”. Later, my mother told me that she looked in vain at a map of Japan trying to find a city called “Togo”, then misremembered a small South Pacific island (Tonga, what on earth would they be doing there?), before settling on the correct Togo in West Africa. She dismissed it out of hand for several weeks until our much-delayed postcards began arriving from points en route: Gibraltar, Algiers, and Ouagadougou.

In Togo, our hitherto reliable Peugeot had its first problem: the morning after Christmas, we could not get it to start. Inspection by a local shade-tree mechanic, his entire tool kit in his jeans pockets, revealed that the carburetor had sucked up approximately half the sand in the Sahara Desert. With some effort, and more than a little of what I assume was swearing in some arcane African dialect, he removed the carburetor and emptied it out, giving it a swish with some fresh gasoline for good measure. It started right up, good as new. The service call cost us $10, and we gave the mechanic our spare tools as a tip. Just after New Year’s, we sold the car, to a local elder with six wives (no kidding). For a bit more than twice what we paid for it, just as Claude had predicted. Flush with cash again, we contemplated our next move. Our friend Dieter wanted to sell us his Land Rover, in which we could continue on to South Africa. Or, we could take Aeroflot to Moscow, then on to Tokyo from there. Another option would be to take Ghana Airways to London, with stops in Accra, Lagos, Dusseldorf and Paris, and then figure out our way to Asia. In the end, we decided that we had had enough travel for the time being, so we put off Japan for another time, and headed back to friends and family in California.

We did a fair bit of traveling in between then and now: Central America, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, but somehow never made it to Japan together. After 20-odd years, Cyndi and I divorced in 2005, after which I spent one frigid winter alone in Prince Edward Island, and swore I would never do that again. I’ve never been much of a country music fan, but those folks sure nailed it in songs about the double whammy of cold and loneliness. Years of living in temperate climes had burdened me with a wussiness about extreme cold (and extreme heat) that I never would have predicted. So nowadays, I spend mild winters in Tokyo, prepping for departure when the humidity starts its inexorable climb to the triple digits, and warm summers in PEI, ready to bolt at the first chilly breeze of autumn.

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Stories Inside Stories

August 16, 2009

A while back, my friend Ayaka asked me what was the strangest thing that had happened to me during my time in Tokyo. I had to think about it for a bit, as I had quite a collection of bizarre tales gathered by that point. I finally settled on the story of my sleepy train companion, a young woman who entered my life for a brief three-station ride, never to be forgotten. It started in Ikebukuro Station, in western Tokyo. As is always the case, the semi-express train car was crowded, standing room only, except for the seat next to me, because nobody in Japan will sit next to a foreign barbarian unless they absolutely have to. In any event, one brave soul took her place next to me just before the train doors closed, a young woman in her early twenties, I would guess. Basically, because talking on the train is frowned upon, there are only three time-passing options open to Tokyo train travelers: text-messaging, reading and sleeping; she opted for the third choice, her head nodding forward almost as soon as we left the station. I was engrossed in a Haruki Murakami novel, and I paid little attention to her until a lurch of the train caused her head to fall onto my shoulder, whereupon she snuggled up like a long lost girlfriend. I considered waking her up, but it seemed kind of impolite; she wasn’t bothering me, I could still read, and truth be told, she was very nice looking. And so we proceeded westward to our first stop, Nerima. As the train drew into the station, she awoke, glancing around in a mild panic. She realized that she had been sleeping on the shoulder of a gaijin, and began profusely apologizing in Japanese, her face flushing beet red. “Sumimasen, gomen nasai!” (Please excuse me, I am so sorry! Sorry, sorry sorry, sorry!) I smiled and said “no problem” in English, and went back to my Murakami. The doors closed and we started out again. Almost immediately, she slumped forward, sound asleep for the second time. And, when the train inevitably swayed while crossing a junction point, she fell again onto my shoulder, burrowing in once more for the duration. I wasn’t getting a lot of reading done, but I didn’t really mind; this was turning into quite an interesting train ride. We pulled into the second station, Shakujii Koen, and the scene from Nerima replayed, albeit ramped up a bit: disoriented wake-up, red face, sumimasens, gomen nasais, etc. The train let off a few passengers and took on a few more before rolling out, bound for my stop, Oizumi Gakuen, perhaps five minutes away. Needless to say, my new girlfriend nodded off yet again, and for one final time found solace (and presumably a comfortable pillow) in my shoulder. Shortly before we arrived at Oizumi Gakuen, I reached over and touched her cheek, awakening her. There was that moment of confusion preceding the inevitable expressions of embarrassment, but I put a shushing finger to her lips: “Please don’t make this harder than it already is,” I said in English. “It never would have worked out between us anyway. We come from different worlds, you and I, and then there is the age difference…” She looked at me a bit blankly, as you might expect, rather like the look you might give a barking loonie. So of course I continued: “I’ll never forget our time together. It was too short, I know, but it was lovely. No matter what, we’ll always share memories of Shakujii Koen.” I am relatively sure that the only words of the entire soliloquy that she understood were “Shakujii Koen”; the context would have eluded her completely. As I made my way onto the platform, I turned around for one last look, raising a hand in farewell. She looked everywhere but at me as the doors closed, risking one short glance just as the train pulled out. I guess she couldn’t resist my sad face, and she waved a tentative goodbye to me just before disappearing into the night. Sadly, there was not one other foreigner in the crowd to appreciate my Oscar-worthy performance.

“Wow,” said Ayaka, laughing politely, although not nearly so much as I felt the tale warranted. “That is quite a story.”

“Um,” I agreed.

A couple of days after Ayaka left Prince Edward Island for Japan, I was sitting around one evening talking with my friend Saki, who is also Japanese, and who has known Ayaka a fair bit longer than I have. I asked her how she thought Ayaka liked PEI. “I think she liked it a lot,” Saki replied. “She was very curious to know what it was like for me to spend the whole summer here with just a gaijin for company.”

“Really?” I asked. “What did you tell her?”

“Well,” she said, “I told her that one of the problems is that you have to hear the same stories over and over again.”

“Oh, dear,” I said, wincing inwardly.

“Um,” said Saki. “In fact, she asked me what the stories were like, so I told her the one that you told me about the girl on the train.”

“Oh, great,” I said. “I told Ayaka that story.”

“I know,” Saki said, giggling. “You told it to her like one hour after I told it to her, so she got to hear it twice in a very very short time. She told me all about it in Japanese at supper last night. You were right there.” As soon as she said it, I remembered the moment vividly. The instant replay would go something like this: a chattering of unintelligible (to me) Japanese, then my name (“Blah, blah, blah, blah, Bruce-san”), followed by peals of laughter. When I asked what they were talking about, they both grinned ingenuously and said in unison, “Nothing.” Then some more merry laughter.

Aarrgh!


Michael Connelly Redux, or A Tale of Two TR-6s

August 12, 2009

A couple of months back, just before I came back to Canada for the summer, I had the opportunity to interview mystery author Michael Connelly for BookPage, via a crackly and somewhat spendy Tokyo-Florida cell phone connection. One of the questions I asked him that did not make the final cut in the print edition (due to space considerations) was, “When you got your big advance check for your first book, what did you do to celebrate?” (A Corniche cabrio, a wine tour of the Bordeaux region, a set of signed first editions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?)

It turns out that the answer was “D: none of the above.” There was no big splash, although Connelly admits to a few small ripples: “I have always been an incremental kind of guy. We used some of the money to make a down payment on a condo, and one small splurge, a car I had wanted since I was a teenager, a 1974 Triumph TR-6.”

(In case you are unfamiliar with this vehicle, now would be a good time to open up a new window and Google “Triumph TR-6”, so you can see just what a lovely piece of automotive art the car was. They were made from late 1968 until 1976, largely unchanged throughout the run, other than to meet ever-tightening US regulations regarding emissions and crashworthiness. Some say they are the last of the classic British sports cars, and there would be no argument on that point from me.)

As it happens, it was a good talking point, for I once had a Triumph TR-6 as well, a year older than his, but virtually identical otherwise. Mine was Pimiento Red with brown “leatherette” upholstery, a factory hardtop in addition to its raggedy ragtop, and a set of original Michelin redline tires, which had a red stripe as opposed to the whitewalls typically found on other cars of the day. It had a reasonably powerful inline six-cylinder engine, an AM radio, a four-speed manual transmission and, to the best of my recollection, nothing in the way of extras. (Air conditioning? Hah, you must be kidding!) I bought it in Southern California shortly before moving to Tennessee in the late 1980s; the Triumph was, at that point, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old; no trailer queen, to be sure, it was nonetheless quite decent for its age. It set me back the princely sum of $1500. I was the first guy to respond to the classified ad in the Orange County Register, at some ungodly hour of the morning; between the time I phoned the seller and the time I arrived at his place sixty minutes later, he had received a half-dozen more enquiries, so he hung firm on his not unreasonable asking price. I’d have done the same in his place.

Southern California is perhaps the best place on the planet to own a convertible. 300+ sunny days a year, winter temperatures in the sixties and seventies, a butterscotch sun dipping into the silvery Pacific every evening, with a gorgeous backdrop of purple and copper clouds, brought to you courtesy of the tailpipes of a million gridlocked cars jamming every inch of freeway from San Diego to Santa Barbara. Smog makes for fabulous sunsets. The TR-6 and I did not get a lot of time together in this idyllic milieu, though; I was lured eastward by a big pay raise and the promise of affordable housing; had I been told about the rampant allergens, the laundromat-like humidity, the raging fundamentalists, and the capital-M mosquitoes of Middle Tennessee, I might have had second thoughts, but that’s another story for another time.

I towed the Triumph from Newport Beach to Nashville behind a self-drive U-Haul truck, largely without incident. This is not to say that ownership of the car was largely without incident—simply that it did not break down while being towed. In retrospect, that was likely the only time you could pretty well guarantee it wouldn’t break down. My stepfather, not nearly so taken in by its charms as I was, referred to it as “the prettiest car at the side of the road.” He should have added “with its hood up, and with fluids and steam issuing forth from more than one undiagnosed location.”

Does it sound as if I didn’t like the TR-6? Au contraire; I adored it, warts and all. Not every minute, you understand, but on balance, most of the time. In its entire tenure with me, it never had the soft top raised, and in fact the folding top frame was quite solidified in the open position by the time I sold it. I drove it in summer with the hardtop left behind in the garage, and in winter with the hardtop securely bolted in place. The heater was marginal at best, but fortunately Tennessee has mild(ish) winters, so it was never a serious problem as long as one bundled up well. The major annoyance was wiping the fog from the inside of the windshield every half-mile or so, as the defroster blew air at roughly the same velocity and temperature as an exhaling cocker spaniel, a sleeping cocker spaniel at that.

By modern standards it was neither quick (I couldn’t tell you how fast it would accelerate from 0-60, as the speedometer didn’t work the entire time I had the car) nor especially good-handling, and even in its day its performance was eclipsed by the likes of V-8 Mustangs and Datsun 240Zs, with which it competed for sales. That said, the exhaust note was pure magic, and the car was a babe magnet of the first order.

Then the inevitable happened, swiftly and brutally: my fickle heart was stolen by a younger model. My mother’s brother George decided to sell off his midlife crisis car just in the nick of time for my midlife crisis, so I became the second owner of a lightly used Porsche. A Porsche Turbo, no less, although sadly not a convertible. I couldn’t afford to keep both, though, so the TR-6 had to go. It would be the first time in my adult life that I didn’t have a convertible, but hey, I had a Porsche, right? In response to my ad for the Triumph in the Tennessean, the first guy who looked at it gave me my $3500 asking price. So basically I had gotten to drive the car for five-plus years for free: the sale price covered my purchase cost, every nickel I had ever put into it, and a bit of profit as well. And how often does that happen? Still, watching (and listening to) it disappear around the corner was a poignant moment, to say the least.

And what happened to Michael Connelly’s TR-6? After spending countless hours and dollars bringing the car back to pristine condition, Connelly donated it to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. I imagine they were thrilled; it would have been the centerpiece of any charity auction.

In wistful moments, I like to think of the TR-6 motoring along some sunny tree-lined back road, tailpipe burbling, a be-goggled and ascotted Adonis at the helm, and a winsome young lass in the passenger seat, her pony-tail swirling in the summer breeze. (The more likely scenario, though, finds our Adonis standing on the shoulder of the road, staring down perplexedly at the morass of wires and hoses under the hood, while our winsome young lass impatiently dials the Automobile Club, a number she has cleverly pre-programmed into her mobile phone speed-dial for just such occasions.)


B Positive

August 10, 2009

In the West, by which I loosely mean “anywhere that is not Asia”, there is something of a methodology for getting to know new people. If you see someone you find attractive, based on their appearance or some other early impression, you try to find out some more about them to determine whether you share some interests and attitudes. For instance, you might be curious to know if your subject likes shopping, or sports, what kind of music appeals to them, who they supported in the last election, where they work and/or go to worship, what their hobbies are, whether they have a pet, and so on. One question you would almost surely NOT ask is the number one question that comes to mind for a Japanese person: “What is your blood type?”
“My blood type?” I responded, a bit nonplussed. This was akin to asking a woman her age, or worse yet, her weight, wasn’t it? “I have no idea. I think it is A or O. Why?” Why indeed. Throughout northeast Asia, at least (I can speak for Japan and Korea in particular), the issue of blood type is paramount in the ongoing search for a companion or sweetheart. There is an entrenched belief that blood type determines a person’s character and attributes in some form or fashion as yet uncharted by Western science.

To wit: a person of the B blood type is “ganko”, or stubborn, intent on having his or her own way. Bs are, by reputation (and in no particular order), narcissistic, artistic, musical, and quite literary. They are not particularly inclined to follow rules or to be especially organized. Common wisdom has it that a lot of teachers, writers and other learned people are of the B blood type, as are a large proportion of Japanese abroad. Bs do not get along well with As at all.

Blood type A folks, by comparison, are very organized. Their houses are clean and tidy, their CDs are arranged alphabetically, their lifestyles buttoned-down, even by the already subdued Japanese standards. They tend to be quiet and unassuming. They lean strongly toward obedience to the rules. They are the worker bees of Japan. They will eat miso soup, fish, rice and pickles for breakfast, and remarkably similar fare for supper. Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of Japanese are of the A blood type.

O blood type individuals get along with everyone; they are the party animals of Japan, easily capable of forging close ties with people of all other blood types. You can find Os in the last train most nights, on their way home after an evening of drinking and karaoke with work colleagues. They have no problem eating cold pizza for breakfast, even though the pizza toppings might include potato chunks and corn. They are the gregarious souls most likely to occupy the vacant subway seat next to the barbarian foreigner, the ones least likely to be embarrassed by long-dormant English skills. They don’t complain much, and they enjoy life to the max, or so the story goes.

AB is the rarest blood type, both in Japan and the rest of the world. ABs are exceptionally clever, sometimes to a fault. They are said to be “many faced”, not unlike “two-faced”, only more so. They are politically savvy (no surprise there) and occupy a disproportionate number of positions of power, both in government and industry. I don’t know if there are hard numbers around these assertions, but all this is information that is well “known” among Japanese.

Oddly, the Rh factor does not come into play. An A-positive shares all the attributes of an A-negative, as is the case with the other blood groups.

If all this sounds a bit outlandish, it is certainly no stranger than arranging one’s daily choices via horoscope, which many Westerners do religiously. For my part, I am going to compile a list of friends and acquaintances, with my best conjecture as to blood type in the column next to each name. Then I plan to poll them and see how close my guesses are to reality. I suspect there will be an inordinate number of Bs, followed by a liberal sprinkling of Os.


Barcode Dudes

August 10, 2009

You’ve seen them, to be sure, in Europe and the Americas, but never in the proliferation that they turn up in Asia: follically-challenged men who opt to comb their hair over from the sides, the back, or any place else from which it might reach (and more or less cover) the top of the head. Judging by the lengths to which they go to perpetrate this trifling fraud, they clearly seem convinced (albeit erroneously) that: a) nobody realizes that they don’t have a full head of hair (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), and b) this look is somehow preferable to the cue ball dome with which nature endowed them. They are the object of particular derision in Japan, especially among the younger crowd, who refer to them as “barcode dudes”, in reference to the marked similarities between an obvious comb-over and the ubiquitous black and white product identification coding that has become such a fixture in modern-day life. The degree of comb-over is the subject of animated and amused discourse as well: if you notice a man who parts his hair, say, an inch lower than normal, he might be a 70/30 barcode dude, whereas somebody who combs his hair up from the collar line in back or from just above the ears might be the dreaded 90/10, each set of numbers referring to the percentage of comb-over needed to achieve the dubious coverage. I have actually seen 100/0 barcode dudes on a couple of occasions, with hair on the left side doing a cotton-candy swirl across the forehead, heading rearward over the right ear toward the collar, then spiraling ever northward to the crown. The overall effect is not unlike that of a soft ice cream cone. Most strange.

The hairs on top of my own head began their southward migration when I was in my late twenties or early thirties, relocating in neighborhoods hitherto unoccupied by their brethren: my ears, my nose, my back, my knuckles, and my bathtub drain. A handful of hardy souls took up residence on the tops of my feet, the Tierra del Fuego of the human body, well below the ever-expanding equator, perhaps protected by its shadow. A few have remained behind on their home turf, to all indications planning to hang on until the bitter end, but clearly they are in the minority, and the chances of the ‘hood gentrifying and repopulating are exceptionally slim, I would think. Still, I am certain the survivors would be up-in-arms, and rightly so, if a comb-over, a transplant or a toupee were to threaten their resilient lifestyle. A comb-over, after all, is something of a fair-weather friend, ready to bolt at the first gust of wind or splash of rain. And who needs that?