Wednesday, July 31, 2002


Alone at home in the evening, after splitting a goodly portion of a cord of firewood I am hungry, but tired. No seven-course meal for me; I want a simple, filling, flavorful one-bowl meal.

I fill a big rice bowl with hot brown rice (the bowl was handmade just across the Lake in Shigaraki, one of Japan's fine old pottery towns, also home to the exquisite museum that Time magazine deemed one of the three most beautiful museums in the world).

I go to the cupboard and get some shoyu (soy sauce; I am not going to put the soy sauce on the rice; that is never done in Japan). Then I go to the refrigerator and get some karashi, Japanese mustard in a tube, that lets you know precisely where every single sinus is. I also get some thinly sliced naganegi (long onion, sort of a very large scallion) and a flat, triangular package.

I peel open the package, a fascinating blend of folk art, geometry and topology, because the triangle unfolds and unfolds and unfolds to a long rectangle comprising a single, wide, paper-thin shaving of pale golden wood. Tucked inside at the end of the rectangle, still retaining the triangular shape, is a beige-gray glutinous mass of maybe 1000 fermented soybeans, that gives off a fragrance somewhere between well-along compost and old socks: handmade natto.

I slide the natto viscously into a second bowl. Enzyme city. I add a splurge of karashi sufficient to keep my nose clear for a week. I add a goodly dollop of shoyu, then pile on the freshly sliced naganegi, stir vigorously with the chopsticks and watch as the mixture darkens and becomes more and more glutinous: 50 stirs, 100 stirs, 200 stirs and onward, we have now left the known solar system and are moving among the outer planets to a fragrance of shoyu, karashi, naganegi and something ineffably natto-y, and at the key moment of this journey I dump the whole thing onto my rice and chow down as I float among the stars above the Lake, the perfect setting for one so rich in firewood. Eat your heart out, Four Seasons.


Well the house was certainly tested last night! Major typhoon breezed by and blew everything around at about a 150 kilometers an hour all night, and when morning came we were still here, and so was here; everything had been blown about several hundred kilometers southward.

All day Saturday I'd been checking the tv for information about this palpable steadily rising wind, but all I could get was personalities failing to answer dumb questions on quiz shows, or cooking their favorite heart-attack food; not a WORD about any typhoon until late night weather. Heard earlier from the BBC on my shortwave that Japanese authorities said it was the strongest typhoon to hit Japan in 50 years.

Next day, as the typhoon approached Tokyo, though, they had hours of tv coverage, with on-the-spot reporters reporting stalwartly from beside the monstrously threatening ocean, raincoats over their Giorgio Armanis. As for us, real estate billboard down across the road, trees down on property on other side. Our trees are all ok; no damage here. But what gusts! Strongest I've ever felt (except on Okinawa 35 years ago)!

There were several waterspouts on the Lake at a time; I could see the gusts coming, and their size; saw a bird flying with all his might and going backward at a good clip; by the end of the day he must have had to fly all night to get back to where he'd started.

I went out into the jaws of the storm at around dawn and got ground down, couldn't easily stand up; the air was smooth and fresh though, as if it had been scrubbed and massaged by mountain forests on its way to me. Now after noon, and gusts still occasionally strong.

During the night the wind was like a big furry beast suddenly slamming against the house in its flight and then stopping there, leaning harder and harder against the walls and letting out a banshee wail that set the shingles clacking; then it left, and moments later another soft firm beastly WHUMP and groans of strain that strove to smooth its way. The wind is at heart a lazy beast.

I was moved to go out and pull the van a little further into shelter, it was rocking so; I was beginning to be afraid it would blow over on its side. I'd been wondering how well the house with its big front and big windows would stand up to a strong, straight-on hurricane; found out that it did real well.

At work on Monday, fellow workers said that their typhoons were barely noticeable but for a bit of noise and wind, and that's the way I remember typhoons being when I lived in the city, a change in the weather that lives outside. But out there in nature, in my typhoon, when I went outside at dawn to move the van and stood out in the wide expanse of the valley with plants and small animals flying by, it was like standing on the roof of a car going 150 kph, except I and the mountains and trees and fields were all traveling together on the roof of a very big car.

Also I saw a regular car on the highway with a windsurf board on top heading toward the Lake and thought "that guy is crazy," and later with the binoculars saw a guy out there in the whitewhirlingwildwater on a redsail board having what must have been the time of his life, then the wind would turn abruptly on its heel and he'd be ground into the water, but when he was going he was GOING, his board wasn't even touching the water, he was flying, gaining considerable height above sea level, I should imagine.

Later, on the news I heard there was a windsurfer missing on the Lake; the way he'd been traveling, it's just as likely he hit a building, or wound up in another prefecture. I realize now though that most of my own reaction was over-reaction; little old farm ladies scootering up the mountain through airborne branches to check on the rice; old paddy shacks with tin roofs built years ago completely unscathed by the winds; looking at them you'd expect them to go in a small gust, but I guess like the natives, having lived here all these years they know how the weather is shaped and what it requires in the way of surrender, and so get along well enough with typhoons, which by nature are generally not friendly with anything.

Tuesday, July 30, 2002


Important intelligence received from Steve the other day that the kombini (convenience store) near him has, if you can believe such an unheard-of, indeed utterly preposterous thing, is carrying Ben and Jerry's ice cream. I at once went out there to verify this with my own eyes and lo and behold, there in the ice cream cooler was indeed said ice cream in several containers (all small, of course), and astonishingly, in flavors other than vanilla. I am sure that soon though, if this store continues to carry Ben and Jerry's, which is highly unlikely given the confusing variety of strongly distinct flavors that B&J offers (variety that can only foment social confusion and lead to one person having different taste from another person, a state of affairs that will lead Japan nowhere as a cohesive nation but into the chaos and confusion of myriad choice), the store will carry Ben and Jerry's vanilla and strawberry only, as has already happened with Haagen-Dasz, reduced from the initial paradise of flavors to the parking lot of vanilla. (Later note: My prediction was somewhat off the mark; they discontinued B&J altogether.)

For a while there were rare stores that carried, for some odd reason, Haagen-Dasz chocolate, but the stores soon discontinued this barbaric and confusing practice, and settled down to the myriad spectrum of vanilla and something they call 'rich milk,' a name that accurately conveys the deep excitement and passion rampant in the Japanese ice cream marketplace, giving at least one more flavor choice than anybody in Japan ever seems to want, excepting me, of course, as usual.

So I bought all the B&J they had, knowing I'd never see this variety again once this batch was gone. The chocolate nugget crunch was delightful, and the peach exquisite, with actual freestone peaches, an explosion of flavor far too passionate for the obedient national tongue that suffers from what I call the senbei syndrome (after the 1001 local senbei (rice crackers) that all taste the same, but look different). People go into raptures about how this senbei is from Shimonoseki and that from Hokuriku, but as a non-native I just can't taste the visual difference or share the excitement.

Which is not to say that I don't like Japanese goodies in and of themselves; I do, very much, but multidimensional choice is not a bad thing; indeed it is essential in an educated, democratic society. In the quarter-century since I first came to Japan, the choice of ice cream flavors has seen some improvement; back then, when you said "ice cream" you were saying "vanilla" (except at one store on the Ginza to which I would travel occasionally for the heady experience of saying "chocolate"); now you can get 'rich milk' too.

Yeah, I know it's decadent to complain in this manner about not being able to satisfy my craving for what is after all a luxury, but decadence does have a place in life, as serving to put lesser values into perspective. One should have at least one decadent outlet for this purpose. As William Blake was too ecstatic to say about his Triple Brownie Overload, "A man does not know what is enough until he's had one of these." Vanilla alone will not serve the man who seeks wisdom.

For further radical descent of jaw regarding the strange Japanese attitude toward ice cream, click here. With many-flavored thanks to the Spinster Librarian.

[Update, October 25 2006: Not only did the store soon stop selling B&J's, they're now out of business; the place stands vacant, a mere ghost of its former glory.]

Thursday, July 25, 2002


Well the fourth of July came and went, completely unremarked throughout Japan, by me too, just another day, until for some reason I looked to find what the date was and saw that it was THE FOURTH and at once up into the night sky of my past rose and burst the intrinsic fireworks that I guess all American expatriates no matter how long expatriated carry around in their psycholuggage, even if they've forgotten about certain of the contents, and suddenly as you're looking for your occamic razor or parfum d'etre or something, there it is, the strange paraphernalia of patriotism, that the deep expatriate sees is a modernistically shriveled vestige of long-lost tribalism.

In the momentary strangeness it felt almost as though the fourth was some sort of 'natural' metaholiday, and always had been for all races throughout written and unwritten history, but then of course history is as we make it. Still, there came that antique surge of whatever it was that used to surge back then, youth's native excitement at the prospect of the day I guess, acquired from all the festivals and picnics and clambakes and pigouts that had impended throughout my formative years, leaving a kind of tending in the inner grain of the creaking tree I've become.

And all these years down the line, having seen all I've seen and learned all I've learned about life and place, time and human nature, all the mellowing and crystallizing I've done, and all the realities that have impinged with their fragrance and thorns, here it was after all, at this moment up here in the mountains above Lake Biwa, just a regular old sunny day English speakers call Saturday and Japanese call doyobi, in what English speakers call July and the Japanese shichigatsu, in what most of the rest of the world calls 2002 and Japan calls Heisei 14.

Echo and I went swimming in the Lake, celebrating life, a much bigger topic. Freedom is not the gift of government. Conversely I don't remember ever getting excited at the emperor's birthday when I was a kid in New York; in fact I'm still not sure when it is, or what it means to be emperored; who needs nobles is not noble.

Wednesday, July 24, 2002


On Sunday O. came over while I was out firewooding to tell me that a stag was trapped in the river just the other side of his field; it had been chased from the forest by dogs, and had been bitten, was bleeding, and was at bay (or hiding) in a vine-overgrown pool below one of the waterfalls. When I got there I saw one large, white-rimmed but very fiery eye staring out from the shadows of the stag's trap-hideaway, little stars of danger gleaming off the sharp ivory tips of his antlers for he was a twelvepoint buck at least, and a big one, ready to lay waste if the dogs didn't leave him alone, one of them a very disreputable looking cur, savage roughcoat type, lives mostly wild but has a collar, still prowling the bank relentlessly above, certain there was a buck at bay around here somewhere, he wasn't too smart that dog, ran when we threw stones while waiting for animal rescue type people to arrive or somebody to do something but what can you do for a 500 pound twelvepoint buck on tenterhooks in the heart of mating season with his razor antlers dangling kuzu vine and his temper at knife edge, darts of redness shooting from fiery eyes down there in the depths of the brush, except wish him well and stay out of the way in case he makes a sudden attempt with all that wild unstinted muscle to break free and he was up the bank in the same reflexive instant I got very out of the way in, and when I got up and looked again there was no fire-eyed stag, only the gusting wind and the steady whisper of water, and an empty place where the fullest wildness of flesh had been but a moment ago.

Saturday, July 20, 2002


Monkey Picnic

Speaking of predations, I woke up several times predawn on Saturday to the incessant barking of the neighbor dogs up the mountain, couldn't figure out what could keep them barking so, people usually just pass by on the road and the dogs stop barking eventually, but this went on and on. Then around dawn I heard thumping on the roof and I knew it wasn't people, or bears or boars or deer (till December anyway), then the louder thumping on the toolshed roof, then again in multiples, so I elbowed my way out of sleep and squinted into the dim dawn light and never saw so many monkeys in my garden in my life, the scene was a morning monkey picnic and all-around party for young and old simians alike, a general free-for-all fresh garden produce bash catered by the guy in the bed, the kind of outdoor banquet they used to have in the old days when people gave everything they had to the monkeys and just starved to death, the larger monkeys feasting on my tasty green tomatoes and tender young carrots, the smaller monkeys just having a ball among the beans and squashes and caroming from tree to tree in the perfumed silence of the morning mist, not a party pooper around. I hated to put a stop the festivities, but I knew the simians had no cash, and not the slightest inkling what a bill was. So I hissed out the window through the screen and a couple of monkeys paused and looked wonderingly in my direction at what the hell is that irritating noise, they had obviously never been to the theater, knew nothing of villains, or the part they were playing in this little morning drama that was about to develop further when I stepped out onto the misty deck in my underwear, playing the part of a pale furless tailless monkey prancing and ranting and growling and gesturing as if he owned the place, when of course it is the de facto monkeys who have been here for many millions of years. As the red-faced beasts melted grumblingly away into the forest, they looked like they couldn't believe I thought these were my tomatoes, my carrots. Of all things. "Did you see that guy? Unbelievable," they chirped to one another in the treetops on their way to the next garden. "D'ja see what he was wearing?"

Friday, July 19, 2002


Long weekend, I'm left alone with The Stone Stair Task.

The Stone Stair Task is one of those labors that mythologically seem to confront only men, in the tradition of Achilles (Troy Task), Odysseus (Golden Fleece task), Hercules (Augean Stable Task et al.), Atlas ("Here, hold this a minute, willya?") and those other mythic guys like we all are, men who normally work at something completely else during the week and then turn around and maintain the rest of the extradomestic world on weekends or vice-versa, men who really have no idea how to go about The Task, which is why it is a Task and must be done, and somebody has to do it and no one else will, and done as soon as possible before some god goes wild and somebody breaks their neck or something falls down or decays irreparably or washes away, or the nation is lost or civilization collapses, stuff like that, an ancient fellowship whose ranks I joined upon tacitly agreeing to fulfill the cosmic need for a stone stairway in my garden, aka The Stone Stair Task.

Similar modern tasks include The Roof Task, The Wall Task, The Driveway Task, The Chimney Task, the Septic Tank Task, and many others. The Task is never a simple one, like the lawn task or the trash task or the dogwalk task (note lower case).

Of course, he whom the gods have chosen could pay large bags of money to someone else to do The Stone Stair Task, but then this isn't exactly building a nuclear reactor or anything, it couldn't be too hard now, could it? It's actually just a piece of cake, I only need a bunch of stones, with which I am filthy rich, to lay atop one another atop some already sloping dirt so that they come out even at the top and don't wobble or shift and present a good foothold even in the dark and when wet, it's impossible I realize at 3am when I see right to the very bottom of everything, where disaster lurks and all appears to be revealed, jabbing me with those little hot needles of incredible difficulty, let alone at my age, of building a stone staircase of three or four or even five steps on a slippery slidey portion of dirt down into the garden that will all wash away in the next rainy season anyway, after I've gotten everything multidimensionally plumb and level and sturdy despite heavy rains and heavy guests, and think of my medical costs.

The Stone Stair Task can only be successfully achieved by Zeus, if Zeus were interested. But as dawn comes it comes to me like light that we are as gods, and like it or not, whoever set up Achilles, saw off Odysseus, dirtied the stables for Hercules and handed the world to Atlas has assigned the Stone Stair Task to me. So after breakfast I brush my teeth, gird my loins and set off into the mythical morning.

Wednesday, July 17, 2002


Time is money when life is cheap.

Tuesday, July 16, 2002


Yesterday while waiting for the morning train I saw a perky wagtail feeding off the dead bugs on the windshield of a car down in the train parking lot; he followed the meal of bugs across the windshield, then hopped onto the side mirror and down to the side window, where he found more bugs, then turned around and saw another male wagtail right in his face; both birds made severely threatening head gestures, then the first wagtail leaped flapping to the attack atop the mirror and---the stranger was gone.

The victor stood there atop the mirror in full-feathered righteousness, strutting in a wagtail way, looking around in confidence as if to say "Sure scared that guy, never saw anybird disappear so fast." Contented and proud, after checking once more to make sure the stranger was gone, Master Wagtail returned in confidence to his side widow to continue feeding, turned around, and damned if that stranger wasn't right there again, as though he hadn't just been chased clear out of sight by the master himself!!

Once more to the attack, a little more squawkily ferocious this time, and once more just as the master pounced, the intruder instantly disappeared. The puzzled victor stood atop the mirror searching everywhere to make absolutely sure the interloper was definitely gone this time, then back to the window, turn around, SQUAWK!!! stranger again, attack, disappear, over and over and over into a black-and-white feather-flying frenzy. The invader could only be driven away for a moment to some incomprehensible place, before he came instantly back!

'How DOES he do that,' I could sense the wagtail pondering this in a deeply wagtailian way as he stood atop the mirror each time, looking everywhere only to find that he was absolutely for certain and without a doubt the only wagtail within at least a kilometer; then back to the bugs and there was the stranger right in his face again, no rest for the would-be feeder with the very big and ungraspable dilemma, who went on thus ignoring his meal: up and down, up and down in front of the mirror feisty as all get out until my train came.

This morning when I checked the parking lot, I saw that the mirror had successfully defended its territory.

Saturday, July 13, 2002


You want to know all about aspirin then you just go get yourself a good case of sciatica, nothing will teach you about aspirin better than a good case of sciatica, you know, that pain that sings top-volume Wagner up and down your leg nerve that big leg nerve the sciatic nerve, that when it decides to hurt gets your attention way better than sitting on a tack twelve hours a day.

Sciatica is when you learn that you, not the leg, are the appendage. It's a big revelation, and it's free. You can get sciatica pretty easily, so don't worry about that part. You can get it like I did, by tossing around a lot of roofbeams like you were still an undergraduate, which basically takes one of those way-postgraduate spinal discs (pulpus nervosus for the uninitiated or anybody who might want to talk about this at a higher level, at which point you can count me out, I have to go lay down) and squashes it like a semi-truck ran over a jelly donut, and that now very pissed-off disc just pokes out there where it shouldn't and jabs that ubertouchy nerve and keeps on jabbing like two kids in church, when all of a sudden you are, as the preacher says, lying on the ground screaming your fucking brains out.

As I indicated, you can get sciatica any number of ways, but mine is as exciting as any. Which brings, us more or less, into the general neighborhood of aspirin. Now sciatica, as you might expect, is pretty much the same all over the world, I mean you get sciatica in Wichita, you can compare notes no problem with a sciaticized individual in Kuala Lumpur or, in my case, Shiga, Japan, which, believe it or not, brings us even closer to the subject of aspirin.

It should be stated at this point, so as to debaffle the inattentive, that when you have sciatica, proximity to aspirin becomes a major interest in life. Which brings us to money. Because when it comes to aspirin in Japan, money isn't quite the same thing as it is in Wichita. Well, not only aspirin. Or Wichita either, for that matter. For example, the price of enough land to park your car on in central Kyoto is roughly equivalent to the price of Wichita, or maybe Washington DC, depending on whether it's 1995 or 2002.

The other day, to get back to the subject, I was purchasing aspirin for the new ruler of my existence, before whom I humbly abase myself and whom I honor with my entire being and to hell with every other leg in the country, and asked the price of the small box of the only leading American brand - in fact the only aspirin - for sale in the pharmacy nearest my leg. The druggist informed me, without the slightest sign of falling on the floor laughing, that the 24-aspirin box cost 700 yen, the 48-aspirin box cost 1100 yen and the 96-aspirin box cost 1900 yen! I did not let my feelings show as I reflexively calculated the price in dollars: TWENTY DOLLARS for 96 aspirin!!! And 96 is the largest size!!! Why, In the US you can buy a bucket of aspirin!!!

I know in some generally unexplored part of my education that aspirin is cheap to make, you just mix some stuff together that you get for free out of the ground or off a tree or something, so I know that the real price of 96 aspirin, in terms of the legal tender nearest my heart (does one ever abandon one's native currency?), is around 25 cents, allowing for inflation. So was I going to pay this outrageous price? YOU BET, said my leg with a voice way lower than Darth Vader's, though I got the small box, you've got to put your foot down somewhere, each aspirin costing about 30 yen, or 28.6 cents at the then-current exchange rate.

As I limped home under the added weight of knowing that I had just paid seven dollars for 24 aspirin (actually I think the packaging, in which each aspirin has its own hotel room, eats up most of the expense), my sciaticated mind obsessively traced the uniquely Japanese system by which aspirin (and countless other products), in an impenetrable process of premarketing prestidigitation, are sold and resold several times before reaching the consumer way up there at the top of the pyramid, a single carton of aspirin thereby generating sufficient income to send a middleman's kid to college to get rid of a chronic pain.

I felt touched, somehow, and in a place where I must say I don't like being touched. Later I sent to the US and got 500 aspirin, mailed to me across the entire American continent and the entire Pacific ocean, or halfway around the world, for $2.95 (310 yen), about .6 cents (.7 yen) per aspirin. To the attentive expatriate, the differences between cultures can closely resemble sciatica.

First published in slightly different form in Kyoto Journal #32

[Thought I'd add this here in view of its fundamentally sciatic connection to my last post. RB]

Wednesday, July 10, 2002


In the village just one stop up the line, right near the train station, you know, across the street from the side of the store where they have that big sign on top you can see from the train, is the clinic where I get my leg galvanized.

I say galvanized because it reminds me of Galvani's experiment with the dead frog, the way it jumped around, proving as I recall that dead frogs can run on batteries. The doctor sticks a bunch of electric needles in my thigh and hooks them to a close-encounters-of-the-third-kind kind of machine that beeps and boops and wawas, then he turns it up and my leg does Afternoon of a Faun for fifteen or twenty minutes all on its own while I lay there not lifting a finger.

It's very entertaining in a bizarre way, dancing without dancing, gives me a new view on pain, that pain doesn't actually hurt, it's only an abstraction generated by a nerve that's trying to make you think the pain is real, so as long as you don't believe the nerve it doesn't hurt, which does wonders as long as it isn't something that really hurts.

Like this leg. Which came to require galvanization as a result of my tossing about full-length roofbeams as though I were still of roofbeam-tossing age and hadn't recently spent two decades tossing no roofbeams at all in an office chair, birthplace of the other-directed spinal disc. This isn't really relevant to what I'm trying to get at here except in that it points out the age-related stuff that awaits us all as we approach the nether gate with the gaudy wreaths and the portrait photograph we didn't like in life.

But before I get there, it's quite a revelation to find out that my own body, the very body with which only thirty years ago I laughed blithely among other ignorant youths at the idea of getting old, is now showing me in painstaking detail that I didn't know jack, and why grandpa walked the way he did, and how a cane can make a lot of sense. And I realize grandpa's patience in not moaning all the time, the way I do.

Anyway what I'm trying to get at here, if I can just get a word in edgewise, is that when I arrive at the clinic early on a Wednesday or Saturday, my regular galvanizing days, the waiting room is packed and I, at age 55, am far the youngest one there. The average age is maybe 80, both men and women, though mostly women, since men tend to burn out faster, having lifestyles more generally like mine; but this group is fun to be around. What energy! Much more purely i.e. cosmically focused energy than a bunch of 50 year-olds.

Two sweet, cute elderly country ladies sitting there, feet primly together, probably approaching ninety, been tots together at the dawn of the century, grew up together in what was then a remote little fishing village way across the mountains from big city Kyoto, shared 8 decades and more, now sitting there talking and laughing and carrying on and in comes another lady, one of their classmates, they used to hang around together on whatever was the equivalent of streetcorners in 1910 or so, and she comes and sits down and picks up the conversation right where it left off, they know EVERYTHING about each other, no need even to say hello, really, though they do, out of habit, then point to elbows and shoulders and knees and hips and backs, flexing and poking and talking about sleep and telling how it is since yesterday, and another day another lady in her 80's, a hearty laugh, cute as a netsuke and bright as a blossom, sat there hunched over in the waiting room squinting closeup at a video of the cataract surgical procedure she'd be going through in a day or two, nearby an elderly man she probably remembers as a dashing young eligible bachelor also watching saying you going to have surgery and she laughs says yes, I'll be able to see, laughs, what a laugh, laughs again, from the gut after 8 decades, what power, the size of her future has nothing to do with her joy, much more positive a feeling to me here in a roomful of physical complaints than dropping in at the local high school, where future is measured in centuries.

One farmer lady, must be close to 80, strong white real-teeth smile, black hair, skin like a baby, beautiful, what a knockout she must have been in the knockout days, that was the real strength of this country I guess all countries, these women and all they have wrought, of families and homes, childbearing and caring and gentle strength, yet despite it all so unsung now, even seen as a burden and put apart, unheeded by the new and flaccid young, who seem to want only each other.

Another couple, the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas of the waiting room, Gertrude big and deep-voiced with natty tweed suitcoat, Alice slight with a man's haircut, vest and pants; they must be in their 70's, a lot of waiting roomers know them, especially the laughing old man, who says something funny at every breath I wish I could follow the 70-years-ago dialect he talks so fast, as the humorous do, and with all those antique curls and twangs and run-togethers no one around here talks like that now except those his age, so I miss the jokes but anyway get the laughter.

Bent of back and still smiling, what power they all have, and the all that they have seen, and what good fortune for their families to have them, for they've clearly come here from home, have them to give advice on the kids and how to make pickles and how it really was and how to do things the way time has taught, how to make it into the future and keep on laughing the way they've always done and why, and how sad for those who have no such elders around to wrap them in the arms of the past, give roots to the children, and one day it hit me why every time I went to the clinic I was feeling this rush, and I realized I had never maybe in my life been so much among so many elders at once, and that it seems they only hang around with each other anymore, and it's not fair that I and all of us have been deprived all these years of what these elders are meant to do and be for us, regardless of language; I have not been AMONG elders in so long, I hadn't known what a charge it would be, hadn't known what it meant, what was missing from my life; and these elders not even at their best but at the doctor's, probably actually an important part of the social circuit for folks their age; and as they get fewer, the happier they are to see each other.

They know what life means at last, and you've got to live it to find out. I've been so long among folks my own age, who don't know anything about the years that are coming, and these elders have already been there and gone, and are still smiling and laughing and having a grand time, and it's good to know that it can be done, even if I don't make it to the clinic in 2020.

Tuesday, July 09, 2002


Recently as I was driving down the road in the evening dark to the station I suddenly saw some odd pink flowers floating in the beam of my headlights along the curving roadside. Rolling closer, I saw that they were in fact two little round noses and one large round nose, the little noses sniffing frantically in the direction of the immense, growling, blinding beast I was driving toward them.

It was mama inoshishi (wild boar) and her two new babies, the brown of them invisible in the dark, creating the impression that their bright pink noses, especially the babies' noses, were floating in the air like small pink cartoon-balloon-flowers.

The trio had come in the musk of the damp evening to partake of the richly scented, tasty new rice that, thanks to the nice farmers, was growing all over the place and was now just ready for new piggy appetites. At sight of the sun-eyed monster coming toward them, though, when they had just crossed the road to their banquet, the babies at once wanted to flee for their lives, even away from the rice, back across the road in front of the monster and into the safety of the forest, but the mama knew about these monsters, how they pass by and fade away into the darkness, so she signalled the little ones to hold their ground, right there and vulnerable on the open field side of the road, within inches from the monster; it was against their every instinct, but they did it. Some kids do obey their parents.

So I slowed to take a look at them below the window, the babies staying in place but bouncing furiously with the deep aggravation of ignoring their instincts, a conflict that drove their muscles to flee while they themselves stayed put. How focused they were in those noses, studying this new and huge situation so intensely, to such olfactory depths!

I wanted to stop and watch them at length close-up, but I had to pass on by and into the darkness so as to prove mama right.

Saturday, July 06, 2002


Underwent radical excision of residual urban pride last week when on Monday morning I went out to start my new used scooter and go down to the station and the scooter wouldn't start; wound up calling the shop in the city where I'd bought it, he said sounds like water in the gasoline. Tried everything, sampled the gas, looked in here and there, checked it all, no go, so as the next resort took it to a local shop in the country where the guy tried it a couple times, then in lieu of something technical, STUCK A LONG WIRE INTO THE EXHAUST PIPE (for crying out loud, these country mechanics, when it's water in the gasoline!) WIGGLED IT AROUND AND PULLED IT OUT (some kind of hayseed dowsing hocus-pocus?). Out fell two fat green caterpillars, stashed in there by hunter wasps as food for their eggs in the nest they had built in the muffler over the weekend, leaving it blocked by Monday. The city shop guy never thought of this because there are no hunter wasps in the city; the country shop guy thought of it first thing, said it happens all the time this time of year, and more this year than last. He got the caterpillars out and it started at once. Thus it turns out that in repairing motor-driven vehicles, it pays to have a little entomological know-how. I see just a little bit better now how it all ties together, and how when it comes to the country there're a lot of holes in what I used to think was knowledge.

Friday, July 05, 2002


Now that the unique beauty of Kyoto had pretty much been destroyed by the city tax laws and tasteless developers, and Kyoto was coming to resemble any other Japanese city of its size, we needed more nature and less city, with air not nourished by exhaust pipes, and sunlight not blocked by sham brick highrises. The kids were growing, and needed their own rooms. We needed a bigger house, and no landlord. I was tired of bending to look in the mirror, of bowing to go through doorways, of walking around hunched up in my rented house, of having sinks just above knee height, stairs steeper than a sliding board, with steps that long foreign feet could only use sideways. I had seen too many tall foreigners wind up bent like canes from living long in Japan.
So we began looking for land. We saw all sorts of land: tiny land, not-so-tiny land, out-of-the-way land, in-the-way land, land without water, land without air, land without land, land in the middle of cities, land in the middle of nowhere, land with no view, land with a view of the neighbor's bathroom, land beside the road, land beneath the road, land above the road, the first real estate dealers having no idea what it was we really wanted, we having no clear idea where might be the potentially right place: Nara? Senri? Kurama? All we knew was that it had to be right for the house we wanted. Then one day, when we were on our way to visit a real estate agent, as I looked out the train window I saw the place: gently sloping mountains, all green... We first visited the land in November. It was a kilometer or so up the long slope of Horai-san (Pure Land Mountain) on the western shore of Lake Biwa, Japan's largest freshwater Lake, a region steeped in history. It was marked on the map as some kind of forest preserve, which was a big plus, for no one would soon be building a resort hotel to block the astonishing view of the Lake.
It was time to move on: we made an offer.

Wednesday, July 03, 2002


This is the chronicle of one instance of looking for and finding land in Japan, and all the spinning of wishes and whirling of the head and the thoughts and the preconceptions and the lowering of sights and the raising of them again but then the lowering of them again in the face of various inflexible realities and the gestalts of country roads and thick copses, steep hills, high prices and the songs of frogs, waftings of hawks on rural airs, exaltations of sunlight and wind and fire that accompany such undertakings.

...if I had bought that land in Spain, back in the seventies, I'd be a multimillionaire today, so I'm glad I didn't, because nothing distorts life like too much money, making everything appear simple and within reach that is by nature difficult and not to be gotten without respectful effort and consideration, and in any case is in one way or another very very heavy; thus money, by appearing to realize that profound illusion known as the free lunch, is the same thief to true mind and spirit as the lunch that is not paid for, whose promotion and aftermath the civilized world is suffering from today. But as I say I had no actual money, a feature I was used to; what was more, I was an alien of uncertain future (what's new?), with an infant daughter, in a Spain of unpredictable change.

Years later, in the land of the most change on earth, Japan, a nation having gone from feudal isolation to a leading word power by the time I got here, where an acre of land in Kyoto City during the economic bubble cost about 80 million dollars, the bubble suddenly burst with an in retrospect awesomely silent pop and land prices deflated drastically; all at once it was possible to buy an acre of land in Kyoto for 60 million dollars, or even 40 million dollars, if you haggled. For 40 thousand dollars or so, you could in a pretty respectable area get a piece of land big enough to lie down on, if you had easement. I decided to look elsewhere for property. And for less than an acre. Such values were for multiple generations to ponder and perhaps eventually possess. I was fond of quoting the price of some good land not far from LA, something like $1.44 a tsubo (enough for two to lie down on) vs. 80 thousand dollars a tsubo in Kyoto, but it was not good to do this too often because of the depressing effect it had on my already culturally traumatized psyche.

to be continued...

First published in Kyoto Journal #37