Lost In Translation

I’m working on leaving the living.
—Modest Mouse

Jean told me once
that the Japanese are obsessed with the ephemeral—“Can I say that?” “Yeah it’s the same in English.”—that what is fleeting and soon to die is all the more apparent and beautiful for the immanence of mortal fate.

The cherry blossoms bloom but once a year in Japan, and then for only two weeks before falling gloriously, dying violently at the height of grandeur and without the long, slow rot that follows the Springtime of life. The weather bureau announces the dates so all can plan a suitable hanami, or “flower viewing”—generally a picnic or excursion to some famous place where the sakura trees line the way with pink and black against the blue.

But Fall had arrived when I had, with her full colors and her wintry breath. In that time of year, the Japanese will travel hundreds of miles to see a sight by autumn’s red-gold light, and how the leaves change over the temples and shrines, and how they carpet the ground. Such mature beauty fades so quickly to a scene of wiry trees and a scent of compost, but the Japanese indulge in that moment when the season reaches her zenith, worth savoring all the more for the plunge soon to come.

Their aesthetic of evanescence is the appreciation of beauty in melancholy truth, in a last breath of life on the eve of death, a last brash kiss before the end of an affair, or the last steps at the end of a long journey. Such things come into focus at the end: the spun yarn of Fate is easier to see just before it is cut, a relic of childhood is tenderest just before it is thrown away; and we must appreciate life more when we are reminded by the world that it is only transience, and that we are but a small part of everything.

This, at least, is the course of my reflections, in the crowded gardens of Osaka Castle, in the last week of a two year journey around the world. Toyotomi Hideyoshi built the castle in 1585, with new Western advancements in fortification, as the greatest redoubt in Japan, but it was destroyed in the Summer War of 1615. The Tokugawa Shogun built it anew on the same spot in 1626, and another Shogun lost it to a lightning strike in 1665. The third iteration of this persistent building was constructed, by donations, in 1931.

Two gated walls surround the fort, made of great blocks of granite, and around the inner wall is a murky moat. The hommaru, or inner bailey, stands atop the bluff of raised earthwork contained by this wall. Three roofs descend from the gold emblem at the peak with spectacular grace, and two other overhangs jut out between the windows that stare out, between the decorated roofs. All of these are made of rolling black tiles with golden corners, and the walls are white-painted wood, though just beneath the highest roof they are painted satin black and decorated with regal lions and signs. The base is a platform of stone blocks that angles inward, as do all the walls and eaves, so that the whole fortress is pointed up like an arrow. The courtyard around the hommaru, where the village once stood, is today a park with benches and a gift shop, full of young and old people: the only ones ever interested in castles. The trees around the stone walls had turned yellow and red, and with the gray sky and the silent old sentinel of the castle, it all suited early November perfectly.

Returning to Kyoto, for a stay at Gekkou-sou before the last leg of my trip north toward Tokyo, I saw the Heian Shrine and the Nazen-ji temple complex. The latter had many Zen gardens, which were well and beautiful to the eye. In the back, on a hill beyond a stately old aqueduct, there was a garden of cascading trees, colored as emeralds, rubies, and gold leaf, lowering down to the mossy rock banks of a lily-paved pond of glittering reflections, filled by a noisesome waterfall, and with islands of ferns carefully placed, as were hedges and grasses and a stone bridge. I took it in from the shrine’s wooden balcony. Zen Buddhists keep their eyes open when they meditate and their minds clear to notice the subtle cares that make gardens like this more than natural glades. The pillars of the green pines seemed to hold up the clouds, and gnats at play sparkled in the slanted light.

I wandered along the aqueduct, and eventually rode home. Ai was chalking a sign for supper.

“What kind of food?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. What do you want?”

“. . . Barbecue.”

So there was a barbecued feast, and I talked with someone from Vancouver, an outlying township of my hometown. It put me in good spirits, though at heart I was rather more lugubrious than usual. A week from now and I’ll be back in America.

Ai was used to hitchhiking, and he told me I could make it from Kyoto to Tokyo in one day if I started early and if I was lucky. Kyoto is an inland city a third of the way up the end-parenthesis of Honshū, while old Edo is halfway, on the outward edge of the curve. It may not look like a great distance, nor Japan like a great island, but the Reader is more like than not a long way away from there. It was a journey worthy of the title, from my perspective, looking at maps of the highways north, and I had five hundred miles to go.

On the same map, the observer will spot a great gray slate between Mount Tanzawa and the Kuji River, branching up into the valleys around Mount Yokone, Arayama, and Haruna like something that spilled. It is a hundred miles across, this stone gray field, and at its heart there is the greatest city in the world. Tokyo rose out from the ashes of war in great towers of ambition, to absorb Yokohama, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Chiba, Kamakura, and a thousand other place-names into its machine. Thirteen million people live in Tokyo herself and more than thirty-two million in her greater empire of twenty-three wards. She is the most populous city and metropolitan area in the world and is half the size of New York, who in all things but height and eclecticism she outmatches.

It may be strange for the Reader to think of Tokyo as the world’s chief city, for we are stubborn dreamers and always claim that the biggest of what we’ve seen is the biggest of all there is. Even from within Tokyo, you would note her stature only after a long while of looking out the window, as the buildings of a great city never dwindle, only climb higher as each hour goes by.

When I finally reached the city, having hitchhiked through a wild country and over the passes, and having hopped on and off of trains, with tedious adventures not really worth recounting—when I was finally in the midst of Tokyo, looking bewildered “across the mazy infinitude of all the night-bound earth,” as Faulkner wrote, and all the neighborhoods in the shadows of neon signs, I came lost to the labyrinth beneath Tokyo Station. It took a long time to find my way out and under the sky, which had turned dark during my long voyage, and was then obscured by all the glass towers and lit up to the tint of a page by the light of the city. The only noise was that riot of people, a slow shuffle, a choir of commerce. They wore suits and ties, or skirts and high boots, or the weird get-ups of the young, and some wore surgeon’s masks that made them faceless in a crowd of black eyes and black hair.

I went back below ground with some yen from an ATM (a more difficult trick than the Reader might think, because nearly every Japanese bank machine was too advanced for my credit card, which would have worked anywhere in America or Europe; the Japanese consoles looked like a science fiction, and I am sure they were very secure and convenient for the natives, but I had to turn to the 7-11 machines), and I stared a long time at the map of the subway, which is more complex than the street maps of some towns and more colorful than a box of crayons, before riding off to Shinjuku and then to Ochiai-Minami-Nagasaki, where I had arranged to meet a friend. I waited for her in front of a Family Mart, squatting and leaning against the brick wall, Mifune and Eastwood all at once.

Yui Kusunoki rode up smiling on her bicycle. “Hey Jon, you’re finally here.”

“I made it eventually.”

“Well come on, my house isn’t far. Do you want me to carry your bag?”

“Are you kidding? You’d fall over.”

I strolled alongside her into the nighted alleyways, unfamiliar to me and home to she, and I can take the opportunity to reintroduce her: Yui was Jean’s dive partner, when the two took a class together at the Seven Heaven hostel in Dahab—and although I would not expect the Reader to remember such ancient events, I remembered that time very well, and Yui remembered it very fondly now that she was back home amid familiar things and expectations. She had not been there for long.

After two years traveling the world, Yui had worked for seven months on the southern island of Yakushima. Every time Princess Mononoke shows on television, tourism to the island soars as the Japanese seek the pristine forests and picturesque landscapes that inspired the favored Ghibli film. Yakushima’s great cedars remained untouched for millennia, grown thick as Doric columns. Their roots dug shallow in the thin, muddy soil of the volcanic isle and webbed the ground with ridges. At the center of the island there still stands a great old tree, seven thousand years old: older than the Caesars, the Greeks, the Pharaohs, and all of their gods. Men never cut them down, because they said a god lived on the island, until the Edo-era. Then the Shogun sent priests to Yakushima who had some talisman to scare off the god so they could cut down a few of his wide timbers for some great hall or tomb. Whatever buildings the great beams went to construct were lost in the fires of Tokyo, but the carcasses of the behemoth trees remain. A German botanist discovered one when seeking a roof during a rainstorm: he realized the cave in which he sheltered was once a great tree. Everywhere a tree was cut down, the forest sprang anew from the stale and mossy floor: glades of new life in beams of a long forgotten sun.

And Yui found the island inexpressibly beautiful. She lived in a small hut in the wild, where she could count a dozen shooting stars every night and listen to a symphony of insects. It was a wilderness. Once she was bitten by a huge millipede in the middle of the night, and found two of them hidden in her hut during a search after that sleepless night, but most nights were of a pleasant, still sort that might be a glimpse of Eternity. She worked for a guesthouse for a pittance, and for the worthwhile privilege of living on the island and drinking the stream water unfiltered, noticing the subtle differences in taste and minerals between streams, and of eating fresh fish and meeting wonderful people. When Jean visited her they went out to the tidal onsen, the baths only available on certain days of low tide. They sat in the pool and listened to the roar of the ocean, and the only light was the full moon.

Slow as mud, Yui gave up the sense of economic stability that was bred into her, of a career and a secure home, for a broader aspiration of short jobs, continued travel to Africa and South America and all over, learning Spanish, and opening a guesthouse for foreigners on Yakushima—in short, a good and varied and unconventional life. “Mr. Franz I think careers are a twentieth century invention, and I don’t want one.” But when the season ended, so did Yui’s idyllic employment. She returned to Tokyo via a five week voyage to Mexico and Guatemala, taking the time to SCUBA dive off the coast and to see the spectacle of Día de los Muertos, before returning to the house of her parents, both successful dermatologists. Her father liked having some of his daughters home, and the house was near enough to Shibuya and the busier boroughs of Tokyo to be convenient. It was two stories and, like all homes in crowded Tokyo, also had nice rooms under the slanting roofs of the attic. I had my own garret up there, from some other sibling long since departed, and received it along with apologies for the mess of old magazines and cardboard boxes of clothes, though I refuted them all. I had a late meal and met Yui’s youngest sister Miki, who came home drunk and dizzy from a house party of a coworker, and who once studied in Eugene and was fascinated to see an Oregonian. Then I went to bed, and it was the nicest place I had slept in a long while.

Anyway, Yui’s parents shared a practice not far from their house in a nice borough of Tokyo. Their trade was a profitable one, as the women of Japan are obsessed with the maintenance of their skin. Ointments close the pores, a rub of rice hulls oxidizes the skin, a forty-six million dollar per year industry produces a multiplicity of cosmetics, and whitening SPF fifty-plus creams ward off UV rays as well as mirrors. Japanese women avoid the sun at all costs, dressing more modestly than a Muslim on sunny days too keep up that moon-like paleness, and fine-tune a healthy diet that excludes beer, and for all their effort are rewarded with a famously youthful appearance, a look of thirty years at forty, while Western tans turn to sagging leather and add on more years with age. “Good looks will wither with the passage of time,” goes the old saying, “but good skin hides seven evils.”

These days, after a generation of success during which they raised three daughters, Yui’s parents kept a few well-paying clients and held a well-established and profitable routine that allowed Yui’s mother to take most days off, to plan out tiles and cabinets for the new house they were building a few blocks away. It would have a garden and a lot of sunlight coming in the first floor windows, with plenty of places to sit at ease. It would cost most of their savings, but as Yui’s father was getting older, having earned a stately gait, the narrow stairs of their narrow house, wedged between other narrow houses, would not suffice. He was a gray-haired and well-spoken old gentleman, and when Yui and I arrived we had to tiptoe because he was already asleep so he could get up early the next day for a game of golf. When I finally met him, he was cheerful, bright-eyed, and inquisitive, as surprised by my comprehension of Japanese as I was by his gentle English.

He had studied for a year in Atlanta. His wife had been there as well, but her pregnancy with their first daughter soon precluded classes. She had learned only a little English, but it was enough for a pleasant conversation the next morning when Yui was still asleep.

Yui had planned several things to do while I was in Tokyo, proposing a trip to the old martial capital of Kamakura and to the Tsukiji Fish Market, but neither her nor her sister seemed excited by my interest in the nerd capital of Akihabara. They said with my hair I could dress up like the Prince from Space Battleship Yamato, and I hoped it was a compliment. It was difficult to see the looming of the return journey and the fated plane, close as it was; I found myself enlivened by my surroundings, endlessly busy, cared for, and no longer worried about money.

“It’s nice that you came now,” she said on the way to Kamakura,—“it would have been too difficult to go right from traveling back to work, and the routine. Now I can get to know my own city.”

She still had not decided what to do. She could either get a short term contract, which would last only half a year, or a longer one for two years or more. It seemed to her like two years was a big commitment, but her parents had infected her with a concern for the future.

“In Japan,” she said, “it is hard for an older woman to find job.” I asked why, and she hesitated to say. “It is just Japanese tradition. I mean, also because if you have only short contracts, it means you are not so serious about working.”

(In a 2010 study by the World Economic Forum, Japan had one of the lowest percentages of women in corporate employ at twenty-four percent, comparable to India and Turkey. In the United States, it was estimated that fity-two percent of corporate employees are women.)

It took an hour for the train to get there from Shibuya, and then we tried most of the free samples in the tourist lanes, the pickled roots and wasabi spinach and dried beans, before climbing up to the principle shrine, the Tsuruiska Hachiman. Yui, whose family was nominally Buddhist, knew of some temple there with a huge bronze Buddha that people could walk through, but we could not find it—though I learned later from a newspaper that Barack Obama had no trouble finding it when he visited Kamakura as part of his tour to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Yokohama, and Yui said there were many more police around than usual because of it. There were many tourists there as well, to catch sight of the temples as the seven-edged leaves of the momiji, or Japanese maple, turned a lustrous red.

Yui and I went to the Tsurugaoka Hachiman shrine atop the hill, where the worshipers clap and ring the bell of the god, then went over the hill to the Kencho-ji temple, rustic and traditional. We bowed and pressed hands together before the Buddha in a more somber display than what the pagan spirits demand, before climbing up the wooded hill behind. Tengu gargoyles guarded the bluff and the wood and tile temple, winged men with crow beaks who brandished sticks at the setting sun. The wind rippled the maple leaves and brought up the noise of a baseball game from a clearing below, to contrast finely with the mystical illusion.

We took a train back from there to Shinjuku, to a standing sushi bar that Yui knew and liked, to try all sorts of things, from tuna to jellied crab brain, slapped with some wasabi onto a thumb-sized bit of rice by the chef-cum-waiter just behind the counter. Every available space in the narrow bar was utilized. Yui and I were there longer than most of the serious salarymen who came and went after a snack, and even the sushi chef vanished into a hatchway behind the bar and was replaced by another who came down from the same. He let us try some raw wasabi root in a roll of seaweed, which fired my brain and melted it down into my sinuses.

Miki met us at the station, looking professional after a meeting, and wondered why I did not have any shoes, only my rubber thongs—but she forgave me because I was from Oregon—and we went together to the Nakano Broadway arcade, famous among otaku nerds for its rows of toy shops, that sell Miyazaki posters and giant Godzilla props, and downstairs has a nice produce market, and in the alleys outside a few izakaya drinking bars. The gentleman in one served us shark bones, oysters still in the shell, rare tofu, bonito stomach with cheese, potentially poisonous fugu testicles, giant fish eggs, and raw whale sashimi—for Stubb’s sake!

“A steak, a steak, ere I sleep! You, Daggoo! overboard you go, and cut me one from his small!”

Well, we talked and talked in that dimly lit, wood-colored bar about food and travel, which for the Japanese are the most usual topics of conversation. I tried a set of three types of sake, one from Kochi and two from the north, and a black sugar cane sochu or whiskey, which tasted more like Scotch whisky than anything I’d had in a long while. Miki ordered a bottle of hot sake that I marveled at for looking just like what the misanthropic antihero would order in a samurai movie; and when it was over and I was dreading the bill, she paid for it all.

Miki was a secretary at a pediatrics clinic. She had studied marketing at the University of Oregon, where she made her best memories, but found the career empty of all but glamor. Her new job was stable and friendlier, with a fair salary, and that’s all we can ask for. I told her ghost stories, and she said with conviction that she once saw a UFO in Mexico City: a silver disc with a black bulb beneath that a taxi driver pointed out to her and her friends.

The momiji trees were in bloom on Mount Takaosan, a beautiful park just south of Tokyo and just beyond the sudden periphery of its sprawl. Japanese cities do not have the concentric circles of the Western American ones, spreading out like rings of a tree, from dense urban towers, condominiums and apartments, out to the gardened suburbs of well-watered lawns, and the factory-cloned slums with corner liquor stores and squalid, single story houses that look like nobody ever lived in them; and the gradual drawing out of houses, as longer and longer spreads of wilderness separate neighbors. No, in Japan the rail blasts out of a dense urban neighborhood into a pure, carefully pruned wild, with a few houses and shrines that more add to its character than dilute it. And all the momiji trees were red, gold, and orange, like the wood was on fire, running up the hills from the basin where the train ended.

I had bought a coffee and a newspaper on the way out, and at the Takaosan station Yui and I bought box lunches with onigiri rice snacks and a some pickled vegetables from a woman who warned me about my sandals. It was crowded because of the season, and we chose from a color-coded map a less frequented and unpaved trail up to the top. There was a small shrine in the crook of a ravine, and the monks would meditate under the cold, clear waterfall that murmured behind it. The path climbed along the slope of a hill, and the undergrowth faded, until there was nothing but the columns of cedars between us and a view of a wide spreading valley and a cold, clear sky. The sunlight came through like gold. At the top of Takaosan, we ate our lunch under the flame-red bower and watched the crowd.

Yui had arranged to meet for dinner some old friends from her work as a marketer, in the district of monjayaki restaurants in Tsukishima, on reclaimed land. Monjayaki is one of the pan-fried dishes of Japan, mixed and cooked by the diners on a skillet set in the table, and notable for its close resemblance to vomit. We had monja with chicken, then mentai fish eggs, then seafood, and some okonomiyaki, with lots of beer. Yui’s friend Yuki was an ebullient middle-aged woman with a passion for the histories of Japan, pharaonic Egypt, and ancient China, though she lacked the words to express much of what she wanted to say, and Yui lacked the understanding of history to fully translate it, so that Yuki was fully exasperated.

Both of them were amazed that I liked monjayaki, which is disgusting to look at and difficult to eat—the diner must separate a corner of the vomit with a sort of paint scraper, then press it down so it sticks to the bottom of the scraper, then rush it to the mouth. I also tried nattō, fermented soybeans that smell like socks, and hoppii, which is hop juice mixed with rice whiskey. The Japanese drank it in the post-war years, when real beer was scarce.

Later at the izakaya I met Yui’s other friend Yukiko, a beautiful, successful, and intelligent businesswoman with a perfect grasp of self-taught English. She said she envied my youth and how I planned to use it, because she wanted to travel the world and work abroad. “But I need to settle down. I’m not as young as you.” I tried to suggest that Turkey, where she had been once, was a fine place to live, where she would have no issue with finding a job, a house, and a husband; but the suggestion did not take in her set mind. Yuki had drank enough to pay for the bill, and Yukiko led us to her rich apartment near the Kachidoki Station. It resembled a vision of the future, a hollow cylinder within so we could look up at a hundred layers of windows and metal to the cloudy sky, gray and ethereal with the city lights; and within her rooms were clean and cleverly furnished. We listened to music, drank a last round, and went to sleep on the floor at two a.m.

It felt like a crime to wake up at four a.m. on a Saturday. I dropped back asleep, and Yui had to ask if I wanted to go after all. “Yes, yes, let’s go”—to the Tsukiji fish market, the largest in the world, and rapidly changing from the old warren of traditions and family-run businesses that it has always been, into a more modern institution of commerce. There was a score of tuna up for auction, big fish caught off the coast of Ireland and each worth more than the cost of my entire trip. Yui and I got there early to be among the one hundred and forty tourists allowed to shuffle through the auction behind a barricade. Many more were turned away.

The turret trucks raced up and down the lamp-lit alley in the predawn black, while brigades of meat hooks managed the tuna carcasses across the slick warehouse floors to the open court of the auctioneers. The frozen bodies were half as long as a man’s and twice as thick, pink in color and crusted over with frost. The stomachs were gone, and the lungs and eyes, and discerning buyers ran their hands along the flesh exposed by a gash at the half-severed tail. A hundred of them milled about in rubber boots. They shone flashlights on the tuna and hammered with a hook, then wrote down the number for when the auctioneer started the bidding.

He clangs a bell, he has a clipboard, and he took a dozen tests to make it out there on the stool at the head of the warehouse. There were three of them, and their shouts sound like African chants, like barking dogs. In the crowd there were a few raised hands, a few secret hand signs, some whispered jests, some re-examined fish. Buyers paid thirty thousand dollars for some fish. The purchased were marked with red paint and hauled out to the turret trucks.

In the wide market the fishmongers shout prices in code so the uninitiated buyers will not know that anyone else is getting a better deal on the same fish. The same family had owned these stalls for generations, but their children are going to school to study business or computer engineering. Fishmonger is no longer a profession. There were basins of huge fish still swimming, trays of sea creatures as weird as aliens, and cardboard palettes filled with ice and laid out with fish in enough colors for a painting. In Tsukiji they know special ways to half-kill the fish—cut the breathing nerve, drain the blood, and skewer the spine into paralysis—so it arrives at the restaurants without any taste rotting away. No one knows who devised the method, which has been condemned as cruel, but it yields undeniably fresher fish.

This business goes on for hours, until noon in the wholesale market, and then bookkeeping takes all afternoon.

After our tour, Yui and I waited for an hour in the tightly raveled line outside a famous sushi bar called Daiwa, along with thrifty Japanese connoisseurs, some noisy Thais, and a few Koreans fresh from the airport. The Daiwa chefs, all in white, served an omakase or “selection” of the best of the morning catch from the market across the street, all fresh and raw. There was eel, octopus, salmon egg, shrimp, and two helpings of toro fatty tuna, which is the best kind of sushi there is; and although it was expensive, sushi of that quality, served at any other place and any other time of day, would be beyond what my means will ever be. As it stood, this was the best sushi that I will ever eat, and I might as well quit the food now.

Yui remarked, “It’s good we went to the Shinjuku sushi bar yesterday. Now it would not taste so good.”

Rather full, we went and took a train to the Meiji Shrine. A gravel path led between a lane of trees to a wide courtyard, filled with costumed wedding parties and children coming of age, on what must have been an auspicious day, for there were plenty of both. We slept on the bank of a pond under the flaming trees in the park, noisy with ravens and with the weekend hobbies of those dwelling in a big city. One such hobby, peculiar to Japan, is the art of dressing up in costume as a character, or in a weird style they call Lolita Goth—black and lacy clothes and doll-like makeup. They dress up and stand on the street corners in Harajuku to be gawked at, but we did not see any of them that day.

We had ramen in Harajuku and went on through Shibuya. These are the districts for youthful fashion and trends, rapidly developing and noisy and fake. “It’s changed so much,” said Yui, waving at the new set-piece stores,—“I haven’t been here for two years.” We crossed the Shibuya intersection and took pictures in a booth in an arcade. The machine made our skin cleaner, our eyes wider and sparkling, and our hair lighter. Yui bought some things on the way home and made Thai yellow curry and a mild green papaya salad. She said her parents never minded her coming home because she made them such good food.

Later that night I went out alone to meet a friend of mine from college, a Japanese foreign exchange student named Momoko. I met her with her boyfriend Yoshitake in Shibuya, and we went to an izakaya for a drink. We talked only a little before we found nothing to talk about. My experience was difficult to relate to, as a hobby she was not interested in, and she had little to say about her own future. I thought to myself, “This is the first of many difficult conversations.” I remembered Momoko as very Japanese, but either she only seemed so amid Californian backdrops or the additional six months spent at my university after my graduation changed her irreparably. She seemed detached, uncaring, and inexpressive, a chaser of the “fun” that Americans mistake for happiness, irrespective of virtue or betterment. Perhaps I am too harsh: I can be very bitter. Perhaps it was my own braggadocio that put off the conversation—a world traveler, and how! Either way, we found nothing to say, and I dwelt on it the whole wander home.

Maybe tomorrow,” said Yui, “we can wake up late and leave in the afternoon.”

“Yes, let’s definitely do that.”

Two nights of irregular sleep made this one a godsend, and I was finally rested for my last full day in Japan. I had set aside this day to go to Akihabara, the nerd capital of Japan, once a place for wholesale computer parts and software, then for anime and manga, and now for maid cafés and tourists and tourist things. The original broadway of Chūō-dōri looked like Disneyland for perverted adults. Girls dressed in French maid outfits or as superheroes handed out fliers for their restaurants, where drinks cost ten dollars but come with guaranteed flirtation and moe, which is a particular kind of adolescent cuteness. Neither Yui nor Miki, who accompanied me warily, had been in one of these things, and they wanted to go more than I did.

We took the elevators up into the heights of some buildings, to narrow lobbies where the maids called us master and mistress and said it cost a lot of money to come inside. None of the places we checked seemed seemly enough to patron.

“I felt so nervous going in there,” said Miki,—“I felt it up to here,” with a hand at her neck.

“It did not feel right. It feels like going into a whorehouse.”

“Yeah, it does.”

“Which is ridiculous, because it’s just some girls in costumes drawing hearts on cakes.”

I suggested that we forget about it for the moment and go try some ramen at a quick bar just off Chūō-dōri, where you could get two extra helpings of noodles for free, because a full stomach always yields a clearer and readier head. Hot tonkatsu broth with miso and chili, a soft-boiled egg and some sliced pork, with three plates of boiled ramen, taken one at a time, was a perfect remedy for our confusion.

Too full of noodles to partake in any of the juvenile snacks they serve at the maid café, we went instead to a cosplay store, the Japanese art of dressing like a cartoon character. This was a fancier one, which designed its own costumes after popular comics, and some princely sets sold for more than a thousand dollars. Yui and Miki went digging around on that side of the store, and I was entirely preoccupied with what occupied the rest. It appeared to be a supply store for making dolls. There were long-legged Barbie bodies with three different sizes of breasts—small, medium, and large, the first being an idealized reality, the second a stripper with ridiculous implants, and the third size would be physically impossible on a human body—and then heads and tiny wigs, big eyes in many colors, paint kits for the mouth and cheeks, and meticulous dresses and outfits, equally whorish. A man with a lot of time on his hands might craft for himself his ideal woman at one-sixth life sized, a lifeless trophy to his enduring virginity.

“Look at this,” I said when my friends came to share my wonderment,—“if these nerds spent half as much time trying to get a girlfriend as they did with these dolls . . . well, I think it would be much more productive.”

We went out into the alleyways with the typically Asian electronics markets spilling out into the street. It is one of the few places in Tokyo where you will see all black hair, because most otaku are too lazy to dye their locks a more fashionable shade of brown. Often they forget even to wash, and the older stores reek of this. Yui once more masked herself with the map of this strange quartier of Tokyo and led Miki and I to the most popular maid club, called @home café. It took up four themed floors in a main building of Akihabara and employed a hundred and eighty girls. On the first floor they dressed as French maids, on the second as school girls in a classroom, and on the third floor they wore short cut kimonos and played at geisha. Each is a grand and disturbing illusion. The girls say, “Welcome home master,” and feign some illicit, adolescent attraction. They use ketchup to draw hearts on the omelets they serve. If you ask their age they reply immediately, “I am a maid. A maid is forever seventeen.”

A maid sat the three of us at a counter in the front, and we looked around like, what is going on here? There was a counter on the side for the repeat customers, where they could chat with the girls picking up orders from the kitchen for less devoted customers. The customers had cards with their rank on it and a discount price to play children’s games like Connect Four with a maid across the counter: visit the café fifty times for a gold card and the title “Eminent Master,” five hundred for a platinum card, “The Paragon of Master Excellence,” and five thousand for the super black card and a mysterious title. My single visit had earned me a bronze card that said “Level 1 My Master” on the back and came with a sinking feeling of shame and vileness.

One Japanese man, shorter and scruffier than most in a nerdy pair of block-frame glasses, was wearing a pink maid outfit and a Pikachu hat, with Pokeballs hanging around his neck. He blushed and struck a timid pose to have his picture taken with one of the prettier maids—this was among the items on the menu, a photograph—then slunk back to his seat.

I turned to Miki and asked, “Do you think he lost a bet? Like he bet on some sports team, and they lost, so now he has to wear this outfit to a maid café.”

“I don’t think so. I think he likes it.”

“I think he’s an idiot.”

The maid brought out our drinks and did some witchcraft over them, forming a heart with her fingers and twirling it around while chanting in this girlish voice. Then we took pictures with some of the maids, feeling obligated, and left the place in a hurry. I wandered through an arcade while Yui and Miki dressed up in costumes and took pictures in a booth downstairs, and we went together toward the train station.

Nearby there was a colorful stage set up in an empty lot. A great crowd and a line of cameras watched some announcer go on and on. Yui said it was an appearance by some of the Akihabara idols, the AKB48, the largest pop group in the world. Four girls came out dressed like ninjas, if ninjas wore miniskirts, and sang a song about how their constant ninja training gave them well-toned buttocks. Some of the crowd were screaming in ecstasy at the front like young girls at a Jonas Brothers concert, except they were fully grown men. I watched some near the back, my face a picture of derision, sing along with the four ninjas and raise their arms out to them, then take a million pictures of one girl kicking her skirt up. Some fans know all about each of the forty-eight members of AKB48, their favorite colors and adorable pastimes, and have posters of them on the walls of their garrets.

When I said that this is the nerd capital of Japan, dear reader, what else did you think I meant?

“We’ve seen everything in Akihabara,” said Yui, as we hurried down the steps of the underground station and away from that place. Miki could not stop from staring at the pictures she had taken, that were so bizarre as to seem impossible.

Yui’s mother made a sort of beef stew that night, with chopped carrots, potatoes, and onions, and I could not smell it without thinking of home. “It’s delicious,” I remarked when she served me some,—”my mom used to make the same thing.” Yui’s father said, “Hahaoya wa tsuneni onajidesu. Mothers are all the same.” He then turned up the volume on the television to hear it over his wife and daughters, who were chattering about how the scanner he had bought never worked, and finally he went over to the couch to watch that historical drama about Ryoma Sakamoto without distraction. I think fathers are all the same, as well.

For the final day of this adventure, my last in Asia, Yui and I went out to the Suntory brewery in Fuchu. This appealed to us because at the end there was about fifteen minutes of free nomihōdai, all you can drink sampler beers. There were some old couples and a father with his kids who took the shuttle bus from the train station to the brewery, but it was a Monday and not very crowded. The tour was in Japanese, though I understood a little and Yui translated a little more. At the end we came into a room with a wooden bar and brass taps and a mural along the wall of a European harvest; there for fifteen minutes we sampled as much beer as we could. Four glasses each, and Yui matched my speed, the dragon.

“I feel really . . . good,” she pronounced as we came out. “I’m glad you came. I think it would be very difficult to come back to Japan and start working immediately. This way I am kind of still traveling.”

“You want to go traveling again, don’t you?”


“You don’t want to do a long-term contract.”


Before they were tea-tolling Islamists, the Persians once had an admirable custom . . .

Anyway, Yui and I talked about beer and travel and where we would go for lunch and how soon it would be before we really had to use the bathroom. “I feel old,” said Yui. We rushed to the restroom in Shinjuku, then crossed outside to the alley of izakaya and chose one serving a set menu: grilled autumn fish with rice and miso, green tea, and bowls of marinated seaweed and boiled radish strips.

“I heard,” said Yui, “and I don’t know if it’s true—maybe not—but I heard that only Japanese people and Korean people get power from eating seaweed. For others, it is healthy, but only Japanese and Korean people get power.”

“Maybe you’ve gotten used to it. Only European people can eat cheese and drink a lot of cow’s milk without getting sick.”

After the meal, Yui took me to a hundred yen shop and told me which snacks were good to bring home—some wasabi chips, pickled ginger, and miso-soaked garlic, and some cooking chopsticks and soup bowls. We said thank you and farewell in the train station, and I rode off into the neon gloaming, just like Bob Harris at the very end.

The lines had all begun to blur, the borders to crease and become indistinct, the distances intangible. The beer was wearing off, and I felt drowsy and out the window saw a drizzly, darkening world of forests and hills, a highway and its pillared neon, looking so much like home, if I ignored the crowds of short-skirted schoolgirls. The train passed through a tunnel streaked with light, and stopped at a platform within the Narita Airport—my Gethsemane, my Gray Havens. I repacked my bags in the entrance, still so unprepared, so scruffy, still feeling as if I am only traveling to some new land, where I happen to have friends and to ken the language and grok the customs, yet I also felt at hand a great reckoning, finding myself on shores and under stars familiar but no longer my native own. That’s how I felt about it.

I entered an airport in Narita and emerged ten hours later from an airport in Inglewood. Because of the dateline it was the previous day. How the world can be distorted!


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