From his apartment in Saint-Denis, that rampant commune in northern Paris, to whence Jean Fourquet returned without his motorbike after we traveled together in Syria and Egypt one year ago, the errant Frenchman had crossed Europe and Russia, and he presently occupied a garret in a hundred-year-old house in a neighborhood of restaurants, bars, and quiet domiciles near the Taisho Stadium of Osaka.
We met with great cheer at the Taisho station, even though I was a half hour late, and bought sushi, eggs, oden, and beer from a supermarket that was lit up like a pachinko parlor, to take back to Jean’s house.
It was a wonderful, creaking building of narrow corridors, steep stairs, and simple rooms a few tatami in size. The old landlady was away in Okinawa, and he shared it in her absence with a busy and invisible young man and a young hippie couple who spent most nights cooking, reading, drawing, strumming, and talking quietly. Most of their wealth was invested in a sound system: some stacked amps, two turntables, and a pair of Bose speakers, that played restive music from a table wrought of cinderblocks and wood planks against the wall. We ate our dinner on the tatami floor of the salon, and Jean turned on reggae and said:
“I normally don’t listen to reggae, but I started to like it more and more. It makes you happy.”
“Yeah it’s chilled out music.”
Jean loved the old house and I understood that he did not want to jeopardize his good fortune by dragging in a sorry stray like myself, after the otherwise gracious landlady had expressly forbidden guests without permission; so we decided to make it a night on the town: find the heart of Saturday night.
People from Tokyo say that people from Osaka are all comedians, full of wisecracks and rude vigor: that they rush the train doors when they open rather than waiting politely for commuters to disembark, and that they speak with wild, comic slang. They say Osaka is a fun town. People from Osaka say that their town is the real capital, not upstart Edo.
Jean and I walked to Shinsaibashi, Osaka’s main shopping borough, a great neon canyon all lit up like Blade Runner, and met a gang of French ex-pats at an Irish pub called the Blarney Stone. France and Japan share some strange relationship I found hard to define. The French I met—Jean’s childhood friend Izoumi, her husband Silvain, and some others—all seemed to emigrate to escape from France: in Japan, they were free to do as they liked, to start a business or manage a farm. And they could not distance themselves any further from the current events of the Republic, where President Sarkozy was making a fool of himself and constant strikes, such as the strike of oil refineries in February, debilitated a complacent economy.
Such is what they told me, but I suggest here that much of this rationalizing was just some French bullshit. The real reason so many French people come to Japan is that there are jobs in a booming economy, where people are polite and respectful, and there are, for whatever reason, already plenty of French people to make the new arrival feel at home.
(The love between France and Japan goes both directions: East Asians maintain a strange respect for the French. French bakeries and fashions are profligate and prosperous in Korea, Japan, and the big cities of China, so that Jean planned to make a T-shirt saying, “A Frenchman is better than a French bag.” Oriental girls commonly tell the visiting mademoiselle of France, “Oh you are so lucky! French men are so romantic! You must get flowers and poems all the time!” The Japanese in particular suffer from a symptom known as Paris Syndrome, where they travel to Gay Paris, center of culture and revolution, wine and cheese, romance et La Tour Eiffel, and find it a big dirty town of unfriendly people, violent suburbs, crime-afflicted immigrant blocks, and an old rusty antennae that has become a strange symbol of Love. The poor tourist, dreams dashed, is reduced to a sobbing wreck, rocking back and forth in the hotel room and saying, “It isn't true, it isn't true,” until he takes a return flight to Japan and forgets the ridiculous reality of France—the dream is far better!)
My hosts were as entertaining in conversation as the French can be, and I drank pastis and laughed a great deal.
The Blarney Stone was obviously a gaijin bar: a bar without cover, where drinks were expensive and included European concoctions on an English menu, mostly patroned by foreigners with only a few ruffled Nipponese larks tramping through. Most local nightclubs have a cover of around twenty dollars. Once within the drinks are cheaper, but by thrift the gaijin would never find that out: the charge at the threshold sends all foreigners into hysterics. Either way, going out in Japanese cities can be very expensive, and the Japanese think little of spending ten thousand yen, about one hundred and twenty dollars, in an evening’s excursion.
There were so many of them out in the Saturday night in Shinsaibashi. The neighborhood was a neon maze five-stories high, packed with people from wall to wall. I ventured out with Jean and Sylvain, red-faced and staring, and now is as good a time as any to permit a digression.
The Japanese are perhaps the most fashion-conscious race on earth. Women spend two hours washing their hair, and they wash it every day. I heard of a Japanese girl who went to France and could not believe that all the Gallic girls wash their hair two or three times a week—the barbarians! (To exercise my hyperbole,) Japanese women don strange and elaborate costume before they go out in pubic, eventually resembling trussed up dolls. Unlike the Chinese, their custom outfits look very stylish—more modern than anything in the West—but they are supremely impractical. The poor girls cannot sweat, run, bend over, or move comfortably. It is a too common sight to see Japanese girls chasing a bus with an awkward and strung-up pace, barely getting one foot in front of the other. When they get to their destination, the poor girls don comfortable shoes, but the Reader will never see a young woman wearing anything casual in the streets of Japan. If there is a long-haired and slim-figured Japanese in tight jeans, a blouse, and white tennis shoes, look closer: it is surely a boy!
Presently, Sylvain led Jean and I into a courtyard off the broadways. The black stone walls and blankly staring windows cut out most of the riot and music of the night, so that the shrine at the heart seemed more solemn than it should have. The statue was covered in a moss of unknown provenance, attributed to providence, and worshipped with claps and bows by a line of young women in short skirts and long jackets. Sylvain said they were girls from the hostess clubs: they lit cigarettes, flirted with clients, laughed at stories, and sang karaoke—modern geishas, dressed to kill—and gave men what they wanted for three thousand yen an hour.
They call this business mizu shōbai, the “water trade,” and it includes hostess bars, cabarets, soapland bath brothels, pink salons, fashion-health massage parlors, and image clubs: costumed girls in rooms themed after an office, a subway car, or a high school classroom. Some trades are nerdy subcultures, others, such as red-lit Kabukichō in Tokyo, are the province of the Yakuza crime lords. In Shinsaibashi, the girls stood alluringly in front of open doors, disguised as French maids or schoolgirls or sluttish geisha, and always wearing the giggling mask of a receptive female that never fails to fool a man into thinking too much of himself. Some salarymen tell their favored hostess more than they tell their wife, so that I cannot help but recall an aphorism of the ancient Greeks: “A wife is for children, a flute-girl for passion, and a courtesan for companionship.” Parceled out, intimacy can never be as satisfying as the reaction of its parts.
We drank some more until Sylvain had missed all the trains home and had to take a taxi. Then Jean and I wandered off into trouble, and later talked happily to some hostesses when we saw them in the street, but eventually settled onto a bench to talk bullshit over a last round from the Family Mart, as if we had never left Aleppo. This was our water trade.
Japan taken at face value seems perhaps a nation of chivalrous men and chaste, childish women; or perhaps, taking account of the infamous vending machines of panties once worn by a schoolgirl (though these have been outlawed since 1993), the glamorously-themed love hotels for discreet affairs, and the vibrant profit of the mizu shōbai mentioned above, it seems a country of sexual repression: lonely wretches seeking for love in a world of protocols. In fact there is a subculture here more deviant than anything worn on the sleeves of Western sex tourists in Thailand. The age of consent in Japan is thirteen, and until 1999, that was the legal age of prostitution, as well—until a decade ago, a salaryman might proposition thirteen-year-old schoolgirls for sex. These days the old perverts must be discreet about their lewd wonts.
The practice is called enjo-kōsai, or compensated dating. Girls follow ads on bulletin boards or on free packets of tissues to the service, where they are paired with a middle-aged man, who takes them around department stores buying them their hearts’ desires, in exchange perhaps for the company, and often for a licentious intimacy. Sometimes they are lured off by teachers or principals at their schools, who promise the sums of money necessary to maintain the lifestyle of an ojousama princess: designer fashions and trendy paraphernalia. Perhaps a third of high school girls practice enjo-kōsai without giving it a second thought. Their parents care little for their well-being and much more for their academic success and only rarely notice what a vile trade their daughters have entertained.
Most Japanese are suitably embarrassed by the exploitation of the young, but they are also too ashamed to raise the topic publicly. What criticism falls on enjo-kōsai disregards its depravity as an abstraction, worries instead that the young harlots will make insubordinate wives and mothers, always ready to abandon their household duties and expected subservience for money or Prada. Feminist groups call enjo-kōsai empowering and rebellious against the patriarchal model, a way for women to become independent, and a form of progress, which shows how little they understand their own debasement and inequality.
Japan’s discreet misogyny is endemic to a culture that emerged from a late feudal age treating women as chattel. The samurai never developed a cult of women as did the romantic chevaliers: rather, women served the lord and master of the house with absolute obedience, married to serve the needs of business and alliance, and bore children as a matter of duty. From then to now, too little has changed in what a world run by men expects from women. In offices, where the career woman works alongside the salaryman, the way women speak Japanese can almost be considered a different dialect, I was told by a Polish linguist: there are so many additional phrases to be considered politely submissive. It is as if they had rolled their wet tongues across a field of honorifics. More disturbingly, the minimum sentence for rape in Japan is three years, for robbery two, placing more legal value on private property than on victimized women, who are treated with traditional contempt.
The issue came under scrutiny a few years ago, when a girl was molested on a train and dragged off into a bathroom, while forty passengers stood there with no intention of involving themselves in someone else’s business. “Rape happens,” remarked a heartless government official,—“if it happens to a girl, she should try and enjoy it.”
This fantasy is confirmed by comics, dramas, and television shows. One news broadcast highlighted a show called Rapeman, where a superhero punishes girls who break up with their boyfriend or cheat someone for money, by tying them up and abusing them, though naturally the characters begin to find pleasure after a while. Weekly comics display the same, sold from convenience store racks of manga.
The Japanese live surrounded by a cultural tradition where sexual deviancy and violence is tolerated, even fantasized, and where women are portrayed as submissive toys. Comics and cartoons have often taken the blame, just as movies and games do for the gun violence of America, but in both cases, the culture runs far deeper than the media that mirror it.
I do not mean to dwell on this dark subject, and its explication reveals much of the Japanese that runs contrary to my own experience of a friendly, generous race of people: hard-working, dignified, reserved, and delightful. (And it is fitting to add that my own hometown of Portland, Oregon, has been called a capital of child sex trafficking, nicknamed “Pornland,” in addition to its reputation for hippies, beer, plaid, and being one of America’s most livable cities.)
These crimes of wanton depravity and the bizarre realm of the mizu shōbai are at the hollow of a clear and tranquil pond, perpetrated by a minority of black-hearted bottom feeders. But that only means that there is some part of them originating in the culture’s foundations, something rotten, and the secrecy and the way in which these fiends are ignored by most Japanese, or at least hidden from Western watchers out of shame, and sometimes even consented to, makes their crimes even more unintelligible.
To ignore this facet, being aware of it myself, would be dishonest—but it is foolish as well, Reader, to be consumed by it.
A few days after I had learned about enjo-kōsai, I was standing on the crowded subway in Kyoto, looking straight ahead and feeling misanthropic, and saw sitting there under the window an old women, a mother with an infant cradled in her arms, and a salaryman with a leather case in his lap. He was middle-aged and solemn, and I thought to myself, “Look at that guy. Does he go to the hostess club after work? Is he running after schoolgirls after work?” The old woman had been cooing over the smiling baby next to her, but then the infant turned its heavy head around on its mother’s breast, towards the man in the suit. The man shifted his glance so slightly and wriggled his eyebrows up and down over his serious face, which suddenly broke into such an honest smile that I forgot all the suspicions I had learned from articles in newspapers. A moment later he was again a solemn salaryman on his way to a grinding labor, but I thought now, “What an idiot I was to suspect him. Aren’t we all human?”
I stayed in Kyoto at an obscure guesthouse famed among the Japanese of the hippie trail, which Jean had toured extensively, and unknown to Western backpackers, despite being the best deal in the city. It was called Gekkou-sou, meaning “Moonlight,” and located outside the city center, across the Kamo-gawa in an old artisan district called Murasakino. I held a picture in my mind of Japan's urban neighborhoods, gleaned from the angst of that country’s films: lanes narrow and busy, buildings angular and weird with charm, a sky crowded with wires and clouds, a quiet temple and a crowded convenience store cohabiting like some weird married couple nobody can quite understand, but who could never break away; and Murasakino matched this vision perfectly.
It was a hundred-year-old building of wood and wind-rattled glass, on the corner of two narrow lanes that cars sometimes dared. The windows were set in sliding doors that made up the front wall, and they looked in from the street on a small square room. A wooden platform took up most of the space, a sort of dais with a recess underneath for shoes, and a squat table and a few cushions, which was, despite its austerity, the most comfortable place in the world, especially when dinner was served.
Against the back wall, separated from the platform by a space of cold tile and a coal-bright electric heater, was the narrow bar and kitchen, all pinned with drawings, maps, postcards, and brochures. On the top: pickled plums, two bottles of plum brandy, a water heater, and a chalk sign advertising dinner. To the left, high steps went up from the dais to the dormitory. To the right a Japanese man chain-smoked on a bench, under shelves of beer cans. Stepping stones run back through a sea of pebbles, past a sink and shelves full of manga, to the open garage. The door to this closes automatically by an ingenious device of Ai’s: weighted by a water bottle tied to it by a rope, looped over a rivet in the wall.
Gekkou-sou groaned with as much unambitious complaint as a man as old as that house was. Everything was wooden, but the tile and stone foundation, and dark wood columns bisected the white splatter of plaster walls. It was not beautiful, but cheerful enough to be forgiven and even loved by someone with the patience for it. I liked the place immediately and had already given up my intention to bum all over Japan. It was getting too cold to sleep outside without a down-stuffed sleeping bag, and it was more difficult to find good places to sleep in these big heartland cities, though there was much to see in old Kyoto.
When Jean and I arrived on Sunday morning, with our heads between our shoulders, the sky gray to match our addled brains, one of the innkeepers came out to greet us.
“Hello Daichi, I’m back,” said Jean as he took off his shoes.
“Jean! You’re back!” Daichi had a high, vigorous voice and wore his hands on his hips. “How long will you stay this time?”
“I’m just visiting today. My friend wants to stay a week, though.”
“A week! Hi!”
I asked for the seven day discount, and it was not much at all to sleep upstairs in one of the wide bunk beds, partitioned off with sheer, shabby curtains. I dumped my baggage up there, and Jean and I sat under the window to eat curry and rice. Daichi ladled awamori rice whiskey out of a great pot from Okinawa, the far-away home of the original Gekkou-sou. The speakers carried music from that southern island: melodic voices and sanshin strumming, and despite the language differences, if I had to guess, I would say the lyrics were about a summer love on a sunny beach.
“Who is this playing?” I asked.
“Oh this?” wondered Daichi. “She is a friend of ours. She used to live around here, until she got married. She played, too, but does not anymore.”
“She’s really good.”
“You think so? She gave this to us, but she told us not to give it to anyone because it is so bad.”
Well, when Jean and I were sated and content we lay back on the pillows around the table and talked and talked. Ai, the other innkeeper, sat down with us, sipping awamori out of a glazed clay cup, and asked me about my journey so far. He had a sharp face and long hair, and wore a loose jacket of red linen. He told us in his cool and mild way that the guesthouse had been full the night before, when they reveled in the full moon.
Eventually Jean and I rose and went out to tour the neighborhood. The Funaoka Onsen, a famous bathhouse, was across the road, with a few generous udōn bars down the street. Further to the northeast, a garden stood atop the short but steep peak of Mount Funaoka, and then there was the Daitoku-ji temple compound, neighbored by tea-houses and traditional homes, and the Golden Pavilion of Yoshimitsu Ashikaga. Past that, Mount Hiei guarded the northeast corner of the city, because demons always travel from northeast to southwest.
Jean and I went through Daitoku-ji on wide gravel lanes between the stone walls of individual temples. Later I returned there to visit Daisen-in, whose famous Zen garden inspired many others across Japan, and can be viewed as a perfection of feng shui, a facsimile in miniature of East Asian landscape paintings, and as a metaphor for the stages and difficulties of life. In the meantime, Jean went back to Osaka, where he was working a few jobs to teach English or French to Japanese students, trying to find something permanent, and to learn Japanese, which had been his mother’s native tongue; and I fell into a new routine of “sublime uneventfulness.”
Every morning a parent had the job of flagging of the road so the schoolchildren could cross, which she performed severely, with a look like she wanted to touch her chin to her nose. At night the fireman walked down the street in a blue tunic and wooden geta, a sort of Japanese clog sandal, clattering sticks together for some archaic purpose. In between, when it was not raining, I walked here and there to explore the temples and shrines of the old city, rarely knowing their names; and after dark I returned to the soft-lit lanes of Murasakino and the cheer of Gekkou-sou’s table.
The guesthouse was akin to the medieval tavern, offering a late supper enjoyed as often by thrifty travelers on the hippie trail as the locals and salarymen, though it is difficult to wrap a generalization around those who frequent the inn: they come from the neighborhood, from Tokyo by overnight bus, or from the ports of Osaka, to drink nomihōdai and gobble until the early hours. Gekkou-sou offered nomihōdai, that is “all you can drink” awamori for a thousand yen. They called the deal man-tan, which means “fill tank” and usually applies to cars at the filling station. Raise an empty glass and call for Shizune, and Ai’s girlfriend would refill it from a great jug of rice whiskey, straight or with ice or mizuwari, “mixed with water.” And the Reader may be under the impression that the Asiatics cannot drink as well as we northern folk, but they drink an impressive plenty here.
Almost every night Gekousou also served a communal feast to a dozen guests or more. Depending on what they chalked on the sign over the bar, Ai made oden or nabe soup or fried a heap of tempura, or we barbecued meat and vegetables on a great skillet in the center of the table. One night a merchant brought thin-sliced sashimi of a perfect tenderness from the best of Hokkaido’s salmon. Daichi made hirayachi, an Okinawan version of okonomiyaki, which I had tasted in Hiroshima, but it’s very different there: a stack of fried egg, noodles, and cabbage. Okinawan hirayachi was more like a Korean dish, a flat omelette made with flour and vegetables. Everywhere in Japan has a meibutsu, or “regional delicacy,” and I tried several in Kyoto, favoring generously takomiyaki: fried octopus balls, made from dough with a strip of tentacle in the middle, and cooked greasily in a square and pockmarked skillet. Daichi served them with katsuobushi, flakes of smoked tuna that writhed around in the heat like mirages. He wore a traditional kimono that he had just bought and twirled around it it, hilarious and flamboyant. The gathered crowd played a massive game of rock paper scissors, which they call janken, to decide on a dishwasher.
(Janken translates literally to “fist games,” and became popular in Japan in the eighteenth century, though it is believed to originate in China during the Han dynasty, roughly contemporary with the Roman Empire.)
The Nipponese reacted to my presence with wonder, for though they traveled they followed different currents than the Western tourists, and they introduced themselves and questioned me with the gentle hospitality that is their nature. We talked mostly of food, travel, and their country. They did their best and spared no shame to translate descriptions of food and places to me, and sometimes Daichi helped by crying, “Da-da-da-da! iPhone!” and utilizing some app. One or another spoke enough English and I enough Japanese to hold a basic conversation, and nobody seemed to mind that most of my English was to their attentive ear entirely unintelligible. The younger crowd punctuated my tales of travels and travails with unmoderated amazement and prolific exclamations of “Sugoi!” It is difficult to transliterate this word, which translates best to “awesome,” because it must be spoken in a high and airy monotone, a voice like a jet engine having an orgasm, and with a particular opening of the face that only a native Nipponese can perform. Without such merry acclaim, these simple pidgin conversations would have become wearying must sooner than they did.
Something else kept my interest, because there were many Japanese girls there: dark-eyed creatures with cute and girlish attractions, gentle in voice and gesture, raising shyness to a demure art. They wore short skirts, long and slender jackets, and tall boots, as if by some mandate of fashion, and their sweet distance and enigmatic intentions caused me to pass through an unwary traveler’s spectrum, from excitement to frustration to utter madness.
At dinner one night in Gekkou-sou, a lad with fat cheeks cried a greeting to every passing girl, and sometimes he would go out the sliding door after them. It is a common way for young men to meet women in the great urban jungles of Japan: a practice known as nanpa. (Originally written in kanji as 軟派, “the soft school,” and sometimes transliterated as nampa. The female version, where girls seek out “emergency love” on busy street corners, is called gyakunan, literally “reverse nan.”)
They stand at busy pedestrian intersections and on shopping streets and in arcades and walk after every passing girl as if trying to lasso them. Every once in a hundred attempts a girl will yield a conversation, a smile, a phone number, and perhaps one in a thousand girls will be desperate for a quick romp in a love hotel. Against these odds, some boys spend every weeknight and all weekend engaged in the chase. Picture them there: young and abstract, alone and hungry and dressed to kill, pining after hundreds of pretty and unattainable things, who do not give a glance to their desperate bull rush. The boy at Gekkou-sou capitulated with a jolly joke about each refusal, but what a thousand refusals does to the heart of a man, the statistic triumph of one brief embrace cannot repair.
One day Jean came to Kyoto, and we rented a pair of bicycles from Daichi and rode through the narrow lane in a wandering way. It was warm as long as the sun was on us, and the sky was a cloudless blue. We bought food from a market and ate it at a shrine and, after a long discussion, continued on to the train station. From a platform at the top we could see the whole city. We ended the day in Gion, a district of charming old streets and temples, where young women rent kimonos and geisha stylings and wander around taking pictures of themselves, and old couples ride in hand-pulled rickshaws, and every once in a while a beautifully solemn couple rides by in traditional wedding robes.
We ended at the Kiyomizu Temple, cascading in wooden tiers down a wooded hill at the wild edge of the city. The sunset made the western horizon a ruby field, below one of turbulent gray cloud, and the lanterns had turned on in the Gion streets. There were great crowds of schoolchildren clamoring over the sweet shops with their parents’ money, and Jean overheard some old French women say, “Let’s try all the free samples on the street!”
When the air bit us cold, Jean and I started the long ride back across town to Gekkousou in the northwest corner, still talking endlessly. Jean told me that the Japanese need to work and support themselves, the expectation of college graduates to get a good job as a salaryman, and the availability of inefficient service jobs by which the country employed all those who could not work in an office. What was remarkable was how much effort they put into these jobs, how much respect they showed and received, and how much pride they might take in a simple job done well. We observed a visual expression of this in front of a fire station: five men arranged at the points of a pentagram around the red truck, all waving and shouting, “Itte!” to back it in.
“Look at this. You would never see this in France. One guy could do this, and they have five.”
“All over Asia,” I muttered, thinking of the Turks shouting Gel! on the other side of the world.
“People say the Japanese are efficient, but they are very inefficient. Five men to do the job of one. But they employ everyone—look at them cheering.”
“Yes, we backed in a truck! Good job!”
“There’s always a stupid job to do. All Japanese have to work, to contribute. There’s no sitting around letting the state pay. They have all these stupid jobs, but they get by, have a life, make their living. They are polite, and people are polite and respectful to them, so there are no angry workers.”
Jean was convinced that this was a better way to manage things: a superfluity of service and office jobs to keep people employed and out of trouble. By means of this Japan has achieved a relatively even society: the country is rich, but all partake evenly of its profit. Everyone has something, a way of making money and a place to call their own. Some people live in satisfactory frugality, and even the rich live in relative simplicity. There are no mansions in Japanese cities. The powerful have a traditional respect for restraint—an aesthetic called shibumi, of beauty simple, subtle, and unobtrusive, that an uncultivated observer might dismiss but a master would carefully note—and they spend their money in ways of less conspicuous ostentation than America and Third World countries, which are comparable in the wickedness of their wealth. In Japan, concealment is the highest achievement of genius.
It is easy to observe shibumi in Kyoto, which at a glance appears as grungy and rampantly constructed as any other Japanese cities, but demonstrates its charm in the smallest details. The Kinkaku or Golden Pavilion, the country villa of the Ashikaga shoguns near Gekkou-sou, is another example. The historian E. B. Samson describes the place:
It is designed and placed as to harmonise with a landscape garden itself the product of most conscious, one might say literary, artifice. Indeed the structure and garden together formed an integral whole in the minds of those who planned them, and the shape of the building was of no greater importance than the distribution of rocks and trees, which were selected with the utmost care and given, after the Ming manner, recondite and symbolic names. . . Of its three storeys, the lowest, containing living rooms, is an example of the type of domestic architecture called shinden-dzukuri. The middle storey is in a mixed style, with a decorated ceiling. It was probably used by Yoshimitsu for his musical and poetical parties and other entertainments. The upper storey is in the Zen style and consists of one apartment only, which was used as an oratory, where a sacred image was doubtless installed. Its interior was covered with pure gold leaf and it is this decoration which gives the building its name. To the uninitiated tourist this Golden Pavilion is a disappointing affair, for it is neither imposing in size nor rich in ornament, but it is none the less a technical and an artistic triumph. Its technical merits, according to specialists, lie in its successful blending of styles and in a lightness of construction obtained by what in those days must have been a daring sacrifice of the accepted margin of safety. As for its beauty, it relies upon a harmony and a delicacy of proportion so just that because of its very rightness it leaves no impression upon a careless observer.The nearby city of Nara, an even more antiquated capital of Japan than Kyoto, contains a great wealth of earlier temples and shrines. I took a train there from Kyoto one Friday. The sun sometimes broke through the overcast sky, and I enjoyed its glimpses all the more as a typhoon was on the way. Through the new town and the tourist quarter, crowded with shops for gifts and sweets, I came to an area of temples and shrines and parks and ponds. There were small deer everywhere, the messengers of the kami, the gods of the place.
The Kinkaku, and the Ginkaku or Silver Pavilion built some fifty years later by Yoshimasa, are the expression in architecture of that sophisticated simplicity. . . Beauty must not be displayed and underlined, but must lie modestly beneath the surface of things, to be summoned forth by the trained taste of the connoisseur. There are mysteries of enjoyment as well as of creation.
(Kami or 神 can mean “spirit” or “god,” though these gods are closer to that invested oldest Rome. When Jesuit missionaries first arrived on Japanese shores they had no way of expressing their complex and radically different theology to the local masses: kami can apply to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu or the soul of a rock, and either way does not come anywhere close to encompassing the omnipotent creator of the Semitic religions, nor did the Japanese have any analogue for Christian concepts like mercy and sin.)
I climbed a fence into the great Zen complex of Todai-ji, the largest wooden building in the world, and simply went around a barrier to enter without paying the great shrine of Kasuga-taisha.
Of all those sites at Nara, Kasuga was certainly the most wonderful and mystical: thousand-year-old trees formed the triumphant columns, raked pebbles the ponds, and there were red-walled shrines and tiled halls, flagstone walks, and lanterns of mossy stone and dusky bronze, mingled on that hill with a natural, asymmetrical aesthetic. The shrines honored the deities of and were funded by the famous Fujiwara family, that controlled Japanese politics for her early centuries, and some have survived since the medieval era. The devoted still pray there and clap and ring bells so the gods will hear, and they tie their white paper prophecies around branches and twigs on the yellowing trees. The three thousand lanterns stood in rows or crowded together in palisades along the forest walks. They were lit twice a year, on the Setsubun spring festival and the Obon festival for the departed spirits.
Shintoism, the old shaman way, revering nature, has endured in Japan by applying Buddhist tenets to the pagan pantheon. Most Japanese practice both, praying quietly before Buddha and with a clapping ritual for the gods of trees and rivers, and in no way controverting or dissenting to the Buddhist way. Buddha was flexible in proselytizing his religion, and rather than replacing local customs or divergence with an incontrovertible orthodoxy, he grafted the Buddhist codes and philosophies onto them; so the most primitive spirituality coexists in Asia with one of the most complex ethical doctrines civilization has produced. Most people do not mind this. Do not kill, do not lie, live modestly, fulfill responsibilities, respect ancestors and admire nature, and that is all that is required of you.
On Halloween, Ai raised the specter of the cyborg pirate Franky from One Piece. He had Shizune shave his head bare, and he donned gauntlets of cardboard painted to a robotic luster, circular spaulders, a chestpiece with all the muscles drawn on, and a sort of Speedo. He had spent the last week working on them in a back room of Gekkou-sou, and only now revealed the result. Shizune was made to be a giant cigarette, in a tube of white felt taller than she was and red with fabricated embers at the top. Her face was painted white as a ghost. Daichi had dressed up like a woman in a blonde wig and white dress, with a fox tail trailing him, but the strangest thing he wore were these big glasses with light-up frames and stripes like window frames. He had drawn whiskers on his cheeks and wore lipstick and eyeshadow, and he had the walk down perfectly.
The customs of All Hallow’s Eve matched strangely with the Japanese practice called cosplay, that is “costume play,” whereby casual mummers bedeck themselves in the trappings and accessories of a character from Japanese or American fiction, that they might be publicly possessed by an imagined nature. They are often seen in the nerd quarter of Tokyo called Akihabara in their handsome handmade costumes, approximating how a character from a cartoon or video game would look if he or she were not nearly so well-formed physically or so confident in demeanor—like the time I dressed myself and wore the same golden mustache as Hulk Hogan. Once a year in America the festival of saints and spirits permits such strange, displacing, creative ecstasy, and its foreign glamor was enough to entice the proprietors and guests of Gekkou-sou, who had no ties to the otaku subculture that practiced cosplay every Saturday in the park, to take up the same banner that Saturday night.
Ai and Daichi had advertised the party all week, and that night I was surprised by all those who heeded the call. There was a swine-faced cultist, a giant bottle of sake, and a man with a pumpkin for a head. The Green Hornet attended, and one Nipponese dressed as the famous photographer Watanabe Hiroshi, wearing a baseball cap over his rubber mask and a camera over a khaki vest with many pockets. There was even a very young girl, maybe ten years old, dressed up as a chipmunk. All the young women wore cute, simple, tight-fitting costumes, as is the practice in America.
And I wore the costume I had put together that day: a plaid shirt, suspenders made out of a rope, work gloves, a hat, and a fake axe, which I had nailed together from scrap wood, painting the angled head a steely gray. I was a lumberjack, which the Japanese called kikori, and they thought it strange to dress up as a profession instead of a fictional character. Jean had improvised an even simpler outfit by simply wearing a cardboard box around his shoulders, and he felt out of place when he saw all the creative disguises that the Japanese had put on, as we marched out to the bus station in a noisy group.
Downtown there were not many people dressed up as we were: a few storefront greeters, a handful of other groups, all of them lost in the sweltering sea of people going out on Saturday night. We entertained many by posing for pictures every block and while waiting for every crosswalk light to turn green. Our strangest appearance was in the subway station, where our weird band mobbed the ticket machines, and Shizune had to buy Ai’s ticket because he was wearing gloves with massive cardboard fingers. We ended up in a bar across town, drinking and talking until very late, when Jean and I walked back all the way to the guesthouse.
Yuko was in the Gekkou-sou bar when we arrived around three in the morning: just off work, and sipping some strong whiskey. She was a hostess from Okayama, new to the city, with aspirations to learn Spanish and design accessories, and she already spoke perfect English. The agency had sent her to a new club, where the boss was a tattooed, muscled, and perpetually drunk old Yakuza matriarch. It is regarded as the worst club to work at in Kyoto, and Yuko requested not to be sent there again.
“I think I will find a new place. Gekkou-sou is nice, but I just end up drinking and partying here, two nights in a row.”
“Well that’s alright. Where did Jean go? How did he get over there?”
This bar was wedged narrowly between the wall and the sliding doors, so that there was barely enough room on either side of the counter for people to stand. It was nonetheless crowded nearly every night. The bar-girl, a music student, sat in the corner working on something. She was trapped back there by some boy who was in love with her, who came to the bar every night to court her, but always drank too much to do anything but make a fool of himself. He was presently crouched between the bar and a shelf, halfway asleep with his wallet spilling out of the back pocket of his jeans.
Jean asked the girl about music, then saw the preparations for some Thai dish in a bowl on the bar and said, “If you make this for me, I’ll tell you anything about music you want to know.” The girl took no notice of the over-the-top way in which Jean proposed this and set to making him the dish. When it was completed and on the counter before him, the Frenchman said, “Okay, what do you want to know?”
“What does all music have in common.”
“The beat. All music follows a beat that starts right here with the beat of the heart.”
I was amazed by his rough improvisation, but it did sound very romantic; he ate the Thai dish with evident satisfaction as the girl played songs by the psychedelic American band Love, her favorite artist, while Yuko and I watched, incredulous.
Now Yuko had lived for two years in London and two months in Goa, and the latter had a far greater impact on her outlook and way of living: a peaceful, temperate, unambitious world, where everything is available but you don’t need much, and the only difficulty is deciding which beach to visit and with which friends. She still wore skirted Ali Baba pants and light shirts from those more tropical countries. She wanted a way out of worries and no longer liked Japan as much as she once did.
The next day two locals came to Gekkou-sou for dinner: tight-eyed Yoshitsune with some tag-along friend. He was one of those men of sleazy chivalry, who bring out more drinks with a lazy look around the room, who walk a girl home with something on their mind. He looked twenty-eight but revealed after our guesses that he was thirty-nine years old. “You must moisturize,” I remarked. I caught “Nivea” in his reply. He invited Yuko and Ataru from Tokyo to go to a karaoke bar, and Yuko invited me to come along, and I could not refuse the opportunity to see this unique aspect of Japan, nor refuse the request of a pretty girl, despite the dirty look on Yoshitsune’s youngish face.
We took a taxi there, one from the nice company, where the driver wears gloves and opens the door for you, and got a room in a karaoke tower. A couch ran all along the wall, with a long table in the middle, and there was a television in the corner and a tambourine stashed somewhere. We had all we could drink and all we could sing for a fair price, and I sang 2pac, Tom Waits, and Journey and drank as much watery rice beer as I could, while the girls sang Japanese pop ballads and Yoshitsune squealed out Michael Jackson hits with a voice he must practice at home. When it came time to leave, three hours later, we decided to walk back. I paced ahead with Yuko.
“He is so loud,” said Yuko. “Every song, he sings so loud. Do you even know their names?”
“No, I can’t remember.”
“I like karaoke, but three hours is too long. We went two hours and then he told the boss, ‘Let’s have another hour.’ It’s too much. Sometimes I do not like Japanese people.”
“They are so . . . ‘Oooh, wow, ah!’ ”
“Sugoi! Yes, it can be like that.”
“They get so excited about everything. It’s not a shanti place.”
“Americans are like that as well.”
“Everyone in California gets very excited—‘Oh, wow, you are in Japan, that’s great! That’s awesome!’ It’s all phony.”
“Yes, in Europe they said Americans are all like this. Europe is so . . .”
“Europeans are chilled out. Americans, Russians, and the Japanese all work too hard. They go nuts.”
“Mmm. I miss home.”
“Not Okayama. I miss the feeling of home. Always at this time, I miss my bed. It makes me complain a lot, ne?”
“Tom Waits said, ‘Anywhere I lay my head, that place I call my own.’ ”
“I still want to find a home, somewhere. Gekkou-sou is not the same. And I still want to travel to so many places.”
“Some Aussie also told me that once you’ve traveled for a year, you can never go home. You’ll always want to keep traveling.”
“That’s me, ne?”
“I’m afraid it’s me as well.”