Monday, 28 March 2011

In The Bathroom...

...everyone can hear you scream. Or so I imagine. Judging by the odd looks when I emerged, they can certainly hear your sharp intakes of breath and quietly high-pitched expletives. Although they may just have been startled by my face, which was a rather spectacular shade of red. This was obviously enhanced by my embarrassment, suspecting they'd heard my pained expressions as well as now being able to witness its cause: south-of-England-style sunburn, in its most brilliant and bright variety. In one day on the beach, I think I probably exposed myself to more harmful radiation than if I'd stayed in Tokyo. At the time, I knew I was burning - but I always burn. Not until my return did I realise that this was perhaps something a little worse. So armed with after-sun (aloe and menthol), I retreated to the bathroom.

I don't know whether it was the gel's aloe, or whether it its menthol. It might just have been my highly sensitive nipples. But whatever it was, it stung like a scorpion on acid. A week later, and I'm still peeling a little bit. But of course, no pain, no gain, right? From that - today's favourite t-shirt, spotted on the man who cooked my burger (and what a burger) was 'No rain, no gain'. Maybe he does some farming on the side. I at the moment do nothing on the side. I do nothing as a main, it's the dish of every day. Of course, not literally - you can't sit in a hostel's living room all day, nice as it is with its leather armchairs and wi-fi. I watch obscure mockumentaries at the local film festival, I write short stories and I find neat cafés to read neat books in. These have all been on the menu since the weekend, now that everyone left.

I do get occasional emails, some of which checking I'm coping with all this radiation and general Japanese danger. I feel rather absurd when I answer, telling family (and) friends I am why yes still in Japan, and have spent the day lazing on a deserted beach with some Oxford girls who picked me up, paddling occasionally in the azure waters and watching the fish glide over the shallow coral reefs. Of course, I was then rather red for the next few days, probably as some sort of prescient karma for being so crass as to refer to Pan and Amélie merely as 'good company' and 'Oxford girls', when really they deserve a post of their own in thanks and memory. And while on memory and memories - plenty of them, not mine, at Pan's own blog (sorry):

Having latched onto the two them, together with a then-accompanying Hollander, I passed a pleasant nine days in their aforementioned good company, during which I of course posted briefly. It was in their company that I enjoyed a local island's beach, and in theirs that I saw most of the wonders mentioned below. They have now gone to a better place. Well - two better places; Thailand and Oxford, respectively. Since their departure, I've passed an entertaining weekend - entertaining evenings and early mornings would be more accurate - with Goldie, a young man from Sheffield, by eleven years in Japan, and awamori, the local firewater, most of which has been in Japan for far less than eleven years, save a few tasters sampled at the local brewery.

So here I am, all alone in Naha. Although you do struggle to feel quite lonely in this particular city. Feels like Hong Kong selling a Japanese take on Americana by way of Brighton and every other metropolitan seaside city of the world. I've seen a man walking his cat in a red silk coat. The cat, that is, all dressed up. Recycling vans come round each morning playing 'Greensleeves' (I think; else the tune remains mysterious), and that only adds to the cacophony. This is Tokyo-loud, but difference is it all dies off after about ten p.m. Can't say I particularly appreciate the local music, and especially not the Musak, but my quite little coffeehouse/bar plays jazz records, and is decorated with old radios, record players and television. All some of my favourite things, and now including John Coltrane's fourteen minute take on the Sound of Music classic.

Saturday, 19 March 2011


That would be the nickname of the 88mm FlaK 18, a German anti-aircraft and anti-artillery gun last used in 1945. I never got to see, hear or feel that particular weapon, just as I missed out on the earthquake that rocked Japan last week, measuring an eight-point-eight (or acht-komma-acht) on the Richter scale. Didn't stop me leaving the city on Monday afternoon, after a depressing and empty day at the office, and a Subway sandwich that was marred by my continual fear that a subway wasn't the best place to hang out during an earthquake - and no pun intended; my Subway is in a subway.

I'm in Japan until April 19th, which is just about a month away. The holiday feeling in Tokyo was just about beginning to wear off, and there was I, really just getting into the swing of day-to-day life in the metropolis. I could have quite happily gone on with that, but after the 'quake, the worries set in. Not so much radiation; I struggle with stuff that's there but I'm not conscious of (cf. David Foster Wallace's joke below), but the planned black-outs, the food shortages, the empty houses and office, and that I couldn't have peanut butter on toast whenever I wanted because people have started hoarding bread... No longer holiday, and no longer mundane enough for me.

But the ground shaking every few hours, and my not knowing whether it would mean falling postcards or wobbling streetlights, that really did put me off too. So boarded my hastily booked and packed for flight for Okinawa - 'closer to Taiwan than Tokyo' - come Monday afternoon, and been down south every since. Holiday is very much back on the cards. Good company and temps hovering around twenty have found me castles, ducks, salsa, manatees, barbecues, cliffs and curry. 'Surreal' is still the word of the day everyday, so a return to form there. No-one likes a comfort zone, and evenings with U.S. Marines and competitive games of Jenga are never going to get monotonous.

I'd like to think that there's only so long you can spend each day browsing the BBC's latest earthquake stories, and combing the major newspapers for latest developments. There may be such a limit, but at the moment if they hype, I read. Mildly entertaining at best, unnerving at worst. The Japanese news services seem to be understating, the foreigners over, so that line down the middle is the preserve of common sense, which as they all say, ain't so common. But there's no radioactive rain down here - we're quite happy with putting up with the ordinary watery stuff,  though I could do with some more sun, please. If I'm going to holiday, let's make it worth my while, and all that yen.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Another Country

It's very difficult to eat cheaply in fancy London restaurants. Fortunately for me and my sophisticated palate, I can eat well and with a well-deserved beer in Tokyo for about £6. Today surely earned its keep on the beverage front. It has been, and excuse my French, un de ces jours. Over dinner, did reach halfway through Updike's novel, which seems to be about escaping the confines of one's life, and little details keep hitting home in rather horrible ways. Of relevance here, though, only: 'The difficulty with humorists is that they will mix what they believe with what they don't - whichever seems likelier to win an effect.'

I awoke rather happy, which now doesn't bode well for my having Spidey Sense. But all the same, I showered and breakfasted,  and was out the door and still cheerful all the way onto the subway. My app for getting around the city's system gives me a direction and a destination; I of course confused the two, which delayed arrival. Upon finally arriving at Tennozu Isle Station, a mere ten minute walk from the Immigration Office, my destination, in order to obtain my re-entry permit, so that my visa won't revert to a tourist's when I reentry Japan come Sunday evening, I discover the map downloaded and the real-world (though it seemed nothing like the real world around me) map with the usually handy 'You Are Here' did not seem to coincide. So after much deliberation, I set off.
In what soon proved to be the wrong direction. I realised the closest station to the Immigration Office was actually on a separate island from the bldg itself, and so I headed to the bridge. Across, and now surrounded by lorries, truckers, and shipping containers, piled up like Lego bricks. I had now placed myself somewhere on my own map, and was content to follow it block after block until I eventually reached the entrance to the swarming Office. The Japanese, mostly, are content to frustrate the foreigner by the old motto of 'Rocation, rocation, rocation', and no more. Once found, backstreet restaurants tend to be worth the hike/hype; brands like A Bathing Ape deliberately site their franchises in tricky-to-find-but-easy-to-stumble-upon locations.  The Immigration Office had no qualms about over-doing anything. This was proper Kafka kitsch.

Upon my eventual arrival, I approached the main desk cautiously, and procured a copy of the Form for Reentry Permission. It was only once this had been grasped, and as I was filling it in before I could go upstairs to Section D, that I realised I was listening to, broadcast across the main atrium, a polyphonic rendition of the tune to 'I Vow To Thee, My Country', or at least a section from Holst's Jupiter. And this, only days after I'd been subjected to a similarly simplified orchestral version of a few of The Beatles' hits in the sauna. (The gym: 'We see you, skinny Britisher, pumping your seven kg, and we remind you - no matter how good you get, eventually you'll be nothing more than Musak listened to by naked men in a steamy room.') I took the stairs two at a time.

Not so much follow the yellow-brick road, as follow the primary-coloured strips of carpet to the relevant section. No ruby slippers here, though, as you take your ticket to hand in your form, passport and Foreigner Registration Card, and 172, that says, and 119 just flashed up on the screen. A hasty email to work that I may be late, and down in the chairs with the Japanese folk. Why were they here? Were they not actually Japanese? What visas were they on? James Whitcomb Riley ('when I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck') would have been out of his depth here. 

Having already filled in the form downstairs, nothing to do here but wait. Nervously glanced at clock. Of course, the Office was only open from nine am until five pm on week-days. Foreigners? With visas? Probably don't have jobs, eh. Number eventually comes up. 'You must go downstairs and get payment stamp, then come back up right to me'. Off I trotted, to the FamilyMart down the stairs that deals with visa payment stamps, and got myself into the queue for the one till of four that issues the stamps. Considered leaving the queue to by myself a biscuit at one of the other tills; would have taken me no time, them being empty and all. But got the stamp, trotted back up the stairs, found my lady, gave here the new stamped form, retreated, reappeared at the call of my name, received my newly-stickered passport, and trotted off to work.

Rang in on the way back to the Tennozu Isle Station on the first island, thinking I might not make into work by the time suggested in earlier email, which was rather prescient, considering the signs to the monorail station I now needed led me three sides of a square, and was told my editor had left the company that morning, and is never to return. I fear not so much Bienvenue au Japon as Bienvenue dans le monde. And after a Sunday of no worry, lazing in park life, finding an abandoned CCTV camera, watching girls ride ponies in central Tokyo, and reading an autobiography of Edward Hopper. I'll take that world, merci beaucoup. But to another country on Thursday, and 30+ degrees c.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Three Things Viciously Circling

The first is the rainbow-coloured disc that means my little black MacBook is struggling with something. It's been spinning around and around for far too high a %age of the past ninety minutes. The second is the chocolate/sweet cycle, by which I need one after the other and the other after one. All this sugar has come in useful keeping me awake long enough for that disc to stop spinning, mind. And I need to stay awake because of this third - the more I do, the more I have to write about, the less time I have to write. Just realised this third isn't especially circular in its process, but on the walk back tonight it felt like there was something cyclical to it. In short: too much exciting, not enough writing.

Did manage a perfect circle of a wander today, camera in hand. Minox 35mm point 'n' shoot has died, and only after a month or so after purchase, so left with Konica SLR; fine for wandering towards black 'n' white shots of girls on steps, but will have to re-place/pair the broken for anything resembling fast snapping. Closed today's excursion in a French coffeehouse with a crepe, a beer and  Rabbit, Run. Crepe came with that French salted(?) caramel sauce that I can never quite decide if I love or hate. Bittersweet. Spoke a little French then, but not much Japanese. Mon père was here this weekend, catching up with the son after a few Korea/career days, and has suggested conversation classes, and, yes, after 3+ months in Japan, perhaps a little more language might be nice. But I work in and with English, and have a growing suspicion, fear, belief that I always will... Much introspective considerations of the future lately, and Updike isn't helping.

But searching for the levity in life is proving a little more uplifting; comedy may well be the only field in which describing your efforts as 'laughable' isn't putting yourself down. Self-deprecation does seem the basis of my schtick so far, but considering branching out into animal impressions. After surviving last Monday's Japanese haircut - an episode with mysterious Russians, a Colonial coffeehouse, elusive hair-care products, and far too many emails - I've been able to up-end the joke of all dark-haired British teens looking like Harry Potter in Japan with the realisation that I now instead resemble Emma Watson on a bad face day. Most of my limited set is based on encounters with said fairer sex, but it would be giving the game away to reveal details; the Tokyo audience can't tell the fact from the fiction.

In various states of worklag I've suffered from similar delusions. Stieg Larsson's fictional Millennium magazine keeps blurring with my own workplace, and David Foster Wallace's similarly fictional film-maker, James Orin Incandenza Jr (or Himself, or the Mad Stork), keeps appearing when I'm clicking through eBay listings for Canon XL1s (that's a plural; not to be confused with the XL1S, or even the XL2. Similarly, it's not advisable to confuse Larsso's Ronald Niedermann with Wallace's Don Gately, to whom Incandenza appears in a manner quite different to my own experiences, to clarify). Just finished, clearly, both David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. The latter doesn't seem to need my opinion, but on the former, here's the joke the South Shore biker Bob Death tells on p. 445 - 
This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' and swims away, and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, 'What the fuck is water?' and swim away.
 Sure funnier than saying you look like Hermione Granger.

Now that I'm quoting, this whole time I've been living here I've been reminded of that line from Belle and Sebastian's 'I'm A Cuckoo' - 'I'd rather be in Tokyo / I'd rather listen to Thin Lizzy-oh / And watch the Sunday gang in Harajuku / There's something wrong with me, I'm a cuckoo'. So watching them Friday night over at Studio Coast was something of a bonus. Past ten days have been pretty kind on the music front; another Milla and the Geeks gig, turns out they're off to Texas (I think) for a festival, so sayonara on that front. But highlight has to be two Wednesdays ago, with a secret DJ set from and of Black Eyed Pea'd fame. Found out via Twitter at about eight, raised some funds and raided Freshness Burger, dressed up to the nines and was there queuing for a midnight set. Left at five in the morn, sky the colour of a bruise, and found myself a McMuffin on the way back.

Culinary satisfaction has also been high over the past week - there. That's the weather forecasting tone I've been searching for. - with a highlight, alongside that Thursday's early a.m. Golden Arches, of Sunday morning's breakfast with Dad. After four weeks of peanut butter on toast, instant coffee, a satsuma and lemon-flavoured vitamin water, the Capitol's French toast with maple syrup, coffee, orange juice, pastries, toast and butter, and croissants and jam really made the day as it was so far. That weekend, the two of us walked and eat and talked our way through the city, with the marathon, Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Tower, the Imperial palace gardens, the Diet bldg, and Ginza's bars and lack of live music all now under our belts, of which at least mine need loosening come Monday morn. Morn and dawn is not much sooner than I'd like it to be down my end, and much planned for my Sunday, with donuts and that Velvet Underground track scheduled ante meridiem. This time next week I'll be in Abu Dhabi - now there's a thought. And there goes another one.