Turkey Day minus the turkey, minus the day, too

I came home tonight from my final dinner in Japan this trip with the Morita family that can only be described as exquisite, with flavors and textures arranged not only within each course, but helped one course flow into the next. I will write more about it later, but let me tell you about the first song that happened to play on my laptop when I turned it back on. It was Otis Redding's classic Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay. It's a loner's song, standing in stark contrast to the raucous sake-fueled conversation from dinner, but it's also over-produced. Go find a live version, and compare it to studio edition. One's got Redding's plaintive, intense voice, punctuated and encouraged onward by the cheers of the audience, while the other has the same but dulled by the pristine recordings of seagulls and waves. I may be in the minority, but I find it disconcerting and distracting from a song otherwise brutally honest in its complexity. It's not a song for a single adjective. Thanksgiving emoting makes me feel the same way. I'm a long-time believer that people, like dogs, can tell when you're full of shit. I'd rather hear something honest, or funny, and blessedly brief, than somebody rambling ad nauseum about their thankfulness for Ma, Apple Pie, and the Academy. Tell us what you care about, why you care about it, how it made your life better in the past year. Tell us what you miss. Or don't say any of it, and just tell us how you're most thankful for Jon Stewart for bequeathing Stephen Colbert to the world. Whatever works, be it true or funny, just spare us the platitudes. So, since I'm away from family this holiday, I will with no fibbin' share a brief list of what I'm thankful for: I'm immensely grateful for my parents. Sometimes I still wonder that we're related, the way I used to when I was a teenager, and then I spend five minutes with either of you and it's so fucking obvious that I could be no one's son but yours. (Mental note: Woody Allen's movies are an Entertainment, not a Template. Easily confused, but please don't.) I am, probably much to their chagrin, thankful for my siblings. "Aimless and clueless" though we may have been, I am as proud of your successes as I feel inadequate about mine. We will do even more in the next year, and we will do it better. I am thankful for all my friends, who have seen me through darkness and light and appear to enjoy laughing at me almost as much as I do. Life is better with you motley intercontinental lot, especially those who let me stay in far-away cities with them and those who traveled long distances to stay with me. I am immensely thankful for the people who have allowed me to learn from them. You know who you are, it's unlikely I gave you much choice in the matter, and I am a better person for it. It is currently half-past one in the morning. I have delusions of packing now and getting up in four hours for a visit to Tokyo's fish market for killer sushi and some tuna-auction viewing. More likely that I will pack now and skip Tsukiji, but I'll leave the curtains open just in case the daylight inspires me. Now how the heck am I going to fit all this omiyage into my suitcases?

The Torture Chamber (but we like it like that)

[caption id="attachment_707" align="alignnone" width="222" caption="Looking in at the Yonamine dojo, Okinawa City, Okinawa"]Looking in at the Yonamine dojo, Okinawa City, Okinawa[/caption] Most sane people who write about martial arts understand the inherent problems in talking about fighting systems. The most obvious challenge comes from attempting to translate the purely physical into words, but the more difficult one is based on describing the mindset. And don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with much on either of those. However, I would like to point out that when traveling to Okinawa for a heavily karate-based vacation, you create in your head certain expectations. There are characters from fiction that populate our stereotypes, such as The Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi, or Kill Bill's derivative Hattori Hanzo, and these stereotypes apply to the dojo we will be visiting, too. Most of the schools we've attended classes in have had formalized looks. Wood paneling, a shrine up front, weapons of limb destruction placed politely out of the way. A low-ceilinged shack up a hill is far from the reality of most Okinawan dojo, and yet we found ourselves Thursday night peering past the harsh yellow of the outdoor light into a room that was probably more suited to housing chickens than anything else. We were ecstatic. Homemade tools designed to improve muscle toughness hung neatly on the walls next to Okinawan farm tools turned by time into self-defense weapons. Machine parts and other found objects for building strength while doing forms shared equal space on the rack of implements as the more commonplace makiwara punching block sat idly nearby. The florescent lights cast a disconcertingly clinical glow on what was otherwise an organic approach. You came here not to study, but to grow. The most important tool we would encounter that night were the legs of the dojo owner, Mr. Yonamine, and his student Masako. In our system, we use a pattern of precisely-placed kicks and punches to condition muscles. Yonamine and Masako made sure that, whatever else our experiences with the other implements of his school were, we'd remember those leg-strength checking kicks that rattled our spinal columns long past when we returned home.

Come on up to the house, or: How I came back to Japan

[caption id="attachment_698" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="The final round of the Okikukai 2011 Kumite championship."][/caption] You can't go home again. Home again, home again, jiggity-jig. There's no place like home. Home sweet home. Home is where the heart is. Strangely, unexpectedly, and arranged only seconds before the last minute, I find myself in Japan yet again. It's not home, right? I lived here for a shade under three years, occupying four residences, three bicycles (at least, three that I owned,) and carving out my own little niche on the Web. Definitely not transience, perhaps something more like an extended stay, I can't imagine what my life would be like if I hadn't moved to Japan. And now for three weeks, I'm back. As some of you know, I've been studying an Okinawan style of karate called Uechi-ryu since my freshman year of college, and about 30 of us from around the world have come here to participate in a tournament, in a black belt test, and to participate in the 30th anniversary celebration of one school. After my friends leave, I'm heading up to the Japanese mainland for some relaxation that doesn't involve violence and funny pajamas. This is my first trip to Okinawa, and if it weren't for the karate I'd probably never come here. I'm not much of a fan of humidity or beaches, and would rather be surrounded by snow and howling winds and enjoying a fireplace if given the choice. Okinawa, of course, doesn't give a damn what you think. The people are friendly and far more gregarious than most Tokyoites I knew, with an unhurried pace to life that's appropriate for the soup-like climate. It appears that there are generally two kinds of foreigners on Okinawa. The first comes courtesy the United States military, providing a titanium backbone to Okinawa's economy but bringing with him a history that could hardly be described as smooth. Local land use debates about the military bases on the Ryukyu Islands, the occasional case of sexual violence and rape, and World War II are not exactly the best prescriptions for international bonhomie. A quick trip to Google indicates that around 70 percent of Japan's miniscule alien resident population resides in Okinawa. So I find myself in a place I've never visited, helping my karate friends get around with my obscenely mediocre Japanese speaking ability. The Okinawans are invariably kind about my inability to communicate in any kind of rational way. I suspect that, and rightfully so, they humor my wild gesticulations and verbal flailings as they do a poorly scripted but earnest variety show. In a Frankensteinian pairing of deja vu and jamais vu, I find myself doing things that I know I've done before, seeing sights I know I've seen before, but of course these are completely new to me. Like an aggressive vine, the creep of nostalgia for a place that I'm very close to seeps through the cracks in my memory. Of course I've never eaten at that ramen shop, but it smells so much like this other I used to go to all the time. Rinse, lather, and repeat with conbinis, the lights crowd on the streets of Naha, rainstorms, and taxi cabs. The taxi cab drivers here are hilarious, and possibly worth a full post just about them. A group of us were taking a cab to a dojo the other night, and one of my friends says he'll buy my first beer of the evening if I ask the cab driver if he's a karate master. So, I politely ask the driver if he's ever done karate: Yes. We study Uechi-ryu, I tell him. Has he heard of it? Oh yes, he says. Not only has he heard of it - and let's face it, Uechi-ryu is a fairly obscure form of karate - the cab driver is a fifth-degree black belt who studied Goju-ryu, a sister style to Uechi. Another cab driver has studied with our Takamiyagi-sensei. The stereotype might be that everybody in Japan knows karate, but I'm beginning to wonder if, at least in Okinawa, it's based on a kernel of truth. Taking care of business: As you may have noticed, I've posted this to the blog that I originally created for traveling the world. I plan on merging my old Japan blog with this one, to create a single unified place to talk about my travels. Also, if you'd like to subscribe (or unsubscribe) to my e-mail list, that's available in the upper right corner of the blog. I also notify Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus about updates.

Goodbye, Mr. Rogers

I don't have much to say on the passing of Mr. Rogers, he who made up a large chunk of my formative TV watching years, along with Sesame Street. Thank God Barney or Wee Sing didn't exist back then. There's a feeling that something should be said, some little rememberence for a guy who, more or less, tried to be a mensch. There is good in the world, it just talks softly and hopes you can hear it. But there's just not much to say. And my nonexistant memories of Mr. Rogers have been forever tainted by an anecdote a friend told me, when he ran into Mr. Rogers in a Pennsylvania store. The kind-hearted personification of politeness got to the register, realized he forgot his wallet, and exclaimed, "Shit!" No, nothing is sacred.

The worst book in America

Before today, The Washington Post had never made me cry from laughing hard.

I like sushi

Okay, you're thinking, who doesn't like sushi? (Well, back in the States I can think of a few people, and I've met one Japanese person who doesn't like it, but I digress...) The other day I was working overtime, in what my Aussie co-workers call a "mad dash for cash." Those wacky Aussies: they like abbreviations, they like rhymes. Some of them like sushi. Anyway, I was on a mad dash for cash Tuesday, and was working overtime in a school just outside the borders of Tokyo. Nice area, wealthy, with all sorts of shops, from clothing to food - not just ghetto ramen and Mickey D's. There are questions that students who have never met a teacher before are inclined to ask: Where are you from? Where did you live before Japan? Where do you live now? What was your job before Japan? As you might imagine, these sentences are usually not spoken in the most clear or even comprehensible English. It gets boring answering the same questions eight times a day, so I've come up with varying responses to these questions, all truthful. When I get asked why I cam to Japan, I often say, "I came to Japan for the sushi." So, conversations with students generally take one of several set paths. These routes are kind of like commuting. You see the same road signs, the same stop lights, and often the same people get on and off the vehicle at the same points. Without fail, students pick up on the fact that I like sushi, and just about every other Japanese cuisine. Except natto - that stuff's just gross. Fermented grapes I can handle. Fermented soybeans - having tried them - uh uh. No way. Right. So, this one student, a kind old man three years from his retirement with dreams of visiting the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, just ignores the roadsigns. You ignore roadsigns, at worst you find yourself getting rescued by the Jaws of Life. At best, you find yourself in someplace ridiculous like Yreka or New Hampshire. This one conversation wound up in the Japanese-gaijin conversational equivalent of New Hampshire. He thought I meant that I wanted to become a sushi chef. Being a sushi chef would be a fine occupation, but I'm not much of one for taking orders. The poor guy had such bad hearing, and such a finite English vocabulary, that I just agreed with him. Yes, I said, I'm here to become a sushi chef. Oh, he replied. Which restaurant do you want to work at? Dai Sushi in Tsukiji, I said, naming a place I've heard only good things about. Good sushi there, he said. And so we continued for nearly 40 minutes, talking about his dreams of visiting the National Parks in the U.S. and mine of becoming a sushi chef. He didn't ask why I was teaching English, though.

A lonely Jew

It's not easy right now to be an American Jew and politically active, or at least politically aware. On the one hand, you've got morally and ethically complacent twits from the left assuming that Jews have subverted the administration of the Insane Chimp, and that we're the only reason America has become involved in the campaign against Iraq. The other five fingers are holding up a steaming ball of political poo, as well. How do we reconcile our liberal/progressive past with the fact that Israel's leader is a socially and fiscally conservative war mongering politician, in the worst sense of the word? Only now, when faced with Israel's political destruction in the U.N., does he consider ever-so-slightly the concept that maybe, just maybe, some of the West Bank settlements aren't worth fighting for. How do you balance, the modern left-leaning American Jew asks, the survival of Israel and the eradication of anti-Semitism with the generally anti-war stance we have taken since Vietnam? The answer I think lies in the importance of refusing to be pigeon-holed - as a people, and as individuals. Dubya claims his policy has been pro-Israel, but it seems to me he's been ignoring the whole Middle East situation rather than a staunch supporter of Israel. He has less interest in the survival of Israel than he does in winning over the "Jewish" vote. As we used to say in elementary school, what a renob. What I'd like to see in the States is a large group of granola-eating, tree-hugging politically savvy Jews from sextagenarian Diane Feinstein down to my teenage sister and her pre-pubescent cousins holding up signs saying, "Anti-War and Pro-Israel." I also like to visualize world peace in my spare time. Sigh.

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