Sunday, December 31, 2006

Warding off evil spirits

You can lay out some salt. Or you could bathe yourself in holy smoke. Or sip the holy water. Also, you can buy an arrow.

In every store window is the comical cat figure, waving one mechanical paw at you, blessing you and bringing good luck your way.

Eating the yummiest sautéed squid at midnight, with sashimi salad, and rice, I watched the New Year arrive on the Japanese public television station, NHK. Unfortunately, I could not understand a word they said (except for arrigato, domo, moshi moshi, go chi so sama, hai, konichiwa, etc.)

Mainly, it was a song and dance extravaganza with many of the country's top performers on hand, and elaborate costumes arrayed in an elaborate choreography. An almost impossibly beautiful actress seemed to be the main host -- tall, slender, long black hair, perfect shaped face with a warm smile and sparkling black eyes.

The longer I am here, the more people I meet and questions I ask, the more concerned I become for the future of the Japanese. Today, Tokyo is Asia's greatest city, and the Japanese economy is humming along all right, though the rapid expansions of Korea and China make Japan look like it is moving in comparative slow motion.

But Japan's tremendous asset, which is the Japanese people themselves, is also its greatest problem. The homogeneity of the people is awe-inspiring. As one Japanese woman told me, "Look at us, we all look more or less the same. Of course some are taller or some are smaller and so on. But basically we all look very much like each other. And we think and act like each other too."

The population of Japan does seem to behave almost like one giant organism. What dissent there may be from social mores seems to rarely be expressed in public. As I've noted, even the notorious gangsters, the Yakuza, are invariably polite and modest toward others.

Everyone bows and thanks each other for almost any interaction that occurs. Just going to the restroom in a restaurant invariably involves the attempt to allow someone else to go in first; or upon exiting, to bow and excuse oneself to another who may have been patiently waiting outside the door.

Because Japanese will not speak to strangers, nor look anyone in the eye, they actually have a hard time meeting one another. There are definitely ways for people to flirt, for example, but it's hard to imagine a culture more distant from the open flirtatiousness of Brazilians, say, than the Japanese.

Only 1.5% of the population is non-Japanese; most of them Chinese or Korean. The Japanese do not always regard these groups favorably. They are included as gaijin (foreigner), along with Europeans, Africans, and Middle Easterners, etc.

Most of the Chinese flocking to Japan are students, and see a potential opportunity to graduate and then create careers here. It is somewhat comical to see how the Chinese and Japanese regard each other. The one is viewed as overly loud, pragmatic, self-assured; while the other in seen as too deferential, modest, and exceedingly quiet. It's not hard to see why they don't get along so well.

Although Americans seem to be the best-liked gaijin here, many Japanese do notice that American tourists tend to be large, loud, somewhat self-absorbed people. However, when interacting with Americans, the Japanese are so warm and polite and accommodating, most of us probably do not intuit any critical feelings whatsoever.

There is a strong undercurrent of discontent with U.S. policies, however. The Bush administration's extremely unpopular wars cause a lot of grumbling, especialy among Japanese men.

One of the main problems for the Japanese is that they are not reproducing themselves at high enough rates to sustain their aging population. Unlike the U.S., Japan has not opened its borders to the waves of immigrants who could revitalize the economy, and provide a domestic workforce to replace the dwindling number of Japanese of working age.

Another issue is how to foster more entrepreneurial activity here. A small but influential group of the country's top entrepreneurs still choose to leave for the friendlier environs of Silicon Valley, where they much more easily can make fortunes and explore promising technologies.

(Interestingly, Japan does not really have much of a "super rich" class like America tolerates. It is not seemly to become grandiose and pretentious. Wealthier Japanese often get involved in socially responsible causes -- much like Americans -- but they do so quietly, not seeking notice or credit for this work.)

Their powerfully ingrained sense of collectivity helps them recognize global warming and other planetary issues without the political noise of a greedy oil and gas industry, or the politicians who suck up to it. They consume far less of everything (except seafood) than Americans; they recycle everything, and they never litter!

Tokyo, though ancient and sprawling, is by far the cleanest city I have ever visited. Dog-owners have long cleaned up after their pets, and they don't need regulations or signs or racks of plastic bags on fences to do so. They carry their empty water bottles until they find the proper dispenser. They clean up their own tables in restaurants. Their large army of janitors incessantly sweep up and discard any small crumbs or pieces of material that escape an ever-vigilant citizenry protecting the commons as if it were their common home, which of course it is.

I could never produce a website like Sidewalk Images here!

To try and be more explicit about my fears for Japan, how will they adapt to a globalized world, one where nationalities are rapidly losing power to the emergence of a new global society. The revolution in communications technology has been partly led by the Japanese. They all have cell phones, and almost everyone seems to be text messaging, photographing, or dialing one another constantly.

But it is essentially a conversation with oneself that Japan is engaged in. They are not talking enough to the rest of us!

Make no mistake about it, I love this country and these people. I think we Americans could learn so many valuable lessons by studying Japanese behavior and comportment. Here more than anywhere else on earth, I feel my strong loyalty to environmentalism, to healthy eating and living, to a quiet spiritualism inside my own soul, interlocking with all others.

To be Japanese is to feel connected to all life. There is no cruelty to animals here. (Many men carry dogs around in cozy little frontpacks, and they very cute together.) There is virtually no waste in this society. On the other hand, there is a terrible rate of alcoholism and cigarette smoking. But drug use is relatively rare, as is the violent crime rate, and disruptions of the orderly business of living quietly on the earth are rare.

I'm not unaware of Japanese history, and how rapidly they can be transformed into the fearsome wave of killers who raped Nanking, and demolished Pearl Harbor. As I have said, the kamikazes were the first international terrorists. So there are as many bad things to say about the Japanese as good things -- as is the case with every culture on earth.

I just wonder what this country and what these people will be like in 50 years. It seems possible that more tiny attempts here to document my visit may read like ancient history by then of a placid land before the Global Storm.

On behalf of the Japanese, I fear no amount of salt, holy smoke or water, arrows, shrines, or mechanical cats waving one paw can ward off the arrival of an unanticipated future.


Akemashite Omedeto!*


Sensoji Temple

Philip Stark's rendition of beer foam graces the top of Asahi Beer's building. The locals call it the "Poop Building."

Pachinko Entrer


Fish in window



I tried to include a shot of me with my new friend, Tanuki, a drunken raccoon who graces the front of many a pub throughout Japan. But when I try to upload the image of Tanuki and me, we appear sideways, which in his case (since he is a drunk) makes sense. But when I ask my Japanese friends why Tanuki is a beloved fairy tale character, they say, "Your society just has to be around for a few more centuries, then you will understand why a drunken raccoon is a loveable character to us."

Anyway, since that photo upload failed, I leave you with this, as the year 2006 deserts us here in Japan, roughly an hour from now. That will still be 14 hours before the ball drops in Times Square. But here, there, or wherever I may be, as those who have known me the longest understand, there is one vegetable that is my eternal favorite. I have to admit I've never seen fatter ones than here, in the land of slender people.

Even though this too loads sideways, let that be my way of slipping into 2007! May yours be blessed with happiness, love, riches, good health, and exciting new developments!

(Mine will!)


* (Happy New Year!)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Happy New Year from Japan

This country celebrates the Western New Year, not the Chinese Spring Festival. This weekend, here in Tokyo, everyone is out and about, having a good time. Tonight I had the most delicious Beijing Duck in a Chinese restaurant that remains open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

People still smoke inside restaurants in Tokyo. And this has to be the city with the most bars per capita of any in the world. I always thought San Francisco could claim that prize, but only, as it turns out, inside the continental U.S.

Here, people drink like there is no tomorrow. Even when drunk, however, they bow and offer others the chance to go into or out of an elevator, for instance, with respect and kindness. I have not yet seen a fight in Japan. The people do not seem to get angry when they drink; rather they get happy.

Tonight I saw the Clint Eastwood/Steven Spielberg film about Iwo Jima (the Japanese version, with English subtitles.) It was deeply moving to watch this among the Japanese. Many people cried.

I wish these two wonderful cultures -- Japanese and American -- could find a middle ground. We are not respectful enough. They are not independent enough. Together, we should make a perfect fit.

Akemashite omedeto!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Walking in Golden-gai

Shinjuku Station is so crowded! And immediately, on this blustery Friday night, I notice a transformation in the daytime crowd.

Then, they were all bustling about, eyes downcast, expressions serious, with few words spoken.

Now, after dark, they are traveling in clusters, smiling and laughing. Most are dressed expensively, stylishly.

One of the current controversies in Japan is over whether/how the national pastime, Sumo wrestling, could/should be extended to allow women to participate. As with everything involving gender politics here, it is complicated. The main issue, as I can make it out, is what kind of uniform the female wrestlers could wear. Obviously the sort of thong bikini thingies the men wear is not appropriate.

The women would need an entirely different costume. But Sumo is an ancient tradition, like Geisha, and there simply is no precedent for how to incorporate women into the sport, at least not yet.

My impression is that the Japanese will eventually figure this out, but not until the entire nation has contemplated it for enough time to have puzzled their way to a collective decision.

Of course, in Japan, nobody really makes personal decisions, as we do in the West. Here, the interlocking sets of responsibilities toward one another need to be taken into account before any substantive decision can be taken.

Only this cultural factor can explain how such a peaceful, gentle, even docile people could be whipped up into an imperialist frenzy, yielding the earliest terrorists (kamikazes) willing to crash their planes into U.S. targets -- a tactic never seen before in war.

My ten-year-old will be happy to know that the newest U.S. brand to penetrate the giant Tokyo market is his favorite donut company. It was fascinating to see hundreds of young, slender people standing in line in the cold night air over Shinjuku near Kabukicho to taste these delicacies. I bet the majority of Krispy Kreme's sales here will be one donut at a time.

In fact, I bet the girls will split a donut! I don't think they like to eat anything, let alone something so sweet, in as large a portion as a typical Krispy Kreme donut.

Into a huge bookstore, I had one of those experiences that people claim only happen to me. Everyone was bent over, treading ever so delicately, near the entrance to the store. A contact lens must have been lost. I joined the hunt, the only foreigner to do so. While the Japanese were performing a sort of delicate ballet in slow motion, first raising one leg, then the other, as they awkwardly navigated the area, I squatted down to see it all from a different angle.

Immediately, the lost lens materialized to my sight. Everyone broke into a loud state of excitement, bowing and thanking me over and over. Arrigato! Arrigato! Arrigato! I imagine they were passing the story down the line: "Did you see that? The foreigner found the missing contact lens. How extraordinary!"

I hope so at least; it would be nice to give them a happy story.

Finally, I have reached my true destination: the main red-light district of Tokyo. Giant posters reach into the sky flashing faces of the consorts within each establishment. Lovely female faces, hundreds of them.

But what's this? Here is a section identical to the last one but all of the faces are of gorgeous young men. Is this the gay section? No, I am assured, wealthy Japanese women visit these places to spend time with lovely young men.

(There also is a gay red-light district nearby, but I don't get to see it this night.)

In Japan, sex is something that it is said often happens outside of marriage. Once a couple has produced a child or two, many of them may stop having sex. If a married man after a certain age discovers his wife is once again pregnant, he will act as if he is terribly embarrassed, even if privately he is happy, and loves his wife and loves sleeping with her still.

Maybe this is because he does not wish to present himself as sexually unavailable when there are so many attractive women around. He may wish to be seen as not sleeping with his wife, but instead as consorting with a mistress, even if it is not true.

I cannot help but wonder, though, whether modern Japanese, like modern Chinese, and Vietnamese, and all Asians, may not be hungering for relationships more like the idealized (and virtually unattainable) Western marriage model. When I see Japanese men with children, for example, they are invariably gentle and loving, extremely attentive.

Yet, according to statistics I have seen, Japanese men spend less than half as much time with their kids as American men. (The top Dads in terms of time spent, according to the study, were Canadians.)

One last observation about the red-light district. I'm not entirely sure the local people come down here to actually have sex all that often. The foreigners do, of course. Many men come to Japan explicitly for this purpose and the Japanese brothels accommodate them. But maybe the Japanese themselves are more interested in engaging in elaborate pre-mating rituals.

They like to purchase time with a beautiful, refined young person. Many of these girls are college-educated and capable of conducting a sophisticated conversation on world affairs. After a long work week, some salary man spends their wages here, drinking and talking late into the night with beautiful young women.

Sometimes, if he pays even more, they may have sex. Other times, he may simply fall in love with one of these girls, and come back to drink and talk with her again and again, only rarely or never actually crossing over into actual sexual relations. It is an extended opportunity to flirt for a people who cannot ever do that openly outside of this district.

It is simply considered too rude even to look at another person suggestively. Men do not turn their heads to watch a woman walk by, they don't look them up and down, they do not whistle or make rude gestures or comments.

Instead, all is sublimated into a modern-day version of the ancient art of the Geisha.

Of course, all of the above is only speculation, and I certainly do not wish to imply that all Japanese men like the hostess bars. In the end, it is a game only the rich can play. You can easily drop thousands of dollars down here if you are not careful.


Very nearby this district is a magical discovery: Golden-gai. This nexus of five impossibly narrow alleys features 250 tiny bars, each of which can accommodate perhaps 8 people, max. The bars have hand painted signs, and just like the brothels, photos of the kinds of people who can be found inside.

So, there are pubs for musicians, for writers, for artists, for every kind of citizen or visitor. Some of the famous come down here to their favorite pubs, where the bartender and the locals all receive them warmly. There are drawings made by artists pinned over the bar -- gifts to the host.

He doesn't consider it as an object of potential value -- as something to sell on eBay for instance, but as a private token of the artist's respect. In these establishments, the bartender takes your order, and then cooks you a small meal. He tells you the history of the area, how in the 50s when an official crackdown on the brothels led by a feminist politician missed the private clubs that continued to flourish in Golden-gai, much like Speakeasies during American Prohibition. I'm unclear when exactly the little pubs took their place, but apparently there are no longer brothels in Golden-gai, just bars.

For 50 years, this magical little district where there are no motor vehicles, only foot traffic or bicycles, has offered safe harbor to Japanese of all ages and stations of life.

These are, truly, for many men, their "living rooms."

p.s. One word of warning for foreigners who may wish to visit Golden-gai. If you get easily offended by a system where are no set prices, stay away. The host, when sizing you up, may choose to do as mine did, and overcharge you by ten percent or so. This is fine with me, but may not work for you.

Art in the Mountains

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Seaweed and Sashimi


It is sobering to think that the great Kawabata sat here nearly a century ago. The innkeeper says he preferred the room furthest from the river, because the sound of rushing water distracted him. He had very large dreamy eyes. He started writing at midnight, with a pen, sitting crosslegged at one of these ancient wooden tables, under the hanging lamp, his bamboo shade open to the night garden of second floor roof.

When he was finished he would place the manuscript outside his door, and retreat to his futon for sleep. His editors would come by each morning to collect his work, never speaking to him. Meanwhile, he slept through the day, visited the hot baths that make this region famous, and took his meals, as I am, in his room.

Later on, when his books reached readers throughout Japan and beyond, he had seen enough of this world, so he committed suicide.

The Japanese eat seaweeds of many varieties at all of their meals. They believe seaweed is good for your hair, and who is to doubt it, as they all have beautiful hair. Like the Chinese, they eat certain foods that keep their skin soft, but I am not sure which ones yet.

Personally, I think if you sit in a sauna every day, and then dry your entire body by rubbing it with a tiny washcloth-sized towel, that probably does wonders for your skin. Something in these hot waters flowing out of the rocks beneath that magnificent volcano, Fuji, restores your skin. Of that I am sure. I came with dry and flaking skin and now I feel almost as nice as a Japanese woman!

Almost being the operative word there.

I love eating in this country. My appetites change, I no longer desire big pieces of meat or potatos, my Midwestern heritage. Instead, I yearn for pickeled cabbage, raw squid, wasabe, soba, miso and -- yes -- seaweed. I love seaweed.

Even my ancient hair feels young again here. And sipping greeen tea as Kawabata once did is to commune with the gods.

His books grace my shelves back home. Here, I can embrace his spirit, and glimpse something of what he saw through those enormous, sensitive eyes, so many years ago.

ake mashiti omede to

Half Moon Over Koenji

If I were a memoir teacher seeking work here, I might starve to death. The idea that one has his or her own unique life story is alien. The Japanese move in unison. They are, compared to Europeans, small, modest, polite, considerate, and never rude. Even the smallest gesture, such as staring at a foreigner for one second, would be considered rude.

But they must watch one another, though I can rarely catch them at it. The women here favor designer jeans and black jackets, or tiny skirts or wool shorts over sheer tights. They wear boots, heels or (in a few cases) high top Converse tennis shoes. So they show a lot of leg, which you would think would cause at least an occasional head to turn.

But no! I'm not sure, but I think they have must have a highly developed skill of employing peripheral vision, utilizing reflections in windows and scanning each other as they feign interest in the items on display all around these crowded alleyways. How else do they gather the information about each other they must so desperately seek?

Rarely do strangers speak to one another. In traffic, horns never honk. If someone should stumble, everyone catches his or her breath until he regains his step. He blushes, smiles awkwardly, and makes a motion with both hands that indicates he has regained his stability, that there is no reason for concern.

This is a society that worships little girls, which is fine, but as they become teenagers, it becomes problematic. I managed to walk through the Koengi red light district last night. It is immediately apparent: tall, garish signs of every color advertising each club's unique qualities and what appear to be Polaroid photos of the actual girls within. One club advertises girls dressed up as nurses; another presents "school girls," in their pleated miniskirts. Yet another features policewomen; hmmm, this would go over well in San Francisco.

The girls in the photos all look to be about 14. Now, my friends tell me you can as a rule of thumb subtract 5 years from any female's age in order to discover her age here, so I will assume these prostitutes are more like 19.

But still, this open trade in the comforts of human flesh raises questions about Japanese society, though no more than it does in our own, since the world's oldest profession thrives all over the U.S. as well, of course. In this tiny neighborhood red-light district, those on the street are mainly men and most are drunk, weaving slightly, or standing in clusters, openly drinking beer from cans.

Now and again, the Yakuza make an appearance. These are the mobsters who control the prostitution rings, the drug trade, gambling, and other illicit businesses in Japan. You can easily recognize them because they are big, scary men in black who travel in a pack, conveying to everyone in the area that the bosses have arrived.

Oddly, however, they are much more Japanese than mobster. Thus, they are extremely polite and modest individuals, prone to bowing and speaking politely if addressed. They love ceremonies and often gather for special meals in local restaurants. But they come and go in a respectful manner, not wishing to disturb the neighbors.

Art in the Mountains

Hakone and her Mountains

Japan is like a painting in the following way. An artist arranges the elements, just so, and tries to bring out beauty from the shadows. The Japanese landscape somehow naturally arranges itself into a series of sensuous hills, green terraced rice fields, and wide rushing rivers filled with rounded stones of many colors.

As you ride in the sweetly named Romance Car out of Tokyo southwest to the mountains above Hakone, the air turns colder and wetter, and the stomach begins anticipating the area's dried fish and fish cakes; the rest of one's body is aching for the area's legendary hot springs. One's eyes will long for parquetry, the uniquely constructed wood patterning work done here that my father would have appreciated.

This district has long been a weekend retreat for Tokyo's large population. For over 100 years, ryokan, the small traditional Japanese inns, have hosted travelers.

Here, you can just look around and see tiny maple leaves still hanging on to their branches, denying winter’s arrival; or, once they fall, ever so delicately complicating the rock paths that serve as sidewalks in this ancient tourist crossroads.

This is a place the Japanese come to have fun, including illicit fun. So, if you look carefully at the couples who arrive here (which locals do), you may spot powerful politicians and wealthy businessmen with their mistresses, but, of course, given this is Japan, nobody ever speaks, nothing is revealed, and no price is ever paid, except, of course, that of the cheating heart.

Further up the mountain from Hakone, you ride on a train that has to switchback its way up the steep cliff. The recorder voice piped throughout the train explains this is second-steepest mountain scaled by any train in the world.

I wish my photos could do it justice. But they cannot. Next, I promise to take you on a visual tour of one of the world's greatest open-air sculpture museums.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Tokyo Morning

It was a tremendous downpour that soaked the city as I arrived, and through most of the night. In the middle of the night, I awoke to light flashes over the city sky. Then, counting the seconds until the terrific booms of thunder, I could trace the storm's trailing edge, as it departed the city and traveled further inland, over this craggy, mountainous series of islands.

There are so many Japanese here! Hai! Tokyo has such a magnificent system of interconnecting railroads that most residents have no need for a car. If they have one, it is mainly for weekend use, and must be stored in a tiny parking place here or there for maybe $300-400US per month.

Therefore all, or much of life, is visible on the train. Only the older of the businessmen are able to be heading home at rush hour, just as I am traversing the city from Narita through Chiba to the brightly lit Shinjuku-ku, center of Tokyo nightlife. One more transfer over to Koenji, where I am staying some of the time here.

Tokyo is a city built around the main stations of the train systems ("Skyliner," and "JR," etc.) Life in the surrounding districts proceeds outward in concentric circles of apartments, shops, theatres, tiny bars, and so many small, cozy restaurants as to render home-cooking distinctly optional for employed persons. There is hardly any auto traffic in the inner circles of these tightly clustered neighborhoods.

Every district has a different flavor, but I do not know Tokyo at all well enough to describe these as yet. In this way, however, it reminds me of two other familiar places -- Paris, and Washington, D.C., the latter, of course, designed by a Frenchman.

As far as I know, the Japanese came up with this concept of circular cities within a grand city quite independent of the French, but the effect is similar. Think of Dupont Circle in D.C. and you'll picture what I mean.

Another interesting factor is that as they bisect these districts, the train lines themselves have developed distinct cultural nuances, favoring certain types of residents, restaurants, and shops. The line I ride to get here is one favored by artists, actors and writers. (Think "red line" on the Metro, or the subways that rumble to Prospect Park from Manhattan.)

Foreign investors, like Starbucks or KFC, first need to grasp these cultural nuances, of course, and the demographics that embrace and define them, in order to optimize their investments. American consumer brands, including McDonald's, have enthusiastically embraced by the Japanese, and tend to be very successful here.

Colonel Sanders himself was said to favor Japanese KFCs over all others (including Kentucky's) and the locals here hypothesize that it is because Japanese franchisees follow Colonel's formula so precisely and unerringly that one can be assured of a perfectly produced KFC meal, matching the original specifications without deviation, throughout Japan.

There are so many young women and men on the trains at rush hour and later. Like youth everywhere, they are always on the move. Japanese young people in the cities are especially stylish, from expensive torn jeans with designer labels on their butts, to sexy skirts and boots. The girls often link arms and sway together on the trains, giggling into each other's ears.

Fewer young men are about at this hour, because, as I said, this is the time when only the older executives who wish to go home, do so. By contrast, the stereotypical Japanese salary man may be in his 30s or 40s and holding down a middle-management position. These men work themselves almost literally to death. And, although they may have a wife and a child at home, when their workday finally ends later in the night, they often choose to go to bars and clubs to unwind.

There are certain clubs, I forget their name, where young female escorts await this clientele, serving them drinks, giving them companionship and conversation. The women serve as virtual dates for these hard-working salary men as they decompress from their stressful days. The drinking can go on for many hours, and if you are about in the wee hours of the night in Tokyo, you can see many men, drunkenly reeling on street corners, flagging a taxi for the ride home.

It is said that, for an extra fee, a man can purchase the affections of some of these young, flirtatious escorts after hours. This is, of course, by another name, prostitution, though distinct in type from that on display in the infamous Red Light District at Shinjuku-ku, which I hope to visit (in a strictly professional capacity as a journalist -- hai) in order to compare to the similar parts of Amsterdam and Paris, both of which alternatively sickened, fascinated, and saddened me.

The world's oldest profession, as an exchange of services for cash, strips sex of all romance, and therefore has never held even the slightest glimmer of attraction to me, as a male. Though I may be interested in female prostitutes as chaaracters for my novel, what I always desire for myself is more complex -- romance.

These tightly woven little neighborhoods strike me as nice places for a Romantic to live. The sounds and lights are stimulating at all hours of night and day. A foreign writer like me can easily rent a room or apartment on a weekly basis, set up a computer connection or visit a wireless cafe, and write happily for hours, drinking coffee, and eating the incomparable ramen, not the frozen Chinese variety, but a rich, spicy dish of noodles served pipingly hot in pork or chicken broth -- or vegetarian, if you prefer.

Soba places also abound. You can find somewhat more authentic soba in New York, Seattle and San Francisco than ramen places.

One never need step inside a car here, all needs are satisfied on foot or via a train ride. At night, if you wish, the tiny local bars accommodate perhaps ten patrons each, serving Japanese beers, sakes, and whisky.

Walking through the winding alleyways, I find my eyes seeking out English, naturally, as I can read no Japanese whatsoever. One sign is "Hot Hands" and pictures a young man and a young woman. This is a professional massage business, non-sexual, although it is said that for an extra fee, additional services may be procured. Again, this has a name, but I find it remarkable how unconcerned the typical Japanese person seems to be what in the Christian U.S. are considered the "sin crimes."

For instance, cigarettes are sold in the arcades in machines. There is little way to regulate underage smoking, which is frowned upon, but only in symbolic ways. What I mean by this is that during the daylight hours, teenagers cannot easily purchase smokes at this vending machines, because they are still wearing their school uniforms, and some adult will spot them, and come to shoo them away, shaming them.

At night, however, wearing their sexy clothes, makeup, and hats, the youth masquerade as adults, and many of them pursue their smoking habits by making after-hour purchases. This must be a source of tremendous upside market developments for the many American brands on display here. I have not done any solid research, but much like the Catholic Church, the tobacco industry's philosophy has always been to "get them when they are young."

I'm curious about the marketing campaigns these companies use here, whether the scandalous "Joe Camel" images, which originally targeted American youths, have proved effective here as well. Of, if, as I suspect, smoking is mainly sold for its supposed sex appeal. (Personally, I find tobacco breath offensive, but maybe that's only me. And it breaks my heart to see a beautiful young woman smoking; or a middle-aged man, hollow-eyed and hollow-chested, tied to his fag as to a ball and chain.)

One thing that has accelerated here since the early 80s, I believe, is female drinking. It was at least my impression at that time that while women shared beers and sake with men in the bars, that they rarely became as openly inebriated. But today, I am told, if you travel late at night, you can see so many young women passed out or sick on the trains or street corners.

Since most other people out at those hours are older men, it is said that many of these choose to act in a gentlemanly way, and help these inebriated young women get safely home.

That job is often left to taxi drivers, however, almost all of who in Japan also are men.

They say that drunken young women are the worst customers, because it is forbidden to touch them at any time, thus they cannot do as they do with drunken men, i.e., grab them by the shoulders and shake them awake.

The image of dozens of taxi drivers, helplessly yelling and waving their arms at the oblivious young women safely passed out in their backseats, their sexy tops and miniskirts awry, their makeup smudged, their long black hair spread like a wreath, all over Tokyo is somehow, I don't know, so Japanese!


Rainy Tokyo Nights

Back for my third visit to Japan but first in 20 years. It is pouring here tonight (Tuesday) even as Christmas night is ending back in San Francisco. The district where I stay, Koenji, is an old neighborhood criss-crossed with narrow brick alleyways and covered arcades, shotengai, filled with brightly lit shops open late at night. Lots of little restaurants and shops and book stores. Of course, the signiature KFC is here also, with one of the genuine Colonel Sanders statues out front. These are extremely popular in Japan, where the menu includes teriyaki chicken. A sports tradition has come to be involving throwing the Colonel into the river after a victory (or a loss). He's then retrieved, dried off, and placed back in front the franchise outlet from which he was pinched. His expression never changes.

Tokyo is a huge city where no one locks up their bicycles. People don't steal bicycles very often here and when they do, they often return them.

I'm so sleepy after my long flight, I'll close for now, and soon sleep to the sounds of rain outside the window.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Peace on Earth, War on Earth

Even as a child, I had some major issues with the Christmas story. Maybe my mind was too literal, too scientific, or too skeptical. But the idea of angels and Holy Ghosts never much resonated with me. Of course, once I became experienced as a writer, and therefore dependent on metaphors, some of this started to make a lot more sense to me. And, over the years, there have been times that I sensed an advantage for Christian children, as compared with those in Jewish or non-believer families, and it is just this: Believing in magic.

Selma Fraiberg's wonderful book, The Magic Years, partially captures what I am talking about. The only chance any of us truly has to give magical influences any real chance in this world is when we are very young.

Or, later on, when we fall in love.

Tonight, I spent some time with a friend who, like me, is divorced, still getting over it, and world-traveled. She noted that many of the people she knew in India -- men and women -- seemed far happier in their arranged marriages than any Americans she knows.

When I thought about it, that is a similar impression I have from my travels around the world. Happiness, the pursuit of which is enshrined in our Constitution, along with life and liberty, is not one of the most apparent characteristics of modern day American culture.

My friend is a lawyer; she works really hard and we almost never get to hang out together. At a party she threw recently, I noticed one guest -- a tall, handsome man -- who stood out from the crowd. I didn't meet him but I remembered him so I asked her about him. That man is her ex-husband.

It interests me at my stage of life, as an older person, what and whom I notice and why. I almost always seem to sense the connections between people. Mostly now I feel sympathy toward all of us.

We all need pretty much the same things -- friendship, intimacy, connection, trust, safety, enough resources -- but most of us have trouble asking each other for help. "Asking for help is the most radical thing you can do."

This Christmas Eve, I wish you and yours a sense of peace and acceptance. I am older than just about anyone who reads this blog. Peace will come to you, troubles will pass. Accept people with all of their limitations. No one is perfect or even close to perfect. We are all damaged goods. But, if you can see through our manifest flaws to the essence of what makes us unique human beings, you'll find out that at least one part of the Christmas story rings true and that's about angels.

There truly are angels in our world, and they are simply we, each one of us when we have the privilege of helping one another.

(The Holy Ghost is quite another matter. I honestly think Mary was a skilled storyteller, and that Joseph was a chump. So, Jesus was a bastard, but he lucked out in having a step-father who was a mensch.)

If only there were a real chance of peace on this tortured earth! If only Moslems and Jews and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists and everyone else could live in peace. As an agnostic, I really don't get what the rest of you are fighting about. Why do you need to be right?

Maybe you all are right, collectively. Did that ever occur to you? Read each other's holy books and notice the patterns, please. Then, stop blaming each other. Embrace. Bless one another.

Once that's done, let's all get working on helping those in our own cultures who need us the most. My five favorite grassroots groups in America are listed below. Please help them!

The People Who Need Our Help

1. Back Bay Mission is an interfaith effort working on recovery, homelessness, and affordable housing advocacy. This group, which has a long history (since 1922) of social justice work in and around Biloxi, helps the most vulnerable people that few others can seem to reach. There is a convenient online form for donations, or you can contact the organization at:

Back Bay Mission
1012 Division Street
Biloxi, MS 39530
Tel: (228) 432-0301
Fax: (228)374-2922

2. North Gulfport Community Land Trust
Rose Johnson

4803 Indiana Ave.
Gulfport, MS 39501
Tel: 228-863-3677

You can read more about this remarkable group and how it is trying to rebuild a once vibrant African American community in the wake of Hurrricane Katrina:

Mississippi Center for Justice
Katrina Recovery Office
974 Division Street
Biloxi, MS 39530-2960
Tel: (228) 435-7284
Fax: (228) 435-7285

The Center maintains a Katrina Victims Legal Relief Fund, that attends to both immediate and long term legal needs, including:

* A grandmother now caring for her grandchildren and needing legal guardianship
* Children who have special needs getting access to essential services in their new schools
* Insurance being denied because companies deem damages caused by flood not hurricane
* Families losing their homes because they can't access their bank accounts
* Veterans not getting their medical and other benefits
* Elderly homeowners being scammed by predatory lenders
* Families needing to file for bankruptcy protection
* Newly disabled individuals who need help getting SSI benefits
* Immigrant workers displaced from jobs at poultry plants and casino hotels

You can watch the Center's informational video at this link: MCJ Video

4. Moore Community House (childcare and family services)
P.O. Box 204
Biloxi, MS 39533-0204
Tel: (228) 669-4827

This local institution, which was damaged in Katrina, provides childcare and family services to people in Biloxi. Its website mentions that one donation of $2 arrived with a note, "I just wanted to help." The group answered: "We're so grateful for every gift -- together we'll rebuild East Biloxi."

5. Coastal Women for Change
336 Rodenburg Ave
Biloxi, MS 39531
Tel: (228)-297-4849

I've posted about this group several times, and their eloquent pleas for help for the poor in Biloxi. Please see: New Appeal From A Forgotten Coast and Plea From Biloxi for more details. The group makes it easy to donate online via PayPal.