Saturday, May 24, 2008

Food on TV - or - Oishi!

October, 2007

I used to think, before I came here, that Japanese TV was head and shoulders above American boob-tubery.

I've been a disciple of the exotic art of Anime ever since 4th or 5th grade, and I have to say its brilliant stuff that I always get excited to see. Except that there isn't really all that much of it on TV here. As a matter of fact, I was actually watching consierably more anime in American than I have in my time here, which probably stands more as testament to my own fanaticism than anything else.

At any rate, what they mostly have on TV here are shows where a number of celebrities eat various types of food and tell each other that its delicious. These shows are terrible and omnipresent and I hate them, by and large.

Not that I don't find the dishes interesting or savory looking, because Lord knows they do, and not that I get sick of seeing the braying stable of groomed talent sputter their inanties, because its rarely thatthat bad and always good Japanese practice.

What turns my stomach is that whatever a peson eats, whoever it is, whatever they are eating, they will taste it, pause for a beat, then exclaim "Delicious!" Invariably, in-fucking-variably.
Variety is clearly not the spice of life in Japan, because otherwise these dishes would not be edible.

What's more, a dish is never simply "Delicious". A person may, in fact, say so but they do their utmost to communicate that they are locked in raptures of joy by this morsel. They pause, go wide-eyed, fan their mouthes, beat the table, whoop and shout without any hint of irony.
The net effect is that it appears these celebrities are on a rocket ride straight to the moon, each and every new taste a previously undreamt of panorama of pleasure. If a celebrity were to eat something and say nothing at all it would be tanamount to direct insult.

One can see how this all got started, with simple, sincere expressions of appeciation (sometime in days long past), but under the unblinking eye of television things have become locked ino a terrifying politeness spiral, climbing ever upwards.

To actually express a lack of pleasure at some morsel, to say you didn't like the taste of something not already couched as outre, is unheard of and, possibly, undreamt.
Yes, a politeness spiral - locked resoultely in place and intransgressible save only by some, perhaps legendary, pesonality yet to come whose mighty charisma will allow him to speak his mind.

Until then, the most interesting part of these shows remains: How will the celebrities express the word "delicious" in a fresh new way this time, and thus avoid appearing non-plussed by whatever cream truffle they were given today. Any number of times I have expected to see someone choke on the spot, but I'll be damned if they don't always manage to pull it off.

There are an enomous number of ways to say "Delicious" in Japanese. I'm not here speaking of synonyms, of which there are surprisingly few - namely oishii for "nice tasting" and umai for "very good" - but of the vast, emphatic range the talent are capable of putting into the word. In fact, it seems to be a sort of prerequsite for the job. If you can't sell the food you're not going to be lasting very long in the celebrity bleachers.

Quiet frankly I'm impressed. I've always enjoyed the subtle shadings and inflections of language, as a conisseur might enjoy cheeses, and the sheer accomplishment of it all leaves me a bit agog. And I can't help but think that I would be amazing at it, if given a shot.

Of course I may never be so lucky, so I have produced some novel and effective ways to express your appreciation of the cuisine, beginning with humor and progressing from there, in the case that you ever become a recurring Japanese-TV celebrity.

For instance:
While seated in the big stadium type studio, sitting in front of some scrumpcious custard, quickly taste the treat then rise to your feet and start taking the puddings from the other celebrity talent in a humorous attempt to get it all for yourself. Make sure not to back down on this until you actually have all the custards. Threaten violence on any hold outs if necessary, jokingly at first then all too seriously. Return to your seat and devour the twenty custards in intense silence.

Inappropriate swearing is always a reliable go to. Into a suitable silence annouce loudly that, "This pie is going to make me shit my pants!"
After the gales of laughter pass, if at all possible, soil youself right then and there in your seat, in the middle of the studio, letting forth with a long, ecstatic cry as you do so.

If you happen to be in the stands when the guest is a female chef be sure to enjoy your meal, engaging jocularly with the other talent, before proposing marriage to the chef. As the laughter subsides, repeat the statement slowly and clearly, as if just realizing yourself that you are entirely serious. As you stand and walk slowly toward the chef, your eyes locked on her face, remove your existing wedding ring.
"Marry me," you will tell the woman, and again, earnestly, all pretense cast aside, "Marry me."
Hold up the old ring bemusedly and tell her that your marriage means nothing (repeat this word angrily) compared to these cheese sticks, then toss the ring to the ground without a second glance.
"Marry me," beg her, falling to your knees at her feet, "Marry me, please," plead, tears falling from your eyes.

At the nearest possible opportunity anull your marriage and follow up on the marriage proposals with all due force and speed by whatever means available. Keep this up until you either gain her hand in marriage, or sufficient restraining orders have been filed.

If you happen to marry this chef, or, failing on that one occasion any successive chef, be sure to have her on hand during another cooking show. After trying the tidbit leave the stage and drag out your new wife by her arm until you stand together, before the new chef and the cameras and angrily denounce your marriage for what it has suddenly become - a meaningless sham.

"I used to love you so much!" exclaim to your shaken wife, as you throw her to the ground and stand over her, weeping profusely. After this, turn to the current chef and proclaim the depth of your new found love for her or, if it is a man, both that and your suddenly discovered homosexuality.

Presuming that this new relationship does not promise to materialize, become crushed by dejection, seize a large plate or tray of food, and return to your seat. Weep and moan with abandon through the mouthfuls of food you shovel in unceasingly.

On some occasion you may be taken to a restraunt to enjoy your meal on the scene. Let us say you have just been served a delicious steak. Take a single bite, chew thoughtfully for a long moment, then in silence devour the rest. In a clear and calm voice call for the waitress and firmly make it clear you would like to see the chef, in person, right now. If the waitress quavers or hesitates at this demand lose it immediately. Explode into a sudden fury, scream your order with as much force as possible and pound the table with your balled fist, but do not rise from your seat.

The moment the chef approaches you spring from your seat and slam bodily into him, pinning him against the nearest wall with both arms. Be sure to leap up with nearly inhuman speed.
Once you have him securely pinned shout into his face from point-blank range in a proper frothing rage. Begin with a garbled shout of incoherent noise before demanding to know what god the man worships. Continue to demand this, shaking him as you do so, until he answers. At this point say, "I swear to f**king (god) that I will personally kill you, kill you and your whole f**king family if you ever stop making this meal. That is a f**king promise."
In the case that the chef does not believe in a diety you can try, "I swear to the monkeys in the f**king trees," or just adlib something suitably foul mouthed. Be sure to make proper eye contact to ensure he belives you. Reitereate the last bit about killing him with a good shake, then calm down a bit, daub your lips, and thank him for the meal.

Make sure to follow up on these threats if the chef ever disobeys you. Of course outright murder might end up putting you in prison and cutting short an otherwise successful career, so instead send a long series of highly publicized but untraceable death threats. The police won't be able to do a thing, but you, the chef, and your adoring public will know the real score.

Of course every successful career, such as yours, has to have an end point and what better time to pull out all the stops?

After taking a bite of your last meal in a fancy restaurant give a rascally glance at the camera and make some clever remark. Except that you choke on the words before you get them out, and fall silent. Pause a beat, then make another attempt. Fall silent again. The silence grows as you stare deeply, endlessly into your soul and the pits of your being. Then, with no warning, explode from your seat and lunge for the nearest steak knife. Move in the shortest line possible, scattering dishes and centerpieces to the floor, your chair skittering out from behind you, as you scramble madly for the knife. Your rush should be panicky and blind enough that you scrabble at the handle of the knife once or twice before managing to get a hold of it. Ideally, you will cut your fingers on the blade a bit as you do so.

With the knife in your grip stagger back a few steps and seize the handle in both hands, pointing it from arms length directly at your throat. There should be one awful second for everyone to realize just what you intend, then jam the knife into your own neck.

Now, by this point in your career you should hopefully have a crew of handlers who are familiar enough with you to expect literally anything and who will tackle you to the ground the moment before you can end your own life. Struggle furiously against these men as you try to bring the knife to bear, screaming all the while, barely on the edge of coherency, that life is no longer worth living if you can not spend every remaining second eating this meal.

After your retirement you can consider death by starvation as you refuse to ever touch any other food again, but I would recommend living, and eating, as well as you please - content in the knowledge that your act brought joy to millions for many long years.

The Dishes


Today, Day 9, I finally learned the last rule of How To Clean The Dishes.

"You see this?!" Mr. Ito gently infoms, "How you are rinsing the dishes?" He demonstrates for me, with a miso bowl, a pefectly reaonable way to rinse a dish free of soap.
"This is terrible!" He informs me, "Use your head! You see! You see this?!", he goes on in a resonable tone of voice for eight in the morning. "Like this, scrub with you hand after you rinse to make sure there are no, how do you say... Bubbles."
He pauses for a moment to make serious and silent eye contact. He is pretty put out.
"You know soap? It's terrible stuff. If you eat it, its terrible for your body."
Learning new things of which I had no inkling is one of the many positive aspects of this job.
"Okay," I say, staying patient.
"Right. So scrub it with your hand - like this."

This is definitely the first time I've ever been told to just rub my hands all over the dishes right after they've been cleaned. I try to explain the unfamiliarity of the idea to him and it seems to buy me a little slack. What I don't mention, though I am on the poin of boling over, is that in the last week he has never mentioned or demonstrated any of this at any point. Accordingly, it seems sort of unfair to losing you shit over it now.

Tank Wipe


Today I get to be a tank wipe.
"Yes!" I find myself thinking, "Awesome!"
The tanks are metal and smooth and therefore will be much easier to clean than the awkward plastic mop bucket I had to dig spiderwebs an decrepit filth out of with the aid of my forefinger and dirty river water yesterday.
All that's to do before that is bandage the finger I cut while washing the badly damaged pot Mr. Ito is too stingy to replace and brush my teeth in the two and a half minutes left before Mr. Ito yells at me for being late. This was cut down from the hefty five minutes I was hoping to have left after washing up everyones breakfast plates (not counted into my time "working") because Mr. Ito detaind me to explain, in detail, which types of blankets we will be drying out later, and to tell me three times to wash the tanks with a cloth.
I am instead using these two and a half minute to write this, in order to keep my brains from exploding.

Oh - Mr. Ito!


Wonderful! Mr. Ito has outdone himself, amazingly, yet again.

To begin, today I was told I must sweep out the dirt floor of the kiln room - yes apparently that is something you do and yes, I have been informed we "do it in America" and therefore I should know how.
This turns out to be an involved process involving a watering can and two types of rake. Fortunately Mr. Ito calmly explained what I was to do without making jeering comments about me to his friend.

Ah, wait - no strike that last part.

Mr. Ito explained later that much care must be paid because the kiln is the same as a church, the same as a temple, the same as a Shinto shrine. That it is, "a holy place, and we should clean it very neatly."
Immediately after saying this Mr. Ito hacked up a big loogie from way down in his throat and let fly onto the kiln floor, apparently unphased.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Bread, and madness


Argument in the kitchen today over when the correct time to eat bread is. The Home Helper woman, who comes by each day to make meals for Mr. Ito’s decrepit father, maintained the bread is for dinner, and dinner alone. Mr. Ito, meanwhile, was willing to grant that it was a fine part of breakfast as well. This was the bone of contention since the helper felt that breakfast was, if anything, the worst time of day to eat bread.

My suggestions that we perhaps have some bread with lunch was roundly rejected out of hand. Lunch is the time for rice.

It is good to know that my life certainly isn’t becoming any less insane since having left Okinawa.


New Hobbies

I could say that my month with Mr. Ito is speeding by, but by doing so I would be perpetrating a lie so great it would make me cross-eyed to read it.

I knew in advance of my arrival that I would be “only cutting wood” for the duration of my stay, and I welcomed the idea of some good solid physical work and really getting my hands dirty. As it turns out Mr. Ito adheres to an emerging rule of WWOOF hosts, that they all have one machine to facilitate their work. At Numajiri Kogen Lodge it was a mechanical dish washer, at Pension Mutti it was an industrial snow blower, and at Mr. Ito’s it is a wood splitter. This means that instead of taking to the field every morning with manly axe and wedge I stand in one place and slowly feed logs into a machine for six hours.

At first I thought that cutting firewood was difficult work, but I have come to realize it is actually just tedious and very boring work, work which is both perpetual and unrelenting. As such, I have cultivated several hobbies which I can engage in under Mr. Ito’s stentorian eye without rebuke:

Thinking. Thinking long, rambling discursive thoughts which never manage to reach any conclusion. This has been a life long passion and I have advanced it into new grounds in these dull days. A choice subject is revisiting conversations I have had with my friends and how they would have gone if one of us had said something different. This is every bit as fruitful as it sounds.

Watching my hair grow. This is definitely a winner. There is nothing Mr. Ito can do about my hair growing and I do so with impunity, reveling in the seconds between one log and the next while my beard grows with fierce, bristling intensity. I haven’t set blade to my face in a week, and I’m electrified by the follicle developments each morning when I reach the bathroom mirror. The chief front of interest is whether my neck hair will grow into my chest hair, thus rendering me in appearance as to some species of bald-headed bear. What’s more, by the end of week two of my untamed hair growth I will have blown past all previous personal records of neck and facial hair growth. God only knows what may come.

Other hobbies:
Taking pictures of wood.

Listening very closely to song lyrics / thinking about what songs to listen to tomorrow.

Trying not to look at the clock every few minutes.

Unfortunately I can’t add writing to this list as that it, more than anything else, seems to invoke his ill tempers. I have been forbidden from taking breaks during work to write, and if I write in Mr. Ito’s presence after work has finished he immediately becomes agitated that I’m not searching for some chore to help him with around the house and will testily reprimand me about it later on. (“You are always scribbling in that little notebook of yours! What are you writing in there?”)

Nevertheless I find my time to write, and write I shall.


Vase prices


I certainly don’t understand pottery at all. At a pottery exhibit in a Fukushima city mall we browse among pots and plates of which none is less than 8,000 dollars, top off around 34,000 dollars and travel form that into the land of large decorative platters – price unlisted.
Mr. Ito takes these in with only a modicum of surprise. Occasionally he grunts and stares closely at some unadorned, pot with flat white glaze, and then reconfirms with me that these small, lumpy vases are in fact the works of a master.

We spend some time looking at the adjoining painting exhibit just next door. Huge, beautifully rendered works of waterfalls and mountainsides are on display. They are done with just that touch of abstract artistry that appeals to me. One work in particular, a woman before a great snowy escarpment, strikes me as particularly nice. It measures something like 3 feet by 5 feet, and is priced at 12,000 dollars. Mr. Ito takes one look at the price and exclaims in surprise “Wa!”, as in, “My god! No way is it that much!”
Search me.


Friday, November 09, 2007

The idiosyncratic cleaning habits of my delighful host.


I am not the most fresh and friendly person first thing in the morning. In fact, most days I would rather be dead than have to haul my dog's body out of bed. For that reason I have to remind myself to withhold judgment of what may constitute peculiar behavior, and what is simply me projecting my own inborn hate for self and world.

I have begun to conclude, however, that my benfactor holds to a set of cleaning practices that may certify him as idiosyncratic, eccentric, colorful, or pehaps mad.
The evidence is mounting:

- When you clean the dishes, first fill the side sink with water, entirely with water, then soap the dishes, all of them at once, then place them in the sink and wash individually. This is the only acceptable dish washing method. Variation will be strictly reprimaned.

-You may not hold the vacuum by its handle, the one that was made for the explicit purpose of carrying it, while vacuuming. Instead, you must drag it along behind you by the hose, regardless of how troublesome that may be.

-Vacuuming is to be done parallel to the floor boards only, due to the belief that this is the only way they will become clean.

-When wiping the floors by hand cloth the same holds true. Use wide strokes only. In this, as in everything else, variation will be strictly reprimanded.

It is worth mentioning that all these activties will take place between 7 and 8:30 AM, which is to say in a period of time somehow not factored into the 6 hours of work I owe.

Mr. Ito - the wacky Buddhist monk.


The guy I am staying with, Mister/Monk Ito, is crazy as a spring hare. This is a partial list of things he has done in my first 3 days.
An impromptu handstand, fallen asleep on the floor afterlunch, suddenly remembered it was O-Bon, one of the most important Buddhist holidays, had me rush off with him to his mother's grave for impromptu cleaning, incense burning and prayer, demanded to listento my MP3 player, and did so for 15 minutes. Sing "Puff the Magic Dragon", play a harmonica with one hand while driving, tell me that a dragon lives in the lake, fondled the sides of a pot he made and wondered aloud if he should put breasts on it, had me watch video footage of how great he is, told me that his specialty is the "Whack-a-mole" game, and tells me every day, several times a day, "You must chop fire wood!" in English, and laughs.

My October

I am spending my once-per-week day off in a distant town waiting with Mr. Ito for his daughter's dance recital to begin. To kill the time I struggle over a blank postcard.
I ask Mr. Ito what I should write and he tells me the following:

"I am splitting wood everyday. I'm so tired. Mr. Ito is always angry. >:(
So, I want to go home!", then he hits me on the head, which is how he demonstrates he is being playful.

This is largely an accurate and concise summary of my 5 weeks at Mr. Ito's house, so feel free to go ahead and skip over the next 20 or so postings if you are not particularly interested in the breakdown.

If you would like to journey with me through the longest month of my life and meet the least pleasant Japanese person I have yet encountered, then please read on.

Apple Core

In transit. Sendai-city, Late September. Some bad language follows, sorry.

My backpack is unbearably heavy. Every time I lift it I try and tell myself it is, honestly, not that bad, but gravity is never fooled and it gets around to stating is case 15 - 20 minutes along.
What I really need to find is a bench, just here, on one of these street corners. I look around, but of course there are no benches.

Of course, I reason, Of course there aren't. Every city in Japan is just like New York City, not a lick of humanity in its design. People in New York would laugh in your face if you told them it would be a good idea to have somewhere to sit. Trendy standing bastards. Some day I'm going to a city with plenty of benches everywhere and the people will be nice and pleasantly apple-cheeked and I'm going to live there for the rest of my life.

Around the next corner are two benches, set quite nicely into some bushes and with a light over them. On one of the benches sits an old Japanese man, bald as a spring peach. He is sitting hunched over one of the benches, hurriedly eating a banana. I watch this with good natured interest as I stagger nearer under my load. As soon as he finishes he throws the empty peel to his feet and produces another banana from the great grocery sack of bananas next to him. At his feet are, like, five banana peels. About 15 feet away, right by the other empty bench, I can see a perfectly fine trash can.
"I hate you," I think loudly, "This I why New York City can't have nice benches - because of all the crazy banana eaters."
I briefly consider taking the other bench and teaching him a lesson in good manners by sitting there silently, eating no bananas at all, but he shows no signs of stopping his banana frenzy and I cross the street.
"What would happen if a bike courier came zipping around the corner and skid out on those banana peels all outrageously?" I ask myself in sage tones, "It would be hilarious, but ethically reprehensible."

The old man represents a form of madness I never want to fall to in my old age. The madness of forget-the-world,-this-shit-is-too-hard-anymore,-I'll-just-withdraw-into -my-skull-and-take-my-hate-out-by-not-giving-a-shit. Fucking bananas.

On the other side of the street, sure enough, is an identical set of benches, nice and empty.
"Predictable old city planners," I think, "Easy enough to figure them out."
I take a load off, which is very nice.
I've been eating cheap on the road, and dinner didn't do the job, so I enjoy a delicious crisp apple from my bag of fresh Sansa apples, bought earlier that day. And as I reach into my bulging bag of apples I realize I am sitting exactly opposite the old man, eating from a bag of fruit, and that I too am bald as a spring peach. Two fucking bald men sitting on opposite street corners devouring their bags of fruit. What crazy conspiracy is this, the business men must think as they cross the intersection.
"Let them think what they want," I revel, freely, "There is a clear line between enjoying fruit and monstrosity."
Except that, contrary to all possibility, there is no trashcan on this corner. What the fuck? - the city only had money enough for the one trash can? I'm left with a dripping apple core in my hand, just sitting there, in front of those big bushes - where an apple core would serve as fine fertilizer - on the cusp of becoming everything I hate.
I devour the apple core, seeds and all, and tell myself I love it.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

An Attempt on Mt. Fuji: Part B

Might as well tell you now that I had no reason to break this posting into two parts except that I had gotten tired of writing. As far as their different lengths go, if your sense of symmetry is offended then I doubt we can be friends any more.

We descended Fuji after two blissful hours on top, during which time Michelle appeared and Juhi and Juhi’s Japanese Friend did not. There was nothing to be done except shrug at what was a fairly likely outcome all along, wonder if they would manage to make it back to the bus by 10 AM, and enjoy the delicate bouquet of Fuji Peach Wine. This fruity drink complemented nicely the beginning of our hike, when we passed out neon purple glow bracelets as a way to keep track of our group (dubbed Team Purple Fuji, although I preferred the name Team Homosexual Firefly) in the darkness.

The descent of the mountain was a whole new ball game. For one, we could actually see the mountain we had ascended in all its barren, sere blandness. Nice view though. The way down also turned out to be a different path than the way up, which explained why we didn’t pass any descenders on the ascent, except for a couple wusses who we got a good laugh out of. We were instead treated to an uncountable, possibly infinite, number of switchbacks composed of jagged volcanic gravel. On the one hand this was cool because I could sort of slide-walk my way down. On the other hand it turns out this ate away the bottom of my cheap tennis shoes about as well as if I had stood in a puddle of strong acid for the same period of time. One little kid had the idea of trying to slide down on his butt, which I watched intently, but it turns out this was not a very good way of traveling so I didn’t try it myself. Another sight that cheered me was the many, many people dragging their expensive walking sticks listlessly behind them in a limp grip. Validated!

By miraculous chance Juhi and Juhi’s Japanese Friend crossed paths with us near the last way station at the bottom, having come down the way they went up. The first thing Juhi did was loudly swear out the mountain for being too steep, so I decided not to make any “wuss” comments.

One feature of the descent that I appreciated but couldn’t fully enjoy were the several covered rock shelter tunnels that ran parrellel to the path in order to protect hikers from sudden avalanches. I walked through all these tunnels, despite their poorly conceived layout that made them much harder to go through than the path, waiting the entire time for all the over-confident hikers to shriek in terror and be buried alive by cascading stones. Unfortunately this didn’t happen, so I have to save my smug look of safety-mindedness for some other time.
The worst part of getting down Fuji is that after you reach the bottom, thinking you have finished your journey, it turns out that the bus stop has been relocated to the top of a hill a million miles away from where you come out.

We got back in just over 4 hours, 2 hours quicker than the ascent, and so had to kill a couple hours in town that we could have spent on the summit. Pressed to our limits of endurance, everyone immediately wandered off dazedly on their own and lost all contact with the others until just before the bus arrived.

So there it is, easy as that. Nothing left to do but count the slow minutes on your 2 hour trip back in a hot bus before scrabbling around on last minute errands until 11 at night and waking up at 5 AM the next morning in time to ride local trains for 8 hours. Yeah!


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

An Attempt on Mt. Fuji: Part 1

A principle of life I seldom appreciate is that sleep serves more to differentiate your days than anything else. The mere passage of time is the turning of the pages, we need a good sleep for the chapter breaks.

This was driven home to me earlier this week when I climbed Mt. Fuji and what I would honestly call the longest day of my life.


You like how I segued into that?

First of all, a big shout out to Mr. Rodger Takeuchi who masterminded the operation, and Michelle, his friend who actually took care of all the nitty-grity.

The thing about climbing Fuji is, it takes a good damn long time. If you keep your rest breaks few and short, and keep yourself on a brisk pace, you can hit the summit in about 6 hours. This is of course assuming you are leaving from the uppermost bus terminal, Gate 5. One of my old co-workers told me I should climb from the mountain's foot, that it would take about 3 days, then laughed his ass off.

So the thing to do when you climb Fuji, apparently, is crest the summit in time to see the sun break over all of Japan. Tack a 2 hour bus ride from Tokyo onto your ETA and it turns out that you will need to catch the bus by 8 PM, start hiking before 11, and try to make the peak before 5 in the morning, when the sun rises.

Seeing as how this takes a normal days schedule and replaces "Get a Full Night's Sleep" with "Climb a Huge Mountain" I sort of expected to avoid the infamous Fuji climbing crowds. This was evidently not a delusion the other 6,000 climbers shared. Thanks to some last minute scrambling we (Me, Cousin John, Rodger, Michelle, Juhi From Town and a Japanese girl no one knew was coming with us until 15 minutes before we got on the bus) managed to reserve a few seats on a bus that had completely booked up, like all the others, by the time we went to get pick up our tickets. Apparently the late night climb is *the* climb to do, particularly among the foreigner set who made up something like 1 in every 3 climbers I saw.

In order to give you a sense of what it was like to climb the mountain re-read this sentence 3,000 times . For those of you less committed to a reenactment of the tedium I’ll do my best to reconstruct my impressions of the mountain. Unfortunately my brain kept giving out over the 30 some hours that constituted the experience so these are largely scattered. At any rate:

Arrival at Gate 5, and the warmly lit general store next to it:

- Resisted the temptation to buy a jangly, flag bedecked walking staff. Partly due to its ludicrous mark up (1,200 yen for a 20 yen length of wood), partly because I had no desire to carry it with me across the length and breadth of Japan the next year, and finally because of the sage advice of my mountain-seasoned Colorado cousin.

- Chipped in on some frou-frou wine to guzzle on the summit when we all stood exaulting together in the glorious sunrise.

- Asked to throw out a magazine I brought with me to read on the bus ride. Was told “We don’t have any trashcans here.” This struck me as a bald-faced lie and a particular inconvenience since the magazine in question was a phone-book sized manga which I had to keep in my backpack for the full hike. From this moment my attitude toward the one-way culture of the mountain (eager to sell expensive necessities, unwilling to be helpful) soured and I began a little campaign of spiteful transgressions.

-I use the pay toilet (50 yen) without paying

The Trail:

-In the black, moonless night we stumble about for a minute or so trying to figure out which way the mountain actually is. Eventually we set off after a line of fellow hikers, trusting they are not hiking back to the city. This certitude begins to falter as the trail descends robustly downhill for ten or fifteen minutes.

-Gaze at the beauty of the city lights nestled in far off valleys that look like (to me) luminescent squid.

-Hit the start of the trail head - a sign which proclaims that Mt. Fuji is part of the Yamanashi prefecture. This leads me to chortle a bit and explain that Yama-nashi can have the meaning in Japanese of “No mountains”. This fails to entertain anyone else at all.

-We get a lovely group photo taken by a couple helpful Japanese girls who, presumably inadvertently, steal Rodger’s disposable camera, thus raining shit on his parade for the rest of the day.

-We start up hill to the first way-station. Me and John hit it first, followed shortly thereafter by the Rodger-Michelle pair, and finally by Juhi-Japanese Friend. We decide to break into pairs and climb at our own rate.

-We hike for time out of mind.

The Summit:

-No, just kidding. It wasn’t that quick for me, so it won’t be for you either. The six hours of the hike up the mountain in the middle of the night were, as I suspected, a test of physical and mental endurance. On top of that, however, the notions in my head of a well-tended staircase cut into the mountain side turned out to be well off the mark. Considerable stretches of roughly cordoned off rock face showed up often. At times I was scrabbling up the detritus and scree on all fours, and more than once I was nearly bit it due to the uncertain and wobbly stones. For me this was my first full mountain hike and I found it properly daunting. Some ten rest-stops dot the face we took up, and I was thankful for each of them even if we only stopped to rest at 3. John sang a different tune however.

The mountains of the Colorado Rockies are rough, mostly untamed things. Some are forbidden to climbers entirely because of the danger they present. In general they are scantly hiked, and never crowded. The omnipresence of humanity on the mountain led John on a train of complaints that he still brings up; the crowds, the huts peddling soba and beer, the lines and the waiting he took as almost insults. Like I said, it was my first mountain, and at the start I thought he was gripping over what was only to be expected, but as we climbed I couldn’t help but agree with him. Particularly toward the end, as we passed the last of the way-stations and entered the last stretch, the last 600 vertical meters, when dots appeared before my 0 altitude acclimated eyes and my head swam and fatigued sapped me, I couldn’t help but agree that we shouldn’t be standing in line here waiting for tourists up ahead to take pictures at the torii gates to the summit. Wasn’t that sort of thing somehow profane to why we climb mountains? Isn’t it to get away from it all and see how small the little towns we live in really are? Don’t we climb, as the saying goes, just because its there?

I left my smushed trail mix in my backpack, sucked mechanically at my water bottle and wished I was already finished with the damn thing. No longer exalting in the climb or the outrageousness of the situation, just unhappy and ready to be done.

I hate that feeling, when it comes seeping into me, because that, alone among all things, is true failure. It is the will that makes the thing, to my mind. A situation can be incomprehensible, or loopy or just plain bad, but it doesn’t mean you have let it get to you. You make your own happiness, and as long as you don’t give up and think, “Well this is shit and that’s all that can be said about it” it never will be. When you just give up and wish it was over, that’s when all the joy goes out of you. I hate that feeling.

The Summit

John and I, alone of the six, hit the summit by 4:15. The last I saw Rodger and Michelle was maybe 4 hours ago. The last I saw of Juhi and her friend was when we originally decided to split up. The peak is not how I expected it. After the last hour and a half of unsettled mountain side I began to imagine the top might be the same. Instead it is crammed with small buildings built of the native volcanic stones, a truly strong smelling bathroom with a mile long line, and vending machines selling beer for 500 yen. We shuffle forward with the crowd past grubby souvenir vendors who must live on the summit for weeks straight. The eastern horizon is glowing a very amazing sort of livid pink that suggests the sun will break any second.

Amazingly, the hordes we came tromping up with have seemingly dissipated. The wide cliff edge encircling the enormous Fuji crater has plenty of room for everyone. Me and John slog it up a hill to where a very weather beaten torii stands, studded from stem to stern with coins that have been pressed into its wood, and dutifully take each others pictures. Good seats facing East are amazingly easy to find, but we abandon ours to look for any of the others. Then the sun breaks.

I have not seen very many sunrises in my life, I am a little ashamed to admit. Whenever I do though, I am surprised how unlike sunsets they are. The glow of the advancing sun warms the horizon well in advance of the main event, and it is entirely possible to believe it will suddenly show up at any second. When it finally does come though, you are never ready for it. The sun, rising. It is amazing to see the sun rise. It is the best of all metaphors, if we hadn’t been given it we couldn’t have dreamed it up if we tried. The sun rising on the dark and cold of night, the endless climb, the exhausted, spent body. The sun rising and there again warmth and light and somehow even new life in my tired legs. We're joking again, we're smiling again. Before us lie so many other mountains, tiny and insignificant by comparison, and off in the distance low cloaks of clouds drape over sleeping towns with no idea of what we just accomplished. It is amazing, and I recommend you do it.

A few minutes later we find Rodger, having soldiered the last leg of the mountain by himself but not quick enough to have seen the sunrise from the top. He tells us he was uncertain he was going to make the peak but in the final moments he felt like Fuji was telling him to do it. That is something I have no trouble believing. The three of us crack the wine. Nothing in a long time has felt better than that early morning sun and when I saw hikers lying on jagged mounds of lava rock, sleeping soundly, I knew I could join them in a second.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Salutations of Marvellous News!

Philboyd Snrub is dead!

Pardon the breach of proper good manners - as a rule I find any deviation from those golden and sound rules of ettiquite put down by the inestimable Emily Post to be wholly unpardonable, but such utterly wonderful fine news this is that the upwelling of good cheer in me quite overpowered my civilized faculties and leaves me not but to trust that you will surely manage to forgive me given the light of the situation and, that not withstanding, my own naturally winning charm - my name is Silas Tomken Cumberbatch and I am most pleased to be making your acquaintance.

(Upon saying his name Mr. Cumberbatch flashes a bright smile, fully displaying his very straight teeth and generally conveying a sense of his potent charisma. He then tells me, D.C., to make a note of exactly that in his dictation for the benefit of those at home. )

There will be time to more fully introduce myself to you in days to come for, I can assure you my eager public, that we walk a long and golden road together. I have just recently become the executer of the late Mr. Snrub's will and care-taker of his, I must begrudgingly admit, fabulous estate.

(Mr. Cumberbatch goes over to the wide parlor windows that look out from the third floor over the willow lake and attendant swan stables. He gazes thoughtfully and deeply at the lands, a certain divine light of intellect gleaming in his eyes as he strokes his sculpted cheek-bones, he informs me.)

Having been something of a vanished person for six months a powerful cabal of Mr. Snrub's enemies, which I am happy to represent, manuvered things such that the mad miser's lands were foreclosed upon and the man himself declared blessedly dead. Accordingly his assets have been largely liquidated, liens have been placed on his auxillary estates, and those slaves which did not starve to death have been freed - into my employ as indentured servants.

(Mr. Cumberbatch lets loose a mighty guffaw at this and slaps both his sides and knees for some time. As his mirth subsides he places his arms akimbo, elbows barging out at the world as if to say "No lad is a saucier lad than I!")

What of the goings on in this distant and inscrutable land? The late Mr. Snrub had prepared, I can see here on his desk, some screed in regard to the merits of the various flower festivals on the island and some sort of ancient king whose full regalia was composed of a thousand Hibiscus blossoms. Flowers as clothing! That is exactly the kind of ridiculous falderall that has led the world, by which I mean America, into such a decline.

(Mr. Cumberbatch's face turns as red as the heart of an exploding volcano as he vents his rage, flecks of spittle erupting from his mouth as stamps his wingtipped foot upon the parque floor, as if trodding upon all the flowers of the world.)

Instead of this clap-trap I will personally treat to you to a work of my own creation for the betterment of all. I entitle it "A Re-Exploration of the Finer Points of Ettiquiet: Part I" which will follow in the coming days.

Yours with warmest regards and appropriate contempt,


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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Weak babies

I turn my back upon my lovely blog - this fire hose that I direct at the accumulated feces that smear the sidewalk of civilization - and what happens! Look at the posting below and see for yourself! No, not yet you simp. First wait until I am done shouting at you, then you may look. I will give you five seconds - trust me when I say that is all you will need. And.... now.


Finished? No, don't answer me - I couldn't possibly care. I was doing that stoodge D.C. a favor when I took him under my wing, repulsive though he is. I had hoped that even one so hopeless as he would be able to catch wind of the refined airs and moods that mark the body of the genius.

Alas, he has repaid my kindness by defecating in broad, wild strokes across this hitherto unsullied space. Rhymed iambic pentameter? A hillbilly vomiting moonshine onto my bone china would not strike me as more crude. Apostrophe to Uriel? Despite his best efforts to appear as one D.C. is not a Theology major drop-out slapping blindly at the keyboard with crippled, arthritic hands. You will have to trust me on this, for his post offers no evidence to the contrary. Poetry?! Forgive this slovenly mixing of punctuation marks, but simple text is incapable of expressing the degree to which I was flabbergasted. I have said it before, and I enthusiastically reiterate myself again: Poetry is the last refuge of the effete, namby-pamby psuedo-intellectual with nothing to say. It is the impotent, flaccid output of hacks, worse, homosexuals and, almost unspeakably, women.

I would focus all my vaunted energies on taking away from women the right of schooling and literacy if I were not at the moment so preoccupied by taking away from them the vote. One small step at a time, I suppose.

I can only pray that another stint in the stocks and a swift caning will teach D.C the error of his ways.

I have digressed, and you are the richer for it, but there are other matters to be raised, and subsequently derided into submission.

In recent weeks a fresh crop of foreigners has been brought to my glittering isle on the South China sea. I must say that my excitement was short lived and quickly proven to be ill-founded. Why, these FOB's are even more moon-eyed and ineffectual than the last lot! They express surprise and contrition at everything - from the delicious pig-intestine meals that somehow violate their mores of taste or "vegetarianism", to the utter lack of knowledge of local geographical and roadside features. Infuriating! Their collective ignorance of even the simplest Hogen phrasals is enough to make a man want to spit on them, again and again.

Take this instance, embellished not a whit, and judge their crapulence for yourself.
I was, before becoming wholly disillusioned by their simpering deficiencies, impelled to guide these lambs around the island and see if their natures were not commendable to my purposes. By automotive vehicle we chose to depart, my glimmering stallion taking the lead, a tiny female's puttering cart following behind, and no sooner did we do so then did he begin to fall farther and farther into the distance. I most nearly exploded, so powerfully did my rage overtake me. There are very few things in this world that I will tolerate, and being forced to put restraint on the roaring engine of my chariot is far from one of them.
In any case, I mastered my emotions and when we, eventually, made it to our destination I demanded from the driver an explanation.

"You drive fast," she said, "You were going twice the posted speed limit."
"Of course I was!", I barked back at her, "Truly, you know nothing at all!"
Somehow from this she took offense at me.

There. Can you even begin to imagine, reader, the condition of these newcomer's feeble brains? Of this woman I will say no more, except that my hate for her grows ever more with each day!

Philboyd Snrub