Friday, November 6, 2020

Only a Strong America

Not sure if these notes will find their way into the ruins book, so I thought I'd share 'em here.

It’s a humid late Saturday afternoon in 1953. A child pushes past the heavy double doors of a theater where her parents deposited her for a double feature. Dad will pick her up in about a half hour, so she’s got time to kill. She pauses by the cinema, one of those old Fox Theatres whose innards conjure up images of Egyptian kings and Greek water bearers, and gazes up at glass-framed posters that promise coming attractions. Mostly she prefers the serials -- thrilling strangeness like Radar Men from the Moon, the chapter story that features Commando Cody, and Zombies of the Stratosphere -- but the posters don’t advertise those. She makes a mental note to see War of the Worlds, which looks pretty scary. But she doesn’t want to dawdle. She’s on a mission. She spins one complete turn, just for the pleasure of feeling the wind play with her curls, and starts to skip along the sidewalk. Her destination is the newsstand at the corner. Dad has assured her that he’ll pick her up precisely at the turn of the hour. 

The newsstand is better than the library, as far as she can see. It’s such a jumble of tacky, glorious, engaging things, all the more with the thrum of cars and trucks pulsing nearby. And the man who runs the place on most days doesn’t mind if she flips through some of the pages, so long as she keeps her hands clean. It’s her stand, her favorite place, packed with wooden crates filled with soda bottles, cardboard boxes stuffed with candy bars, and a freezer stocked with cold drinks, and maybe some ice cream. But she’s not hungry or thirsty. She’s looking for something to read tonight after dinner. She has plenty of options. The racks are festooned with magazines, newspapers, and lurid paperbacks, most held tight by thin silver rods, and occasionally some fishing line. She heard once that the man behind the knotty wooden shelf sometimes sells paperbacks in brown wrappers to furtive buyers with strange proclivities, when the police officer can’t see. Once she thinks she saw one of those officers actually collecting one of those forbidden books. One day, she knows, she will convince the man to sell her one of those secret things. In the meantime she surveys the collection, rubbing her fingers over the ragged edges of a dime she saved from the show. 

So many choices! 

Television and movie stars tug at her attention, newspapers flap in the breeze. She wants a comic though. Her older brother always kids about her curiosity for romance titles, but in fact she prefers the science fiction and horror stuff. Monsters and ray guns and… There it is, the comic that she hid behind an almanac that never seems to sell. She stares and stares at the cover, the book she’s always been afraid to open. The image is horrifying but somehow beautiful too. It is a scene of devastation. A mushroom cloud glows red and orange and pink, with a burning yellow center. Flames roil and shoot over New York City. She recognizes the iconic structures being swept into ruin: the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, both cracking and shattering like, well, like nothing she’s ever seen before. Brick apartment blocks and gleaming glass towers crack and shatter under the sweeping torrents, the plumes of acrid smoke, the gust of hellish squall. Treasure! The comic announces that it was published in November, a few months ago. Every couple of weeks, she’d amble by and peer into its hiding place, hoping that someone else had not purchased the last copy. And here it is. And she’s got that dime. And she’s ready to buy.

She makes her purchase, speaking in her best grown-up voice and looking the man directly in his eyes, and then sits at the nearby bench next to where the buses churn on their hourly paths. New York City is burning and the towers are tumbling into holocaust. All for a dime. It all looks so exciting, so horrifying, but it comes with a message too. All comics must have one it seems. And this one is typically blunt: “Only A Strong America Can Prevent Atomic War.”

Monday, March 25, 2019

Tokyo [Part 2]

Our last full day in Tokyo was probably the best time we spent in Japan. Jenny started the morning with a pilgrimage to the LDS temple, which she learned has been closed for renovation. But she still found time to enjoy the morning spirit at a quiet garden. When she returned, we charted a path to Ueno Park for some hanami (cherry blossom appreciation). While the sakura were blooming early this year, they had not yet reached their zenith. Even so, we loved the chance to walk around a lake filled with paddle boats and join the crowds drawn to trees bursting with white and pink petals that shimmied in the breeze.

Throughout the park, folks had laid out blue tarps to gather with friends for food and (plentiful) drink. After grabbing some regrettable street food, we found seats for a park performance with a monkey doing leaps and other tricks. [Yes, it was an impressive display. But I still felt guilty all the same.] A surprising highlight was the discovery of one of those ubiquitous gachapon dispensers that sold, of all things, miniature gachapon dispensers. And only for 200 Yen each. I would have cheerfully paid twice as much, so I bought six of the danged things! Later on, we wandered the stalls and shops of Ameyoko Shopping Street, snarfing up souvenirs and finding the perfect brand of matcha tea to bring home.

That evening we had dinner at Ninja Akasaka, a place that is pricey, cheesy, and surprisingly good. So, what’s the concept? Turns out, your server is a ninja who guides you through a mysterious network of passageways, past darkened rooms, across broken bridges, and through secret portals. Then when your meal arrives, your ninja performs illusions and tells goofy jokes. I’d long looked forward to this evening, and was disappointed the night before when we went through the whole opening bit - only to be dropped off in the bar. Yeah, you really do need reservations for this place. So we paid for our drinks and opted out of the festivities, arranging a reservation for today (and triple-checking that we’d snagged one of those coveted private rooms). It was worth the wait.

To be sure, neither Jenny nor I would ever be confused for “foodies.” So I have little experience for comparison. But I’d say that this was the best meal we’ve ever had: shuriken star-blades grissini, white fish and tomato ceviche, turban shell bomb with garlic butter, stone-boiled soup, Wagyu beef, sushi with akadashi dark-miso soup, and plenty of palate cleansers and tasty desserts.

Afterward we seriously considered calling it a night, but Jenny was still up for adventure. So we returned to the subway for a visit to Starbucks Reserve Roastery. I know, I know… But, really, this is a remarkable place - and at four stories and 32,000-square-feet is the largest Starbucks on the planet. We showed up at around 9:30 p.m. and found a line stretching down the road. And the display on one fellow’s clipboard read 120 minutes. Nope! So we walked about along the river, savoring the sight of cherry blossoms illuminated by lights.

Then I figured, let’s see just how bad the line really is. As it turns out, we only needed to wait about 20 minutes. Inside, we immersed ourselves in the kind of “coffee theater” we never experience in our local Starbucks: steampunk fixtures and open flame and personal tastings. Oh, and pour-over coffee and whiskey for me (and chocolate torte and water for Jenny). It was our last night in Japan. The next day we packed and took the Narita Express for the airport. Already I’m dreaming of our return to this remarkable country.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Fukushima Dai-ichi

We awoke well before sunrise to catch the Shinkansen to Sendai and then board a slower regional train to Odaka. As usual, I insisted on taking a much earlier option, though we could have chosen an itinerary that would get us to our destination with three minutes to spare. In the U.S., it makes much more sense to presume some delay in mass transit. In Japan, though, I’m coming to understand that when they say the train will arrive at 11:57, they generally mean 11:57. Anyway, we arrived two hours early, which afforded a chance to find a nearby ramen house. And I mean house. The owners ushered us into a back room with other folks who ceased their chatting and looked at us like we’d flown in from Mars. But once we joined them on the Tatami mats and gamely pointed at one of the written options on the low table, our neighbors went back to their conversations. A couple folks spotted us slurping our noodles with suitable joy and encouraged us to pronounce the food as “ichiban,” which it indeed proved to be.

At noon we joined a small group of fellow tourists (two from Argentina and one from Malaysia) gathered to visit the Red Zone. On this site in 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake located on the Pacific side of Honshu generated a tsunami that partially engulfed the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, causing three of its six reactors to melt down. The tsunami killed about 16,000 people and forced an estimated 150,000 people from their homes. While plant workers struggled valiantly to manage the nuclear crisis, the worst since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the physical and psychological impacts of radiation exposure remain difficult to quantify. Today, the Fukushima region continues to suffer the social and economic impacts of population loss, even though background radiation has returned to relatively healthy limits. Some local boosters are hoping that tourism can play a positive role in regional revitalization.

Of course, a fair question arises: Why would anyone want to holiday in Fukushima? Some might find it ghoulish to visit a field of broken tombstones laid flat by a torrent of water, to pass by lots of demolished homes where only family shrines remain, to drive through empty villages whose abandoned shops once buzzed with commerce. Some surely would think it odd to mount a hill overlooking the panorama of the plant nestled near the water’s edge, now the site of mammoth decommissioning and cleanup efforts that will take decades and cost somewhere near 200 billion dollars. Tour organizers know all too well that many visitors come in hopes of reliving episodes of Dark Tourist, or maybe even attempting illegal “urban exploration.” Yet they hope that they can resist that sort of “ruin porn,” seeking instead to send visitors back with stories of the region’s resilience.

Our guide was a prefectural manager named Shuzo Sasaki who arranged the permits for our small group to enter the exclusion zone. Driving down roads lined by weeds and debris, we passed empty fields and rice paddies now increasingly used as solar farms. We also saw vast collections of black bags filled with contaminated soil. How many bags? Current estimates total around 16 million. Occasionally we’d pass a digital readout of radiation levels. And everywhere are abandoned houses and vacant lots. 

At one point we stopped at the farm of Masami Yoshizawa, an activist who cannot sell his cows but has opted not to slaughter them. While over 5,000 cows were left to starve after the tsunami, Yoshizawa stayed behind to care for his. There is, of course, is no market for Fukushima milk, which leaves him struggling to survive. To dramatize his plight, Yoshizawa built a “Cow Godzilla,” a performance-art piece that he often drives to Japan’s parliament to raise awareness of the struggle that Fukushima fisherfolk, farmers, and ranchers still endure.

Advancing closer to Fukushima Dai-ichi, we cruise down National Route 6, stopping occasionally along the tour’s dismal stations. At Ukedo Elementary School we see the waterline etched below the roofs and imagine the destruction caused by deluges that roared up to ten kilometers inland. At Kumamachi Elementary School we peer into classrooms filled with scattered books and bags. At a fish nursery we survey the destruction wrought by the tsunami, and we photograph the sarcasm directed at Tokyo Electric Power Company: “TEPCO will last for 1,000 years.”

And in towns like Ōkuma and Futaba, with their rows of empty houses and shattered-glass businesses, I flash back to The Last Picture Show and imagine the haunting of ghosts. I think about those farmers and plant workers who managed to live but still left, and those school children who fled along forest paths to the tops of hills, barely escaping the waves that crashed below. From time to time we stop and shoot our typical photos, asking our banal questions. And then as afternoon falls, we begin our exit, checking out with masked police officers dressed in blue and white. Our final checkpoint involves us sticking out the soles of our feet for radiometer inspection.

As it turns out, we visited Japan during its cherry blossom season, a brief period when petals open and bloom, only to fall a week or so later. So during the tour, and afterward, I reflected on the concept of mono-no-aware, sometimes translated as the sadness or “ahhness” of things. That evening, Jenny and I joined Karin Taira, owner of the Lantern House (where we stayed for the evening), and compared our thoughts on the concept. She agreed that one may certainly discern sadness from mono-no-aware, but one also contemplates acceptance and even appreciation for the passing of things.

Related both to Shinto and Buddhist teachings, mono-no-aware reminds us that we ought not hold too fast to material things. Doing so only invites suffering. Instead we are wise to study the changing of things, the passing away of appearances. In such meditation, one comes closer to wisdom. I suspect it will be a long time, if ever, before I can claim any kind of understanding about Fukushima. Even writing these few paragraphs has been harder than I expected. But I start here, knowing I have a long way to go. 

Friday, March 22, 2019

Tokyo [Part 1]

We traveled from Kyoto to Tokyo via the Shinkansen. All along the way I found myself wondering what Japanese tourists must think when they travel to the U.S. and find our antiquated mass transit system. The bullet train isn’t cheap, of course, and even regional trains can be expensive in this country. But, barring thoroughly unforeseen circumstances, you get where you want to go with near-split-second efficiency. So after a pleasant ride we arrived in bustling, complicated Tokyo Station. Here I must thank goodness for Google maps, which offers detailed explanations of transit, down to the correct exit number. And given the mammoth size of many urban train stations in this country, choosing the correct exit is no trifling matter.

For this part of the trip we opted for the Shinjuku district, an easy subway ride from the main station. An odd highlight of our first evening was a visit to a Maid Café, which features young women who perform pop songs while wearing frilly outfits. After paying a cover charge, guests order overpriced drinks and woeful meals with the expectation that the “maids” will flirt, chat, and play silly games. Jenny and I both found the experience to be both unbearably cute but also somewhat disturbing. Having no special insight on the fixation (among some, not all, folks in Japan) with schoolgirls, a fetish that manifests itself in cafes like this - along with anime, manga, and other media - I’ll defer from offering any further sweeping judgment. Let’s just say that we didn’t need to stay for the entire allotted time.

Thursday began with a trip to Puk Pupa Theatre, a 90-year-old performance space dedicated to puppetry. The show was geared for really young folks, with artists transforming their puppets into a pair of goofy brothers who shared adventures with aliens, elephants, and dinosaurs. The show was a delight for the entire audience, with the exception of one little guy who wailed for his mom when things got a bit overly intense. In the afternoon, we wandered among Shinjuku’s “love hotel hill,” a popular spot for folks searching for privacy (and a little luxury) away from the thin walls of their cramped quarters. 

That night we lined up for seats at Robot Restaurant. How to describe this place? Well, the venue is designed to appeal to foreigners searching for some quintessentially wacky mash-up of Japanese pop culture. So you can count on an explosion of sword-flights, light-cycles, flame-belching monsters, and laser-armed tanks (and snippets from Mama Mia for some reason). Oh, and near constant pitches for drinks, snacks, and souvenirs. The show is expensive, loud, and entirely bonkers. We loved it.

The next day we slept in before catching the subway to Akihabara, a district famed for its towers filled with floor after floor of electronics - but mostly appealing to tourists for its overwhelmingly grand collection of trinkets, comics, figurines, trading cards, and other collectables. Our favorite stop was a visit to Mandarake Complex, known as perhaps the biggest anime shop on the planet. I wouldn’t have a clue, but when I asked about whether they had any old copies of Kachō Kōsaku Shima, it took only a few seconds for a dude to point me in the right direction. I’d never heard of this character - a salaryman who moves up the ranks of a giant corporation while playing by his own rules! But I’ve become hooked on the idea since seeing him sold as a Gatchapon toy.

Hmm… how to describe Gachapon. Let’s start with the name. “Pon” is a transliterated word for “toy capsule,” and “Gatcha” is the sound the machine makes when you insert 100 Yen coins and turn the crank. And what pops out? A plastic bubble filled with some variant of whatever that machine sells: school girl figurines that sit on your coffee cup, little boys with butts for faces, cats that resemble figures from Ukiyo-e paintings, plastic heads that contain tiny parasites that drive their victims like cars… I could go on and on. You can find row after row of Gachapon machines, and lots of coin-changers, at arcades across the country. You plunk in your coins and hope that you’ll get the toy you want - and not a duplicate of what you’ve already got. But if you’re looking for the perfect Gachapon, make tracks for Akihabara.

So we went on a spree, turning those cranks, and stuffing our bags with those toys, only occasionally to wonder: Did we just spend fifty bucks on a bunch of cheap plastic junk? Yes. Yes, we did. For Jenny, Gachapon are all about Jin & gudetama: a little boy with a little egg-friend. For me, it was all about Kachō Kōsaku Shima. I really dig the idea of a manga character based on the dreams of salarymen who yearn for corporate adventures that exceed their droning days. I should add that Jenny and I are also entranced by Kuniyoshi Cats - and merely hope that our real kitties don’t knock them from the shelf. Soon enough our dogs were barking, so we headed back to Shinjuku for some rest and ramen.