Monday, August 25, 2014

Takayama Can Rock and Roll

Sometimes, even in Japan, the best things are in your hometown. We went to a concert in Takayama, and it was awesome. Concerts in Japan seem to be mysterious gatherings only for the invited, much like Shinto rituals in the states, they just don’t happen that often. But, being from Austin, and having not realized how much I was taking live music for granted, I lunged at the first opportunity to go to a concert.

Well, more like was gently nudged. Our landlord dropped off a flyer, Raquel showed it to our coworker who translated it and showed us where the place was on a map. And people wonder why I’m not learning Japanese. It’s because the Japanese are so damn accommodating, what’s the point?

We were going to go with a friend, but he bailed at the last minute, sighting the ever popular (and honest) excuse: laziness.

The show ended at 4:30, so we ventured out in the early afternoon, loaded down with potato chips, and six pack of beer. As in everywhere, ever, its good practice to bring beer. Even our coworker said that we could, so I was a little dismayed when no one was drinking. Not that I wouldn’t drink alone, but still, I already stick out, might as well not be for the wrong reasons.

We sat down on the dewy grass and took in the show. A chick was singing and the crowd of perhaps forty people were swaying their arms to the music. A young woman offered us a Disney waterproof blanket to sit on (they’re weird about water over here) and I tries to reciprocate the kindness by offering her and the gnarly old man she was with a beer. He looked at me like I’d dropped LSD in his glass.

“I must drive.”

Ah yes, of course, there’s zero tolerance in Japan , and they mean it, so that makes sense, but surely she can… but no, that wasn’t happening either.

The young woman was most likely his daughter, and probably seventeen. I can’t tell Japanese age worth anything. The women all either like 7, 27, or 67. The men either 15 or 55. They’re always shocked to discover that a 26 year old lives under my beard, so hey it’s a problem for more people than just me.

The next band was wearing Hawaiian t-shirts except for bassist, who looked like one of their dads (they weren’t young guys either, definitely closer to 55 than 15, but the bass player, in his striped golf shirt and khakis looked well past that). They exclusively played classic rock. The lead singer gave long explanations of the historical significance of each classical composer, be it the Stones or Bad Company. He slowly took of layers of clothing to reveal a “Good Morning Vietnam” T-shirt. “Baby it’s all light now… baby it’s all lllight now!” Dude was badass.

The MC’s told jokes between sets. The guy wore a traditional Japanese yukata (looks like a dress to you Americans) and the girl wore floral capris pants and a t-shirt in bad English. They were pretty punk rock. I didn’t understand a word they said but they had the crowd howling with laughter. Damnit I need to learn Japanese.

It began to sprinkle, and we promptly abandoned our Disney water proof blanket, and returned it. This was good timing, because the gnarly punk rocker and his daughter has seen me guzzle a couple beers at this point and the rain was a good alibi to return their blanket and seek drier ground. The Japanese hate getting their hair wet, so it made sense for us too to fear the drizzle.

Sure enough, everyone whipped out tiny towels they draped over the feathered locks. But they all matched. Everyone had the same tiny towel “TaruiBand” it said, in a font I would describe as Major League Baseball. I wanted one with all of my heart. I poked around, while the next band played. I passed stands serving traditional Japanese food like dangos and microwavable pizza cooked in a woof fired oven. But, fruitless, I went to watch the punk rock band called PsyRanger that were fucking radical. We bumped into one of our students moms and she knew the bass player.

“What is this song?” I asked, hoping her poor English would mask my slurred speech.

“Power Rangers theme. Very popular!”

PsyRanger is awesome. The two lead singers, a dude with hair like a Sayan and a woman who looked like she could seduce the emperor then slit his throat took turns belting Japanese over heavy metal riffs, power chords and power pop melodies. Awesome band, but I still didn’t have my towel.

The penultimate band, M. A. D., played more classic rock songs. Shameless rip offs of Led Zeppelin riffs with Japanese sprinkled in for the locals. They were great, their guitarist especially knew how to melt faces.

But they paled compared to the last man to go on stage. I’d seen him hanging around the crowd. Dressed in a full suit on a sticky August day, surrounded by a tough looking posse and a couple of girls that after my last encounter I could only assume were his daughters. They all marched him on stage after the band tuned up, and he proceeded. To. Rock.
They (he?) was called Taruiband, and not since I saw James Brown play at the County Fair have I been so delighted to dance and giggle with a performer. The crowd agreed. What had been a loose collection of grandparents, grandkids, young hipsters, bikers, and punkrockers, coalesced into a crowd bent on the boogie-woogie with Tarui. He twirled the microphone, had a costume change (black suit to red suit during the drum solo) and had two hip hop dancers that were definitely not 27. The crowd threw their towels in time to chorus while a kid in the front row kept the bubbles flowing.

How many towels do you see? Notice the guy to the left is protecting his hair.

It was a great day, and after drinking the entire six-pack (despite Raquel’s scowls), I was hell-bent on getting one of those towels. I asked a man for help, who asked the woman next to him, who scurried off towards the stage. I stumbled after her, only to have the bassist snort and toss me his own towel. Here ya go, kid. His eyes said with contempt, but he smiled. We made it to the car before another man caught up with us and gave us another towel, while he apologized of all things.
Seriously, why learn anything when they’re so damn nice?
Joe Darris Mitchell currently lives in Takayama with his darling wife, and is shown here wearing his beloved Tarui Band towel in the traditional Japanese fashion, on his head. If you enjoyed this post, please +1 and share with your friends! Check out @joedarris on Instagram for more pictures of Japan! 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Takayama Floods.

The last few days in Takayama have been defined by water. It has been raining without end for a week, and yesterday parts of Takayama were almost evacuated. Announcements played on the city’s alarm system all day long, only one of which was in English, and shared the contradictory advice of staying in our accommodation, and making sure we had enough food to last a week. We did what our neighbors did, waited for a break in the rain, rushed to grocery and stocked up nonperishables like potatoes, onions, and rice.

We made a video on youtube during the storm that (lucky for the footage) was shot during the absolute highest the river got. The rest of the week wasn’t nearly so terrifying, but water was always on my mind. I’ve been reading The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Childs, and have been thinking about Childs’ argument that something’s absence increases its value, like water in the desert. I’ve tried to fight that idea. It rains a lot here, and the Japanese are aware of the bounty of water. They take enormous baths nightly and water their gardens and rice paddies from the streams that run alongside every street, but I’ll admit Childs has a point. After not seeing the sun for days, when it poked through the clouds, we raced outdoors for a hike in the sun.

We left Takayama on highway 158, took a left on 73, and after about 30 minutes, parked at the noodle shop that marks the entrance to the Ookura waterfalls. Our car was the only one there. We blamed the late hour and giggled like teenagers who snuck into a movie to find the theater empty. Really, it was probably the rain. It was only sprinkling then, but with all the water that had been coming down, it’s a miracle that none of that path had been washed away. Part of me wonders if we saw some of those waterfalls for the first or last time. Enough water fell here to move boulders. The waterfalls might have different identities.

But I wasn’t thinking any of that as I followed Raquel up the mountain into a magical forest filled with signs warning us of bears. Raquel was conflicted, she knew we needed to make noise to warn the bears (not scare them, I don’t think bears know fear) but didn’t want to scare away the other animals. I just wanted to see a bear, so remained ominously silent until we spotted our first waterfall and was moved to words by its beauty  .

                                                                “Holy shit that’s awesome!”

We giggled some more, laughing at how foolish the island of Japan was for not sending any visitors to bother us as we explored. Up and up we climbed, each waterfall more marvelous than the last. We were giddy from their beauty. Even after days of unending rain, water is still gorgeous. Near the top, the mist of the largest waterfall in view, we decided to skinny dip in one of the pools. Well, really I decided.

“What about the…” Raquel tried to protest, “animals?” she finished lamely, and stripped off her clothes without further argument. We splashed around the mountain pool, daring something, anything besides the mountain stream to see us, but nothing did. We got dressed and climbed to the last fall. It was beautiful, and twenty meters beyond it lay a parking lot and a road for those who wanted to skip the dangerous hike or spy on skinny dippers. Mmm… so maybe I didn’t pick the best spot for our swim.

We walked down the winding road, looking for animals. We saw one enormous butterfly that took flight as we approached. I’ve been desperate to see animals, even a butterfly, and Raquel was whimpering as it flew away, so I exposed myself for the second time that day and peed in the road. I’d read urine attracts butterflies, I swear. But this one hadn’t read the same National Geographic article and flew out of sight, probably seeking drier ground.

At the bottom of the hill, I spotted a baby wild boar, scurrying from bush to bush.  I would’ve followed it back up the mountain to get a photo, but Raquel was terrified. “Where’s its Mama?” Genuine fear showed in her eyes, so we got in the car and left. Good thing too, the rain started up again and wouldn’t stop for another three days.

Childs won again, for when the rain slowed down Saturday night, I embraced its absence, and took my bicycle to the streets.

Raquel was not as enthusiastic. “It’s raining.”

It’s barely misting! I argued, desperate for my wife to accompany me downtown.

“You go if you want. Just be home by two.”

Two months in a new climate and my entire viewpoint is changed. It was raining hard enough to keep me inside watching cartoons in Austin, but here I donned a light jacket and my crocs, boasted I’d see her when the sun rose, and hopped on my bicycle.

And that’s how I found myself alone, trapped by the rain, and having a miserable conversation with a Brit obsessed with him or herself (I honestly couldn’t tell). I had already watched in terror as the Brit drove away the local sitting between us with tales of his/her awesomeness.

“I’ve road my motorcycle in Southeast Asia and Africa. I’ve seen more of America than most Americans. You know only fifteen percent of Americans have their passport? What do you think of that?”

Well I’m currently living in Japan, so I don’t know if whatever point you’re making applies to—

“Some bloke with a gun in America fixed my motorcycle. Isn’t that awful?”

What’s awful is how the cops are armed like the military in America. They’re firing teargas at civilians in Ferguson—

“Yes, so I heard, I just don’t see how a young man getting shot by the police is news.”

When s/he turned around to bum a cigarette from the Germans behind him/her, I snuck out, rain be damned. I didn’t want to be followed to the next bar.

I walked into Desolation Row with a grin. I’m one of the regulars, and it being a not-so-rainy Saturday, I was expecting to drink late into the night without my woman around to ruin my manly fun.

Instead the bartender greeted me with, “Where’s Raquel? I’ve never seen you alone before. It’s kind of weird, you know?”

I agreed, yes, it was weird, but it was raining, so here I was. I looked for a buddy to share a beer with and saw no one. So I sat down next to a Japanese woman at the bar. She introduced me to her two sons, her sister, and her mother, who protested her name and insisted I call her by her title “Baba,” Japanese for grandmother. Once I got that straight, Baba flexed her muscles and explained really she was Baba “the Boss” Yamazaki. Baba had permed curly hair, enormous sunglasses and proudly declared herself 72 years old as she downed another shot of tomato juice. The Yamazaki family had been drinking together since six, and Baba was quite proud that one her grandsons could still stand (mostly) straight.
The family watched in amazement when I pulled out my tobacco pipe and lit up.
“Can I try?” asked Yoichi

    Yoichu, youngest and most sober in appearance of the Yamazaki clan, known as the "Iron Liver."

I passed him my pipe, and before I knew it, the entire family had taken a puff, Baba included. This seemed to do the trick though, for Yoichi declared he was tired, and when Baba “the Boss” agreed the family left for warm food and dry beds.

I left shortly thereafter, and made it home well before my curfew. Lucky I did too, for the rains started in earnest, and didn’t stop until this morning. The rivers almost came out of their beds, and our neighbor never left their banks, telling anyone who walked by if the water level had gone up or down.
Now the sun is shining, the summer heat has returned, and the river flow has ebbed. I think Childs is mostly right, after not seeing the sun for a week, I want to embrace it, to lay out in the heat and just sweat. Something’s absence does make us appreciate it more, but I don’t think that those in the desert respect or fear water more than the rest of us. We felt its presence here, its weight in the mud clinging to the mountain above us, its hunger as it washed trees down the river and even its incessant plinking on our roof filled us with apprehension. Water is too powerful to ever be ignored. In Japan it sculpts the volcanoes, stops the shin-kan-sen and releases nuclear radiation. Water sculpts everyone everywhere. We all take turns fearing water and embracing it, and I think we all smile when the sun first pokes out from behind a cloud, and beg for rain on a hot day.

Joe Darris lives in Takayama Japan with his darling wife. If you enjoyed this story, please +1 and share with those who you normally stay dry with.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

24 Amazing hours in Japan: Part 2

We got home at four AM. The house stunk of sake. I hoped the English teachers staying with us were OK, but I had more pressing concerns, namely, sleep.

We woke at ten AM, and out of coffee, stumbled from the house like hungry bears roused too soon from hibernation. We went to a coffee shop that had a morning set. With a morning set, you order a four dollar cup of coffee, and it comes with free toast and a boiled egg. I don’t get it either, but hey, 4 bucks ain’t bad for breakfast.

We arrived late to the rendezvous with our Hungarian artist friend, Chaba. We had been to his birthday party a few days back, and got to see his paintings. They were beautifully intricate paintings of insects around the Hida area. “I painted these to give the temples back to the insects.” It was a stunning collection, and Chaba walked us through the whole thing and had us count the hiding insects before we all ate birthday cake together.

He was more demanding this morning, “Good, you have car. May I use trunk?” Chaba said.  

Disoriented, the coffee not yet percolated through my own system, I nodded. He took a bag from his bicycle’s basket and stashed it in our trunk. Instantly I understood his demands for a car last night. He wanted us to drive. Chaba showed me the guide to the meteor. It had crash-landed 65 million years ago, and had been converted into a hotel for visiting aliens. The guide had great rules to follow including:

Humans believe they are an intelligent species, please don’t ruin this image for them.

Anyone who interferes with the natural evolution of Earth will be sent back in time.

The wine menu had both a Red giant and a White dwarf, and of course Blue Moon for the beer drinkers.

I was laughing my ass off when Chaba’s friend arrived. They piled into the tiny backseat of our Mistubishi Pajero mini. Chaba grunted his distaste at the stash of water bottles we’d been carelessly throwing into the backseat, and we were off.

Chaba barked directions and I did my best to keep up.

“Left ahead.”


“Now. Left.”

The car swerved to and fro but somehow I never missed a turn. We stopped at one point for Chaba and his guest to load up on sweets. Raquel and I used the opportunity to clean the car. They emerged with bags of cookies, and stared at our empty hands. I was totally confused. Why had they gotten so many cookies? Surely one bag would be enough.

We piled back in and headed through a tunnel and into the mountains. We stopped once to see the owner of the land. Chaba and his friend took their bags up to the front door while Raquel and I meekly followed, our hands empty. I understood, the cookies were gifts, bribery if you will. I guess the alien owner had a sweet tooth. But no one was home, so Chaba asked the neighbor if they knew where they were. He didn’t, so they got to keep their cookies. Raquel found some dogs and an old man came out to explain either the dogs, metaphysics, or where the owner of the land was, I had no idea and neither did Raquel. She smiled and we all waited for her to get her butt in the cramped car.

Onwards we went. From a four lane highway, to a two lane one, to a single lane road that snaked through forests hidden in the mountains. I asked Chaba what would happen if someone came the other way. He laughed and shrugged. Great. My navigator thought our deaths were hilarious.

Finally we arrived at the meteor. It’s a beautiful piece of art, truly. It’s ringed in a circle of stones (“the crater, you see?”) and is faded from its original alien colors by the earth’s high concentration of corrosive oxygen and rain. The inside looks like the kind of nest Jane Fonda would wrap herself around an alien lover in, and is complete with a TV for playing scifi movies (adult or otherwise). Chaba pointed out the button for the elevator down into the rest of the structure, but I wasn’t watching carefully, and couldn’t find it again. Damn alien architecture.


After seeing the meteor, we explored the surrounding area. It was an artist’s paradise. There were picnic tables with built in grills, a mountain river for keeping your beer cold, and a little house for when it snowed. The artists all party up there, and perform or sing or dance or do whatever it is they love.

“Even if you are not an artist, you can just bring something you think is beautiful and talk about it.”

I loved the place, and seeing as how aliens had been partying there for millennia, couldn’t wait for my turn on the stage.

When’s the next party?

“Whenever, you want to make facebook event?”

Chaba’s the best. He’s already invited us to stay at his daughter’s house in Hungary and poured me beers while picking my thought about science fiction and aliens, a scifi writer’s wet dream.

There was still more to see though, so we piled back into the car and continued up the path. The road grew more and more dilapidated as the forest grew more magical. Raquel had to keep getting out to pull branches from the path. Chaba explained that bears lived in the area, but it was much more common to see wild boars.

“Don’t worry, they’re only dangerous if they are worried about their young.”

Ah. Wonderful.

Finally we came to a stop at the end of a trail that was really little more than boulders pushed together. We got out, and strangely, walked back down the path the car had barely made it up. Beautiful trees towered overhead and ancient ferns grew thick on the forest floor. Surely a dinosaur would hop out of this prehistoric forest and swallow one of us up.

Chaba led us to the waterfall, through thick moss and the homes of frogs bigger than my fist. We sat in stunned silence for a moment, then all began to snap pictures of the beautiful place before the rain got any harder.

But it was really coming down. Like, typhoon bad. If there was a mudslide up here, we’d be trapped.

We got back to the road and headed back to car while Chaba and his friend walked down the path. I still don’t understand why we drove up that last leg. If there was ever a forest that wanted to swallow a car, that was the one, if there was ever a boulder ready to give way and dig the jeep into the mud, it lived on that last stretch. We drove back towards the meteor, concerned with the amount of new branches on the path. The forest was taking this place back, and it wasn’t waiting for us. I stopped the car one last time to explore a few abandoned cabins tucked into this primordial place. The rest of the group braved the rain for me.

After that we only stopped when a branch too big for Raquel to move fell across the path. We didn’t understand, an hour ago, she’d cleared everything, now there was a tree trunk blocking our escape. I got out too and we both tugged at the tree (it was just a branch, not a tree, thank the Kami, but it was still close to thirty feet long). The four of us managed to lug it off the path, then we noticed its larger brother that was still lodged on top of the house. If that one would’ve fallen we’d have had to have left the car.
We drove back towards civilization, glad to have experienced that alien place, and happy it let us survive.

Click here to find out what happened during the first part of the 24 hours!

Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Japan with his darling wife and a surprising amount of foreigners. If you enjoyed this story, why not share with your friends or hit that +1?

Monday, August 11, 2014

24 Amazing Hours in Japan: Part 1

The last twenty fours were filled with excitement. The English teachers we replaced came to visit, and we all went out to a fireworks show together. Stoic citizens of Takayama held 3 foot tubes filled with explosives and wrapped in rope as showers of spark rained down on them until the tubes exploded. We stayed until one of the teachers couldn’t resist getting closer for a better shot (he quit teaching to be a videographer, which is good, he’s quite talented and we wouldn’t be here if not for him leaving).We left once security escorted him back to the spectator section. That’s some footage I want to see.

We went to dinner together, but then parted ways. They were invited to a wedding dance party, but with a 2000 yen cover charge, we decided to forego the party for our regular stomping grounds, Desolation Row.

A bootleg of Sid Vicious was playing as we plopped down next to the rival English teachers in town. They were with good friends of theirs, a couple of Israelis, though one of them is from Ukraine, and joked that with him here, soon Japan would go to war as well. The other Israeli was asleep, and wasn’t woken until his German friend came to rouse him.

“We are taking a plane tomorrow at twelve. Let’s go to bed.”

We English teachers all laughed mercilessly at this and the sleeping Israeli refused to leave.

“How long was I out?” he asked, lighting a cigarette.

“6 hours!”

“A month!”

“30 years, actually this is your daughter,” the Ukrainian Israeli said, gesturing to my wife.

“Wow, you are all grown up,” he said, not missing a beat.

Sergeant Pepper started up, and the other English teachers asked me if I thought Billy Shears or Paul McCartney was singing. We tried to talk about the genius that is the conspiracy of Paul’s death, but the music took us, and soon we were all singing.

Impressed with our voices (or trying to drown them out), the bartender put on Abby Road, and later The White Album. The beer mixed the albums together as we belted out “Oh Darling,” bounced to “Obla-di  Obla-da,” and talked shit about Ringo during “Octopus’s Garden.” The Ukrainian Israeli insisted Ukraine girls really were the best and Raquel and I waited to stun them all with our flawless rendition of “Rocky Raccoon.”

At one point the English teachers we replaced showed up. One had the hiccoughs and the other had a look on his face I call the sake-stare. “They had a cask of sake and some crazy woman was pouring it down our throats. I’m drunker than I’ve been in a year!” Somehow he still managed to assemble his camera and film the Beatles sing-a-long. More footage I’m desperate to see. They vanished without getting a beer. They knew the way home, so we didn’t follow them.

I hoped they made it alright, but currently the Israelis were beating their stomachs demanding food.

“You are not hungry? How can this be? We are so hungry! Come, join us, we know a place near the train station.”

Well, that is on our way home.

“Spoken like a true American! Come, eat with us!”

We left, but not before the resident Hungarian grabbed my arm.

“Tomorrow we will go to see my meteor in the morning. You have car?” He had already described his meteor to me. It had crashed sixty-five million years ago and the aliens had repurposed it into an underground bar. Really he had built it out of sheet metal and covered it in faded ink, but that’s not the kind of description I can walk away from.

Uh… what about Monday?

“Tomorrow is better” he gestured to his friend from Myanmar.

Ok, fine.

“Great, ten am? You have car?”

Uh, how about eleven?

“Yes fine. You have car?”

“Good. See you here, tomorrow at eleven. Bring your car.”

The Israelis dragged us through the empty streets of Takayama. Fortunately it had stopped raining (the first time in five days) because someone had stolen our umbrellas. We stumbled into a basement near the train station, then through halls of private dining rooms, each filled with patrons and hidden behind sliding wooden doors. This seemed like a great place to conduct business unseen.

The waitress led us to our own private alcove and the Israelis plopped down. I carefully folded my legs and lowered myself down to the low table, amazed that our friends had sat so quickly. I tucked my legs under me, cautiously sat, and…


I knocked the sliding door/wall behind me into the hallway. Raquel and the waitress held it up until a team of Japanese came to my rescue. Convinced that I’d just destroy the door, they removed it, and we ate in a three sided room.

“This place is normally so quiet!”

“I’ve never seen it so open!”

I turned red while the Israelis laughed and laughed.

They ordered a huge amount of sashimi and pizza and began to shovel it in their mouths. Raquel watched in horror as I kept up.  

“We are out of soy sauce, tell the waitress to bring some or you will destroy more of this place.”

I laughed, pretended to call for her and almost bowled over another waiter. The Israelis stopped laughing. “How drunk are you?”

Raquel came to my rescue, “He doesn’t need to be drunk. He’s just clumsy. Ridiculously clumsy.”

Thanks babe!

As we feasted we talked of the Japanese who ate quietly in hidden rooms all around us.

“They make noises to be polite.”

We all chimed in, with our best attempts at conversational Japanese: “So, so. Hai. Hai. Dozo! Eto… Eeeeeto,” which roughly translates to: “Mhmm. Yes. Yes. If you please! Um… Ummm…”

Filled with delicious sashimi and pizza (how one place can do both so well boggles my mind) and quite sure we had offended the locals, we left. The one who’d slept thirty years, Raquel’s father, waived away our pathetic attempts to pay as effortlessly as her real father would have.

We left, carefully dodging the puke on the stairs, and parted ways. The rain had started up again, so I stole an umbrella as we passed a convenient store, hopefully adding another link in a chain of umbrella-theft that goes back decades. Raquel gave it away the next day, but that’s another story, for another post. After a week of rain, the sun is out. We need to go warm up before the typhoon returns.

24 Amazing Hours in Japan: Part 2

Joe Darris lives in Japan with his darling wife, and would it if you shared his blog with your friends!

Friday, August 8, 2014

The insects of Japan

The creatures of Japan hide from the tourists. 

Forests thick with pine and insects cling to the mountains, people cling to the cities, but everywhere seems void of the beasties in between.

For weeks, I stared into the woods, quietly peeked around abandoned temples, and scanned the sides of the highways, hoping to glimpse a beast of Japan. Anything would do, a monkey, a fox, a black bear crashing through the clouds that rest between the mountains, but they all alluded me. Over time a few animals appeared: angry swallows that furiously destroyed the beginning of a nest above our door when we returned from Kyoto; big mean crows that caw for the end times from the power lines, but nothing else.

But Japan changed my expectations, or it tried to anyway. I was lying in bed with my wife. “Do you hear that?” she whispered.

I strained my ears over the chirping crickets and croaking frogs. There was something else. It reminded me of the night I’d spent camping at The Grand Canyon, where elk bellowed louder than RV generators. It was their cousin, the sika, Japanese deer. I listened to these creatures crying to each other from the forest until my house trembled from the gentle aftershock of a faraway earthquake, perhaps a tectonic plate tucking its neighbor into bed, and I fell asleep.

I awoke to a different Japan. The deer told me that Japan’s not a land of the beast. Japan is the land of the insect. The deer knew this, and by staying hidden forced me to accept that I’d have to look for animals in a lot smaller places. I didn’t have to look hard.

A few nights later, moths started to invade the school I teach at. First one was at the window, then two, six, twelve, finally fourteen huge white and grey moths beat their wings at the screen to get to the light that stirs something inside of them. My students screamed in fear. They pantomimed scratching their skin to the bone. These moths are poisonous. I left after dark to find hundreds of white moths assaulting the lights in the parking lot. They swarmed the light on the front of my bicycle as I pedaled home. These moths travel around Japan, a perpetual plague of locusts that grow thicker and thicker until their population density is so high a virus burns through them and they die off until their eggs hatch the next year. This is their second season in Takayama, and no one wants a third. The next night our coworker enlisted our support in battling the moths and we left the office smashing the lighter colored females that invaded our building, trying to prevent eggs that would lie dormant for a year before they spilled open, like containers of radioactive waste. The idea of Mothra terrorizing the island makes more sense.

But I expected more than bugs. Japanese fiction is larger than life. Godzilla destroys cities while giant mechanized Gundams defend the planet. Power Rangers still defend against monsters that that threaten to crush Tokyo every Saturday morning. Japan is a culture so obsessed with the huge and surrounded by the tiny. There’s just not enough room for anything big here. Supposedly there’s monkeys and bears, but not like in the west, the most underpopulated of continents. There’s no steel dumpsters here, no fear of raccoons knocking over garbage cans.

People bring what little wild there is into civilization. Children ogle beetles that cost 3,000 yen in the grocery stores and the bold ones venture into the woods equipped with nets and plastic cages. We visited a chipmunk park, a giant cage filled with the adorable rodents. Locals keep it secret from the tourists, and gladly pay the entrance fee to spend a few minutes with the closest thing I've seen to a wild animal. I went to a BBQ the other day, and our soul entertainment besides the delicious Romanian food, was the variety of creatures the six year old boy captured for our amusement and the terror of his mother. He found grasshoppers bigger than my thumb, praying mantises, singing crickets, tiny frogs, and a beetle he feared to touch but wouldn’t leave alone until I shot a video for him.

The Japanese obsession with the tiny pushes its way into the foreigner’s psyche. We went to a friend’s art exhibit, a Hungarian who’s lived in Japan for twenty five years. Brightly colored paintings of insects painted into enormous monsters greeted us from his canvas. There was a wasp larger than my arm and butterflies that threatened to blow away ancient pagodas. “The people scare them from the temples. I painted these to give places back to the insects.”

The obsession with the tiny affected me as well, for the other night I ventured out to bring home a singing cricket. There’s supposed to be good luck, and I miss having am extra heartbeat in our home. I followed the crickets’ song until I came to a patch of high grass. I turned on my light and searched for the source of the melody. The crickets saw me coming and hopped away. I tried to stand but something stopped me. I bent back down, went back to my task, but again, the crickets easily evaded capture. I stood and again bumped my head. It was a spider web. The monster living in the middle looked bigger than any creature I’d ever seen in the states from behind the safety of a pane of glass. The arachnid wasn’t intimidated by me crashing into its home. It busily wrapped a mouse in silken netting, and dared me to touch its sticky web a third time. I scurried home, afraid of a tiny creature that’s trap could catch something as big as me.

I set out the next day, protected by sunlight, in search of a pet. Each time I pushed aside a handful of grass still wet from the rains of tsunami, dozens of creatures crawl away: Godzilla, Mothra, the monsters Rita Repulsa sends to attack the Power Rangers. I saw their true forms, geckos, caterpillars, frogs so small I was afraid to break them.

I caught the cricket I was hoping would lull me to sleep. He sang too loudly all night about beasts living deep in the mountain forests, and monsters rising from the ocean to wipe humans from this island, and give it back to the insects. Mammals are never so rude. I threw him from my window and he hit the roof with a thunk, saying nothing is larger than me. I hope a swallow eats him.

Next week I plan to climb Mount Norikura, a nearby mountain that promises an easy assent. I should settle for poisonous moths and beetles large as my hand, but I still long to stare down a bear crossing the path, or be robbed by a snow monkey. I harbor dreams from a place too large, where deer run through suburbs and concerned citizens donate money for the wolves to return.

The sika convinced me of nothing. They told me of the insects, of the tiny, but I wasn’t listening to their words, only their voices. I’ll find them yet, and no cricket song will help me rest until I do.

Monday, August 4, 2014


A Shinto pavilion hangs in the air above a ring of straw, buried in 2 feet of clay. Two hulking men, wearing only silk mawashi beat their chests and hurl salt in the air. Another man, dressed in an elaborate silk robe armed with a sword and fan waits for the men to lunge at eachother, and for a fingernail or a follicle of hair to hit the sand.  

According to the pamphlet I purchased, the Japanese people wouldn’t exist if not for Sumo. The Japanese won their island when the god Takemikazuchi bested another rival tribe’s leader. Legends aside, Sumo dates back 1500 years. Sumo is the oldest unchanged sport in the world, rivaled only by another of my favorites, the Highland Games. The Superbowl hasn’t even around for 50. Shit the Olympics have only been around since 1896, and they’re always changing the events. Sumo wrestling has more history than most governments. Sumo has changed its rules less than most religions. Nearly every breed of dog, cow, and chicken have existed for less time than Sumo wrestling.

So, steeped in history, I arrived at the Sumo Tournament in Nagoya in awe.

The tournament was inside an air-conditioned stadium, so maybe it’s changed a teensy bit. We arrived early to find skinny rikishi grappling in the ring. These weren’t those goliaths you know from tattoos and the Jackie Chan Adventures cartoon, these were skinny dads and fat college drop outs who just loved to wrestle. They didn’t throw any salt or stomp around the ring. Their referee wasn’t even allowed to wear shoes. These were the up and comers and the old timers who either never made it big or joined too late to have time to build the physique of a master rikishi, the yokozuna.

There have only been 71 yokozuna, or Sumo masters since the title was created, sometime before 1749. The title of yokozuna, is older than the office of the president of the United States (The history of Japan never ceases to amaze me). Since 1909, the only way to become a yokozuna is to win two tournaments back to back. A difficult task made nearly impossible by the other prizes rikishi vie for. Rikishi can earn another title, sort of like streak-breaker, if they beat the last guy who won and the current yokozuna. So not only does the rikishi have to win one tournament, he has to win the next, with 41 boulders of muscle trying to throw him to the ground. But once a rikishi becomes a yokozuna, nothing can take that title from him. If he begins to lose, he is expected to retire from Sumo.

Currently there are 3 yokozuna. So we’re in a golden age of Sumo, at least that’s what Ko said, the man who sat down next to us with his wife and son. He vanished after a moment and reappeared with three skewers of tender chicken. One for his family, two for me and my wife.

“Do you like chicken?” he said in American sounding English.

“I do like chicken,” I said, pulling my eyes away from the ring. The big guys were coming in, the Makuuchi, the 42 rikishi who are currently the very best Sumo wrestlers in the world.

“Ah,” Ko pushed the skewers of meat towards us. We did what we thought was polite, and took one to share. It was delicious. Tender, sweet and salty. Think the best teriyaki you’ve ever had. I wasn’t missing nachos just then.

Ko was confused. He stared at the uneaten yakitori, then at me. I looked at him, then the chicken. Tensions rose. I’m not eating that! I thought. Ko looked from the chicken back to me. That’s for your family!  I looked from Ko’s eyes to chicken. Eat, EAT DAMN YOU! Ko finally ate the skewer. Thank god. We’d stuffed ourselves at the train station earlier. Still, we’d made enough eye contact to last a life time in Japan, so we were fast friends.

“So… do you like Sumo?” I asked.

Ko’s grin was so big it spread off his face, “Yes, you could say I like Sumo…” he proceeded to tell me if its history, its strongest players, the current up and comers, home town favorites, as well as which wrestlers he didn’t care for and why. He’d studied English in Chicago for three years and I’m pretty sure he bought us that yakitori so he could talk about Sumo and practice English at the same time.

The crowd cheered and we looked up from our beers.

“Eh… that’s Endo. He’s a crowd favorite, but I like Tochinowaka,” Ko said.

“Why’s Endo the favorite?”

Ko tried to explain that he’d joined the sport late in life, after college, and was pursuing his dream at all costs, something the Japanese truly admire, but his wife cut him short. “He’s handsome,” she said with a smile, and went back to watching the match. Ko lost his wind. She must have been right. Endo won and the crowd went wild. Yay for pretty people not figuring their life out right away!

I pulled out my camera and asked if Ko knew this wrestler was.

“Oh yes, that’s Osunaarashi. He’s is the first Arabian Makuuchi.”

I had been taking pictures of the Makuuchi entering the stadium. They were stoic, unstoppable forces. I got the sense that if a puppy fell in front of them they’d rather it crush it than break stride. Osunaarashi was different. Like a scene out of a bad movie, a woman dropped her handkerchief, and with a smile and the flick of his wrist Osunaarashi returned it with a slight bow. That was very un-Japanese of him. He outranked everyone there except for the yokozuna.

“He’s only twenty-two, but has already defeated a yokozuna this tournament, he has real potential, but needs to refine his skill.”

Alright! He was a lover and a fighter.

Raquel had her sights on another. She came back from the gift shop with a towel of her favorite rikishi, the yokozuna, Hokuho.

“Why did you get that?” I asked, already offended she wasn’t supporting my boy Osunaarashi,

“Because I asked the vendor who was the best, and she said. Hokuko. Hokuho Ichiban! Hokuho number one!”

I admitted that was a compelling argument. Still I had my loyalties.

The tournament continued, the matches nonstop. At one point I met Santa Claus. He was there to get on TV. Turns out he’s British, lives in Japan, is a drinker and avid youtuber, and said I should start a channel.

“You’re good-looking. You could be popular.” I guess that means I’m on the nice list. When I told him I had a beautiful Latin wife his jaw hit the floor.

She should have a channel. You both should be telling everyone what its like to be here!  You even have the multicultural angle.” Thanks Santa. Advice taken.

Soon only two matches were left. Raquel and I screamed like banshees.

Osunaarash was up against the yokozuna Harumafuji. They entered the ring and stamped about, pausing only to slap their chests and glare at eachother. The first five minutes of any of the Makuuchi matches are spent displaying strength and intimidating the other rikishi. Osunaarashi knew his stuff. His leg lifts were high, his chest slaps painful. Harumafuji had a better salt toss, but Osunaarashi’s didn’t look half bad. They each ran to their corners and wiped themselves down. It was time.

The match begun and was over before I could blink. Harumafuji started with a powerful lunge but my boy was ready, and deftly stepped aside and pushed Harumafuji to the ground.


Only Hokuho remained. Raquel screamed until her voice was horse. The only person more excited for the bout was the six year old girl behind us.

“Hokuho!” they both yelled. “Hokuho!”

The yokozuna didn’t disappoint. He easily outmaneuvered Kaisei and had him down in the sand in seconds. It was a great night. We walked through Nagoya back to our hotel, having more fun than I thought possible at a sporting event, and we even go to take a rikishi home. Though I don’t like the idea of him touching Raquel when she gets out of shower.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Raquel got hit by a car in Japan

“It’s been a week of firsts. An old woman yelled at me in the grocery store, and I was hit by car. But don’t worry the old woman didn’t hurt my feelings.”
I was lying in bed, listening to Raquel talk to her parents. She had an evil grin on her face.
“Vidas, what happened?”
“We were carrying our groceries in our hands, and this old woman started yelling at us. I think she was saying we were going to get sick if the meat got warm.”
I heard Raquel’s father agree, yes, she should use a basket, but her mom was not so easily distracted.
“Raquel, are you ok?”
“Yeah I’m fine. We were leaving work on our bicycles, and I was crossing the street when a car hit the front of my bicycle. I’m not hurt or anything. My knee’s just a little scraped.”
An understatement for my most terrifying moment in Japan. Raquel’s fine, so I guess I should let it rest, but it was not as fun as she makes it sound. It was around 9pm, and we had just left work. By some stroke of misfortune Raquel was crossing the street instead of me when a tiny pink hatchback rounded the curve and struck her.
“Oh shit a car!” she yelled before the pink monstrosity smashed into her bicycle and I watched in horror as the love of my life fell to the asphalt. There’s nothing worse than watching someone you love get hurt right in front of you. There she was, an arm’s length away, and in that instant there was nothing I could do. I’d failed her, the only person I’m supposed to protect. All I could do was see if she was hurt.  
I threw my bike to the ground and ran to her.
“Are you OK?”
She was. She didn’t even look disoriented. “I’m fine!” She yelled, way too loud. OK so she was a little shaken up. I led her out of the street, sat her down, glanced at the crosswalk light (it was just starting to blink green, Raquel had definitely had the right of way), retrieved our bicycles and stared down the pink car, daring it keep driving. I was ready to chase it down and rip the driver’s door off the hinges.
But that wasn’t necessary. The driver stopped and ran over to us. She was a young woman already yelling “sumimasen!” Damn straight she was. You better say sorry after you hit my wife. I considered murder. Surely in Japan they didn’t practice the death penalty. Lucky for her, an old couple came out of their home and explained they saw the whole thing (at least I think they did, my nonexistent Japanese skills were worse than usual). “Hospital?” They asked, “police?” I checked Raquel again. She’d turned white as rice and was sitting against the fence. I checked her for wounds but she was fine, just a scrape.
“No hospital,” I said. I just wanted to get her home. I checked her bicycle. The front wheel wouldn’t turn, but with a little elbow grease I bent the fender back into place and it was good as new. The dent in the pink car’s bumper wouldn’t fix so easily.  These bikes must be American made, I found myself thinking. We could take the bikes, but Raquel didn’t look so good. I looked back to the school we work at, but our coworker and English lifeline had just left. We were on our own.
“Raquel, do you want a ride?” I figured if we were inside the woman’s car, we’d be safer. But Raquel hopped up, her brush with death forgotten.
“I feel a lot better. We should walk the bikes home. I’m hungry,” I nodded. That’s my wifey, tough as nails, but ruled by her stomach.
The older couple wouldn’t let us go. They were giving the driver a stern talking to on our behalf and didn’t want to let her off the hook so easily.
No, we’re English teachers. Eigo-sensei I pointed at the school. They nodded, and asked when we’d be working tomorrow. I wondered if they wanted to explain what had happened to someone who wasn’t as nonsensical as us two carefree Americans, but no, he looked at the driver. She looked about as unsure as us about what to do.
“If hurt, call. Hospital.”
Yes. That seemed fair. I had her write her phone number down, and only then did the older couple relax, knowing this reckless banshee wouldn’t escape without punishment.
We walked home, Raquel jabbering away, “wow what if me and that woman become friends? Wouldn’t that be funny, if that’s how we met? Maybe she’ll teach me Japanese. People in Japan really are more observant about bicycles.”
Darling, you were just hit by a car.
“Yeah, but normally they’re really observant.”
Of course they are dear.  
Maybe Raquel’s right. People certainly are considerate here. The next day the woman came by our school with a gift for her victim, complete with Band-Aids, disinfectant and a mystery box.
“Look Joe, another first, my first Japanese style gift!” But she was too tired to open it when we got home. It sits on our coffee table, begging me to peak as I write this morning. Is it beer? Cookies? Juice? Perhaps laundry detergent? The Japanese have a thing for practical gifts, so I doubt it’s a kimono or a jigsaw puzzle. Whatever it is, we’ll probably use it. The gift won’t have time to be thrown away, or turn into a memento of the demonic driver. And as time goes by we’ll think more and more fondly of the assailant (especially if its beer).
As I ponder the mysterious box, Raquel snoozes on. I think her week of firsts finally caught up with her.
Don't worry dear readers. Raquel's fine! Sumo's coming next week, and as always, if you enjoyed this story, or are just glad my wife's OK, please +1 and share with your loved ones.