Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I got #2 problems living in Japan

My wife just burst into our living room, furious.
“Did you use the last of the toilet paper?”
I admitted I had and asked, “What’s wrong with the washlet?”
“The drip!” she said and scowled and marched back down stairs.
Toilets in japan are like something out of a science fiction movie, perhaps 2001. They can be either intimidatingly futuristic or unapologetically archaic. The toilet in our house is equipped with an adjustable seat warmer, two flush settings, and a water jet that can wash your ass in three different places with five different power settings. Despite this marvelous piece of technology, my wife still prefers toilet paper.
“It just doesn’t feel clean without it. Plus there’s the drip-dry.”
I am decidedly in the other camp, and see the minute you need to air out as a minute of quiet bliss. I have not used toilet paper in our house since we’ve been in Japan, and am not look forward to digging around my butt crack with thin tissue when I get back to the U.S. of A. It’s unsanitary, ineffective, and a huge waste of resources. The Japanese bathroom experience is superior. They even have a little faucet on the back of every toilet, so you can rinse your hands with the water that fills up the toilet tank. Not that you need to, because you don’t have to worry about getting shit underneath your fingernails.
That is, if you’re at home.
Taking a dump in public takes far more courage. Some toilets are the sleek futuristic models, but most are barely a step up from a latrine, just a trough in the ground with handles to hold on both sides. You’re not even supposed to face the door, you’re supposed to squat facing the wall, while the guy in the stall over sits atop a porcelain throne. I have no idea how a people so accustomed to a robotic butt butler can transition to keeping their balance while their cheeks dip so precariously close to cold porcelain.
What’s worse is that the food in Japan is far from fibrous. I was eating the hipster veggie diet when I lived in America. Kale, chard, and spinach, all from our garden, with a healthy dose of brown rice (sounds fibrous to me) and the occasional bowl of raisin brain. Now I eat primarily raw fish, white rice and miso soup with a single leaf of seaweed. This means I’m far from regular, so when duty calls, I make for the nearest bathroom for fear of losing my golden opportunity.
I’ve been lucky. Normally I can just clench it and wait the guy in the good stall out, but all good things must come to an end.
I might’ve lasted longer if my know-it-all friends Tam and Cole weren’t in town from the States. After three days of their badgering about the toilets, I found myself above the only vacant trough. Their words of wisdom raced through my head. “Dude western style toilets cause you hemorrhoids,” “Yeah man pooping in a squat gives you a more complete poop.” On and on, as if they’d lived here for years. Still I found strength in their words, gritted my teeth, and grabbed hold of the railings so as not to lose balance. It went successfully. I told my friends and they looked shocked. “Whoa, like, how was it?”
What do you mean how was it? You were just singing its merits!
“Yeah but like, I’ve never used one.”
Goddamn know-it-all Americans. But at least they give me courage while I dangle above the squat toilet that has haunted me the most, the one at work. I would think that an English language school of all places would have a western style toilet, but of course that’s asking too much in this paradox of a country.
So I squat, and I shit, and I miss my Washlet and its multitude of features. I don’t care what my wife says. I’ll take the drip-dry and a newspaper over a deep-knee bend any day.
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan with his beautiful and patient wife. He would like to apologize for the potty-humor, but can't promise it won't happen again. If there's something you'd like to know about being a foreigner in Japan, say so in the comments!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Desolation Row

Kensei is the coolest man in in the world
He wears Texas Tuxedos without a trace of irony.
He’s on the cover of the local magazine.
His title says “Rock” Division on his business card.
He puts whiskey in his coke just for the flavor.  
He runs the greatest bar in Japan, called Desolation Row. A great name, made better because inside you can hear anything ever sung by Bob Dylan, down to the bootlegs.
After all, Kensei is the coolest man in the world.
Desolation Row overflows with vinyl. If it rocks, Kensei’s got it. I’ve cheersed beers to more American classics than I’ve ever heard in bars in the states (no Lady Gaga for Kensei, ever.) His favorite (obviously I hope) is Bob Dylan, but I’ve listened to the Boss, Tom Waits, Muddy Waters, and my personal favorite, Earl Scruggs. That Kensei has Earl Scruggs is not unusual, but that he has my favorite record, The Kings of Bluegrass is what sets him apart from anywhere else I’ve ever been. And when my friend Alex asks to be the DJ and exclusively plays the Beetles and Bluegrass so the two of us can dance behind the bar while Kensei refills our Jack Daniels, Kensei does so with a smile and a nod of his head.
But its not just the drunken parties that make Desolation Row so great. The space itself is beautiful in a hole-in-the-wall kind of way. Most of Desolation Row is filled with the bar itself: a six inch slab of an ancient Japanese tree. Ask Kensei about it and you’ll find that though it weighs a ton, it traveled to Desolation Row from Kensei’s old bar, a herculean feat Kensei probably did with ease. Handmade shelves are crammed with vinyl and CDs. The back of the bar is a cozy space that features a Botsudan, a traditional Japanese shrine for dead ancestors, but don’t worry, Kensei got it purified before he got it put in his bar. You can normally find the tourists lucky enough to find their way down to Desolation Row clustered around it, because having something like that in a bar terrifies the locals.
The locals tend to crowd the bar and pick Kensei’s brain. Kensei knows all, from American Western movies to the best hidden bars in Kyoto, not that you’ll be able to find them, because you’re not as cool as Kensei.
Kensei is the coolest man in Japan.
This weekend I had the honor of seeing his personal library. Kensei mentioned it once and I’ve been hounding him since. HE agreed to take me on Sunday, even though we’d harassed him to opening his bar the night before and demanded free beer for having to wait. Still, Kensei met my wife and I near the city library, a place I would find had less than half of the English selection of Kensei’s collection. We strolled towards the temples in Takayama and found his library nestled above a babbling creek, hidden beneath beautiful maples on an ancient road once home to the famous carpenters of Takayama. He ushered us across his personal bridge with a laugh, then revealed the contents of his library.
The fact that I could only read a tenth of the books in no way took away from the experience, for his English selection would take years for me to read. Capote, Steinbeck, Toni Morrison, Joyce, King, Dickens, Austen, Wells, and more, all crammed together between thousands of Japanese books. I filled a bag, then topped it off with a few classic Hollywood western movies and was then was bestowed his favorite book. Bob Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles: Volume one.
“It starts when he’s a kid, but kinda jumps around when he gets to New Orleans, not in sequence you know? It’s a good book.”
Of course that’s his favorite book. Kensei is the coolest man in the world.
And of course Kensei will know more about classic everything than I ever will. I was lucky enough to see his library, an experience I found he hasn’t shared with many, and an experience I will treasure forever (or until I finish my bag of books and beg to return).
But Desolation Row will forever be my favorite place in Japan. Stop by if you come to Takayama, I’ll be the guy with a beard not making room for you at the bar, after all there are chairs by the Botsudan, and I got some books to discuss.
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama with his wife, who Kensei likes more than him anyway. If you enjoyed this story, read more about parties at Kensei's, or come see us at Desolation Row

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tokyo Nights

My two best friends came to visit us in Japan, and the trip started of disastrously. They were supposed to fly in from Tokyo to Nagoya, but in a desperate effort to make it to a Halloween party, I had them catch the shinkansen so they could get here sooner. That’s right. In Japan, trains are faster than planes.
After an hour of waiting I abandoned my car in the passenger pick up area and started making laps around the train station. I yelled their names and clicked my tongue until my mouth was sore. After two hours I asked the shinkansen operator if a typhoon had washed the train into the sea. After three hours and a fresh patch of gray hair in my beard, I contacted the police. They took me to the station master who, after 20 sweaty, agonizing minutes, gave me the microphone for the PA system. This was my one and only chance.
“Tam Tran and Cole Welsome, this is Joe Mitchell. Please come to the Station Master’s office,” boomed throughout Nagoya station. I had done it and I collapsed from exhaustion, if they were here, they’d find me.
Seconds later, someone knocked on the door and the police opened it to the two smiling faces of my best friends. They looked like they’d just awoken from a pleasant nap, and indeed they had. Turns out I’d send them to the wrong connecting station in Tokyo, and they’d just barely made a train and arrived in Nagoya moments before. So I’d ruined our chances of making the party and probably taken a few years of my life, but, on the other hand, if the station master had let me use the PA any sooner, they wouldn’t have been in the station to hear it, and I would have abandoned them for a stiff drink.
We still made it to the after party at the Karaoke bar, where they met Chaba (dressed as a woman and armed with a gun) and sang Takayama to sleep with Tam’s throaty rendition of Weezer’s sweater song, and Cole’s always stunning performance of “Witchy Woman.”

We spent a few days in Takayama, mostly enjoying the fall foliage and playing with monkeys and squirrels. We ate at all our favorite restaurants. Tam and Cole seemed most impressed with the curry restaurant we’d never been to before, though it made Raquel feel sick. You can never please ‘em all.

We left for Tokyo to make our reservations for Yazuda sushi. It was divine. Even after I told Yazuda-san himself I had eaten tuna liver in Takayama, and he (not so politely) informed me that tuna guts are always dumped into the sea, and in a mountain town like Takayama, it was far more likely that I’d eaten bear liver than tuna guts, it was still the most delicious meal I’ve ever eaten. I ate twice as much sushi as Tam and Cole, and they were forced to watch as me and the man who’d replaced Raquel at the 8 seat restaurant (she refused to eat sushi two days in a row) grunted our appreciation as we stuffed our mouths with the likes of sea urchin, needlefish and the best shrimp, EVER. Only when Raquel strolled in, after waiting on the steps outside the restaurant for an hour, did we make our exit. High on omega-3’s, I passed out in a stinky fishy mess, and we reconvened in the morning.
The next day we killed time with a giant Gundam until our reservation at the Robot Restaurant.
A note on themed restaurants in Tokyo:   
1. Cat cafes have far too many rules. Don’t pick up the cats, don’t let the cats sit on table, don’t touch the sleeping cats, don’t chase the cats, on and on and on. I found a cat who liked tummy-rubs, so it was still worth it, but for the tourist visiting Japan, avoid the cat café. You’ll have far more fun tormenting your own ball of fur when you return home.
2. Not all maid cafes are created equal. Raquel and I went to a maid café on our last visit to Tokyo, and loved it. The maids taught us all kinds of cute tricks, and the place was filled with all sorts of people, from Japanese bikers to British grandmothers. The maid cafe we took Tam and Cole to was empty except for a few single guys who spent a little too much time there. It was still overwhelming and we ended up paying too much (I wanted the maid dance instead of the photo, damn it!) but thus is life in Tokyo.  
3. The Robot Restaurant is awesome. The Robot Restaurant had it all: Saxophone wielding angels and robot guitarists who played nauseating renditions of James Blunt songs, drummers on ten foot tall dueling robotic platforms, a giant sequined horse, even a chain gun-wielding Rita Repulsa (my first crush) who was eaten by a huge jungle snake. The show was so good that one of the local crime lords came out, complete with 5 hired escorts and two bodyguards. I heard someone complain that the crime lord’s women got all the popcorn, but I’d rather be popcorn-less than a prostitute any day.
You haven't experienced James Blunt until you've seen it performed by robots.

We went shopping in Akihabara the next day, and I watched the chaos of Tokyo slowly blind my friends. They started strong, but by the evening Cole was complaining that the claw machines were a conspiracy and Tam looked like his beloved sage grouse, paralyzed by bright lights. We dragged them to Karaoke and plied them out of their daze with alcohol, otherwise I think they would’ve ended up in a puddle, trying to hide from the lights and the Japanese and the consumerism beyond anything Austin has to offer. But we had fun. Cole found a vending machine that served hot corn drink and drank way too much of it, and Tam and I danced to some street music, though when I blinked Tam had been replaced by a Japanese man furiously dancing with my crotch. I found my friends and we got the hell out.
We made the mistake of taking them shopping again the next day. Tam shrugged compulsively as shop owners made him clean their store fronts and Cole proclaimed he’d rather people watch than shop, though his back was turned to the seething crowd behind us. Raquel, oblivious to their plight, shopped like a fiend until they abandoned us for the nearby Meiji Shrine.
The magic of Tokyo is the juxtaposition of it all. On one side of the tracks is the busiest shopping district in Tokyo, on the other an ancient mystic forest, swirling with mist and sacred temples. I found Tam underneath a Torii gate, clearly looking relieved to be somewhere he could hear birdsongs. Cole had left him for a bathroom, so we set out into the park, hoping to spot a giant white tongue clicker. Meiji shrine and the park around it is beautiful, like something from another time. We saw three weddings, a collection of flowering bonsai trees, and woman who could make birds land in her hand. Meiji Shrine is magic.  
I asked them what they thought of it all, of Japan, of Tokyo, and of Takayama. I think Cole said it best. “Japan is different down to the smallest detail, but the big stuff’s all the same.”  
And it’s true. Everything is different in Japan, the stores, the restaurants, the games, but it’s still all the same, clothes, food, distractions. Like everything about the modern world, Japan has the rare ability to overwhelm but is usually underwhelming to a fault. But the great thing about it is when the flashing lights are too much, and there's too many people all around you, you can head for the wild that’s always pressing in on the cities and escape, as long as you’re willing to follow your friends.

Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan with his darling wife, and already misses his friends. If you liked this story, +1 it, or read more about Tokyo, or Japanese food.