Tuesday, July 30, 2013

I'm in Your Debt

Not long after returning to the States after 15 years abroad, I decided it might not be a bad idea to get another credit card.  I only had one, which I got just before going overseas, one that I didn't even use that often. But as we were trying to scrape out a new life on a very limited bank balance, I though that having a new card might help ease the pressure, if only for the moment.

To my surprise, I was turned down by the credit card company.  What was even more puzzling was the fact that I was applying for an REI card, the very company that I was working for at the time.  They had immediate access to my records, knew exactly what I was bringing home as pay, yet I was still deemed a risk. 

It didn't make sense. I had rarely used the one card that I did have, and was always careful about making payments.  In fact, for the last five years, I'd been paying my balance off in full every month. Before leaving for Japan in 1994, I wanted to leave clean, and had been diligent in paying off my students loans and in not owing any money to anyone.  This didn't make sense.

Then my wife was turned down for a card. As was another friend from Japan.  They too didn't owe any money either.

Then it dawned on me.  It was exactly because I was debt free that I was a risk.  This seemed pretty sick to me.   It's like you need to have a chain around your ankle before you ask for another to be put on your wrist.  I was back in a society that expected you to be live beyond your means.

And I saw an interesting parallel in how American's handle their personal relationships.  It comes back to the same instant gratification.  Americans need to win.  We see it in road rage, in the fist pumping chanting at the Olympics, in our entertainment, where insult and put down are used as the highest form of bon mot.   Yet a victory now will have to be paid back later in the form of time invested in healing a damaged relationship.

Back now in Japan, I've noticed that good relationships are an important part of doing business.  Whereas an American company will dump a business partner if things aren't financially lucrative, a Japanese business will note that the relationship isn't working well, and will attempt to work together to find a way to improve the situation. Even outside the business sphere, that oft criticized concept of tatemai, is a means of keeping good books in personal human interactions.

On the turntable: Beat Happening, "Jamboree"
On the nighttable:  Liza Dalby, "The Tale of Murasaki"

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Papers: Helen Keller

"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable."

On the turntable:  Yo-Yo Ma, "Lieberson: King Gesar"

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Brew's Clues

In May last year, they built a new convenience store around the corner from my house.  (As I don't do product placement on this blog, I'll refer to it as "Oval X.")  To my shock and delight, I found that the beer cooler was stocked with not only YonaYona, which could possibly be my favorite Japanese craft beer, but also the pale ale's IPA little brother, Ao Oni. 

I was first introduced to Ao Oni about 5 years ago when I was planning a yoga event at a progressive cafe that had it on the menu.  At that point I'd never seen an IPA in Japan.  The cafe owner told me that you could only buy it online.  Later that day I found the website and saw that it was only sold at the auction site Rakuten a few times a year.  Amazingly, that very night was one of those times. 

At the auction start of 11:59 I ordered myself two cases, and went to bed.  The next morning, I decided to get a third case, and when I went back online, I saw that all 100 cases had sold out in seven minutes.

And now the same beer was available anytime, and just up the street.

But all things must pass, and like the end of a summer romance, Ao Oni and "Oval X" parted ways, promising to write.

Disheartened by the usual array of identical mainstream beers, I wandered with bowed head into the local sake shop next door, and found amongst a dozen craft beers the one-fanged smiling face of the Ao Oni.  Thus I struck up a thrice weekly (more in summer) friendship with the delightful proprietress who never fails to greet me in her politest Kyoto dialect. 

The son however was another story.  He always acted as if her couldn't be bothered about my business,  frowning and acting a bit surly as he stood hulking behind the counter, donning his ever-present blue parka and wool cap.

But summer has rolled around again, and the son is tanned and smiling in his T-shirts and shorts, now glad for my business as he braces the back of my hand tenderly before dropping my change in to my palm.

Perhaps he just doesn't like cold weather.

On the turntable:  Cat Stevens, "New Masters"
On the nighttable:  Yoshikawa Eiji, "Taiko"

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Papers: Edward Seidensticker

“The relationship between tradition and change in Japan has always been complicated by the fact that change is in itself a tradition.” 

On the turntable:  "The Rough Guide to Okinawa"


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Spiritual Memoir

A few years back, my brother and I decided to start a business in which we would coach people on how to write marketable manuscripts.  (Shortly thereafter, our life trajectories spun into odd orbits, and our project was abandoned in a reed basket at the side of a river somewhere.)  I was to deal with my usual demons:  travel, music, the outdoors.  I was also to help people write their spiritual memoirs.  Thus I composed the following post, which originally appeared on our webpage...

In the autumn of 2007, I found myself in Bristol, VT, a town of a mere 4000 people, yet blessed with two organic supermarkets and a vegan microbrew pub.  I was there to complete my training in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy.  After the pre-sunrise yoga classes, we’d spend the afternoons mining our psyches with the intense practices that Phoenix Rising is known for.  After these very long and challenging days, I'd try to unwind with a book.  For most of the week I read Elizabeth Gilbert's, "Eat, Pray, Love," recommended to me by my aunt Beth, who had incidentally been Gilbert's English teacher.  Initially expecting a piece of 'chick-lit,' I found myself quickly taken with the book, and I realize in hindsight that the memoir became part of that week's spiritual practice.

Spiritual memoir is a bizarre animal.  It is the revealing of a single person's soul, one grounded very much in that writer's own personal history and unique psychological makeup.  Yet these memoirs somehow connect with the equally personal experiences of thousands of readers.  (In the case of "Eat, Pray, Love," 7 million readers.)  This connection cuts across every possible demographic line, through gender, age, and culture.  My own connection with Gilbert's book was admittedly informed by my being immersed in the deep seeking that was happening at the time of reading.  Again, a very personal experience.  Which got me interested in the question of what particular element, or more specifically, which particular scene resonated most with readers.  In preparation for writing this piece, I referred to both the Internet and the opinion of friends in order to find that part of the book that had the greatest impact on them.  And I found that nearly everyone had a different answer. 

For some, it was a literary revisit to place that had informed their life in some way. (Not difficult, considering the exotic locales.)  For others, it was the identification (or non-identification) with a person who had reassembled a shattered life.  And for others still, it was simply a nodding acquaintance with the transcendence that can accompany a good meal or a dynamic round of sex.    Yet each person could not only recite a favorite scene of their own, but could do so on demand. 

This project was beginning to remind me of the old Buddhist tale where three blind men come upon an elephant, and in touching a different part of the animal's body, comes to his own individual opinion of what he’s found: a pillar (leg), a tree branch (trunk), or a wall (belly).  So what was the common denominator, (the elephant, if you will), between all of those who fell in love with this book? What was the quality that most attracted them to the story?

The answer can be found in the various reviews of the book and in interviews with the author.  Review after review mention Gilbert’s honesty about herself, her frankness.  When one is truly in touch with the flaws that make up their own humanity, coupled with a willingness to share them in a humorous fashion, others around them can't help but be attracted.  This attraction is further enhanced by Gilbert’s likability, obvious from her skill at crafting prose that at times feels more like a private conversation with a close friend.  In every page of “Eat, Pray, Love,” we are shown a woman’s vulnerability and humility, yet it is tempered by self-depreciating wit.

In writing a spiritual memoir, one mustn’t be afraid to engage oneself in this type of honest dialogue.   The best approach is to write without any sense of the reader.  One is working strictly with one's own basic material, the probing of which is a sacred journey in itself.  And to share what is uncovered requires great courage.

On the turntable:  "The Rough Guide to Thailand"
On the nighttable:  Alfred Bohner, "Two on a Pilgrimage"

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sunday Papers: Henry David Thoreau

"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind.  To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again.  To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives."

On the turntable:  "The Rough Guide to Lucky Dube"
On the nighttable:  Gideon Lewis-Kraus, "A Sense of Direction"

Tuesday, July 09, 2013


I had the opportunity to translate a 450-page novel this year, a task that was enlightening in many ways.  I suppose that unlike the amorphic time limits a writer places on himself while writing his own book, being contracted to work on someone else's work forces you to focus, and maintain that focus, over a specific period of time, in my own case three months.   

In the midst of this project, I somehow found time to read Murakami Haruki's book, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running," and found a line that said something about writing a novel being like training for a marathon.  Day to day to day, it is imperative to keep up the roadwork. 

To me, translating the book felt like taking a long holiday with the author, with all the accompanying lows of boredom and frustration.  You find yourself living in the author's mind, seeing how things are put together, and eventually you can predict where he'll go with the story.  But when you find things that you disagree with or feel don't completely work,  you're not allowed to argue.  It was a struggle to keep my internal editor bound and gagged and tied up in the closet.

You also begin to grow close to all the characters, and miss them a little when you leave them behind. 

One curious side-effect is that a long translation project can serve as mindfulness training.  It takes a heightened sense of concentration to deconstruct a text word for word.  Where the process of writing creative writing is like watching the flow of a river, translation is like rearranging the rocks in the riverbed itself.

On the turntable:  Medeski, Scofield, Martin, "Out Louder"
On the nighttable:  Scott Berry "Monks, Spies and a Soldier of Fortune: The Japanese in Tibet" 

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Sunday Papers: Joe Campbell

"Freedom is something you assume. Then you wait for someone to try and take it away from you. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free."

On the turntable:  Ani DiFranco/Utah Phillips, "Fellow Workers"
On the nighttable:  James Kirkup, "Japan Behind the Fan"


Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Even in "Just Enough," there is Abundance.

A piece I wrote a few months ago has appeared on Kyoto Journal online. The piece will be republished later this year in Satish Kumar's wonderful magazine "Resurgence." 


On the turntable:  Bob Dylan, "The Bookleg Series, Vol. 6"
On the nighttable:  Donald Richie, "The Honorable Visitors"

Monday, July 01, 2013

Tohoku Sketches

...The sky was cloudy,  the weather and the landscape reminiscent of the British moor, open expanses of grass stretching away.  I was surprised at the amount of grass up here, far more than farther south.  New flowers pushed color toward the sky.  The dullness of stone found solidarity in the hues of the sky.   These itabi stones are new to me, these petitions for divine intervention, these appeals catholic in their pathos.  I'll run into them throughout my travels to the Far North.  Amongst them is the Tagajo stone, this little piece of the 8th Century that Basho so famously misread.  Tagajo Castle itself was on the hillock above, now bare but for a long flight of steps and foundation stones.  I sit atop the steps and eat lunch, reflecting on the passage of time and how the Passage of Time is itself passing.  Hard to imagine this Nara period outpost, on the edge of the Emishi wilderness, back in the days when Japan had a wilderness.  I find myself becoming quite intrigued by the Emishi.  I'll devour tales of their culture, their wars against the Yamato, as I pass through their lands, though the only real threat today are the bears that the signs are so ready to scare me with...

...Throughout Tohoku there is the palatable feel of the tsunami.  As I buy a coffee at the ferry terminal in Shiogama, I imagine what the jovial woman who hands me the cup experienced that day, in her shop mere meters from the sea.  Ironically, the islands of Matsushima Bay fared better with the rising water than they did with Japan Inc., who have left so many concrete monuments to wealth that the view is spoiled for me.  Matsushima town itself has erected marble stele and handwritten wooden signs showing the extent of the tsunami.  The quiet pine-lined entrance to Zuiganji is now the color of mud.  Looking at the caves here all I can imagine are the rakan statues treading water.  While walking along the sea earlier this morning, I met a carpenter involved in the long restoration project at the temple.  He tells me that the completion date has been pushed back a few years, since most the region's carpenters are involved in rebuilding the  communities destroyed along the coast... 

...In the lobby of my hotel are photos of the damage that it took two years ago.  And in the bath, I talk with a man who has come back for a memorial service.  It dawns on me that by the Japanese way of counting, this is the third anniversary of the deaths of the victims.  With such a large number of dead, the priests who themselves survived the disaster will be performing the 3-year memorial services daily for the better part of the year.  

...And the reminders continue as I move inland.  At train stations along the route are posters with information about bus services that have been created in order to replace the train lines that have washed away.  On the narrow roads, trucks rumble past, their trailers piled high with debris.  At my inn at Akakura Onsen, I chat with a group of old timers who take the baths as relief against age-related ailments.  They are warm and jovial, and all come from towns that no longer exist...

...the forest of ihai for the tsunami victims at Haguro-san, the song of the tsutsudori like the beat of the mokugyo, an accompaniment for the prayer in my heart.  I sit in similar silence out at Minamidani, taking in the chant of the frogs... 

On the turntable: "The Rough Guide to the Music of Iran"