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Waxing Sentimental and “Fourteen Days” – 22 January 2014

Since I’m getting back into the swing of posting regularly again, I thought I’d share this with all of you. It’s a piece I had started a couple years ago and just found again before I came back to school. The interesting thing? I wrote this before I went to Japan and, as I read through it again today, astonished myself at how accurate it sounds—a lot of this stuff is strikingly similar to what I saw when I was there.

Guess I’m just waxing sentimental.

It’s titled “Fourteen Days,” and as of right now, it’s unfinished.

November 22. Thanksgiving Day.

The third Thanksgiving I’ve spent in Japan. Of course today is just another Thurday here—commuters pack the subway, traffic clogs the streets, and in lieu of stuffing and gravy the equalizing smell of karaage and ramen assault my nostrils. But I know it’s Thanksgiving; it hangs in the smoggy air of Tokyo and it vibrates in my bones. But it’s okay. It’s okay because… well, I’m not even sure of the answer to that one. Part of that answer is that I’m becoming more and more a part of this place with each day that passes, and with an incredible speed and efficiency. I’ll always be a gaijin, a foreigner, an American living in Japan, a black American living in Japan, but I think as the Japanese do and it aids greatly in assimilation. On the other side of that sword, some days I feel my Americanness dropping away piecemeal like rain from low-hanging clouds. On those days I feel like I’ve lost something. And that’s because, no matter where I live or what I end up doing, I’ll always read the calendar the way an American does. Memorial Day and the Fourth and Labor Day and Christmas hit me hard, especially Christmas. I’m seven thousand miles, an ocean and a continent away from presents and Douglas pines and stories I’ve heard a million-and-one times and… And I get homesick, painfully sweet twinges of back home racing across my skin. And trust me, no matter how many times I see the Colonel in a Santa suit it just won’t fill that void.

My phone rings and snaps me from my reverie. With a smirk I answer it.

Oi, Jenton-san!” The cheery voice pounds against my eardrum; that’s Tanegashima for you. “You’ll never guess the bombshell I’m about to drop on you, my man.”

“Please don’t make me guess, the suspense’ll kill me. Just spit it out.”

“Meiro’s gonna be playing the Tokyo Dome next Thursday and tickets go on sale in the morning.”

Indeed, this is a bombshell. My thoughts race as I try and fail to form coherent sentences in Japanese or English. I look out across the street from the eastern exit of Shinjuku Station toward the the giant Studio ALTA screen flashing the very same information to the heart of Tokyo. An idea flashes in front of me.

“Meet me at Hanazono in thirty minutes.”

“Late one buys the coffee and manga,” he confirms, then hangs up. I do the same, and take a deep breath. The biggest idoru—or idol—in Japan announces a surprise concert today? Surely something to be thankful for. I head off to meet Tanegashima, looking forward to a hot cup of free coffee.

As I watch the dark tunnel walls slip past I ruminate over what I’ve just heard. The idoru Meiro is the hottest thing in Japan, and I’m one who knows—after moving to Japan I became something of an idoru otaku—a fan, or geek—and that’s how I met Tanegashima and his girlfriend. Need proof?

Stage name: Wakame Iroko—family name first, of course. Age: Nineteen. Height: One hundred fifty-eight centimeters. Weight: 49.7 kilograms. Blood type: AB. Her nickname to her fans is Meiro—the maze. She really is an enigma, the exact opposite of other idoru who became successes with cheery dispositions and bright catchy pop songs. She always wears white—brilliant, blinding white—and has somewhat of a goth quality about her. God only knows how her agency managed to market her successfully but they did. The strange thing about her—or rather, the attractive thing—is the way she sings and the effect her music has on her listeners. You hear it, and… And—this sweet numbness overtakes you, the sense that feeling nothing is okay. It’s so hard to put the exact experience into words but sublime comes achingly close.

If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m a total Japanophile. So is Tanegashima and his girlfriend Kazamoto, and that’s a rarity in these parts. Rarer still is the fact that they found each other, they date and get along and, other than their tendency toward otaku, are fairly normal. 

Fairly.

I ran into them, quite literally, at an outdoor concert a couple years ago. We were at another idoru‘s outdoor concert—the turnover rate for these girls is very, very high—and I almost knocked them to the ground. Seeing as I’m nearly twice Tanegashima’s size I hastily poured out the appropriate apologies and went on my way through the crowd. To this day he won’t admit it, but I know that Tanegashima dragged poor Kazamoto through that crowd and after me. In a crowd of… six thousand, maybe, we just happened to run into each other again. At first I thought he was just like most other people I had met since I had come to Japan—he was surprised I spoke some Japanese and was curious to see how deep the well went. Turns out he was interested in talking shop over anime, manga, idoru, the whole gamut. The three of us went to a coffee shop and the rest is history, as it were.

A match made in heaven.

“It looks like you owe me a cup of coffee, Jenton-san,” Taneshima greets me as I enter the coffee shop. His long hair is carelessly brushed to the side and his hands rest behind his head as his long legs push out the chair across from him, an invitation for me to sit. As I do so the waitress leaves two steaming cups of coffee on the table, and departs with an abbreviated bow. “I’d been here for five minutes so I took the liberty, if you don’t mind.”

“It’s all good, Tanegashima,” I tell him. I pull the chopstick from behind my left ear with my right hand and begin twirling it in my fingers as I wait for the coffee to cool.

“Why do you always do that?” Tanegashima demands. “I could understand twirling the chopstick, but why do you carry it behind your left ear if you’re right-handed? It seems like a tremendous waste of energy.” He always asks me that.

I always answer him in the exact same way. “I do it that way because my soul wants it that way,” I tell him matter-of-factly. He shrugs and takes a sip of his coffee, letting my quirk go for the time being. “So. I take it you got some sort of plan worked out?”

“What plan?” A look of incredulity spreads itself across Tanegashima’s face. “The only thing we have to do is be in line when the box office opens. The thing is, they open at five-thirty, to beat the rush. This raises an important question: Do we stay in Shibuya all night to ensure we’re at the head of that line, or chance a race against the clock?”

“I can’t believe this is costing me a cup of coffee,” I tell him with genuine annoyance. “Are you serious?”

Tanegashima hesitates, then comes up with “So clubbing or sleep?”

I stare at him in disbelief, then take a deep breath. Just another hazard of Tanegashima’s friendship. “Let’s hit the bars, brother,” I tell him with a smile. “What about Kazamoto? Is she coming out too?”

“Actually, she’s the one who came up with the whole thing,” he says, brushing a forelock of hair out of his face. “I told her to come out with us, but she’s still gonna catch the last train back home.”

“You ‘told her’?” I say. “Taking more liberties, aren’t you?”

“Gimme a break, Jenton-san,” Tanegashima whines. “I knew all along that you’d want to—what do you say… crawl through pubs?”

Pubcrawl,” I say, using the English word. “I figured that she’d be too beat to go out for the long haul; at least I know how hard she works.” I slip the chopstick behind my left ear again and take a sip of my sufficiently-cooled coffee. “The life of an English teacher isn’t easy. Trust me.”

“Who’re you telling?” he says to me. He stands and strolls over to the racks of manga, and I follow. “Believe me, I know better than anyone how much her job drains her. Which is why I always badger her to come out with me more often. But… she’s never more relaxed than she is at home, so I don’t push too hard.” He tuns to face me with a stack of manga five or six high. “These’ll do me, I think,” he says with a smirk. I give a chuckle and head for the cashier toting the stack. This time Tanegashima follows.

“If you want to know what I think,” I tell him, “you two should have dinner together tonight, just the two of you. I’m sure a beer and some gyudon would do her a world of good, and you too, brother.” I check out the manga and head back to the table. “What do you say we take our plan-making outside?” I ask. Taneshima nods and he carries our cups of coffee outside.

Tanegashima and I both light cigarettes and sit there in the late November sunshine. He immediately falls to his comics, and I watch the rush hour foot traffic pick up along the Dogenzaka. To me, the people-watching is the best thing about living in Tokyo—in any huge city, really. Stand at any crossing in Shibuya or Shinjuku or the Ginza, and a hundred thousand people will walk by inside of an hour. There’s nothing like being part of a huge sea of humanity, or stepping aside to watch it flow past. I was born in a city of about a hundred thousand and never did anything there remotely similar to people-watching, certainly not on a scale approaching this. I never did anything there that I can’t do here, now that I think about it—and at three times the level, too. It’s surprisingly easy to disappear here. Maybe not as easy as it would be in New York or Toronto, or even London, but the anonymity of the people-watching makes living in Tokyo.

Jen-ton-saaan,” says a sing-songy voice next to me. I turn to find Tanegashima peering out at me over his magazine. “You okay over there? You look kinda spaced-out.”

I sigh lightly, returning my gaze to the steadily-increasing stream of passers-by. “I’m all good,” I tell him. “Tell me again—what’s it like to be from Tokyo?”

Now Tanegashima sighs, then chuckles. “We all watched as Gundams and Evangelions tore the city to pieces, until Godzilla and Rodan called a temporary truce and broke them up.” He laughs again and takes another sip of his coffee. “Come on, Jenton-san, you ask me that same question at least once a month. I can’t explain it because it just is. I don’t know either why the sky is blue, or why it doesn’t rain lemonade, but at least I’d have a better chance at explaining them to you.”

I turn back to him. “Just an unavoidable hazard of people-watching, I guess.” I check my watch, then crush my cigarette out. “Come on. Let’s go show Kazamoto how you braved the subway at rush hour to catch her at work before she leaves.”

“Yeah, okay,” he answers. He waits outside while I settle the bill, a man of my word.

The subway station is about a ten-minute walk from Hanazono. We almost get the entire way there in silence, but unsurprisingly it’s Tanegashima who breaks it.

“You know what, Jenton-san? If it were at all humanly possible, I’d like to be an octopus.”

Just because I’m used to the things Tanegashima says doesn’t mean they won’t occasionally catch me off-guard. “Care to explain?” I ask.

“I mean, think about it man. Octopus are smart—smarter than me, at least. They can change color and squeeze into the smallest openings, so it’s a cinch for them to hide from everything, the world even. They have those cool suckers, and eight arms, too. I mean, I could have eight octopus girlfriends if I wanted, ya know? And then there’s—”

“You’ve put some thought into this, Tanegashima,” I interrupt. “But did you consider how gooood octopus tastes? You might get eaten.”

“So what?” he retorts. “It’d be worth it to be an octupus, even if it were for a day. Hell, I could get eaten if I went on safari and I’d just be my regular old self.”

I pull my chopstick in the usual fashion, chuckling at both Tanegashima’s face twisting in revolting reaction and his far-left-field revelation about himself. He’s cool because he’s so random in his actions and words; I’m never bored when I’m with him. There’s not a day that passes since I’ve known this guy where I don’t laugh to myself because of something Tanegashima’s said or done.

It’s funny, though—

Oi! What the hell’s so damn funny, huh? I tell you my deepest desire and you get a cheap laugh at my expense. Dirty, rotten…”

“Calm down, calm down. I’m actually thinking of finding some takoyaki later. How’s that sound?”

Tanegashima pretends to pout. “Eating some of my eight-armed brethren? Gimme a sec…” He clasps his hands in front of him in prayer and I chuckle some more. “Okay, I’m over it.”

We continue to walk, and the sights and sounds and smells of this living mass of steel and asphalt assail all five of my senses. We stroll past a noisy pachinko parlor, a hair salon with three customers in it, a small eatery closed on Thursdays, a Circle-K that’s an exact facsimile of one we passed three blocks away. Through all of this my mind only turns over Tanegashima’s decidedly strange desire and tries to make sense of it. An octopus? But—it’s the damndest thing—the idea slowly begins to grow on me. It might not be so bad actually being an octopus. They do have those eight arms, and—and just surviving is probably an everyday adrenaline rush. If only they didn’t taste so good… Out of nowhere I feel something grab my elbow.

Jen-ton-saaaan.” The familiar sing-songy voice brings me out of my thoughts and back to earth again. “Thinking about what it would be like to be an octopus, aren’t you?” Tanegashima smiles leeringly at me and raises his eyebrows like Groucho Marx.

“No,” I lie, turning away from him to conceal the smirk that betrays my falsehood. With a bit of a start I realize that we’re standing in front of Ebisu Station. How the hell did we get here? Was I on auto-pilot the whole way?

Damn Tanegashima and his contagious octopus fantasies.

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