Postcards from Japan


Shinjuku at Night

Out of the Night Sky

The bus sways as we pull away from the curb, this long journey still hours from completion. It was a long flight over. It’s always a long flight over. Even with sleeping pills, and electronic gadgetry to distract you, twelve hours is a long time to be cooped up on a plane. We left Minneapolis on a bright, cloudy day, and as we descended out of the Japanese sky the lights of Tokyo twinkled in the distance. In another hour we will be there.

I can see my reflection in the window of the bus, as I look out into the darkness. I look cadaverous in the florescent white glow of the cabin, and before we have gone five miles, my eyes have closed, and I have slumped against the window. This sleep is not a peaceful sleep, but the sleep of the soul in purgatory; waiting semiconsciously for the bus to stop, and to be born again.

I awake as we exit the freeway, and find myself in the glass and steel canyons of Shinjuku. The bus drops us in front of our hotel, and we make our way to the lobby with bleary eyes. It is 9 o’clock in the evening, and the call of a warm bed, and a soft pillow is irresistible. First though, there is dinner, and greeting’s to be had. We drop our bags in our rooms, and freshen up before meeting our Japanese colleagues. Hand shakes, and smiles, and then we are out into the brisk night air, to find a restaurant.

Rustic Japanese wood, and low ceilings, as we gather around the honey glow of a table lamp. Cold mugs of beer to wash down our food, as we re-educate our hands in the art of eating with sticks. It has been 15 years since my first visit to this island, and it continues to fascinate me with it’s mixture of the familiar and the foreign. It is a world behind the looking glass, where Western fashion, meets idiosyncratic island culture. Japan will always be the England of Asia. The Japanese go out of their way to point out their differences with their neighbors in a way that is at times endearing, and at times off putting. For a country with such a collective mentality, they pride themselves on their cultural differences. If you want to flatter a Japanese patriot, tell them how unique their country is.

After numerous plates have come and gone, and the beers have been drained twice over, it is finally time to retire. We make our way sleepily back through the narrow walking streets of Shinjuku to our glittery, expensive hotel. Our colleagues take such good care of us, I feel guilty. We sleep and dine like kings here, while at home we’d be content with a bug free bed in a Holiday Inn.

Across the Landscape

Outside the window of the train, Japan goes by in a whirl of Lego block buildings as we head south along the edge of the bay. Squeezed between the mountains and the sea the buildings huddle in squat, uneven rows, like broken teeth. They must not believe in architects here, or they have a real affinity for the square. The countryside is mostly mountains, and hills, with the few flat areas crammed with people, houses, farm fields, and strung with a forest of electrical towers. Cedars cling to the hillsides at impossible slopes.

In this pale winter light, the clouds and the sea blur together at the horizon. The train sways gently as we blast by at 270 km/hr. Inside our car hundreds sit in organized silence. Such discipline, such order, it seems a sin to whisper, so I move my lips and form the words of the passing scene in silence. The squat ugly buildings, the disorder of the passing streets are a paradox with the conformity I find inside of the train car.

Two hours to Nagoya, as we follow the coast southwards. The pale sky darkens as we get closer. Low gray clouds scudding in from the sea, the mountains disappear behind them, and already the first flakes are beginning to fall.

Snow Falling on Nagoya

Later that evening, walking the streets of Nagoya, the snow swirls down in flakes the size of fifty cent pieces, turning blue in the glittering neon of the shop windows. They stick like wet kisses upon my cheek. I open my clear vinyl umbrella, and the lights of the city distort themselves into a kaleidoscope of color. We walk the streets in silence, past the hustling crowds on their way home. Past the blinding fluorescent glare of the Pachinko parlors, ringing metallically in the night.

Slow spiral of the snowflakes, as we walk through the wet streets, the city lights like a pinball machine around us. I am lost in the moment, walking these winter streets without a coat or scarf, smiling idiotically, and whispering “beautiful” over and over to myself like a madman. How many before me have fallen prey to its charms?

Late that night on the 55th floor lounge of our hotel, we sip Whiskey in the mahogany surroundings and watch the snow wave like curtains before the window. The high rises across the street fading in and out of the clouds. Surely there is more beauty here, hidden in the interspaces between moments, than we could ever expect. Japan is like that. The sublime springs out of the squat, rectilinear urban landscape where you least expect it; the stockinged legs of a woman climbing the steps of the underground, the glow of a lantern above the door of a restaurant, the echo of a train clacking down a distant track. It can haunt you, and intoxicate you like few places I know.

Tomorrow will be more trains, and more travel, as we criss-cross this island. But tonight we sit in peace above the clouds, enjoying such wealth as we could never deserve. The sky outside the window glows white with the falling snow. I set my glass down upon the table, and turn back towards my room. Laying there in the darkness, I close my eyes, and wait for sleep to fold me in its warm embrace

15 thoughts on “Postcards from Japan

  1. Wow.
    Just..wow.
    I feel like I’m actually there.
    This reads like the first few pages of the novel someone SHOULD be writing using his highly sharpened descriptive powers to set the scene for international intrigue.
    Nevermind that the version I envision has a disgruntled Minotaur rampaging through the streets and a gentle but confused hermaphrodite as its hero.
    Damn, that was good.

    • Yeah, lately I’ve been thinking I need to get off my ass and write something longer than a blog post. I’ve got a story in mind, but I haven’t even begun to draft it out yet.

  2. You need a new pen name…

    Descripto Man!
    Causing mere mortals to ball up and groan from the rippling orgasmic waves of lush mind numbing almost poetic descriptive abilities of our hero.

    Thinking of robbing a bank?
    Think again!

    Descripto is there in a millisecond weaving a thick beautiful tapestry of words making the gray bleak interior of this financial institution seem more otherwordly than the Sistine Chapel bathed in the warm glow of evening.

    The marble pillars! The gleaming floors! The long luxurious spray of curls that hang nervously around the sweet round face of suddenly gorgeous bank teller…..

    Wait, where am I?
    Why am I holding this gun & ski mask?

    You need to get a cape STAT!

      • You get to have two.

        Good Grammar Guy and Spectacular Spelling.

        You can fight the dreaded Dangling Modifier, the devious and unwieldy Run On Runnin On Sentence and Mr. Misuse of Semicolon.

        All three have an evil stranglehold on my prose and wear mustard yellow leotards.

  3. Lucky you! Most people traveling to Japan won’t get to go to Nagoya (limited time etc) Will you be visiting the castle? More pictures. And actually, you should do it without any pictures because you are a great essayist. I mean it. I drank in this post with greed.

    This is so beautifully written and detailedly descriptive without sounding mechanic, engaging, (I need my Thesaurus if I keep on going).

    • Yes I am indeed lucky. However, it has been a busy trip and we did not have time to squeeze in any sight seeing, except out the window of a train. Maybe next time.

  4. And here I’m looking out the window at dog crap and muddy snow. But I did just see Lost in Translation for the first time — your post reminds me of the visuals. Lovely.

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