Friday, January 17, 2014

A Stroll Through Town to an Ancient Family Gravestone

Slippers come off, and laces are tied. Jackets are wrapped tightly around bodies of varying plumpness, and the smart remember to grab a pair of woolly winter gloves. Fully equipped, the glass and wooden door, made to look vaguely feudal, closes behind us, and the sidewalk begins to disappear behind eager feet. My hands start to sting from the frost-filled night.

The moon has claimed its place in the sky, draining any green out of the variety of bonsai and shrubbery that dominate the landscaping in the front of the house. Instead, the world takes on the look of an ukiyo-e painting, navy blue ink silhouettes cast by the battling yellow streetlamps and the lunar sea of blue dancing on the side of the three-hundred-year-old home.

Another door closes loudly behind us as we leave the garden. My companions this night, as always, are Keiko and Hisao, both of whom have seen seven decades, but move like people half their age. We move across the street and through the parking lot of the neighboring gas station, the added hardness the icy season brings to the asphalt beneath you felt in every step.

Crossing to the other side of the abandoned main road, Hisao, my host-father, begins to talk of friends and family lost following the Second Great War. Radiation, we often assume, is the lone cause of death following the firestorm that left Hiroshima and Nagasaki in ruins, but once you've had a chance to hear it from those whose childhood was defined by shocking light and panic and abject poverty, you understand the costs more deeply.

This is a conversation strangers don't have, but we'd long since shed the title. The awkward two-sentence conversations held over bowls of expertly cooked miso had faded into time. Over ceramic mugs filled with a mix of Suntory whiskey and hot water at the timeworn kitchen table, we'd talked about everything from politics to love to loss, and so it is that we find ourselves ruminating on the starvation of siblings and inescapable poverty, a young man and a woman who had found each other during a time their country was struggling to redefine its identity.

It's one of those nights that your feet know where they're headed more than your eyes. You dodge the rare car, two-story beige and deep brown houses roll by, walls scaled here and there by vines: all of it moves by on autopilot. The moonlight behind us casts our shadows across the western-style homes that manage to retain the uniquely curved terracotta roofing and carports that mark them as distinctly Japanese.

The conversation streams on, and we finally arrive in a cemetery a few blocks from home. Gently, we push the gate open, take a sharp right hand turn followed by a quick left, scale the few steps to the second level, and find our way to the upraised stone marked with the embossed characters of the family name. Hisao says nothing as he disappears to retrieve water with the wooden ladle that always waits for him at the grave. Returning, he dumps the water over the matte-gray stone, turning it instantly to a deepened coal cover. No one says a word. The sound of warm breath turning to frosty clouds dominates the conversation.

The three of us stand in front of the stone, moments stretching minutes into vague minutes. A gentle breeze moves behind us, a car moves along the street on our right, but nothing else upsets the quiet. Finally, Hisao turns and we follow. A pensive shadow falls over the group as the moon moves to our right.

Only two words are spoken as we head back along the streets and through the gas station's parking lot: "Family, ne?" Family, huh? Hisao asks, light from a nearby vending machine painting his features with the eggplant-purple and leafy green from a Kagome advertisement.

Reversing the steps, we remove hats, jackets, and shoes, replacing slippers and make our way toward more conversation and an encouraging bottle of caramel-colored Suntory.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Day in Japan Like Any Other

A friendly beep beckons you forward across the painted lane; A warm, vaguely robotic voice warns you of impending disaster caused by a reversing garbage truck; the confused chatter of gaijin-shocked school children heading to class surrounds you as you make your way across the city to your own sort of education: these are the sounds of a morning in Japan.

Every step away from my host mother’s table, every breath away from piping hot miso soup, brings with it new life. A cheery woman my grandmother’s age briskly shoots by me on her bicycle, its basket loaded to the brim with Kariya’s famous watermelon and fresh vegetables from the local market. Barely managing to avoid dismounting her with my chunky elbows, a thankful but oddly ominous “gan-gan” emanates from the tiny bell on her handlebar to say thanks for getting out of her way.

Having escaped mortal injury by oddly energetic geriatric assault, the breeze begins to pull in faster, causing the verdant sprigs of newly planted rice to wave violently, painting calligraphic designs across the surface of their patties. Nearby, a farmer stands unworried with a permanent curve to his spine from decades of labor. The sun, climbing higher into the mid-morning sky, frames him in this perfectly ephemeral space. Sure, he’ll do it all again tomorrow, and the next day, and the hundreds and thousands that follow until his body finally quits, but this day, as wabi-sabi, the idea of beauty in impermanence and imperfection, demands, is particular and unique from all the rest. Nearing the last turn on my two-mile journey to school, I can’t help but feel the same.

At the last stoplight, I fight off my American urge to J-walk. Yeah, nobody is coming, and it’s not as though anyone is about to explode out of their car to teach me about Japanese culture, but that doesn’t mean the actions of my friends, waiting ad nauseam for that chipper crossing-chime to sound day after day, haven't been effectively instructive.


After a few minutes, I finally pass the asphalt lanes of damnation, push passed the post-office where the same old man stands day after day with his loyal shiba-inu -- Hachiko, eat your heart out -- and beyond a line of life-giving vending machines, and I’m there. The cicadas are reaching their fever pitch now, the school security guard and I exchange polite bows, and the campus curls out of the nearing horizon, seeming to pop out of the treeline as though we're in a video game with the draw distance turned way down.

The familiar burn runs up my legs as I crest the hill to campus, a lengthy, steep behemoth that, at least while you climb, makes Mt. Fuji into a mental anthill. The cafeteria goes by on my left, renewing its daily assault with the fresh made scents of soups, noodles, breads, and teas; I can’t help but feel this trap is specifically for me.

The hill disappears into a flood of hard-earned lactic acid; Faces and words fly by at an increased rate; characters and grammatical rules bore into my brain after a day filled with tedious excitement. Finally, it’s time to go, and the promise of another day just like this, filled with its biker-grandmas and seductive scents, begins again.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Saying Goodbye to They Call Me An Egg

I remember way back in December of 2010 when I decided that I needed to start writing. Things were, well, things were much different then. Different people were in my life, different obsessions were taking hold, and writing was yet to develop into the lifeblood it is to me now.

I never expected that They Call Me An Egg would become anything more than a hobby; something I could write in occasionally. Indeed, for the first four years of its life it was largely ignored. Yet, here we are nearly 23,000 readers and 255 posts later. Not everything written on this blog is something to be proud of. Some posts, or more honestly, most posts were nothing revolutionary, nothing that made people jump out and say, "this is awesome".

Having said that, though, there are many entries on this site that are so important to how I've developed as a person and as a writer. In the end, I do not regret any amount of time I put into this site. I have been blessed to have my friends support this blog, even when the majority of them have little more than a passing interest in Japanese culture. For you, my friends, family, and readers, I don't think I can adequately express the gratitude I feel toward you.

Last week, I lost connection to They Call Me An Egg. My inability to get to the site troubled me at first, but as the days went by, I realized that my passion for this limited project, my once-loved experiment isn't what it used to be. I should clarify; I love writing about Japan. I love producing high quality content that people seem to enjoy, but I want to create something new that let's me write about a broader variety of subjects.

Over the next month, I'm going to be developing a new site. Tentatively titled "Go Forward with Pencil",the new site will continue the tradition of observations and the like started here but will not be constrained to the topic of Japanese culture. Instead, it will be a place to write about anything and everything that inspires me. I hope you will follow me there.

So, as of today They Call Me An Egg will no longer be updated or maintained. The site will remain up as a portfolio and for a source for people still interested in learning just a little bit more about Japan. It is with a heavy heart that I make this final post.

Thank you a thousand times, one and all.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Japanecdotes: The Toyota Factory

Most of what I experienced in Japan was the realization of many dreams. Learn Japanese, get an in-depth look at the history of the samurai, make friends with people from across the world; all of these were things I had dreamed of since I was 14 and Inazo Nitobe made an impression that would permanently redirect my life.

In all of my travels through the Land of Amaterasu, there is only one experience I can say that I had that really gave me the creeps. Admittedly, there was the time I thought I was going to have to ninja battle that drunk guy on my way home, but the Toyota factory spoke to an irrational fear that my father helped hard-code into me as a much younger egg.

My older brother, Ryan, had been making his first visit to Japan. I was on my second visit and second stay with the people who would become veritable parts of my family. For their part, they wished only to be good hosts and to show my brother and I a good time. Ryan arrived, I translated the conversation between us, and, at the end, it was decided we'd head off to Toyota city the following morning.

Formerly known as Koromo, Toyota city is home to, as you may have guessed, the Toyota corporation. The cars are built there, a huge population of employees live there; you get the picture. I was interested to see exactly how this process of building some of the world's most popular cars would play out.
Only a matter of time.
I learned the horrors behind the vehicles. Robots with azure flames flowing from their maws welded, others moved and riveted, others still painted and molded. Effectively, the Toyota factory is in fact the precursor to the rise of SkyNet, the Terminators, and the end of humanity as we know it.

My host-parents were ever gracious in paying for our admittance, translating what we didn't understand, and making sure that we were having a good time all the while. I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy the experience. However, I might be saying that my irrational hatred for robotics that was branded into my brain from seeing Terminator too many times before age eight was brought keenly into focus.

At least, there was the delicious meal at the crab castle immediately after.