Friday, April 30, 2010

Wheels

Not an ordinary day around here. There was no particular idea or plan for this Friday, and the morning started out run of the mill. Thought I might sit at Panera for an hour or so, order some coffee and read or write a little. Maybe start packing up my stuff and getting ready to leave town and go to the beach tomorrow. No special plans. As I was leaving the house about 11:30, I called the people who were helping me buy a car, and after some discussion we decided I should look around a little more. But in fact, I did already have another idea in mind, something I found flipping through car pages on the Internet.


Putting aside the notion of Panera for a while, I drove directly to the dealer which I had seen in my page flipping earlier. I thought I would take a look; ask a few questions…


I stayed four hours at the car dealership and when it was over I was driving the car shown in the photos attached here. Actually kind of a big thing for me, seeing as how for more than twenty years I’ve been without a car. Now, I’m trying not to get too excited about it, but it really is a cool car.


For those like me who don’t easily recognize makes and models, the cool red car is a 2009 Toyota Corolla LE. It drives great, has a clean look inside and out, and it came with a terrific owner’s package of warranty protection. One of the concerns of keeping a car at the beach is the difficulty with the salt air, the sun, wind and sand. The Toyota came with long and complete coverage of repair and refurbishment due to the beach conditions. Good deal, I thought. Tomorrow the car will get a test run on fifty miles of highway between town and the beach. I expect good results.


Sho ga nai

Driving around town each day here in central Florida, a part of me is always alert for places selling pens and stationery goods, always hoping that the next turn might reveal the surprise I hope for—a fountain pen dealer. But I’m beginning to think this is a blank spot on the map of fountain pens, ink and quality paper products. In six days of looking about I’ve turned up nothing. It begins to look as though feeding my hobby will be via the long distance of Internet shopping.

Of course, there are the two huge stores which I imagine are common to most mid-sized US cities and their shopping centers—Office Depot and Staples. And maybe there are some who can be pleased with what they find there. Unfortunately for me, both stores are a big yawn. I visited Staples yesterday and Office Depot today. Each store has aisles crammed with what we classify as office supplies and for which I have little interest. I asked one employee in Staples if they carried any fountain pens at all, and after scratching her chin for a moment she led me over to a display of $1.25 ballpoint pens, blue or black. Granted, I am probably the oddball in the room, but this situation depressed me. Office Depot was the same except for its different name and different location.

You fountain pen lovers in New York (and Tokyo), count yourselves lucky in the number of places you can find to indulge your passion. I fear that here in my new sunshiny Florida setting there will be many fewer opportunities to pass an occasional hour in a pen shop where more than blue and black ballpoints make up the inventory.

I will have to rely on what I can get from online shopping, but regret the condition created by distance that doesn’t allow for trying out a fountain pen or particular ink BEFORE purchase. In this case, The Japanese shopper might say something like, “Sho ga nai.” It can’t be helped.

Photos: The empty store, and completely unrelated, a very pretty fabric.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beach Blanket Bingo

Since arriving in Florida several days ago, one thing or another has kept me in town, prevented me from driving out to the beach for so much as a look-see. The plan all along has aimed for arrival there on the 1st of May. The days prior to that are a time for handling the business of establishing new residence and ironing out the logistics concerned with setting up house. This morning I had business specific to residency, so made the fifty mile drive over to the east coast.

New Smyrna Beach…
The city is located on what has been called the “Fun Coast,” an environmentally protected stretch of beach between Daytona on the north, and the Kennedy Space Center in the south. The very first settlers arrived there in 1768, but were ultimately forced to leave because of disease and frequent raids by the Seminole Indians. The town was incorporated in 1887, and in 1947 became a city. The population in 2007 was 23,161. The city’s name is no doubt related to the fact that a number of the original settlers were natives of Smyrna, Turkey. These days, ‘Florida’s Secret Pearl’ attracts over 1,000,000 visits each year.

Today was a stunning day in New Smyrna; still too cold for ocean swimming, but comfortable on the beach, and in all four directions a treat to the eyes. I hadn’t been there since last August, and the first few breaths of cool ocean-scented air today were like a magical elixir of life. The only thing missing during my short time there this morning was a glimpse of the magnificent brown pelicans native to the area. The sight of them soaring overhead in flocks of six to ten has always lifted my heart, and I’ve passed several summer vacations enchanted day after day by their in-flight beauty

I found everything in order in the condominium, and expect it will be even shinier after the cleaners have worked their charms on Friday. By Saturday afternoon I hope to have sand between my toes, pelicans overhead and the sun’s amiable light in my pocket.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Oneness of Two

A little while ago I turned the last page in a novel that had me spellbound for the four days it took to read its 667 pages. The book is Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, published by Alfred Knopf in 2009. A Vintage paperback came out in January of this year.


In barest outline, the story revolves around twin brothers, their biological mother and father, and the stepparents who raised them. But let me stress, this is a bare bones description, as the novel is complex in its unwinding of the connection between these brothers, the betrayal, the love and the politics that shape the lives of a family and a country over fifty-seven years from India to Ethiopia to New York. The glue that holds the story together and defines the lives of the characters is the practice of medicine from one generation to the next.


It begins in India with Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a young nun of the Carmelite Order dispatched to Yemen with the aim of doing hospital work. Things don’t work out as expected in Yemen and soon she is in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa working at a mission hospital. After seven years there, in a shocking surprise she gives birth to twin boys, an event that fuels the subsequent circumstances which make, and ultimately unravel the story of seven lives.


The writer is himself a doctor, lauded for his 1994 non-fiction portrait of AIDS and its effect on a small town in Tennessee—My Own Country, a Time Best Book of the Year. Mr Verghese’s writing is sublime and glows with what we can only call wisdom. Each of the many characters in Cutting for Stone is drawn with color and voice that make them strongly memorable, even those fleeting or walk on characters who make up the living, breathing background of Addis Ababa in the 1960s. It is the precision characterizations which provide half the electricity that fires this novel. To use a worn out description, Marion and his brother Shiva are unforgettable creations and haunt the reader with their love and mystery.


Though this is only the fourth month of 2010, I’m confident in predicting that come December, Cutting for Stone will be among the top three books in my year of reading. A writer friend told me recently that Verghese’s My Own Country is one of his all-time favorite books. With time to digest the richness of Cutting for Stone, I yearn to take up My Own Country at a time when the epic story of Marion and Shiva Stone has loosened its grip on my heart.

Good Food, Good People


The last few lines of yesterday’s blog post were about restaurants visited in the past couple of days since arriving in Florida. Not to make it sound as though I’m doing a survey of central Florida restaurants, but this Monday found me in another couple of restaurants, one at lunch, another for dinner. The point of it being, today’s fare raised my overall opinion of restaurant quality in the area around Maitland, Altamonte Springs, Lake Mary and Winter Park.

I had some business at my bank in Lake Mary, and finishing that my banker-friend took me to lunch at a nearby bistro called Dexter’s. I ate a GREAT salad of mixed greens, asparagus, artichoke hearts and roasted new potatoes, but the name was so complicated I can’t remember it now—something about ‘cast iron skillet…salad.’ It is a very stylish place with a comfortable patio excellent for enjoying a glass of wine and people watching. There are three Dexter’s in the Orlando area.

For dinner, it was one of those all-you-can-eat restaurants called Golden Corral, and volume is the drawing card here. There is a wide selection of entrees, vegetables and side dishes, salads and desserts, all worth the price of $10.95, if not always dish by dish lip-smacking delicious. The steak and pulled pork were both excellent, as were the tacos I made at the salad bar. But for me, the best part of the experience was the waitress (self-service is the custom) named Legina, who must be one of the friendliest, most outgoing and helpful restaurant employees I’ve ever encountered. Were extravagance of no concern I would have tipped her a hundred dollars.

It was a good day for meeting kind and friendly people. After dinner I stopped at CVS Pharmacy for a couple of things and there met a Japanese employee (thirty years in the US) who was the hit of my day. She almost fell over the counter when I spoke Japanese to her. From that moment she lit up like a Christmas tree, chattering away in Japanese. One more special person in my day.

Monday, April 26, 2010

On the Road

One of the adjustments necessary in moving from Japan to Florida is a shift in modes of transportation. A great number of people in Tokyo drive a car every day in going from home to work, but a much greater number depend on public transportation. That might possibly draw a frown from some who enjoy driving but have not experienced a system quite like Japan’s.

Driving daily in a city like Tokyo is not quite like driving in Los Angeles or Orlando. I would even say it’s not too comparable to driving in New York. The dynamic is a little different. Everything in the Japanese system is narrower and more confined, and a great deal more disciplined. Everything is smaller and ninety-nine percent of the time Japanese drivers are in sync (harmony?) with other drivers. There are far fewer traffic accidents in Tokyo than you might imagine, and there are no lurking police cars looking to give out traffic tickets.

On the other hand, public transportation in Tokyo works like a well-oiled machine, twenty out of twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. But precision is required to smoothly move so many millions of people about a vast city. Trains, buses and subways follow a schedule in which it is very, very difficult to find complaint. The operative word is ‘dependable’ and the urban-civil engineers of Japan have taken it to the optimum. Getting around town on the countless miles of train and bus lines is in many cases literally child’s play. (Many Japanese children are passionate train hobbyists.)

For all my time in Tokyo I depended daily on getting about by train, bus and subway. I never wanted a car, never had urges to drive there. Traffic congestion is all too common for my driving comfort.

But here I am in a whole new cityscape, and much of my time now is spent driving from place to place. It’s not in the least unpleasant, not too often congested, and at this point I am enjoying the change. For the time being I’m driving a borrowed car, but will no doubt soon be tooling about in a newly purchased car of my own. (There is a photo attached of the car I want—a 1947 Nissan Tama Electric.)

On another plane of adjustments in the making, I have since my arrival in Florida eaten at five different local restaurants. I told a dinner companion tonight that I would give an overall rating of B- to the food I've eaten in those restaurants. Maybe I just like Japanese cooking too much.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Paper Like Cream

Several days before leaving Tokyo I had lunch with a friend at Tokyo Midtown, one of Tokyo’s more posh developments in the Roppongi district, and later wandered into the Faber Castell store. This is not a place to shop when economizing is on your mind, since it is loaded with very expensive pens, pencils and other high quality stationery goods.


I tried one of the fountain pens and liked everything but the price, sampled the two available inks, black and blue, then came across a small selection of blank journals in three different sizes. These journals were right up my alley and I didn’t hesitate to buy one in the A6 size (8.27 inches x 5.83). Such an elegant looking book!


It is covered in a creamy beige linen, with GRAF VON FABER-CASTELL and a small Faber-Castell coat of arms in dark gray. The pages are blank, cream-colored and of thick, smooth paper, perhaps a degree or two shy of Clairefontaine. The touch or feel is like the color, creamy. I tried four different fountain pens and inks, each one gliding across the page with the smoothness of half-melted butter. Anyone who has read a few pages of the Scriblets blog will likely know how much I like the Japanese Life Noble Note journals, but I will quickly concede that the Faber-Castell paper is superior. Zero feathering, and because the paper is so thick, bleed through is very slight, even with a hefty medium nib and a particularly wet ink (Athena Sepia).


I spent close to an hour online trying to find a place other than Tokyo Midtown that carries these notebook-journals. Sort of like looking for a needle in a haystack. No luck, I’m afraid.


Today was my first full day in Florida, and both productive and pleasant. If nothing else, the warm and dry weather was a welcome change from this year’s odd spring in Tokyo. But I was yearning for my sunglasses most of the time. Enjoyed some time browsing in Borders; bought a 2010 reprinting of Natalie Goldberg’s 1986 book, Writing Down the Bones.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Stranger in a Strange Land?

This morning I open eyes to scenery of a different color, a different shape and texture. Friday afternoon saw fade from view the somewhat cold and wet Japanese spring, along with all the accustomed sights and sounds of twenty-eight years snug in the embrace of Tokyo. The page has turned and suddenly another landscape meets the eye.

Jet lagged and not yet seeing clearly through these sleep-denied senses, still I manage to take in the distinctive light and warmer air that almost shout, “This is Florida!”

In a big way I am much relieved to have the move from there to here done with. Getting myself, along with all the accumulation of years over the hump of a major move was a rattling experience, no question. But standing now on the other side, I am pleased with the way it all worked out.

Nonetheless, there are definitely some uncertainties on the horizon of this adventure. As I’ve heard people say countless times in the past, “Ganbarimasu!” — I’ll hang in there.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sayônara

6 Days…


NOTE: THIS WILL BE MY LAST POST IN JAPAN.

I HOPE TO BE WRITING AGAIN IN FLORIDA IN ABOUT A WEEK.


Not long back from Yamanashi, from a very good visit with my old friends there. It turned out to be a little more emotional than I had expected, but in hindsight that shouldn’t have come as a surprise, because I was saying goodbye to my oldest friends in Japan. Today was the time alloted for visiting Mama-san, who is 86 years old and living in a nearby nursing home. I was concerned that she might not recognize or remember me, as she is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.


In the early afternoon we drove to the home where she is living and spent almost forty-five minutes with her. It appears to be a very good nursing home, extremely clean and not at all crowded, with staff enough to care for each person in the best way possible. As visitors, the four of us had to wear masks to assure that the elderly would not be exposed to any infection. I have to admit it was my first time in all my years here to put on one of those ‘surgeon’s masks,’ which are as common here as blue sky. But we had a good visit and little by little Mama-san remembered a little more. Seeing her one last time before my departure was very special.


After the five centimeters of snow that fell in the area on Saturday, Sunday turned out to be a complete reversal and the weather was spectacular. I enjoyed walking through the fields (all the snow had melted in the bright sun) and around the neighborhood of farmhouses, everywhere an explosion of flowering color. Our meals on both days were especially fresh and delicious, and each time Mieko-san cooked, half of the ingredients came from her garden in the back yard. Yamanashi has always been rather special in my opinion. Everything about it gives a feeling of joy and satisfaction.


Tomorrow morning I lose telephone, Internet and cable, and in the afternoon this iMac will take wing for Florida, packed securely in the original Apple box. On Tuesday morning all the boxes and the old Yamanashi kitchen table will be picked up for shipping. On Friday I board a plane for Florida, saying goodbye to the place I have happily lived for twenty-eight years.


Sayônara my longtime home, my good friends.


Photos: Two pictures taken within a hundred feet of the Yamanashi house.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Spring in the Countryside...Sayonara

7 Days...
We had reservations on a 1:00 train from Tokyo to Hinoharu in Yamanashi Prefecture, but for the first time in memory, I arrived at Shinjuku Station to find the train had been cancelled because of heavy snow along the line. However, we were lucky in catching another train shortly after 1:00 that was not influenced by the snow, so got to Yamanashi with little delay. Such heavy snowfall this late in April is not common in Tokyo, or other parts of the Kanto area, so waking to find snow on rooftops and ground was a surprise, and not a happy one.

For the full hour and a half of the train ride sun blazed down on the passing scenery, and anyone would have mistaken it for a summer afternoon. As the train moved beyond Tokyo, the flowering trees -- cherry, plum and peach began to color the mountain slopes and the orchards spaced here and there along the track. Of course, following the treasured custom of long distance train travel in Japan, we enjoyed eating and drinking tea as we gazed upon the splendor of those blossoming trees sliding past outside our window.

Arriving in Hinoharu, we found Mieko-san waiting for us at the station. Rather than driving straight back to the house we took a long roundabout way, stopping to see the cherry trees at Sane Hara, all of them at the height of bloom. The two attached photographs are views at Sane Hara.
We reached the house sometime after five o'clock to find Jiro working with his honeybees. This is his first year to keep bees, and he is expecting the bees to produce honey in the neighborhood of ten kilos. One of my hopes is that tomorrow I will be able to get a look at Jiro's bees.


I am warm here seated not far from the woodburning stove, but it's time now to see if I can post these words on the blog using Jiro's computer. More tomorrow... 

Friday, April 16, 2010

Blossoms in the Rain


8 Days…

After putting it off as long as possible, I sat down this morning and completed the shipping forms, or lists “detailing” the contents and value of each box I am shipping to Florida. I use the word ‘detail’ with some latitude, since I made my lists while looking at sealed boxes and an imprecise recollection of what’s inside, apart from general category. It’s pretty much a great heap of boxes containing either household items or books, with a couple holding ink or fountain pens. This I learned is considered hobby materials. In any case, people I’ve asked have assured me that general description will be enough for official approval. I have to hope that will be so.


Today is another cold and wet day in Tokyo, more of what has made this a mostly unsatisfactory cherry blossom season. The morning’s Japan Times explained how the cold weather has extended the season, but made no mention of trees already bare of flowers jostled loose by the almost daily rain. The times have been few indeed when one could stroll among the trees in full bloom, or sit beneath them with friends. Fewer people viewing the cherry trees in Kugayama this spring, and at this point there isn’t much left to view. Puddles spotted with pink petals reflect the flowerless branches overhead.


Tomorrow will see me off to the Yamanashi countryside for an overnight stay with old friends. I will try to post a few lines from there, if able to write from my friend’s computer. If not, Sunday evening will be the next and final post from Japan.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lopsided


9 Days…

Most of the preparations for leaving Japan are in order. Lists checked two, three and four times tell me there’s little need for scrambling, running here and there, or fretting. So why do I feel this anxiety? Why do I pace the rooms looking into corners again, opening closet doors to verify they are empty? In truth, if the small details outside my control (utility companies) were completed tomorrow, I could leave the day after, certain that every last piece was in place.


More likely than anything else, I am probably apprehensive about leaving behind the lifestyle that is both familiar and comfortable. I ponder those small things, the unremarked customs and routines that fill scant space when talked about, the prosaic movements of my days in Japan—it is the absence of those things that will most wring the locus of my feelings. It’s often said that retirement causes a similar lopsidedness. A familiar cycle ends and the uprooting of established custom and activity leaves one uncertain.


Nights, in the time before falling asleep I ask myself what retiring PLUS moving 10,000 miles, one on top the other will be like. These thoughts perhaps lie at the root of my pacing from one empty room to another counting boxes.


The two photos here are of the restaurant, Kin no saru. Dinner there tonight—another goodbye—with one of the gentlest of souls I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with these past many years. Fuyuo-san is someone I will miss, though I entertain the hope that we may have an opportunity to meet again in the future. He is a great traveler, and was in the US two or three times last year, once very near where I will be in Florida. We are late getting together because until a few days ago, Fuyuo-san was visiting a native tribe in the jungle of Ecuador. (Before that it was survival training in the Arizona desert.) Interesting man and a good friend.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Growing More Aware of Time

10 Days…
Packed, taped up and labelled what I think are the last two boxes this morning. The place is looking pretty empty and it’s hard to think I can come up with enough to fill another box. After all, the three suitcases going on the plane will allow room for one or two overlooked or last minute items, apart from clothes.
Next on my list was canceling credit cards and arranging final payment, minimal because I have refrained from using a credit card these past two months. A little later I easily paid the final amount through the ATM machine. Cards cut; job done.
Spent some time at the bank transferring funds to my Florida bank. That too is uncomplicated and easy to do on the ATM, though it can’t be done without certain bank fees, on both sides. The best (most economical) way is all in one transfer, but the ins and outs of moving from Japan to Florida make that method difficult. For the moment, the amount of cash necessary between now and April 23 is uncertain, so some money must be held in reserve.


Some readers will have noticed a blank at the top left of this page, under the Scriblets title and description. I’ve been trying to make some changes in Blogger concerning the blog. My Japan email address will expire at the end of this month, and since the blog is connected to that address, a different log in address will be used from May 1. My fiddling with the settings today brought on the sudden disappearance of the profile “photo” and description, leaving only two ‘Bleets’ below the CONTRIBUTORS heading. Each of the two Bleets brings up a different profile—one for Japan, the other for Florida. Haven’t figured out yet how to get the profile picture, or description back in place. If there are any readers knowledgeable in this area, please offer a comment or tip on changing email address and profile information. I didn’t get very far in just clicking on the ‘change email’ option.


I tacked on a couple of photos I took in the neighborhood this afternoon for no other reason than my growing awareness of the time I have left to walk around and admire the long familiar sights of my Kugayama stomping grounds. It seems more meaningful now somehow.   


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Struggling With Trash

11 Days…

With the cleaning out of this apartment a great many things are being thrown out. One of the concerns I have as this winnowing out continues, is whether or not the trash collectors will “accept” what I am putting out for disposal. In some ways the city is to be admired for its policies regarding trash management, recycling, and for its environmental awareness. But along with the good, I find room for questioning some of their reasoning. There seem to be some things they just won’t take away and I have to wonder what the implication is. Are there things we are not allowed to throw away? Almost two weeks ago I put out an assortment of unwanted cups, glasses and bowls, all properly bagged on the designated day. They remain in the trash enclosure today, untouched, passed over, rejected. I also noticed this morning that after three weeks of not being picked up, some old bedding is now tagged as ‘oversized trash,’ with a telephone number to call for pick up service. There is a $50 charge for pick up of each individual item of oversized trash. How are rolled and tied blankets seen as oversized? It strikes me as plain old burnable trash, hardly oversized.


One concern I had was over the large number of books that had to be disposed of. Throughout the long process of weeding out my collection of books, the idea of throwing out books—and so many of them—has troubled me. So, what are the alternatives? Give them away? 95% of them are in English and hard to pass off. Give them to the library? The library doesn’t want them. Sell them? That requires renting a truck to haul the thirty-three boxes to Kanda, where one of the used bookstores might buy them. The problem is, I don’t have the time for any of these alternatives, and so I’m left with the prickly solution of throwing the books away.


I put out the last of them, another fifteen boxes, last night in the pouring rain—visions of the rain soaked boxes and books tumbling out into a mountain of sodden pulp that would not be picked up. I covered the seven foot stack of boxes with as many plastic sheets as I could find, and I guess that was enough to keep them dry. When I looked out this morning they were all gone.


Next chore: Listing the contents and value of each box being shipped to Florida. Afraid there will be some guesswork with the contents, since I did not keep a record of what exactly went into each box. Half the boxes I can honestly describe as books. The others I will call household items and hope it serves.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dark Shadows

12 Days…

Many, in fact most of my thoughts during these last days in Japan revolve around the people and things that will surely be missed when Florida is called home, and Japan far over the horizon. A great number of things I love about this country have never been mentioned in these recollections, either for lack of space or absence from my thoughts at the time of writing. But it would be a little odd, and maybe even false to pretend that everything weighs on the good or positive side.


I have described earlier the rosy view that filtered my observations and perceptions during the first few years in Japan, a perspective that covered all but the most extreme experiences in a pretty camouflage. In time, the camouflage lost its effectiveness little by little and I began to catch glimpses of cracks, sharp edges, and the occasional unpleasant sight or encounter. Nothing unique about the phenomenon; given time it happens in all countries and societies.


Yes, Japan has its warts and dark shadows. Still, to be fair, admittedly one man’s bilge is another man’s champagne, and perceptions can be different depending on the individual. I am sensitive to certain customs or behavior that may leave another observer unmoved.


With that condition in mind, where then are the lumps in my Japan? Not all, but most foreigners living in Japan will tell you that true acceptance into a group, or view into the inner mind or thoughts of a Japanese person is very rare for a non-Japanese. Basically, we are as the Japanese word for ‘foreigner’ describes, forever the gaijin, or ‘outside person.’ There is always in Japan the concept of inner and outer, and all but a small few gaijin live irrevocably in the outer circle.


Individual opinion is scarce in Japan, if only because the average person fears being different, or at least seen as being different. It is a group society, and group opinion rules.


Public manners in Japan are sadly out of shape, and growing ever more hard to find in present day Japan. Most of the courtesies that oil the workings of daily life in a big city are by and large ignored here. More than often it’s a case of each person all for himself, since the crowd around him is unknown and operating in the same egoistical way. Trains, buses, streets, inside stores, in public gatherings—too little consideration for the other person.


Japan and its people have been lauded for their kindness and their politeness. There’s no argument on the fact of widespread kindness among Japanese people. My experience is full to the brim with the genuine kindness of these people. On the other hand, politeness here is often confused with a well-rehearsed pretense. There is often a hollowness or blank look behind the polite expression of many, something that is well described by the word, tatemae, or ‘outward show.’ Politeness can be and is often superficial.


Despite my own doubts, I do get tired of being told after the simplest line or two that my Japanese is very good. It’s much the same as being told that I can use chopsticks very well. The implication in both is that these are difficult skills where competence for non-Japanese is rare. My impression is that more than anything else it’s merely a naive viewpoint. Nonetheless, it gets tiring.


With all that, I think enough has been said on this subject. Yes, Japan has its warts and dark shadows, but whatever they are, I owe a debt to the country and its people, who have treated me well over the long years.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Shipping Headache

13 Days…

Maybe a lack of foresight on my part, but it never occurred to me that the paperwork on shipping my books and household items would be so labyrinthine, so complicated and requiring such unrelated information. I was almost tempted to ask the shipping representative this morning if he would be needing my mother’s maiden name and perhaps my high school locker combination. What a mess of paperwork!


About ten minutes after the man arrived I began to get the feeling it was going to be hard going, not only following the rapid fire and finely detailed Japanese instructions, but following through on the complete list without a mistake even more so. Granted I can be impatient at times, and I did begin to hope the man would just leave the papers and cut short his spiel on the rules of international shipping. Despite his long explanation, he was a model of polite friendliness, even suggesting at one point that I not hurry so on the paperwork, since he was very busy with other shipments and a few days time would be fine.


As I already knew, the cost of a shipment by sea is determined by the amount of cubic meters the shipped items add up to, all loaded by forklift into a container. My shipment comes to 3.5 cubic meters which sounds like not an especially large amount. When I saw the ascending scale of charges I have to admit to being a little surprised. Ship 20 cubic meters and you’re looking at a charge of $15,000. My modest shipment of 3.5 cubic meters will cost $4,000 including the insurance. The more you ship, the better the rate is.


For the next couple of days I will work at filling out the papers and making all the necessary copies of my passport, my Japanese visa, my plane ticket and my flight information. What I didn't mention to the man who came today was that it’s going to be difficult for me to describe the contents of all 30 boxes I am shipping. There are a lot of books and those boxes are easy to identify, but many boxes contain a combination of things I can’t clearly recall, since they were packed two or three weeks ago, without noting each item enclosed. I expect it’s going to prove something of a headache.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Return on My Mansion

14 Days…

The three bottles of wine and platter after platter of oysters last night put me in the way of a headache on this Saturday two weeks before my departure. All out of Excedrin and nothing for it. Headache or not, a slowly diminishing mountain of books still waits to be boxed, and the sooner the better. But I did get a slight reprieve in the matter of the box count and estimate. The shipper will come tomorrow instead of today for the look-see and price estimate, and that gave me time to pack up another four boxes of books.


Nice surprise this morning in the form of $2,600 back from the building management company. This money was my deposit when I first moved into the “mansion.” I’d better explain that lest someone get the wrong idea about me and my Tokyo lifestyle. Japan is full of mansions and very few of them are ‘large, well-appointed houses.’ For reasons I have never figured out, the Japanese appropriated the word for use in describing newer apartment buildings, and so you have numbers of apartment buildings called something like Lion’s Mansion, or in my case, Dorf Kugayama Mansion. Nothing ritzy or wealthy involved.


The downside of that return on the deposit was the $500 I had to hand back to cover the removal of furniture items I will leave behind—sofa, two chests of drawers, bookcases, table and desk, kitchen appliances, and a few sundry pieces. Among the things I am shipping to Florida is only one piece of furniture, an old (pre-WWII) handmade kitchen table from the countryside.


Backtracking for a moment, I want to relate something which is a good example of the many diverse elements that make Tokyo an always interesting place to live. The oyster restaurant in Shinagawa I went to with friends last night is called Jackpot, and one of the waiters is a young man from Ghana in West Africa. There is a friendly and relaxed atmosphere at the restaurant and in talking to this waiter I learned that he has been seven years in Japan, coming here only because he thought it looked interesting. He speaks four languages: Mandingo, French, English and Japanese. His name is Bobby and when I asked if it were a nickname, he said that no, it was his given name from birth.


The two photos are of the restaurant’s oyster-shaped business card.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Boxes, Dreams & Details

15 Days…

Recently, my sleep has been colored by dreams of boxes not packed, of last minute details forgotten, or of fountain pens lost in transit. Probably obvious to those who had psychology 101, but if it isn't “insecurity” then I don’t know how to interpret it. Though in my waking hours I feel pretty confident that all the boxes, details and fountain pens are well accounted for.


Much of today saw me running around getting documents, canceling insurance and arranging for ending service on my iPhone. I got a certificate from the ward office certifying that all my Japanese taxes have been paid, then went up one flight to stop my medical insurance. Both those tasks were easy and fast. Later, I spoke to someone at Softbank, carrier for the iPhone in Japan, and found out I can stop my service and pay the bill the day before leaving Japan. Good news, since my at home landline will be turned off four days earlier.


I came home from all that with ten more boxes—four for books I don’t want and six for packing the books going to Florida. Add that six to the twenty-one already stacked and packed.


It has been my custom to write the daily blog post in the early evening, posting it at 7:00 p.m. Japan time. During these last days in Tokyo, many of my evenings are being spent with friends over dinner or a couple of goodbye drinks. That means a later post on some nights. I like the earlier routine, but will hopefully remain clearheaded enough to put a post up after all the eating and drinking.


Tonight a couple of friends took me to eat oysters, something like the attached photo.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

First Time

16 Days…

About two years before arriving in Japan with the intention of staying, I came with the thought of staying for only a short time, but lingered from July through December of 1980. The visit was intended to determine whether or not I would be comfortable here for an extended stay. It all worked out very well, and I came close to staying on even beyond six months.


I had been studying Japanese for two years, and in the course of that had become good friends with a Japanese woman in Los Angeles, there for a year studying business. She was returning to Tokyo soon and encouraged me to go for a visit, even offering a place to stay. So, I coordinated some time away from work and study and set off for my first look at the place I had been dreaming of seeing beyond the pages of books.


I got to Tokyo in late afternoon and I can still remember the vibrant, geometrical green of rice paddies I viewed from the bus driving in from Narita, at that time only in operation two years. Most of those rice paddies are gone now, with construction and outward expansion erasing the incomparable green of rice fields in summer.


The green passed and I caught my first sight of Tokyo, a collage of concrete, neon, power lines and cars and trucks beyond counting. The people seen from above seemed as numerous and as busy as a stirred ant nest. Hot and humid, the climate was visible in the rolled up trousers and wilted tank top undershirts of bicycle delivery men, and the sagging ties of businessmen. My enthusiasm at these first-time heat steamed sights of Tokyo made me feel like L’il Abner on his first trip out of Dogpatch.


My friend met me at the bus terminal, knowing I would never find my way alone to her apartment one hour away. Not a big place, it was still comfortable for three people, and though not in the center of town, getting about was easy. At that time the stations did not have signs in English, but the simple kana characters were easy enough by then for me to read. In spite of my language study, speaking was hard and understanding even more so. My first thought was that no one spoke like the conversations in my Japanese textbook.


Those first few days in Tokyo I walked about the city awed by a neon dazzle that colored the faces of crowds, a concrete vastness of tall buildings and throbbing sound, little that matched the romantic descriptions in books and imagination. Instead, Tokyo was a sweeping deluge, a three-car crash on the senses. The city in motion was almost a disturbing sensation. New York quiet by comparison, Tokyo ground its teeth, shrieked and groaned, hissed and whispered in breaths sweet and foul. Overhead electric-colored signs flickered and buzzed; underfoot, a constant grumble and churning under the streets. The city whispered with a tactile rumble of life, and I reveled in the intoxication of it, standing on street corners basking in the merciless glow of fantastic urban blight.


In the weeks to come I learned to like sushi and pickled plums, but to hate nattô, the gooey but popular fermented soy beans. I lost myself in shops, stores and museums, walked for mile after mile, watched sumô and baseball, and attended festivals, performances and ceremonies. I bought the just-released Walkman and became a fan of singer, Sada Masashi.


My friend and her entire family treated me like one of the family, and introduced me to the Japanese countryside. Surely my introduction to the living Japan would have been far paler without each of them, and especially Kumiko. To this day she is one of my dearest friends and I thank her for the years of support.


In early January, 1981, just after the New Year holidays I left Japan and returned to Los Angeles, to work and to more Japanese study. It would be nineteen months until my return to Japan.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Practical Things


17 Days…

There’s been little time today for wistful recollections of the city I will soon leave. Most of the time was taken up by practical needs and errands. Most likely the list of things to do, to wrap up, close out and end is on schedule, but that doesn’t allow any complacency, and every now and then I get a little jittery about the list. Despite that, while in Shibuya taking care of some things, I did allow myself a short span of reminiscence while eating lunch for the last time at one of my longtime regular restaurants. It’s just a short walk from the site of the photograph above.


Before leaving home this morning I packed two boxes of ink and fountain pens, one just over six pounds, the other right at fifteen. My plan was to take the boxes to the post office and send them to Florida by air mail; that was the plan until I learned the cost would be $160 for the two boxes to go by air. That was out of the question, so I settled for sending them by surface mail for $96, and a long boat ride of about two months. I tell myself I can get along fine with only six fountain pens in the meantime. Another box of ink will go with everything else on April 20th, and two or three bottles will go in my luggage. Fortunately, I have ink in Florida.


Forty-five minutes at the post office dealing with that, and I left happy that everything else, apart from the iMac, will go via a private shipper. The iMac has to go by air a couple of days before my departure, and at twenty pounds will be costly.


In the afternoon I said goodbye to my barber, a fella who has cut my hair for the past several years. Since first coming to Kugayama I’ve always gone to the same shop, but in all that time six different barbers have cut my hair, one by one eventually moving on. I will sorely miss my times at the barber shop here, always a relaxing and pleasant experience. Nothing at all like a quick clip, bye-bye. Even children get a shave here, though it’s one of the things I wave off. But I do enjoy the shampoo, the pampering and the attention to detail. I suppose it’s steep at the equivalent of $42. Never had the experience, but I’ve heard that barbers in Taiwan wash your socks while you’re getting a haircut.


Meanwhile, wet spring weather in Tokyo makes it hard for people to get out and enjoy the cherry trees, which are at the height of blossom this week. Drizzle doesn’t make for comfortable flower-viewing, and surely prevents most from spreading a blanket under the trees with a few friends. The cherry tree in the garden just below me is a late blooming mountain cherry, so not yet in fullest flower. Apologies for the poor photograph.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America