Through the Small Window One Can See an Angry ex-Hoosier

My friend Mike, aka BeardSex, has been in South Korea for the past few years (Is it four? Five? Three?) and has had more strange illnesses than anyone I have ever come across. At one point I thought he had died only to find out months later that he almost died. I tripped upon this information when he walked into my work two years ago. Here is a little essay he wrote about traveling:

Jetpacks Was Yes

So, if yer gonna get a wild hair up your ass and shift yer travel plans around at the last second, this is best left to situations that don’t involve four countries, three connecting flights, and two entirely different climates. Anyway, that said, I went to Bangkok briefly during my trip, Hong Kong being a dangerous place for me to spend my first day of freedom from Korea. Then I got intimately acquainted with Gimpo International Airport in Seoul as part of my 36 hour stretch spent exclusively in airplanes or ports. When I got to Tokyo, I had me some mighty rank going on. Had to listen to the Korean next to me slurp and smack and belch all the way from Seoul, but at least that’s only a short flight and the seats were nice and big-like. Anyway, at the passport control booth in Tokyo, the guy had to sneeze. He turned away, sneezed into the crook of his elbow, then said “excuse me.” Had I not been where I had a been for lo these many years, it wouldn’t have caught my attention. As it was, the simple courtesy nearly brought me to tears. But then, I hadn’t been getting a lotta sleep, so even the cartoon dinosaur selling soft drinks (or, possibly, warning about the spread of infectious diseases) up on a sign just past baggage claim nearly did the same. At any rate, I got on the Keikyu line, which is on the mostly useless Lonely Planet map, and not the Kyuko line, which isn’t on any map that I’ve seen but would have taken me straight to my hotel. The 15-minute cab ride after I realized my mistake cost me $50. The extra 2 hours of sleep I got by taking a late check-out (which, here, is 1p), cost me another $30. Then there was the bullet train to Kyoto. by the time the dust settled on my second day in Japan, I was down something like $400. But I’m traveling, so I decided not to care. Woulda bought me some jeans and other things, but the Japanese style is skin-tight, and I’ve got a lot more skin to get around than the average Japanese hipster, so I couldn’t even get Levi’s past mid-thigh.

The problem with Japan (and, having been here 9 days, I feel sufficiently qualified to diagnose it) is that the taxis are horrifically expensive, but the subways close at midnight, so if you go out drinking, you got three unpalatable choices:

1) be home before midnight
2) stay out until 6a
3) get a taxi and damn the consequences

This place is, I’ve been told and i can imagine, a wholly different world from Korea. I haven’t been able to get past the surface, though, probably owing to my lack of Japanese language skills and any energy for anything other than the cigarettes I’ve been sneaking (for the love of God, they sell American Spirits, the black ones even, out of vending machines, for under $3! What am I gonna do? Not smoke ’em?), I haven’t been doing a lot of probing. The cities look the same, on the surface, as Korea, though with less public spitting and pissing. Remarkably, though it’s even more crowded, nobody runs into you. Even in Hong Kong, which doesn’t really feel like Asia at all, you get run into. Maybe it has something to do with being Han Chinese at root. I dunno. At any rate, it’s nearly as impressive as motorbike taxi rides in Cambodia, where traffic going both directions covers the entire road and manages to come together without gigangit, fatal pile-ups most of the time.

But I saw me some old shit. Last day in Kyoto, which was rainy and blustery, pushed on up this dirt track past a cemetary behind one of the major temples and kept going until I hit a blocked path or someone yelled at me, and ended up half-way up the mountain in a little grotto full of shrines and the smell of incense. With the dense trees and the gloom of the day, it wasn’t too hard to imagine a wholly different, entirely less modern Japan. It would have been perfect, except for this nagging feeling in the back of my head that this is exactly the sort of experience that Lonely Planet would approve of and recommend, which made me want to see some neon and some strippers.

Wanted to go to Hiroshima and Miyajima, way off to the west, but ran out of time. Made it as far as Himeji, a 400-year-old castle that’s still standing in its original form. Tour guide, Chiyuki, pointed out one of the newer walls, in which the rifle holes were cut into various shapes.

“Is that just for decoration?” I said.
“Yes, so the enemies would have something pleasant to look at before being shot,” she said. “We’re very polite people.” Then she showed me some slippery plants put below another wall so that enemy soldiers would slip and fall if they jumped over the wall. “Comic relief for the soldiers standing guard, right?” I asked. “Yes, of course,” she said. Later, she pointed out that the doors were low so that tall enemies, “Like big American soldiers,” would hit their heads as they tried to invade. She seemed to think that Koreans still lived in mud huts, on the other side of the Pacific and was amazed that it’s only a 90 minute flight there. “Everything must smell like kimchi,” she said. “Yes, it does,” I managed to get out before she sent me laughing into another of these hacking fits that — and I’m no doctor, but I’ma go out on a limb — had something to do with the American Spirits, after a month off of smoking. Later, she was explaining that all Japanese castles, and most other buildings, used to have statues of fish put on the corners because it was believed that their spirits would come alive during fires and spit water on them. She pointed to the fact that this castle was never burned down, not even during the American bombing in WWII (a special kind of wince that I’ve gotten used to over the last four years). She explained that the statue was of a variety native to the area. I pointed to the big fire extinguisher in the corner and asked what kind of fish that was. To her credit, she played along rather than pushing me out of the window for taking things too lightly. “It was difficult to catch,” I think she said.

Later on, she told me that she thinks Ichiro Suzuki, who plays for the Seattle Mariners, is cute because “he has a small butt.”

It was more or less the most fun I’ve had in Japan, except for this:

The night before, I’d gone ’round to this drinking and snack tent at the end of the alley leading to my hostel with an Aussie who rode his motorcycle across the Outback. The two other Aussies in the hostel explained that when he said flippantly, “Yeh, we rode from theah to theah and then had a bit of a reest,” he was talking about 1,000 miles of desert. While he made friends with some salarymen — the one next to him, at one point, had his trousers down to mid-thigh and, he told me later, licked his face — I chatted with a JAL pilot to my left. He seemed anxious to cut off the line of conversation from the drunk old guy who ran the joint when the subject of the Aussie’s girlfriend came up. Old boy started laugh-talking away, doing something with his fingers. “Aw, no, you got it all wrong,” I said to him. “Like this — like you’re bowling.” He seemed to get a kick out of it. The pilot was kind of flustered. The salarymen at the far end of the tent, we had the following conversation (complete transcript)

Them: “Daisuke!”
Me: “Daisuke? . . . oh, Daisuke Matsuzaka! Boston Red Sox!”
Us: “Kampai!”
Them: “Nomo!”
Me: “Nomo! Where is he? L.A.?”
Them: “Los Angeles, Nomo.”
Us: “Kampai!”

Me, I was surprised that the little balls of batter-dipped octopus weren’t bad at all. Had kind of a pancake texture and a molasses taste, and a bit of chewiness. But I was 2 liters of Kirin into the night, so I probably could have found something to like in my left shoe. Anyway, the next time I went drinking in Osaka, I got to America Village around 10, thinking that’s the time things would be getting started and caught the last four songs of a Japanese emo band’s set, then wandered until I hit a foreigner-friendly bar. Wound up leaving there at 3:30 after having a handful of conversations about Korea and God knows what else, then waking up around 4 in a McDonald’s, trying to decide which filled me with more loathing: the remains of a Big Mac value meal, the fact that I’d fallen asleep in a McDonald’s or the taxi fare I’d have to pay to get home. Luckily, the taxi driver took Visa. Went out on my first night in Tokyo, but this experience sapped whatever will to party I’d have left, Tokyo’s reputation notwithstanding. At least as far as nightlife goes, it’s not altogether different from Seoul. Well, I take that back — leaving one bar that had a friendly bartender, after having only just decided on stew instead of raw whale meat for my dinner a couple hours earlier, one of the strip club touts lining the street in Roppongi asked me if I wanted to see some beautiful girls and a nice club. I said “no” and kept moving. “Well okay, how about a disgusting strip club?” he said, so I asked about the cover. There wasn’t one, but the drinks were $15 each. Bartender in the last place told me that, in Japan, you don’t slip money into their g-strings. On the whole, considering that anything under $10 is in coins, this makes sense. I mean, there are ways . . . oh, never mind. I went home, is the point, on account of I have no appetite left for being drunk and lost on the wrong side of the Pacific.

At any rate, I have come to one vital decision: I don’t think, if I can help it, that I’ma stay at a hostel again. Unless it’s like a stripper hostel, where the common room is a strip club and has wi-fi. I can type with one hand, if need be.

Anyway, I’m a post some pictues, because it’s rainy and cold and I was gonna spend my last day in Tokyo wandering around the Imperial Garden, but now I’m not so sure. The first one explains why I had to go to Bangkok. The next will follow later, when I get ’em offa my camera.


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