Lantern Festival

It was the first day of the Lantern Festival in The Year of the Horse, but I had no intention of seeing the floats.  I’d been in bed most of the day with a bad case of food poisoning, possibly caused by some bad dumplings.  At 4:30, the bleating of my cell phone jarred me out of a sweet afternoon’s delirium.  It was my editor, and she wasn’t interested in dumplings, poisoned or otherwise.  “Today is the first day of the Lantern Festival,” she reminded me. “Get down there and don’t come back until you have 500 words, some photos, and the witty captions I’ve come to expect from you.”  I scraped myself off of my tatami, and hitched a ride down the mountain with a local scooter lunatic.

By the time I got to Chiang Kai-shek Park, the festivities were already in full swing, and the place was packed on all sides and everywhere in between.  I headed down Aigwo West Road, attempting to make a beeline for the food stalls over by Hang Zhou S.  Road, but it was tough going.  The sidewalks on the south side were completely ren shan ren hai, a colloquial term meaning “people mountain people sea,” or crowded as hell.  On the north side, the pavement was packed with people and the year’s lantern floats.  Some of the floats were fairly self explanatory – horses, angels, that sort of thing.  Others were a bit strange, even for a man of my eclectic tastes.  Yulon Motors’ “Marvels of the Ocean” float started off with a fairly straight forward motif of an octopus, a shark, and some fish floating in a translucent ocean.  But what was I supposed to make of the angels with Hello Kitty faces hovering above the whole mess?   Luckily, my mind was distracted from this by the more straightforward “Matching Dragons,” which depicted two wizened old winged lizards engaging in a life or death struggle over a game of Chinese Chess.

I made it to the food court, and got a bag of deathly sweet honeyed yams and an ear of grilled corn.  This was the most I could handle, as I hadn’t eaten in over a day, and the last thing I had eaten damn near killed me.  There seemed to be a lot more booths hawking aboriginal goods at this year’s festival, but, fortunately for me, there were no freshly slaughtered pigs – with my weakened constitution, I don’t think I could have taken it.  I knocked back the food with a few shot glasses of complimentary green tea, and made my way inside the park, where the festivities were officially beginning with a synchronized drum and light show centered on a gigantic horse float.

It was crowded inside the park, and I could barely move.  The only direction I could really get an unobstructed view of was up, allowing me to take notice of the ten or more severed head balloons floating above the festivities.  The heads belonged to cartoon characters mostly, and I know that they were strictly for the kids, but still, in my condition, the sight of gigantic dismembered heads grinning 20 feet above my own didn’t sit well.  I stuck around until nine to watch a few performances, and then headed back to the subway that would take me home.  I’d had enough of festivities and disembodied heads to last me for a while.

~JSB

Expatriate Preserve

The neighborhood south of Shita University is where young, fresh faced students from abroad come to study Chinese, immerse themselves in local culture, and prepare themselves for a life of hair-tearing frustration in the world of East-meets-West business.  It is here that we find in great abundance members of the expatriate species, engaged in the various rites and rituals peculiar to them and their ilk.  An afternoon spent in the Shita Expatriate Preserve is indeed an elucidating experience to those who wish to understand the species.  Taiwanese are advised to follow certain common sense precautions to help ensure that their trip to the preserve is both a pleasurable and educational experience.

If one follows you, do not panic.  The attention span of average expatriates is notoriously short, and they will most likely lose interest when more attractive members of any bipedal species catch their notice.

An expatriate may approach you offering a “language exchange.” Do not, under any circumstances, accept the offer; decline politely, but firmly.  Such arrangements are never without strings.

Should an expatriate follow you outside of the confines of the preserve, duck into one of the many conveniently located McDonald’s, buy a cheeseburger, and leave it unwrapped on a nearby curb.  This will usually distract the expatriate long enough for you to make your escape.

Of course, under no circumstances should you take them home with you, no matter how cute they may seem at the time.  Many are the tales of naïve locals who have taken expatriates home, only to be reduced to flushing them down the toilet once they realize just how much trouble they are.

While these are most likely urban myths, it may account for some of the strange sounds one often hears emanating from deep within the sewers of Taipei.

~JSB

The Night Market Has No Class

Once upon a time Formosa was a poor place, and the majority of the island's inhabitants were farmers, merchants and craftspeople. In those days, a meal out for those lucky enough to afford such an extravagance, was often taken al fresco, and consisted of a bowl of rice with some vegetables, and maybe some pork or seafood.  But nowadays, Taiwan's humble roots are a thing of the distant past, and in the capital of Taipei, restaurants catering to all social and economic classes can be found in great abundance.   But at the night market, meals are still eaten in the open air, and all class distinctions are transcended in the national pursuit of gastronomic pleasure.

Taipei is filled with night markets, some bigger than others, but even the smallest of these boasts food carts in the dozens.  There’s scant room for parking in the blocks surrounding a night market, so cars, along with class distinctions, are left outside.  On any given evening at the Shita Night Market, named for the nearby Shita University, the casual observer is likely to find harried mid-level salary men bumping elbows with taxi drivers at the metal counter of a stand serving stinky tofu, a national delicacy the flavor of which is both distinctly Taiwanese and definitely an acquired taste.

Further down the street you might see students slurping down bowls of bing sha (sweetened shaved ice with fruit) alongside secretaries from nearby office blocks letting their hair down after hours.

Across the river in Shilin, home of Taipei’s oldest and most well known night market, it isn’t surprising to come across a group of well-dressed CEO types sitting alongside denim clad scooter mechanics at a greasy counter eating greasy oyster pancakes smothered in sweet sauce.  To the outsider it may seem odd, this convergence of dissimilar strata of society, but to a Taiwanese there’s nothing at all strange about seeing the elite rubbing shoulders with the hoi-polloi.  The night market does not discriminate; it is the closest thing to an egalitarian meeting ground to be found on this island of 21 million, an oasis of authenticity in an increasingly materialistic, face-based society.

~JSB

The Fruit Lady of Shita

In the afternoon she opens shop, chopping mangos, papayas, cantaloupe, honeydew melons, strawberries, along with various other esoteric Taiwanese fruits, and laying the chunks out on blocks of ice.  In the hours before sunset, her customer base is comprised mainly of students from the nearby university.  When the sun goes down, the fruit lady sells plastic bags filled with chopped fruit to people from all walks of Taipei life, from taxi drivers to well dressed executives, mid-level salary men to inebriated foreign students out on the town.  She’s perpetually merry and bright, offering free samples to all takers and never batting an eye.

For years, I knew her only as the fruit lady, having never learned her proper name despite the fact that she’s long been among my favorite people in Taipei.  Face to face I address her as Jie-jie, or older sister, which infuriates her as she's only a year older than me.  But I’m not comfortable calling her Mei-mei, or younger sister; it sounds flirtatious, and she’s a married woman.  Her stand occupies a prime chunk of corner real estate in the outdoor food market on the south end of Shita University.

Strangely enough, our first conversation ended in an argument.  I don’t remember the details exactly, a misunderstanding probably, mistaken communication between a native and newly-studied student of Mandarin both having bad days.  But her fruit was some of the best to be found in Taipei, and though I initially returned for the fruit, as my Mandarin improved, I found myself increasingly drawn into lengthy conversations with my fruit lady.  At first our conversations mostly consisted of her questions and my answers.  Queries about salary, over chunks of honeydew.  What about my girlfriend, and did her parents know their daughter had a Westerner, over strawberries.

Perhaps it was because my Mandarin improved, or maybe it was because the relationship had just progressed, but before long my fruit lady was telling me things about herself.  She was from down south, but came to Taipei with her identical twin sister to open up shops.  Her twin had also opened up a fruit stand, in a night market across town.  She had two daughters, and was concerned because they didn’t seem to enjoy studying English.  She wanted to travel, but was too busy making money to think about anything but business.  When the children were a bit older, she thought she and her husband might do some traveling, but that was a long way off yet.  Eventually, she stopped taking money from me altogether, and any time I came by, she would give me a clear plastic bag stuffed full of assorted fruit chunks for which a regular customer might have paid 200 NT. She refused to take my money no matter what I said, and still does to this day.

The one topic my fruit lady had always been reticent to discuss with me was politics, usually a hot button topic among Taiwanese.  Recently, I found myself chatting with her in the early evening hours following a massive rally held in response to Beijing’s anti-secession law.  It had been the largest political rally in years, and I thought that with emotions still running high and the market unusually crowded with marchers filtering from the rally, I might be able to draw her out.

“Surely, you must have some feelings about which party has Taiwan’s best interest in mind,” I ventured. She just laughed.

 “Nationalist party…New Party…Democratic Progressive Party,” she laughed, going down the list of prominent Taiwanese political factions.  “I belong to the ‘Me Party.’  I’m the only member, and my platform is get on with my business.”

A group of bedraggled looking marchers passed by, all wearing green caps bearing the DPP logo.  “Taiwan Independence,” one of them yelled, and my friend smiled and handed him a toothpick with a chunk of melon on the end.  Though it didn’t happen, I believe that had a second group wearing caps with Kuomintang logos passed ten minutes later, shouting, “Long live one China!” my friend the fruit lady would have done the same, never batting an eye.

~JSB

Betel Nut Ingénue

Binglan xiaojiemen (betel nut girls) are ubiquitous in cities and towns throughout Taiwan.  These scantily clad women sit on the side of the road in transparent glass booths, from which they dispense baggies of betel nut, a mildly narcotic locally grown substance ingested primarily by men, usually taxi drivers, truckers and so forth.  Though every so often some government official looking to score points with the high-minded morality crowd will lead a crusade to get betel nuts banned (or at least to get betel nut girls to dress more modestly), little has come from these efforts.  This story was inspired by a friend of mine who spent time getting to know some of these women.  The first words, meaning ‘tell me’, are in the Taiwanese dialect.

Ga wu gong-a!” Ah-wei laughed, slapping Ah-nei’s bare white shoulder with her palm.  “Was it romantic? I hear foreigner men are so romantic.  Tell me! Tell me!”

“Hmmmm…let me think.”  Ah-nei ran long fingers through her hair as if trying to conjure up moments past, prolonging her friend’s suspense.  “Yes, definitely.”

“Lucky! I can’t stand you!”

A blue Hyundai announced itself before the glass booth, tires crunching on gravel.  “This one is mine.”  Ah-nei grabbed two baggies of betel nut and walked to the car, flamingo-like on high heels.  Ah-nei bent down at the waist and presented the driver with a full view of the goods offered and those about which he could only dream.

“Two bags leaf-wrapped, right handsome?”

The driver was in his early forties by the looks of him; he’d bought from the stand a few times before, always on Monday mornings.  He was, by the looks of his car, a family man, and Ah-nei assumed he was a businessman.  The small struggles and low-grade disappointments of his life were just beginning to etch their map on the skin of his face.  Ah-nei imagined the man leaving a doting tai-tai at home in a big apartment in Ilan on Monday mornings, leaving her to raise their child in a healthier environment while he drove into Taipei to manage whatever his business was during the week.  She imagined that he had a small, non-descript efficiency apartment somewhere in Taipei not far from the office; he tried to drive back at least once or twice mid-week to spend the night with his wife and child.  He loved his wife, or so he told himself, but couldn’t deny that he felt as if he’d compromised somewhere along the line.  These thoughts he dealt with through drink, and the occasional debauch.  Though she did not know his name, Ah-nei knew that she represented to him just a small taste of the latter.  She smiled inwardly at the realization that in some small way she had a place in the environment of the man’s marriage.

Ganxie,” said the man, smiling.  “Thank you for remembering me.”

“Not so many handsome men buying from me, mostly pock-marked truckers.”

The driver held a 200 kuai note just inches out of the window.  Ah-nei leaned in closer; strands of long black hair, soft as corn silk, tickled the man’s wrist as he handed her the money.  “Keep the change,” he said, and slowly accelerated back onto the road.  She tucked the note into the purse dangling from her hip as she walked back into the glass booth.

“Why didn’t you just put your tongue in his ear?” Ah-wei was amused.  “You got close enough.”

“You’re such a prude! Besides, I didn’t have to.  It’s all about the implication.”

“So you say! So what did you imply with your handsome ahdogha? Tell me everything.  Where did you meet him?”

“At a pub in Ilan.  I think he is an English teacher.  He speaks good Mandarin, but only a little Taiwanese.”

“Was he nice to you?”

“Mmmm…after we left the pub, he took me dancing, and then to sing karaoke.  He could really sing in Mandarin.”

“And then? What did you do after you left the KTV?”

Ai-ya, what do you think? And you know what they say about foreign men being bigger? It’s really true.”

“Pervert!” shrieked Ah-wei, blushing. “I knew you were bian-tai!”

“Jealous!” Ah-nei said, and perched herself on one of the booth’s two high, elegant stools and set back to work spreading white paste onto green leaves while her friend occupied herself with the task of wrapping the leaves around whole betel-nuts.  Ah-nei thought about her foreigner.  After they’d made love, she lay in his arms and told him about her life, about being a betel nut girl, having to dress up and smile for strange men all day long.  Such a shameful profession, her mother said, only one step above prostitute.  But the foreign man didn’t find it shameful at all.  She hoped he would come by, hoped she would see him again.

For a few minutes, the two worked together in silence, two beautiful flamingos in a glass booth on the side of a provincial highway.  Another car pulled up.  Ah-wei was the first to look up from her bowl of betel nuts.

“Wassa…a Westerner.”

The driver, a thirty something white man with thinning hair and a pockmarked face was looking through the glass booth, staring at the two women.  His eyes rested momentarily on Ah-nei.  The man said something and laughed.  The woman in the passenger seat, a Taiwanese, laughed and said something.  The man laughed and said something back to her, then rolled down the window.

“Hey, give us four sarsaparillas,” the man shouted in Mandarin at the booth.  When Ah-nei looked up, she saw that the man was now staring straight at her and smirking with a rough familiarity.  For a moment, she stared back, feeling her skin flush before breaking the gaze off.  She spoke tersely to Ah-wei.

“This one is yours.  Go and give them the sodas.”

“But I can’t…I don’t know what to say to foreign…”

“Don’t say anything, just give him four cans of soda and take the money.”  Ah-nei kept her head down, eyes in fixed determination on her long fingers spreading white narcotic jelly onto green leaves.  Ah-wei pulled four cans of sarsaparilla out of the cooler and put them into a transparent plastic bag.

“I want to say something to him in English! Um, hello is ‘hao du yu du,’ right?”

“Don’t bother. He can speak Mandarin.  Just give him the sodas and take his money.”

Ah-wei slid open the door of the glass booth and walked gingerly towards the car, stiletto heels on gravel shoulder.  In the back seat was an older couple.  They looked like they must be the foreigner’s parents.  The father looked at Ah-wei, powerful Taiwan sunshine shining off her tight black skirt almost blinding him.  The mother stared straight ahead, and was not smiling.  Ah-wei had forgotten how to make the sounds in English for ‘hello.’  She gave the driver the sack of sodas.

Xie xie nimen,” the man said, handing her exact change. “Thanks to you both.”

The car pulled back onto the road.  Ah-wei watched it, and thought she saw from the corner of her eye the man turn and wink.  She teetered back into the booth.  She understood now.

Ah-nei’s fingers were still working furiously; now she was rolling pasted leaves tightly around the betel nuts.  Ah-wei sat down on the high stool, crossed her long legs, and took up the job of pasting green leaves.  The two women worked in silence as the sun rose higher in the sky.  A few cars stopped, and Ah-wei made deliveries and chatted with customers while her friend continued working, fingers rolling pasted leaves around nuts, squeezing them tightly.

“We have enough now,” Ah-wei said when she saw that the pile of rolled betel nuts threatened to spill from the plastic basket.

“OK.”  Ah-nei wiped her hands, and for the first time since the foreign man had come, she looked up, eyes blinking in the sunshine.  The two women sat listening to the humming of the air conditioner as the sun hovered over the mountains like a ball of jellied fire.

At last, Ah-wei broke the silence.

“Was he at least, you know…more romantic?” she asked quietly.

“No,” answered Ah-nei.  “He was only bigger.”

~JSB

Buddha Box

I acquired the blessed thing on an express train from Hsinchu to Taichung.  A middle aged man with shaven head, orange robes, serene smile and half closed eyes, pulled it from an orange satchel and pressed it into my hands.  I thanked him and smiled for a moment before realizing, newly arrived and still perplexed by the ways of the East, that some contribution was in order.  Pulling a fifty kuai note from my pocket, I smoothed it reverently before placing it into his bowl.  He smiled, bowed his head and continued down the aisle.

Jet black and made of plastic, the box was clearly made to fit the average palm of an average hand.  It looked like an old style transistor radio, one with strange markings all along the front and an image of a charcoal brazier printed in gold ink alongside its single round speaker.  On the top edge of the box was a grooved volume knob, which I switched on.  Melodic feminine voices sprung forth.

Naaaa - ma aaa - mi to-o-o fo, nama ami to fo, nama.

Naaaa - ma aaa - mi to-o-o fo, nama ami to fo, nama.

A woman sitting in the seat across the aisle smiled at me, and though I’d felt at peace before switching the box on, I now felt especially tranquil.  I held the box in my average sized palm as the melodic chant continued its loop eternal (or at least until the battery gave out).  I felt one with Taiwan, at one with the universe.  My only concern was how they’d gotten a choir of nuns into the box in the first place, and what might happen should they suddenly decide it was time to leave.

~JSB

Love Hotel Etiquette

The short stretch of light rail that stretches between the Peitou and Hsin Peitou Stations is an anomaly.  Since it is not even long enough for the train to get up any speed and connects Peitou to a neighborhood that isn't populated enough to really warrant its own station, one tends to wonder just why this strange little appendage exists.  Suspicious souls might suspect that the ugly specter of political pork barreling in the extreme reared its head mightily in its construction, but such cynicism should be quickly dispelled by the realization that this amazingly expensive stretch of rail exists for one purpose alone – to make it that much more convenient for you, personally, to get to Hsin Peitou – Hot Spring Love Hotel Capital of the World.

A few hours at one of these places will set you back between 400 and 800 NT (the “take a rest rate”), and an evening will cost you and a loved one between 1200 and 2300.  A word of advice: go on a weeknight for the discounts, and spend the extra money; while the difference in price between the cheap and the chic may be an hour or two of pay, it'll be worth it just to see the look on your loved one's face upon seeing the 21-inch stereophonic TV and a natural hot-spring fed Jacuzzi big enough to float a small fishing boat.  And nothing says class like his-and-her individually wrapped toothpicks.

The hot spring love hotels of Hsin Peitou are your home away from home, except you won't have to clean up, and, unlike your nosy neighbors, the desk clerk will not judge you as you leave in the morning after a night of loving debauchery with the him, her or combination thereof of your choice.  The facilitation of your enjoyment is all that concerns them, and the strange, crooked smiles on their customers’ faces are the only thanks they require.  This leaves you free to shed your inhibitions to the fullest extent allowed by the law and/or your personal dogma.

Losing one’s inhibitions is easier said than done (except when drunk, when the opposite is often true).  As I walked out of one after a particularly decadent evening, I found myself wondering, "What will the cleaning lady think of the half eaten chunks of Laughing Cow Cheese scattered around the bed? Will the manager be informed about the quantity of cheap supermarket caviar floating in the Jacuzzi?" In my naiveté, I actually initiated conversation with the cleaning lady on the way to the elevator, to apologize for the extreme untidiness with which she was about to deal.

“Oh, na-li, na-li!” she laughed. “Our only concern is that you had a good time.  Leave the mess to us, and come back again soon.”  A far cry indeed from the words spoken by my parents the morning after my last sleepover party.

Of course, there are other activities available in Hsin Peitou for those disinclined to debauchery.  There are several public hot springs in and around the oddly named Anti-Calamity Park directly across from the station, and nestled as it is in the armpit of beautiful Yaming Mountain, Hsin Peitou is an excellent point from which to start any number of hikes.  Several of the bigger hotels in the neighborhood also offer both public and private hot springs, separated by gender or for the exclusive use of the paying customer and guest.  There is also a long-standing rumor that some of these seedier places will, for a fee, provide a bathing companion for the undiscriminating gentleman, but I'd advise against that.  Love, like advice, is best appreciated when freely given.

~JSB

Stinky Tofu

Cho dofu, or “stinky tofu,” is the Taiwanese snack that separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and occasionally, the women from the men. Cho dofu is tofu that's been fermented to a nice degree of pungency, then deep-fried and served with pickled cabbage and hot sauce. Cho dofu is very much a Taiwanese delicacy. Carts selling it can be found at any night market, and in most neighborhoods and towns. Generally speaking, you can find the nearest cho dofu stall with your eyes closed, as the stuff is quite rank. Though tofu is usually thought of as a healthy alternative to meat, those making regular pilgrimages to the local cho dofu stand in the name of health are kidding themselves, since the stuff is as deep fried as deep fried gets, usually in animal fat, but some stalls catering to vegetarians use vegetable oil. Though I resisted it for the longest time, I finally gave in and had some with one of my students. (Taiwanese people enjoy bringing foreigners out for cho dofu, seeing it as a bonding ritual.) Eventually, I developed a taste for the stuff because it was cheap and filling. Though I knew it wasn’t exactly healthy, I justified eating it regularly by telling myself that it was served with pickles, and thus counted as both a vegetable and a protein. Describing the smell is difficult. To those who don’t like it, cho dofu is a cross between limburger cheese and fried sweat socks; to those who do, it's a whiff of pure heaven.

~JSB

Oyayubi

Japan is a culture with many superstitions, especially surrounding death and the funereal ceremony that follows. Japanese funerals are highly stylized rites, conducted by a Buddhist priest according to the traditions of the Buddhist religion. A wake is held for the deceased, during which friends and family come to pay their respects. A special meal is served, and afterwards, the immediate family and close friends accompany the body of the deceased to the crematorium.

Many symbolic rituals are performed during the mourning process. For purification, a small mound of salt is placed on the threshold of the home of the deceased. In some cases, after cremation, family members use chopsticks to pass the charred remains of the deceased from person to person, until they are placed at last in the crematory urn for burial. An offering of food is often placed on the graves of the deceased, with a pair of chopsticks standing upright in it.

One of the strangest superstitions associated with the funeral ceremony is the practice of hiding one’s thumbs by wrapping the other fingers around them whenever a funeral procession passes by. The Japanese word for thumb is oyayubi, which, when literally translated, means “parent finger.” According to Japanese superstition, if you happen to see a funeral procession passing by and you forget to hide your thumbs, you will not be present to comfort your parents when they die.

My father died while I was in Japan. I knew that he was ill, and for that reason I paid a farewell visit to my hometown to see him one more time before I left for Tokyo. I’ll never forget him standing in the doorway of my childhood home, waving goodbye. I didn’t know it then, but that would be the last time I ever saw him.

About three months after my son was born, I was beginning to feel like myself again, and the prospect of making the trip home to see my parents didn’t seem so impossible anymore. One evening, I decided that I was ready to bring my baby home to meet them, so I hopped on my bicycle and headed over to the Hotel Metropolitan to use the international pay telephone. When I called my parents’ house to tell them the good news, my older sister answered the phone, and I immediately asked how my father was doing. After a short but dreadful pause, she said, “Oh no, you don’t know...” She gave the phone to my mother, who tearfully told me that my father had died ten days earlier, and had already been buried. In that instant, all joy was extinguished.

It seems that our nameplate had fallen off the mailbox, and when the Western Union deliveryman came with the telegram, he couldn’t figure out which apartment was ours, so he left without delivering it. I didn’t learn of my father’s death until that fateful evening almost two weeks later. Such a cruel twist of fate. Much of my memory after that is a blur, but somehow I remember thinking on the long ride home, that I must have forgotten to hide my thumbs.

~CH

Hanabi

When translated literally, Hanabi, the Japanese word for fireworks, means flower-fire, and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen fireworks in Japan. On warm evenings throughout the summer season, along the banks of Japan’s rivers, the night sky explodes in bursts of fiery color. In fact, these fireworks displays are named for the riverbanks from which they are launched: Tamagawa Hanabi, Kanagawa Hanabi, Sumidagawa Hanabi.

By mid afternoon on the day of the fireworks, the rivers are already dotted with sailboats, motorboats and rowboats, all vying for the best location from which to view the spectacle. Rooftops are a popular spot for those lucky spectators with access to a place above the crowd. But mostly, the streets are jam-packed with common folk who have come to enjoy the festivities.

Along its length, as it winds its way through rural Japan and the suburbs of Tokyo, the Sumida River is crossed by many bridges, some of which are quite close together. The Sumidagawa Hanabi are launched over two such bridges, creating a doubly dazzling spectacle. On the day that I was fortunate enough to attend this fireworks display, my companion and I headed for the Sumida River after work and arrived with little time to spare. Having been offered no invitation to a private rooftop party, we were clueless as to where to view the display, and therefore had to rely on our intuition. We followed the general migration of the crowd toward what we guessed were the banks of the river. Block by block, as we drew nearer, the crowds became progressively thicker, moving more and more slowly, until we finally reached a standstill, packed like the proverbial sardines, unable to move in any direction.

Ordinarily, I would have worked myself into a state of panic over the closeness of the crowd, but at that moment, there was a deafening boom. The fireworks had begun. The world around me disappeared as I turned my gaze heavenward. It seems that, as we were propelled along by the crowds, we had somehow magically landed in the epicenter of the event. For the next 90 minutes, we were cascaded with shower after shower of brilliantly sparkling bursts of flower-fire on our upturned faces: an experience that defies description with mere words. But imagine, if you will, the biggest, grandest finale of a fireworks show you’ve ever seen. Multiply that by an hour and a half of non-stop pyrotechnics, and you might come close to picturing the explosive grandeur of the Sumidagawa Hanabi.

~CH

Tanabata

Japanese folklore is some of the world’s most delightful literature, and during my stay in Japan, I read quite a bit of it, mostly about foxes and how they can change shapes and bewitch anyone who looks into their eyes. But my favorite Japanese folktale is the story of Tanabata, which has nothing to do with foxes. The Japanese version of the story is based on a romantic Chinese tale about a handsome young cowherd and a beautiful weaver.

As the story goes, each night the celestial maiden and her beautiful sisters weave the starry tapestry of the night sky; and each day the seven sisters come down to earth to bathe in a pond near the cowherd’s pasture. One day, the cowherd spies the celestial maiden, and while she bathes, he steals the magical robe that gives her the power to fly. When the sisters finish bathing, they take to the skies again, and the celestial maiden is left behind. When the young cowherd comes to her rescue, the maiden is sad because she cannot return home, but she stays with the cowherd and soon falls in love with him.

Over time however, they realize that the sun no longer sets, and there is no nighttime for rest and sleep because the maiden is not there to help her sisters weave the tapestry of the night sky. It is then that the cowherd confesses the theft of her robe, and the maiden knows that she must bid her lover goodbye and return to her home in the sky.

But the maiden is so sad that, as she works her shuttle, her tears fall on the tapestry, each one creating a twinkling star.  Over time, she cries so many tears that they become a river of stars. Meanwhile, back on earth the cowherd too is sad. However, a kindly magpie takes pity on him, and once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, the magpie enlists the aid of his flock to create a bridge of wings across the river of stars so that the two lovers can be together for one special night.

In the night sky, you can see the two lovers, Orihime the weaver, and Hikoboshi the cowherd, as two bright stars, Vega and Altair, separated by the starry river of the Milky Way. And every year, on the seventh of July, the Japanese celebrate Tanabata, which means Seven Evenings, by decorating the streets with pink streamers tied to the ends of long bamboo poles. The whole city turns pink with them, and lovers write special prayers on tiny pieces of paper and tie them to the streamers in hopes that they will be carried up to heaven where their wishes will be granted by the gods.  It’s a tale and a celebration of romance quite unlike any other.

~CH

Mystery Men

The daily route from my apartment in Ikebukuro to the school where I taught in Shinjuku was quite unremarkable. The walk to the station every day was probably a little under a mile, most of it through small neighborhood streets lined with commonplace homes, ordinary shops and generic office buildings. But after a few months of walking the same path from home to the train station to the office and back again, I came to know every streetlamp and manhole cover. The faces of the neighborhood proprietors grew familiar and each day as I passed them, I would say Ohayo to Ohara-san, the lady whose family owned the convenience market, and to the butcher on the corner whose name I never learned, and to Ka-chan, the chef of a little neighborhood restaurant called Ganbe.

There was one place in particular, however, that remained a mystery. It was a building in the middle of the block, the entrance of which was always secured by a heavy gray roll-down door. In all the times I’d passed by, it was never open and there was never a soul to be seen. So imagine my surprise one Saturday evening when I rounded the corner to find that the mystery door had been lifted and there was a party going on inside. Not just an ordinary party, mind you, but a decidedly Japanese, male-only, sake-drinking party. The interior of the building was one big, empty tatami room that had been decorated for the occasion with floral wreaths, and colorful paper lanterns and streamers. About two dozen old men, dressed in traditional Japanese robes, were sitting around on cushions talking and singing and drinking; and although it was raining buckets outside, I couldn’t help but stop to stare at them. As I stood there under my umbrella, feet soaking in puddles of rain, wondering what the cause for celebration was, one of the old men gestured for me to come inside and join them. I was overcome with curiosity, and it certainly looked like a lot more fun than trudging back home to an empty apartment, so I did.

I closed my umbrella, took off my shoes and sat down on the tatami floor. The old man who had invited me in grinned at me and filled my cup with hot sake. I soon discovered that nobody in the entire group spoke a word of English, so I fished my pocket dictionary out of my bag and made an attempt to communicate with them in Japanese. By this time, I’d been in Japan long enough to have mastered the basics of the language and could carry on simple conversations, although I never did become fluent enough to say anything intelligent or profound.

For the next couple of hours, I enjoyed the revelry and hospitality of those old men, and managed to convey to them that I was an English teacher from California. They all seemed rather impressed with that, and I became the subject of much head nodding and many an, “Asoka.” and a “Honto ni?” But try as I might, I never learned who those old men were and what they were celebrating. I still wonder to this day.

~CH

Geisha with a Mohawk

On any given day, you never know who you’re going to see when you’re out and about in Tokyo. On a rainy weekday, it might be a group of Japanese kindergarten children on their way to an educational event, all wearing bright yellow rain slickers. On a Sunday afternoon in the off season, it might be a couple of gargantuan Sumo wrestlers dressed in their blue and white yukata, and wooden geta, heading back to the stable after a day in downtown Shinjuku. You might catch a glimpse of a Buddhist monk, head bowed under his straw lampshade of a hat, or a company baseball team in matching uniforms on their way to engage in the harmony of spirit known as wa.

The traditional Japanese lifestyle is a serene and conservative one, in which conformity and group mentality is key. At opposite ends of the contemporary spectrum, some individuals still live within the bounds of the strictest of classical tradition and dress accordingly, while many members of the younger generation strive to declare their independence with a bold fashion statement. Most of the population falls somewhere in between, dressing stylishly yet conservatively in western-style clothing. Still, the extremes are there to be observed on occasion.

One day, while riding the Yamanote, I was struck by the beauty of a Japanese woman in full kimono, one of deep blue floral silk, bound at the midriff by a bright orange obi. Her hair was meticulously coifed, her face was powdered to perfection with pure white rice dust, and her lips were painted with brilliant red precision. She was stunning and although I tried not to stare, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was like a rare and exotic flower, and I could only wonder who she was and where she was going dressed like that.

The seat next to her was empty, and at the next station, a young man boarded the train and sat down beside her. In all my life, I have never seen such a contrast in humanity. The young man was dressed in what the Japanese call panku stairu, an expression literally borrowed from the English term “punk style.” He was all black leather and chains from his knee-high boots to his skin-tight pants and open vest, and he wore the requisite studded bands around his neck and wrists. His costume was unoriginal, and certainly nothing that I hadn’t seen dozens of times in San Francisco’s Castro District, except that this young man’s crowning glory was a bright orange Mohawk, varnished with hair gel until it stood straight up from his scalp to an altitude of at least a foot. He was magnificent.

So there they sat, the Geisha and the Punk, side by side on the Yamanote, neither taking any particular notice of each other, but creating a snapshot that will live forever in my mind’s eye.

~CH

English a la Carte

To say that the Japanese are naïve in their use of English would be a kindly euphemism, when in fact, what I mean to say is that there were days when I wanted to go out and edit the entire city of Tokyo. In Japan, English in any form is trendy and hip, whether speaking it with foreigners, singing it in karaoke bars, or sporting it on some personal accessory. A word or two of it emblazoned on a handbag or a piece of clothing is tres chic. Which would be fine, except that its use in Japanese fashion, advertising, and product packaging is often either woefully out of context, or it’s a bunch of incomprehensible gibberish.

Some days I was able to enjoy the humor of it, other days it drove me crazy. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself when I saw something like, “This is boy. Pretty wow guy!” printed on a teenager’s knapsack. But there were times when it seemed that everywhere I looked, there was a shopping bag, a product label, a bus placard or a billboard that had shamelessly butchered my mothertongue.

One day the cosmos sent me a little gift that would allow me to transcend the issue once and for all, and never let it bother me again.

It was a workday, and I was on my way out of the building to take my lunch break.  The school where I worked was located directly across from the east entrance of Shinjuku Station, above which there are several large department stores, including one called My City, which I could see from the entrance of the building. On this particular afternoon, parked in the loading zone of My City, was a small, white delivery truck, which I guessed must belong to some kind of clothing or accessory designer. The name of the company was printed in stylish lettering on the side of the truck, with the year in which it had been established proudly displayed beneath it. It said: INFINITY…Since 1987.

~CH

Omikoshi

Amid all its ultra-modern innovations, at its very heart, Japan is still a land of ancient tradition. Each region has its own unique cultural attributes, and most, if not all of their holidays and celebrations are based on some practice that dates back to the earliest days of its civilization. The Japanese celebrate the ephemeral cherry blossoms in spring, they celebrate the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, they celebrate the rice harvest, they celebrate the full moon, they celebrate the Emperor’s birthday, and they celebrate the returning spirits of the deceased.

One day, while out and about in the suburb of Ikebukuro, I witnessed one of the liveliest and most dazzling celebrations of all: the Omikoshi parade. It was a beautiful afternoon, and I was headed over to the east side to buy a meter of cloth, when quite unexpectedly, I found myself in the midst of a throng of spectators lining the sidewalk. Over the tops of their heads, I could see an enormous and elaborately embellished structure bobbing along the parade route. It looked something like a miniature temple building, splendidly decorated with Japanese crests and golden filigree. I pushed my way through the crowd for a closer look and discovered that this colossal edifice was actually being heaved along the city streets on the shoulders of about a dozen strapping young Japanese men. What’s more, they were dressed in traditional garb, which consisted of short, open-front robes called hanten, and white cotton loincloths called mawashi, which left their naked chests and buttocks quite exposed.

I was transfixed. I had never seen such an unabashed display of flesh and sinew. All those gorgeous young men, chanting in unison, laboring and sweating in the noonday sun, to transport the statue of their Shinto deity through the streets of Higashi Ikebukuro. It was…spectacular!

~CH

Love Hotel

Kicking around the city of Tokyo and checking out various neighborhoods was my favorite way to spend Sunday afternoons. One sunny Sunday, I decided to explore my own neighborhood instead, and headed over to Higashi Ikebukuro, just across the tracks of the Yamanote Line from where I lived. I was on my way to the Sunshine 60 Building, which at that time was the tallest skyscraper in Asia, and along the way, I passed a Baskin & Robbins ice cream parlor. It was a warm day, and the temptation was just too great to resist, so I ordered myself a scoop of butter pecan and went back outside to enjoy it in the sunshine.

I’d also heard that this particular part of town was known for a stretch of love hotels, and I soon discovered that from the plaza where I sat eating my ice cream cone, I was looking right at it. Even if you’ve never been to one, the term “love hotel,” or rabu hoteru as the Japanese call them, is self-explanatory. The rooms in these establishments rent by the hour and often feature fantasy-theme décor. Love hotels have names like Dreamland and Yes Yes, and the parking garages are discreetly hidden from view by drive through curtains. One can well imagine a love hotel as the site of many an infidelity, but in Japan, where single adults often still live with their parents, it’s the perfect place to consummate young love.

People-watching has always been one of my favorite pastimes, and Tokyo is an excellent venue for it. On this particular day, I spotted an attractive young Japanese couple standing on the sidewalk outside one of the aforementioned love hotels. They seemed to be deliberating or negotiating over what I could only guess was whether or not to go in and get a room. This went on for several minutes, with the young man tugging gently at the young lady, doing his best to persuade her. The young lady, all the while, was coyly resisting. Finally, the young man won her over and they quickly ducked into the entrance. For the next few seconds, with my eyes still fixed on the spot where they’d stood, I sat smiling at the scene I’d just witnessed, when all of a sudden, out they came again. The young man shook his head, threw up his hands, and turned on his heel, with the young lady pleading sheepishly after him. After a few steps, he put his arm lovingly around her shoulder, she buried her face in his jacket, and off they went.

~CH

Soroban

Japan is a paradox of ancient traditions and modern devices coexisting within a single society. It’s not unusual to see an Edo-style temple standing next to a contemporary office building, or a crew of field workers, ankle deep in water, planting a rice paddy with high-rise buildings reflected in its mirrored surface. One day, while standing on the train platform waiting for the express train to Shinjuku Station, I witnessed the very best paradox of all.

The train platforms in Japan typically have a kiosk that sells sundries such as newspapers, cigarettes, umbrellas, souvenirs, candy, snacks, and beverages to busy commuters. Another convention in Japan is the use of the abacus, which the Japanese call soroban, as means of calculating figures. Postal clerks, shopkeepers, and even some bank tellers use them in the course of everyday transactions. School children learn the basics of the abacus, however, to use one professionally requires a skillful technique, almost like playing a musical instrument. Therefore, many Japanese people take special advanced classes to learn how to use an abacus properly.

What, you may ask, do a train platform kiosk and an abacus have to do with each other? Well on this particular day, while standing on the platform at Ikebukuro Station waiting for the express train to take me to my job in Shinjuku, I spotted an old woman, the proprietor of a sundries kiosk, bent over a computer-generated spreadsheet printed on that familiar green and white striped, accordion-folded paper with the perforated edges. I didn’t think anything of it at first. It was just an old Japanese woman in an apron, perhaps doing her monthly bookkeeping. But upon closer observation, I realized that she was checking the rows and columns of figures on the computer spreadsheet…with an abacus!

~CH