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