Fear and Doughnuts in Tokyo

In some ways you don’t own your body until it hurts. We talk a lot about — but are rarely aware of — all the flesh and bone that houses our silly theories. When I was far too young to understand, my mother used to make me practice mindfulness, the Zen meditation expounded by Thich Nhat Hanh that calls for awareness of your body as the mind’s extension, being awake to the Zen qualities of mundane realities, etc. She did not do this because she thought that someday I would be standing on Mount Fuji in the middle of the night freezing my ass off, cursing every part of my aching body. She did this because she is insane in that special super-sane way — a seer. And also because she is plum loco.

Fuji: The night before our climb I twisted my ankle. Actually I had twisted it the previous week and, as injuring an injury complicates everything, I walked around the day before Fuji in the constant shocked awareness that I use my ankle a lot more than I could have suspected. But I couldn’t pass up Fuji and so, after buying an overpriced bandage and stocking up on ice packs, we were off. The next day, as we got off the bus at Kawaguchiko, the fifth station of Mount Fuji and the spot where our hike was to begin, I stepped off the bus at the precise moment when the sun, having disappeared from the sky, leaves a last oil spill reminder of itself — a luminescent LSD dream. I looked up and stepped toward the scene right onto my shoelace. I went down so fast and so completely that despite my pain and embarrassment in front of the bus full of backpackers, I could not have denied a clever observer a giggle had he thought to yell timber at that moment. Eyes still on the sky, more out of confusion than appreciation now, I landed in a push-up position. Inventory: One sprained ankle, two scraped hands, one hurt pride. Could have been much worse.

We didn’t have much of a choice about when to go. We went shortly before the start of the season, so it was cold — too cold. I can’t quite remember now why we decided to do this hike at night. During the day we would not have gotten lost. We would not have gone up the zigzagging down route; as it was, that is exactly what we did. In fact, we later deduced that we went the wrong way almost immediately after hearing the recorded safety announcement — a gentle voice reminding us, in four languages, to please pay attention to the route markers and go the right way. We also started earlier than everyone else, so there was no one to follow. Too bad the recorded voice didn’t say, “Turn the fuck around, you imbeciles!”

There was no light on the trail, only our headlamps and the lights of the mountain huts above us. Half our progress was eaten by the shifting pebbles and, with the wind picking up incrementally, we were wearing all our gear long before we had expected to. Both of us were sucking on our oxygen cans every 30 steps or so in an attempt to alleviate the altitude headaches, and our steps were getting smaller and slower. The huts seemed to be getting farther out of our way and the headlamps of the few other hikers — previously a small comfort in this cold place, blinking like the blinking stars above, “smiling their admonishing smiles” (as Emerson wrote) — were gone. When we found ourselves on the same latitude as one of the huts and could find no path to it, Slava said it aloud: lost. The word just echoed, curiously detached from my hearing it. Sound carried strangely there. It could have been said by someone else. It could have been a bird, or some rodent. It could have been the voice of the old volcano below us. I have never experienced quite the brand of fear I felt when that word and all its implications landed on my ear drum.

At that point, even with flashlights, there was no going down the sliding gravel path we had been climbing. And if indeed we had veered off the path of the mountain huts, that meant that there would be nothing else — no shelter, no people, no help until the end eight hours from now at 4:00 a.m. I could not hear anything else that Slava said. I sat down and couldn’t get up. I felt, very suddenly and violently, every tissue and sinew in my body utter the same negation against the cold. My eyes saw the clouds below us and below that the lights of cities. The rock immediately in front of us, illuminated only in the direction of our gaze, was black. The landscape around us, every shade between black and invisible, looked not like the lush landscape of Ando Hiroshige’s highway paintings but like cubist chimeras — the black jagged rocks against the black sky breathed a dead breath, cold and razor sharp. My lungs were beginning to feel it and even the stars, so much closer to me now than ever, were not a comfort.

I don’t know what it was about that landscape that scared me so. My fondest memories are the walks that Slava and I took, sometimes for eight, ten hours at a time, in Ireland and Scotland, seeing no one but the sheep. Or our drives through Nebraska, Utah, Arizona, with naught but the geckos to keep us company. And it was not a fear of harm — of highwaymen, of wild animals. It was not fear of the cold — not really — and not a fear of injury. It was the existential fear of a bloodred sky over Oslo, of a landscape all at once turned disgustingly human, of a human face contorted into a scream where there could/should be only dust. With the word lost reverberating in my mind, I learned more about myself in that one moment than I had in the last three years of grad school ... and everything my mother had taught me started to come back.

Heat: I got my first taste of Tokyo humidity. It is like swimming in maple syrup. Summer here didn’t settle in — it collapsed.

Tokyo architecture is ruthlessly miscellaneous. On any given unmapped side street there invariably appears some sort of bizarre upside-down cake like creation of a building — some art gallery disguised as a clothing store pretending to be a hair salon. In the heat of summer, side street excursions reveal aromatic delights: the yeast of countless bakeries, the spicy curry of soup stalls under the tracks, the moldy smell of the used book shops by the university, the baking rubber of sneakers in a sidewalk sale — an encyclopedia of smells. The kids are out of school for the summer and as they mill around I catch a mix of citrus and powder over sweat that reminds me of what summer meant once — before there were words for it. Of course walking down side streets in Tokyo is also the best way to get ass-backwards lost, but emerging from the labyrinth of alleys, all of my senses satiated, I feel, rather, found.

Hiking: The trails at Kamakura take up a good chunk of the city. When we first arrived, Japan was feeling the first trickle of monsoon and we did not examine thoroughly enough the consequences that days of drizzle would have on dirt paths. Squishing and squirming our way through the various sign-posted — though still unknown — directions, we quickly gave up on those sparse dry spots saved from the muck by gravel and rock and tried to take some childish pleasure in the inevitably childish future appearance of our wardrobe. The alternative was to balance along the elevated grassy sides of the paths, but we saw that the low brush hid slithering creatures and our rolled pant legs exposed unprepared bootless ankles. After a while you can’t get more wet and you can’t get more dirty. And while we joked about which of us would be first to go sliding down the steep slopes — lined as in fairy tales by giant tree roots — there comes a point at which it doesn’t matter. As our clean pants and nice shoes (bought special for Tokyo) became paws and fur, and our fingernails and hair became matted and spattered, culture fell away and we were once again not where we were — not in Japan — but in the ever-spinning scatology of the universe. It would have been a horrible hike had it not rained. It would have been nothing to write home about.

Jazz: We made our way to Seoul. Probably resulting from a serious overdose of John Woo films at an impressionable age, I have always wanted to hear some jazz in Asia. There is a massive record collection behind the bar. Also behind the bar is a bartender that pulls off ugly the way only the French can. He is busy tonight; his arms move slow and fast at once in a complicated Shiva dance. The drinks come out syncopated. I try my best to eavesdrop on the two Aussie musicians at the next table but I have not eaten all day and the pint in my hand makes it a futile effort. The waitress, a gorgeous dominatrix ballerina whose sharp minimalist features are accentuated by choppy, jet-black hair, has revolution printed on her T-shirt. She slides between us, a pale ghost note between measures. I am fixated on a guy whose sneakers look like spats. He turns out to be the pianist and, as he adjusts his chair, the saxophonist starts.

Seoul has hundreds of jazz clubs — there are dozens off Itewon Street alone. The mirrors that run the length of the stage are tinted yellow and give the illusion of a cloud of smoke where there is none. Pictures of Mingus and Gillespie, Parker and Davis, line the walls in homage to the original All That Jazz so many moons and leagues away. In the dim light their faces levitate next to ours and the mirrors make them as real as us and make us as ghostly as them. And we toast together: long live jazz! As the effortless sax solo peels away I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and see that I am grinning like an idiot and I decide that jazz is truth. That decision makes me grin even more. Spats switches from piano to xylophone and the riff lasts forever — suspends us all in time. We hover there, throats dry, feet pulsing. The refrain, this time played on drums, leads the musicians into Bizet’s Carmen and the room breaks out into laughter and applause and we are released. We are no longer in Korea or Seoul — we are in jazz.

The night and the trip end. The taxi driver thinks we want to go to Pyeongyang, North Korea, instead of Yangpyeong, where our hotel is. He imitates machine-guns and laughs at our pronunciation as he speeds along the highway. I look out the window and hum a Mingus tune to the skyline. I could stay here for a spell. I could wander down Insadong and listen to the street musicians, peek into the endless art galleries, and eat rice flour and honey sweets. I could once again climb up that strange shamanic hill, Inwangsan, in the middle of Seoul where there were rumors of tigers prowling the forests since the Choson days (and as recently as the 1920s) and where now, a girl sits with her eyes tightly closed beating a tambourine and crying out her prayers to the wind. I could spend days collecting in my mind the faces of the shamanic totem poles whose eyes bulge with meaning and lips pucker in a dusty whisper, whose judicious gazes can transport you to a place beyond time, and whose blood flows like a jet stream from Siberia to Mesoamerica. I am not ready to leave but Tokyo waits now like an old friend.

I will miss Tokyo. Especially: The amazing availability and proliferation of egg salad sandwiches and great coffee, not to mention the lunchtime company of little sparrows. I will miss too the sound of bells, the smell of incense, the little white paper fortunes tied onto trees like perching parakeets in front of red temples, red lanterns, red sunsets in Asakusa, and the narrators of the city — the crows — overhead. Tokyo does something to the senses. Stripped as my vocabulary has become of all but the necessities (gomenasai, gohan onegaishimas, sumimasen), I will miss the meaninglessness of words, the sound of a language as empty and resounding, silent and vibrant as an empty forest: lips move to form shapes, eyes crinkle, breath is expended with smoke, hands run through hair or are clasped together, and there is recognition. And yet I am not deaf. What does this silence make me?

Here there is slowness in the midst of speed, and silence within sound: the sun-dried ocean salt on skin, barbecued octopus in a beach shack, volcanic black sand, red seaweed, foamy waves, hot wind, bubbling undertows, and the green oases, each one a gulistan.

Kabuki-za: A pink and caterpillar green Kimono held shut by a striped black and white belt moves across the stage stopping often. Slowly, fingers spell out meaning. A wistful smile holds the lips ajar. The Taiko drum asks. Yes, the Kimono replies. The Taiko drum affirms. Asks again. Yes. The dance continues. The man under the Kimono is a specialist in female roles — is, in fact, from a family of female specialists going back many generations (women cannot perform Kabuki — the parts are said to be far too difficult). The man in drag does a complicated, highly symbolic dance, syncopated with the verses of the songs. He is a young girl, teeth still white, signifying that s/he is yet to be married. A Kabuki horse prances beside her… I will miss the beauty of things but am relieved to leave behind the ideology and the history that supports it. It is no worse than mine. But it is not mine.

I will also miss: Men with fans, women with umbrellas, looking left, dachshunds with skirts, the omnipresence of jazz, prom-colored butterflies the size of shadows thrown unto walls by kids, the depth of the urban solitude, elevated highways, subways at the center of the earth, the texture of culture beneath the absence of clues — there is a here here that is always surprising. I will miss wearing sunglasses at night and eating crepes in the morning drizzle. I will miss the height of this city: high heels, high hair, low ceilings in four-story bars. I will miss noodles in the cafes under railroad tracks — spicier than a jalapeno pepper’s wildest dreams. I will miss the 200-year-old tea store where for a mere $6 you can buy true happiness. I will miss bowing and meaning it.

I will miss a certain Yukinko Akira, and everyone like him: the hyper-hip, lean, almost androgynous techno artists who paint to loud, pulsing, rhythmic sounds that come out of the homemade boom boxes hanging from their necks, their skin clinging to their bones like their sweat-soaked clothes, their jeans patched up with silhouettes of Bob Marley, their forearms strong and sinewy, defined by their art. They scream and stretch out their arms to capture something ephemeral that only they see — a spirit with which to paint. Their speed and precision give birth in a matter of seconds to now the reflection of a watching face, now the wing of a butterfly; their realm (the seen and the unseen labyrinth of subways and streets) is the steel and concrete opening into perhaps the only birth canal we could ever know — the one that pushes us through the darkest versions of ourselves — and underneath all the shtick and despite any theorizing, they do exist. Their movements and voices promise to wake you, if but for an instant, from the infinite regression that is any life — as good a promise as any.

I will miss the stop motion of this city that turns you into a deaf, mute, senseless pair of eyes — I will indeed miss living as if my sense of sight is the only one I have. I will miss getting caught in the rain here. I will miss buying dried figs at the fish market. I will miss the surreal feeling of reading American literature in a smoky Tokyo cafe. Sitting here having a decaf concoction that is so nasty it is waking me up, I think about how similar beginnings and endings are. The perfectly timed end-of-summer jazz of Sadao Watanabe drips from the speakers. We literature types like beginnings and endings the most — bookends to justify the boredom in between — but things start long before we suspect and end long before we realize. Though I surely passed through this place unnoticed, I will miss it, and me in it, like I miss the beauty of the DOS I used on my first computer as a kid. But I also miss home and it is time to go.

I sit in a doughnut shop in Tokyo’s Chinatown, the smell of the fish vendors confusing the taste of coffee in my mouth. The radio is playing American oldies. What year is it? What was it that scared me so? I am reading Emerson, a professor’s choice, not mine. An old man says something to me. “Gomenasai,” I say. “Wakarimasen.” — I don’t understand. He holds his thumb and index finger as far apart as he can and then points to my book. Video killed the radio star says a voice above me. “Soo,” I affirm, “Hai, hai.” I make the same finger gesture — too fucking big. Emerson goes on about nature and time without me for a bit. The old man asks if it is a novel. I nod. “Old novel?” I nod emphatically again and show him the publication date. The old man’s face brightens — he approves of such an old book. In my mind Fuji looms over me. Did I climb it?

Yes. I did.

No. I didn’t.

They have a saying here: Everyone should climb Fuji-san once. Only a fool would climb it twice. My doughnut sits untouched on my tray, a sugary wheel of karma. There is a secret meaning there — in the doughnut, in the song on the radio, in the rings of smoke around me, in the saying about fools. A girl with a face as round as the moon refills my coffee — are her dark eyes reflecting my thoughts? Krishnamurti says that anything that is overcome has to be conquered again and again. When I first read him it was a teenage passing fancy — I was racing to find medicine for a disease I didn’t yet have. Now I see that Fuji was the weakest I have ever been. And I found it wasn’t so bad.

Fuji: At 2:00 a.m. we arrive at the eighth mountain hut, where we spend a couple of hours sleeping, trying to breathe and not vomit. They wake us up at 4:00 for the sunrise. Compared to the previous night, the sun has nothing to offer me. The way down was someone else’s dream. Everyone should climb Fuji-san once. Only a fool would climb it twice. I eat my karma doughnut and think. I always have been a fool. Or maybe a slow learner. And maybe being scared to death is something that has to be learned multiple times. I look down at the words running across the page without me and hear Emerson say “All natural objects make a kindred impression when the mind is open to their influence.”

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