Friday, December 31, 2010

Growing Up: How a skeptic softened to Tokyo Disneyland

Like most kids, I loved Disney. I had a stuffed animal Cheshire cat and fantasized about being a mermaid. I knew all the lyrics to “A Whole New World” and wished for my own pair of glass slippers.

Then I grew up and went to film school.
“Animation is for babies. Give me Hitchcock. Give me Truffaut. Give me Deren. Down with the bourgeoisie! Down with homogenizing American culture! Down with Disney!”

I’d strut around the university library chanting my countercultural mantras.

Then I grew up and went to Japan.
Here adults use Hello Kitty erasers and watch Sponge Bob on their iphones. There’s a cute creature on every package that personifies the product inside. Even beer cans and vacuum cleaners have smiley faces.

*            *            *

“Do you want to go to Tokyo Disneyland?” she asks.

I dig into the recesses of my recollections. Disney. The name sounds sour to my skeptical ears.
I muffle out a yes, followed by a louder note to self:

Keep an open mind. Keep an open mind.

We decide to save a little money and a little sanity with the after-6PM pass. Swapping positions with the kid-packed day crowd, we enter Disneyland at dark.

With my limited field of vision, sounds and smells grow stronger. Chocolate popcorn. Bright-light laughter. Songs that sparkle. Carousels. Jingle bells.

The crowd is waltzing and whirling and taking me by the hand. It’s corny and cheerful and kitschy and cuddly. I snuggle deeper into my down. The cold night air blows my fuzzy hood over my ears. I toss it back, welcoming whatever the wind brings. Saying goodbye to my seriousness.

Fun. What a concept!

From haunted houses to hot chocolate, we wander. Giggling girlishly. Dancing the Disney dance. I’m smiling so much my cheeks hurt. Cinderella’s castle twinkles in the distance. We make the merry-go-round of rides.

Sure, Minnie-mouse earmuffs cost $30. At the end of the day, the entertainment industry collects its currency, and I succumb to capitalist consumerism.

Blah blah blah blah….

It’s okay to escape sometimes. It’s okay to embrace the artificial. Thank you Tokyo Disneyland for your mainstream magic. Thank you for teaching me how to unlearn.

At the sound of the closing chimes, we head back to the train with our imaginations ignited.

That night, I grew up and tap-danced my way home.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How to stay warm in winter

Eat noodle soup. Chuck your spoon. Slurp the broth directly from the bowl, and let the steam warm your face.

Sip hot spiced wine. Eat dark chocolate with chillis.

Get up and dance in the living room. If you slide across the floor enough, you won’t even have to vacuum!

Laugh with friends. Laugh until your belly aches and your face muscles tire. Then laugh some more.

Wrap yourself in polarfleece pajamas. Grab a cat for your lap and a book for your brain.

Inhale hot tea.

Exhale on the window and draw smiley faces in the condensation your breath makes.

Sit by the fire. Sit by the radiator. Sit by the space heater. Stand over the oven while it’s on, and let the hot air puff your shirt like a balloon. Snuggle into a kotatsu:

Sing to the sounds your boots make in the snow.

Soak your body in warm water and your soul in warmth.


Receive gifts.

…from the sky…

…from the earth…

…from people…

I’d love to hear how YOU stay warm in winter…

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Winter Tale: Knowing how to not know

“Allow yourself to not-know so you can be taught.”

—Erich Shiffmann, from The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness

*            *            *

In Japan, I don’t know many things.

I don’t know precisely how deep to bend my upper body in a “greeting bow” versus a “thank you bow” versus an “I understand bow.”
I don’t know what type of sauce goes with what type of noodle.
I don’t know what all the buttons on my toilet do.

I look again at the ordinarily overlooked.

In the list of ingredients on my flu medicine, I see ornate calligraphy.
The hand-made paper wrapping on my box of sweets is worthy of a frame.
My gooey food spirals playfully around chopsticks and sometimes falls in the space between my bowl and my mouth.

I think I said “your welcome” instead of “thank you.”
I think I asked her where her nose is.
I think I burped instead of slurped.

I don’t know many things. But sometimes I think I know. And that’s where I get stuck, closed off to the unknown, blind to possibility.

*            *            *

Yes, I remember winter. I know cold. I know rain and its snowy incarnations.

Sniffle. Ug. Grunt.

Kanazawa has thunderstorms in winter. This I didn’t know. This I wasn’t exactly happy to know. Typhoons sweep across the valley, breaking branches, tossing hair, stealing umbrellas. An incessant rain pelts the pavement. My breath shortens. My body tightens. The thunder sounds like an angry animal. My heart pumps harder in its presence. I pull my covers tighter around my neck.

To end class one day, some chitchat about the weather:
“Bad weather this week, eh? So much rain! So many violent storms! Winter’s coming.” My voice lowers in disappointment.
“I like thunder,” he says.
The class laughs.
I shoot him a quizzical glance.
“You know buri?”
“Buri…??” My voice rises in bewilderment.
“Yellowtail fish.”
“Yes, I know yellowtail.”
“You can eat best buri in winter season.”
The class knows this. They nod in agreement. I stare blankly.
“Thunder makes fish move to shallow waters. Easy to catch. So I like thunder. Fish is most plentiful in winter. Very fresh. Very delicious! Kanazawa most famous for winter buri.”
“Oh, I didn’t know.”

He smiles.

I pause, taking a moment to soak up his explanation.
Hmmm…thunder and buri…I like that.

The time is up, and we exit the classroom. Filing hesitantly out into the cold. There’s a faint hum of thunder today and a grey, expansive sky cut dramatically by snow-capped mountains. Winter brought a change in air pressure that lifted the heavy fog of summer and fall, revealing these massive rocky landscapes.


I take a deeper breath when I see them in the distance. I can see my breath. It joins the wind that blows to the mountains. On the other side of those mountains is the sea. In the sea, thousands of buri are thrashing around to the rhythm of thunder.

Somewhere a fisherman smiles.

In all my experience of thunder, I never considered its positive effects. My shivers and shutters at its boom-bang-cackle made me think I knew all there is to know about thunder. Truly, there’s something to appreciate about everything. Sometimes in order to find it, we have to let go of what we know.

I’m not sure I know what bad weather is anymore, and I’m glad.

*            *            *

Back at home I continue to ponder the relationship between thunder and buri. Investigating further, I discovered that “buri (Adult Yellowtail) in Japan is a symbolic taste of winter that has even come to be described by the common phrase ‘Cold Season Buri.’” —from the iphone app, Sushipedia

I never knew I’d one day say thank you to thunder.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Go with the Flow

“One thing flows into another… Before the rain stops, we hear a bird. Even under the heavy snow we see snowdrops and some new growth.”

—Shunryu Suzuki, from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

*            *            *

I’m watching clouds. Folding over the sun. Changing the mood of the day.

I see Mt. Fuji.
I see the wings of a dragon.
I see mist lifting off the mountaintops.

I’m watching raindrops slide down my window. Hurling at the glass. Blurring the clouds.

I see snakes.
I see crystal balls.
I see drooping flowers.

I’m watching trees shiver in the wind. Warping in waves. Howling when the current passes through bare branches.

I see a wakened wolf.
I see autumn sway to the breath of winter.
I see the last leaves of gold turn bronze.

I watch from inside. Wrapped in my fleece cloak. Sipping tea. Soaking in the steam from my bowl of noodles.

I look up. A friend smiles at me from across the table.

I can’t imagine the change of seasons any other way.

*             *            *

Go with the flow I tell myself. The clock ticks. The tick-tocks echo. A blank stare.

I take a breath. My breath is more like a sigh. I’m tired. I don’t think he understands me. I erase the board, a colorful diagram of future verb tenses smeared to oblivion.


The plan gets tossed. I look up from my thick pile of notes on English grammar.

“So, what are you going to do this weekend?”
Hesitantly, “This weekend I watch movie.”
“Oh,” I smile, “This weekend you are going to watch a movie!”
“Yes.” His face relaxes. He sits a little less formally in his chair.

I step away from the whiteboard. I close the textbook. A flashcard falls on the floor. Just person to person.

“What movie are you going to watch?”
“I watch Iamman.”

I wish he’d say I AM GOING to watch…Let it go…go with the flow…

“Iamman? Hmmm…I’ve never heard of it before. Is it a Japanese movie?”
“No, Iamman, you know it…Engrish movie…Amelican. He flexes his arm, gesturing strength.
“Iamman. Let me see. Do you mean I * am * man?”
“No, no…Iamman.” He loosens up. Smiles, flexes his arm again. “Iamman,” he repeats with confidence.

Pause. I think. I slump in my seat, comfortably settling into this guessing game.

“Iamman. Iamman. I * am* man?” again.

“No, no,” another flex. Now his lips curl upward at the corners.
That makes me happy.

“Hmmm…Iamman…You are going to see Iamman…Iamman…I am man…Iyomman…Iyonman…Iernman…Ironman…Iron Man!! Iron Man!! You are going to see Iron Man! Robert Downey Junior. Iron Man! Iron Man!” I can’t contain my excitement.

“Yes,” he says. “I am going to see Iylon Man this weekend.” A beautiful, grammatically correct English sentence in the future tense! Better yet, said with a smile and a chuckle.

He said Iylon Man, not Iron Man…wrong pronunciation…should I correct? Let it go. Go with the flow.

The clock tick tocks. The time is up. I flex my arm. I smile.

“Enjoy Iron Man.”

“Yes, I enjoy Iron Man.” He leaves the room with a bounce and saunters off into the evening.

My heart smiles. I walk into the winter-tinged autumn air, or is it the autumn-tinged winter air?
I inhale deeply.
Go with the flow.
We have a lot to learn from the seasons.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The one in one hundred

“Teaching is in each moment, in every existence.”

—Shunryu Suzuki
(from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)

“Eigo no sensei desu,” and I bow my head.

I’m an English teacher.
I’m a teacher of English.
I teach the English language.

I bow my head.
I’m a student, a learner, a beginner.

*            *            *

“Let’s sing a song.”

Clapping hands, I lead:

“Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes. Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.”

Stand. Squat. Stand. Squat.
The kids follow suit.

“Head shoulders knees and toes knees and toes. Head shoulders knees and toes knees and toes.”

Stand. Squat. Stand. Squat.
The kids follow suit.

“Headshoulderskneesandtoeskneesandtoes. Headshoulderskneesandtoeskneesandtoes.”

Stand. Squat. Stand. Squat.
Laughter and we all fall down.

Our metronomic hand beats speed up so much they start to go off-kilter. The spaces between one child’s clap fill with the clap of another child. My claps lose their rhythmic potency. The room swells with one sound from one hundred tiny sounds. I fold my rug-burned knees under themselves and lower to the floor.

The kids follow suit, their giggles subsiding with the descent.

“Let’s read a book.”

Eyes widen. We take turns touching the textured pictures, counting the birds, pulling the arrows to make an image pop out of the pages. We turn to the picture of a little mouse. I know what comes next. The kids squeal and race to see who can be the first to touch it with a finger. I quickly slide my finger into their pile of little fingers. We cover the mouse and say "mouse."

They giggle.
I follow suit.

Yasu sniffles. Hoshino rubs his feet on my knees. Maki opens her mouth and tilts her head back in a gesture of glee. A little bit of saliva drops onto my pants. A tumbleweed of dust rolls across the carpet. I shift my weight onto one shin and then the other. My left foot falls asleep. I wiggle my toes, readjust, and settle into any lingering discomfort.

I’ve read this book over a hundred times with these kids. I like the way they gather round it with continued excitement, despite knowing exactly what comes next. Every page is a new page because reading the book today is different from reading it yesterday.

When the last page peels away from the back cover, we pause, take a breath, and start all over again.

The kids smile in unison.
I follow suit.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Call of the Kimono

In Japan, almost every month has a national holiday. This is a recent initiative created by the government to give hardworking Japanese people a built-in day off.

The day is random.
The holiday is random.
And most people don’t actually celebrate, except perhaps by luxuriating in the opportunity to sleep in.

In September we had a day off to appreciate the elderly.
In October we had a day off for Sports Day.
Today is Culture Day—I must say my favorite of these holidays so far.

Culture Day. What does this mean?

Perhaps lounging in pajamas all day.
Perhaps eating sweets.
Perhaps watching traditional performances.
Perhaps participating in Japanese arts and crafts.

For me, Culture Day was a day of seduction.

I let myself be seduced.

My plans to attend a culture fair unraveled when I stepped outside and saw the way the light hit the autumn leaves.

After three days of constant rain, I let myself luxuriate in the sun.

I gave myself permission to meander.

Walking about town, I willingly succumbed to the call of the kimonos, like seductive sirens beckoning me to take their photograph.

Hand-painted silk threads.
Creative color pairings.
Ode to the seasons.

History reinventing itself.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Teachings of Tea

The scroll has three characters on it. Three hundred brush strokes. Three thousand meanings.

“Calm in busyness,” she translates and bows to the scroll. For a moment her face is folded in the fabric that drips down to her ankles. A thin wisp of air separates her forehead from the floor.

Shuffling back to the entrance, she exits the tearoom, carefully sliding the rice paper screen door closed in three precise movements.

If you listen hard enough you can hear a muffle of a sound when the screen shuts against its wooden frame.

A bird coos in the garden.

An old man coughs.

In the space that silence opens, her words reverberate.

Calm in busyness.

She slides across the tatami mat on her knees with a tray of pink confections.

Another bow.

Then swiftly she spreads her kimono wings, and they sway under each movement.

Wipes the bowl. Folds the wipe. Dips the ladle. Ladles the water.

Steam rises in sync to the sound of the cast iron lid as it scrapes the pot and seals the heat in.

Whips the tea. Sets down the whip. Nothing is tossed. Nothing is torn.

If you look closely enough you can see what appears to be one movement is really one hundred. Like the way a centipede crawls. Like the way a spine bends backwards.

And each sip of tea is followed by fifty swallows.

And each shuffle across the room is a journey of a thousand years.

*          *          *

These days there’s a bite to the night air. It’s softened during the day by the scent of fading roses and fallen leaves.

A misty rain descends and sometimes feels like the weight of a thousand swords. But when it clears, the greens are greener and the cricket sounds echo a little louder.

I forgot how exquisite the landscape is after a storm. Life has so many details to offer if one chooses to be aware of them.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Soliloquy on the Seasons

Sometimes I wonder if I left my sense of humor back in summer.

I’m smiling less. Brilliant, sun-soaked flowers are fading fast. Blues freeze to grays, and yellows burn to browns.

Fall is a season of fluctuation. The corners of my mouth seem to rise and fall with the weather.

“Don’t let the weather get you down,” says a friend. “Curl up with a book and some hot cocoa.”

Hot cocoa?

As a foreigner in Japan, I’m noticing the seasons change, but I can’t find my usual autumn comforts.

I’m a bit thrown off.

Sweet beans become my chocolate, figs my fruit of choice.

There’s an unidentifiable smell in the air. I can’t tell if it’s a flower at its peak or a plum tree beyond its prime. Winter looms too close for me.

When the wind blows, the leaves rustle at my feet. I’m callously floating, being blown around.

And then one day I ask my students what their favorite season is. Everyone always says fall or spring.

“Winter,” he says.

“Why?” I retort with an unconscious defensiveness.

“It’s peaceful time.”

“It’s A peaceful time.” But my correction seems less about correcting.

Those words are gnawing at me.

*            *            *

The days are getting shorter. My eyes linger a little longer on the sunsets.

The nights are getting cooler. I’m snuggling deeper into my comforter. I think there’s a print of my body in its folds.

I crave steaming pots of tea and soup.

As I settle into this new season, I have to shed my old habits.

There’s a hole where traces of summer used to dwell.

I’m slowly filling it with the Japanese version of hot cocoa and marshmellows.

Maybe winter can be “peaceful time” for me, too.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

From bus to bus to plane to train…enjoy the journey…

Today is the fall equinox. Usually for me, this day passes like any other. My busy life topples over itself. One day I look up and watch a drop of rain knock the last red leaf off a branch. Snow sets in. I gather my acorns and hibernate.

“Travel slowly,” I read once on a flight to Japan. Wise words crammed against a magazine advertisement for neck pillows.

These days I’m discovering that it’s good to have a destination, but it’s even better to savor the process of getting there.

I cast another quizzical glance at my itinerary:

Goal: Get from point A (Kanazawa) to point B (Tokyo) in time for the wedding

Point A: Time of Departure from Kanazawa: 12:20 PM

Point B: Time of Wedding in Tokyo: 2:30 PM

To Do List for the hours between 12:20-2:30 PM:

1) Take a bus from my apartment to the train station in Kanazawa

2) At the station, somehow figure out how to buy a ticket for the airport shuttle bus

3) Somehow figure out where in the station to catch the airport shuttle bus

4) Get to the airport for the 12:20 PM flight to Tokyo

5) Land in Tokyo and find a restroom

6) Change into my wedding outfit and somehow not look like I got dressed in a public restroom

7) Once dressed, somehow figure out how to get on the monorail bound for station H. (I can’t pronounce the name)

8) Once on the monorail, somehow figure out which station is station H.

9) Get off the train, and somehow find the south exit at station H. What’s the Japanese word for south?

10) Somehow recognize the person who is picking me up from station H. and walking me to the wedding

11) Somehow get to the wedding before the bride gets married

I commit the steps to memory, but with every “somehow,” my anxiety level rises.

Suitcase in hand, I step outside my apartment, walk down four flights of stairs, and wait at the bus stop.

The air is cool.

A butterfly dashes by.

I get lost in the space between its flutters.

Maybe things aren’t so complicated after all.

I’m beginning to see my journey less as an obstacle course from point A to point B, and more as a series of moments flapping against moments that congeal over time to create a memory…

SCCRREEEEETCH…and I’m startled from my philosophical reverie…

The bus doors close. I’m not in them.


12:00 becomes 12:01

Will I make it?






I guess I’ll just wait for the next one.

*     *     *

*     *     *