Saturday, November 12, 2005

Shinjuku '67

Near midnight in the city. The last train 'home' is near. Wisps of mist waft along the dark and almost silent streets, the daytime shoppers long gone. Think of the vibrance of Greenwich Village in the fifties mixed with the devastating silence of Broadway and 57th at 3 am. From the side streets where the coffee houses lull their clientele with kohi (real coffee, not caffine and water) and alcohol and music, three figures emerge onto the sidewalk of the otherwise pedestrianless arterial just a few blocks from Shinjuku station. Ahead tall buildings soar with one surmounted by a neon sign some 12 stories in the sky: Odakyu, the departo store. Two of the figures are Japanese. One of average Japanese height, one tall in the astonishing post war way. The third figure is an enormous gaijin. Or Baka Beikoku-jin (foolish land of rice person) as I prefer to liken myself. Shin and Kenji need to return home while I must return to base before the trains stop.

We have spent the day exploring the city -- part of the city. They are not exactly teaching me Japanese. I am not exactly teaching them conversational English. Mostly they are better at learning English from me than I am at learning Japanese from them, or anyone else. Under my arm is an artist's sketch book -- the department stores offer wonderful bargains in art supplies. The sketch book is so many things: a handy assist to show spelling either of English or Kanji, or Kana, or Romanji; the essential note of directions (maps) to our next meeting; or a way to elaborate an idea beyond our linguistics; a place to doodle and joke; a prop to maintain my artistic pretentions. We have shopped or been to a zoo or a park or a movie. (Funny. The comedy put me to sleep since I couldn't follow it, while I can recite the plot of the Samauri flick -- Jo-i-uchi -- to this day. Apparantly that was a dud as there is no DVD) We ate dinner, quite likely at the Kirin beer hall, and we passed the evening in various of the coffee houses of Shinjuku. Some played classical. Some played jazz, hot or cold. Some folk -- did I say this was the late Sixties? And some played nothing at all to encourage talk which occurred no matter what.

Certainly we talked. We talked as young people must talk if they are not stiffled. From the heights of despair to the depths of romance. With philosophy, religion and politics to the fore, and bitter reality ever present. Remember, there was a war on as a distant backdrop coloring me and my friends. All of us were born during a war between our countries. Heady stuff. Mostly it was silliness. Mostly we learned how to laugh with each other in our different cultures. A most valuable gift.

Earlier we had passed a greengrocers where in spring strawberries were elegantly arrayed in, more than Prussian -- Japanese! -- precission. Now in Fall they scented the crisp air with mikans from Satsuma. Oh, exquisite citrus! Sharp. Sweet. Exactly as citrus always are in the Jade Emperor's Palace.

Now we approached a street vendor whose cart was plumed in welcoming steam. He offered us steamed buns -- bao, in Chinese. Delicious meat filled pillows of bread: steamy perfection against the Siberian winds that whispered, insinuatingly, around us.

Now: (Oh exuberance of excellances!!) combine them! Crisp autumnal air! Sweet! Sharp! Citrus! Steamed bread enfolding barbecued pork filling!

This, to me, is autumn.

For the thirty-sixth time.


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