Departures: Land of the Rising Sun: Part 7

The Wild Party

Fri Apr 14 2000 (ctd)

I was in Japan to celebrate a wedding, to see Jimmy, to meet his fiancee Minjung.

[Photo: Laputa building]
Laputa was an interesting-looking building, skinnier at the bottom than at the top with a curved wall.

I ambled over to "Laputa", the building which contained Yama-Neko-En, the restaurant which the party would take over. It was an interesting-looking building. I walked up some stairs to the restaurant entrance, presented myself to people who may or may not have been managers of the restaurant, signed in, tossed my gift onto a pile, and entered the dining room.

I blinked into pinlights and earth tones, my sleepy brain trying to parse the scene: a restaurant whose kitchen extended out into the dining area, tables, stairs, a few people moving around. And here was Jimmy, Jimmy in an ornate jacket of a style I didn't recognize. Later on I would find out it was an old Korean style, that his mother-in-law had made it for him. The jacket looked so magnificent, it was a bit strange to see someone as familiar as Jimmy inside of it, but there he was.

He appeared to be somewhat flustered, about what you'd expect from someone who was hosting a big party. He said it was good to see me, pointed out that "the Toshiba guys were here," and walked me over to them before I could point out that I didn't know the Toshiba guys very well.

And so I got to meet the Toshiba guys and talk a bit about what they had done since working on a project with Geoworks. My co-workers and ex-co-workers showed up and I had a chance to get caught up and watch other people get caught up. Kiyo Oishii was there, and I had a chance to watch him glad-hand in Japanese, an activity which he has raised to an art.

My attempts to describe the layout of this restaurant have failed. Up a spiral staircase from the dining room was another floor, which was actually the roof. I mean, I guess it was the roof. Part of it was open to the sky, sort of obliquely, though you wouldn't notice this unless you walked up the skinny second stairway to make it up to the second, higher roof which was open to the air. going up those stairs, you noticed that you weren't going through a door and that when you were up at the top of the stairs, you were outside, and then you remembered the door at the top of the stairs that led to the second floor and only then did you realize that the second floor was, in fact, the first roof. If you were me, anyhow, that's how your thoughts went.

[Photo: Kenji Saito and Mike Touloumtzis look at an ornament]
Of the photos I took at the party, this one turned out the best. You can really see Kenji's back clearly. Mike Touloumtzis doesn't come through so well, though. This is up on the roof, and they're looking up at a strange ornament. Fortunately, Jimmy has some better photos. [Update 2002: Jimmy's photos were on the web, but now they're gone. Too bad.]

Up on the upper roof, I talked a bit with Mike Touloumtzis, the only one of my co-workers who seemed to be having a good time. He had had a good dinner the night before, at a Japanese seafood restaurant. I was pretty sure that I wouldn't like a Japanese seafood restaurant, but Mike's an omnivorous foodie.

Also there was Kenji Saito, an ex-co-worker stationed in Japan. I'd never met him face-to-face, only through e-mail. In this internet age, I'd keep hearing that I was supposed to make lots of friends that I'd never met face-to-face. Yet I had not done this. I hadn't even paid much attention to Kenji back when he'd just been an email address, I'd just noticed that he seemed smart. Now that I met him I found out that he was rather nice.

We were joined by a lady who was in a good mood. She may have been Minjung's mom, Jimmy's mother-in-law. She may not have been; I never figured this out. It was very important to her that we learn a little Korean, so she taught us that "pongo sumida" is Korean for "Pleased to meet you." [Note: later researches suggest that she was saying 'Bangap sumnida.'] I pointed out my hotel room, visible from the roof by looking through the train station. Some musicians practiced a song and looked at the herbs and spices which were growing in little pots and jugs.

Back downstairs in the dining room, there were speeches. The musician friends did a blues song (in English) with lyrics about the meeting of Jimmy and Minjung. Some of the Korean people did some Korean drumming and dancing. Somehow or another, Jimmy had fallen in with a talented crowd.

On the upper floor (or lower roof), I talked to my co-workers, and heard another take on the previous night's dinner. The client company had taken everyone out to a seafood restaurant. As Mike had pointed out, a seafood restaurant in Japan is a wonderful thing if you like seafood. But two members of the group didn't like seafood, and had spent the evening grossed out and starving. I was glad I was vacationing instead of attending client meetings. I'd had to pay for my own plane ticket, but I didn't have clients hospitably dragging me to icky restaurants, and I'd had my days free (which was good, considering that I'd slept through the evenings).

[Photo (altered): the entrance to Mambote's]
This is a photo of the entrance to Mambote's. Unfortunately, it turned out pretty dark. I drew a red circle around the entrance. Which doesn't help you to see it. But you can tell that the place is skinny. Fortunately, Dave Loftesness took some better photos, including a few in Mambote's.

Then it was time to go to Mambote's, a bar frequented by Jimmy, Minjung and their gaijin friends. A bunch of locals and co-workers headed over to chat and wait for Jimmy. Mambote's is a place where the social dynamic is determined by the layout. The main area goes back about 15m, but is only about 1.5 meters wide. If you want to get to the bar (at the back) or the exit (at the front), you have to squeeze past many people. Along the way, you might as well stop to chat for a bit.

Grace, a gaijin living in Japan, started to talk about being a woman in Japan, about getting groped. Then she stopped and said it wasn't that simple. "It's like--it's like there's this... there's this loneliness, this reaching--" She told us about the time she'd been using a payphone on the street late at night when a strange man had walked up to her and embraced her, weeping.

The bartender is "The Master". That's "Master" in English, I'm not translating "sensei" or something. When you talk to him, you should call him "Master." I didn't know this when I ordered my cola, but was soon reminded. He has earned his title--he runs a great place. He had some jazz and funk records which he'd put on the turntable and when I got so sleepy that I couldn't keep up with the conversation, I was happy to sit back and listen to the music.

James Baldwin, one of the people who'd played the blues song at the party, explained to me how much he'd learned about Korean rhythms from the drum and dance we'd seen. It was different from taiko, different from the Chinese drumming that he'd known, yet obviously with common roots. Jimmy showed up, made his way forward and back as I tried to follow all of this. I nodded as if I knew what made a taiko beat distinctive, but really I was trying (and failing) to add up how many hours I'd been awake. Then Jimmy was gone and it occurred to me that with him gone, I didn't have to stay awake anymore. James was telling me that I should eat at more izakayas (a kind of restaurant, like the cross-product of Japanese culture with a UK pub), since there were drunken sararimen there and there they would let their guard down for conversations. There was no way that I could, under the circumstances, non-insultingly say that talking with drunken strangers wasn't my idea of a fun time.

I blearily accepted contact information from James and then stumbled out, waving goodbyes. Though I was tired, I decided that I had better remember where this place was so that I could take a picture of it in the morning. I took careful note of my surroundings, and then started to walk back in what I thought was the general direction of my hotel. Since the hotel was about 10m away, just on the other side of the train tracks, this task was turned out to be pretty easy.


Sat Apr 15 2000

I had trouble getting to Tokyo-eki to catch the shinkansen. My weekday assumptions betrayed me, I made some unfortunate guesses. I'd left myself some time for mistakes, and when I finally arrived at the shinkansen platform, I saw the train just pulling in. I hustled on board, stashed my bags, and then there was this lady saying that I was in her seat. Oh no. I showed her my ticket, she showed me hers. She pointed out the crucial difference: they were tickets for different trains. I'd hopped on the wrong train. I was still early.

Thus, I had a chance to practice various phrases of Japanese politeness upon this lady, offering up whatever dribs and drabs of apology and thanks I could scrape up from my memory while grabbing my bags and getting off the train before it left the platform.

On the correct train, I looked out at a countryside that I soon became bored with. Though my memories of my previous trip had faded, within minutes they were refreshed; within an hour I was jaded. Fields, towns, rain, cities, wet tile rooftops, graveyards, sakura, factories, block housing: they all slid by the same the same. And then there was an instant when I could see a hill with fog or smoke clinging to its sides and it was beautiful and then it was gone and then everything was just the same again.

And so I looked down from the window and read further in To Say Nothing of the Dog and munched a bento (box lunch) which featured that strange vegetable I'd seen on "Oishii Bangumi" and lima beans.

Hiroshima's Best Laid Plan

[Flyer: Lupin San-sei in Hiroshima]
According to this promotional flyer, Lupin III was in Hiroshima. Or there was some kind of promotional tour going on or something. On the back of the flyer, there was writing that seemed to indicate that Lupin would be in many places I would, including a few on the island of Shikoku. I didn't see him at any time. He always was a stealthy fellow.

The train arrived at Hiroshima, and I grabbed my bags and set out from the station in search of any of the business hotels mentioned in my travel guide. I used an underpass to cross a busy street, and it was while walking up the stairs back up to street level that my right foot slipped off a step, landing safely on the next step, but by then my left ankle had been torqued around pretty forcefully. It was going to hurt. It was going to hurt a lot. When I emerged onto the street, I could see one of the hotels mentioned in my guide. It was maybe about two blocks away. I could also see another business hotel "Hiroshima Business Hotel," only about a block away. My ankle was doing its best to set my nervous system on fire. Hiroshima Business Hotel, the closer hotel, got my business.

I stumbled into the hotel room. It was unpleasantly dingy, even for a Japanese business hotel room. But there was a bed to sit on, and I was glad for that. I didn't quite scream when I took the shoe off my left foot, but an involuntary yelp did emerge.

My original plan had been to spend only one night in Hiroshima, just seeing sights this afternoon, ferrying out the next morning. My original plan had involved me being able to walk this afternoon. It was time for a new plan. It was time to slow down.

As I tried to sleep, restraining myself from my usual nightly ankle-fidgeting, I thought about missing tax night, about Sam's birthday, about the foolishness of breaking my USA routine for this stupid foray into international travel.


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