I know I’ve been conspicuously absent, friends, but I’ve been busy wrapping my head around everything that has happened (and is continuing to happen) to me. Dreams are delicate things…like soap bubbles. You touch them and they disappear. I think I’ve found a way to hold this dream very gently, though, so I’m ready to share with you.
Me & Hachiko. Birds pooped on both of us that day.
The long and short of it is this: I was down last winter. A friend shared a snippet of a Japanese obstacle course show (Sasuke…Ninja Warrior in America) with me. For some reason it inspired me. I decided to get well (& yes, that is a very conscious decision). I wrote to the guy (my very favorite Ninja Fisherman, Makoto Nagano) on the show & sent him a gift. I found out my brother had done work for the production company (Monster9) that produced the show. When he went to Japan, I sent along a gift for the executive producer (Ushio Higuchi). Higuchi-san was so touched by my story and my gift that he arranged for my brother and I to go to Japan…and see the show being filmed live.
Yes, really. I know. If this were fiction it’d be bad fiction. But it all really happened just like that.
That’s how I found myself on a plane two weeks ago, in business class, flying to Narita. Business class rocks, by the way. Did you know that in business class you get:
*really awesome food (I had the grilled mahi)
*a seat that reclines all the way
*more booze than you need
Seriously, it’s a great way to fly. I wasn’t frightened even once, because no one who gets pampered like that could possibly die in a horrific flaming crash. We chased the sun across the Pacific and flew into Friday.
So after eleven hours (which sounds horrible but if you sleep for four or five of those hours, really it’s not that bad) we landed in Japan. We were met there by David Urbina, who works for Monster9 and is a really nice guy. I was rather in shock still and spent most of the train ride to Tokyo staring out the window in a daze, watching Japan slip by.
The whole trip, you see, had been arranged as a surprise for me. I hardly knew what to think, and my shyness kicked in with a vengeance. I’m afraid I must have seemed like a very dull bug compared to my social butterfly brother, but really it took all my willpower not to burst into tears.
We arrived in Shibuya, the busy heart of Tokyo, at the craziest time of day. Without David we’d promptly have become hopelessly lost. A long surreal dash underground (because above on the streets was even crazier) and we surfaced with all our luggage in tow, a few blocks from the hotel. By the time we got there I was positively dripping…Tokyo in early September is HOT. We had only an hour to shower (a trick because initially the bathroom was difficult to figure out) & then, off to see a performance of Muscle Musical’s "Oiran".
No sooner did we sit down than I noticed we were sitting right in front of another group of Americans. One of them looked familiar to me. Levi Meeuwenberg, a contestant from Sasuke! Of course I had to say hello & tell him what an awesome job he’d done in the last Sasuke (he got further than everyone else, including my favorite ninja fisherman). Levi was very nice and said "Hey, you know Sasuke is on Monday, right?" No, I hadn’t known that, & when I glanced at David (who had his face in his hands and was muttering something that sounded a lot like "shit") my heart did a little flip-flop and I started scanning the audience for Sasuke All Stars. ^_^
The show was beautiful and incredible…everyone in it is simply gorgeous and no one stopped moving throughout the entire performance. There’s a reason they call it "Muscle Musical"; every one of those kids looked like an Olympic athlete. At the intermission, John and David left (leaving me to pump Levi for more information) and came back with Mr H. Meeting him was a huge thrill for me, but I was still suffering from shock and could hardly do more than thank him. He was very kind though, and didn’t seem to mind that I was a stammering idiot. We were dog-tired, so as soon as the show was over we said our goodbyes and left for the hotel.
Slept like a rock and woke up starving. Apparently the way to beat jet lag is to not eat too much. Therefor I did a great job & experienced no jet lag at all, but OMG SO hungry. John & I had breakfast in the hotel, where they had the most charming, enduring Engrish of the trip.
God, that never got old. "Are you done with your dinishes? Shall I take them to the fixed place?" It was so darn cute.
So for our first full day in Shibuya we intentionally got lost. We got very very lost, and it was glorious fun. Walking around, lost in Tokyo. The streets were strung with lanterns; everyone was preparing for a festival (matsuri).
We wandered and found a tiny park with a waterwheel and a pond full of koi.
Cicadas sang from every tree; in Japan the cicadas are not kidding around. They sing loudly & much more beautifully than the cicadas back home. I thought of Kij often as I listened to them. Tokyo sounded like a tropical jungle.
We stopped at a corner store and I bought tea and water with what I later realized was the equivalent of a fifty dollar bill (cashier must have been thinking "Stupid gaijin"). In Japan, you never hand your money to the cashier. There’s a dish on the counter; you put your money in that. The cashier takes it & puts your change in the dish too…it’s odd and strangely civilized.
It was very hot…90 at least and extremely humid. Somehow we wandered in the right direction and found the entrance to Meiji jingu (Meiji temple). It was a beautiful, magical place. At least ten degrees cooler once you were under the trees…an old growth cedar forest right in the heart of Tokyo. Cedar forests smell wonderful, by the way. I’d never been in one before; next to the smell of the ocean, it’s my favorite smell.
We wandered along the trail until we reached the temple, which was breathtaking. Traditional Shinto weddings were happening all over the place…at least ten while we were there.
John and I bought cedar planks and wrote our prayers on them, and hung them beneath a sacred tree.
I bought omamori for Mom and Charlotte ("health" and "good luck with studies") and one for myself ("Victory!" It sounded so much more ambitious than just "good luck"). I saw real miko and basically wandered in a daze…really at that moment in that quiet place I felt very close to my father. He loved Japan so much; he would have been so happy to see me & John there in the heart of it all. A butterfly landed on the shrine steps; the Japanese say that butterflies house the souls of the departed. I’d like to think that was Dad.
We left the forest & were back in the heat & noise of the city in an instant, as if the shrine had been a dream. The young people in Harajuku are so adorable; they all looked like anime to me. The girls, so cute in their tiny skirts and "winterfashion" (they wear winter boots or a winter hat in the heat of summer…cute little rebels). I didn’t get a bad vibe at all from the kids though; they seemed dangerously beautiful but not dangerous, if you know what I mean. In their own way they are every bit as busy as the adults. Everyone in Tokyo has an agenda & busily goes about it all day, even if the agenda is just to be a pretty teenager in the big city.
Harajuku was crazy though, like a cross between a nightclub and a mall and a city…it was too much.
Fortunately just as I was ready to hit the wall, we found a toy store John had been looking for. "Kiddieland"; five stories of anime-related toys & other assorted stuff. OMG we had ourselves a spree in there. Afterwards, we ate at a great place right next door…we had these perfectly-sized bento lunches and afterward they brought us the most darling, tiny desserts. We were so charmed that we had to take several pictures.
All the food in Japan was incredible!
Anyway, after over six hours of walking we found our way back to the hotel…we must have walked twelve miles easily.
Second day and we headed to the train station to meetangeljapan at Ueno Park. The trains aren’t nearly as confusing as everyone makes them out to be. We found her with no trouble (she & I hugged like a couple of gaijin with no boundary issues…she’s now & forever the furthest LJ friend I’ve ever met in person) and we wandered in the park for awhile, before heading to Asakusa to meet her boyfriend. He was a bit late, so on her recommendation we ate lunch at the most amazing little tempura place, right near the Thunder Gates of Asakusa shrine.
OMG that was easily the best tempura I’ve ever had. Then we went to the Thunder Gate and met her boyfriend, did some shopping at the HUGE outdoor shrine market,
& saw the temple (another magical place).
While Meiji was very spiritual and quiet, Asakusa was bustling and grand and just as impressive. Really, I would never tire of visiting shrines.
Dragons ar purification fountain; Asakusa.
I bought gifts for everyone and matching prayer bracelets for Charlotte and myself, and then we had to say goodbye and rush back to Shibuya for a quick shower before catching the closing performance of Oiran.
We were Mr H’s special guests, and sat with him in the VIP section. The performance was even better than before. David arranged for us to have dinner at a very exclusive restaurant in Roppongi; "Gonpachi" and another amazing meal was had. OMG I love dashimaki. Love. It. Nothing you eat in Japan is bad for you, by the way. Everything was perfect tiny portions and perfect tiny bites…more like art than food. We were told by David to pack day bags for a special "tour" the following day. Monday. I had a pretty good idea where we were going. ;-)
Monday, and we met super-early in the morning for breakfast. As much as I wanted David to have the fun of surprising me, I already knew we must be going to Sasuke. He asked when I figured it out…I told him that seeing Levi at that first performance of "Oiran" had pretty much tipped me off. I told him that he had NO idea how big this was for me, & warned him that I was going to nerd out pretty hard. As polite & quiet as I’d been; that’s how hard I was going to fangirl all over the place. I don’t think he believed me, then.
We piled into a really nice air conditioned van & OMG guess who came with us? Remember at the Olympics in Beijing, the really amazing, tough little guy who won the gold medal in wrestling? Henry Cejudo, his brother & his friend Eric came with us! Henry was to compete at Sasuke!! I babbled about Sasuke ALL the way to the site (everyone wonders where it is & so do I, ‘cause I was too excited to pay attention). They didn’t really know much about the show so I told them all about it & about Nagano-san & by the time we got there we were all bouncing & ready for fun.
I really can’t talk much about Sasuke. Once the show airs, I’ll make another entry. It was too thrilling for words & I still can hardly believe I was there. I can tell you that it was hotter than hell (about 95 with at least 80% humidity), muddy (it had rained hard the night before) and a very very long day (we were there from 9AM on Monday to about 2AM on Tuesday). I loved every single freaking minute of it.
We hung out with a bunch of the Muscle Musical people…many of the performers were also Sasuke competitors. They were all so darn adorable; it was like spending the day with a really cute J-Pop girl band & a really cute J-pop boy band. Henry & the guys had so much fun; Henry was worried about several of the obstacles so John and I were "coaching" him with helpful suggestions…at one point we drew a "trampoline" in the dirt so he could practice hitting it correctly. G4 TV filmed us doing this; we were nerds for a day and loving it.
The Muscle Musical girls heard my story from David & John, and one of them called me "Lucky sister!" Every time I walked into the tent, they all said in unison "Hello, Lucky!" They were all so sweet and nice and so darn pretty! I loved everyone.
I took stealth distance pictures of All Stars…really I didn’t want to approach them. The All Stars are not celebrities (though of course they all kick ass at Sasuke & are famous in Japan), in reality they are regular people. Shingo really is a gas station manager, Takeda really is a fireman, Nagano really is a fishing-boat captain. What’s more, they’re Japanese. As much as I’d have loved to run up & get autographs, I didn’t want to be the noisy gaijin, because if there’s one thing I know it’s that the Japanese really want you to respect their personal space. So, I controlled myself and I’m glad I did, because I think it was the right choice to make.
John and I had all-access passes (the same passes David & Mr H had), so we didn’t have to sit in the bleachers even once…we wandered all over the course and had the freedom to walk right alongside it. When the show airs you’ll probably see me in about a dozen shots because I was able to go everywhere I wanted. It was such a treat.
And, halfway through the day (when I was good and sunburned and hot as heck) the producers from G4TV and TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting Sytem) came and got me, and took me to a shady spot, and filmed me meeting my favorite Ninja Fisherman.
Nagano-san was very nice and when I bowed and said "Hajimemashite" he dashed right over and grabbed my hands (& I nearly fell over).
I had to tell my story (you all know it by now) and when the translator finished, Nagano smiled and said he was always surprised and humbled when people are inspired by him, because he is just an ordinary person.
I had an uncommon moment of lucidity (amazing considering I was shaking like a leaf) and said "But, that’s why you’re so inspiring, because I’m an ordinary person too." I think he liked that.
And then I asked him if he remembered getting a little dragon (tiny, perfect dragon!) in the mail, and he said "A blue dragon?" And I said "YES!" And HE said "Yes! It is very beautiful and it’s hanging in my boat on the wall…I see it every day when I’m at work". He even remembered that I sealed the gift wrap with a koi sticker (yes, even the gift wrapping was perfect…I looked everywhere to find koi stickers just for that dragon).
You know, I’ve made a lot of things for a lot of people…my artwork has been sent to practically every corner of the planet. I often think of all the places my art ends up…little pieces of myself scattered all over the world having adventures & seeing places I’ll never see. But of all the thousands of places that my little things have ended up, nothing compares to the thought of my tiny perfect dragon hanging in the cabin of the Konpirimaru somewhere off the coast of Japan. That makes me happiest of all.
We posed for some pictures...
And then he had to go, but before he did I got his autograph in the journal I brought with me. Really, I had to ask, & his was the only autograph I got, but it was the one I wanted most.
And G4TV got it all on video. I don’t know if I’ll make the final cut but OMG I just might, & then you’ll get to see me having my ultimate geek-tastic nerdgirl moment in living color (assuming you have G4 that is). I sort of wish that they hadn’t been there because I was nervous enough without cameras, but John said I probably never would have had the courage to say anything at all to Nagano-san and he’s probably right, so I guess I’m glad it happened the way it happened. He really, truly has changed my life in a dozen different ways & all of them good, & I had to thank him.
So the day wore on and amazing, wonderful stuff happened…stuff I can’t talk about, pictures I can’t show. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me though, something I’ll never forget. I’ll fill you all in on it later (assuming anyone but me cares). It’s a heck of a story.
The last day, we were wiped out. Sasuke won, for sure, because we were beat up. John and I hardly left our rooms all day, we were that tired. I had one funny little foray & my first truly awkward "Lost In Translation" moment. I had to go buy pads, so I went out of the hotel and into the street, around the corner to a mini-mart. Nothing on the shelves (except the Pocky) was written in English, so after much scrutinizing & guessing I took a package of pads up to the counter. The elderly cashier wrapped them in brown paper & sealed them with a sticker before putting them in my bag. I thought "how quaint!" and guessed it was to save me the embarrassment of having people see pads in my bag & know that I was gasp menstruating.
So I went back to my room, swinging my bag of wrapped-up pads, opened them, & pulled out…a HUGE incontinence pad. Boy am I glad she wrapped them up for me! Imagine how humiliating it’d have been if everyone (but me) could see that I was incontinent. Of course this made me wonder whether she’d been thinking "Stupid gaijin…this is obviously NOT what she needs" or perhaps "Disgusting Gaijin…she pees her pants!" Either way I didn’t go back to that store & I don’t ever plan to.
Finally, as the sun was setting, John and I left the hotel in search of food; we hadn’t eaten all day. Shibuya was bustling again, full of bright lights and busy city people.
We wanted something simple but for some reason we were having no luck. Finally we stopped at Shibuya 109, an 8-story high mall.
It was a "girl’s" mall, every shop catered to teenage girls. It was like we’d found the source of all the cute little anime girls in Shibuya. John opined that age-wise the two of us equaled five of anyone else in the building. We went up & up, seven escalators to the top floor where the restaurants were. The pictures outside one place looked pretty good so we went in, but we quickly learned it was a Korean restaurant. Hilarity ensued.
They brought out a plate of something that was vegetarian-looking. I popped something crunchy in my mouth and was instantly sorry…it was redolent with garlic. Really, it could have been a chunk of solid garlic for all I know. I tend to have very bad gastrointestinal reactions to garlic. I wanted to spit it out but I assumed in Japan, where people go into the subways wearing masks because of germs, it’d be a BIG no-no. So, I warned John (who is also sensitive to garlic) & we proceeded cautiously.
Everything was full of garlic. The only non-garlicky thing was a block of tofu and some crunchy seaweed squares…like sushi seaweed. We assumed the tofu might ought to be wrapped in the seaweed, maybe? But the metal chopsticks were not compatible with squishy seaweed and there were tofu squares squirting all over the table.
We started to giggle. For two tired people with garlic digestion issues who hadn’t eaten all day, really we couldn’t have picked a worse place to eat.
They just kept on bringing out food. It was a never-ending supply of garlic & humiliation & we just kept laughing harder. John said a number of hilarious things:
"This food is garlicky in a ‘fuck you Italy’ kind of way."
"We’re not eating any of this food right."
"After this, the only way to leave this place is to do some softshoe out of here…"
So there I sat, wearing an incontinence pad the size of a small diaper, eating huge amounts of garlic in a country horrified by bad smells…too perfect. We worried about how we would get to the street…we were pretty sure we couldn’t hold our breath for seven floors! The waitresses were laughing at us; I guess you can only be so careful for so long, before you snap and have an inappropriate social event in Japan.
On the way out, John took a candy from the dish at the register and handed it to me; "Here…it’s garlic-flavored".
The next morning we took our slightly less garlicky selves to the Meiji temple again, one last time before heading to Narita and then, home. The priests and miko were singing morning prayers. It was so beautiful...too beautiful and it made me cry. I’m not religious but I think I’d be Shinto in a heartbeat…it’s the most beautiful, introspective religion I’ve ever experienced. No guilt or judgement. Just contemplation and beauty, and the religious festivals and objects just serve as wonderful mnemonics that remind you of your past and your obligations to your family and your goals. I was very sad to leave.
From the window of the airplane I saw Fuji rising above the clouds.
So now I’m home kids, but the adventure is not over. Nothing I can go into, but there’s a future for me back there on the other side of the world and huge things are afoot. I am a very busy monkey these days & will do my best to update when I can, but you know…it’s a very exciting time to be me & it’s only getting better. On my shelf sits a brand new Daruma and his one bright eye reminds me of all the new dreams & goals I have now.
Busy busy! ;-)