Saturday, October 25, 2008

In Autumn

With the winter cold that's come so early it's a wonder-miracle that the the tree outside our kitchen and living room windows still has so many of its leaves, and that they have managed to remain green. Still, they look frail in the cold wind and I worry about them. Sensitive boy, I know, I know.

Cold, wet fall days you stay inside longer. You read a book, listen to slower music perhaps, maybe you gaze out a window and reflect back awhile.

I'm not nearly as nostalgic as I once was. I live that much closer to the present perhaps. And the blinding romance of hindsight is also more obvious. It wasn't all good back then. But a grey October day, a late October Saturday and it's a fine time, this wet morning, to think back a little.

This was how I started a journal entry on October 22nd:
"I miss Japan. God could I hate that place and now here I am missing it all. Holden [Caufield] was right."

The apartment I lived in with Ai my last two years was in a city (a suburb, really) called Ikeda. If you walked south from my apartment the nearest station was 12 minutes, that was Hotarugaike. North 15 minutes you arrived at Ishibashi station. 70 plus percent of the time I went to Hotarugaike because: a) it was closer (anyone who just thought, it's just three minutes, commutes by car); b) they'd built a new building by the station which brought new clean, brightly lit stores, including a Starbucks where three days a week I drank lattes and wrote, usually for two hour stretches at a time; c) it was to the south and invariably I was heading south to downtown; and d) Ishibashi was old and ugly.

Sometimes I did travel north: to visit my favourite temple, to teach the private class I taught, to rent a movie or for a favourite local Italian restaurant with a hell of a bargain for a lunch deal that included bread, salad, coffee or tea and came in at under $9. Most of the 15 minutes it took to get to Ishibashi you had to go down this fairly desolate back road, a fence keeping you away from the train tracks to the right, a little bicycle store and then the elementary school and its large, dirt field (Japan, the grassless land) to your left. In the distance beyond the school grounds the rolling mountains, covered in trees and thus green. (Sometimes, walking home at dusk, I'd look to those mountains and the peachy colours beyond, the sky gone such a paler blue, a mellower time. I'd look out there with longing wishing for something bigger than the reality of my every day.)

But none of this was nearly so depressing as that last five minute stretch walking towards the station. The street would narrow and turn into what in English is called a shopping arcade and in Japanese is known as a sho-ten-gai (proununced, 'guy'). Little shops door-to-door on both sides, not a single brand name amongst them, a sort of arched roof of tin above the walkway so that you weren't exactly outdoors, but at least moderately protected from the bitter winters winds or the brutal summer sun. This of course also kept out natural light and like all old worlds, the post-war mindset lingers and bright light in Japan is considered rich, new, fancy. Ishibashi had no bright light. Everything was dim, cold, old, so unkempt, so deeply there was a feeling of grey to everything like its used clothing shops and the shop selling blankets and duvets.

There was next to the blanket shop a takoyaki (fried octopus balls) stall run by a funky, stylish man with black-rimmed glasses and a goatee peppered with age, his two daughters, maybe university aged who worked with him, or for him and nearly half the time it was just the girls doing the work. Day-in-day-out, through all four seasons, a combination of those three making fresh food, or frying noodles on a hot steel sheet, the smell coming at you. I used to feel sorry for those girls and how dead-end their job seemed to be. The thought of coming back to work in that place every single day. Like life would never end and that it never had a purpose to begin with.

The path was narrow through the sho-ten-gai and it was always a fight between the pedestrians and the cyclists. If you heard a bell ring you knew it was someone old. Young Japanese are too embarrassed to ring their bicycle bells most of the time. But the old, they ring at will if they need to get where they are going, and the elderly Japanese are always in a great hurry to get wherever they are going. Dring-dring and you, the pedestrian, were to move out their way. In Japan, like most of the old world, traffic law is dictated by size, thus truck is more powerful than car which is more powerful than scooter, more powerful than bicycle, more powerful than pedestrian.

At least the takoyaki stand had young people. Old forgotten suburbs of Osaka like this had few young people. It was mostly all elderly bell-ringing bicycle riders and unhappy electronic store owners. That teeny electrical shop that sold light fixtures, batteries, a few TVs and air conditioner units that I always scratched my head in wonder at how the hell it managed to stay in business when there were the great fancy electronic stores downtown. There were flower shops but they rarely had customers. The women who worked at the bakery could smile but even then the bakery was so small and it felt so hard, life felt so hard on the sho-tengai. So out and exposed to the elements, so close to the bone to make a living.

I used to walk through that sho-ten-gai quite fast, most always on route somewhere, my headphones often on, trying to block things out. I really didn't like this decrepit area around Ishibashi station. But Japan now just a memory and what comes to mind? Cause it's not the big temples of Kyoto or the fancy department stores in Umeda. It's those houses that held the shops and stands, narrow wooden places, like shacks, the upstairs where the store owners must have slept.

That meager sho-tengai so old and sad was somehow so real and full of life, like a frail tree out your kitchen window in autumn.

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