Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

Never predictable


When I lived in Japan in the early 1990s, I was lucky to share a train line with some remarkable people, some with whom I’ve kept in touch for more than two decades. Our relationships grew via handwritten letters, fax machines (so much faster than a letter!), emails (so much faster than a fax!), and texts (instant is the new fast).

And as luck would have it, some of them became friends.

Rick Newton, above left wearing a sweater he claims to possess to this day, and I traversed the Japanese countryside over the course of 12 months, crammed into my tiny white Toyota, frequently accompanied by Mark Z. (second from left) and my dear father (who stayed for three months), visiting fish markets, the achingly devastated Hiroshima bomb site, subtitled Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, countless ramen restaurants, x-rated Shinto fertility shrines, and beautiful deep steamy and sulphuric onsen — hot springs.

Remarkably we never tired of any of it.

Nor of each other, apparently.

So when Rick decided to abandon his law practice in Birmingham AL in order to open a yakitori restaurant this fall, I had no qualms about inviting myself along on one of his Japanese buying trips. I mean, could he really say ‘no’ given that it was my car that took us on all of our trips?

He said yes.




What you may or may not know about Tokyo (leg one of this journey) is that weird and wacky is just kind of the order of the day.

And so why not start your day with a visit to the MoCHA Cat Cafe?

I couldn’t think of a good reason either so in we went.


The cat cafe’s raison d’etre is to let you commune, cuddle, caress and basically get mellow with a room full of felines.

After paying a modest entrance fee we were directed to a hand sanitizer dispenser, swapped our street shoes for sanitized slippers, locked our belongings in a little closet and put on the requisite kittycat ears. Oh yes we did.

Then past a sliding wooden door into a room with the felines.



Some guests opted to feed the cats, either with a small cup of food and a tiny spoon, or a little cat lollipop. The cats jumped on to the plastic mat when they observed snack time had arrived, and sat waiting, rather patiently, for their turn with the spoon.


At times a bit of assertiveness was required but overall, the cats appeared willing to wait.


When we entered the cat cafe we discussed our plans beforehand, kind of like the agreement one makes before going to a time-share presentation: We’re not going to buy, right? Nope, no way. You know they’re going to pressure us, but we’re going to say no, right? Right. Agreed? Absolutely.

And that’s how we entered the cat cafe.

Thirty minutes seem like enough to you?

Oh yeah. Sure. No way we’ll stay longer than 30 minutes.

Yep, we’ve got things to do.

Sure do.

Tinkling music, contented cats, a cup of tea, soft light coming through the windows, that purring….


Hey Rick?


Ready to go? 

Sure, if you want.

It’s been an hour.

Mmmm. That’s nice.


After liberal use of a lint roller, we continued on to our next Tokyo event — a St. Patrick’s Day parade, complete with bagpipes, Irish setters, marching bands and samba dancers.

Weird, wacky and wonderful.








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Rise again

Last night I attended a fundraiser on the island for the people of Sendai, the place of the recent earthquake, tsunami and worrisome nuclear leaks.

The event was held in Cates Hill Chapel, a modest cedar-lined pitched roof building, tucked between towering cedar trees and Homeboy’s A-frame school. Driving up to it in the night the chapel glowed with the activity within — no street lights on Bowen. Darkness doesn’t just fall here, it crashes.

Inside played some beautiful Celtic folk music with various tin whistles, a bodhran (Irish drum) and a lovely Celtic harp.

Midway thru the little coffee house-style evening. a woman who, like me, lived and taught English in Japan for about a year, rose to read a letter from ‘Michiko,’ a friend in Japan.

Michiko relayed a series of stories about life in the Sendai area since last month’s earthquake: A four-year-old boy who falls asleep in the day because the aftershocks make him too afraid to sleep at night.

A boy who found his grandmother, lifeless, on top of a muddy wardrobe.

A schoolbus full of kindergarten-age children who were to graduate the next day, clasping one another, gone.

“They are now stars in the sky,” said the letter.

Michiko wrote that there are hundreds of stories like that. I cannot imagine. I don’t want to imagine.

The woman here has kept in touch with three of the people she met while in Japan. She’s been able to track down only two of them since March.

The fragility of life.

Following the reading of the letter, a musician approached the mike saying, ” I know only two songs with the words, ‘Rise Again.’ ”

And he sang The Mary Ellen Carter,  an inspirational song about triumphing over great odds. It was a hugely popular Canadian folk song circa 1979, by Nova Scotia singer Stan Rogers.

In looking for a link to post here this morning I learned that one man credited the song with saving his life. A rust-bucket ship was carrying a load of coal from Virginia to Massachusetts and when a storm rose up the ship went down. The man struggled to keep afloat and when he thought he would finally lose consciousness the words from the song came back to him:

And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Rise again, rise again—though your heart it be broken
Or life about to end.
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend,
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.

The man shouted out the words, “Rise again, rise again,” as the waves washed over him. In the morning a coast guard pulled him to safety. He was one of three survivors of the wreck.



Stan Rogers died of smoke inhalation in an airplane fire in 1983, returning to Toronto from a folk festival in Texas.

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I get a kick out of you

The author of this post, Rick Newton, and I spent a year in neighbouring Japanese villages, visiting o-furo, eating fish eggs and teaching English.

Rick continues to traverse the globe and share his insights — and his imagination — of a land still shrouded by clouds, secrecy and immense passion and pride. Also the land of Ultraman, Hello Kitty and Gojira — or as he’s known in western social circles, Godzilla.

Here is Rick’s off-the-record no-holds-barred tell-all confab with the never-surpassed hero of the silver screen, Godzilla.

“The Godzilla Interview” “The Godzilla Interview.” ____________________________________ Excerpt (read the whole thing here): Schindler’s List was as story-driven as a film could … Read More

via LetsJapan

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Creepy Japan

Rick Newton and I taught English in neighbouring Japanese villages in the early 1990s. Following our tenure overseas, Rick returned to his home in Alabama where he now practices law, imports Japanese antiquities, and more recently, provides personalized tours of the traveller’s Japan.

Here Rick shares some particularly gory and grossed-out tales of ghostly Japan, in a charming intro to the last week of October.

In October 1990 I was living in a small mountain town in Hyogo Prefecture.  I write about this town in the stories “Etsuko” and “Enlightenment” (LetsJapan).

I was a middle school teacher.  It occurred to me that in the spirit of cultural outreach I should find a pumpkin and carve a Jack O’Lantern for and with the students.  My Japanese counterpart teachers (of English) liked the idea and a big pumpkin was found without much trouble.  I carved it in stages, in a hallway, throughout the school day as students gathered around, amazed.  When, towards the end of the day, the job was done and the candle was lit and placed just so in Jack’s now-empty skull, I gave a signal and the lights were extinguished in the hall.  Gasps rippled up and down the flock of students nearby.  They had never seen such a thing.

While that wasn’t that long ago, it was long ago enough:  Hallowe’en — with its origins dating back well more than a millennium with the Celts of Northern France and the British Isles, brought to America in fits and starts during the 1700s, popularized by Irish immigrants during the latter half of the 19th Century, and supremely commercialized in the States after WWII — is now a Japanese holiday, in the strictly commercial, kitschy sense.

"The Ghost of Koheiji".  Woodblock print.  Hokusai.  1830.

The Ghost of Koheiji, 1830

But ghosts and goblins have their own long tradition in Japan (as is the case in every culture).  Celebrated Edo Period wood block artist Hokusai (1760-1849) created a series of Kabuki-inspired “ghost story” prints around 1830, Hyaku Monogatari.

Above, the print The Ghost of Koheiji is based on an 1803 story-turned-kabuki-play by Santo Kyoden.

Koheiji was betrayed and murdered by his wife. So, naturally, he comes back from the dead to torment her and her lover by slipping under the mosquito netting around their bedding and joining and doling out horrific justice on them.

Below is one of the most famous, The Ghost of O-Iwa,  a woman murdered by her husband who came back in phantasmic form to haunt and exact bloody vengence on her loathesome husband.

The Ghost of O-Iwa. On the lantern is the Buddhist prayer, "Praise to Amitabha Buddha"
The Ghost of O-Iwa. Lantern writing shows the Buddhist prayer, “Praise to Amida Buddha.”

Going back a good thousand years into early Japanese Buddhist tradition are the tormented “Hungry Ghosts” or gaki. Gaki are the spirits of those whose lives were consumed with avarice, greed and narcissism (today’s “social climbers”) while leaving their humanity on the back burner (or no burner at all).

In death they were resigned to wander through — but never visible to –  the living world, all disgusting with their distended bellies, wracked with hunger and able to eat only the bowel movements of those in the corporeal world.  They are all around us today, in fact.

Quite the disgusting ghost story and morality tale, all rolled into one and very reminiscent to me of Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, where in death the Rich Man begs Abraham, “‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish.’  But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things and Lazarus in like manner received like manner of evil things; but now he is comforted and you are in anguish. . . ’” (Luke 16:24, 25).

"Gaki", or Hungry Ghosts. Late 12th Century.
Gaki  (Hungry Ghosts). Late 12th century.

After decades of bouncing from job to job and occassionally living in poverty, Lafcadio Hearn arrived in Japan from the U.S. in 1890 and began teaching Middle School in Matsue  –  a town not far from mine — and fell in love with Japan.  Hearn became one of the first Western “Windows on Japan” and Japanese culture through his books and essays on every day life, Japan’s educational system (which is not too different 100 years later) and . . . Ghost Stories he collected over his years living in Japan.  Note:  one of the world’s largest Hearn collections is located in the Rare Books section of the University of Alabama.

Just for this week I’m putting together (check back throughout today as it grows) a Gallery of Creepy Photos from Japan I’ve taken over the past couple of years.  Not all of them are “scary”.   Perhaps “bizarre” is the better word.  Note that several of them are, well, “cute”.  But cute can be bizarre, cute can be creepy, cute can be disturbing.  Just recall that next-to-last scene in Brazil . . .

Happy Hallowe’en Week.

You can visit Rick’s website at LetsJapan.

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