Friday, June 25, 2010


In this blog's one-month lifespan (estimated), I’ve carefully cultivated its reputation as a provider of sporadic, arguably worthwhile content and, foremost, vast periods of silence. Trust me, I want to amend this. This webspace might straddle the line between Blog and Defunct Blog, but never shall it cross. At some point during each of the last 14 days, I reminded myself that I needed to update the blog. And at some point during each of the last 14 days, I started to write. The only problem was, a proper blog entry — some tale with dialogue and resolution and realization — requires a good hour of writing/thinking, and for me at least, an hour of thinking provides just enough time to briefly consider that what I’m writing is stupid. So almost every day for the past 14 days, I stopped writing, deleted everything, and moved on to other Internet endeavors, like downloading Entourage episodes in 23 seconds with super-super-high-speed Korean broadband access.

(Last week I was even gonna blog about Korean Internet speed. I decided not to.)

So a recap is on order. Since last Wednesday, I’ve spent four nights in Seoul, South Korea, and four nights in Okinawa, Japan — both for reporting trips. In Korea, I traveled to the demilitarized zone with colleague Blaine and took at least one grainy in-the-distance-picture of a North Korean soldier. One night, when South Korea played Argentina in a World Cup match, I joined 50,000 frenzied red-clad people mobbing streets, and though I was wearing blue, having packed a light suitcase, I still felt that warm buzz of communal spirit, and world was nothing but song and painted faces and twinkling eyes. This feeling sustained itself until about the seventh minute of the game, when it became apparent that Argentina was gonna kick South Korea’s butt.

If you’re curious, I’ve posted on Facebook a few photos from my first weeks here. Captions, which require additional work, have been categorically omitted. If you see a picture of food, or even something that looks possibly non-toxic, you can rightfully assume that I’ve eaten it. You’ll also notice one photograph of cash, tucked in an envelope. This merits explanation. South Korea’s currency is called the won, and a single won coin — such a thing exists — is so worthless as to be almost theoretical, like absolute zero. If you pulverized a penny into snortable powder and isolated one speck, it would still have greater value than the won. Thus, in Korea, you need about 17 pounds of cash just to buy coffee. My wallet has permanent stretch marks.

But I guess every new place offers its surprises, and I’m foolish to complain. These surprises often account for my greatest joys and delights. Just a few days ago, for lunch, I headed to a Seoul food hall. I came upon a glass display case containing heavens-knows-what, probably various pickled spicy bits of cabbage and seafood, and I asked a vendor for her recommendations. Maybe people just like a clueless guinea pig, but within 15 seconds the vendor called over a vendor friend, and then two more vendor friends, and soon about a half-dozen middle-aged Korean women were squawking, gesticulating, handing me free samples and arguing over what I ought to try. I thought, This never happens at Giant.

Another of the mundane pleasures: The Japanese street address system is so complex and nonsensical that, from what I can tell, nobody is eligible to drive a Tokyo cab until completing at least eight years of secondary education. Sometimes even that’s not enough. Tokyo cab drivers have 3-D GPS systems on the dashboard and thick street-by-street address books on the passenger’s side seat. It’s quite common, indeed, for cab drivers to unfurl these books mid-red light, inspecting page after page while making various contemplative sounds. Every so often, when heading to an interview, I’ll get into a cab, say hello, and hand the driver an address. And every time, I think to myself: Today’s the day my driver won’t really stress about it. But I’m always proven wrong. There’s a kindness, a paternal resoluteness, in Tokyo cab drivers, and observing it has become a daily delight. You hand them an address, and they care. They get lost, and they agonize for you. They apologize again and again, and they moan, and they show you their street-by-street map books, and they are working with you, not for you. They adopt your mission so fully, I sometimes think they’d continue looking for the appointed street address even if I got out of the car.

So far, I miss only two things, really — friends and cheese. Also, when in Korea last week, I missed watching the World Cup on Japanese television. You might surmise that an English telecast would be preferable to a near-unintelligible foreign broadcast. (You might surmise, too, that 3-1/2 weeks is plenty enough time to secure a new apartment!) But in both cases, you would be wrong. Watching soccer on NHK never, ever ever gets old. NHK, for its soccer broadcasts, uses a two-man booth. I don’t know the broadcasters’ names, but evidently they were selected for their razor-sharp diction, which they maintain even during scoring opportunities, when they talk faster than anybody on the planet. Let me tell you, it’s a symphony of mellifluous past-tense verbs.

Then, there’s the matter that Japanese people like to agree with one another. They relish consent and harmony. In America, our broadcasters argue and debate. Or one acts as the analyst, the other as the straight man/devil’s advocate. In Japan, this dynamic inverts, and the broadcasters take turns making salient points. Whoever is not making the salient point must, by rule, interrupt the other with sounds of agreement. I think this is my favorite part of the Japanese soccer telecast. Because all things come in threes, one broadcaster will make a statement, then another statement, then a final statement. And each time, the fellow analyst will bring himself to the brink of hysteria with agreement, climbing a ladder of harmony, saying things like (first) “Hai!” and (second) “Mnnmmmmm” and (third) “So-des-neeeeeeeeh!”

It never fails.







And by the end, it’s just a go-round of scrumptious, munchy-sounding Mnmmmms and Neeeeeehs, as if the broadcasters are feasting from a stack of chocolate-chip pancakes.

So that’s why I like the World Cup.

Now I’m returning to Tokyo, heading back from Okinawa. I’m on an airplane. I haven’t written much about Okinawa here, and not for lack of desire. (I’ll post my story, written yesterday, once it’s published.) Okinawa is the southernmost island in Japan, and the vibe is far different than what you see elsewhere in Japan. The businessmen wear Hawaiian shirts. There’s lots of pork and goya in the diet. The island has its own phrase, なんくるないさ, which has a distinct Bob Marley-ish don’t-worry-be-happy connotation.

In Okinawa I also made my first real Japanese friend. Her name is Wakana, and we spent parts of the last four days together. She’s a student at the University of the Ryukyus, and though she served during interviews as my translator, she also guided me around the island. By the end, I really admired the hell out of her. She’s adventurous. She’s energetic. She takes belly dancing classes. Even better, she told me about the Japanese equivalent to Netflix, which means I no longer have to download American television on iTunes. She honed her English during a year in the United States, when she attended classes in Durango, Colo., so we talked last night over dinner about what it feels like to go somewhere far away, about why it’s difficult and why it’s worthwhile. There was lots of agreement and consensus on this matter, but because were speaking in English I didn’t imitate any Japanese soccer commentators.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Friday night

I really like the Japanese term for hangover. Futsukayoi (二日酔) — that’s the word. It’s an amalgamation of three characters, which, combined, translate literally to Two-Day Sickness. This nugget of semantic trivia isn’t necessarily important, and it isn’t even that pertinent to the purpose of this blog post, but it does lend a distinct clue about the Japanese vigor for intoxication. It also informs the general feeling of purpose one discovers in Tokyo at around, say, 8 p.m., when all of a sudden half the city is ducking into food stalls and izakayas and karaoke clubs, assuming a place in the murky, smoky, barely-lit underworld where fun nights begin. And this, more or less, is the starting point for my story about a Friday night out in Tokyo.

Just a few weeks back, before I moved here, nights out were predictable affairs; predictable in the best way possible. But now I’m in Tokyo — a fine nightlife city, and a city of 13 million people, and a city in which roughly 12,999,992 of those people are total strangers, not counting a Starbucks barista and my real estate agent.

(Still apartment-hunting by the way. Many frustrations there; I’ll blog some other day about rental properties.)

Anyway, the properties of nightlife, for me, have now inverted. I do not plan my nights, and I do not have any favorite spots to recommend, and there is not even a speck of predictability. Nights now begin like this: With a meeting in my hotel lobby, a friend of a friend who just finished his workday. With a ride in a taxi to a neighborhood I don’t know. With a busy street intersection, lights everywhere, and then a turn around the corner, and then a narrow staircase, and then a back booth in a yakiniku restaurant whose name I don’t know and probably never will know.

For about two hours, we drank beer and roasted pieces of raw meat over the coals on our table. And things actually got really fun. My buddy (I’ll call him Kazu) was sort of reserved at first, asking questions about Obama and British Petroleum and such, but based on very unscientific observation, Kazu can engineer quite a drastic personality change after 2-1/2 beers. Soon there were grand stories of Vegas trips and clubs, and I got the sense we were in for a futsukayoi sort of night.

So OK.

There were more drinks ordered, and another round of beef. He was doing all the ordering, but I told him I didn’t want the gentle foreigner treatment; please, I said, order the non-gaijin food. And so we soon we were presented with a plate of raw beef liver, eaten sashimi style, and then another jar of raw beef, served with a raw egg mixed in — a veritable porridge of FDA violations.

The night gathered a sort of momentum, and we left the restaurant. We found another open door, another establishment, and here we found two women, drinks in hand. They were cute, and they clearly welcomed our company. For about 15 minutes we talked as a group, and Kazu told them I’d arrived in Tokyo last week. On cue I offered up a few catchphrases in Japanese, and one of the girls remarked that I didn’t have a foreigner’s accent — a misjudgment I’m gonna attribute to the thumping music, and to the delightful Japanese tendency to be easily impressed. Kazu then told the girls that I’d just eaten raw beef liver, and when they squealed with delight it was just another reminder that Japanese women are remarkable, and that some taboos actually work here.

After some undetermined length, one conversation became two, and I found myself nose to nose with a girl named Nozomi. Kazu nudged my elbow and said, “I’ll leave you two alone.” And so there we were, alone. In retrospect, it’s sort of stunning that we maintained a conversation, maybe even with some chemistry. Her English was even worse than my Japanese. But it didn’t matter. I guess the takeaway lesson is, being dumb and agreeable isn’t altogether the worst posture one can use for flirtation. She basically talked, and whenever she stopped talking, I weighed the context and either responded, “Yes,” or “Wow, interesting.”

Today’s work schedule required a super-early wake-up call, so around midnight, after a good hour of talking and drinks, I told Nozomi that I had to be on my way. There’s no other way to say it: Nozomi was extremely nice. I almost felt sorry for her. Could this conversation have had less depth? Maybe if she’d been talking to a furry woodland creature. But we exchanged telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, and on the way home, I sent her a quick note (in English) thanking her for a good time.

This morning she wrote back:

おはよ♪ こちらこそ きのうは ありがとう!
お家 はやくきまるといいね!

I needed about three minutes to translate the note.

What it means, imprecisely:

“Good morning. I should say, ‘Thank you for yesterday!’ It was a really fun time. We’ll have to talk more sometime, don’t you think? I hope you find an apartment soon.”

What it means, more precisely:

As of this morning, in a modest sign of progress, my cell phone now contains nine telephone numbers.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A trip to the gym

Monday morning, I took a trip to the gym. This story, like most trip-to-the-gym-stories — an understandably small subgenre of the expository form — actually begins a day prior, when I spent four hours in a six-hour span strictly eating things that looked light brown and crispy. I woke up Monday morning, then, with grease and duck fat pumping through my veins, thinking it might be a good time to sweat a little.

Since I last wrote, I’ve been reasonably busy. I’ve done several things that felt like 75-percent of a worthwhile blog post. I visited the Meiji Shrine, a nearby landmark with its own official English Web site. I continued my apartment-hunting. I started planning a reporting trip (for later this week) to Okinawa. Also somewhere in these last few days, coinciding with presumptions of my craziness, I developed the distinct suspicion that 1.) Japanese water smells different than American water, and that 2.) I now smell like Japanese water, and that 3.) when I go to the gym, my sweat smells like Japanese sweat. My diet might have some influence here, too, but that’s a story for another paragraph.

So let’s get on with another paragraph. Sunday turned out to be a good day, dedicated to social contact, fried food and a 10-year reduction of my life expectancy. For lunch, which actually lasted almost until dinner, I met up with two new friends — a local AP reporter and a British ex-pat who writes for a tech magazine. Together, we took a pilgrimage to a restaurant famous for tonkatsu, a Japanese-specialty — pork cutlet bathed in panko breadcrumbs and oil. The food was as grand as the company. I returned to my hotel at 4 p.m., spent two hours recovering oxygen flow, and promptly joined Washington Post colleague Blaine Harden for dinner. He’s an amazing journalist, and he spent much of the evening offering sage advice, starting even with his first suggestion, which had to do with dinner plans. He suggested that we head out for Peking duck.

Now, Monday morning.

Just about first thing after sunrise, I headed to a fitness center up the street from my hotel. My goal: Explain to the person at the front desk that I wanted to use the gym just once, and was willing to pay a small fee.

In the U.S., particularly while traveling the country as a baseball writer, I made these sort of transactions a habit, and never once did they amount to even 75-percent of a blog post. But in a place with a language barrier, every tiny exchange carries the sick, wonderful potential for disaster. There’s always a chance to you’ll wind up doing something abhorrently inappropriate. There’s also a chance you’ll figure it out, that you’ll do it right, and you’ll be proud and your heart will be pumping.

There’s an addictive joy in this, and I’m its junky.

Also sometimes its victim.

The fitness center straddled the 9th, 10th and 11th floor of a tall office building. When the elevator doors swung open, shooting me toward the gym welcome desk, I did something bold and stupid. I took out my iPhone and created a voice recording, just as a way to document what happens when one member of a conversation has the verbal skills of a toddler.

Please, have a listen.

You’ll notice that the conversation starts out fine enough, so long as we’re not deducting points for grammar. In polite Japanese, I say good morning. Then I make the requisite statement that my Japanese skills suck. (Girl at desk managed a smile.) Then, haltingly, I explain my life story. I tell her that I arrived last week in Japan. Lacking the capacity, I don’t explain why. I then hit her with two questions: First, if it’s possible to use the gym just once. And second, how much that might cost. We’re 21 seconds into this exchange, and it’s all good.

Then she mentioned the cost for one-time gym usage: Y 3,000.

You’ll notice that I twice recite the stated price, and that’s because my brain still moves slowly when converting phonetic sound into understanding. About five seconds after she explained the price, I realized that this one gym trip was about to cost me, roughly, $32.87. Which is not exactly a bargain, no matter how much duck fat you can sweat.

Given the freedom of English — at a Gold’s Gym in, say, Dallas — I would have hereby expressed my dismay with the asking price, and maybe tried some good-natured empathy to bargain for a deal. Maybe I would have backed out entirely, opting instead for a run around the city. But now that I’m in Japan, some decisions just get made for me. I’m fine with conversations that lead to a goal, but I’m not quite equipped for on-the-fly adjustments. So oh well. I handed her the bills.

Once I turned the voice recorder off, things only devolved. Turns out, Japanese gyms (or at least this one) don’t let you just walk in with any ol’ pair of shoes. They require all occupants to wear unsullied, never-touched-the-concrete “indoor shoes,” and just by chance rentals are available for an extra Y 300. Frankly, the poor gym girl from the welcome desk spent so much time trying to explain this to me, she probably deserved even more. After about two minutes of fitful measuring and calculating, we determined my Japanese shoe size (28) and uncovered a proper pair of snow-white New Balances. I was up to code.

So that’s the story of my trip to the gym. It was a thrill, and it was sort of educational, but in retrospect it was also a defeat. I paid $32.87, and all I got in return was a 60-minute workout, plus an unfortunate lesson that even gyms on this side of the ocean play Hoobastank music.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The first full day in Tokyo

This is the sort of blog entry that I write with dread, and I say that only because I’ve been in Tokyo for 22 hours now, and I have nothing even close to a full thought or a final answer — just fragments and fears and joys, all warped by fatigue and caffeine. Whatever I write here, I’ll go back and read it someday and cringe. I’ll feel foolish. I’ll feel naive. But oh well. I’ll also look back on these first moments in a new country — 13 time zones and 5,000 Kanji characters removed from familiarity — as one of the weirdest chapters of my life, remembering all the sensations. It’ll probably be worth a good smile.

I’ll start with the part I feel most confident saying: The first day, including the trip here, was easier than I feared. In fact fear was the hardest part. Leaving DC was brutal; Monday night, I watched “The Hangover” with my closest friends, Eli and Rachel, and even that didn’t make me laugh. On the way to the airport, I listened to sports talk radio, 106.7 FM, and thought about how I might watch my next Super Bowl in 2014.

But attitude is truly a choice, and let’s be honest, this new journey is something I chose, and I chose it for many reasons. Even at the airport, I reminded myself to think about those reasons — to think about the upcoming adventures, the parts of the world I’d get to explore, the people I’d meet. My dad sent me an e-mail, subject, “As you embark on your new life…” and for the sake of his dignity I won't excerpt his metaphors (one involved a frog; another involved an elephant), mostly because the message was a great one. I actually boarded the plane with a smile.

The flight lasted 13 hours, one less than expected. As far as 13-hour plane rides go, I’ve never had a better one, and it was at least 160-percent better than my 16-hour flight to Australia.

I’d summarize the time thusly: There was 30 minutes of chit-chat with seat neighbor, followed by one hour of reading, followed by two hours of watching “The Blind Side,” followed by one hour of the “This American Life” podcast, followed by four or five hours of Advil PM-induced sleep, followed by two more hours devoted to Ira Glass, followed by another few hours of reading and chit-chat and eating. When we landed, I turned on my BlackBerry, learned that it still received e-mails, and promptly learned that Japan’s prime minister had resigned.

For a reporter, the resignation of a prime minister typically falls under the broad category of what we in the industry call “news.” This is true even in a country that disposes of its prime ministers as if they were decomposing produce. My intuition was to break through customs, grab my notebook, B-line to central Tokyo and write a breaking news story that landed hours later on A-1. Of course imagination, especially Advil PM-enhanced imagination, is always better than reality. The reality was, my outgoing colleague Blaine Harden had already written and filed the news story about six hours earlier. Tomorrow, I’ll cover the selection of Japan’s next prime minister.

So, now it’s time for the segment in this blog entry wherein the newcomer in a strange land gives his fresh-off-the-plane observations. (Ex: The heat is really dry in Las Vegas! And all the people smell like cigarettes and chicken drumsticks!) There’s probably only nominal value in these observations, and again, I’ll soon enough realize the folly of what I’m saying here. But that disclaimer out of the way, here’s my conclusion: This country would not work too well for Michael Oher.

Indeed, after a 90-minute bus ride from Narita airport, I arrived at my Shibuya-ku hotel, my short-term home while I apartment-hunt. The hotel room isn’t just smaller than what you get from an American hotel; it’s smaller than what you get from an American hotel as a complimentary fruit basket. The room’s desk chair, which is really just a stool, sits approximately 14 inches off the ground. Two of my four suitcases are lounging out of necessity on the bed. And the shower stall is tiny enough to create its own amusing dangers — namely, when some mysterious gust of air catches the base of the shower curtain, it takes on some distinctly cobra-like qualities, and I become its mongoose, just trying to avoid a slimy suffocation.

But let’s move on. More quick-hit Tokyo observations, mostly pleasant. The electronics don’t need converters. People drive with extreme care and politeness. It’s much quieter than I expected. There are lots and lots of beautiful women.

Last night, my first in Tokyo, I just walked around the neighborhood a bit. But today was my first proper exposure to the city. To mark the occasion, I rose from bed at about the time when I heard the first faint signs of street life. I was ready to go. Not just awake, but ready-to-lead-the-Second-Line-through-New-Orleans awake. It was 4:04 a.m.

So I started the day with a quick run through the mostly empty streets, eventually finding a circular public park for a few quick laps. At 9:30, I met the Washington Post’s full-time Tokyo-based assistant, Ako Yamamoto, who immediately showed herself to be the most competent, friendly, organized person I’ve ever encountered. If only the Diet knew about her, she could probably grab the prime minister’s seat.

Being in a new place always drives one, I suppose, to be more willing to give your trust to another. You have no choice, really. But Ako made it easy. With the help of a local realtor, we spent the morning on an apartment-hunting speed-chase, cabbing it from neighborhood to neighborhood. The routine basically went like this: We’d arrive outside some modern looking apartment, take the elevator up, remove our shoes and look around. Every apartment impressed the heck out me, to be frank. Once I settle on a place I’ll devote more blogspace to living arrangement details, but suffice to say I’m gonna be alright here. Oh, and when we used the metro, Ako handed me a pre-paid plastic card to swipe upon entering.

My mid-afternoon, I split ways with Ako and did a little more neighborhood strolling. There’s a special tension that comes during this — mostly established by the language barrier standing between you and your efficacy. Every little exchange, there’s the possibility of joy or embarrassment. I’m only slowly getting better at finding the courage to try. Today’s successes: Asking the front desk for an ironing board and ordering a coffee at Starbucks. Today’s failures: Follow-up conversations in said exchanges.

As a general rule, my best Japanese conversations end after somewhere between 15 and 25 syllables.

There’s plenty of space in a Japanese hotel room for my vocabulary.