In a few years, I will have spent half of my lifetime away from the motherland. My visits have been semi-regular, once every other year on average, but no longer than a couple of weeks at a time. And if I don't actively seek out the updates while you're outside of it, Japanese culture moves too fast to keep up with in that window. Culturally, I've strayed far enough from the roots to the point of ambiguity.
This country of mine, if I can still call it that, is not easy to get around. Toyama is merely 55min away from Tokyo if you fly. With a long-awaited Shinkansen the bullet train, 2.5hrs. A budget-friendly option that I chose, a night bus, leaves Shinjuku at midnight, drops you off at JR Toyama at 6:40am. The 10,000+ feet of mountain ranges surrounding my hometown make the ground transport grudgingly lengthy. Japan as a whole is more mountainous than an outsider would expect; Tokyo, which represents Japan to most, sits on the widest flat piece of land in the mainland, a disadvantage in the wartimes and a rare advantage for a Japanese city in the time of growth, whereas most other cities are built modestly by the waters or in the valleys, and connected by JR railroads and highways that are flawlessly maintained by tax, fares and tolls which definitely add up (more on this later). Depending on your destination, it costs more to travel domestically than abroad. I had been to more cities and places outside of Japan border than within, even before this crazy travel binge. So I figured, since I postponed my trip to China, I'd rediscover the country who issues my passport.
Hokkaido, along with Okinawa, is THE destination for many Japanese tourists; the wide open landscapes abundant in all kinds of food, and the gorgeous summer which most salarymen and their families can take advantage of. Once there, it's every bit that folks rave about and more; Yes, you'd better watch out for deer when driving. Yes, every food ingridient they've got beats those of Tokyo (or anywhere in Japan), even rotating sushi joints put Sugar Fish to shame. As with my past trips, I was lucky enough to explore this Great Northern with the kindness of locals who are as knowledgeable as enthusiastic, and even in just a few days I got to experience way more than expected. Like how getting on an overnight ferry across Tsugaru Straits reminded me of countless Enka songs that reference it (and of all the people who sang them to me in my youth). I happened to arrive here with Typhoon No.16, and sleeping in the rental Suzuki proved difficult when the storm kept rocking my humble accommodation. After staying in a decent hotel by Lake Akan with a perfect temp hot spring, I still preferred the open-space oceanside free spa that I found roadside and shared silently with a stranger motorcyclist on a moon-lit night.
After I returned my rental in Hakodate, I had about 6 hours to kill before I got on the night ferry. Asked the girl at Budget (rental car) where I can drink solo within walking distance, she suggested Daimon street which seemed like another tourist trap; a dozen or so modest establishments all tucked in a designated block, almost like a curated version of Golden-gai in Shinjuku. I walked around a few times unsure about this whole deal let alone where I can settle, then a bottle of shochu named "Peasants Daughter" caught my eye and decided on a good ol' izakaya stand.
I walk in, and the chatter stops. The place seats 6, and only 3 are open and 2 reserved. I order lighter fares, agedashi vegetables (cooked much like agedashi tofu, the first time I'd seen done) and seared whale which all goes down nice and easy. Once my Toyama-Cali background is revealed, the locals start to open up; they both work in construction but a gentleman in his mid-40s, the head of his own operation and ex-yakuza, offers a drink out of his bottle of shochu; Akane Kirishima. He starts speaking passionately about his current obsession with imo = potato shochu. Upon a sip I could immediately tell that he's done his research, so we get into it. Glass after glass it offers an amazing array of aromas and flavors that exceeds my expectation of what shochu can be. And if you've had shochu before, you can easily see that by this point I am LIT. After 8 hours of drive across this great northern, 5 glasses of 40+ proof on an empty stomach surely takes you down. Bossman notices, and he orders his favorite dish which is nothing but a corn tempura. One bite and my mind is blown to pieces. I ask the chef what's in it, and he shrugs. "Corn." "...And?" "Corn. I mean, a hint of salt. But, you know, corn." Bossman goes "Didn't I tell you?"
"Let the ingredients speak for themselves. Don't interfere. Save your creative intent and ego." I'm paraphrasing it, but is the exact same thing that I heard from a chef I met in Toyama several years back. Toyama or Hakodate, a good chef knows when s/he is privileged, and would not smear the goodness with your ideas or ambition. #notetoself
Then they share the stories of their industries and how the business is booming thanks to the forthcoming Olympics and the post-quake rebuilding efforts, both of which not without major controversies. 2020 Olympics is like an adrenaline shot that the leaders think the aging Japanese society desperately needs from both the economic and moral perspectives. Our youth has been in depression for longer than a decade, struggling to find work, significant others or even hope to survive in the post-Fukushima age which sees the fear of nuclear warfare with its unpredictable Authoritarian neighbor. Apparently the plan is working, attracting workforce from all over the country to Tokyo, but also is seen as a dilution of the resource from the rebuilding only a few hundred miles north, and the distraction from the ongoing situation where tens of thousands remain in temporary housings after 6 years. “There’s definitely work, if you’re willing” Bossman says, and proceeds to tell me about his friend who chose to go to Fukushima where TEPCO offers top wages for spending a mere few hours near or inside the plant. To the obvious question of whether they’re concerned about radiation and its effect, he replied “the radiation effect won't kick in till 20~30 years later and I’ve already had kids. By then I’d have some kind of health issues even if if weren’t for radiation, so why not make money and retire early?” Bossman says he’s not alone in this thinking.
One event in my life that reminded me of where I come from more than any other happened on my mom's 64th birthday.
Traci said, while getting ready for our set at The Mint, that there was an earthquake in Tokyo. I thought nothing of it, as we are very seismically active by nature. Once home, I watched black water spread across towns and fields, rapidly swallowing anything and everything in front. People desperately driving away from the swiping hands of tsunami. A fishing boat being washed down in the middle of city streets along with passenger vehicles and houses. Then the media focus gradually shifted to the events unfolding in Fukushima. The word Chernobyl started floating around. I called Toyama via Skype, my brother Yo and I watched the livestream mostly speechless. We both knew that nothing would be the same from that point on.
The fact that I was an ocean away, unable to do anything other than to send money, or rather didn't do anything, is one of the biggest regrets of my life till this day. And I still don't know how to articulate what I saw and felt when I was there.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. New EP "Six Songs from Insomnia" is out on all major streaming platforms.