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West Until We're East
112 observations from 9 distances, Japan and Bali, 10 June 05 to 25 June 05
Ocean to Breakfast
If you stand still in Tokyo for about twenty seconds, looking foreign and confused, somebody will stop and offer help. I know enough Japanese to assure them that we're OK, whether we are or not. I don't know enough Japanese to easily explain that we're standing still not because we're confused but because I'm trying to understand an entire culture by scrutinizing every character of its written signage.
Two of the six characters on the yellow sign in the bottom right say "Tako", which translates into English as "octopus". You might have deduced that part. The other four must contain the cultural insight, but I have come to the world's largest fish market, just hours after our sleep-deprived arrival, wearing waterproof shoes but not carrying my dictionaries.
I know how to visit a city for a week, and I know how to look up kanji.
I'm hoping they will combine themselves, somehow.
Amidst all these things pulled out of the sea,
I am looking, as usual, for small clues hiding on new surfaces.
I want to know what is precious here,
which is different from what is bought and sold,
but you have to start searching where you can see.
Twenty-five million people live and work and eat in this city.
For six days we won't exactly live here, and can only watch other people work.
But we can eat. The most expensive meal we eat in Tokyo is sushi, but so is the cheapest. The sushi is excellent, but before coming here I believed we'd had excellent sushi at home, and after eating here I still think so. Ramen, however, is a repeated revelation. And after eating the third or fourth one neither of us can remember why we don't have curry donuts at home.
Spiral Records to Shibuya
I have so many conflicting expectations for this trip, the best I can probably hope for is that they will cancel each other out. I understand that nearly everywhere you go, and especially here, there are a thousand places that could be anywhere.
But everywhere has to pick somewhere to be, and we have maps.
We are almost always the only people like us we see in Tokyo, so I assume we are objects of curious attention simply for being here,
but the studious lack of eye contact makes it comfortingly easy to pretend that we are anonymous,
that we are secret observers, not the unmistakable,
that we are immune from entreaties,
still amidst motion,
unencumbered and unimplicated amidst human civilization's most comprehensive compilation of obsessive extrapolations on every conceivable theme.
Even when we actually buy things, we are anti-shopping by virtue of our transience, surprised into relative desirelessness by contrast,
as if these strange kind people have blessed us by purchasing our curses.
These are the magnificent cheats of traveling: your well-meaning self-awarenesses are our smug snapshot amusements,
and we can't be condescended to by things we only see once,
and we are outside of lights.
Ueno to Asakusa
When I'm not complicating it myself, Tokyo is probably easier for an English-speaking stranger than most cities in the US. There are maps on street corners, and arrows in the undergrounds, and unselfconsciously exhaustive iconography for everything from temple camera restrictions to the control panels of electric toilets. Trains run everywhere, and it would take a day to explain the rules by which they operate, but seas of children ride them unaided.
The delicate nuances of etiquette are complicated, admittedly,
even for natives,
but when something is really important it's usually pretty obvious,
and if the children seem undaunted,
and the animals,
then probably everything is fine.
Tokyo isn't really a tourist city, which is probably the only mercy that keeps it from being solicitously overcorrected the rest of the way to death. The Japanese seem to have mastered the bureaucratic discipline extracting problem-solving from its motivation and context, thus such reasonable convolutions as a token-vending machine outside a restaurant to obviate the need for people to take your money or your order, but then a greeter to help you use the machine and a waitress to take your token from you and double-check that you really want what it says. And thus the zoo, because everybody loves otters and it's not practical to go find them by tramping up and down rivers (rivers in some other country, presumably, since the Japanese have cemented all of theirs), so you build a fake riverbank and put the otter in it. Except it's still kind of difficult to take good pictures of what the otter really looks like in a fake riverbank, so you add a nice camera-level plexiglas exhibition annex and teach the otter that that's where it gets fed. This allows at least a two dozen people at a time to crowd around and take Polish-firing-squad photographs of a bedraggled otter slumped uncomfortably in a rectangular plexiglas box surrounded on all sides by digital cameras flashing at each other and human beings squinting at the LCDs of the cameras. Plus one guy standing five meters away taking pictures in which the otter doesn't appear at all.
Even the animals here seem to have contracted a sympathetically single-minded literalism, as demonstrated in inspiredly trans-linguistic vividity by this gibbon undeniably grasping at what are unquestionably straws.
Although nobody else seems quite as amused as I am, so maybe the idiom doesn't translate.
Arguably the fundamental insight about languages, of course, is that translation is a last resort. You can't understand Japanese in English, you have to understand it in Japanese. The Japanese have an entire industry devoted to the modeling of fake food for restaurant windows, but as we stagger incredulously around a store full of it it slowly dawns on me that these are not cheap novelty items, they are meticulous ideals. I'm trying to understand them as spoil-proof recreations of the work of specific human chefs, but that's backwards. The models come first, as the representation and expression of cultural expectation, and it is then the cook's job to try to faithfully reiterate them in food. This is a culture in which commerce not only isn't based on the shoddy commoditization of uniqueness, but isn't based on uniqueness at all.
As with most of my elaborately excellent theorems here, that one lasts about ten minutes. Six days in Tokyo is hardly enough time to even gauge the orders of magnitude of my incomprehension. My elementary Japanese turns out to be more operational than I'd feared, but this is like saying that I'm holding the hammer with good hand-position as I use it to bang on Legos.
The more I see, the less sure I am that I even understand the things we've brought with us.
We are in a machine for making things we can't identify, and we can buy them and eat them and know what they taste like, and still not know what they mean.
I expected to feel like an ambassador and an apologist at least half the time, but what of this do I think was ours?
These ideas are too simple to own,
too mundane to debate,
too inevitable to doubt.
Maybe all we can do for now is know that we've seen them.
Shinjuku and Night
Tokyo is ugly. B keeps saying this, and if anything it's a gross understatement. Tokyo is relentlessly and artlessly overbuilt, an aesthetically labyrinthine chaos of architectures vacillating between bluntly utilitarian and indecipherably miscellaneous, and an uncollated encyclopedia of industrious productions of inelegant designs.
Where there may once have been an island, there is now only concrete and wires and bodies.
They have replaced the shifting earth with moving parts,
stars with lights,
survival with performance,
until even nostalgia clamors.
Let someone else look behind you;
our destinies are written in other truths.
Dreams and Air
But whatever the flaws here, and however entrenched, they are new to me, and fascinating, and occasionally joyous. I've been drawn here by a witch with a radio hanging off her broom, and the ways bridges arch, and the bell-chimes at train crossings,
and the instructions for cameras, and voices and eyes.
I've come in search of the least likely reflections,
into aeries above avenues,
and atria of awaiting.
It's an ugly city, but the experience I'm having is not the tolerance of ugliness, it's the desperate longing for more time. I'm walking away from this knowing that I'll wish I'd sat in those orange chairs. I can't give you the smallest reason why I'd expect those chairs to be any more interesting under close inspection than they are in momentary overlook, but I want them, in the same way that I want to stand in the soup aisle with a dictionary until I've memorized every dubious flavor and obsequious slogan.
I want to retreat into these fastidious parks cowering under dour skyscrapers and have them be my compromises.
I want to know that there's so much less green here than gray, but find a way for it to be enough.
I want these to be my friends.
And I know this is all wrong, and obtusely selective, and much more about me than Japan. I know that we've been sitting on this rock in Shinjuku Gyoen for an hour, watching turtles trying to eat soy snacks, and back on the other side of the planet Japanese tourists are feeding pretzels to pigeons on Boston Common and we'd be laughing at them if we were home.
It's inane and arbitrary and intrinsically meaningless, and that is exactly the point. We sort of pick our obsessions and joys, and they sort of pick us. These are some of mine.
We are here and gone so soon, but take all this with us.
Ubud to Kuta
Somewhere over the equator, between Tokyo and Bali, greens and grays get reversed.
There are still motors and wires,
but more reverence than industry,
and the bridges have less water to cross.
There are wards against evil,
and kingdoms for ants,
and demigods for rotaries.
Daughters beckon,
and sons defend.
There are monsters in sunlight,
and ministers in brocade,
and anger in livid memory and inexplicable fonts.
Pura Dalem Agung to Komodo
Compared to the turtles in Shinjuku, though, the monkeys in Ubud are professional and jaded.
In Japan we were extraneous. In Bali we are instrumental. Passage through the Monkey Forest is bought with bananas and jackfruit, but fruit is far too cheap to resent, and the monkeys far too endearing.
And we feed them, but they take care of each other,
and sometimes I think they only take our weird gifts to be polite.
But they get fruit,
and we get pictures.
As the animals, usually, so the people. Most things in Bali are absurdly cheap, but in a struggling economy it's easy to follow the money. Taman Burung Bali Bird Park admission costs us more than anything else in Bali except one hotel, but the park is also the only place outside of that hotel and the duty-free stores at the airport that feels like it is consciously aspiring to developed-world facility standards.
In its current under-attended state, this lends it a disturbingly Jurassic Park-ish aura, down to the silent gift shop that seems to be waiting less for customers than for fugitives with flashlights looking for a radio. On one hand, I like zoos, and this is a good one, probably better at its own scale than Ueno in Tokyo. On the other hand, though, the Ueno Zoo was packed with people, and is clearly a place designed for its local audience first. At Taman Burung, the only Balinese are uniformed staff.
Getting into Taman Burung costs us US$12.50 per person. Getting into the Ueno Zoo cost us ¥600 per person. That makes Taman Burung twice as expensive as Ueno for us. Only back at home, later, does it occur to me to look up the difference in per-capita incomes in Bali and Tokyo.
The large numbers are gut-wrenching in a way that the cheerfully trivial prices of food and shirts and sarongs are not. Several sources put Bali's per-capita income somewhere around US$250/year, Tokyo's around $45,000, Boston's maybe closer to $42,000. Taman Burung's $12.50 is thus 5% of Bali's annual per-capita income, or the equivalent of $2,250 in Tokyo or $2,100 in Boston. For Taman Burung to be as affordable as Ueno, it would have to lower its tickets from $12.50 to less than a third of a cent. At which rate, obviously, it couldn't afford to exist. Not only have B and I flown from Boston via Tokyo to see this toucan in a zoo that people who can walk to its gate for free still can't afford to enter, but only a few months ago we saw this bird in its native banana trees in Costa Rica. To adjust for the income disparities you have to imagine those trips costing us, in our money, a number so high it would only sound rhetorical.
So we spend a little money while we're here, a tiny, tiny siphon-spurt from over-privilege to under-, and try to somehow be humbly cognizant of what our experiences on the planet are worth.
Into this country of wards and temples we have come to see dragons,
and nobody exactly asked the dragons for permission, either.
Candi Kuning to Menjangan
Privilege, disconcertingly, lapses far too easily into judgment. In our six days in Bali, there are many moments and angles in which it seems perfectly reasonable to think that this is Paradise. But the moments pass too quickly, and the angles are claustrophobically narrow.
A hundred meters from this serene temple, fume-spewing tour buses are disgorging and ingesting, and on our way back through here two days from now we'll get salmonella from fried chicken.
We are retreating northward from ATMs and KFCs and open sewers gurgling under broken sidewalks. From the vantage point of a car in traffic, everything in South Bali seems to press up against the narrow roads as if they know all too well that the money runs there. I could reach out the passenger-side window and graze the walls of dance pavilions, the ears of children on bicycles, the elbows of women carrying drums of petrol on their heads, vinyl banners for cigarettes and soda, and always on every side in both directions the handlebars of motorbikes laden with schoolgirls and families and construction supplies and poultry and precarious lives. I don't start to relax until we get up into the mountains, where there's finally nothing whizzing by inches from us but the open air over switchback drop-offs.
Stand still for twenty seconds in Bali, looking foreign and anything, and somebody will not only offer to give you directions, but will plead to be hired out to drive you there. Actually, you don't have to stand still, or wait that long. "Transport?" serves dual function as offer and greeting, and more than once we turn down plaintive entreaties in mid-motion climbing out of our own rented car. "Where are you going?", we are asked every ten steps. "Where are you going?", our friend Jonathan takes to gleefully countering, which (or possibly his manic expression, or possibly just his long hair) makes everybody laugh. But the truth is, they aren't going anywhere, and we aren't staying long.
The Balinese are masters of ancient skills, and the island now lives on the hope that people like us will come and let them perform by existing. They became artists because in the Paradise of legends there is time for art. In the Paradise of tourists, there are business hours. In Paradise after it was bombed, art backs up into inventory, and building becomes anxious anticipation.
And ancient skills aren't much preparation for the diseases that modernity and waiting sow. Even halfway around the island from the surfer throngs, high tide crusts the black-sand beaches with garbage. Bali's eco-tourism jewel is a reef-restoration project we later discover is the work of a marine biologist who lives a mile from us back in Cambridge, and the turtle hatchery down the beach is run by Australians with a satellite dish. Except for a couple hallucinatorily perfect hours of snorkeling a can's throw into the water from this pile of trash tourists didn't bring here, there's hardly five minutes on Bali when it doesn't feel to me like I'm fundamentally watching Paradise being impatiently and helplessly cannibalized by its own children.
Tokyo and Bali may still seem like inverses of gray and green, of neon red and sky blue, but I fear it's less that Bali is less enlightened than that it's simply behind.
The monkeys are supplicants, the prize birds are locked up, the turtles are in tanks.
I don't know how to appreciate the glimpses of what this island used to be without pitying it for the implacable velocity of its decline, or distrusting myself for the presumption of thinking I can come here and look around and have any idea what's really good or evil or broken or fixable.
In the race between duct-tape infrastructure, like jury-rigged power-lines and lean-to Suzuki garages and faster food and newer ringtones, and social infrastructure like health care and water quality, and historical infrastructure like conservation and cultural self-awareness, it looks too much to me like the Balinese have been sold the cheapest crap for themselves, and paid dearly for luxuries they can only turn around and give back to their nominal patrons at a loss. If they're cannibalizing their own Paradise, they're getting plenty of help. We eat like kings, and have them send just our desserts to the small palace that's costing four of us, even at outlandish resort prices, less than a bed-size high-rise cubby for two in Shinjuku. We've become hopelessly addicted to palm sugar, and to the sensible idea that no day is complete until you've eaten bananas in at least seven different forms. I hope I'm wrong about this island.
Hope is easier in the darkness, under these unfamiliar stars. The night air is perfect. Carp gurgle in our private carp pond. Geckos loom in the rafters, and rehearse one-word monologues in the trees. Guardians watch over us in strategic floodlight, and we try to stop wondering what more-pressing tasks we are keeping them from.
Shinkansen to Zen
Japan is an even stranger conflation of the cryptic and familiar the second time. The last leg of our trip burrows through Tokyo on trains and speeds us west for a couple days in Kyoto.
Kyoto after Bali feels like part of the syllabus of a seminar on the built environment as narrative allegory. Majestic temples nestle on wooded slopes around a smog-choked city as if all the spirituality has been centrifuged up the hillsides. Here, too, camera angles are everything.
But then, the Japanese never claimed this is Paradise. Their island isn't being cannibalized, it's being disarmed and reinforced, and our American thing about natural states is an indulgence of prairie frontiers and careless abundance. In Japan even gardens are studied works of restrained and formalized visual design, not ornamental protectorates of botany.
But we're not here because it's better, we're here because it's different. As badly as I wanted to read street signs and soup labels, I wish a hundred times more achingly that I could stand here reading every one of these thousands of prayers to find out what they ask for, and how. It may take me years to figure out what I saw on this trip. In a nine-hour return flight I translate two sets of toilet instructions, half of a one-page magazine article about a band I only sort of like, and two of the clearer of these prayers. "After the bad green runs out, there is good green." Maybe. The big character stamped on the paper is for money. I hope the bad money runs out soon.
This must be the trip for which I've done the most preparation and felt the least prepared, and the one during which I've felt both the most viscerally engaged and the most like I'm somehow collecting impressions to be experienced by some other me later. I'm fixating haplessly on every detail, as if the language shock has fried all my gauges of significance. A college track team surprises us around a corner and I squeak at missing the shot. B laughs at me. "All those people are is Japanese!" It's true, there's no Grand Canyon here, no Eiffel Tower, no Sagrada Familia. I've come to see everything, ruefully reluctant to grandly and inevitably fail.
I've come to look for patterns of experience,
and textures.
So probably it's right that our time in Japan ends at Ryoanji, the enduring embodiment of Zen simplicity to counter Gaudí's convulsing maximalist monument of Christian torment and redemption. Fifteen homely rocks pose in raked gravel. Along one side, people sit and ponder what they mean. Every hour, on the hour, a cryptically varied number of animatronic raccoons with enormous testicles emerge from a concealed hatch in the large rock on the left, march an intensely mystical route around the other fourteen rocks singing a series of traditional koans to the tune of Traffic's "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys", and then dive headfirst back through the hatch shouting "Yuubinkyoku!", which means "post office".
Then everybody gets up and goes to the gift shop.
And that, approximately recapitulated, is my trip. We have gone west until we're east, and then south until pretty much any further would be closer. Physical distance is not the same as cultural displacement, obviously, and arguably anywhere with Dunkin' Donuts shouldn't count as far. But this is as far as I've been, yet. I worried it wouldn't be strange enough. It's strange enough. It's far enough that we come back and home isn't the same. I don't know what those rocks mean, to me or to anybody, but I know what it feels like to sit in front of them and not know what they mean. And this, however obscure and inconclusive, is why we don't just read the guidebook and then stay home.
I leave Japan knowing that this visit was only the barest beginning. I come home from my longest trip knowing there is much farther to go, and from our longest trip knowing that B and I have worlds upon worlds to explore together. We come home to look again at home, or to look again for it.
We leave, but we are always leaving. Stand still anywhere for twenty seconds. And then walk a few steps and stand again in the next place.
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