$18.95True Stories

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By Donald W. George and Amy G. Carlson
September 2005
ISBN 1-932361-25-1 437 pages
Japan“Disturbing, enlightening, humorous and sometimes sentimental, these stories provide insights into an often baffling, endlessly intriguing land.”
—San Francisco Examiner
Japan is a contradictory country that simultaneously astonishes, delights, and frustrates travelers. The tales in this book reveal the alluring, enigmatic land beneath the surface—a place of tranquil temples and traitorous high-tech toilets, exquisite ancient inns and lurid love hotels, a country where electric baths sit beside indoor ski slopes and cherry blossoms fall on kindly grandmothers, cynical salarymen, wise monks, and wild lovers alike. From flower arranging to garbage scavenging, public grieving to private laughing, these stories illuminate the old and ever-changing heart and soul of Japan, you will:

  • Climb into an electric bath with Jeff Greenwald
  • Discover the power of taiko drums with Alan Booth
  • Clamber to the top of Mount Fuji with Susan Orlean
  • Enjoy the subtleties of sumo wrestling with Brad Newsham
  • Get swallowed up by the world’s largest fish market with T. R. Reid
  • Learn to laugh in Japanese with Cathy N. Davidson
  • Battle a high-tech toilet with Kevin O’Connor
  • Encounter the wa of baseball with Robert Whiting
  • Plant rice in the ancient way with Leila Philip…and much more.

Notable authors include: Pico Iyer, Donald Richie, Dave Barry, Bruce S. Feiler, Mary Roach, James D. Houston, Alex Kerr, David Mura, Ray Bartlett, and Lafcadio Hearn.

What is it about Japan that so enchants foreigners?

Partly it is the beauty of the country, from the palm-lined beaches and turquoise waters of Okinawa to the wide-open plains of Hokkaido, the hot spring-cradling Japanese Alps to the evergreen-cloaked mountains and glistening rice paddies of Kyushu and Shikoku.

Partly it is the ancient, intricate arts and crafts, from flower arranging and tea ceremony to pottery and sumi-e painting, the music of the shamisen, the movement of the Buyo dancer and the Noh and Kabuki player, the poetry of the haiku master and the woodprint maker.

Partly it is the bottomless depths of Zen Buddhism, and the disciplines and rites of martial arts such as karate and kendo.

Partly it is the entrepreneurial energy and manufacturing expertise of Tokyo and Osaka, and partly it is the spare tranquility and aesthetic refinement of Kyoto and Nara.

Partly it is the cuisine—from the freshest sashimi to the miniature masterpieces of kaiseki ryori, lighter-than-air tempura to seaweed-wrapped rice balls, noontime bowls of handmadeudon to midnight bowls of street-stall oden, all washed down with a steaming thimbleful ofsake or a frothy glass of ice-cold beer.

And partly—and perhaps most persuasively of all—it is the kindness and sensitivity of the Japanese people, who will go to astonishing lengths to procure a special gift, direct visitors to their desired destinations, return a forgotten wallet, or see a friend off.

The truth, of course, is that all of these attributes interact in amazingly complex and compelling ways, creating the whole of Japanese culture and countryside—a whole that is as enchanting as it is enigmatic.

This is not to suggest that everything in and of Japan is unblemished. On the contrary, as anyone who has lived in Japan knows, the culture is fraught with frustrations for the non-native: a powerful collective code of belief and behavior that seems to exclude all non-Japanese; a complicated inferiority-superiority mechanism that deflects visitors from ever probing into the real heart of the culture; racism directed against non-white visitors and residents; a long-hours work ethic and a sexual role-stereotyping that seem to run exactly counter to contemporary Western attitudes of family nurturing and gender equality.

These too are all interlocking pieces of the grand Japanese puzzle.

But frustrating and infuriating as Japan can sometimes be for foreigners, in its entirety it is a place that rewards persistence and open-mindedness with enthralling enlightenments, lessons that can change one’s life—from the riches of artistic spareness to the splendors of recreated nature to the self-completing gifts of group harmony.

Both of the editors of this collection have lived in Japan, and both of us have found Japan mysteriously and ineluctably woven into our lives.

When you love Japan as we have come to love Japan, editing an anthology like this is especially daunting: there were so many good literary works that had taught us so much that it was almost paralyzing to have to choose among them. And as we undertook more reading and research, there was a powerful temptation to simply keep reading—and so postpone the choosing forever in a state of blissful, perpetual preparation. But at last, hard choices were made.

Now that our task is finished, one inevitable sadness is that not all the authors and works worthy of inclusion could be contained in this comparatively slim volume.

The other great sadness is that we can’t simply sit down with all of the chosen writers—and with all of you reading them—and order some sushi, open some sake, and just enjoy all these tales together, as they should be enjoyed.

But let’s do it in mind, anyway. We’ll set the blanket under the cherry boughs here, and wait for the first faint breeze to stir the branches. See, there they fall, the first tremulous harbingers of summer, and fall, and winter—and, yes, spring. Now let’s sing and dance and drink and, by all means, read—and celebrate all these stirring word-blossoms around us.

—Donald W. George and Amy Greimann Carlson

PART ONE ESSENCE OF JAPAN

Taiko Drumming–Alan Booth

The Magic of Miyajima–Donald Richie

I Feel Coke–Pico Iyer

When the Heart Becomes Quiet–John David Morley

Smo–Brad Newsham

Somebody Stab Him Again–Dave Barry

The Essence of Japan–Donald Richie

When the Cherries Bloom–Donald George

Into the Denki Ofuro–Jeff Greenwald

P’s And Q’s and Envelope Blues–Bruce Feiler

Illiteracy and the Attacking Toilet–Kevin O’Connor

Tea with an Old Friend–Linda Butler

Back to Izumo, Back to Springtime–Greg Dvorak

PART TWO SOME THINGS TO DO

The Great Tokyo Fish Market–T. R. Reid

Department Store Panic–Jim Leff

Bilingual Laughter–Cathy Davidson

The Indoor Slopes of Tokyo–Jonathan Alter

Transcendence–Susan Orlean

Of Gomi and Gaijin–Steve Bailey

Osaka: Bumpers and Runners–Alex Kerr

Ryoanji Reflections–Donald W. George

The Arithmetic of Beauty–Katherine Ashenburg

Rain Droppings–Brad Newsham

An Alchemy of Absences–Pico Iyer

Monster in a Ryokan–Mary Roach

Sandbath Resurrection–James D. Houston

PART THREE GOING YOUR OWN WAY

Unforgettable–James D. Houston

Land of Wonder, Land of Kindness–Ray Bartlett

The Tangerine Buddha–Michael Fessler

Grief–Cathy N. Davidson

Dance Through the Wall of the Body–David Mura

In Search of Beauty–Alex Kerr

Capsule Cure–Steven Wardell

A Yen for Cleaning–Louise Rafkin

Love Boat Revisited–Cleo Paskal

A Queer Night in Tokyo–Marianne Dresser

Red Lights and Green Tea–Bruce Feiler

Rice Harvest–Leila Philip

Last Train to Takatsuki–Michael Ward

PART FOUR IN THE SHADOWS

The Wa of Baseball–Robert Whiting

Whose Hand is This?–Amy Greimann Carlson

Every Yen’s Worth–Clayton Naff

A Thousand Cranes, A Thousand Suns–Alan Booth

Why I Burned the Flag–Çleo Paskal

Raw Horsemeat–Alan Booth

PART FIVE THE LAST WORD

Reflections–Lafcadio Hearn

Sample Chapter: When the Cherries Bloom

by Donald W. George

How a glorious annual sight became a treasured national rite.

The singular significance of cherry blossoms in Japanese culture is a phenomenon even the casual student of Japan is likely to be familiar with. It was one of the few things I knew about Japan when I went to live there on a two-year teaching fellowship twenty years ago.

Of course, this knowledge was limited to what books could teach: that cherry blossoms so suited the Japanese sensibility that they had long ago become an unofficial symbol of the country (the official symbol is the chrysanthemum), and the word for flower, hana, had become synonymous with the cherry blossom itself; that cherry-blossom-viewing parties, orohanami, had been initiated by the aristocracy in the 8th and 9th centuries and had evolved through succeeding centuries into extravagant ritualized excursions; that these parties had been whole-heartedly adopted and popularized by commoners in the 16th century, and were still so important that the country virtually shut down for the precious few weeks in April when the blossoms bloom; and that the flowers are celebrated both for their beauty and for their brevity, which have come to symbolize, for the Japanese, the haunting and glorious impermanence of life.

This knowledge blossomed into resonant reality my first spring in Japan. I had been living in Tokyo for about half a year when, in early March, anticipations of and predictions about the opening of the buds began. By the end of the month these had built to a crescendo, and it seemed that virtually every conversation somehow ended in speculation about the flowers.

When the first buds bloomed in the south, the media’s cherry blossom bonanza began. Television newscasters and newspaper reporters tracked the pink- and-white trail as it slowly spread along the length of Kyushu and Shikoku, then moved through southern Honshu toward Kyoto and Tokyo.

At first, it was hard to understand what all the fuss was about. Then one morning, virtually the entire campus where I was living and teaching—a place famed in Tokyo for its cherry trees—had overnight exploded into a fragile, fleecy shower of impossibly delicate white-and-pink blossoms. It was magnificent, it was breathtaking—exquisitely ethereal and sensual at the same time.

And it was as if all of Tokyo had blossomed at the same moment: wherever I went, the incomparable flowers were, too—sometimes a single tree in solitary splendor by the bank of a river, sometimes a festive procession along a downtown street, and sometimes, on the grounds of a park, row upon row creating the effect of a fluffy pink cloud.

What first struck me about the blossoms was their elusively sexual character. At one point that youthful spring I even exulted into my journal: “On some of these bleached-blue days, when the cherry blossoms stand out so brave and submissive against the sky, I want to leap into the branches of the trees and never come down. Incomparably fluid and feminine, they somehow embody all that is sensitive and stoic, submissive and dominant, giving without ever being given, all that is lasting and eminently perishable in the Japanese woman.”

This sexual nature still strikes me each spring, but there is much more to their allure than that. I was walking through Ueno Park, one of Tokyo’s largest parks and famous throughout Japan for the beauty and breadth of its cherry blossoms. It was the first Sunday after the buds had opened, and raucous sounds of singing and laughter carried on the air. In the area with the most spectacular concentration of cherry trees, the lawns were blanketed with people sitting on reed mats and colorful quilts, their shoes neatly laid in rows beside them. Arrayed on their spreads were multilayered lacquer containers full of food—sushi, rice balls, pickled vegetables, boiled eggs wrapped in tempura-fried fish paste, salads, fried chicken—and big bottles of beer and sake. There were businessmen and blue-collar workers, house-wives and fashion models—all of Tokyo, it seemed—sitting side by side, feasting and drinking, breaking into song and dance, guffawing and shouting and swapping tales.

Such public celebrations, such freeing of pent-up emotions, are extraordinarily rare in Japan. This is one of the invaluable functions of the cherry blossoms as well: once a year, their opening makes it permissible for the Japanese people to bloom, too, to sing and dance and in general abandon themselves for a day under the benevolent, all-forgiving branches.

Even more amazing was the fact that one of the groups invited me to join them. I demurred, but they insisted, and I soon found myself sitting cross-legged on a soft mat, surrounded by a Japanese family who would probably never, under any other circumstances, invite a foreigner into such intimate contact. They bade me feast on sushi and sake, and as the liquid warmed through me and the blossoms whispered in the breeze—a few frail petals already drifting around us like soft and softly scented snowflakes—I joined their jokes and songs, even serenading the park with a warbly version of “Yesterday” before the afternoon was over.

In ensuing years I have seen this scene repeated throughout Japan, on castle grounds and in city parks, along high mountain trails and by the glittering sea. It is one of the glorious rituals that unifies and enriches Japanese life, and no matter where you may be in April, if the cherry blossoms bloom, you will see such rituals, too. It may be a grand reenactment of an early ohanami, with aristocrats in gorgeous kimono proceeding in pomp and splendor; or a company outing, where the president performs a snaky, sake-inspired dance for his employees; or a simple family gathering where children wheel and squeal and parents sup and sip and sigh at the pink-petaled sky. Whatever version of the cherry-blossom-viewing party you see, you will be witnessing one of the deepest and best-loved rites of Japanese life.

It is a celebration whose sense and significance are at once social and spiritual, a glorious affirmation of the present in the effusive, efflorescent beauty—at once individual and collective—of the blossoms, and a transcendent renewal in the tangible demonstration that the universe is proceeding as it should, and once again blessing the world with these offerings of evanescence and eternity.


Before becoming Lonely Planet’s global travel editor, Don George was travel editor at theSan Francisco Examiner for nine years and then founded Salon.com’s travel site, Wanderlust. He is the editor of The Kindness of Strangers, A House Somewhere, and the author of Lonely Planet’s Travel Writing.

About the Editors

Donald W. George first traveled to Japan on a Princeton-in-Asia Fellowship in 1977. On the two-year fellowship, he taught English writing and literature at International Christian University in Tokyo; he also hosted an English-language talk show for the educational division of NHK-TV, Japan’s national broadcasting network. Living in Japan changed his life, teaching him that many of the cultural concepts he’d assimilated growing up weren’t necessarily true—and even more importantly, introducing him to the wise and lovely woman who would become his wife, Kuniko Ninomiya.

Don returned to the U.S. in 1980, settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was joined by Kuniko in 1982—and where they continue to live, now with two wonderful children, Jennifer Ayako and Jeremy Naoki, immeasurably enriching their lives.

From 1980-86, Don was a travel writer and then a magazine editor for the San Francisco Examiner. He became the Examiner’s Travel Editor in 1987 and remained in that position, roaming the globe and writing a weekly column, until 1995, when he leapt into cyberspace to work for GNN, once the Internet division of America Online. In February 1997 Don joined many of his former Examiner colleagues at the Internet magazine Salon, where he founded and edited the acclaimed travel site, Wanderlust.

Today Don is the Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. He frequently appears on TV and radio and in print as Lonely Planet’s spokesperson. He also writes the weekly “What Would Don George Do?” travel advice column for lonelyplanet.com; oversees Lonely Planet’s nationally syndicated newspaper column, “Travels with Lonely Planet”; and commissions books for the publisher’s literary travel series. Don is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of five anthologies, including By the Seat of My Pants, The Kindness of Strangers and A House Somewhere: Tales of Life Abroad. Don has published more than 600 articles in magazines and newspapers around the globe and has received dozens of awards for his writing and editing, including, most recently, the Pacific Area Travel Association’s Gold Award for Best Travel Article and the Society of American Travel Writers Lowell Thomas Award.

Don is co-founder and chairman of the annual Book Passage Travel Writers Conference, which is held every summer in Northern California, and has been a Visiting Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism; he frequently speaks about travel writing and travel industry issues around the world.

Amy Carlson was born a Bushido Barbie, destined to edit a book on Japan, her many identities include:

English Teacher Barbie,
Snow Plower Barbie,
House Builder Barbie,
World Traveler Barbie,
Gardener Barbie,
Flute Player Barbie,
Seminary Student Barbie,
Church Lady Barbie,
Mountain Climber Barbie,
Poet Barbie…

…in other words, she’s a Jane-of-All-Trades; a restless soul living with her husband Reed in Washington State; a sojourner who seeks enlightenment and truth.