Japan 1: Nagoya

Although one almost always finishes long airline trips fatigued, I try to start refreshed.  This time I tried a different experiment: Already tired, and afraid I would not hear the alarm at 3 am, I imitated my college-age daughter and pulled an all-nighter.  I cleaned up my room, sent several offensive emails I had been avoiding, and played with the cats (who, though puzzled, were delighted with midnight activity) and loved ‘em up for the last time for two weeks.

At 3:15, I kissed a sleepy Quan goodbye and headed out into the night.  On the van to the airport, the driver was both loquacious and swerving (drunk, I think), so I literally pinched myself out of the overwhelming urge to sleep to engage him in a dreamy one-sided conversation which involved his father’s method for finding lost traps but he himself was too seasick to follow the family tradition of lobstering.  His road control was making me seasick, there was clearly no family tradition of van driving.

The most dangerous part of the trip over, the trip to Nagoya was a doddle.  The no-sleep strategy seems to have worked: zero jet lag in spite of being 11 time zones away from my wife, my cats, my boat, and the daffodils.  Many more white face masks in evidence with this hyped-up news cycle on swine flu.  We were held on the plane for another hour when we arrived in Tokyo, while inspectors clad in surreal yellow smocks and masks had us fill out forms and swiped our foreheads with digital thermometers.

Gleanings from a morning’s walk:

Japanese cell phones, having shrunk to iPod Nano size, are this year back up to iPhone size and larger, since everyone is watching TV on them.  Gold-plated is all the rage.

TV also comes on (playing those cutesy inane Japanese jingle ads) in your car until you release the emergency brake, at which point the picture disappears, replaced by the hi-tech 3-D navigational system (but the audio, now even more inane, continues).

An older man, talking into his cell-phone, with his briefcase held high in front of his face – part of the tradition of not exposing your teeth, maybe?  I dawdled looking at a shop window but he went on and on, holding the clearly full leather bag with one hand and his phone to the ear with the other in a ten-minute isometric exercise.  So many – many more than in NY – are doing the cell-phone ear press as they walk the street.

Japanese people do not at all look alike to me – what a variety they present!  Is this familiarity or prejudice or something real?  I personally do not find the same with Korean or Chinese people; there doesn’t seem to be nearly the variety of complexion, facial features, or personal expression that I find here in Nagoya, which is certainly more relaxed than Tokyo, despite housing 2.5 million souls.

Nagoya is a port, but despite my using every spare hour for walks, I have seen nothing but a canal, and as far as I walk along it in either direction, there is no sign of a port.  I ask my organizer how to get there, but despite living here, she is not aware that Nagoya has a port.

Early in the morning, no traffic, pedestrians still wait for the green crossing light.  New York to the bone and a Western individualist, I cannot – with no traffic in either direction and the itch to run, I strike out across the empty street.  I catch a look at the faces of those waiting – not disapproving, just puzzled or embarrassed.  Why would you disturb the collective wa by contravening convention when there was no emergency, no necessity?  But I am gao-jin, immune, and it feels totally docile and meek to stand waiting for a consciousless light when the reality is right there to be seen.
The architecture is a hotch-potch, steel and glass competing with the creative to the truly absurd, with the occasional inspired, and the wonderful finds of the really old Japanese wooden houses or shrines – the samsen starts playing the moment you see them.

In the park, the group of older folks under the trees being led through a cycle of simple but boring exercises by a young woman with a ponytail through her white cap.  What happened to Tai Chi or Judo or Chi Gung?  These folks invented the super-exercise of martial arts, why settle for a modified American aerobics approach?  I am reminded of our friend Annie, who goes to India to study Aryuveda, and makes her money while there teaching middle-class Indians the exotic (and to them American) art of yoga.


Nagoya also has more sculpture than any town I have seen. Toronto seemed a mecca for the arts, but startling bits of brass or stone are around every corner, standing in front of otherwise nondescript shops, in every tiny patch of green.  Large Calderesque mobiles, Mooreish lumpen brass figures, a Giacometti leaping rabbit, and unfortunately representational cheery (and Western) verdigrised children such as you would see in an American ‘cultural’ mecca like Boulder.  Not as bad as the big-eyed children or Hello Kitty, but jarring.

My favorite, called ‘Wind’, is in the courtyard garden of the Hilton next door, where I retire to do my little Tai Chi unobserved. Two metal towers – one brass, one silver, with the compound curves of sails – winding around each other a few inches apart in such a way, or maybe because they are heated differently in the day’s sun, that there is a slight breeze coming from between them, even when the evening air is still. (Discovered this all by self – very proud)

Quan frequently takes me to task for me need to be ‘adored’ by my students, and nowhere is that deference more evident than in Japan.  No one asks a question, for fear of implying that the professor (that’s me) had not taught the concept perfectly, or losing face for asking the wrong question.  It is not that they are unenthusiastic – Anatomy Trains, thanks to the work of my organizers and some other unexplained resonance, is finding fertile ground in Japan, hence this 3-city tour.  But getting a response to a direct question is nearly impossible.  Andrew, an intense but amiable Canadian movement teacher who has lived here for ten years (and the only other gao-jin in the room) taught me a way around that: let people vote.  “How many people felt piriformis?”  How many thought they felt it, but weren’t sure?”  Much easier way to get a read on the group.

Andrew confesses that the deference to teachers over here is pretty easy to get used to, and finds himself wandering culturally farther and farther from his family each time he goes back to Toronto.  In the unlikely event I settle somewhere other than America, it is to Europe I would return, but if I were a younger man, I would come here to immerse myself in its strange and enveloping beauty.  The movie Mishima – A Life in Four Chapters captures both the austere poetry and the madness in the quixotic collision between the culture of bushido and the modern world.

For all the deference, 15 ways to say ‘I’m sorry’, and the many bows of precisely calculated degrees I receive, these folks have very effective ways of delicately managing to steer me – years of practice, puts the English ‘management by politeness’ in the back seat.  When asked where I want to eat, I declare ‘sushi’ every time, and have so far been taken to a place that specialized in chicken wings (just as uninteresting as ours), a Hawaiian hot pot chain, a bland Italian, an udon noodle hole in the wall, where Saturdaddy’s sit slurping brown noodles in (delicious) broth with their weekend kids (who, amazingly, speak perfect Japanese! Why is this so surprising to us?  – but it is.  Divorce, once rare in Japan, is another sad western import.  Crime and drug addiction, however, have yet to make it here in any big way.)

For all that, any food here is good, the conversation is convivial, and my cultural sins are forgiven.  Last night I finally got an uni and hotate temaki that ran trippingly on the tongue.  Waiting, my attentive hosts would have said, made it even better.


2 Responses to “Japan 1: Nagoya”

  1. Misty Says:

    I want to come with you next time! It sounds fascinating, plus I am sure you need someone to keep track of your passport, appointments, and researching the subtle differences between all the different ways to say sorry? You know, I am just saying….

  2. Michelle Bellerose Says:

    There will always be students in thrall, but the road-weary ones who’ve seen it all, this world being rather chockfull with its professorial showmen, gauche charisma and utter selfishness, we especially appreciate the integrity and kindness you show your students and their training…. but its _Quan_ we adore! After all, she’s the one who gives purchase to what you’re able to do in the world and without that pinion life unravels…. so mucho props to Quan, and super respect to our made-him-broke-the-mold teacher!

    : )

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