Konohana-ku

A 60s bridge, the feeling of the 60s which ended when I was seven came back in all its cold steel starkness the minimalist stairs you could see below them the trucks zooming under you 20 feet 30 feet 40 feet below the anxiety attack of a seven-year-old oh I don’t want to be here I can’t go back take a breath (kid on bicycle zooms down side-ramp, unconcerned) get to the top and walk across the wobbly thing as cars zoom by on the right a section of the expressway to Kobe make it across by looking into the calm dark water people probably wondering if I’m going to jump in (no way – that water’s filthy – only pretty when it’s dark) the lights of some small tower in the distance (probably pachinko) reflected in the waters in colours like the 60s something in the hue of the blue and the yellow due more to the printing process of the time I guess that saturation which had me looking at a magazine for what seemed like all evening though I couldn’t half read it yet spellbound by the pretty rich colours and then the other side of the bridge where the steps are all concrete from the 70s perhaps and I bound down them easily because I can’t see what’s below and then some grass and a tree and an empty street and I don’t know where I am which is an odd thing to cross a scary bridge for

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Osaka Largesse Postscript: Writ in Water

The day after speaking to the cheerful old man on the train who just had to know how much I weighed (in an admiring way, because he liked sumo), I went to my gym and, since I seem to have hurt a tendon in my shoulder (and can’t swim very well anyway), I opted to go for a long march – 2000 metres – in the walking lane of the pool (most pools in Japan have these). Imagine walking steadily for 2 kms in chest-deep water: a good low-intensity aerobic exercise and a good wind-down after work. Well, I was happily striding away (sometimes backwards, sometimes crouching, always looking ridiculous) when I noticed a woman about my age in the beginner’s swimming lane, next to mine. She had cap and goggles on, earplugs in, and was looking at me.

Why are you walking?

I had never seen her before in my life. Taken aback, my Japanese evaporated.

I can’t swim (suiei ga dekinai), I eventually blurted out, ungrammatically.

– So why don’t you learn?

– My arm hurts. Hurt it. Upstairs (the gym). I turned and kept walking.

Fifty metres later, there she was again.

– So you’re just going to walk. That’s all?

– I exercised and now I’ll walk (I was not in a chatty mood).

– Why?

– It feels good.

– Yes, but why?

I pretended I didn’t hear, turned, walked another lap. She bobbed up from the water and and smiled triumphantly.

– I know! I know why!

She pointed to my belly.

– Metaboli (メタボリ)!”

Metaboli is the trendy new word, short for “metabolic syndrome”, which has entered the language via the media here in the past year. It just means you’ve got a beer belly, but because it’s got a foreign faux-scientific sound to it (if you’re Japanese), it’s become the cool new way of calling someone a fat-ass. I don’t think she was being malicious, but she was certainly being insensitive (not that Osakans are accused of that very often…), and was probably a bit snapped (my turn to be insensitive).

Sadly, there’s only one way out of a situation like this without causing a scene (which would be blamed on me). I made a self-deprecating joke and moved on.

– I like Japanese beer too much, I said, over my shoulder (and so did your mother when she was carrying you, honey, I failed to add).

This seemed to satisfy her, and she laughed, continued swimming for a few laps, then mercifully left. I kept at my routine until I’d reached my goal, then went for a shower and sauna, where a naked old Japanese man relentlessly tried to speak to me in French until I fled. Je pense que vous aimez la cuisine japonaise, he remarked, pointing to my gut.

No wonder I drink.

I’ll say this much for being overweight in Japan, a country where fully 25% of all women in their 20s are officially underweight but whose media only talk about the danger of beer bellies: you’ll have no trouble starting conversations in public places. Now if only I wanted to.

“You are white devil. I am God.”

JR Tennoji Station is known for its eccentrics. Many of them are either overliquored or undermedicated, but they are – for the most part – harmless. A reasonably well-dressed man in his late-50s, toothless, laughing happily to himself (or at some very witty friend the rest of us can’t see), can usually  be seen wandering between there and Kintetsu Station. Middle-aged drag queens can occasionally be seen balancing on heels as they totter towards Tennoji Park and Shin-Sekai. The men who wore schoolgirl uniforms seem to have been chased away. Every winter, a fairly regular cast of homeless men (and one woman for several years, her long gray hair as matted as tatami) sit on the steps near the subway entrance,between the two train stations and around this time, as the temperature begins to drop, I wonder which ones I won’t be seeing again; many talk to themselves, one used to quietly weep.

Outbursts are rare – one thing such people know is that to make a fuss risks getting them turfed out by the authorities. So I was mildly surprised to hear someone roaring abuse as I made my way through Tennoji station on Saturday evening, at around 6.

The man was at first glance a disgruntled otaku – couldn’t get the latest Playstation or something, and you know that’s gotta hurt. This man, though, was roaring about deporting all gaijin (foreigners), especially sangokujin 三国人 (literally, Third Country People, read Third World People, read Asians who aren’t Japanese), and something about Dainippon (Greater Japan, the old euphemism for the pre-war Japanese Empire). He was about 35 or 40, plump, sweating profusely, wearing nerdy glasses and drab, otaku-like clothing. Some people were watching him, warily, and a decrepit security guard was looking at him, sternly – as though this were accomplishing something. There were, of course, no police anywhere about.

Then he saw me, and walked over. He barked at me in English.

– Hello. Hello. Where you from? France? Germany?

– No.

– Go to Hell. You hear? Go to hell. You are devil.

– Oh, we’re related, then? (lame comeback, but I can’t let an insult go unanswered, no matter how stupid; this is a failing on my part)

– No! You are white devil! I am God.

– You are God of this place?

– Yes. I am God! Go to hell! (he seemed to think this was the worst thing you could say to a foreigner)

– If you’re the God of this place, I am in hell.

– What? What??

– I am in hell. This is hell.

– {look of horror} RACIST! RACIST! {unitelligible raging abuse in Japanese}

I kept walking at that stage, leaving him doing the Tasmanian Devil act to no one in particular. I guess my only surprise should be that this happens as seldom as it does.

Nagai Park – 1/15th of the Marathon of Life

The first sports stadium was built in Nagai Park (at Midosuji Nagai Station) in 1964, just in time to host a few Olympic soccer matches. The stadium has been replaced twice over the years, most recently to host three (three!) soccer World Cup matches in 2002. The now-looming structure’s 50,000 seats have rarely been filled since then, but it is the home of Cerezo, the presently lukewarm J-League Soccer team, which gives it something to do.

(from an article which originally appeared in Kansai Scene, September 2008; click here to read the rest).

Paterfamilias

At about 7:30 last night, I put on the iPod and went for a long, meandering walk (11,207 steps). It’s dark in Osaka by then, and the heat lets up a degree or two after sunset. After strolling through Nagai Park and a few after-hours shotengai and long back roads, I reached Showacho subway station and began my return journey. Going up a sidestreet, I heard someone absolutely roaring at someone else up ahead. I squinted and saw in the distance a large, expensively-dressed man walking towards a large car and a woman in very high heels walking away. A yakuza having a quarrel with the girlfriend? That’s a common enough occurrence in these parts. There it was again – a shout of indecipherable abuse, but it wasn’t coming from the burly man. He calmly got in his car and was driving away – the woman might have been just a bar mama seeing a good customer to the door. I was puzzled.

Then I realized that I had looked right past the young man standing with his bicycle at the street corner. He had a baby on his back, probably no more than a year and a half old – in itself remarkable, because it’s only in the last year or so that you see a man carrying a baby or even pushing a baby carriage in Osaka. The man was young – 21 at most, and was dressed like a teenager: oversized t-shirt, cap askew, the whole thing. As I turned the corner and passed behind him, he let forth some more shouting. I realized then that he was holding a cell phone. He was calling someone – his wife/girlfriend/the kid’s mother? – some pretty awful things at the top of his lungs. Now, you really can’t curse in Japanese – there’s no vocabulary for it. You show contempt by dropping to a lower politeness level – more a question of grammar, not vocabulary. Then you raise your voice. Then you use intonation which distorts the atonal Japanese language. Then you go apeshit and do all three. I’d only ever seen arguing chinpira in their macho/theatrical best get to that level before. But they were only putting on a show – the powerless showing each other how powerful they were. This kid had really lost it. Oblivious to where he was, oblivious to the child on his back, the whole neighbourhood got to hear about what he thought of the woman at the other end of the line.

I kept walking, but I looked back at the baby. He didn’t seem to notice – perhaps it was normal for him. Three blocks away, I could still hear the father. Five blocks away, I heard actual roaring – he was riding his bike in my direction and was kicking over parked bicycles along the way. I stopped and turned around. I said nothing – what could I say? – but he suddenly got quiet. All he saw was a large foreigner staring at him in the dark – like a good bully, he gave me a wide berth and disappeared around another corner. The baby looked to be asleep, his hands clutching the father’s scrawny shoulders.