Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Introduction: 2001

This whole thing has a couple of origins.

As a kid, I was always fascinated with foreign places, the more “foreign,” the better. Even living near New York, it wasn’t easy to find non-European foreignness, so family trips to Chinatown were really cool. Then Takashimaya, the Japanese department store, opened a branch on 5th Avenue right near 42nd street, and I used to go in there and look for exotic stuff for sale. At some point I acquired a box lined with Japanese cedar, and I loved the smell, which, I thought, brought me closer to that far-off place, which undoubtedly smelled just like the box.

Japan became a reference-point as I grew older. There was the Beats’ interest in Zen, which I tried to read about, but didn’t really get anywhere with (well, I was, like, ten), and once foreign films started getting American audiences, word about ones with obscure titles like Rashomon and Kushingura.

After having totally aced French in high school, I thought I had an amazing talent for languages, so when I got to college, I debated whether I should take German or Japanese, and figured, hell, I can pick up German any time. I lasted about two weeks: not having a hell of a lot of self-insight at the time, I didn’t realize that I had serious problems memorizing stuff, shorn of any linguistic touchstones with which I had had any experience, and this class was all memorization.

I persisted, though. On my first visits to San Francisco, I was lucky enough to stay near Japantown, as it was called, before the big mall was built there, and have a vivid memory of walking down Buchanan Street one sunny day in 1967 and seeing and hearing a young girl playing a koto in a window above the street. Just before I moved there in 1970, I was, I swear, offered an 18th century Japanese teahouse for $175 a month, rather above my means at the time, hidden away on a hillside overlooking the Bay in an area I can’t really name, just up the hill from Tower Records. I really, really tried to figure out how I could do this.

Once I moved, I found myself going over to the new Japanese Trade Center as often as I could, eating udon and ramen in the restaurants, and buying “Crazy Mix” rice crackers with whole little fish in it, which grossed out my friends. After a while, though, this just sort of bled into the general culture of San Francisco, and my Japanophilia waned. It could re-occur, of course, at a moment’s notice. Little Feat came to town once, and Lowell George, who, as a military brat, had grown up partially in Japan, took me to a Japanese restaurant where he dazzled the owner with his command of Japanese and knowledge of its cuisine. I can’t remember at all what we had, but I do remember the experience was amazing.

In 1979, I moved to Texas, and Japan went away. By then, I’d seen some of those movies, and heard the language spoken and, I guess, realized I’d never have gotten anywhere with it. I’d ritualistically go for my nabeyake udon when I visited San Francisco, and shop for avant-garde ballpoints at Kinokuniya Stationery, but that was about it.

I became the book reviewer for the Austin Chronicle, and began reading about Japan in the line of duty. I’d crack that there were places I read about -- India and Japan, most particularly -- so that I’d never have to go there. For the most part, I meant it.

Then one day Louis Black, editor of the Chronicle, called me. John Sayles was in town, and thinking of going to Louisiana to scout locations for his next film. Would I like to cook something for a get-together? So I set about making a jambalaya, and took it out to a park, where Sayles, Maggie Rienzi, his assistant/producer, and various Chronicle folk were. Sayles had long been a hero of mine, and I kept hoping he’d go back some day to writing actual fiction, to supplement his writing and directing films, an art I didn’t understand as well and in which I had trouble monitoring skill and originality.

At any rate, I got there, and we were talking, and Sayles said he’d just spent a month in Okinawa and was so happy not to be there any more. Apparently some film company had offered him a ton of money to come act in a film there and he couldn’t say no to them. “I think that would be fun,” I said, “going to a place where you couldn’t speak or read the language, just totally cut yourself off from that whole process. It would be like being on acid or something, with so many of the traditional guideposts gone.”

Sayles glared at me. “It was NOT FUN,” he thundered. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I’d clearly made him angry, and he stopped speaking to me for the rest of the evening, although he did thank me for cooking.

More than ten years later, late last year, I heard from my friend, the American composer Carl Stone, that he’d been offered a six-month gig teaching at a college in Japan, and something woke up in my head. Now that I knew someone there, I could go visit! He mentioned that he’d be doing a tour in September, so now I had a date in mind. And, in March, he alerted me that a friend of his named Nick Palevsky would be in Austin at the same time I was, at the SXSW film festival, so I called him when I got to town and we went out to dinner. I mentioned to Nick that Carl was in Japan and I was thinking of visiting, and started babbling about a guidebook to the country I’d reviewed once at the Chronicle, which I considered the best guidebook to anywhere I’d ever seen. “Do you remember the name?” he asked. “Something like Door to Japan...” I said. “Gateway to Japan?” he countered. “Yes!” and then I remembered: I knew Nick’s last name through his father’s involvement with Rolling Stone and had found myself wondering when I had seen the book if this guy were related. The book’s authors are June Kinoshita and Nicholas Palevsky. He got a good laugh out of that. “June’s my ex-girlfriend. I really don’t have anything to do with it any more.” (And I can report, after this trip, that the book is every bit as good as I intuited it would be back when the first edition came out, although they do need to put a new edition together sometime soon: see Kanazawa.)

It turned out that Nick, too, might be in Japan at the same time as Carl’s tour, and also Eric Thiese, another person I’d met through Carl, and, like us, a food nut, was also thinking of coming along. I started making plans in earnest.

I left Berlin for Tokyo Narita Airport on September 5, 2001.

I would find myself playing back that exchange with John Sayles many, many times over the next three weeks.


References abound to “the book,” which is the guidebook I used, Gateway to Japan, by June Kinoshita and Nicholas Palevsky, and to “Satterwhite’s book,” which is What’s What in Japanese Restaurants, by Robb Satterwhite. Both are absolutely essential to anyone thinking of any but the most superficial trip to Japan, and both are published by Kodansha International.

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