Japan Field Notes PT. 2

The cold

Early in November, I read the following words in Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, and my mind happily conjured up the scene.

“The New Englander and the New Hollander, the Parisian and the Celt, the farmer and Robin Hood, Goody Blake and Harry Gill; in most parts of the world the prince and the peasant, the scholar and the savage, equally require still a few sticks from the forest to warm them and cook their food. Neither could I do without them.”

I thought of fog rolling through the cities of coastal New England. When I read the words New Holland, I thought of sodden shipyards and trade. I thought of Europe; how I love it in the cold.

One day, I hope to live amongst nature for a period. I must experience fresh, misty mornings and raging fires. Coats and scarves and manual labor; the smell of wet stone and pine.

It’s cold now in Japan, as it is in much of the world. These are my Japan field notes, November edition: ideas and concepts which stitch together the quilt of my days.


How much did we love?

At the end of our lives, explains NYU professor and author Scott Galloway, the greatest indicator of our worth will be who shows up at our funeral. How much did we love? How much were we loved.

“We all have good intentions that don’t lead to action,” writes Galloway in The Algebra of Happiness.

“We have an even greater reservoir of admiration and good thoughts about others that can get caught in the filters of insecurity and fear. To not let that dam burst is to cut life short and short change joy. There are so few absolutes. One of them? Nobody ever says at a funeral, he was too generous, too kind, and much too loving. Nobody, ever.”

I think about my grandpa Dicky’s memorial. He was loved, because he loved. It was like a festival on the tennis court. I think of my grandpa Richard’s memorial. Strangers, family and friends poured out their admiration for him and his writing. These two scenes inspire me deeply.



I’ve often observed people in Japan saying bye at train stations. They wave and hug like it’s the last time they’ll see one another. Maybe it is; or the start of something new.

I watched a woman say goodbye to a couple of kids. The kids boarded the train with another woman, presumably their mother. When inside, the kids ran to the window of the train.

The woman standing on the platform started playing rock paper scissors with them, Janken, as it’s called in Japan, through the window from across the tracks.

They continued playing while the train rolled away. The woman didn’t care who was watching. It was me, and I was smiling. I wondered what she thought when that train was out of sight.


Dobin mushi

The day after Halloween, my buddy and I stumbled upon a tiny sushi bar with six seats. The night was dark, and the shop was lit by a red paper lantern which swung in front.

We ducked through the noren and opened the sliding wooden door. We could barely step inside. You can’t search for these sorts of places. They draw you in. The bar’s interior and the seasoned chef within filled most of the space, probably ten by eight feet.

There was a young couple beside us, seated beneath the TV playing Japanese baseball. The woman spoke a little English and asked if she could help my friend and me order.

The other man asked us a few questions, and told us about dobin mushi, an early autumn stew in a clay teapot filled with vegetables and fish and aromatic mushrooms.

The sushi chef showed us how to drop one single drop of lime into the broth before sipping.

That man left, and another man came in and took his seat; he was clean cut, wearing a suit and on his phone. My first thought was a guy like this probably couldn’t care less for foreigners.

He then offered us some of his beer. First impressions; I felt like an idiot for assuming the worst.


A sacrifice worth making

Once you know the type of life that might make you happy, nothing less will do. I want freedom. It may not happen when I want, and that’s what work is, sacrificing now for a better future.

But all we have is now. The best option is to find a sacrifice we can enjoy. Life blossoms that way, because you’re doing something challenging and worthwhile that makes you go deeper into this experience.


Yellow hats

I don’t know if it gets much cuter than Japanese kids walking to school with their matching yellow hats and uniforms and big leather backpacks that look like they’re embarking on an adventure. Perhaps they are.


The path to the train

I had to maneuver through crowds to make the connecting train on the way to work. I was bobbing and weaving, and if I hadn’t made this connection before, I probably wouldn’t have made it.

The conductor leaned out of the train as I rushed up to him: “Kore, Shin Sanda?” He smiled. I think I asked something like, is this the right train?


I made it and contemplated the paths of people rushing to make trains. How they intersect and weave throughout the labyrinthian underbelly of the city.


Udon in the 1600s

Between my shift, I came across a stand-up udon shop in Ibaraki. Cheerful music played in the marketplace. I stood beside a rugged-looking gentleman and an elderly woman.

We stood and slurped the udon noodles with tempura on top, called ebiten udon. I also had a handmade onigiri, a rice ball with seaweed in the center. I felt like a traveler in the 1600s in an active merchant’s town, surrounded by the melody of slurping and the repeated, “hai dozo,” from behind the bar.

It was around three dollars for the meal.


On Pokémon

Japan makes me feel like a kid again.

It’s a culture where nobody’s too old to watch cartoons, play video games or dye their hair. I went to the Pokémon center in Osaka and stood in line with my plush toy Gengar behind a man in a business suit, teenage girls and everything in between.

I bought the small Gengar and a sticker of Mew. Gengar’s a purple ghostly Pokémon, and Mew’s a peaceful and incredibly powerful celestial creature.

I thought about the type of Pokémon trainer I’d be. I gravitate towards the otherworldly creatures: the spiritual, the mythic, the strange. Pokémon means a lot to me.

I treasure memories of playing the first few games on my Gameboy as a kid, that feeling of being so totally consumed by another world that nothing else was as important as what was happening in the game.

I reflect on the first episode of Pokémon, with its hand-drawn animations and first appearance of Pikachu and Ash, companions embarking on their hero’s journey. That first episode imparts the struggle, the pain, the beauty and the magic which entwine when going for your dreams.

I think my destiny has to do with taking that sheer love I felt as a kid for adventure — be it through books or video games — and living it in the real world; sharing it, embodying it. It’s why I’m here.

Productive in motion

Twenty minutes before class, I sat on a step outside on a bridge, writing my book on my computer. In these compact moments, I don’t have too much time to think. I follow my instincts and I write.

That’s something I love about writing. I can do it anywhere. My surroundings become a part of the words.

People passed me by and stared as I sat there typing away in the last rays of dusk; seeing their faces made me smile.

 recently texted me a quote about the 20th-century Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, one of my all-time favorites:

“Zweig was productive in motion. The train compartment and the hotel room, the lobby, the ship’s cabin, the station waiting room were all his office.”

Now I know why you love Zweig! said Greg.


A Japanese garden

In the Japanese garden in Tennoji Park, an elderly Japanese man with a camera stopped me and pointed out some features of the garden. I couldn’t quite understand, but I could tell that the way the rocks were formed and the layout of the landscape sincerely excited him.

As I sat in a wooden hut, scribbling something, he returned from the ticket booth with a brochure that he’d gotten for me to explain further.

The man showed me his residence card, expressing that he was over 65 and could enter for free. I love seeing older people with cameras, just as enamored by the world as I am.


Essence in the details

I find the essence of Japan radiating from the details. The sound of the rain, each drop like a grain of sand in an hourglass, endlessly falling, reminding me to savor each drop, instead of waiting for the sand to run out.

In the night, I looked out the window of the train and watched as the light danced atop the river.


In our challenges, we discover who we are

The other night, riding my bike through the neighborhood, I thought, I’ll only foster thoughts as beautiful as the moon in the sky.

I dismiss the negativity. The space in our mind is limited. Fill it not with what holds us back, nor with what we can’t control.

It’s not easy. Yet isn’t it interesting about life that the difficulties can make us better, stronger, and grateful, simply for what is?

In our challenges, we discover who we are.

“One day, in retrospect,” said Sigmund Freud, “the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”


Befriended by the rolling clouds

How much can I truly enjoy every day without waiting for the future to come? The rainy day and that feeling of the storm; that subtle warmth and moisture in the air; the clouds drifting, rolling in the sky, beautiful and full. The hills in the distance, befriended by the rolling clouds.



As I got home, I saw a neighbor from my apartment building with his girlfriend carrying clear umbrellas, shadows in the cold street on a cold night. They’d officially moved out.

We never got the chance to hang out, but he was the first person I met in the building.

Where are you moving? I asked.

Taiwan, he said. Enjoy Japan. That’s it. I’m one of them — a traveler; I never want to regret not taking my chance.

Will you?


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