Japan Field Notes PT. 4

AFTER my Japanese lesson, I often stand outside of Temmabashi Station, watching the boats move along the river.

The day unfolds and I’m merely an observer, watching as waves of people cross the arching blue bridge. People like me. They’re a faded moment in my periphery; to them I’m just a face standing on the walkway.

Yet inside, so much is taking place that feels crucial to who I am. The same is true of any of those wandering souls. Nobody knows the life inside of us, for we pass others in the station or on a bridge or in the neighborhood at night, and we’re nothing but a moving blip of time.

Yet inside, a world rages. Oceans shift — life is nothing if not change.

It’s hard to see the beauty of the storm when we’re sailing through it. Yet everything we’re going through will pass: this season, this pain, perhaps even this joy.

That’s to prepare for something new, something meaningful in its own right.

The next chapter.

This river running through Osaka still takes my breath away. It’s not this river in particular, I don’t think, although it is lovely. It’s any river at all.

To live in a city crossed by rivers was once just a dream. It’s now my daily reality. I cross the river; I walk along it; I ride beside it and notice the changing color of the leaves which fall into the water’s embrace.

Its spirit has inspired my own, as any historic city has a river snaking through its foundation.

An active river means I’m in a city.

Culture, commerce, leisure and beauty; I look to the river, standing here on a normal Wednesday before boarding the train to another part of town, and this indescribable feeling overwhelms me that life is flowing forward in a positive direction.

Continually moving, ever-changing, each day a starting place and end, and within those bounds a journey.

The first day suggesting the coming spring appeared a few weeks ago. Now mornings are cold yet days are warming, and soon winter will be a memory.

I remember the day when the air officially felt cool after my first sizzling summer month in Japan.

We go about our days and they can blend into one, but then a day comes when the air feels different, deeper and refreshing or brighter and nourishing, and it’s like a page has turned.

These moments in time I try to grasp, yet can hardly understand.

Just play. Savor each fleeting moment.

Write about the world you see; move forth, and, as Socrates says, do it in good cheer. There’s so much we can’t possibly understand. Maybe we don’t have to.


Finishing Shogun

I finished Shogun in a small office overlooking the flashing lights of Namba. Each re-reading of a book provides a fresh experience. The words on the page haven’t changed — but you have.

(Spoiler below).

Turning the last page when Toranaga goes full out Shogun was pretty unreal.

I forgot about Mariko’s death.

I kept waiting for the moment to come when she would emerge from the illusory grave. She didn’t.

Her death didn’t have to be too dramatic, and that taught me something about storytelling. It wasn’t her death, but what came after it — the celebration of her character and sacrifice — which provided the key to the story.

It all meant nothing now, because she was gone.” This line stuck with me, the culmination of a thousand page book within a single, devastating, beautiful line.


I’m a teacher?

Teaching is an opportunity not to think about being elsewhere, but trying, as much as I can, to be fully present. So often my mind drifts.

I’m thinking about tomorrow, the weekend, other things to do. But then I reflect on where I am. Even though at times it’s hectic or tedious, I snap to, and it hits me.

I look around at the students that I’m teaching, either kids or adults.

I’m a teacher?

Outside the window the sun will set beyond green, jagged mountains. I might look upon a lively street or peer down at nothing spectacular — a freeway or a mall or a train track — it makes no difference. This is it.

The kids are supposed to only speak English, yet they’re not going to stop speaking Japanese. I catch some words here and there and they ask me questions and look up at me and laugh, and even though I can’t see them smile since we’re wearing masks, I see it in their eyes.

I’ve never been in a position like this where I can act silly and have fun with little kids. If it’s boring, I try and give myself to that experience, too.

I think about the page I’m on; I focus on getting the kids to write what they did this morning or where Guatemala is on the map.

There’s nothing more than this.

There’s nothing to get to which isn’t here, nothing which will change how I feel about my life if I can’t be happy here and now.


Be about it.

Listening to Let Nas Down, by J. Cole in the gym. Cole feels the pressure to put out the records that the people want — the radio hits. In doing so, he lets down the OG, Nas, who saw potential in Cole.

Then Cole writes from the heart:

“Apologize to OGs for sacrificing my art
But I’m here for a greater purpose
I knew that from the start.”

He didn’t let anybody down, he realizes. He felt ashamed, but drops that weight. I’m not you and you’re not me, he declares.

I appreciate what you’ve done, but you don’t know the path I’m on. He’s a dude striving. And that, in the end, is what earns him the respect of Nas, and more importantly, of himself.

Nobody knows what you’re trying to do but you. So be about it.


An optimism that can’t be broken

Philosophy has been essential in my growth. What I’ve studied over the years has helped me see the beauty of life more clearly; it’s helped me deal with the pain.

It’s encouraged me to share my voice, endeavor to do what’s good, and cherish what’s important. That, without a doubt, is people. Laughter. Friendship. Wisdom. Simplicity. Love.

While getting ready in the morning, I listened to the story of Epictetus from Lives of the Stoics, by Ryan Holiday.

The fundamental lesson from the former slave turned philosopher imparts:

It’s not the hand you’ve been dealt, but how you rise above your circumstances.

“There’s this quote from Marcus Aurelius,” says Ryan Holiday at the end of the book.

“He says, ‘It’s unfortunate that this happened.’ Then he corrects himself. He goes: ‘No. It is fortunate that this happened. It’s fortunate that it happened to me and that I’ve remained unharmed by it. Not everyone would be so lucky. Flexibility is being able to look at adversity or difficulty, and going, this is just what I was looking for.’ To me,” says Holiday, “that sums up Stoicism completely. It’s this sort of optimism that can’t be broken.”

An optimism that can’t be broken. What a way to be.



Life in transit.

The ornate teal roof of Osaka Castle shines between the passing buildings. Osaka’s energetic alleyways are reflected on the window of the passing train. The falling, dusty snow turns the weekday into a story I joyfully watch unfold.

The hills hold the country in its grasp.

Osaka’s in the palm of their hands.


Young chiller

I taught a class with three girls and a boy, around seven-year-olds. The girls were sassy but very cute, telling me how to teach the class like their teacher since I’m a substitute.

I looked over at the boy. He’s chillen. We both just shrugged, like I don’t know.



The things we worry about most rarely happen.

We give up our present joy by creating a fictional future possibility. Worry is useless, a departure from truth. We can’t determine what’ll happen in life, but we can be where we are, and when the next moment comes, face it with all the courage we can muster.


The United States

I’m in the corner of a sparsely filled train.

I smiled today. My students and I laughed. I had fun going on a tangent in class about the regions of the United States while drawing them on a map.

West Coast, East Coast, Midwest, the South; the mountain ranges and canyons, the parks and deserts.

What does the U.S. mean to me? More than I can express.

But there’s a world to see.


It’s always worth it.

I get up and I sit in bed,
Wonderin’ if it’s worth it to
Run outta my head.
Ya, it’s always worth it.
I lace up and go,
Dancing in the gym feelin’ better than befo’.


An international lesson

On my way from Japan to Hong Kong, I made the mistake of leaving my residence card at home, thinking I’d only need my passport and visa.

This turned into an hour and a half of dawdling around Kansai Airport with an ever-increasing number of security guards and staff, all of which didn’t seem to understand what was happening. Neither did I.

I was told that somebody was going to take me outside of security to purchase a re-entry stamp for my return to Japan, but the security guard tried leaving through the wrong area which set off a witch-hunt of deliberations, leaving me utterly anxious and confused.

I couldn’t believe what was happening. I stood there taking deep breaths, although my body felt like it was shaking as I stood in the unknown of the situation.

It was nobody’s fault except my own. I learned from the experience. I remained true to who I am and laughed with the security guards when the dust seemed to settle.

This is part of travel, learning how to embody the question: how do I stay composed and true to who I am, no matter what happens?

Second lesson: always have cash when traveling in Japan.


Keep smiling

A mom and dad and their little kid walked by my class that was about to start. Come on in! I said to the little kid, probably three years old, toddling by.

They all started laughing. The school director told me later that they really appreciated that, and it kind of sold them on the school. Fuck, man. Keep on smiling.

  • Pingback:Japan Field Notes PT. 5 ⋆ Vincent Van Patten
    Posted at 12:16h, 21 July Reply

    […] Japan Field Notes PT. 4 […]

  • John O'Reilly
    Posted at 17:01h, 11 March Reply

    Loved reading this
    Great post! I love how the author weaves together observations on daily life, reflections on literature and philosophy, and personal experiences into a thoughtful and uplifting piece. It’s a reminder to appreciate the beauty of life’s journey and to stay optimistic no matter what challenges come our way.

    • Vincent Van Patten
      Posted at 17:02h, 11 March Reply

      Thank you my friend! Means a lot to me 🙂 I love writing these, so awesome knowing you enjoy reading them as well!

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