Exercises in levitation

July 23, 2011

It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country… we are seized by a vague fear, and the instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being…
This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in travelling, and I look upon it as an occasion for spiritual testing… Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way that distraction, as in Pascal’s use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves.”
– Albert Camus, 1963

It’s been too long since we’ve last spoken. Almost a month?

Sasayama had started to become a comfortable routine, predictable, beautiful. It was feeling like home.

Summer had arrived with an inoshishi (wild boar) BBQ at Sensei’s place, Kuwa Monpe. Sake, pork and pickles. Afterwards we watched the fireflies pulse over the creek.

Tim, the tiny hunting beagle, while out for a morning jaunt in the woods, had taken down a “bambi.” After gutting, Gen left the deer in a pond to keep cool until later that day to process. That afternoon we dragged the dead deer up the hill to the truck bed. There were crayfish inside. Gen deftly tugged at the hide and separated it from the different cuts; legs, back meat. Tim had mangled the rear quarter; it’s strange to think of this dog so easily taking down a muscular deer four times his size. Tim, the Australian, not the dog, cooked the tenderloin the next day.

We pulled and tied many, many onions, transplanted some peanuts, weeded just about everything, prepared some beds, planted the Sasayama specialty crop of black soybeans, and started harvesting some summer vegetables. Raspberries were coming in every day.

I finally came across a Japanese dish that I didn’t like at first taste. Fermented squid viscera, Ika no Shiokara:

It is a friend of sake, Masa-san said, like cheese with wine. The first taste is very salty, very fishy, but it finishes with an incomparable spicyness, a foreign fermented flavor I’ve never experienced before. Challenging.

“The american bloke” visited for a few days and gave us an introduction to Zazen. Mindfullness, the whole nine. He would give a bit of the lecture in English, and then repeat the same ideas again in Japanese. He used to work as a translator, I heard. Tough work, I heard. In the days following (and still today) Midori and I started making it a habit to go to the temple early in the mornings to meditate. It is very difficult to stay awake.

Another Road Story

About two weeks ago, Gen and I went to pick up a load of once-used cardboard boxes from the local home depot-esque store to use as mulch in between crop rows. This is a novel idea here in Japan, as from what I can tell, no one reuses anything. Underneath all of the plastic wrappers and iced-coffee cans, the local dump must be a goldmine of discarded ceramics, bicycles, electronics, jars and tchotzkes. But that is another discussion. We had piled the K-truck up with boxes when a short, perpetually laughing man walked up and started talking to Gen in rapid, excited Japanese. He never stopped smiling while talking, and the crows-foot crinkles around his eyes came down to meet the edges of his mouth, so that this grin took up every bit of his face. His slightly greyed hair and stockiness gave his small stature an authoritative presence. I had no idea what they were talking about at this point, but this giant, almost caricatured smile on this little old man made me smile too.

So this man, Kura, was to soon head north to the Miyagi prefecture to help with cleaning and repairs after the March tsunami. So two days later I was in Kura’s car, speeding north to a place I knew nothing about, to do god knows what with a man who knows just a little more English as I know Japanese (which is to say, not much at all.) Needless to say, I was riding high.

We found ways to communicate, and when we couldn’t, could at least laugh at the absurdity. I had a little pocket phrasebook and spoke slowly, and he did his best to teach me a few words and we painstakingly got to know each other a little bit. 60 years old, four kids, carpenter for thirty years, wife is a florist. “I very lucky, wife-u make-a much money”Since the tsunami, he has been a part of creating a volunteer group, Dai jobuya, that helps on the Oshika peninsula.

“We go-a to O-na-ga-wa, big-u-wave-u, very bad.”

Kura drove nonstop until dinner, 8 pm sharp, and we stopped at one of the numerous highway restaurants. I pointed to one of the glossy food-display trays, “What is this?”

“Oh, a-you, no. Very stu-rong. Nukazuke fish.” I implored him to order it for me; it was delicious, and Kura thought it was funny as hell that I was eating it, and I was happy to make him laugh.

“You like-a-u challenge.”


After dinner we took a tour of some of my music collection, and we glossed easily through the scenery with Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and that lovely Ellington/Roach/Mingus collaboration. “I want to-a hear can-ta-ury mu-sic.” So imagine now cruising down the highway with an old Japanese man with Hank Williams singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Precious moments.

I fell asleep later in the back of the van, on top of a layer of cardboard and next to wood planks and an oscillating fan. Kura was still driving, and every once in a while the car would bounce and I would wake up crumpled to find half of my body numb. Around two in the morning he stopped. “I sleeping now.” Two hours later he would wake up, drink a can of coffee, smoke a cigarette, and we would be bounding down into the sunrise, still going strong by the time I’m fully conscious at some time around 5 or 6.

The road North started to edge toward the Pacific coast of Japan, past Mount Bandai, through endless small towns and uniform rice paddies, and straight on through Fukushima. Madness. I asked Kura why we were near there. He seemed unconcerned by the idea of radioactivity. In fact, many of the Japanese I have met seem unconcerned. Even the newspapers seem unconcerned. Why then, did the Prime Minister state that it was his opinion that Japan should consider ending its use of nuclear power? Why are the majority Japan’s plants currently not operating? Why are there local governments fighting their reopening? Hysterics? I guess I’ll just take a long, hot shower.

I could see the city from the car window, the city living in the wake of  “the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind” according to a former nuclear power executive. What I saw were people farming, walking their dogs, driving about, hanging laundry…  And the traffic was still as thick as ever. This might be dangerous, I thought, and then thought it again, and again, and would keep echoing ominously the whole time. Humanity as Dr. Frankenstein, and his monster is alive.

Then, thank god, further north to Sendai, where now closer to the coast I could start to see the effects of the tsunami. Houses with large chunks of roofing missing, fallow fields, mountains of unorganized debris. In spite of the melee, there was a small army of Japanese workers manicuring the side of the highway.

It was a bizarre trip, from the cozy hearth of the Nishimura house to the alien highway world, everything at once completely foreign and blandly familiar: sparkling clean rest stops, exit signs in Katakana, toll roads that cost as much as the gas to ride them, fashionable bikers , healthy truckers, gourmet convenience food. Hurtling through towns I’d never see from the inside, past farm after farm after farm, and all of the lives lived there, simple, never reaching too high. Highway driving can glass over the eyes and cut off the roots, like some drug, a step outside, an obscured vantage point from which to savor the essence of life rather than the meat of it.

Respect Your Mother (Tsunamancy)

We would be traveling to and working in Onagawa, one of the areas most damaged by the March tsunami. One statistic relayed to me in broken English said that ten percent of the population was lost. Judging from what is left of the city center, I believe it. (The statistic is true, about 1,000 of the 10,000 Onagawa residents died) Buildings knocked on their side, streets sunken and cracked. The town looks like Sarajevo after the siege. The buzzing hospital on the hill contrasts the ghostly streets below. In the distance, the pacific rests lazily, calm and assured.

The whole area was strange and devastating, a visual testament to the lives lost and uprooted. Much of the city was gone. There were a few neighborhoods safely nestled on hillsides where life went on as usual. Everywhere there were pieces of buildings, clothing, broken glass, litter, and bizarre relics of human life. The scene also had a beauty to it, the way the buildings took on new forms, arranged now not in the shapes of man, but of the curves of the ocean; giant steel beams exposed and distorted, electric wires like root systems become curtains in the daylight. A constant flow of army trucks, taxis, and buses rumbled over the chalky gravel road back and forth weaving through what was left.

On my second day in Onagawa I met a man, from a glance very ordinary, but there was a lingering significance when we started talking. It seemed every thing about him was anonymous ordinariness, but slightly bent, from his purplish-tinted hair, to his dark Profisher sunglasses pushed high above his ears so they reflected downward, to the succinct soul of what he said. He stood out as an oracle, his appearance too bizarre on a shattered concrete dock being eaten by the ocean. Standing on the edge of flat earth. Not many people out there. His brief words resonated deeper than anything else said during my time in Onagawa. He smiled constantly, optimistically, but the things he was saying were somewhat morbid in character. We stood by the edge of the water, on one side a huge, overturned and disfigured tank, on the other the gutted Hotel Suzya. The asphalt beneath us sloped downward into the sea.

“My Uncle lived over there” He pointed to a wide, barren area.

“Is he okay?”

“He is in the Hospital. I come to visit him.”

Behind us there was the sound of seagulls and heavy machinery.

“This makes me think of a time… long ago… when there was nothing…” He let this thought trail off and said it at such a time that one could tell he had been thinking about it for a while.

It is dismantling to look out at such a pile of rubble, scraps of history, industry, humanity, strewn about and stripped of the meaning we gave them. Working hard to reorganize, rethink, and rebuild our castle walls higher and stronger, struggling against what we cannot control. You know, like Sisyphus.

He pointed towards the hills.

“Some day, the wind and water will flatten that mountain, too.”


What does it mean to help? To be of service? To make a difference? To do good? When I first got to Onagawa, looking out at the devastation, I couldn’t really imagine. Especially in the shadow of Fukushima. Rebuild? There was a village of tents where a few hundred villagers who had not left for a relative’s house remained, rationed on army breakfasts and bento boxes, people either stubborn or without any other option.

Kura and I rolled up to where we would be staying, a campsite called Dai Jobuya, a haggard setup of ten small tents for sleeping and a tarpaulin-and-wood structure for the cooking/eating area. The first thing one notices, and this is true for all of Onagawa and the surrounding areas, are the flies. Small houseflies, thousands of them, flying and crawling over everything. Thwap. Simisan, one of the volunteers, was patrolling the camp with a tattered flyswatter, occasionally killing one of them. Thwap. This became the sound of Onagawa, it was an endless pursuit. You could try to swat them away by hand, but they would fly away too fast, you could kill them with the swatter, but there would be more and more just like it wherever you turned. Fly strips attatched all over, sometimes they would stick to our shirts, flypaper sticking to the tables, bottle traps full of dead flies littering the ground. Then there was also the liberal use of noxious pest sprays.

It was an existential pickle. Wanting, believing that I was there to do good, to help (but also I wanted to see, with my own eyes, the reality of this story in the New York Times), but the help needed was in destruction. Tearing down what has been mostly torn apart. Burning what was once useful (and could still be), toxic or not. Passing out cheap consoling consumables that daily increase to the piles of garbage we’re working furiously to dispose of. And oppositely, sitting and sharing time with the people of Onagawa, learning their lives, sharing, if even a little, a sense of their loss. Providing necessities and help to maintain a sense of normalcy. For whatever that’s worth. It was frustrating at first, and I felt that it got in my way of being able to do any good. I wanted to follow suit behind the other volunteers, but sometimes their approach seemed more like an exercise in nihilism. Instecticide was sprayed unthinkingly under the dinner table, just before eating, or in the van, when returning to the tents after working, when the windows were up, the A/C was cranked, and cigarettes were being chain smoked. Beer, and cheap, sweet beer-like drinks were the preferred beverages. The tools of the trade were gasoline chainsaws and flyswatters. Everyone was sweaty, everything was disposable, and the greywater leaked down the orange-mud driveway. Nights were mosquito-filled and hot, days were flies and the same.

The water available came from a garden hose, water donated to us by a gracious neighbor. For drinking, we were provided with ample sports drinks from corporate sponsors, the bottles piling up like monuments on the edge of camp. The idea just seems a little silly to me, that during a time of scarcity, such excess would be the only option. But this is todays humanitarianism, coca-cola style, and the people at Dai Jobuya took these cards as they lay.

But this is being unfair. There were two sides to the operation. Creation and Destruction. There were two ringleaders, each with a different direction and method, each a story in themselves.

Kura, the carpenter from Sasayama, always in a good mood, worked on houses near the campsite. He volunteered his years of training to repair roofs, bathrooms, floors. Small size, big presence, works hard all day long. Black hair, slightly greyed.

Tatsan, lord of destruction, overseer of the Yazushima crew, tall, built like a kickboxer. Often drunk, often holding a chainsaw. Very effective at disassembling with strong sprinting energy, can do the work of three people, while half-drunk, but only in half-hour increments. Once He tied a rope to a wall and pulled it down. Orange hair, black roots. He wore womens sandals from who-knows-where that were way too small; his heels hung off of the end. He would keep the camp laughing, and was the chef behind the copious instant meals.

In the mornings, the bulk of the Dai Jobuya volunteers (usually about five of us) would work with Tatsan on the nearby island of Yazushima. It hosts is a generations-old fishing town just off the peninsula. Most of the houses were destroyed save a few lucky ones and a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine. When the tsunami hit, the villagers were all piled in the temple and all survived.

We would wake up at 5 or 6, have a hasty breakfast, and take the van down to the docks a few miles away. From there, we would catch a ride with the Yazushima fisherman and cross the sound to the island.

The island of Yazushima had dropped a full meter, leaving most of the previously inhabited area underwater in the evenings. I was told the change was from the movement of the earth; the bedrock under the island shifting significantly. That meant our task was to clean up the rubble, much of the place was to be rewilded. Heavy machinery was difficult to get to Yazushima, and it didn’t seem like a top priority, but for the fishermen, this was their home and they would be on the island every day cleaning by hand, by boat, and by fire. Everything burnable was piled and lit with a wash of gasoline. Chainsaws growled, tearing apart the rafters of meticulously-built Japanese houses. Acrid smoke was the everyday, mixed with the gas fumes and the faint smell of rotting fish, wood, clothing and furniture.

Each day the mix of people would be different, volunteers mostly from Japan, except for a few Japanese living in Portland, OR. The mood was never somber, never defeated. Skipping rocks, playing games; picking away at the mess, outwardly unconcerned. The only volunteer with an air of gravity was Masa, a journalist from Nagoya, writing a story about the strange situation on Yazushima. He dressed like an aviator and wore his concern like a press badge.

The islanders possessed a congruency of culture and attitude that was separate from the rest of us, and though they thanked us for our work every day, they never dropped their guard. They were almost caricatures, their identity as fishermen so long developed it seemed the fisherman standard. Like Popeye. They were durable as hell, dutifully cleaning this island, dragging garbage out to sea like it were any other job, continuing their dominant stance on the water they have known forever. At the end of the morning, waiting for the fishing boat back to the mainland, the fishermen would stand on the edge of shadows in the gutted fish-house, seeming to retreat slightly when everyone was gropued together, much in the same way the numerous cats on the island would approach and observe with interest but arch with suspicion at any approach. But within their own, they were always having a laugh.

There were usually about twenty or thirty of workers on the island, and the work was slow. It was also hot and quite dangerous. Climbing over piles rocked by the earthquake that are a gamble of stability, with shards of glass, splinters of wood, and nails everywhere.

It’s a hard job to be doing almost entirely by hand, one house at a time, one armful to the fire.

It was a small challenge to be useful because no one was fluent in English. In the end, they delegated me to chainsaw duty.

The days were long and hot, and in the afternoons we would help Kura in a nearby house. He was redoing a bathroom, complimentary, and I had the chance to see the Japanese way of construction, which means mostly by hand with hand-tools. Very meticulous. Tatsan would trod around the campsite, moving this, rearranging that, constantly going on about the heat. “Aiiiii Atsuuuuuuui!”

Supplies would pour in around 2pm from numerous courier services; beer, bottled water, disposable fans, fly tape. Twenty or so packages a day. We would take the garishly painted Dai Joubya van around the remaning buildings in Onagawa, handing out the donations we recieved.

The staff of Dai Jobuya changed daily, with the exception of a few constants, Kura and Tatsan I have already mentioned, but there was also Namba, Simi-chan, Yu-suke, and another guy who radiated sensibility whose name I never learned. But of all the workers, unnamed was the one I looked up to the most. He worked hard and sensibly, didn’t seem to have the same competitive nature as the rest of them, and did not spend the day hot and drunk. He was also a lunatic behind the wheel, a sure sign of someone worth getting to know. Once he took us on a coastal tour of destruction, which was a really disquieting voyeurism. We drove past destroyed villages in rapid succession as we moved up the coast of the peninsula, taking the high, winding road until the whole carload was feeling nauseous.

The fishermen would almost always provide us with fresh seafood. Sashimi was never lacking. On Sunday, they gave us a bounty of fish, and we had an apocalyptic barbecue after the morning’s work. Tatsan grilled.

Afterwards a swim in the Pacific ocean. No one was remotely concerned with the recent dumping of all the irradiated cooling water from Fukushima, we were somewhere else, lost in this elated world of do-goodness, where in the grim surroundings we only knew the simple joys of life, no more, no less. It’s strange how a place can affect you so deeply so quickly, we’re so inextricably woven into what we think is outside of us.

Coming home salt-caked, tired under the warm sun, Tatsan drove through the city center listening to Whistling Jack Smith. There was some kind of holy humor in this moment, something terribly humane. Dust to dust.

During the breaks on Yazushima, I would explore the rubble and surrounding hills. Like a ghostly observer in a far gone city. This was perhaps my favorite find, a photobook buried under some roofing. Disaster as the artist:

There are many stories to tell. I’d like to tell them all. I might have to expand this later, but I think this is good for now.

On the ride home, Kura-san and I stopped and had an amazing lunch: more of the nuka-fish that I started the trip with, sushi, and some delicious tsukemono. He told me he wanted to learn English better because I was his good friend, and that he wanted to be able to talk more. Sometimes I’m the richest man in the world.

Godspeed Dai Jobuya, you crazy bastards.

I’ve been back in Sasayama for the past week, and things haven’t gotten any less unreal. Spending time in the local recording studio, a day at the river, a couple of barbecues, new blisters, and the summer harvest of tomatoes.

I may be heading to Kyoto in a few days, if not there then up to the Japanese Alps. Sometimes, I don’t ever ever want to go home.

But then again, North Carolina comes up with things like this, the song that’s been ringing in my head for a month and hasn’t let me down yet. The triangle’s own Mount Moriah.I’ll shut up now. Enjoy.