1) CALIFORNIA/JAPAN TOUR AUG-SEPT 2008 TRAVELOGUE
Hi Blog. This is a special Newsletter to tell you all how my recent six-week trip went between Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Berkeley, Mountain View, Hamamatsu, Inuyama, Osaka, Nagoya, Saitama, Nagano, Sendai, and Kitakami, Iwate. Here goes:
1a) TWO WEEKS ON–FORMER AUGUST 2008, SANTA CRUZ, CALIFORNIA
This was my second time in Santa Cruz (see report on first trip at http://www.debito.org/californiatrek2005.html) with a group of students (sixteen in all, mostly guys, all raring to learn and get some experiences, if not some language abilities), and as ever my Hokkaido Information University students didn’t disappoint. At a program sponsored by UC Santa Cruz’s Extension, we joined a record number of students from places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and other European countries to toss a true salad of cultures with the same aim. Our students huddled around the lower levels (HIU, an information science and computer school, has no English majors), but what they lacked in ability they made up for in spirit. In fact, I heard from ELI coordinators that they jockey to get the HIU students every year because they’re so much fun. I could understand why. They were not from an elite school; they came from relatively lower-income families, and 1) had no elite school reputation to maintain in public, and 2) weren’t there to blow off classes and waste their hard-earned money. So they never cut class, instead staying up late doing homework in groups, and whenever possible clumped into travelling phalanxes with and without native speakers to explore nearby San Francisco, points around Santa Cruz, even play cards with me (Daifugou and Euchre) on main street around the mumbling but harmless homeless people. Everyone found them a joy to be around, as they were unabashed and full of humor (each person joining our groups every day became a new and original array of humor, in two languages) and I was glad to be their mediator for the first two weeks of their monthlong stay (which may be the last for our school — budget cuts have just killed the Santa Cruz ELI Program — see my letter of protest to Governor Schwarzenegger and the UC Board of Regents at http://www.debito.org/?p=1870).
After they recovered from jetlag (I helped by keeping them up for the first few nights in our dorm until 11PM; cards and Yahtzee and American television–particularly the heavily-influenced by Anime Cartoon Network–did the trick; so did Mountain Dew), they went off to do homestays and I found myself in a lovely Victorian-style house-hotel called the Hinds House (http://www.hinds-house.com/); highly recommended if you want a stay of over a week in a self-catering environment), walking three blocks to work, watching the fog burn off every morning (it was a summer without a summer for me–San Francisco and southern coastal environs has a climate comparable to Kushiro). I found a number of things to love: those amazingly fat and munchable American cucumbers at the local weekly farmer’s market (Americans found it hard to wrap their heads around why I was so excited to see things like English muffins, fig newtons, chocolate milk, and pop tarts; not to mention roast beef and ham which actually tasted like something). I made sure to eat as much Mexican, pizza, and fat burgers until I was sick of them (it took longer with Mexican). And I stocked up on shoes (I can’t get my size in Japan) all over again until my suitcase would be overweight (carrying books for me to sell overseas was weight enough, and I was planning to replace stocks with other goodies as the trip wore on).
Comparisons with Japan and America are unavoidable, especially for a person in my position of choosing one society over another. Quite frankly, I found very few things to be preferable in America over Japan (like, for example, the fact I no longer stood out as a different race, the cheap cornucopia of fruits and vegetables in California markets, the wider variety of soups and salad styles in America, and a people that don’t need convincing that discrimination is a bad thing). In fact, many things made my teeth itch about the States: 1) the horribly unhygienic and sparse public toilets (Americans must have enormous bladders if they spend the day shopping), 2) the run-down state of public transportation (trains and subways are also sparse and actually pretty difficult to ride — none have routes and lines as clearly signposted as Japan’s rail and subway lines), 3) the overreliance on personal automobiles (in Japan, even if trains and busses don’t go a certain place, you can always somehow snag a cab) — I certainly don’t expect the US to kick its reliance on petrol anytime soon, 4) the Americans’ exceptional tolerance of lousy food and unbalanced meals (I had a donut that was so sweet I got a headache and thought my teeth would shatter; cookies/brownies should not be a staple of airline meals). The mania for soft drinks over plain old tapwater (at least in this part of the US) seems to have subsided; but again, that’s because (I believe) the drinks manufacturers have found a way to get people to pay for something they can get for free from any tap (same bottle, different wine, if you will). Altogether, when it comes to the day-to-day essentials of getting around and getting fed, life in Japan is in my view far superior.
But the most amazing thing for me regarding America was how expensive things were getting. Prices are rising in the developed world — as a matter or course. It’s called inflation. Meanwhile, Japan has had next to no inflation (in fact, in many markets, deflation), meaning prices of many consumer items bought on a daily basis have not changed much in the twenty years plus I’ve been in Japan. However, notwithstanding all the cheaper inputs costs, cheaper labor costs, and the weak dollar, I found dining out in America to be surprisingly expensive. Prices nearly equivalent or even pricier to Japan after conversion. And that’s, of course, before you pay the goddamn tip (which regular readers know I find to be little more than a way to foist more employer wage costs onto the consumer; in other words, a 10%-15% bribe to somehow “ensure” better service when in fact it largely winds up being an insurance policy against bad service… anyway, end of rant). It’s cheaper to eat fast food, sure, but I’m getting too old for it and want to believe that American dining can do better. It can, if you pay more. Substantially more. In terms of cost performance, lose the long-held stereotype that Japan is expensive. You can get better quality at a lower price here than in California (especially when you take into account that food should be better on average in the gourmet capital of the US, San Francisco). Given many years of inflation, American prices have, quite simply, caught up with Japan’s.
But I’ll give the Americans this — they know (or knew) how to build houses to last — and upkeep them. Santa Cruz’s three avenues of Victorianesque old houses (complete with gardens and gorgeously painted wood trim) had me aching for better architecture in Japan (not much hope, given the housing industry cartels, the high labor costs, the high barriers against architects, materials, and know-how, plus the scam of keeping the Japanese consumer rebuilding and renewing their mortgages on worn-out houses every twenty years or so). Many places reminded me of homes in my childhood, where you could cut a lawn and watch trees grow unmolested, all built with symmetry, taste, and culture. But that’s my inevitable bias — that’s one of the choices you make when you move anywhere from a rural background into an urban setting, and not necessarily America or Japan’s “fault”.
1b) TWO WEEKS OFF–LATTER AUGUST 2008, SAN FRANCISCO
We all have probably heard the joke (erroneously attributed to Mark Twain) about the coldest winter spent during a summer in San Francisco. The climate belts shrouding wherever I was in fog, lowering temperatures ten to twenty degrees cooler than areas a few hours’ cycle away, did not disappoint. But when I had my old college friend Rod pick me up and take me into what felt like a John Carpenter movie set (think ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, complete with a drug-related brawl in the toilet stall next to mine when I was camping out with an ill-timed BM), I was wondering if visiting this town was going to be much fun at all. First impressions deceive. If you just get around the fact it’s not sunny (people were amazed I found things temperate enough to walk around in shorts and a jacket; they haven’t lived through twenty Hokkaido winters), and not go out in the early morning or late afternoon when the fog turns into a slowly-drenching mist, you can find SF a nice place to walk around (I walked from one end of Golden Gate Park to the ocean, a couple of miles as the crow flies, a lot longer due to windy paths and things to see). Plus I had distractions — friends with cars.
Jeff, a SF native who always meets me on my sojourns and kindly drives me to unusual places, took me for one of the ten best meals of my life in the Napa Valley (cost: about 80 dollars with a paired glass of wine), and also to a winery for a private primer on wine tasting and the procedure. Jeff also took me to Alcatraz (yes, you can go there with sufficient advance reservation), only a mile and change away from Fisherman’s Wharf, and take an amazing audio tour and get a unique view of the SF skyline. He also drove me out to some warmer places for a sit by an unfogged lake, and an animated discussion about Bush’s America (yes, he voted for him, twice — and in a blue state, even), reminding me, as I pondered how anyone could still support the Republicans in this failed presidency, that America still has a summer somewhere.
My favorite part of my stay was of course with friend Rod, who lost his partner to AIDS a few years back and has never quite recovered from the shock. Plunging into his work instead, I offered him some memory lane walks (he loves to cook, and I prefer to wash dishes; we’re a good team), some moral support for the odd pangs of survivor guilt he felt about why his partner and not him, and a lot of games of Scrabble (he not only went out with seven-letter words about four times, he delighted in putting down dirty words we’d have to spend the rest of the game staring at; best I could manage was “gonad”), which we use, at two games to two each, as somehow competing testament to our own superior intelligence. He also was a portal into another dimension; if I were gay, I’d be with him.
In fact, much of this trip felt like trips into alternate universes. I was born (in all places) in Walnut Creek, California, just across the hills interior from Berkeley (in fact, the first five years of my life were in Berkeley, during some of the hottest student radicalism around; I still remember watching a library burn). I met up with a family that knew my birth father (more about him at http://www.debito.org/americatrekthree.html), and who offered me insights into a life once upon a time for me in California. Friend Charles, my birth father’s contemporary, even drove me down to the house I spent the first five years of my life in. I remembered it; the (now impossibly small) back yard of concrete, with a wooden porch and a redwood interwoven fence I would climb upon as a toddler and pick up slivers from. The next door neighbor’s house I remember had a rose garden, and I somehow got into there to rip off a rose (anyone who as tried it knows they have tough stems and roses; my hands obviously suffered) and give it to my mother. The backdoor loft/converted bedroom (that would have been incredibly cold if Berkeley had winters) gave me my first exposure to a fear of the dark (I watched numerous “monster movies” made in Japan, as well as the Fay Wray KING KONG with the scene of KK looking through skyscraper windows to find his maiden; I kept thinking KK would do the same thing, peeping through my windows at night). And the thing that would trigger my fear every night would be the sound of trains letting fly their whistles in the night along the bayside. It would be the signal that King Kong or Godzilla was coming ashore.
There was that lingering feeling as I peered around the place I hadn’t been for about forty years. That feeling of one possible path not taken, of staying in the Bay Area for my entire lifetime, not knowing there was a world out there, taking a pole position in the now expensive California lifestyle before the crowds really began rolling in with the Dotcom Bubble and the Post Summer-of-Love Exodus West. Never suffering through a real winter, never learning a foreign language (except maybe Spanish, but I don’t have a natural aptitude for languages anyway), never becoming the person who loves daily adventure and busting barriers, and instead just being blissfully ignorant as a Golden California Sunshine Slacker in Sandals. I’m sure I wouldn’t want my life any other way than it is now, to be sure. But every time I heard that train whistle, that odd lingering feeling of “this is a parallel universe” just kept coming back.
Meanwhile, I got to work. I had three speeches for various groups — one local human rights, one Japan-interest in Silicon Valley, and one at Cal Berkeley for the academics. All went well and were delightfully hosted. But my hosts kept on getting anonymous phone calls and emails from 2-Channelers (yes, that nice anonymized BBS which still owes me libel lawsuit money, see http://www.debito.org/2channelsojou.html) who demanded they cancel my speeches and disinvite me. They were ignored. It’s ironic how people who enjoy freedom of speech to the point of even masking their identities will try to use it to deny those same freedoms to others…
1c) TWO WEEKS HOME–THE LATEST JAPAN TOUR
Despite four weeks outside of Hokkaido, I didn’t return with my students once we got to Narita (I instead sent many parcels back north once I got off the plane using Yamato Takkyuubin — savoring how cheap and easy it all was compared to the US — which doesn’t even offer Surface Mail anymore), and instead immediately shinked to Hamamatsu. Never mind jetlag: I was put up on newfound friend Adam and Miyoko’s house (I hate air conditioning, but soon found it a necessary evil given how hot it was around Honshu — especially after summerless San Fran), gave a speech, and then trained over to Inuyama, to be hosted in a hotel beside the Kiso River (which had never even HEARD of the word “Internet”. They offered famous Comorant fishing as an alternative) and get to know one of Japan’s naturalized city councilors, Anthony Bianchi (now in his fifth year of office, reelected by huge margins). Then it was three days in an Osaka flophouse named Chuo Hotel near Japan’s most desperate slum, Airin Chiku (actually, at 2600 yen per night for a 3-tatami room, TV, air conditioning, clean facilities, and omnipresent wireless Internet, I recommend it. It’s run by Osaka Prefecture, see http://web.travel.rakuten.co.jp/portal/my/info_page_e.Eng?f_no=16328), readying myself for a speech for Osaka gaiben lawyers (who got University of California credit for my speech, yet told me at the end they wouldn’t pay me; that sucked).
Then it was four days in Nagoya in a delightful wooden house with Edward and Aki, who got me down for a three-day intensive course on Media Professionality (it was the best class I’ve ever taught; I even raved about it online in real time, see http://www.debito.org/?p=1898), with a class that was TWO THIRDS non-native speakers! (I anticipate multiculturalism making Japan’s colleges more collegiate, at last!). After a speech for forming NGO FRANCA Osaka (http://www.francajapan.org/), the schedule kicked up into high gear. It was the “If this is Tuesday” syndrome, with stops over with Aly in Saitama, Tyler Lynch in Nagano (with the very pleasant Kamesei Ryokan, now with new backpacker rates, see http://www.kamesei.jp/), Ben in Sendai (with Sendai FRANCA drawing very good crowds, http://sendaifranca.terapad.com/), and finally a nice packed speech in Kitakami, Iwate with Susan and her friends.
That was enough. After six and a half weeks on the road, one of the longest trips I’ve ever taken alone, and over a dozen speeches, I was ready to go home at last. The lag remains; I still don’t feel as though my home shower is mine yet, or that I’m finished living outside of my suitcase. There are indeed still more speeches to do this year (see them at http://www.debito.org/?page_id=1672), but I’ll take a breather while I can. Thanks to everyone for reading and helping out, and for making the trip a most memorable and successful one.
Back in Sapporo, Japan
DEBITO NEWSLETTER SEPT 17, 2008 ENDS