Japan: The Homeland as seen on a skateboard alongside Masa Yoshimoto
Traveling is very much so like a weird, vivid dream. You remember moments, detailed moments without a whole lot of context to make sense of it all. But the difference between a dream world and a strange reality is that within those patches of memory, lies a story. Painting things that have already come to pass with words and not the five senses is perhaps my favorite part of writing and ultimately living. We live to remember, to preserve an emotion, a moment, a glimpse, a thought, to capture it within the bounds of adjectives, verbs, nouns, so that when it is re-visited and the eyes flit from paragraph to paragraph, we are able to go back, to return. Cole has mentioned moving to Japan multiple times since we’ve returned home from our homeland to the Hawaiian islands all but a few weeks ago. We were there for about 11 days but time seemed to move slowly. We Kampai-ed instead of cheers-d, scratched the ears of wild deer, skateboarded down city streets, watched the sunset, climbed abandoned buildings in search of a better view, ate, slept, made new friends, graffiti-ed, loved and lived. Here are a collection of our most vivid memories and within these memories is a story; a story about our host and new brother, Masahiro Yoshimoto, and along side that, a story of our own.
The first night + waking up on our first day:
We arrived at Osaka Station at around midnight with two suitcases, bags under our eyes and unspoken apprehension. Rain had begun to fall heavily on the sidewalk as if it were trying to wash us of the expectations that we carried for the past 4,095 miles from Honolulu to Kansai Airport; emotions, hopes, fears, curiosity, idealism, baggage… it was all baggage. Trying to shroud the screen of my cel phone from the splattering droplets from above, we crossed the street. Intersections here looked the same but taxis did not, they were black, shiny and too polite. I had not heard from the guy we were supposed to be staying with since we had boarded our flight in Shanghai and was beginning to think that he had dozed off minutes after reading my last message and had forgotten to set an alarm so that he could meet us in front of Yodobashi Camera as per his instructions. I mean after all, we did meet him off of Instagram. Shit. We managed to find temporary shelter under the awning of a Subway train entrance, I wasn’t even sure if they called it the “Subway” here. Vending machines alight with the promise of surprise highlighted our foreignness which delighted Cole but marked me for an openness that I wasn’t mentally capable of at the time. We couldn’t read anything. Cole had some leftover yen from his last trip to the homeland two years prior and he was delighted when a can of who knows what tumbled out of the machine and into his hand. Pop. The sound of carbonation. “Ho this is good,” he said. He was excited, eager. Motioning for me to try it, I shook my head, still trying to connect hopelessly to WiFi. The rain kept falling. A phone call. The caller ID read, “Masa Yoshimoto.” I answered. “Hi I’m supah draaaahhhuuunk,” were Masa’s first words and it wouldn’t be the last time we’d hear them over the next 11 days. And so began our journey to Japan and along with it, the unraveling of Masahiro Yoshimoto’s story, as well as our own.
Masa first DM’ed us on Instagram on January 13, 2016 at 4:08 AM. “Hi! “Nice to meet you!! My name is MASA!! I’m a photographer and skater in Japan!! I’m interested about wavy magazine!! So many cool and beautiful photos!! I wanna buy wavy magazine!! Where can I buy ??,” the message read. Cole and I were flattered to say the least and were immediately enamored by Masa’s use of exclamation points. The truth was, the magazine wasn’t even out yet and we had been (and still are) sitting on a backlog of stories, videos and film negatives to scan and post to the website. A DM progressed to emails, the emails turned into a feature including Masa’s photography and that evolved into a friendship that would warrant an invitation to stay with him in Osaka. Lately my sanity came through swiping down and refreshing flight prices on Hopper (the app) and when I added Osaka to my “Watch” list I was astounded to see that prices were just a little more expensive than a flight to San Francisco. It was $560 roundtrip from Honolulu to Osaka. We flitted back and forth between booking and not booking for a few weeks. “I’m not going to have anything left in my savings,” I whined and Cole felt bad that we would be leaving his mom in the midst of financial fitfulness; but the fuck-it factor came into play and we decided to just do it. Nike swoosh. I received a text during my lunch break at work at Fighting Eel, a small, almost bougie but lovable boutique in the downtown district of Honolulu, with an itinerary. Oh fuck. It was on. The past couple months had been mentally trying for me. I had felt ashamed in a sense that I was working in a boutique and doing PR for a construction company after graduating from college in New York City. My dreams and the chance of their fulfillment remained there and I drove myself to take on an outlook of negativity and bitterness to my home in Hawaii, the “lack of opportunity” and the throw the shaka lifestyle. Under those circumstances, I had no real expectations for this trip until we met Masa.
My first impression of Masa was “oh shit, we’re staying with a Japanese gangster.” He walked with a little bit of lean and a whole lot of swagger. Through the rain came a hooded figure with sagging Dickies pants held up by a shoestring and a slow-burning cigarette whose flame the rain dare not snuff. He almost had a chin-strapping black beard and faint mustache, dark eyes, dark hair. An umbrella was hanging on a bike rack, he picked it up, offered it to me and when I shook my head, “no thanks! I’m okay!”, he threw it down onto the wet pavement. Oh fuck. We crossed intersections on a red light, dragging our rolling duffels towards the train station which we would learn was closed. Masa introduced us to a tall, Japanese girl whose name was Yuka. “She cannot speak Engrish,” he told us. She smiled at us and the ends of her black and blue hair caught the light. Effortlessly trendy, she sported an x-girl backpack, oversized Champion sweater and Adidas sneakers. We followed them. Walking a few paces behind as they laughed and spoke as if we weren’t even there.
The cab ride seemingly transformed Masa’s attitude towards us, instead of a burden we felt like friends. The seats were comfortable, white and soft. Cole and I were each eager to get in a word with him about skateboarding, ask a question about Japan and Masa himself. The highway faded as we entered a suburban area filled with apartment buildings and a few houses. The area was called Shin-Osaka and Masa paid $300 a month for his room here. The streets were quiet and the rolling of our suitcases seemed to signal to everyone that we had arrived. We climbed a narrow, steep flight of stairs as Masa and Cole hauled the luggages into a tiny room. Masa had told us many times that his room was “so small” but now we understood what he was trying to emphasize. His room was about 20 feet by 20 feet. The windows were boarded with cardboard and the slats served as Masa’s closet as he resourcefully hung his button-down shirts and coaches jackets from them. “I cleaned my room for you,” Masa said smiling as soon as we set down the suitcases. Taking a seat on his swivel office chair, the sound of Japanese hip-hop ensued. All of a sudden it seemed liked we brought too much stuff. There was no bed, Masa slept on a futon and we would sleep in sleeping bags. Old beer bottles lay under a small coffee table that sat in a the corner of the room, everything was dusty. His walls were decorated with skate photos and a framed photo of a bird’s shadow eclipsing the sun or moon, its radiance was vague and forgiving, seemed to be the focal masterpiece, a visual poem. A desk sat between two metal shelves that were overflowing with paper, photographic prints and who knew what else. Upon the desk, more paper, two broken cameras, film canisters, lighters and a Mac desktop similar to the one that sat on Cole’s side of the desk at home. The bath tub which doubled as a shower and the toilet were so close together that water that had splashed out of the tub would linger on the floor and you’d get your feet wet even if you just wanted to pee. The bathroom also doubled as Masa’s photo developing room so an array of plastic buckets, metal gadgets that developed rust like pimples and other weird things huddled together on the counter leaving no room for primping or even a dry space for your pajamas post-shower. At first there was no toilet paper either. I remember thinking that we should definitely get a hostel but camaraderie kept our eyes open long after sleep beckoned. Yuka was staying the night too and although she didn’t say much, I was glad she did. The four of us fell asleep at three in the morning, huddled on the ground.
Waking up in a new place is always jarring. I had no idea what time it was because the windows blocked out the sunlight and Cole and I usually slept next to open windows that let in not only sunlight but the sounds of birds chirping, planes flying overhead and roosters pretending to have authority over our alarm clock. Here, it was dark and quiet. Looking over to find Masa, Yuka and Cole still asleep, I was less than thrilled at the prospect of having to take my first morning shit of the day. Oh yeah, but there was no toilet paper. I had no choice but to remain lying down until everyone began to stir.
It was our second day in Japan and our first time getting outside of Osaka’s city limits. Trading its famous takoyaki birthing grounds for a thirty minute train ride to Kobe. I had missed being on a train and Cole and I both angled our bodies to face the window as lush, rolling hills and more of what seemed to be the countryside flashed by. Masa had two flash mount tripods attached to either side of his black, Opteka backpack and Cole’s notorious, 30 lb black Dakine backpack sat as his feet as a new world flew by. The sky was without a cloud. We passed by what seemed to be towns in limbo but at peace. They were far enough way form the cities and close enough to the mountains. Streams ran through them and the semblance of the air here was one that made you want to inhale deeply, . The rest of the passengers on the train had dozed to sleep, perhaps they too felt what was in the air here but it seemed to be that way all over Japan. It was all very Spirited Away-esque. We knew we had arrived in Kobe based on the apparent nuttiness of a city, the big signs, bustling streets and the scraped skies. It in a sense was kind of like San Francisco with its hilly attributes leading down to a bay-front where we would turn daylight to dusk but there were no hippies with marijuannna flower crowns or “lost children” here; only beef and the presence of the Yakuza.
Graffiti had snaked its way onto the buildings, dumpsters and other unsuspecting surfaces here with its sneering colors and illegible “fuck you’s” and “this is art”’s. I had stuffed the US Postal service stickers we had “tagged” and “thrown up” on into my denim jacket pocket along with the stickers our friend and wall-furnishing sensei, Beak, had given us to put up. They felt almost hot in my pocket as seeing these covered walls made my blood race. We followed Masa to a skate shop that had called this area home for many years now. It was called Shelter, fittingly so as it appeared to be a gathering place of sorts for the local skaters to meet up, spot check and drink cold cans of Kirin. It was the same kind of environment, same kind of vibe, same kind of “skate culture” that was rank in New York. Being able to draw these connections across what would seem like thousands of miles of difference was interestingly liberating. Decks hung on the walls, coaches jackets were sold along side beer coozies and bucket hats printed with logos and outside the shop, concrete posts were slapped with stickers from all over the world. Though there were many opportunities to feel uncomfortable in between not understanding the conversation that was going on or whatever — it became apparent that connecting with these people was all about genuine interest in them, their lives, their stories and just being a good fucking person and doing dope shit like carrying a 4K video camera around to make skate videos like Cole surely helped.
The skaters hanging outside of Shelter definitely weren’t fawning over us at first. One had tattoos on his face, his hands, the others were swagged out in the same kind of styling that would find in a Supreme lookbook. They smoked cigarettes as if they didn’t give you lung cancer and Masa was no exception. It had become clear to us just how well connected Masa was and that too we would find was because of his generosity of spirit. We headed out to the bay-front area called Merika Park (?) that boasted a sweet view of the city behind us and plenty of ledges and smooth concrete that would justify staying there for like six hours. We started off with a crew of just Masa, Cole, a skater we had just met named (INSERT NAME), and me but the sound of thunder created not by Zeus but by wheels on concrete seemed to magnetize like minded shredders. Masa introduced us to everyone and “hi nice to meet you” was always followed by an outpouring Japanese explanation of who the fuck we were. Cole and I could always make out the words “Wavy Magazine” between sentences and it was kind of a reality check for us because there was this sense of “oh fuck, that’s right, we’re not on vacation, people are counting on us to come out with a fucking magazine, in print. They’re counting on us to tell their stories”. Fucking lightbulb. Anyway, the skaters came in and out like tides, when one would leave to go home or go to work, others would fill in his space. Cole got to hop on Masa’s skateboard with his video camera and it was endearing to watch friendships form with every failed attempt at landing some frontside flippy floppy nose blunt reverse whatever the fuck. Back and forth back and forth they went trying to get the trick on video. When it was landed, everyone was stoked. They all shared strategies and shit about how to land whatever trick it was, grabbing their own boards and flipping it around in the air with their hands to show the motion or spin that the actual board would take. The perseverance exhibited by these skaters in particular was interesting and through it manifested the Japanese spirit of get it done and all the stuff you hear about honor. They were doing these amazing tricks and coming up with such creative ways on how to approach what the lay person would consider to be a walkway or bench that when they failed to land whatever the were trying to do, it was hard to hear them apologize for it, to see them hang their heads. Like no, you are sick, please hold your head way up high. A level of trust was also established throughout this entire process. Pressing the playback button on the camera, the skaters all huddled around Cole as handshakes which were always followed by a fist bump were handed out. “Sugoi!”, they all exclaimed.
After the sun set, temperatures dropped and I found myself wearing three jackets and a beanie. Luckily coffee that came out the vending machine was hot. I had no idea when we were ever going to leave and the only reason we did was because everyone was hungry. But when you’re with skaters in a city like Kobe, you never really stop skating. On the way out, spot after spot was found and everywhere we went, thunder. Keisho, one of the skaters, cut his hand ollie-ing over a swinging walkway barrier but it was all smiles because he landed it after his board got stuck in the chain multiple times.
A strict diet consisting of beer, shrimp chips, musubis and more xbeer from 7/11 or Lawson’s Station was adhered to. Every time we went in there we came out with a different snack. Hands that only shared handshakes now shared food and the flavor of life in the streets. In the streets it was a game of make your own fun, no rules kind of shit, a scene from the Warriors almost in terms swagger and originality. Moving Police barricades from the shadows of buildings and onto the rode, Josh, another skater nose grinded on it on the first try. Riotous laughter, howling “haha’s”, under a glorious moon that I couldn’t see but that I could feel. Here we were. Out here. Heading towards the city and its naked baby statues, we flew. Towards a garage-d type of shopping area where another friend, another skater slaved happily in his screen-printing shop, Tsustomo, was making beer coozies when we arrived. We sought out more beer. I climbed on Cole’s shoulders to slap our US Postal stickers onto a rafter, making our mark in one way or another. The noodle snack was a favorite of everyone, known as “Baby Star”, we instead took to calling it “Fat Baby” (just like the gnarly NY club I had taken a shit in despite being black out drunk, yes, memories on top of memories) — here it was because this kind of noodle snack was fatter than most, it was fat, baby, baby fat. Across the hallway was a hoarders book and weird J-Pop collection that he was now trying to sell. I could make out hentai books not far from the surface. Tsutomo closed up shop. We headed back out onto the streets. Elated, we drank in the moonlight as readily as our cans of 9% Calpico sours. Oh yyeah. Another spot, this one under an old staircase along the side of a busy road. An old air conditioning unit sat idly underneath a window. Masa set up his flash lights, casting shadows into a perfection of light and dark. Keisho would fucking nose grind the shit out of that air conditioning unit. Hands poised, fingers on the trigger, squinting an eye, through the lens, Masa and Cole were perched to capture every failure but more so a few moments of success. That’s a life metaphor if I ever heard one. Victory warranted another trip to Lawson’s Station. More crazy shit occurred. A lady lost her dog and it was tackled in the street by Zoshiki, he was wild haired and giggling as he hands over the pooch to the one with a pussy. Everyone was laughing. Hysterics. Another spot. Back through the city, on the front edge of Cole’s skateboard I sat with my black, tasseled leather backpack in my lap and Cole’s hands on my shoulders, bracing myself, finding my center, finding balance as the world flies by and I am its passenger. We head south. Lawson’s comes into view again. What a landmark, what a concept. This time we headed up an 8 storied parking structure, crowding into the elevator just like businessmen did but instead of a briefcase everyone had a skateboard and didn’t have to tuck their shirt in their pants. Ding. We stepped out. This spot was known as the Labyrinth and we would understand why. Taking our positions, Masa, Cole and I went down 2 flights of stairs to position ourselves at the ready of the capture of whatever was to come flying down. They brought thunder in their wake, unsubtle, unafraid. We heard them long before we saw them. “HAAAAA HAAA AHHHH HA HAHAHAH HAAAA,” screeching from above, the act of flying, ascending flights, 8, 7, 6, 5, beckoned by gravity. Their arms were linked, their faces full of adrenaline and unconventional joy. Soaring, birds of a feather, arms extended around each other, brothers. The flash from Masa’s mounts created the perfect synchronistic moment with the burst function on my iPhone and we had virtual gold. “SO SIIIIIIICK!” exclaimed Cole and Masa. I felt like I belonged. We had to leave the labyrinth before a guard or uncharacteristically angry Japanese person told us to. Beer, super spicy mapo tofu, Masa falling asleep at the table in the restaurant, inviting everyone to Hawaii to come stay with us ensued. “Come stay our house,” Cole and I said. The rectangle that we live in no longer seemed so small.
We fell asleep at Keisho’s house, the train ride back to Osaka seemed like hell at this point. He had an amoeba record’s poster hanging on his wall as well as a boarding ticket to San Francisco. Masa fell asleep within the first five minutes of arriving. We pulled out a black sofa into a mattress and sleep came easy. We were home one way or another.
We barbecued in the parking lot outside of Masa’s house on the night of the 17th. The simple act of gathering humans and food around a fire always makes for guilt-free overeating, storytelling and this notion of “back to basics” which we all try to achieve whether it’s in the form of feng shui or “enough white space” in a website layout. Sitting around the stove on skateboards with Takash and Masa, we grilled fish and vegetables to a crisp. Dunking the morsels on the ends of our chopsticks into BBQ sauce, we said, “OISHI!”, too many times and a thumbs up was all we could manage with so much food in our mouths. Masa began to unfold here with the help of beer and a cigarette or five. We learned earlier that day that he had started smoking three years ago. He’s tried without avail to shake the addictive inevitability of nicotine but here in Japan cigarettes are cheap and strong. Cole told him earlier that morning on our way back from our daily breakfast of 551 Horai, makers of the best shumai we’ve ever had in our lives, to “shoot more film! Stop smoking! Same price!”. But it became evident later in the night maybe why Masa smoked other than because everyone else did here. With his skateboard as a pillow, he laid down onto the concrete, head tilted towards the stars even though none were visible. Takash left after the salmon was gone, Yuka would come some time later, leaving room for the three of us to talk drunkenly and openly about what a jarring experience this was in a lot of ways. We had only been here for two or three days and Masa had already told us that we were “family” multiple times. We didn’t know just yet just how much that meant. Masa had mentioned to us that he recently just lost his girlfriend to the ever wandering eye of infidelity and cryptic phone calls. She was his family. We would learn that his father was abusive and that he never met his mother. He had no where to really call home other than the box-like apartment behind us. “I can’t go home,” Masa said drunkenly under the night sky. I remembered seeing a photo of an older lady on his wall, that must’ve been his grandma. I wonder now if she is still alive and how often she sees her grandson. By Masa calling us family it meant that he had perhaps come to terms with the aspect of his reality that made the world seem like it had turned a could shoulder to him. I can’t remember when but we taught him the Hawaiian word for family, “‘ohana”, and I even did my Lilo and Stitch impersonation lol yikes. But this moment by the fireside was one that really shaped our experience in Japan. It was then we began to understand Masa on a deeper level — like why would he let two strangers stay with him in his apartment for 10 days? Well perhaps because he knows what it means to have to need somewhere to stay and what it means to be able to be the person who can provide that for someone else. We went to sleep that night without feeling bummed out about sleeping on the ground or that there wasn’t enough space or that we were tip-toeing around each other metaphorically and physically, Masa’a little apartment began to feel like home.
Over the next few days, I watched the interactions between Cole and Masa. From pats on the back, to subtle pranks, to cleaning Masa’s room for him, to lying on their backs with their feet in the air, stretching, by the river side on a cloudless day, they brought out in the best in each other in a way. I remember Cole saying, “I feel closer to Masa than my own brother’s”. It was something special to watch and made me realize just how important it is to be a genuinely good person, that one’s actions don’t always reflect their intentions and how easily a generosity of spirit translates through disposition not words. We had planned to stay in Tokyo for four days but decided to come back early because Masa’s work schedule would conflict with a proper goodbye. We spent our last full day as a family skating through Kyoto, getting in trouble with security guards and realizing that Masa really is a lightweight which explains him always falling asleep at the dinner table. Saying goodbye Masa said, “so sad” multiple times before we took a group selfie. Hugs were exchanged and something emotional was set in stone.
Since we got home, we’ve planned to BBQ multiple times with no avail. Perhaps we know that it won’t quite be the same. Masa sent us a video of his room and just how clean he kept it since we’ve been gone. Yuka waved at the end of the video and I was happy to see the two of them again even virtually. Although they don’t cross my mind everyday, they’ll always be family and our time in Japan
I saw the city from a four wheeled board and the perspective of humanized unconventionality. Never knowing where we were going to stop because all we would be looking at when we arrived was some nice pavement, or some stairs, or an old air-conditioning unit, I was always caught off guard. For any person who doesn’t like “city life”, get on a fucking skateboard. The city walls, parks, residential areas and financial districts become more than what they are, they become fun, accessible and even where you might want to spend six hours of your Saturday at. What seems like a silly, dangerous pastime is understandably a way of life. I remember talking with Michael Cohen from SHUT Skates in New York a year or so ago and he told me how he made friends as a kid. “It was a gateway to friendship, common interest. You didn't have to have that 5 minute conversation to find out if this is who you wanted to be friends with. As soon as you heard the wheels and you went around the corner and saw the kid — there weren't that many kids skating then so when you did meet somebody you knew right from the start that, one, he skates, two, he probably listens to the same music I do, and three, he already dresses like me so we're already friends.” The same scenario definitely applied here in Japan, thousands of miles away, decades later.
Skaters interact with everyone, their heart-throbbing swagger partly comes from this street-borne and security guard run-in refined ability to get themselves into trouble and then out of it, seamlessly. These people aren’t really able to have a comfort zone because they are constantly changing their environment based on concrete and concrete doesn’t discriminate. In Japan we found ourselves in the walk-up area of a residential building where we had to motion thumbs up in a sign of “all clear” when the dog-walkers, families and cars dissipated after they flung disapproving stares our way; we found ourselves on a three foot wide ledge on Kyoto University’s campus with a full photo-set up including multi-level-flash lights; we found ourselves out at late hours of the night, rushing to the last train, pushing off harder on the pavement below so it propelled us quickly into the night, too drunk to be doing so. We came across so many different people, during different times of the day, in different areas of Japan because the streets had called us there. From looking at addresses of skate spots on Google Earth’s cam before heading out to find them, to cruising through the streets stumbling upon hidden urban gems, our world was transformed into a mecca that was made fun and accessible through creativity and mad skills. Being able to be on your bored and rip it to work, being able to talk to an obachan who comes out of her house wondering what the hell as this “racket” is, is all a part of the fucking ride. Landing a trick wouldn’t mean as much if it weren’t for the fact that you landed it in where you did —in the front yard of that obachan’s house, or on that ledge in that stink ass alleyway. Skating in Japan allowed us to experience a kind of freedom only granted by sub-cultures. I was able to realize what a shitty attitude I had prior to this trip, that enjoying life meantdeciding too.
Masa in the midst of all this was constantly photographing. The level of dedication to not missing a single shot even if it was inevitably the 10,000th time that one of the guys was going to eat shit, Masa got the shot. This unspoken kind of brotherhood, dedication, teamwork and excitement that erupted when a trick was landed totally might seem silly or minuscule to a man in a business suit but here it was tangible success; manifesting not in money but in hand shakes and pats on the back. We’d see these business men on the train or in the neighborhood and asked Masa what he thought about it, “fucking job, no one is happy,” he said. And surely he was right. Thinking back to when we first met all these skaters for the first time, they were happy. Maybe yeah, they worked at a clothing store or skate shop or whatever it was and didn’t make a ton of money but they were happy. I mean Masa worked at a hostel and a camera shop, lived in a box, spent as much money on film as he did on cigarettes and yet he was happy. Being around this kind of energy, being around Masa, allowed me to pull my head out of my ass. Instead of tripping out on my life, I was able to appreciate the freedom that also came with it. This Thrasher-mag-esque lifestyle held up by the pillars of fun, freedom and balls isn’t for everyone and if you can’t hang, if you can’t stand having to go into your savings to pull out a little more money for booze and train tickets, if you can’t take a step back out of your head and enjoy these moments then this isn’t for you.
The moment that stuck with me most, offering a kind of epiphany complete with purple skies at sunset was in Kyoto. I had long since been obsessed with this concept of learning how to “walk the earth” introduced to us by my hero and professor, James McBride. On the first day of class he told us that if we wanted to get an internship at CNN and run around getting coffee for people until we were 28 then this class wasn’t for us, he then continued on to say that if we wanted to walk barefoot through the mojave without a map as the sun rose in the east, then this class was for us, I was in. Since then, I graduated college and moved home to find my life somewhat in “shambles” by by society’s standards. I was making $10 an hour working at a boutique and doing PR for a general contractor. I was ashamed and desperate to get back to New York City so that my life could “actually begin” instead of it being lost in limbo amongst palm trees and shakas. Going to Japan, I didn’t expect much from this trip other than a few Instagram posts and a few sick rolls of film but it was there, in Kyoto at dusk when I really began to understand this whole business of walking the earth. Like I mentioned earlier, the sky was a magnificent shade of purple and I found myself riding the bike of a skater named Takumi who I met about an hour before. He saw that Cole and I couldn’t really keep up with the rest of the gang by our means of transportation (I was sitting on the front of the skateboard while Cole tried to skate with his 30 lb. backpack and me on board) so he offered me his bike. This allowed us to all fly. We moved swiftly through the crowds, bringing the sound of thunder with us. There was something about this whole thing that felt like emancipation. I only had a couple hundred dollars in my saving and checking accounts combined, I felt likeI really knew these people who were essentially strangers, I had no idea where I was, no idea where we were going, I couldn’t speak the language here, couldn’t read the street signs but yet, I felt like I belonged, like I was fully present. Thoughts of obligation, money, jobs, were all swatted away by this certain kind of bliss I felt. Walking the earth perhaps wasn’t solely a physical thing, but a mentality.
Almost everywhere I went in Japan I was stared at. The gold plated septum ring that sat smack dab in the middle of my face warranted odd stares and sometimes giggles from the otherwise homogenous society that I found myself in. On top of that, my puffy, hot pink jacket which I thought was very “Japanese” before actually here, allowed me to stick out like no other. And like they say in Eastern philosophy, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. Oops. My perceptions of what Japanese fashion was very far from what Japanese fashion actually is. Everyone was wearing the same color palette, beige, nude colors, whites, blacks, navy blues, army green, like they all shopped at Zara and had some kind of checklist of what kind of coat lengths or ankle boots were “in” this season. It was very Western, devoid of peace signs and the pops of color that I had been longing to photograph only appeared on a single street in Harajuku. The jackets that I had in my daily arsenal were either pink, highlighter yellow, pastel orange or denim and I found myself serving as a walking culture shock most everywhere we went. A lady selling strawberry mochi in Asakusa even asked me if my nose ring was “24k”. Negative. The sick thing was for those select few Japanese people who chose to “stick out” a little, it was a concerted effort of doing so. Whether it was wearing expensive sneakers or dying their hair blonde or whatever it was, it clearly marked them as an individual. While there might be pressure to “fit in”, there also is an apparent desire to stand out as well. Fashion thus becomes not only a medium of practicality but also a means of expression.
Not knowing the language also made the ability to play the “dumb foreigner” card way too easy. Though our faces were distinctly Japanese and there was a town and subway line that bore my last name, Okubo, we were total foreigners. At first, it was unnerving because getting lost was a big waste of time and generated misplaced frustration towards this magical place and each other. But when we settled into the ins and outs of which Seven Eleven we’d get coffee from or where that cheap bento place was, getting on the train was more peaceful for us than it must be for those who actually live in Japan. Instead of being bombarded by the many announcements regarding train stops or the importance of reporting “suspicious activity” or what have you, our minds were left free to wander; it wasn’t necessarily silent, but it was like being able to zone out the humdrum of daily life and find a detached kind of quiet.
Jazz Room Stick + Wariya-san
The walk up was steep and the bar on the third floor was empty except for the sounds of a smooth jazz baseline sauntering through the night air. I was rushed to finish my can of 9% alcohol, grapefruit chu-hi that we had bought for like $3.00 at 7/11 thirty minutes before. Cole was turning 23 in a matter of hours and the uni pasta in our bellies had begun to forgive us for indulging. We kind of stumbled, kind of walked into the bar to find 75 year old, Wariya-san changing the album on the record player. The sounds of Miles Davis became those of John Coltrane and we found ourselves alone in a reminiscent place that played only vinyl and knew only analog. We found Jazz Room Stick haphazardly through Google. The bar itself can be accurately described as a “hole in the wall” joint and could probably seat about 25 people. On the back wall was a top-to-bottom photo of Miles Davis and Jack DeJohnette with a sepia colored effect from better days. The bathroom boasted a single squatty-potty and the rest of the decor on the walls told the same story of a resistance to change and the passing of time. Many of the hanging photographs were taken by Wariya himself, who we would learn was an avid diver and a former parachuter in the Japanese Army. One photo was of a topless woman deep below the surface of the ocean swimming with sea-life just elegant. It was poignant, romantic and a little too wild to be just a memory.
Cole and I took a seat at the bar. I wish I could remember the conversations we had, I recall discussions about weed, his six children and their accomplishments, Hawaii and Wariya writing out our last names, Okubo and Yamane, in Japanese for us. I remember using pen and paper to communicate when all parties became lost in translation. I remember the smile of someone who was eager to share his story and whose favorite song is “My Favorite Things” played by Coltrane. Wariya’s last name sounds a lot like “warrior” and only fittingly so. The hair on his head was still black and bountiful and I was sure the wrinkles on his face were due to many long hours in the sun on some distant shore. He gave us homemade umeshu along with little chocolates in celebration of Cole’s birthday and all kinds of pupu’s. Everything that was slid towards us we ate, without question. “This is exactly how I wanted to spend my birthday,” Cole said at one point. What struck me most about Wariya-san and this whole experience was just how open of a person you have to be in order to travel. The act of picking a place off of Google and just getting on a train and going there despite the possibility of disappointment, I found was a continual act of faith. I feel like I’m writing a Yelp review or something and it’s hard to not sound like it perhaps but sitting here in the living room of my father’s house now all I can remember is his laugh and the regret I feel in not going back to say goodbye like we had planned on doing. He had this little book that he asked his guests to write in and I wonder how many times his guests had let him down in a way. I guess you can’t get too attached to people working at a bar where people say things with too much alcohol on their breath. But still yet, I hope he reads what we wrote, I hope other people are just as eager to hear his stories, to ask him questions, to engage not only with the bottles of liquor on the wall but with Wariya-san himself who has a heart not a day over 25.