So comfortable has life in an old Japanese neighborhood become that after twenty years it is now the single greatest threat to my sense of adventure.
Truth be told, the Good Hood will ruin a man; make him give up shopping to exist on gifts of onions, egg plants and sweet potato from the local gardeners, weaken his resolve to spend money on a meal downtown because the delicious aromas of close-quarters cooking remind him that dining local is where soul food really is. Or make him just stay in, because the sound of the neighbors’ TV game shows, screaming tots and husband-vs-wife arguments gives him that cozy, safe feeling of humanity pressing in on all sides.
No need even to wander far for entertainment in the Good Hood. At the Poodle Bar, three alleys up, you can drink for one coin and sing "Take It Easy" for a sitting ovation.
And yet I feel the slow creep of the uchi-muki phenomenon, the ‘inward-looking’ mindset, which the media says is sucking Japanese youth of their adventurous spirit.
So I did something about it. I found a clean collar, some sensible shoes, packed some copies of my self-published book, and bought a ticket to the Capital—the Big Soosh—city of insomniacs, home of the neon tan and the suited, chain-smoking millions who sing “Under Pressure” on Mondays and scream “Let me out!” on Fridays.
All trains lead to the Capital. In the olden days, feudal lords from across the archipelago left their fiefs to make the mandatory pilgrimage to meet with the Shogun in Edo (Tokyo) each year. From Himeji, it would have been a three-day butt-buster in an express palanquin. Now you can do it in three hours aboard a N700-series Nozomi express with salted peanuts and a six pack of Kirin road soda.
Granted, the heaving concourses of Tokyo’s Shinagawa Station are just as fast. An old canoeing mate of mine once said: “Always paddle faster than the current, dude”. Scott, if you are reading this, nothing paddles faster than the current in Shinagawa Station because the current is electrified, the drum of footsteps louder than any downpour on the Glenelg River and the smell of humanity, well, let’s just say it’s better than yours after a week on the river. But I digress...
Exit 27C is where I came up for air. Fortunately, I wasn’t in Shingawa anymore. I was in Shinjuku, and like a feudal lord (hauling his own baggage) I headed straight for the palace door. Kinokuniya Shinjuku is the royalty of bookstores in Japan; eleven floors of literature, a million books in the offing, and I was cold-calling on the most powerful person an indie writer could request an audience with—the Merchandising Manager.
Back in the Good Hood, door-to-door salespersons are as common as cat fights on garbage night; you can get anything from rice cakes to roast sweet potatoes, term deposits to the teachings of Jehovah, so I didn’t think twice about fronting up to the counter unannounced. But the Merchandising Manager was amazed. ‘You came all the way to Tokyo to deliver a sample of your book personally?’ he said incredulously. ‘Like a lord,’ I replied (though I think my quip went unappreciated).
A self-published author has approximately sixty seconds to deliver his spiel; there’s no time for nervous sweats or tongue-tied sales pitches, the Manager is a busy person. He watched, he listened, he felt the texture of the book’s pages, ran his pianist’s fingers down the spine, the barcode, the ISBN...then he spoke: ‘Look around you, almost all of our stock comes through a few American and British distributors. It simplifies out paperwork…’
I looked around at the big fish—the literary prize winners, represented authors—which swam gracefully by to the cash registers. Yes, I was a minnow in a salmon race. A minnow on a mission. With naught to lose and everything to gain. So I offered free shipping. The Manager listened. I offered to pay for return delivery of unsold books. The Manager smiled.
For the rest of that afternoon, I felt like a cork on a storm water drain; a cork with a paddle, and I did paddle faster than the current, through the neon canyons of Shinjuku to Shibuya and on to Ginza where the buying managers of other big bookstores greeted me and listened and took my samples with smiling faces and nods of appreciation. The experience became the adventure; the near empty suitcase, my sense of achievement.
And with achievement, comes rewards.
Under the Yamanote Line train track that night, I met with an old friend. We entered a tunnel and bowled out the other side into an alleyway filled with bobbing red lanterns and smoking braziers where salesfolk just like myself sat happily wedged into impossibly narrow eateries, laughing and drinking, and beckoning us to join them. And so the night passed, in drunken bonhomie with Tokyo’s hardest working, far from the Good Hood and its Poodle Bar, its husband-and wife warfare and cat fights on garbage night, until that feeling of all-good-things-must-end was suddenly thrust into my hand—the bill.
Now, I’ve always believed that a person’s story is their currency in this life, so to the manager with the grubby bandanna and sweat-stained chef’s jacket, I proposed a deal: food for fiction—the very last copy of my book, Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere in exchange for the wings and the beer.
He didn’t buy it.
What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!