JD Salinger

So I read that JD Salinger is dead at 91.

It seems strange to call him one of my literary heroes based on one novel – and a short novel at that – but what a novel. I think I first tried reading it when I was 18 – a year older than Holden Caulfield, but then he was always a bit precocious, so it came at a perfect time in my life.
I never finished it before it had to go back to the library, but in 2008 I took it out while travelling round the US. In New York and on cramped commuter jets I read this incredible, piercing tale of a guy confused and shaken up by the world, a brain too big to contain, a young man teetering on the brink of astounding success or crippling failure. I don’t think I’d be a writer today without having read Catcher in the Rye.

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

I figured I could get a job at a filling station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people’s cars. I didn’t care what kind of job it was, though. Just so people didn’t know me and I didn’t know anybody. I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody.

That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you.” I’m positive, in fact.

Onion: Bunch Of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger

Girl, I wanna take you to a gay bar

I got into the Teriyaki Boyz recently, this Japanese rap supergroup comprised of Nigo (founder of A Bathing Ape), a dude called Wise, Verbal from M-Flo, and Ilmari and Ryo-Z from j-rap superstars RIP SLYME. I thought I’d expand my burgeoning interest in J-hip-hop by checking out Rip Slyme, who I was vaguely aware of before. So, first of all, listen to this. Listen to that synth bassline when it kicks in at 0:30. Isn’t that just the best thing you ever heard? Don’t you want it injected into your blood to harness the supreme sunny glory of that synth? Don’t you want it to be played from all the rooftops of all the houses across the land?

Saturday I was thinking about heading down to Shibuya to check out the BAPE store (as a child of 00s hip-hop rather than 90s rap I have been subtly brainwashed to buy designer clothes rather than shoot cops) but I ended up doing the complete opposite and shopping Akiba for DVI cables and cheap monitors (you can pick up a second-hand TFT one for 2.5k (£15), which is nuts). After that I met up with the guys in Shinjuku for nomikai, literally “drink-meet”. We found a izakaya which we thought was deliciously cheap. However, we had been burned. The izakaya was not offering cheap nomihoudai, as represented. It was some kind of gypsy grifter establishment … sorry, I’m channelling Philip K Dick here. Anyway, we ended up with a lot of food we didn’t want and a bill for 3,500 yen each and some dangerously watered-down cocktails. I wanted to use my gaijin smash to escape, but in the end decided to save it for another day.

Luckily, the club we went to was free.

We decided – well, the girls decided – to take Miles to his first ever gay club. And the place for gay clubs in Tokyo is Nichome in Shinjuku, so that’s where we went.

Man, it was gay. Nary a woman in sight. Bars with hilarious names. Men holding hands. Sunkus (truly the gayest combini chain). It was kind of exciting, in a gay way, like I imagine San Francisco to be. We met a Australian girl with her male friend (gay, no doubt) who was trying to find the same gay club as us (“Arty Farty”, which sounds pretty gay). Eventually we found it, went inside, and bought our mandatory gay drink (mine was a gay Vanilla Mule). Unsurprisingly, the place was packed with men. From what I hear, Arty Farty is the only place to attract a sizable gaijin (or should I say “gay-jin”? no, perhaps not) crowd, so there were quite a few foreigners about. And so we drank our drinks and entered the gay dancefloor, fittingly as “I Will Survive” came on.

And you know what? It wasn’t bad. No, actually, I had a really good time. There was just a different vibe to other clubs; everyone was there to have a good time, not to get pissed or start a fight or hook up with girls. (Uh, you know what I mean.) The music wasn’t too bad, and it was a whole lot cheaper than other places in Tokyo – and you got access to their other branch for free, which means basically two clubs for the price of none.

Today I went to the Tachikawa immigration bureau to get a student work permit. It was my first interaction with the machine of Japanese government bureaucracy by myself, so I’m surprised it went as smoothly as it did. I brought my documents and the form from TUFS authorising me to work, waited patiently for my number to come up, went up, was told by a scary man to fill out a form, filled out the form, waited for my next number to come up, went back up and – yes! – hadn’t done anything wrong. Japanese efficiency applying to everything but government, I should receive my permit in three weeks.

It was quite interesting, the ethnic mix in the waiting room. I know it’s not so, but always I tend to assume that the majority of gaijin in Japan are Americans, followed by Europeans, but that’s a colossal mistake. Of the zainichi (from zainichi gaikokujin, lit. “living in Japan foreigners”) the vast majority are ethnic Koreans and Chinese, who have quite an interesting place in Japanese society – they were born in Japan, have lived in Japan their entire lives, speak only Japanese and are to all intents and purposes Japanese, and yet just … aren’t. It’s an interesting subject.

learning Japanese I think I’m learning Japanese (I really think so)

I’ve been feeling pretty good lately. As if everything’s going alright. Like I’m on top of the world. This sort of thing could come from a number of factors:

#1 Undiagnosed manic depression
#2 Undiagnosed love (see #1)
#3 Springtime (it is unseasonably warm (well, not cold) and sunny for late January)
#4 A dramatic paradigm shift in the study of Japanese

Which is to say: I’m starting to get it. It’s rare that one website could make me turn my entire life around, but I came across All Japanese All The Time a few days ago and it was like everything I read rang many, many bells.

The site’s owner is a guy who taught himself Japanese in the US over about a year or two (and soon after was hired by a Japanese software company as a programmer) without classes or textbooks or drills or any of the stuff I hate, but simply by loving the language and filling his entire life with it. 24/7. Japanese music, Japanese TV, games, books, manga. Even when sleeping he had his earphones in. Like any good diet, he simply replaced anything in English with the Japanese equivalent; so,  if he felt like watching Independence Day, he watched the Japanese dub. If he found himself wasting time on Wikipedia, he wasted it on the Japanese version.

And he kept his brain open, picking up interesting sentences and picking them apart to learn grammar and words, rather than using textbooks or vocab lists. Coupled with an SRS and Heisig, he proceeded to become fluent in a year or two.

Impressive.

And it explains so much. Why I can’t be bothered in class, why I find textbooks so dry. Because they are dry. I always live my life by a tenet from David Byrne:

If your work isn’t what you love
Then something isn’t right

and the key to doing anything is working out what you love about it, and doing it. Why do I do Japanese? Because I enjoy tests, flashcards, and filling in blanks? No! I do it because I want to partake in Japan. People, films, books, games, everything. I’d forgotten that.

So I started again. I complained before about not being good enough to enjoy games or manga in Japanese, but I’d got it the wrong way round. I should use my enjoyment of games and manga as a spur to encourage me to want to study, and as a tool to teach me. I opened my brain and played Metal Gear Solid 4 and sure, I only got 10% of the wordy verbosity, but that 10% was valuable stuff. (反政府勢力 – anti-government forces.) I opened my brain and read One Piece and stuff went in. (海賊 – pirate (lit. sea burglar).) I watched Hatoyama in the Diet on NHK. (政治家 – politician.) I studied the lyrics of those ancient and learned Japanese poets, the Teriyaki Boys – rap is so good for learning because the rhymes make words pop out.

やるだけやってあとは交代
じゃ、そろそろみな集めて乾杯!

I’ll do it only what I can do and after that change
Well, we’ll gradually get everybody together and – cheers!

Just concentrating on what I understand rather than what I don’t is such a boost, too. Last night I watched one of MGS4′s famously lengthy cutscenes and though most of the highly complicated technical speak washed over me, I understood most of the opening scene and the ending one, and to the point where I didn’t even realise I was understanding it, I was just enjoying it. That’s the goal. That’s the reason I study.

Also, I should be hopefully published in an upcoming issue of Metropolis with an article on Rikugien in Tokyo and hopefully another one after that, so keep eyes peeled! (If you’re in Japan. Obviously if you’re in Mexico or Sri Lanka, not much point looking out for it.)

The Tragedy of Human Existence

This says it all, really. The look on the salaryman’s face, of shame and inevitability and wide-eyed panic, even as he grabs his tie to pull it aside; one hand raised as if to offer some kind of empty apology. The muted sho ga nai of the Shinji Ikari-lookalike as he pushes himself deeper into a happy solipsism, fingers against headphones as if he could eliminate the filth of the outside world the harder he presses, the only expression of his deep-rooted social terror the wobbly S of his mouth. The vomit, frozen in mid-air, on a never-ending journey from the mouth to the floor, seems to say a lot about the naked despair of the human existence.

a furrow dub

It’s getting near midnight, which means the dorm network is slowing to a halt thanks to relentless torrenters downloading the latest episodes of Miracle Train and cutting us off from the internet like it’s Apollo and we’re passing over the Pacific Ocean.

Reader, I bought it. A PlayStation 3, plus a Japanese copy of Metal Gear Solid 4. I was just going to get a PS2 and grab anything that took my fancy, but Sofmap had a secondhand PS3 for 20,000, and I looked at my budget, and my budget said “well I guess this will work”, and I got it in the end. It is for learning Japanese, you see.

No, seriously, hear me out. I have plonked serious money (a month’s worth of food shopping) on this and I don’t intend to have wasted it. Metal Gear Solid 4 is possibly the most complex game I could have purchased, and I am determined to understand it. Which means I am determined to improve my Japanese to the level where I understand it. A game of this magnitude deserves it. (In the first two minutes it did one of those classic MGS fourth-wall breaking mindfuck things with the TV channels (you’ll know if you’ve play it). I have to respect a game that can do that to me.)

Anyway, new year, new term, new start. And not one of those phony new year resolution starts where I put up post-it notes and spend an hour designing an elaborate timetable in Excel and then fall into the same old habits. No, this is a radical restructuring of my entire life. I have quite simply decided to drop all the stuff in my life I don’t need to do. Writing, for one. There will definitely be a place in my life in a few years where I will dedicate myself to writing, but right now it is not where I need to be. Working for magazines, too. It’s good for a future career, but it’s stuff I shouldn’t be worrying about now. Doing stuff that doesn’t really connect itself to learning Japanese. All these must stop.

This is the year where I learn Japanese.

And now for some late-night, soothing video; the Yurikamome monorail, only … mirrored. It took me a while to work out what was going on in this, but doesn’t it just sum up the Gibsonean neo-noir coolness of Tokyo?

Hakone (coming back)

On my second day in Hakone, I woke up in my room in the ryokan at 7:45am and had a cup of green tea and a short soak in the indoor bath before it was time to go. I left my key on the reception desk and thanked the staff before heading out into the the car park, which was frozen with ice, glittering like jewels scattered across the tarmac.

I went to the nearby Lawson, and photocopied my passport. I’d told Rob I’d meet him later that day and fill out the forms for our house next year, so I needed a photocopy to send off. I bought some Pocky and a sandwich, as well as a can of coffee.

I was the only passenger on the bus to Togendai. When I reached the cable car terminal, I asked one of the station staff when the service started. He said 9:15am, so I had some time to kill. I wandered down to the lakeside. It was quiet there, the gentle winds from Ashinoko rippling across the hulls of upturned boats. They looked like the discarded shells of cuttlefish, abandoned on the shore.

Lake Ashi / Ashinoko, Hakone

Owakudani was much the same as it had been the day before, though the coating of snow and ice was a little thicker, like day-old stubble on the mountain’s face.


Owakudani clouds
Owakudani

I took the funicular back down to Gora and then a train to Hakone-Yumoto station. On the way, I read a few pages of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I read it back in 2008, when I was working at RBS and the breaks gave me time to read every day.

On the train from Hakone back to Shinjuku, I listened to “Kaze wo Atsumete” by Happy End. It seemed to fit the mood. A guy with messy hair tapped away on his notebook, while along the carriage a cute girl did her make-up. The clouds filtered grey midday sunlight down to the plains of Kanto, reflecting off concrete shacks and distant, tree-covered mountains.

On impulse, rather than taking the train all the way to Shinjuku and returning home on the Keio Line, I decided to get off in a place called Shimokitazawa, where I could change to the Keio Inokashira Line and get home via Meidaimae.

I took a walk about the streets of Shimokitazawa, past clothing-packed discount stores and boutiques. The sun was piercing through the clouds, and the place was crowded with shoppers. It was pleasant to walk about, and reminded me of a quieter Shibuya, or even Leeds.

I felt like Watanabe, from Norwegian Wood. I decided I liked his character; quiet and unassuming, unfazed by life whether he was spending weeks in his room doing nothing but studying or being asked out for drinks on a Friday night by Midori. Watanabe was happy in the simple pleasures of life, like bumbling about Tokyo in jazz cafes reading literature, or gardening on the patch behind his house. It seemed like a good way to live.

At a branch of Freshness Burger, I bought a gourmet cheeseburger and onion rings and ate them in the corner. Behind me, a young-looking guy in pink thick-rimmed glasses spoke of American politics in a Californian accent. He sounded like someone out of a Richard Linklater film, talking about Bush and Gore and the Supreme Court and what to do about China. I finished my burger and caught the train to Tobitakyu and home.

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