Friday, February 26, 2010

Nippon, a moment in time

After my classes for the day I would ride my bike down through the narrow alleys and lanes of Shindaiku, Hamanamachi to Dozumachi where Natalia managed ‘The Liffey’. An Irish Pub in the drinking and socializing district of Nagasaki. The main thoroughfares were lined with an endless conveyor of taxis. Natalia designed and built it for an ex pat, married to a Japanese living there. After she built it, he asked her if she would like to run it. Why not? Extra income. It became a popular hang out for foreign workers at Mitsubishi ship yard, English teachers and for Japanese who liked to socialize with foreigners if for no other reason than to keep up their English.

The routes that I could choice from could easily be one of many. All away from the commotion of traffic. So in the latter part of the evening, maybe in the rain, maybe under stars, generally around 10PM, I could glide on my bike like magic through the orient of ancient Nippon as an alien. Just sailing along.

Nippon, Unchanged from the past, I would sail along on wheels through the shopping arcades only accessible by foot, or as I was now, when they were closed for the evening, on my magically gliding machine. The only sound the clicking of the wheel bearings on my bike. An occasional swish swish swish of a broom or the spraying of water from a hose on tile or asphalt. All of which could be easily tuned out and there you were, alone. Gliding along looking out through your eyes upon something very special. A little noodle shop catering to the shop owners lite up here or there. Curtains hung across the entrances. Customers leaning over steaming bowls of noodles or rice. Otherwise, shops all closed. A night light on reflecting off of produce or rolled bolts of cloth stacked high but neatly arranged, cutlery, spices, hardware. A 100 yen shop. Etc. etc.

It would be generally a 20 minute trip but time faded to the back of my mind as I absorbed all this oriental life and smells. So different from all my previous life.

One route was along the Nakashima river way. A canal walled in with descending stone stair foot paths to the rivers edge. Carp swimming under an overhanging willow. Turtles occasionally popping their heads above the water. Ducks paddling by or as now maybe along the edge nesting for the night on some smooth stones, their heads tucked under their wings.

Another route was along the Shinto shrines set against the rising hill side at the valley edge, dark shadows folding into once carved wooden planks hung with braided ropes. One after the other.

There was one little detour that I generally took, up a slight incline on a narrow lane. Recessed off of the lane a step or two down, a narrow entrance into a shop with a low overhead threshold. I think it was a laundry shop. The proprietor would always be there either folding cloths or wrapping cloths. Sometimes standing by his washing machine waiting for it to finish its cycle. Sometimes he might be standing in the entrance, his slippered foot propped up on the entrance step and leaning out with a cigarette, enjoying the evening. A bow was acknowledged and returned even from a gaijin on a bike.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Gua Musang

Something weird occurred in Gua Musang. Gua Musang, Malaysia. Weird for me, a western civilization born and raised person with some Hawaiian flavoring. Maybe for you too.

While traveling from the Perhentian Islands in the China Sea to Kuala Lumpur, first by ferry to the mainland, then by bus across this isthmus of land East to West, Nat and I stopped in this medium sized town, Gua Musang. There were no more buses this day to continue our journey.

We found a back packers guest house near the railroad station and checked in.

Nat took a shower and then me. The shower was at the end of the hall. While showering I listened to some racket outside which sounded like some sort of construction and subconsciously hoping that this would not go on into the evening. It had been a long day on the road. I was ready for a peaceful nights rest.

I finished my shower and went back to our room. I casually asked Nat if she had heard the noise outside and just then, a very loud noise, like someone throwing something metal against the outside wall of our room went bang! She looked at me and said, ‘Yes!’

After laughing and finishing dressing, out of curiosity I walked to the front of our guest house where I might see what was ‘going on’. I looked outside over the street. We were on the second floor. Across the street and just a few stores up, there was a raging fire! The Malaysians were scattering everywhere, carrying everything that could be salvaged.

I ran back to our room, yelling to Nat and she opening the door stood in the hall as I arrived. ‘There’s a fire! A huge fire! The buildings across the street are all on fire! Let’s get out of here!’

We both ran to the front to look out the windows. We instantly realized that we had to get out of here now. If that fire ‘jumped’, we would be in trouble. We ran to our room, shoved everything back into our back packs and ran down the hall, down the stairs and out onto the street now evacuated to the next block up the street. The heat was instant and intense as we came out of the doorway. We took off up the street away from the inferno. As we got to the next block we turned to look back.

We were standing in a crowd of Malaysians all watching quietly as this fire was exploding, crackling sending a huge giant billowing yellow and red flames that turned into thick black smoke and then as it reached about a thousand feet, turned into what would be seen as a rising thunderhead, a white billowing cloud high into the sky. Sheets of corrugated metal roofing where carried up into the fire fountain and at some point came out and were flying through the air like confetti. That was the sound we were hearing. The corrugated roofing crashing down.

The incredible ‘weird’, ‘eerie’ thing to me was that, not a person was screaming, yelling or shouting. No one was crying. Many of the people that we now stood in a throng with had to of been the occupiers of the stores and businesses that were now fueling this giant fire. Fire trucks were on the scene and still arriving, trying to control this blaze to this one block, spraying down the building fronts across the streets on all four sides.

After about an hour the fire had reduced the city block to a black pile of rubble. Not knowing what to do exactly, we went to another guest house but it was too expensive. We went back to our room and spent the night there. No electricity. Eerily quiet! Not sleeping, I walked to the front and looked out over this darkened scene, city lights at some distance a glow over this immediate vacuum of light. Silhouettes of fire patrol persons watching next to their trucks until dawn.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Octopus

On one of the more remote Mindanao islands of the Philippines there is a village by the sea. Far off the beaten track of civilization with very few visitors, island life in its purest form ebbs with the tides. The white coral sand beach lays contrast to the dark green palm leaves flickering in the breeze as a canopy over the land and this village. The village itself fragrant with plumeria and gardenia, swept clean with an ethnic standard, ‘Cleanliness in next to Godliness. Around this isle refreshed with this ocean breeze is an aqua blue green lagoon and jutting out here and there, as if to embrace the oceans depths, fingers of sand covered corals grown up and there now laid as an enduring embrace. Above all of this is a blue sky that is pure clean and clear. It is unlike any thing near a city. Once seen and looked at, you will always remember the difference.

A boy, brown skinned to almost dark chocolate, walks leisurely yet purposely from the village bare footed under the canopy of coconut trees along a wide sandy lane towards the ocean. The tide now is almost at its lowest. He is wearing a faded print swim shorts only. He is carrying in one hand what I call a Hawaiian sling. It is spear shaft of 6 feet held in a roughly warn wood cylinder to fit the palm. A hole runs through this wood cylinder of which the steel shaft fits. Rubber tubing attached to the cylinder fits in a nook at the back end of the spear shaft. An attached hinge at the front end of the wood cylinder acts as a stop to hold the spear in place. A simple instrument really, but quite effective.
The boy now strides down the embankment out from under the canopy of shaded green and at the shores edge in the deep white sand and into the low ankle deep water where he walks out toward the outer reef on one of these fingers of sand cover coral. A path he knows by heart.

After about 10 minutes he slows to a pace that allows him to walk with out sound through the water. Now he is looking, keen on every coral head and seaweed as he continues.
The fish that live here swim leisurely. They are not hunted by the boy. But they are always on the out look. Predators are never far away.
Finally he sees it as he was sure he would. The octopus. It is at some distance yet, but he can see its meticulous movement from one coral group to another. He can cut its’ exit to the lagoon if he can keep low enough. He moves in that direction. Bent over now to keep a low profile to the water the boy keeps an eye on the moving dark shadow as he covers the distance where he can cut off the escape. He is there now and he grows excited. It’s big. It will feed in abundance the whole family. The boy surveys the reef. The octopus is unaware of the boy as of yet. Once he spots the boy he will do everything to evade capture. The boy now waits, still keeping a low profile as the tide continues to wane watching minutely.

The octopus is hunting too and the boy with the lay of the area in front of him anticipates its direction. The boy repositions himself that now will assure his catch.
The tide now is low enough. Even the octopus senses it. The octopus is beginning to retreat to the lagoon, unknowingly coming directly towards the boy.
The boy jumps and splashes loudly. The octopus darts in an explosion of inky murk. He is running now to cross a gap. But the boy has already closed it off knowing it would be the instinctive reaction.
The octopus has no alternative. He must go shallower onto the reef and see if he can find a river let. He finds none. The boy is in hard pursuit pounding the water and sand covered reef in full pursuit. The octopus sees a large outgrowth of coral covered seaweed. It is his only salvation. He darts around and behind it pulling himself tight to its form. He listens. He looks. It is only ten feet wide. The boy is on the other side. Now it is quiet. The Octopus still with a firm hold on the coral moves off just enough to see the boy. The boy is coming around. The octopus darts towards the boy sprays his inky murk as he reverses around the coral. The boy fires his sling but to no avail. Now on this nearly dry reef condition the octopus must fly toward the lagoon. The boy is coming hard. It is the boy’s territory, the dry land. The octopus is swimming were he can and crawling across the sand and coral were he must. How far to the lagoon? It is there. He must make it. The octopus is now weaving through the coral covered seaweed and crawling over jagged coral out crops. How can he impede the boy’s progress? The boy has turned away and is now running along side and over taking him again. The octopus finds a river let and now can really run. He is flying toward the lagoon. The boy twenty paces to his right. The water is deepening finally. The octopus is nearly exhausted and the lagoon is still at some distance. Will the boy tire? He is still running strong and now he is closing the distance. Finally the lagoon!

Then the Octopus sees it. ‘Oh no! Maku! The shark!’ Open sandy bottom. No place to hide. No escape! The shark sees me. I am doomed! The shark is coming! The octopus leaps back and is at the boy’s feet. He looks up. The boy is looking down at him and then at the shark. The shark stops 10 feet away. It is too shallow for the shark to come any closer and the boy there is with spear. The shark won’t come into the shallows with the boy and spear. He is hovering, waiting. Moving back and forth. Teeth bared in striking position.
The boy is looking at the shark. He raises the spear slowly taking aim at the shark and fakes a throw. The shark is gone. It is suddenly very quiet.

Now the boy looks down at the octopus.

I am here boy. I am yours if you must. The boy stares down at the octopus. The octopus is looking at him. Neither of them is moving. Finally the boy moves his free hand and arm in some gesture, and turns and walks away not looking back.

The octopus looks at the boy moving away until he no longer can see him. He turns again to the open lagoon. He moves off to the coral reef and is gone.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Shaved Ice Machine

I like the unusual event. The unexpected thing to occur, don’t you?

In Paia on Maui for many years you would not find a shaved ice Machine. Maybe even today you might not. I have no idea about the situation today. I only know about the situation in the mid 60’s and early 70’s. I was going to college at Mauna Olu in upper Paia and dormed, if that’s a word, at the Men’s dorm near the college. I did my laundry in Paia town which was a one street road that tee’d into another road. You could pretty much cover the entire town walking in 30 minutes if you dilly dallied which is pretty much what you were left with while your cloths was either washing or drying. That is why I know that there was not a shaved ice machine in Paia. If I had seen one, I probably would have got one.

I know why there was not a shaved ice machine in Paia.

Shindaiku machi,
Nagasaki, Japan

Shindaiku machi is a shopping arcade.

Natalia and I lived on Nishiyama Street in Nagasaki, Japan for three years. We lived there as Natalia was getting her degree in Architecture. Natalia is Russian. The story of why a Russian is getting a degree in Architecture in Japan is another story.

The Shaved Ice Machine? Oh yes, Well, what? You think we just appeared one day in Japan? Like dropped out of the sky?

It was a desire of Natalia’s to study Architecture in Japan.

She knew that I would never have gone to Japan on my own. Growing up in Hawaii and having many Japanese friends and acquaintances, I had got the idea that it was not a good idea. Too expensive and you will never make any friends. So, when she asked me if we could go, I of course said, Of course!

Okay, so now you know how we got there. Yes, the Shaved Ice Machine. Okay.

To make a long story short, I saw it in the corner of a shop. The Shaved Ice Machine. Just kind of shoved into a corner. It looked like it was stored there. I saw it at a glance. I was riding my bike through Shindaiku Market place and whoa, what was that? A Shaved Ice Machine? I stopped. Turned around and yes, there it was. It is not that I have such an affection for shaved ice. But if you from a part of the world that has such a thing and everything here is different, a Shaved Ice machine would get your attention. As a kid I eat shaved ice at little league baseball games on Saturdays in Kailua Oahu. The 4th of July! That sort of thing.

I glanced around inside the shop. They sold teas. The Shaved Ice machine was obviously not in use. But it was covered in plastic which meant that it was just in storage.

Well, I didn’t think too much about it. Shindaiku was the place to shop for us. Convienant, cheap, good and friendly. As I went almost daily through Shindaiku to shop, I would see it there in the shop in the corner.

Time went by. Japanese holidays went by. Seasons went by. Then one day as I went by this shop the Shaved Ice Machine was out in front of the shop. A young Japanese girl was washing and cleaning it. I immediately stopped and turned around and went back. The young Japanese girl stopped and bowed and said ‘Hello’. I said ‘Hello. And as our eyes where connected, I said, ‘Do you speak English?’. She smiled shyly and said, ‘A little,’
I said, ‘my name Robert, what is your name?’
‘My name is Emiko.’
‘Is this your shop, Emiko?’
Bowing, ‘Hai’.
“I am curious about this shaved ice machine. Is it yours?”
“It is my grandfathers. He bought it and brought it here from Hawaii.”
“Hawaii. I am from Hawaii. Where in Hawaii did he by it?”
“On Maui. He worked for many years on plantation near Paia on Maui. He bought it and brought it here. We use it to make shaved ice for Golden Week and during the swimming season.”
“Really. I lived in Paia and went to college there.”
“Oh, how interesting”, Emiko said. “Now you and the shaved ice machine are in Nagasaki, Japan.”
I laughed. “Yes!”