In Tokyo, I took tons and tons of digital shots and I had no earthly fucking idea how to load them onto my computer, because I am a moron. I walked at least five miles a day all over Shinjuku and Shibuya and in the Ginza district. I also spent a little time in one of the parks that are gorgeous in Tokyo, and oddly quiet. Public space is revered in this city because there is so little of it and parks offer respite from the crowds. People are very quiet in the parks and these immaculately manicured places are sanctuary and lend themselves to reading and meditation. The trees are carefully pruned and sculpted and every park is tended to like a giant garden. They are beautiful.
I walked a great deal and saw a lot of Tokyo in a shopping district right by Shibuya. There is a youth culture that is hard to discern the look of; part punk, part slacker, part skate-kid. It is an amalgam of all of these things. I also stumbled onto something Japan really likes–buttons. They are bat-shit for buttons.
My friend Beth Keegan had a button made from a detail of one of my drawing-collages for the publication of Polyphony, an anthology of writing by high-school kids that I provide the cover for every year. After the opening party of the new issue, Beth gave me a baggie full of these buttons and said I ought to hand them out to friends. On a whim, I brought them with me. They were in my bag anyway and, just for the hell of it, I started handing them out in Tokyo. Jesus Christ, you’d think I was handing out the Hope Diamond.
And I began to notice lots of people have buttons with manga characters, Hello Kitty, monsters, anime, comics; these are some seriously button-happy folks. From sushi chefs, to doormen, to hotel maids, to art kids, the buttons are a huge hit. Every time I hand one out I make a friend. I speak no Japanese at all and I’ve managed some marvelous conversations with people about these buttons and Tokyo and art and what they like. I think maybe the buttons represented a talisman of goodwill to them. I certainly meant it this way and it is understood.
I ate the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life. At home I am a middling fan of sushi. My daughter loves the stuff, so I go out for it fairly frequently and the experience varies from pretty good, to just okay to dog-shit. I never got what the big whoop about sushi was.
Tsukiji Market is the biggest fish market in Tokyo. It is aisle after aisle of all things writhing and aquatic and edible. It is massive with a business that is blinding; Japanese men zipping around on forklifts and three-wheelers full of every kind of fish one can imagine. It is marketplace, slaughterhouse and auction block all under one tin roof. It also hosts the freshest and best sushi to be found anywhere in the world. You think you’ve eaten tuna until you’ve eaten it here. We walked across the perilously slick and massive warehouse to the tuna auction and watched the Japanese version of laissez-faire capitalism at work. Chefs and seafood buyers are given an hour or so to inspect the tuna for purchase and promptly at 5:30am the auctioneers start furiously ringing handbells and taking bids. When a lot is sold, a man with a bucket of red dye goes around to each massive frozen bluefin tuna and designates an owner and a price. The price of tuna is variable, like any other commodity, depending on that day’s catch.
Once I got it here, I understood. This place is the mecca of sushi and a sushi chef here is a combination of things; an artist, a dinner companion, a griot and, the good ones, educators. You learn a lot about the Japanese in a really good sushi restaurant. One learns of the high premium placed on the idea of civility and kindness; that over the sushi bar, one does not merely have a meal, but also forges a communal conversation and fosters goodwill. At Kyubey in the Ginza district, I ate with my friends and had another of those marvelous conversations in which neither participant spoke a word of the other’s language. Oh, I know, konnichiwa and arigatou, but the conversation I had with the sushi chefs was more nuanced than many I’ve had with people I’ve known for ten years. It was a conversation held almost in pantomime and smiles and gestures and nods. And it was warm and fine and good. Watching these guys prepare food was like watching Yo-Yo Ma play a cello, or Oscar Peterson the piano. It is the difference between watching an artist and a hobbyist. There are no wasted movements in the preparation; every element is prepared with an economy of motion and speed and temperature. Every bite was different.
Tipping is not allowed, so we bought the chefs beers (and so did everyone else) and these guys toasted their benefactors and then hammered the whole glass down in one sip. Though I’ve not had a drink in twenty-five years, I still admire guys who drink like they absolutely mean to, and they mean to enjoy it, as well. After their toast, they went right back to work preparing delicately realized, and perfect sushi.
My friend, the chef, John Hogan, once told me that every great meal teaches you a new lesson. I’m beginning to know what he means.
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