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 Tokyo 1: Murakami, Character Analysis, Irreadability, the importance of Presentation & Respecting the Noodle

self potrait at Hie shrine

11.10.2009.en route Bangkok to Tokyo

flew from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur—3-hour layover—then overnight plane reading Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami. Murakami [Dance, Dance, Dance at least] is akin to a Japanese Raymond Chandler with perhaps more literary leanings [though it's always hard to tell reading translations—translations you always wonder how much is coming across [or not] from language as opposed to just a literal translation of the story, especially when you are talking about an entirely different textual character set [can't even really call kanji an alphabet as characters represent words, though there is an implied phonetic translation]]. the blurb on the cover [Washington Post] likens him to a Pynchon or Delillo... why is it literary critics need to compare everyone to Pynchon, even if there is no semblance of resemblance? my guess is those critics have never read Pynchon but it's a marketing ploy to broaden audience into the "edgy" crowd. as if Murakami needs a wider audience base, he seems to be Japan's prodigal son.

Murakami is for the most part accessible, suspenseful pulp—a good read to pass the time & especially interesting reading on the way to Tokyo—to prep me for the the feel of the CITY [made me feel like i was there already or StIMulated me to IMAGine what to expect. going to a new city or country is always interesting in contrasting realITY with what you've gleaned previously from books, photos, movies, etc. a lot of what i "know" about Tokyo is from literature or movies like Lost in Translation or Babel].

...not that Murakami doesn't go on the occasional Pynchonesque or Borgesian tangent:

"What it reminded me of was a biological dead end. A genetic retrogression. A freak accident of nature that stranded some organism up the wrong path without a way back. Evolutionary vector eliminated, orphaned life-form left cowering behind the curtain of history, in The Land That Time Forgot."

occasionally he lapses into surreal episodes, though he often overstates himself in cascading redundancy, making the book twice or thrice as long as it needs to be. for example, this sequence: "I could not distinguish one shape or object. I could not see my own body. I could not get any sense of anything out there. I was in a great black vacuum. I was reduced to pure concept. My flesh had dissolved, my form had dissipated. I floated in space. Liberated of my corporeal being, but without dispensation to go anywhere else. I was adrift in the voice. Somewhere across the fine line separating nightmare from reality." it's like he's trying to find as many angles as possible to take a photo, when one or two would suffice. which is surprising, because my [prejudiced] preconception [based on movies, literature, design, etc.] is that the Japanese are experts in economy & efficiency. perhaps compared to other mainstream writers he practices some restraint, but not quite enough for my tastes.

things get more interesting when this Sheep Man character comes into the picture. he spoke in these run on sentences that made me wonder how they'd look in Japanese [unless he speaks this dialogue in hiragana [the phonetic/syllabic alphabet], which is something to contemplate, like someone speaking phonetically with the implication that they don't know the meaning behind the words!?] i wish i could read Japanese & i wish we would've seen more of this Sheep Man—i'm thinking it was more like a cameo & the Sheep Man has a more prominent role in another of his novels? Dance, Dance, Dance is a sort of sequel i think, but i forget to what. i've read one or two other Murakami books, though i can't remember which off hand. my memory sucks. one book was a really flowery thing that i didn't like at all. he's got a new non-fiction one about writing & running that i want to check out. perhaps ok, i need to give Murakami one more try & read one of his earlier books. the only reason i was reading Dance, Dance, Dance was because i found it laying around on a co-workers desk & swiped it. it served me well, it's suspenseful & i admit i'm dying to read the last 30 or so pages, but now we've landed in Tokyo now with better things to do & streets to read...

hie-jinja kanji


we landed at Narita & took some sort of airport bus to Tokyo. impressed from the get-go at the efficient order to everything. though we couldn't check into our hotel [the swanky Grand Prince] so we dropped our bags off & wandered around Akasaka & got some soba noodles. the way it works here is you put money in these machines outside the restaurants & you get some sort of ticket which you then hand to the cook. everything is in Japanese, but fortunately they have pictures or plastic models of the food so you can kind of tell what things are. oh & in the noodle shops it's customary to slurp as loud as possible. at first it's like you are in a Monty Python skit, guys grabbing huge wads of noodles, stuffing them into their mouths & slurping them like a vacuum cleaner, exaggerating the noise as much as possible. we asked someone about this & the answer we got was they do this to "respect the noodle."

then we found ourselves wandering randomly up through a tunnel of red flagged gates [that Christo totally ripped off for his Central Park installation] to a shrine called Hie-Jinja.

Hie-Jinja Approach

Hie-Jinja Flagged Gates


Hie Jinja Fountain [each shrine has such a font to wash your hands before entering]

Hie-Jinja Fountain

there were a few weddings going on, felt like the scene in Lost in Translation. not that i had a breath-taking zen epiphany or anything, but yeah, i'd say there's a lot of moments like that here where you are struck by the beauty of it all & that movie captures some aspects of being a stranger in Tokyo well.


leading the procession

Hie Jinja procession


sake barrels lining the wall

Hie Jinja barrels

i'm a sucker for this stuff for the TEXTual nature alone. like the above photo—i'm not even sure what they are [sake barrels as offerings? i mean, how cool is that?] or what the barrels say on them [presumably name brands?] nor do i want to—i just love the look of them without knowing....

Hie Jinja


Hie Jinja rock


kanji buttons

& like the buttons above—i have no idea what they are or what they are for but they are just cool to me. i want some [i did look into buying some kanji ink stamps, but they ain't cheap]. even the ads & billboards & vending machines [which are EVERYwhere] are really stylish & pleasant to the eye, at least mine.

tokyo vending


even the manholes radiate elegance!

tokyo manhole cover

their sense of design & attention to detail is impeccable. they are truly into presentation at every level, in every aspect of the visual [& unseen] world. toilets even.

we hung out at the Hie shrine some, then this guy Masa from Table for Two [this really cool organization that has a novel approach to simultaneously tackling undernutrition in the developing world & overnutrition in the developed world] met us, along with his wife & they were kind enough to take us farang around the city. first we ate some food [pig ears, jellyfish & some other delectables] at a place sponsoring Table for Two, then hopped the subway to Asakusa where we wandered the streets & visited the famous Senso-ji temple.

approaching Senso-ji

Asakusa shops


dragon font at Senso-ji

dragon font


incensed purification

sensoji incense


Senso-ji [aka Asakusa Kannon Temple]



bike, flag

temple bike


vendors at the gate

sensoji stall girls

then we parted ways & j & i hopped back on the subway to the Shibuya area. everyone makes Tokyo out to be such a bustling place, but i don't know if it's any moreso than NYC & there's that efficiency & grace & respect for your co-inhabitants that makes it such a more hospitable & pleasant place. not that it's always easy to get around, but most of that is just language deficiency on our part. i mean, just try making sense of the rats nest of the Tokyo Subway map in Japanese. signs in English were few & far in between. it's bustling, but more of an exciting & productive bustle than NYC's grind—though maybe it's just all what you're used to [Japan's suicide rate is the highest in the world after all]

self-portrait on the Ginza line

Tokyo subway


cool riders

hot riders

we wandered around the hectic streets of Shibuya with all the Japanese hipsters, letting ourselves get absorbed into the mass commotion & deafening pachinko parlors, the grace under pressure & grand vanity of it all.




curly bleach-blondes everywhere

squatting girls


fashion victims getting their fix

japanese shop girls

found this cool sushi/tepenyaki restaurant called Yakichi & feasted. sashimi, tempura, raw squid bathing in it's own slimey innards, slurpy & wormy sea algae in vinegar (so slurpy you drink it), stewed rice in green tea & salted plums, washed down with Ouroku sake. what a way to spend j's b-day!

speaking of impeccable presentation...



j on her 38

birthday sake

another unique thing about Japan that struck me... almost anywhere else in the world you visit to vicariously experience their culture as it USED to be [which is almost inevitably corrupted]. you want to witness the ancient temples & eat traditional foods & see the traditional & historic things as they were BEFORE corruption by industrialization & western ways. with Japan though, you feel you are vicariously experiencing the FUTURE of humanity. not just in technology, but in design & culture & how to preserve it all within the framework of modernization & stay true to itself & in a broader sense how to just co-habitate a place already strained past it's population tipping point & retain civility, grace, respect & common decency, while still having everything be interesting & stimulating [& not sterile & repressed, like say, Singapore]. not that they have abandoned their traditions & ancient ways—the Japanese have effectively merged the past with the future, for the most part, while still continuing to progress. which is to say they are so far ahead of the curve they are defining it. it all amounts to R-E-S-P-E-C-T i think, self-respect, respect for others, respect for how things are presented, respect enough for objects & subjects themselves that you care enough to respect how they are presented & represented. "respect the noodle," has become my new mantra.




(c) 2009 Derek White

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