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Writer's Corner- New Brunswick

A Break In The Rain
By Colin Curtis

   Colin Curtis, from Blackville, New Brunswick, although currently living in Tokyo, Japan has been dabbling in writing for quite some time now, but has never tried to publish anything before. Colin tells us this website will be his first attempt.
   Collin goes to say "For the last few months, I took a break from my usual job, teaching English, to focus on writing about my life here in Tokyo. This story is the first one anyone will have ever seen."

   Navigating through a train station in Tokyo is a tricky game. Being a good problem solver will indeed improve your traverse through a crowd. A bad calculation could get you squashed! In any case, experiencing this on a daily basis is a switch for a guy from Blackville, New Brunswick, Canada, a village with a population of about twelve hundred. Even the couple of years I spent in Toronto could not have prepared me for Tokyo, which is considered the biggest city in the world, with a population of about twelve million.

   When I break through the crowd, I come out through the central exit to an area similar to any town square, anywhere in the world. This is the center of Kichijoji, the place I have called my neighborhood for the better part of the last three years. It is young, vibrant, and small-town feeling, even though it is located on one of the busiest train lines in Tokyo, the legendary Chuo Line, which unfortunately, is partly known for its' unusual amount of suicides.

   This is my favorite time of day in any urban area of Japan. It is dusk, with a wonderful deep-purple sky, contrasted by a peach twilight. The night lights are just coming to life, adding splashes of colour to the scene, which reflect sloppily, on the glassy-wet surfaces of the buildings and streets, the mirrored neon lines twisting and intersecting, like in a Jackson Pollock painting.

   I find myself a clear spot, while I wait for my wife, as we are meeting for dinner. For the time being I will people-watch, one of my favorite pass-times in Japan and one that never gets boring, with a complex variety of individuals going by at any given time. Such is the case in Kichijoji, where there are as many schools and workplaces as there are restaurants, cafes, shopping complexes, and entertainment centers.

   Most of the people I see, however, as I have generally observed in Tokyo, are locked in their own worlds, entranced by the routine of their busy, regimental lives. Other people are just obstacles to them. My interpretation could be unwarranted, but I do not see these people as enjoying life so much. I always hope I am wrong about this, and that there is happiness beneath the cold faces that I usually see.

   Across the river of people passing by, I make eye contact with another foreigner doing a bit of people watching himself. We nod knowingly to each other, until suddenly my phone beeps, indicating that I received an email. I flip it open.

   "I am going to be late. Sorry! You should eat something if you are hungry. Email you later. C U." It is from my wife. I email back a short message before heading down a shopping street toward my favorite sushi bar. Despite being Japanese, my wife actually doesn't like sushi so much, or most fish in any form for that matter, so it is an opportunity for me to indulge.

   These shopping streets, which in Japan are known as 'shopping arcades', are unique compared to anything in western countries, in that the entire street is covered with one long roof, under which you will find every kind of retail shop imaginable. In Kichijoji, there are two very long shopping arcades that meet at a crossing right in front of the station.

   I finally make it to the sushi bar, and to my relief, it is not too crowded. The automatic door opens and I am greeted, loudly, by everyone that works there.

   "Irashaimase!" they say. This means 'welcome', which I hear in a choir of male and female voices ranging in different levels of pitch and enthusiasm, and completely lacking sincerity. It is the typical robotic hospitality of such establishments, which is a humorous novelty until you become used to it. People usually ignore and never respond to the greeting, which is why they are so shocked when I do!

   "Konbanwa..." I respond. This means 'good evening'. I sit and grab a few sushi dishes off the turning conveyor belt. I usually have the tuna, the shrimp, and of course the salmon. New Brunswick habits die hard. I eat quickly, wash it down with green tea, pay the cash man and I am out the door.

   "Gochisosama," I say, which means 'thanks for the meal'.

Now that's fast food!

   Nightlife in Tokyo is both fast and short-lived. Although trains zigzag all over Tokyo, and in fact Japan in general, they stop running relatively early. As a result, people go to the bars and restaurants when the night is quite young, in order to catch their last train home, considering they may have an hour to travel to get there.

   Coming out of the sushi bar, I am already seeing things transform. Many shops close around eight o'clock, with people heading to dinner, going to bars, or making the long trip home. The shops pull down their security grills, and the crowd dissipates. In all its' abandonment, it begins to look a bit drab. Gradually, however, a new scene starts to emerge.

   Various young people show up with carrying cases of different shapes and sizes. Some are artists, craft makers, or Tarot card readers. Others are entertainers like musicians, comedians, or even dancers, who walk around looking for a place to set up. Some take advantage of the well lit areas. Others opt for the darker corners.

   The day, which started out with rain, has made way to a beautiful summer night, inviting people to come out and enjoy this rare occasion during the rainy season, which like clockwork, happens in the month of June, annually.

   I decide to go to my favorite bar, while the entertainers set up. I head down the other shopping arcade and from there enter a maze of small winding alleys, where there are several rustic little bars, some of which are only big enough for a few customers. A few staggering men in suits are just leaving the ally. This scene is a typical Friday night, anywhere in Tokyo.

   The other shops in this alley are closed, giving it a corridor like appearance, with the pull down, garage-style security doors in place, reflecting colorful light from the signs. My favorite is a dimly lit wine bar, with the walkway itself cutting through the middle of it, and the bar literally on both sides of the alley. In some cases, customers have to lean inward or move in order to let a pedestrian pass. These alley networks are a truely Asian experience.

   I enter the wine bar, sucking in my stomach to squeeze past the other customers, and take a seat. I order a glass of red wine, and listen to the jazz blaring from the speakers. It is Miles Davis: Bitches Brew, disk two I think. It was one of the first and wildest fusion albums. The waitress approaches again and lights a candle for me.

   "Ah, sugoi...Arigato Gazaimas," I say, which is the equivalent of saying, 'Wow. What a surprise. Thank you very much.' I appreciate the candle, as the Japanese often favor bright lighting. She smiles and walks away.

   Some things are still a novelty to me. Being able to drink anywhere with no restrictions on alcohol is something of a luxury to a New Brunswicker. There are no boundaries to where I could have a drink. Here, if you want beer, whisky or sake, which is an alcoholic drink made from rice, you could buy it from a vending machine on the street, and drink it anywhere. It is no different than having a coke or a coffee.

   While savoring my full bodied Cabernet-Sauvignon, a silhouette appears and haunts the corner of the bar. I hear the murmurs of a drink being ordered behind the music, which has become a low decibel solo of some sort, with the double-bass and possibly the wine, making the bar a bit soft and fuzzy. The bar-tender lights a candle, casting a warm glow of light onto the face of the mystery lady at the corner. Her deep eyes turn to me and she smiles. 'Wow, she's beautiful. I better be careful.' I think to myself. I act like I don't notice her.

   Experiences like this happen all the time, regardless of how you look. Some people find you interesting simply because you are a foreigner. She throws me a longer, more seductive look this time, her eyes studying me. To add more spice to the image, her marriage band sparkles from the very hand that tips up her wine glass. Such experiences in our own country, are reserved for the movie screen, and never really happen. I am very devoted to my wife and usually brush off these incidents quickly. But, occasionally, you are cornered into talking. Some foreigners really get wrapped up in this aspect of Japan.

   I finish up my wine and exit screen-right.

   Things have shaped up outside, with the various retailers or entertainers settled in their prospective spots. Close by, an acoustic duo begins playing 'Love Me Do' by the Beatles, which makes me cringe, unfortunately. If you spend any time in Japan, you will soon discover that the Beatles are still extremely popular. I have become so tired of hearing their songs I decide to skip this performance.

   I walk by a guy from Peru, who I have talked to once or twice before. He is selling beaded accessories and jewelry, which he makes himself. His goods are displayed in a spot that has become a little piece of Latin America.

   "Hola amigo!" I sing out as I go by, just a sample of the tiny bit of Spanish I know, learned from my short experiences in the Caribbean, and having worked on a cruise ship, some years back.

   "Amigo!" he replies laughing at me, "O'genki desu ka?" This means 'how are you', or 'are you healthy' in Japanese.

   Hai, genki desu, and you?"

   "Genki!" he says. English, Spanish, Japanese, what have you - this is our world, Although my Japanese is barely better than my Spanish. I wave and continue on my way, as he attends to customers.

   I walk by numerous other people offering services, entertainment, or merchandise of some sort. One man has even set up a display of restored cameras and old radios. A rather shy German man sells colorful candleholders which he had crafted himself. I bought one from him before in Inokoshira Park, which is a stones throw away. Sometimes these people remember you, so I wave to him as I go by. He waves and smiles back.

   Most of the people set up here are, of course, Japanese. But, somehow you feel a connection to the rare foreigner you see on the street, regardless of what country they might be from. Japanese people I know have noticed this between foreigners as well, as if we are somehow one big family. You will get some people, occasionally, who will ignore you, feeling you are ruining their intimate cultural experience. I guess that is fair enough, as I felt the same way upon first arriving in Japan.

   Farther on, I discover a blues guitarist, a Japanese man, sitting with his opened whisky bottle close by. He plays a mean slide on a loud Gibson acoustic. With his eyes closed tight as he plays, I am sure he doesn't notice me standing there. His music is heart-felt. Close your eyes, and you are whisked away to rural Mississippi, at a cross roads, where Robert Johnson himself might have made a deal with the devil. Who knows? Maybe this man made a deal himself. He certainly is on fire.

   I wonder what his story is...

   Tonight, there seems to be magic in the air.

   Around the next corner, I find a unique fellow reading a 'manga' comic book to a seated group of giggling teen girls, still in their school uniforms. Manga is one of the most common Japanese pass times. If here, you would see people reading them everywhere - on trains, in coffee shops, at bus stops and so on. It is an enormous industry with a huge following.

   The young man reading is an actor, and performs the voices and expressions of the characters in the story, to a hilarious affect. He is a wonderful performer! This may be one of the most unique street performances I have ever seen.

   Or, at least I think.

   Down the street another ten meters or so there is a man, about fifty years old, dancing in a very strange and abstract manner. Even stranger still, is the fact that there is absolutely no music to accompany him. Perhaps, he could borrow 'Mile Davis: Bitches Brew' from the bar! His dancing is certainly a fusion of some unusual styles. I can only describe it as some traditional Japanese dance, mixed with a hat and cane vaudeville act, without the cane. It is so peculiar, I cannot not help but approach.

   In fact, he is captivating! He bows and waves to anyone who walks by him, and is one of the happiest people I have ever seen. Perhaps, that is what he is selling, although there is nothing set out to drop money into.

   Most people, in Tokyo, pass by each other on the street, and never notice another human being, which perhaps is not so different from any other city in the world, yet this man catches their attention and makes them smile.

   Office men, known in Japan as 'salary men', often go through life here like zombies, working so hard that they are only home long enough to catch a few hours sleep before it is time for work again. Yet, for him, they slow down. Sure enough, an entire group of salary men stop and watch. Loosening their poker faces and their ties, they all suddenly smile. This is a wonderful moment to witness.

   Perhaps the dancer was once like them. The other performers here tonight represent the college and university age group that have yet to graduate and get salary jobs themselves. But, this dancer seems like he could be a retiree who is past the life of a salary man. Or, he could just be a man who has wised up to it all.

   In a world where jobs truly dominate lives, where fathers are too busy to see their families, and where mothers are often married more to their children or friends than to their husbands, maybe somehow this dancer provides a temporary escape - a happy, sunny moment - like a break in the rain.

   It is a truly remarkable evening, and one I will not soon forget. I continue to watch him for a while longer, but even more so, I watch the reactions others have to him. Some would pass him off as a mad man, some even make fun of him, but the reaction is still the same - a smile. I think he understands this. He is an artist that creates smiles.

   He turns, bows dramatically, and offers a generous smile to me, which I feel privileged to receive. This is not a robotic service. This smile feels real! I smile back. He continues with his dancing, and I absorb the scene some more.

   Eventually, I move on.

   I check out a few more acts happening around the area. One man is sketching portraits of people. Two young women perform pop music dressed in kimonos, backed up by a programmed synthesizer. A group of guys are playing various types of bongos and congas. The variety is certainly impressive. But, all in all, there are no more overwhelming moments, or anything that moves me. I don't see other people reacting as much to these other acts.

   I am, in fact, getting bored now.

   Feeling that the moving experience I had earlier cannot be matched again, I decide to go back to the bar for another glass of wine. When I get there, I am comforted in seeing that the seductive lady I saw earlier has left. A song played by Branford Marsalis now perfumes the air, with his unmistakable spirit on sax. The dancing Man performs among my thoughts, as I enjoy the wine and music.

   Finally, my wife emails me again.

   "Kichijoji soon. Where are you?" she says.

   I begin the slow process of thumb-typing my reply.

   "I'm close by. Wine bar. Meet you at Central Exit."

   "OK. Have fun tonight?" She asks, in another email.

   "Yes. Explain over dinner," I reply.

   I get up from the bar to leave.

   "Arigato gazaimas!" the staff shout above the music, meaning 'thank you'.

   "Gochisosama," I reply. With that, I drain my wine glass in one tilt, and head down the alley, feeling light from the wine and the night air.

Editor's note:
   I Think Colin has a nature twist for placing his readers in another place without ever having to leave their seats. We hope to read more from Colin and his adventure afar.


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