Theories of Flavor and Sound

I've been working on a solo electronic record. It began about about six months ago, but things have been picking up steam in the past two or three and I'm starting to get excited by this project. It might be a bit presumptuous to call it a record, I suppose, since it will never see vinyl, but it's full-length: currently about 50 minutes long, 20 tracks. Every song is in 5/4 time, which lends itself to flow and rhythms that are impossible in 4/4. I'm nearly done writing the songs themselves, but there's a much larger challenge ahead.

When the songs are finished I have to try and make the sound quality less amateur: this would be the mixing and mastering phase on a professionally-produced record. I am no sound engineer and this is the first time I've ever attempted to "mix and master" anything. I hardly know what the words mean. But I do know that when I listen to my music side-by-side with "real music", the stuff I'm working on sounds hopelessly bedroom. The fidelity is thin and puny and sounds different on every stereo. While trying to fix this, I began to notice some weird similarities between making this record and trying to create cocktails.

My first attempts at original cocktails were horrible. My drinks began simple and spiraled out of control as I added one ill-considered liqueur after another, trying improve the flavor. In the end there would be sixteen ingredients in a discolored disaster: flavors muddy and indistinct, vaguely nauseating. When the basic recipe wasn't good, all the pomegranate/simple syrup/Grand Marnier/champagne in the world wouldn't rescue it. They only made the drink worse, introducing new flavors that fought the existing ones.

The problem was balance. I didn't understand liquor well enough to create a synergy between a few carefully-considered ingredients and let their characteristic flavors mingle. I tried to compensate for this by throwing in everything I could think of. I didn't realize that the more I added, the less the cocktail tasted of anything. Well-applied simplicity highlights the complexity of ingredients and their interactions rather than hiding them, and is actually more full-flavored than some trainwreck involving half the rail.

"Simplicity" is a deceptive term since each ingredient in a cocktail has myriad chemical components. "Lime" isn't one flavor: it's many sugars and acids that we interpret as one. Tequila and Cointreau are equally complex flavors. Properly balanced, they make a Margarita that positively sizzles. Nothing else is required but those three ingredients, carefully combined. The acidity of the lime and the sweetness of the Cointreau shimmer against each other like they were run through a phaser pedal, and mask the alcohol burn of the tequila while still allowing its cactusy flavor to come through.

Sound, even a deceptively simple sound such as a guitar note, is just as complex. The most basic sound is a sine wave, a series of half-circles alternating up-down-up-down on an oscilloscope. It creates a round, even tone in a single frequency. Middle C is 261.626 Hz. The A above it is 440 Hz--the frequency of most tuning forks. In fact, a tuning fork is one of the few ways to produce a sine wave without a computer. Sine waves are rarely or never heard in nature. These waves are not very complex and their tones do not give the ear much to think about.

A guitar string, plucked, creates vibrations that show up on an oscilloscope as a jumble of sine waves acting on each other. They coexist and create a single complex wave with many tones: when we pluck a middle C on a guitar string we are not just hearing a vibration of air at 261.626 Hz. We are also hearing, to a lesser extent, the C note an octave above it (1046.502 Hz), and the C note above that (2093.005 Hz). We are hearing a C at every higher octave, plus many other frequencies in between, but 261.626 Hz dominates the sound and we perceive a middle C without realizing the rich makeup of a note from a well-tuned string.

Compared to a guitar note, a sine wave is hollow, flat and weirdly piercing. Sine waves do not have the emotional impact of guitar notes. A lone virtuoso with a guitar can wring tears from an audience; an entire symphony rendered in computer-generated waveforms leaves the same audience feeling cold. Such basic synthetic tones are like artificial lime flavor, a synthesized chemical trying to replicate the hundreds of natural chemicals that make up the real thing. Many people refer to poorly-made liqueurs and artificial flavors as "one-note", but given the complexity of a single note it might be more accurate to describe them as "one-tone".

The magic of a good Margarita lies in the fact that there's more than just three tones--sour, sweet, and alcohol--in the glass. Tequila, even simple blanco tequila, has a remarkably multihued flavor: the sweet, wild, pungent, planty taste of fermented agave juice. Then there's the lime juice. This is sour, true, but the sugar content is also quite high and it may contain bitter oils from the peel as well. The Cointreau is sweet but, again, complex: it is made of bitter and sweet orange peels infused in sugar beet alcohol and has a depth that is not to be found in lesser industrial triple sec liqueurs. 

Just as "middle C" describes a combination of many frequencies that we interpret as a single note, simple names also hide the veritable laboratory of chemicals that go into the flavors "tequila", "Cointreau" and "lime".  Even the combination of the three--dozens or even hundreds of flavors interacting together--gets grouped under a single word: "Margarita." What seems like a three-note chord is actually a full-orchestra hit.

There's nothing wrong with adding to the Margarita. Some people add orange juice, pomegranate or other flavors with tasty results. These improvements gild the original structure, like Phil Spector's orchestral sections on Let It Be. With care, a Margarita can be added to or altered. But the original recipe with its three ingredients is the vital backbone which must be balanced to begin with.

Balance is just as essential when mixing a piece of music. This is not to say that every instrument should be the same volume. Lead instruments will be more prominent, but they shouldn't drown out the supporting instruments. Each instrument has its place, as do the ingredients in a 2:1:1 Margarita. But finding their proper places is far more difficult than just twiddling volume knobs and the reason is directly related to the complexity of waveforms I described above.

A bass mostly occupies the low end but produces tones in the mid and high frequencies as well. These may be particularly loud at, say, 2650 Hz and 12000 Hz. Perhaps this is from fingertips scraping the strings, or noise from the amp, or just how the bass is built. If I have a lead synth that also wants to occupy the 2650 Hz frequency, the two instruments may fight each other. Instead of coexisting they may cancel each other out or clash, and I will have a flat or jarring piece rather than one that soothes the ears with a pleasing balance of low, middle and high frequencies.

This problem is sometimes solved with careful use of EQ. EQ, equalization, refers to de-emphasizing undesirable frequencies and emphasizing desirable ones. If I decide that a cymbal needs a crisper sound, I can EQ it up at 12000 Hz. But I've learned the hard way that less is more. EQ is best when used to turn something down, like cutting the extreme lows of a bassline so that it lies against the subsonic thump of a kick drum. This is sonic Tetris, nestling together protruding pieces to create even horizontal lines.

When dealing with songs that sounded thin or unbalanced, my initial approach--much like my approach to unbalanced cocktails--was to add things: EQ, delay, effects. I would doctor the hell out of everything. If I couldn't hear the cymbals, I turned them up; if the bass was too soft, I slapped on some distortion. If the synth didn't jump out, I EQed up the high-mid so that it could fight through the cymbals I had just cranked up. More, more. Everything became sonic soup, a cacophany from which nothing stood out. My initial attempts were disasters: lopsided, muddy, weirdly irritating and stress-inducing. I usually ended up wishing I had just left the original track alone.

The problem was often that my ingredients--my instruments--weren't very good to begin with. Maybe the sound quality wasn't there: too much distortion, too many effects, or maybe just a plain bad sample. Or maybe I had layered on too many instruments which confused and distracted from the main themes. Other times the basic mix--the balance of instrument volumes--was off and I didn't realize it.

Rather than adding more filler to a song, the solution frequently lay in the opposite direction. I tried laying everything bare and starting at zero. I removed all EQ and all effects and began by making sure the underlying balance was strong. Only from there would I tweak EQ and add effects, filling out certain sounds and subduing others. The magic lies, like a Margarita, in the interaction between sounds. A thin string section sounds thick when a good bassline is rumbling below it. They complement each other and achieve a fullness that is far greater than just the sum of the parts. Rather than EQing everything in sight, I tried to allow the tones to mingle. If a bass, a synth and a cymbal could share frequencies, then I let them mix like tequila, Cointreau and lime.


(Many thanks to andywho for expertise and guidance.)



I've been keeping radio silence for a while because I've been a little busy with various projects. One of these is a band called Hinemos, which is archaic Japanese for "all day long." Most Japanese people, I'm told, wouldn't understand the word.

We have been practicing every Sunday since we formed in February. The band members are some of the first Japanese friends I have made here. Playing in a band is a pretty good way to make friends because there's motivation beyond just hanging out. We're trying to accomplish something together and the socialization is a happy byproduct. We go out for sushi or to a Japanese pub after practice and we're probably going to Fuji Rock Festival this summer to see a reunited My Bloody Valentine.

We played our first show on Saturday. It was good fun; it's been a while since I played a show. I wasn't particularly nervous. I was rarely nervous before shows in Minneapolis, either, just excited. Although maybe I should have been nervous this time, because our set wasn't finalized until a couple hours before the show; we were still writing songs that afternoon. We cut it close.

On Friday we practiced until midnight in our usual studio near a scummy drainage canal that runs through Shibuya. We met again on Saturday in a studio in sleepy Nishiogikubo, where our show was to be held, and for three hours we tweaked songs, planned our set and rehearsed. In the end we still didn't have enough material for a full set, so we threw in a disco-fied cover of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army", which went down better than we had any right to expect.

Our music is spazzy, funky psychedelic rock. It's not like my previous Minneapolis band, Born Under Punches, but it's not too far removed, either. Junichi (vocals and accoustic guitar) usually takes the lead: he writes lyrics and usually decides chords and song structures. Jun-chan (bass) and Ito (lead guitar) are content to follow Junichi, and I just do what I do. At times I have to tone it down a bit; Junichi veers towards the J-pop side of things and that's no place for a free-form jungle throwdown. But luckily the members all cool and have good taste in music, and they are willing to indulge me in my more out-there moments, and even work my ideas into songs at times.

It's easy for me to go along quietly with Junichi's lighter pop moments, even if it's not really my style. I care a lot less about this band than I did about Born Under Punches. This time around there's no pipe dream of getting signed some day. I can't even practice drums regularly. Once a week with Hinemos is all I can manage right now. I've considered buying a silent practice set but I don't think it would be anywhere near the same as the full drum set right in my basement in Minneapolis. I'm not sure I have time to practice rigorously, anyway. Not like I used to.

I used to be almost spiritual about practice. An hour a day was barely even a warm-up. The second hour was where things started to get interesting, and it wasn't uncommon for me to play three or four hours some days. In those days, once a week would have hardly seemed worth bothering about. What would be the point?

Somehow, even though I took about eight months off, I haven't lost everything. I was surprised at this. I am rustier than I used to be, true, but I haven't lost it completely and I can see that it would come back if I had the opportunity to practice seriously. I would like that opportunity, though it may never come again.

Anyway, I'm OK with being a bit rough right now. I'm not studying jazz anymore and I don't have the impossible ideal of perfect musicianship to torment me. If anything, I'm more inspired by punk right now. I feel like playing dirty, ragged music and my current level of ability is fine for that. I can't really explain this urge. Maybe I'm angry about something, or maybe I've got some crazy energy to dissipate. Whatever the reason, I want to send out a musical middle finger to the world right now and I don't need to spend forty-five minutes practicing paradiddles to do it.

I'm not sure if Hinemos is going to be the right venue for that urge. The guys are cool, but pop-minded at the core, and I want to get a lot more experimental than that. But for the moment I am content to play J-pop and wreak a little havoc where I can. It's a good way to meet musicians and to feel out the Tokyo rock scene. I can get into my art-scum drum-and-bass at some later date. This is a way to dip my toes into the pool.

So now I have played Tokyo.

I haven't listened to the recording yet, but I think it went reasonably well. It was fun, which is the main thing for me. Quiet, reserved Ito went crazy onstage. Junichi warned me that he would, but I couldn't quite envision it. Lo and behold, not three minutes into the first song our bespectacled, polite guitarist was thrashing on the floor like a maniac. The memory still cracks me up. Dude flips a switch, live: during the last song he got so excited that he ripped off his glasses and threw them across the stage. After our set he spent five minutes searching for them, the darkness of the club hiding his red face.

Rock clubs are rock clubs, whether in Japan or the US, and the atmosphere was the same as lots venues in Minneapolis. Lots of black, band stickers and duct tape. Some details were a little different, though. For one, all the bands were very friendly. I'm used to bands giving each other a cold up-and-down when they meet for the first time, but on Saturday everyone greeted us ("good morning!") when we walked in. Everyone was bowing to each other and saying "onegaishimasu!" (very loosely translated, "I beg a favor of you!") all the time. I can see why Japanese bands rarely take the rock world by storm: there's something about constantly bowing and apologizing that just doesn't seem rock and roll. It's almost like they don't get it.

Sometimes I think someone should point this out to a few of them. Japanese musicians are often very precise; as with everything else, they practice doing things perfectly. I can respect that, given my studies in jazz. But they seem to forget that a lot of the music they really like wasn't made by people who tried to do everything perfectly. The classic rock, jazz, punk and reggae that they revere so much--these weren't created by people who shared their quiet appreciation of pristine form.

Punk, for instance, is popular in Japan. You can't "study" punk, I don't think.  You can't approach it reverently, carefully and respectfully. It's the antithesis of those things: you drink a fifth of rubbing alcohol and turn the amp up until the neighbors start shouting. Even jazz, the domain of talented, dedicated musicians, is the sound of things going wrong. There's a beauty to earnest imperfection which the Japanese might not always understand.

It's like watching hand-drawn animation. It's never going to be as pristine and flawless as computer animation, but there's an appeal in watching the effort of human labor. The person behind the animation comes through in every wobbling line, every jumpy movement.

(Of course, to a creative person CG can be as expressive a medium as hand-drawn animation. And Japanese musicians can be as sloppy and exuberant as Americans or Britons or Slovenians. I'm generalizing.)

Stil, sometimes I want to shake them out of their careful, proper rituals. I want to throw all the effete, prim attention to appearance and form out the window. To hell with the appreciation of beautiful movement, the reverence for well-executed ritual. To hell with harmony and grace. That stuff, as one of my readers might say, is for wieners. Some days I agree.

Like my cocktail studies. I love learning the Japanese way, but at times I just want to say, "fuck it." Who cares if my pinky is extended, or if the barspoon clinks against the pitcher? Who cares if I hold the bottle by the neck or by the body? Throw some booze into a shaker, shake the hell out of it, and serve. Plug in that damn guitar and wake up the damn neighbors.


Worst Bubbles Ever.

(WARNING: Please don't read this during dinner. Actually, just don't read it.)

I knew something was up the moment the Sato, a manager at the Roppongi
Hills Club, gave me the envelope. He looked over his
shoulder--twice--and then slipped it into my hand before I could get a
good look at it. Alarm bells sounded instantly.

"You know what to do, right?" His eyes shifted around the bar.
"Hmmm... Nope," I said, peering at the envelope suspiciously. It was
large enough for a generous nickel-bag, made of surgery-blue plastic.
My name was printed on a label on the front, above the words
"Microguard Food Service Research" in Japanese. Curious, I started to
lift the flap.
"Ha-ha!" Sato laughed nervously. "You needn't open that here."
"Oh. Right," I said, feeling more mystified than ever. I hastily
shoved it into my pocket, embarassed for no discernible reason. "What
is it, again?"
"Ha-ha!" Sato laughed again. "Ask Teranaka--he'll explain," he said,
and disappeared.

I asked Teranaka. Teranaka laughed, refused to meet my gaze and
engrossed himself in cleaning the coffee machine. Not really wanting
to know the answer, I repeated my question anyway. "Ask Kurihara," he
said, and scurrried around the corner of the bar. Kurihara had the day

I investigated that evening when I got home. Inside the envelope I
found what appeared to be... bubbles? A narrow bubble wand in a tube
of blue gel. I tried to blow bubbles through the wand but the gel just
flapped around listlessly. Apparently it wasn't bubbles. Well, no one
wanted to tell me what the damn thing was, and I didn't feel like
embarrassing myself by asking anymore, so I did the natural thing. I
threw it away and hoped no one would ever mention it again. An absurd
hope, of course. A different manager, Kobayashi, approached me a few
weeks later, just as I had forgotten about the sinister blue envelope

"Phirripu," he said. "Did you get it?"
"Get it?"
"The kenben. Did you bring it?"
"Kenben?" I was blank.
"Ah, yes. Ha. You remember?"
"Oh. That. Yeah, I got it."
"Where is it?"
"Um, I threw it away."
"You threw it away?"
"Hahahaha. Yeah, kinda."
He pulled another out of his pocket and slid it across the counter
like it was full of very illegal drugs. Damn. Dude was prepared.
"Here. We need this back by Saturday."
"OK... Only, what is it?"
"Eh? It's for your, um," he started searching for the English word.
"It's for your store."
"My store?"
"Your... stole."
A horrible realization dawned on me.
"Ohhhh.... my... seriously?"
I couldn't imagine what they needed that for.

Thus began a monthly ritual that I'm still not particularly
comfortable with. Management is very serious about preventing an
outbreak of the gastrointestinal norovirus, a bug that causes diarrhea
and spreads easily if employees don't take extreme, quarantine-level
precautions like washing their hands with soap. Every month everyone
gets a surgery-blue stool sample envelope and forms shuffling, guilty
lines for the toilets.

Japanese toilets are more high-tech than the first space shuttle. No
service is beneath a Japanese toilet, whether it's the water spouts,
the heated seats, or the drier fans. Everything is adjustable by a
remote control set in the arm rest (yes, the arm rest). There's even a
remote-control flush button, in case the handle is just too much
trouble. I find these toilets hilarious because someone has to design

I imagine R&D rooms where Japanese engineers study diagrams of people
crapping, taking notes with studious expressions. Or the studies
scientists must conduct to determine the optimal position for a water
spout, and how much they must have to pay the participants in those
studies. (They probably just use convicts.) There are probably laws in
Toilet Seat Ergonomics Science governing things too scatological even
for British television. Koizumi's Ratio of Hair to Fan Power. Abe's
Laws of Seat Temperature Tolerance. Fukuda's Table of Shit Types.

I'm a bit surprised that there's no Stool Sample Collection feature in
Japanese toilets, but if the dreaded norovirus continues to decimate
the populations of Europe and Asia, no doubt this convenience will be
included soon enough. Instead, employees slink into the men's locker
room and drop the (hopefully carefully-sealed) envelope into a
cardboard box marked with a big yellow arrow, then run away. Everyone
carefully avoids the box at all other times.

The monthly ritual is discussed pretty openly among the staff. It
leads to scenarios like when one of the cuter waitresses asked me, in
a weirdly flirty tone of voice, if I remembered to bring my stool
sample today. During dinner. I'm not sure why she wanted to know; I
half-expected her to follow up with, "Can I see it?"

I have overheard discussions between managers about whether certain
waitresses are able to, uh, produce results on time. I, myself, have
been been the subject of such discussions in full earshot of
everybody. Unfortunately it was around the same time that I was also
discovering the inhibitive properties of a rice-heavy diet.

"Phirripu," said Masunaga, yet another manager, "here's your kenben.
Are you able to get one out today? Because it's due in two days."
"Um," I said, not knowing the appropriate Japanese. She switched to
English for the one waitress who couldn't understand it.
"If you can't poop today, you should tell me. I can have the deadline
extended for you."
"Um, OK. I can't poop today." (I'm still astonished I that even had
this conversation.)
"OK, I'll tell them." She made a big "X" next to my name on a list
that was sitting out in the open on the bar. I noticed "X"s next to
other employees' names as well, but nothing would have persuaded me to
investigate who could deliver the goods and who couldn't. "Please poop
by Saturday."

I said I'd try.


Mr. Miyagi Must Make Mean Manhattans

Tomorrow is a national holiday, to my indescribable delight, so tonight I attended a small gathering at a friend's apartment in the suburbs. I provided the drinks and my friend made food, and I'm so stuffed now I can hardly move.

I made two cocktails for the occasion, fairly simple twists on standards. Before dinner we had Yuzu Sidecars made with Courvoisier, Cointreau and fresh-squeezed yuzu juice instead of lemon juice. (A yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit very similar to a lemon, but maybe a little more pungent.) With desert I made Maccha Brandy Alexanders. Maccha is powdered green tea used in Japanese tea ceremony. It's very bitter and a little goes a long way, but it worked quite well shaken with cognac, creme de cacao and cream.

I was happy to be able to come up with some drinks for the event, because I haven't been thinking about new cocktails at all in the past six months. My studies (if you can call them that) at the Roppongi Hills Club have been a back-to-basics approach: classic recipes (often lifted directly from the Savoy Cocktail Book) and the Japanese way of making them.

There's a lot to learn. My martini-stirring technique is coming along but my cocktail shake is still far from perfect. The difference between the other bartender and me is obvious. There's clearly a lot of practice involved, and the Japanese, ever-obsessive about such matters, spend hours learning and mastering the technique. But I don't have it yet; something's eluding me.

For research purposes I went last night to my Saturday-night spot, Lady Jane Booze and Jazz. LJBJ is a jazz club in my neighborhood, a very cool one with an extensive selection of obscure liquors on one wall and an extensive collection of jazz records on another. After listening to my iPod for six months I have become thoroughly disenchanted with the sound of .mp3s. Once a skeptic and a naysayer, I now completely understand the appeal of some good, warm-sounding vinyl.

So after my marathon double shift on Saturdays I usually find myself against the dark wood bar of LJBJ, admiring the jazz posters pinned to the ceiling and talking to the bartenders over a fifteen-dollar, two-ounce manhattan. After working fifteen hours straight, I feel like I've earned one expensive, carefully-made drink. I've learned a lot just talking with these guys and watching what they show me.

Tanaka, the head bartender, told me that Japanese bartenders fill a shaker with rice and practice shaking that, listening to the noise of the uncooked rice for rhythm. He also said that I would be able to tell if my shake is correct by filling a shaker with ice, water and maccha, the aforementioned powdered green tea. If my shake was good, the maccha would be dissolved in the water. If my shake was off then the maccha would be lumpy.

It doesn't matter if these little bits of lore are true measures of skill, or if they're nothing more than the bartender's equivalent of tying a cherry stem with my tongue. It's fascinating just to know that bartenders throughout Tokyo, on their days off, are filling shakers with rice and concentrating for hours on the sound like a percussionist. The dedication to focus and control is awe-inspiring.

When I was ten and taking tae-kwan-do, I broke a board with my bare hands. I have no idea how this was possible. I remember holding an inch-thick board in my hand and striking it with my fist. Then I remember watching the board tumble out of my hand in two pieces, broken on the first attempt. I also remember the shocked expression on my face. Since then I have tried occasionally to break a board with my fist but have never succeeded again. For some reason this came to mind last Saturday, when I learned how to crack ice with a knife.

We have changed the ice program at the Roppongi Hills Club. Instead of buying bags of ice--wonderful ice though it was--we are now hand-cracking our own cubes from massive blocks. Of course there is a right way and a wrong way to do it and I spent most of Saturday night practicing, a block of ice in my rapidly-numbing left hand and a chopper in my right, tapping away.

Cracking one's own ice cubes is a very soothing act (once your hand loses feeling). You can do it with an old, crappy knife if you don't care about the blade. You're not cutting the ice, you're cracking it, so the blade's sharpness is irrelevant. Strength is irrelevant, too. Ice will absorb violent attacks like stone, but light strokes will send chips flying. You could spend the entire evening futilely hacking at a block of ice where a few light taps would usually do the trick.

Light strokes are surprisingly effective. Hold the block in your hand and lay the blade against it. Start tapping quickly and gently, keeping the blade along the same line at all times. Smoothly increase the strength of the strokes, but never get to the point where you're hacking. Control yourself. Since you're holding the cube in your hand it is important to "snap" the blade up afterwards. If the cube suddenly breaks, the knife will not follow through and cut your hand. This snap also adds power to the strokes.

Rather than "cutting" the ice, the goal is to send shock waves through the block that crack it clean and straight down the middle. The blade should strike the same spot repeatedly with a ringing, metallic sound. If it sounds like it's "crunching", if you can't keep to the same line, or if ice shards are flying around then you're just chipping at the surface. You want to hear the clean, high-pitched chink of the entire edge striking the ice at once, distributing force evenly along a single plane through the cube. Ice fragments should be minimal.

If this technique is observed properly, shock waves will cause a long, straight crack to appear almost immediately and blocks of ice the size of my thigh can be cut in clean halves with a few strokes. I have this sense that people who are really good at this can cut a block with a single stroke, like the Karate Kid driving a nail into a board. Maybe after twenty years' practice, I'll be there, too.

Spring is Coming.

It's been a while since I wrote last, and it was one of those silences that got harder to break with every week that passed. I got back from England a few days into January and suddenly found I had nothing to say. It's a strange situation for someone who usually writes to excess.

Nothing's too new, is part of the problem. I'm in a bit of a rut, maybe. I exist in the gray spaces between days and nights; I wake before the sun comes up and arrive at my windowless dungeon as day arrives. I get home from my morning shift just before noon and usually take a nap. It's been so damn cold that I only want to huddle in my room until evening rolls and then trudge back to Berlitz for my night shift. I'm back home and in bed before night has properly fallen, usually. I have this feeling that I'm in hibernation mode right now. Spring is coming, and then I will finally be able to come out of the little shell I've been hiding in.

I've grown pretty used to this routine, the six-day weeks, the long, pointless breaks in the afternoon. Which is not to say I enjoy it. But I stopped feeling sorry for myself long ago, once I realized that most of my Japanese students, who make about what I make, also work from about 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., except they don't get the long lunch break in the middle. They work straight through. Most of them would love to work six hours a day in a foreign country. So what's my problem?

I've made so many plans, this dark winter, it's become hard to keep track of them all. I've planned trips to every continent on the globe, contemplated dozens of career changes and considered schools of every major and vocation. My latest plan is to save up enough money to buy a motorcycle next spring and explore South America for about six months. Seriously. That's fifteen months from now. I don't even know what I'll be doing next week, or who I'll be, but I keep making these absurd long-range plans.

There's anything wrong with that, but it does make me impatient. Last week I was stewing and fretting: "Why don't I have that motorcycle yet? Why? Why?!" Chill, dude. I need to learn the difference between planning and preparation. There is a difference.

Barely six months ago I was eagerly planning Tokyo. Have I given up so easily? I've realized all my grandiose plans amount to: "Anything else." I'm lucky to be here, even if I whine about teaching English occasionally. If I left, I would miss Tokyo. I'm trying to remember that, these days. There are still things to be done in this city.

It's been hard to move, these past few months. Literally hard to move; I've been sluggish from cold and malaise. The thermometers in my house have been hovering around 45ºF, sometimes dipping into the thirties. I can see my breath in every room. It's unimaginably cold and it sucks, especially showering and shaving. We have heaters, but they dry out one's throat terribly, and can lead to a cold. "IF (do OR don't) THEN damned."

But spring is coming, and I think it will be a good spring. I've been talking to a few Japanese guys about starting a band, and we jammed last week. I've found a jazz instructor and a mesh-headed silent drumset for under $400 which I may buy. Soon I can also buy a bike and take to the streets. I've decided it's time to start living a little more, setting some things in motion. Enjoying myself more.

Still not sure when I'm coming back, or if I'll even be returning to Minneapolis if I decide to leave Tokyo. Earliest date: September. Latest date: Never. More specifically than that, well, I have stopped making those kinds of plans.




To kill time before my bus I walked through Namba, passing streets and neighborhoods that I had never seen before. Even within Umeda I saw streets I'd never been down, which was surprising and depressing. What did I do with my year in Osaka? Did I never venture beyond the same three blocks? Did I never wonder, "Where does that lead?"

Oh well. That was then. Now I explore everything I can find. I have learned curiosity in eight years.

From Namba I walked to Nihonbashi, where I talked to a doctor on the sidewalk. I met him because I asked if we were walking towards Den-Den Town. He assured me we were, then asked how long I had been in Japan. We started talking.

He was an influenza doctor who worked in the area. He was kind and spoke very polite Japanese, and I in turn tried to be polite as possible. He said that Den-Den Town, which used to be Osaka's electronics district, was much quieter than it used to be eight years ago. Now it's all manga, anime and DVDs; many of its quaint, shabby electronics stores have been driven away. Eventually we parted ways. He continued on to his influenza clinic while I went wandering through the back alleys, back to the Midosuji Line to Umeda.

There were still some electronics stores on the side streets. A store with perhaps a thousand different cameras meticulously labelled and facing the same direction. A dimly-lit store packed with stereos on rusted steel racks. "Store" may be a misnomer. It was like a garage with a cashbox hidden among the clutter. A man sat on a lawn chair in front, drinking a beer.

I got to Umeda about forty minutes before I was supposed to meet Naoko. What the hell; I went into a narrow bar I had seen in the Hankyu warrens. Glasses rattled when trains thundered overhead. The bartop was battered yellow plastic. I loved it. I ordered cheap Japanese whiskey on the rocks and immediately became involved in a conversation with the entire bar, which never happens in Tokyo. It began with obligatory compliments about my Japanese. Strictly smalltalk: I've been complimented on my Japanese before saying a single word.

Osaka people love gaijin who love Osaka and the denizens of this bar, mostly middle-aged laborers, were no exception. I trotted out my Osaka dialect to approving laugher and we made the obligatory Osaka jokes, accompanied by the appropriate hand gestures. I'm familiar with this routine. I've had so many conversations about my height, Minneapolis, Osaka, Japanese food and Japanese girls that I have a full clip of ammunition by now. On any other subject my vocabulary is limited but keep it simple and I'll pontificate like the Prime Minister.

When I got up to go, a wizened, toothless man who hadn't said a word took me by the arm and gave me a pamphlet in an envelope. It was a sightseeing map of Osaka marked with trips to take and places to see. I didn't have the heart to tell him I was about to leave, so I thanked him warmly. The entire bar practically sang out me out the door.

I met Naoko at Big Man. We ended up sitting at the bar of a restaurant called Zen, eating shrimp and mushrooms, kimcheed fish stomach, konnyaku steak, soy-and-lemon scallops and gorgonzola onion rings. We talked more easily than the previous night. We hardly stopped. She told me about her motorcycle-riding great-aunt who could text-message almost as fast as she could. I told her about going to Chinatown like we all did eight years ago.

"I still wear that china dress you bought me," she said. I had forgotten. Several of the girls had bought china dresses but she couldn't afford one, so I bought it for her as a surprise. How could I forget that night?

"I still have the scarf you made me for Valentine's Day."

"And Totoro? Do you still have Totoro?" A huge stuffed Totoro I had slept with every night until she finally came to Minneapolis.

"Of course. I still have everything." Letters, pictures, a black ringlet of her hair, a music box.

Her dimple flashed. Her sweater kept slipping off her shoulder.

She asked the owner where she could buy cigarettes but he wouldn't hear of it. Instead he ran to a vending machine to buy cigarettes for her, returning breathless in seconds. I liked him. When I told him his konnyaku was the best in the world he laughed uproariously and gave himself a round of applause. We started talking and got onto Prince and Bob Dylan, and suddenly Naoko pointed out that I had ten minutes until my bus.

Frantic bill paying. I gathered my things and we hurried through Umeda. Naoko realized she didn't know where we were headed after all, so we rushed off in the general direction my map indicated. It was a frenzied, exhilarating dash. We found the bus stop and were quiet for a moment.

"We'll meet again, right?" she said. Not quite a question.

"Of course," I said, hoping it was true and soon. She gave me the first hug I've had in three months.

I stowed my luggage and asked the driver how much time we had. Five minutes. We walked to a bank of vending machines across the street. I bought two bottles of water for the trip. and we walked back to the bus. I took the opportunity to get another hug, longer this time, and I could feel her hands clutching the sides of my jacket.

"You smell good." she said.

" Like cigarettes?"

" Like eight years ago."

"I'm glad I could see you again."

"I am too. It feels like a movie."

I knew what she meant. It felt like we were teenagers again. If it was a movie, this would be the part where we swear never to be apart again. In movies, "Love" is always capitalized, it's always True and it's always meant to last Forever. There's no mistaking it.

But Forever is simply the absence of After, in movies. Time freezes when the actors' real names rise to the ceiling, so no one changes and no one makes terrible decisions later, when the thing has run its course.

For a moment I let myself think that things could be so stupidly simple. For more than a moment.

Then I got on the bus back to Tokyo and waited for the credits to roll.





Earlier today I wandered Umeda's cramped hallways looking for breakfast. Many stores were still closed, but finally I found a place serving kushi katsu, skewers of fried stuff.   I had a bad feeling as soon as I ducked under the short curtain across the entrance. The place was dirty and the proprietor, clearly drunk at ten in the morning, took an instant dislike to me. He gave me such a startled, resentful look that I thought he might still be setting up.

" Uh, are you open?" I asked uncertainly.

"What do you mean, 'Are you open?'" he said derisively. "There are customers, aren't there?" He indicated two men drinking beers at the other end of the bar. They looked embarrassed.

"He's open," one said mildly.

"'Are you open...'" the proprietor muttered to himself. "Of all the... Well, whatever. What do you want to drink? Beer?"

"Water's fine, thanks."

"Water?" He spit something white in the direction of his kitchen equipment. "Can't you at least get an iced tea or something?"

"Ah," I said, and ducked back out of his store. Laughter followed me through the halls.

I walked through Umeda this morning with my eyes half-full, thinking about Naoko. Turmoil and confusion. It's not that I want to get back together with her. She's one in a million, though, and that old magnetism is still there, at least for my part. Hell, maybe I do want her back. We called things off because of distance, and now that distance is all but eliminated.

But there is another distance between us, born of six years' passage. Many things felt the same: comfortable, fun, sexy. Yet we're not the high school students we once were. We've both done some living in six years. I don't know her anymore. She doesn't know me. We are different people now.

She wants to have kids soon. She wants to quit her job and raise her adorable children. She'd be a wonderful mother. If I were to try to win her back somehow it would have to be for the long haul. There's too much history to be casual. But I doubt our goals in life are compatible. 

For these and other reasons it's best to accept things and move on. Yet it's tempting to have other ideas.

I went to Kobe, which improved my mood considerably.

This city is too sad for me. Tokyo was the right choice; Osaka may forever be Naoko's city. She's everywhere I go. There is no place for me in her life, nor for her in mine, but in Osaka I still belong to Naoko.

So I went to Kobe, which I did with twenty rowdy exchange students almost exactly eight years ago. I had just met Naoko and she came with us. We all shared a bottle of Finnish vodka at eleven in the morning and hopped a train to Kobe, aiming for Chinatown. I went to remember, to try to feel that again.

All I've been doing, since I got here, is remember things. I've chased memories, visited old haunts, communed with old ghosts. I've seen faces I barely remembered. I've wandered cities I no longer know.

Like Kobe. I got lost and went in the opposite direction for ten minutes. There are worse things than being lost in Kobe on a lively Saturday afternoon. A few inquiries corrected my course and soon I was hip-to-hip with shoppers in a covered arcade lined with stores. I knew Chinatown was close but I wasn't sure exactly where. I don't usually realize my height but here I noticed it as I looked over a sea of black hair. I glanced to the left and saw a line of yellow lanterns at the end of an alley. There. I changed course and waded through people. After some more maneuvering I found myself under the huge stone gate at the entrance to Chinatown.

The narrow stone road was even more packed, human traffic moving five steps a minute. All the signs were red with gold kanji. Vendors sold noodles, dumplings, buns and skewers. I ate a steamed bun with a thick slice of bacon in the center. It's considered boorish to walk while eating but in this festival atmosphere everyone had abandoned that stricture.

One pass was enough. I was full of food on skewers and didn't feel like dealing with the crowds again. So I headed back to the train station and got a good seat on a train back to Osaka. Tiny houses, clinging to the side of mountains, flashed past the window for forty minutes.

I'm in Cafe Yamamoto, in the Umeda warrens. It feels inexplicably Cino-Russo-Turkic, all yellow lamps, low ceilings and dark, carved wood. I like to drink coffee in coffee-colored surroundings.

My departure is a few hours away, but I find myself wishing I could stay here with Naoko. We will have dinner again tonight and then I will I will board a dark bus back to Tokyo, where nothing will have changed. My rotten guesthouse and my dreary job will slap me back to real life. This cozy cafe and its yellow lamps that match the leaves on the trees outside, these are a dream I will long for some day.

I wish I had some damn friends in Tokyo. I'm growing weary of this constant solitude: work, study, sleep. It's depressing to realize that even though I'm going back, it's still not home. Minneapolis isn't home either, anymore. Nothing is, or maybe Osaka still is. I'd like to feel about Tokyo the way I once felt about Osaka. It would be nice to be comfortably settled somewhere, with some good friends and maybe a good woman. Eyes half-full again.