Bye, 2017

Like the Sram video I posted about yesterday, 2017 just wasn't very good. 

I can't say I'm sad to see it leave, but should thank 2017 for a year of forced growth, good friends, new ideas, better eyebrows, and more quality time with my dog. 

me and postcard from sage
me and kaede

Here's to a new, bigger, and better year!!!

Sneaker Friends

Like most people, I generally determine the value of my friends by the uncomfortable situations we’re willing to endure for each other. A few months ago, despite the ready availability of messaging apps, I agreed to a phone call with a friend. It lasted an hour, after which I understood how war unites veterans together for life. My conviction that experiencing discomfort is a critical part of any friendship also manifests – in those rare periods of self-clarity – in attempts to make up for forcibly strapping friends into the train wreck of my life via self-flagellation.

It’s not something new, like one of those dark and twisted things that come out in your 30s once you accept yourself for the person that you really are. Instead, it’s more similar to a mutation of prior tendencies to pair social activities with oxygen deprivation. Given that my aerobic capacity is currently capped at climbing a flight of stairs at a geriatric pace, I’ve managed to transfer the unique experience of bike rides that annihilate your self-esteem to sneaker lines.

sports lab by atmos bag

It works like this: a notice is posted online, including, recently, a dress code, and my Saturday starts at an hour that makes my lack of Friday night social activities glaringly obvious. In the winter, I pull on a base layer and my Woolie Boolies and join the hundreds of other people who apparently have nothing better to do on a weekend morning. We’re all waiting in the cold for the same thing, except that I’m in line not to buy a pair for myself, or as a reseller, but on the hope that I’ll win a pair of size 10 shoes for a best friend.


To date, I have yet to pull out the winning ticket to a pair of anything special. My inability to absolve myself – at least, temporarily – necessitates more lining up for hours. Every time, I ask the universe to make me appear to be a better friend by gifting me a pair of atmos x Nike shoes. It never happens, which makes sense in a karmic way. Rather than bringing home the white whale of Nike collabs, I’m forced to learn how to be a less exhausting friend through the negative people I keep around in my life as cautionary tales.

“But I can’t,” they’ll usually say in those conversations I seek out, out of either a foolish sense of charity or as overdue karmic punishment, “I can’t get out of this situation that I’m choosing to stay in.”

flat fix

Cornering myself into becoming a cheerleader for a more positive outlook, I advocate for looking on the bright side, arguing that it isn’t really as dismal as it seems. You could argue that playing the alternative role – of approving of marinating in extreme unhappiness – would be irresponsible. That the natural human response to a friend’s voluntarily relinquishment of agency is to firmly tell him or her to snap out of it, if only to exonerate yourself of responsibility for any consequent dive into even deeper depression. Yet, there is nothing more effective than a tantrum of hopeless despair to trigger a natural sense of sustained optimism.

I emerge from those conversations with a desperate sense of possibility. Like rides that crush your lungs and shatter your self-worth, I make a mental note of that fact that there is value in the effort of becoming a better friend, however vain. That your friends can’t let you win the race to the next telephone pole or the town line unless you drag your ass to the starting line of that group ride. That there’s slightly more shame to a DNS than a DNF.

I try to remember that as I wait in line, shivering, hands practically numb, for the next pair of hyped shoes.

Finding Banh Mi at the Vietnam Festival

After my sister-in-law’s mother came to Japan for a visit, she left us a giant jar of homemade Vietnamese pickles. The mass of shredded daikon radish and carrots rested in their sweetly sour brine in the refrigerator, waiting to be piled on top of everything. I dreamt of banh mi.

I fell in love with banh mi around the same time my sister fell in love with her Vietnamese-American wife. While it would be nice to say otherwise, it was more coincidence than fate; I met my future sister-in-law for the first time at a Tower Records store in Tokyo, and she was not dressed in an ao dai offering me my first life-changing banh mi. By then I’d already fallen hard for the combination of cilantro, cucumbers sliced thin, and perfectly seasoned pickles mounded on top of a protein of choice, all nestled into a crunchy baguette that wasn’t quite a baguette. Sandwiches no longer had to be pieces of bread bookending mounds of meat covered in cheese, the types of faux meals only to be ordered once in a while when you had the time to feel ill later. I believed, and still do, that you could reasonably, and financially, eat banh mi every day. And as if to validate my theory, I commuted to the Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli whenever I was in New York.

The Quad Show. Photo by Kanako Shimura.

The Quad Show. Photo by Kanako Shimura.

If I’m honest, though, those pickles are one reason I so love banh mi. I always order the chicken – no jalepenos – because the “special banh mi” with its smear of fatty pate tends to dull the vinegary crunch of those delicious, julienned root vegetables. When I learned late last week that the Vietnam festival would be held that weekend, I immediately thought of those pickles, that crunchy yet fluffy bread, and cilantro.

Every summer, Yoyogi Park hosts a few cultural festivals centered on a particular country – in this case, Vietnam. There are allegedly some shows featuring traditional attire and dances, but “cultural festival” is essentially code in Japanese for a food festival with some bank remittance stalls thrown in. My sister-in-law had just left to visit family in the U.S. and do all of our American shopping a few days prior, so my sister and I were left to judge the food stalls together. I wasn’t too worried. With taste buds honed by New York banh mi, we were confident in our ability to find the best at the Vietnam festival.

food stalls
Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

falling sign
picnic tables

We started with a reasonable strategy: check out all of the food vendors before settling on one. Most of the food stalls were hosted by restaurants around Tokyo and featured large plastic signs that boasted giant pictures of pho, banh xeo, and che. With hunger and the heat taking their toll, we settled on a vendor specializing in banh mi, with one of the longer lines extending before it. We inched towards the front, waiting around 20 minutes before being handed our packets of banh mi, disappointingly plucked off a pile of pre-assembled, pre-bagged sandwiches.

The robust sandwich I’d imagined and expected, fat with pickles and garnished with a sprig or two of cilantro, was crush flat as I pulled out something that resembled a quesadilla. There was a generous smear of pate and two slices of the usual mystery meat that usually lurks within the sandwich when you order the special banh mi. A cucumber slice had a brief cameo, along with a few carrots that had escaped the pull of gravity while the sandwich had been propped up on its end. Worst of all, the pickles were cut like fat crinkle cut fries, and most of them lay at the bottom of the bag, within sight but out of reach.

disappointing banh mi

“Oh, oh no,” I said. My sister let out a disappointed wail that quickly turned into laughter as she pulled her banh mi out of its bag and viewed it in its full glory.

I could hear my sister-in-law laughing from across the ocean, then, and blaming our seemingly genetic naïveté, our sheltered upbringing that was certainly the cause of such a blind purchase – a whopping 500 yen! – of a pathetic attempt at authentic Vietnamese food. I don’t blame her – I take it as a personal affront when friends go to sushi places that feature dragon-shaped rolls with tempura sticking out of the ends and/or anything that involves cream cheese – but that didn’t prevent me from praying that she knew, somehow, that finishing that “banh mi” was sufficient punishment.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

I got this awesome pig hat.

I got this awesome pig hat.

We cleansed our palettes and respective memories with coconut and lime gelato for my sister and a slushy, icy coconut drink with tapioca pearls on the bottom for me. Sugar did its work and we went home sweaty and covered in sand kicked up by the wind, but laughing at our banh mi disaster.

As Biggie once said, “if you don’t know, now you know,” and with some knowledge gained and money lost, now I do. Until next year, Vietnam festival. I’ll be back for my banh mi revenge.

Unplugging at the Sanja Festival

I probably spend what would be defined as an unhealthy amount of time on the Internet for someone who is not a tween. With most of my friends living outside Japan, a career as a freelance writer with clients in the U.S., and a preference for reading the news in English, I am always well connected.

It’s not a bad thing in itself, but spend enough time on the Internet and you’ll eventually find some appalling stuff. Recently, a few curious clicks led me to a widely read forum for foreigners for Tokyo and their relationship advice. Of course, this was going to be bad, but given that I consciously choose to spend my time watching true crime shows, I am, by nature, morbidly curious. I kept reading.

There’s a strange fetishization of white male foreigners here in Japan, which places them in somewhat high demand, regardless of physical attractiveness or the ability to be interesting. As a non-white, foreign, male co-worker once described it, certain women seem to want to live out a fantasy of having a white, "exotic," boyfriend, based on information and stereotypes gleaned from Hollywood chick flicks, and white foreign men seem only too happy to oblige. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise to read a poster saying:

“…[W]hat she really wants is this funny athletic white guys attention and love for a day or maybe the weekend or more. And if she doesn’t, who cares, theres ten more out there that do…” [All typos and spelling errors from the original.]

I know. I shouldn’t be surprised. The last time I made the mistake of hooking up with a guy here, he mentioned my “great English,” which was almost as offensive as his attempts at sex which bordered on the truly horrendous. The reminder of how disposable women seem to the English-speaking guys here was the final straw in a shitty week that was at least entertaining when Trump was involved, but not so much when you realize that your potential dating pool is full of dicks.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

As if sensing the impending doom and gloom, my sister texted me last Saturday about checking out the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa. It’s a huge festival that features neighborhood mikoshis – large, portable altars – hoisted along the main road of Asakusa Shrine. It’s a three-day event, with the purification ceremony taking place on Saturday. Mikoshi were transported to the shrine, raised up as it was purified, then carried back to its neighborhood. It may sound zen, except that it’s built a reputation as an event at which yakuza show off their tattoos with pride.

We were, admittedly, looking for yakuza, but found out later that the tattoo-baring took place on Sunday. Despite the fact that we missed out on the tattoos, the event is like a textile designer’s dream. Every neighborhood has its own unique happi, a short-sleeved garment worn at festivals, which boasts its own crest, design, and colors.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

The energy of the event was palpable as the heavy mikoshi swayed one way, then another. Each neighborhood team set up a human wall to control the lurching, as those carrying the mikoshi shouted out a rhythm. A predominantly working-class neighborhood, the men were bigger and burlier than most you’d see in Tokyo and the strength and energy required to transport the mikoshi – one usually requires forty people to lift it up – are impressive.

The irony of escaping from the disgust from reading a forum for foreigners at a Japanese traditional festival isn’t lost on me. As a third culture kid, I live in a space where everything seems a bit off and strange, where nothing quite fits. Where you’re stuck looking one way but identifying as another. Where you end up living online because you can’t begin to relate to most of the people around you. And where, apparently, when one culture disappoints, you end up seeking some sort of cleansing effect in another.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

sanja mikoshi
sanja smile
Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Photo by Kanako Shimura.

Yesterday, walking home from the gym, thinking about living in Japan, a rap song from long ago, made for a yakuza movie, began to play in my head. Along with lyrics about violence and social ostracization, there were two lines in particular that I had always liked, that had always replayed in my head.

tteyuuka,” he sang, “yononaka naseba naru.”

It’s a Japanese proverb that translates literally to “if you take action, it will become.” And while I may not be making best friends here any time soon, or plunging back into the dismal dating pool that is Tokyo, or feeling less like an alien, maybe, having a good day here – unplugged – isn’t all that impossible.

Friday Night Movie Lights

On Friday nights, I have something resembling a standing date.

Every week, unless work intervenes, we go through the same charade. In the afternoon, we’ll exchange a few texts – “are we watching a movie tonight?,” “Still on for a movie?” – as if to confirm that neither of us has anything better to do. I typically choose a genre, ask if I should bring snacks, and show up in sweatpants and my rattiest hoodie for movie night with my gay sister-in-law.

My sister rarely joins us, confirming that Friday movie nights are more a product of my, and my sister-in-law’s, respective lonely and desolate lives, rather than any real desire to spend time together. So, I, incredulously single and gifted solely with friends with more pressing engagements like spouses and children, and she, my sister’s work widow, sit in the dark to deflect questions of how and why our lives have come to this. Instead, we watch movies – Mechanic: Resurrected (terrible, even for a Jason Stratham movie), The Hunt (a fabulous Danish film starring Mads Mikkelson), RoomFantastic BeastsDr. Strange (hi again, Mads Mikkelson), John WickSleepless, – and at the end of the night, promise to do it again next week.

movie chat

Given my own ulterior motives for movie night – mainly to stave off the possibility of suffocating to death due to the boredom of my life – I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that my sister-in-law had her own reasons for spending her night off with someone marriage told her she now had to be related to. After a few weeks, I noticed a pattern to how our film screenings ended; namely that they tended to feature monologues about Brad Pitt. Seeming to sense no strong disagreement on my part, her tributes got bolder, pushing their way into the movies themselves.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s appearance in Dr. Strange inspired, “why do straight girls think he’s so attractive? It’s not like he’s Brad Pitt.” When we got our first glimpse of Colin Farrell in Fantastic Beasts, “I like him,” she said, “he’s like a brunette Brad Pitt.” And when Mads Mikkelson took off his shirt for two whole seconds in The Hunt, “ugh,” she said, “men that age shouldn’t take their shirts off unless they’re Brad Pitt.”

This transitioned neatly into her next favorite topic: shirtless Tom Cruise. “It’s so gross,” she said, pulling up Google search images of Tom Cruise’s bare, wrinkled chest. “I agree with you,” I insisted as she enhanced more images, zooming in and circling his invisible pecs angrily with her cursor, “but you know, Brad Pitt just might be genetically gifted…maybe you should compare him to someone else…like, I don’t know, George Clooney?”

Understanding friendships to be a two-way street, I’ve attempted to steer the conversation from Brad Pitt to the nuclear winter that is my social life, job woes, or the most recent blow up currently causing my eyes to roll back into my head for inordinately long periods of time.

“Can I just tell you something about—“ I’d start.

“Are you ruining my movie night?” she’d screech, as if it wasn’t also my movie night, “is it about that guy?”

“Yes, no, maybe, which guy? Just listen, ok?”

And to her credit, she does, for about three minutes, before declaring the room a “whine-free zone” and that “breeders are so weird.” To which I’d naturally respond with more whining.

We watched Sleepless a few nights ago while eating ice cream, my sister coming in and out of the room to ask what’s happening, and more ridiculously, what’s going to happen. I periodically clutched my sister-in-law’s sleeve as a tongue was cut out and balls were nearly crushed and other violence ensued. After a month that involved a funeral, and a date that felt like a funeral for any hope of a love life here, plus the realization that some people don’t want a friend as much as a sounding board to affirm their egos, that comfort and escape are welcome. There are no guys involved, no romantic dinners or shameless flirting, just ice cream, tea, and company I can’t replace.

“Here, just Google George Clooney,” I’d said, months ago.

“George Clooney shirtless” she typed, and we stared at the results. And there was no one I’d rather have fallen into the rabbit hole of George Clooney’s face expertly photoshopped onto gay porn stars, than my sister-in-law.

Motown House

“Are you sure?” the guy asked his friend at the door, “this feels kind of weird.”

We were in Roppongi – the notorious, kind of seedy, club district of Tokyo – at a bar called Motown House, and the Bruno Mars was blaring. A friend had invited us to go out, mainly because a friend of hers was bartending that night. “A trip advisor reviewer claimed he got drugged and robbed there,” my sister had announced the day before, “but it’s Roppongi, that happens. Besides, we know the bartender, she’s probably not going to drug us.”

That same bartender, who was quickly becoming the only reason we were there, had also described the clientele as “an interesting, older crowd.” We’d imagined professionals around our age, in their 30s and 40s, grooving to some soul and offering interesting conversation. We’d been about 15 years off the mark, and the only soul we’d heard in the past two hours was a techno remix of Jackson Five’s “ABC.”

Photo credit: my sister

Photo credit: my sister

Photo credit: my sister

Maybe we’d arrived too early, we thought. Yet, with everything just a bit off – the older women who appeared to believe in the sex appeal of brown, knee high boots with a reasonable heel, the overweight men who seemed limited to staring with half smiles, the working girls that were about two decades past their prime – it made for some fantastic people-watching. Alcohol mixed with blatant desperation turned the slight hip swaying into frantic bouncing to an imaginary beat a fraction of a pulse off the rhythm coming out of the speakers. An undernourished woman arrived in a fur hat three times the size of her head and threw off her coat to dance with the grace of a push puppet on speed. Her much older date shuffled his boot-clad legs to Justin Bieber, his eyes covered by dark sunglasses despite the dim lighting. A Korean girl arrived with her stoic boyfriend, and proceeded to jump up and down, mosh pit style, through every single song. Two Japanese salarymen were doing what looked like interpretive dancing. Another was falling asleep on his feet at the bar. A guy came in high, and pantomimed conducting an orchestra with a glass of red wine.

The bright side of being trapped in a virtual circus was that it was easy to find people who were normal. They usually came in with trepidation, looked horrified, and left within fifteen minutes.

“Is it always like this?” An Australian guy shouted in my ear as he looked around the room, mentally clutching on to his sense of dignity.

“I don’t know, but it gets worse the farther back you go,” I shouted back.

While the harmless drunks and weirdos save Motown House from being completely awful, the bar is still exceedingly creepy. For about ten minutes, a group of us kept our eyes resolutely fixed on different spots in the bar while a guy that looked like Michael Moore crossed with John Wayne Gacy stood next to our table and stared at us. On my way out of the bathroom, a South Asian guy stroked the back of my head. A drunk Japanese guy simply stood six inches behind one of our friends for about an hour.

“I work for the CIA,” a white-haired, American guy in a suit tried to tell my sister.

“No, you don’t,” she said flatly, “if you did, you wouldn’t tell me that.”

“Okay,” he conceded, lamely, “I work for the U.S. Embassy.”

“Yeah?” My sister said, sensing another lie, “what do you do there?”

Our breath of fresh air was the older Asian guy in a Hermes tie featuring bunny rabbits, who, completely wasted, insisted on trying to dance with every butch lesbian in our group. He happily accepted rejection yet remained optimistic and immune to the creepy desperation permeating most of the room. He bounced to the beat with us until we realized it was midnight and escaped the smoky confines of Motown House to catch the last train.

I came home to an anguished whimper-bark and a dog – normally too lazy to get up to greet me when I get home – practically vibrating with happiness.

“Do I smell like an ashtray?” I asked as she jumped and wagged excited circles around me and sniffed my mascara, “did you miss me?”

On the ride home, we had talked through hoarse throats about how terrible Motown House had been, the Michael Moore/John Wayne Gacy serial killer, and the possibility of that bar becoming a part of my future if I didn’t find a life partner in the next ten years. My sister had apologized for dragging me there, as if going out with her didn’t always involve slightly outrageous events. But even with the high percentage of creeps there, it’s hard to write off Motown House as a bad bar. Like watching Hoarders, it’s an experience that can turn your far-from-perfect life into one that is much more worthy of appreciation. Suddenly, I can point to my safe, repetitive life where I spend most nights with an ungrateful dog with pride because I’m not a regular at a bar seemingly designed for the comfortably desperate.

Should I ever need another reminder, fortunately, Motown House is only a short subway ride away.