Monday, August 16, 2010
Aboard the mighty Shinkansen
I am digging through my Tilley vest pockets for the fourth or fifth time, a type of end-stage frantic energy coursing through me, as I try to locate a mini-USB cable for one of my edit drives. It was in my hands just moments ago but now it has disappeared amongst the vest pockets and the seat surface completely swamped by camera gear, headphones and the like. I feel tears coming on since I am convinced I just saw it, and yet I cannot locate it again for the life of me. Is this how it's going to be in my old age? A small Japanese child is eyeing me eagerly from across the way, noticing not only that I'm one of only three gaijin in car 14 of the Yokohama-Hataka express this morning, but also that I'm the only one moving about in my allotted cubic yard of space with frenetic energy. I look at him with an exasperated "And now what?" expression, and slowly, he breaks into a huge smile. They are a reservedly friendly people, the Japanese, and this boy is no different - it takes him a while to warm up. I think his smile has brought me luck though - I find my cable twisted up amongst the cords of my phone charger. That would be vest pocket lower-right in the current configuration of my gear... I'm set.
The extreme fatigue is fine, ultimately. The body retains its regenerative capacities, for now. I remember Mike H, our amazingly gracious and generous host, and the first exchanges I had with him."Tell me you're waking up now and not that you haven't slept!" - he writes me at 4am one morning before we meet. Those emails give way to "Dude, you gotta get some rest!" when we are finally together in Yokosuka... and eventually, when it sinks in to him that this is in fact my modus operandi, he resigns himself to mere quiet gestures of "You alright?" and finally, only a type of reverent silence remains, embellished with a few late night tweets of praise (regretfully those caring tweets unleash an avalanche of concern from the audience, who simply cannot grasp the situation, yet they care. I do appreciate it. I am fine) Mike knows full well we're cut from the same cloth, though, and I think a deeper camaraderie develops between us during the days spent in his quietly manicured neighborhood in Yokosuka. As always, I try to reassure people that I am fine with sleeping only a few hours - but most don't understand, so in the end, I resign myself to evasive answers. Before undertaking the Mount Fuji summit assault, I don't dare tell Mike and Jeff that the only sleep I had gotten was in the car ride to base camp... they probably wouldn't have let me undertake the quest. But alas, here we sit on the Shinkansen, in blissful comfort, resting and relaxing as we hurl towards Fukuoka, the memories of the mountain's brutal pain reduced to a few pangs in the quads, nothing more.
Japan. What a place! As with other virgin lands, I do no prior research whatsoever before flying in to Narita. However, memories will not be muted, and I recall many a detail from a great high school friend, years before. Tales of how the sushi is simply incomparable to anywhere else where you might've thought you had the "best of the best of the best". How the Japanese are willing to pay $20 for a nice grapefruit. Their staggering average savings compared to our debt-ridden West. The organized precision of this society - and so on. Would I experience any of this?
Our good fortune and the high level of comfort we enjoyed in the US continues at Narita. Tai Hirose is there, well-mannered as all Boy Scouts tend to be, but with an almost unrestrainable joy and a huge smile as he greets Jeff and proceeds to lead him through the airport. We're set - a ride to Tokyo (the perimeter town of Kawasaki, actually), room and board in Tai's house, and ample time for both Tai and his mom to chaperone us around town if need be. There is.
We are quite fatigued when we arrive at their house late at night, so there is only energy to appreciate the meal at this time. The delightful details of the Japanese household await to reveal themselves on a future day. I am happily surprised though at the sparkling energy of Tai's mother Yayoi. She's stealing scenes left and right, and not just easy ones like the talking stove and the über-cool toilet - she's hamming it up at the dinner table too. The father is a quiet gentleman, hanging back from the table but always ready with his well-oiled movements to refill the sake glasses. I recall my friend Jonathan saying how much pure, rich tastes and textures were valued in food, and tonight is no exception - the noodles are simple, as are the various pickled vegetables and tempura - but the tastes definitely give you pause, in a good way.
It's only the following morning that I notice the extremely neat, compact, tidy and elegant aspect of nearly everything in this smaller house. The lines are precise, the colors generally neutral, the use of space throughout is ingenious - you never feel cramped even though there are many more bodies now. I am digging the very elegant gate markers on all homes in the neighborhood - all of them individual, yet somehow conforming to the same overarching aesthetic - a simple, quiet beauty.
I regret not being able to see Tokyo at night, beyond the drive from the airport. On its own, that drive stands as a jaw-dropping experience too - a ride across the Rainbow Bridge with the massive skyline on the other side of Tokyo Bay - definitely up there with NYC from the Triboroat night. However, I had planned to spend at least a couple of hours in Ginza, Shinjuku or Roppongi at night... this was not to happen. The reality of production hit once again... we were either producing too much or too little, delivering too much or too little, always with imperfect timing - so cuts had to be made, and it was easy to cut the night shoot after we had already experienced Shibuya and Harajuku during the day. So how is it to walk across the intersection made famous by Baraka and countless other films, the Shibuya Scramble? Well, it's pretty amazing, but we were all surprised that human density not withstanding, the Japanese maintain a very comfortable bubble of personal space everywhere. No matter where we trekked across Tokyo, we were never jostled or treated in an unfriendly way.
The time will hopefully come when I can return on a private visit and perhaps stay for a few days with these great friends we've made along the way.
The roller-coaster of the emotional connections we make with each new host family is one of the blessings of this journey - though at times it can be intense, especially for the ATWFF host, since he is most often thrust into the position of "entertainer" while the crew hunkers down for the endless edits. Jeff has done an admirable job on this front - and we'll see how he holds up down the line. Well into the Season One trek, I remember Alex, charming smile never leaving his face, being eternally grateful when he could finally close the door after long stints of entertaining everyone around him. But apart from this, for me personally, one of the great sparks of interaction is seeing how a given family reacts to the extreme production environment that they're suddenly parachuted into when we arrive. It starts easy enough. They are usually surprised when one of us is unable to attend a dinner at the house - "But why? Aren't you hungry?" - and it builds from there, mild layers of disappointment stacked one on top of the other. Cables taking over every surface of the house is easy... but cutting a sightseeing day short is sometimes a very personal defeat. I remember sweet Yayoi looking up at me in disbelief, when, after a solid four hours of sightseeing through Shibuya, I decided to cap the day after our shoot at the Meiji Shrine. "But we can't stop!" she exclaims, clutching the Japanese version of her top-ten sightseeing book, "We still have so much to see! I have activities planned until 11PM!" She points to page after page of botanical gardens, more shopping avenues, museums and so on. "We can't. It's too much footage already." I try to reassure her, but her expression has clouded over and she never really recovers her smile that day. I have to grin and bear it - it's happened before and it will happen again. On we go.
After Tokyo, our time in Yokosuka is still comfortable, but it's a different vibe since we're now in an American home. Our host, Mike, runs a tight ship, not just because he's with the Navy base in town but as a result of a long tradition of scouting (his connection with Tai). They live in a nice quiet neighborhood not far from the water and the vibe is really nice. The Tropicana in the fridge is a nice touch and it's only a matter of time before they're aware of my chocolate affiliation too. Regrettably, I'm arriving in Yokosuka with a huge backlog of editing, so I start missing family events right from the get-go. Luckily, Mount Fuji looms as the big equalizer the following day.
t's easy to write these lines from the comfort of the Shinkansen, but only two short days ago we are getting into a car at 2am and heading towards the iconic mountain with Mike and daughter Victoria. What makes a man want to climb a mountain and expose himself to all the pain and suffering? The answer, as I am walking up the slopes of Fuji in the early going, is a resolute "stupidity". The climb is an endless torture. Jeff and I both go into it with a shocking naivete, even though we are forewarned by Mike several times. I still remember Jeff in his tank top, spraying himself with suntan lotion in the parking lotat base camp. Fast forward two hours, and a bitter arctic wind is beating down on us, the lunar landscape is bitter and visually impenetrable, we are completely frozen, eyes fixed on the ground infront of us, mechanically advancing our sweaty bodies to near collapse, turn by turn... I pride myself on my mental endurance, but to physically challenge oneself to near-marathon feats is simply baffling for me. "But you'll be so proud of your achievement afterwards" says Mike. Small comfort. We are nearly blown off the mountain several times on the way up. But even before, just walking the trail through the forest at base camp, I'm checking the beating of my heart several times. Heavy moisture hangs in the air and my lungs are struggling even on the gentle slope. Luckily, the vapor dries out soon after reaching the 6th station (there are ten in all, and the bus takes us to the fifth, about halfway up the 3700m mountain).
It is extremely rare, but thoughts of mortality are entering my mind. Mentally, I think both Jeff and I give up several times along the tortuous climb to the top, but this is probably completely normal. Mike's encouraging words and gentle guidance keep our stamina up. His daughter bounds up far ahead of us - she's under 18 and it's already her fifth time summiting. For Mike, it's his tenth. For me, most likely my one and only - on any mountain. No need to frame the summit pic and mount it on my desk - it'll be a good story down the line, but for the moment, no desire whatsoever to pursue anything similar again.
How I eventually make it to the top is beyond me, but over five hours after setting out, we are enjoying not only a hot bowl of ramen noodles but also the boisterous, zenmaster-like laugh of the chief engineer of the tenth station, whom Mike affectionately calls "Yoda". Only a few minutes pass, and I'm already flirting with the coy waitress who's circling around us in the cold wooden hut. "I work on mountain only one week more!" she exclaims with a huge smile. All staff have to live on the summit for the July-August "open season." Her joy accompanies me down the slope, which is in some ways even worse than the climb - an endless series of switchbacks of loose gravel. My knees are buckling and unlike Jeff and Victoria, I am unable to run down, but need to take it one meticulous, measured step at a time. I take a hard fall at one point with parts flying off my trusted Sony V1U in all directions.Somehow, the waterlogged camera survives to fight another day. The tape survives as well, although I have to digitize the footage in 5-second chunks. It's worth it in the end. We are vegetables on the drive back home, it's been an 18-hr day, but when I look over the footage in the wee hours of the morning, I can tell it's going to be an epic tale. All the ingredients are there. Characters, camaraderie, hardship, struggle, triumph and heart-soaring adventure.
Now, all I need is time.