by Brian Kerstetter
A few years back, O. and I found ourselves in Japan for work on a short movie, accompanied by O.’s wife Makiko. I’d always wanted to visit Japan since witnessing Makiko and her friend, Taki, systematically liquidate two ears of corn at my parents’ cabin in Ohio. They ran their mouths back and forth over the ears like miniature John Deere threshers, until the cobs stood as naked and pristine as the day they were born. No trace of a kernel remained. I stared at the mutilated cob on my plate in comparison – it looked like Ben, the family dog, had dragged it up and down the street. I told Makiko that if all Japanese people eat corn like her, Japan must be a strange and mystical land.
“My parents said I go blind if I don’t finish all,” Makiko said, looking down at her plate. “Especially rice.”
I told her I understood. “In Catholic school I was told if I went swimming alone with girls they would get pregnant. Then I would go blind.”
At the entrance to our Tokyo hotel, O., Makiko, and I watched as guests attending a wedding reception spun through the revolving doors and into the lobby. The newlyweds, in tuxedo and gown, greeted the arrivals beside a white table accommodating gifts. Out of the blue the revolving doors produced a violent, suctioning snort, and who spilled into the lobby but O., clutching a manila envelope. Makiko fell backwards and produced a croak, like a baby frog. She looked on, as O. handed the couple the envelope and, in flip-flops and gray t-shirt, executed a flawless 15-degree bow. The couple bowed politely in return.
But that wasn’t it. For some reason, O. followed up his textbook bow with an encore – a neo-Baroque genuflection inspired by the Japanese sport of sumo. He lowered himself into a crouch, knees poking outwards, slapped his right thigh, then his left, hoisted his left leg, then his right, and sprang skyward like a grasshopper, sweeping each leg into a roundhouse kick before spinning around and sticking the landing, nose wedged between his knees, arms jutting up behind him. He held the maneuver, for effect.
All commerce in that teeming lobby collapsed, as though a gigantic fist had punched it in the gut. A child dropped his lollipop, mouth open like a guppy. When O. finally peeked up with one eye, an Italian businessman checking into his room dropped his briefcase and applauded, calling out “Bravo! Bellissimo!” as though he’d just caught Pavarotti at La Scala.
The groom, a karaoke enthusiast and amateur Michael Jackson aficionado, repositioned his bride off to the side. The fellow took a deep breath and proceeded to moondance across the lobby. He hopped on the tips of his toes, bit his bottom lip, looked left and right, and threw himself onto his knees, leaning forward until his forehead kissed the carpet. He, too, held the maneuver for effect, only to be met with an awkward silence – the Italian was already up in his room lounging in his complimentary robe.
“Where’s Makiko?” O. said, hobbling across the lobby, rubbing his knees.
“My wife. Makiko Aoki.”
“With you?” I suggested, peering behind him.
O. closed his eyes, the perfect martyr, and took a deep breath.
O. peered inside a potted plant for his spouse, thinking she might be napping. I opened the fridge in the kitchen, thinking she might be hungry. O. clambered in and out of nine taxis, thinking she might want to leave him. In the tenth, he crossed his legs Indian-style, head in hands, and concluded, “I’ve lost my wife.” Hearing this, the driver, an Edo period romantic, drove East and West, then North and South in search of O.’s wife, until O. discovered that his bumpy arm rest was in fact Makiko’s head. She’d wanted to leave him, in fact, but had drifted to sleep before giving the driver directions.
“Shibuya!” O. called to the driver.
Makiko sat up, yawned like a housecat, and recollecting O.’s sumo tribute in the lobby, inserted a sharp elbow into his ribs.
“Please don’t do that,” she said. “In Japan, bowing is serious tradition.”
“And sumo?” O. muttered rubbing his rib cage. “And sumo!”
Out the window into the rushing air, I poked my head, and the letters –u- and –o- in the word sumo, made the world seem a beautiful, baffling place.
Shibuya is anchored at its navel by a vast traffic intersection, a sort of urban frying pan where every three minutes thousands of Tokyo’s diligent citizens scramble themselves into a human omelette. The cabby dropped us at the edge of the intersection and I slammed the door shut. Makiko winced. The driver winced.
“Please don’t do that,” Makiko said. “Very rude. Taxi doors close automatic–”
O. slammed his door on the other side and hopped out with his video camera.
“Action!” O. hollered, tossing a plastic yellow mask in my direction. “No, wait…” He fumbled with the camera, unable to locate the Record button. It was too late – I’d snapped on the mask and plunged into the intersection, where I was pummeled left and right by a battalion of miniature elbows. The holes in my mask didn’t match up with my eyes and, once through the intersection, I wandered blindly into a 7-Eleven, out the back of the 7-Eleven, and onto a barstool in a ramen shop, where I ordered a broth and bamboo shoots.
“The goose for me. I mean, the duck!” O. called out, having trailed me in and out of the 7-Eleven and into the ramen shop. He snapped apart his chopsticks and grated them between his hands to remove the splinters, using his palms as pin cushions. “Ouch! Oh! Daddy!” he cried, extracting the needles one by one. When that didn’t draw enough attention, he sawed the chopsticks back and forth, like an American Indian starting fire. Then he reached over and pinched my egg roll. I speared the butt of the appetizer just in time and catapulted it over my shoulder and onto the plate behind me, where Makiko took a bite and savored it, looking up to the sky. Then she gently placed one chopstick on the bar and shoved the other into O.’s elbow joint.
“Please don’t do that,” she said. “Fighting with chopsticks, rude.”
“What about him?” O. said, holding his elbow and pointing at me.
Makiko glanced at her chopsticks, then at my elbow, then back at her chopsticks.
The following day we boarded the shinkansen for the weeping willows and sugar cherries of Kyoto Prefecture. At Shinagawa station we bought three Bento Boxes for the trip, mine with a pink boiled egg carved into the shape of a strip of bacon. O. forked out $150 dollars for a Limited Edition Bento consisting entirely of Wagyu, Kobe and Omi beef. Even the “vegetables” were carved from chunks of black Kobe. The box depicted an etching of a farmer massaging a cow with a bottle of sake, which O. raised to his face and took a self portrait.
In our seats, I polished off my bento and fell asleep, my greasy forehead basting the window pane like a clump of butter. Makiko nodded off too. O. broke the seal on his bento and placed a slice of Wagyu beef on his tongue, mumbling something about the taste of alfalfa. Then he bit into a “mushroom” and, instead of returning it to his bento, reached over and balanced the remainder on my thigh. When I didn’t budge, he did the same with a “sweet potato,” followed by the partially-eaten chunks of carrot, celery, radish, pickle, ginger, egg, and salmon, until the length of my thigh, down to the knee, resembled a tasting at a butcher’s counter. When he’d finished, he wiped his fingers on his pants and placed the empty bento box beneath his seat and settled in to read his newspaper.
As the leftovers along my leg grew, so did the crowd amassing in the aisle. A businessman monitored the progress from behind his newspaper. Students texted their schoolmates, who rushed in from other carriages. A girl with Cupid doll eyes and pink hair took a photo and emailed it to her boyfriend in California. By this point I was really sawing logs, jaw drooping, collecting saliva. Out of left field I produced a sequence of staccato sleep twitches to the delight of the crowd, who politely covered their mouths as they snickered.
The conductor pushed his way through the pack and requested our tickets. O. could’ve handed him three squares of toilet paper, preoccupied as he was by the open-air buffet. The poor fellow nearly punched a hole in his left pinkie, convinced he was witnessing, or about to witness, something momentous.
O. expended equal energy reading his newspaper as he did ignoring the Japan Railways employee. Finally the conductor leaned over and placed his face six inches from O.’s.
“Sir?” he said.
“Sir?” O. repeated, holding his ground.
“Mister?” said the conductor, leaning forward until his nose nearly touched O.’s.
“Mister?” O. repeated.
The conductor looked in my direction, then back at O.
“Pickles,” O. said.
“Pickles?” said the conductor.
“That’s correct,” O. said, and returned to reading his newspaper.
The conductor shot a nervous glance up and down the aisle, thrust his cellphone into O.’s hand, and leaned over me, making the thumbs-up signal, and O. snapped his photo.
“For my kids,” the conductor whispered, shaking O.’s hand, and quickly back-pedaling out of the compartment, bowing as he went.
Makiko awoke and, spotting the crowd, rubbed her eyes. When she caught sight of me napping, covered in meat, and O. holed up behind his newspaper, she made favorable use of his kidney by vigorously inserting a pointy elbow into it. This sent the crowd fleeing up and down the aisle.
“Please don’t do that,” Makiko said. “Playing with…”
“Harry Potter!” I blurted, jerking awake, unsure of where I was. I ordered a cup of tea and a red bean bun from the passing food cart.
“Don’t do what?” I asked Makiko.
“Don’t worry about it,” O. said, rubbing his kidney. Then added, “Bun-eater.”
In Kyoto, we rented three single-speed bicycles with wicker baskets and pedaled up to Fushimi Inari Shrine in the foothills overlooking the city. For two hours we strolled along a path lined with thousands of red torii gates, until we came upon a gingerbread-looking shrine. Makiko dipped a bamboo ladle into the Purification Trough and touched it to her lips, lowering her eyes in prayer. O. submerged his palm in the hallowed water and baptized one festering armpit after the other, topping off his ablutions by running his index finger back and forth over his fermenting teeth like a toothbrush.
Inside the Hall of Offerings, a lone Japanese couple fanned Cherry Blossom incense over their son’s arm, which was in a cast. The smoke contains healing powers, Makiko explained. Hearing this, O. pulled off his Adidas sneakers, revealing a grizzled toe, the size of a turnip, protruding from a hole in his sock. The toenail was smoky gray in color, which would have been rather attractive, had it been an eye color, not that of a toenail. The sight of this unnatural appendage sucked the air, along with my brittle serenity, from the hall.
Makiko tossed five yen in the fountain, lit a bundle of incense and clapped twice to attract the deity and purify the spirit. She turned her back to us, hoping to buttress her tranquility.
“Turning your backside to the deity?” O. said.
Makiko inhaled deeply and edged further away.
“I only have foreign money,” he said, turning over some coins in his palm. “Will that work? I mean, will Buddha accept that?”
“Let me ask you,” I interjected, taking an Australian coin from his palm and elevating it before his face. “Would you pay with this in a Japanese restaurant?”
“Yes,” O. responded, squinting at me as though it were one of my dumber questions.
He flung the fistful of coins into the sacred bath, muttering, “One of these should work,” lit a clump of incense and lifted the decaying toe into the smoke, waggling it around, hopping up and down to keep from falling over.
“Over here, Makiko,” O. called out, gesturing for her to approach, and he positioned his wife so he could hold the top of her head to keep his balance.
“What?” O. said, catching me staring at his toe.
“That,” I specified, pointing at the discolored protuberance.
“Toenail fungus,” he said. “Onychomycosis, actually.”
“He has big toe fungus,” Makiko said, eyes closed. “The nail turns brown in fall. And green in spring.”
“Like the leaves,” I said.
“Except leaves die and go away. This Godzilla fungus won’t do either.”
“You know, incense doesn’t work on fungus,” I informed him. “Know what does, especially on the big toe?”
Makiko blinked. O. blinked. They leaned forward with anticipation.
“A gong,” I said.
“A gong?” said Makiko.
“A gong?” said O.
I steered them into a dimly-lit antechamber where a centuries-old gong hung next to a wooden mallet. Before I could instruct O. on the specific gong technique to cure big toe fungus, he grabbed the mallet and inflicted a Roger Federer backhand on the defenseless instrument. boing, boing…B-O-O-O-O-O-O-ON-G! Then he lifted the mossy toenail in the air and pressed it against the rumbling gong, and like a child seeking his Mother’s approval, spun around with both hands in the air, and cried, “Look, Makiko, no hands!”