The Black Carp

The Black Carp

Carp are sacred in Japan.  My friend, Duncan, told me of one that was a gift from a 17th century Emperor.  It lived for 250 years.  They are hardy fuckers; eating and drawing sustenance from all manner of shit, garbage, and aquatic detritus.  Frogs, minnows, paper-bags, pretzels, and any other gunk that falls in the water, all ring the dinner bell for carp.  It is the very definition of a garbage fish, yet they are beautiful and fleet in the water, growing as large as their environment will let them.   They have been a mainstay of Japanese art and literature since the beginning of the written and painted  story.

My dog, Chooch, is kind of like a carp.  He eats whatever falls on the floor.   He was an orphan stray when I got him, eating from the garbage and starving when he was delivered to PAWS.  He is a tough little bastard who found a way to survive, just like a carp.  When lakes get polluted and all over the other fish go tits-up, not the scrappy carp.  In fact they thrive.  Most wildlife agencies consider the carp an “invasive” species meaning they wreck the aquatic neighborhood for the sexier fish like trout and  perch.  In the U.S., carp are considered inedible.  In Asia, they are heavily fished as a food-stuff.  I know guys down south who make carp-balls and swear they’re good.  I guess if you deep-fry anything with enough cornmeal and spices, it will become palatable.
Though a freshwater fish, every once in a while, someone catches one in the ocean.  There are stories of the ever-adaptable carp surviving saltwater.

Goldfish are basically carp, as are koi, which are the pretty carp and highly prized as ornamental accoutrements for ponds in Asia and Europe.  In Europe, fisherman love them because they are an intensely hard fish to hook and once you hook them, you have to fight the fuckers.  They do not go quietly off of this mortal coil.  They live for as long is there is  a steady food supply.  Despite being a universally maligned fish, they are found in the art of almost every culture, including ours.

The MCA in Chicago had a koi pond in their downstairs space.  Years ago, I had my exhibition of the alphabet etchings there and opening day was a family day where every swinging-dick in the city who had kids showed up.  One little boy climbed into the koi fountain and took a shit; much to the delight of the koi and several onlookers.  Nice of the tyke to serve the koi a hot meal.

In Japan, the carp move like a fleet, sad song under the water; drifting to the top when visitors appear to mooch food.  They put their mouths to the very surface and make a sucking sound that is to say the least, disquieting.  They have remarkably amiable personalities and are a whir of indecipherable oranges, browns, blacks and silvery whites.  hey are luminous and sublimely beautiful.

Published in: on September 27, 2009 at 4:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Shinjuku Sparrow

Shinjuku SparrowIn the Shinjuku district, there is most of the cool shopping in Japan, with bold graphics and bling everywhere.  You can walk by a window of a dizzying variety of Nike shoes, complete with every color of the swoosh one can imagine.  There are watches upon watches upon watches.  The weirdest ice-cream cones imaginable; not really cones the way we know them, more like sweet, thin wraps  stuffed with every kind of sweet cream and fruit and nuts and syrup.

Shinjuku is blinding color and motion, though not nearly as loud as other cities.  It is a culture of consumers, just like ours.  There are odd knock-offs of American products and Hello Kitty shit everywhere. I have to admit, I rather like the Hello Kitty stuff, as it is very comics-like.  There are a lot of young Japanese artists whose styles are greatly indebted to comics and manga.  It is the visual lingua-franca of their culture; much like comics, tattoos, Mad Magazine, and horror movies were for me.

As a kid, I remember having a Ratfink figure, one of those masterpieces of hot-rod culture that Big Daddy Roth gave us.  I was seven or eight and this was my favorite thing in the world.  I remember having to fight this oafish asshole who tried to take it from me on the playground.  Eddie Josephi tried to  grab it from me.  The prick. Needless to say, I left the playground with my Ratfink and Eddie ran home like a bitch with a bloody nose.

Shinjuku made me think of childhood a lot.  This part of town is very rooted in youth culture and you can find comics and books everywhere here and in the Chiyoda district, I found three volumes of gorgeous Japanese birds and paid a fortune for it and lugged the heavy bastards back to Chicago.  But what a score!  Whoever illustrated this book really loved birds.  As a kid, I drew birds incessantly.  Our yard was full of sparrows and finches and cardinals, red-wing blackbirds, and mourning doves.  The birds of Japan are exotic to me.  I don’t know a lot about them, and when I look in these books, it is like being there.  The parks are full of ravens and cranes and every kind of songbird.  In Ueno Park you can watch ravens gobble down cicadas in the late summer, and see cranes standing still as glass in the lagoon.  I think Japanese parks are quiet so one can hear the birds and the water.  In what little public space there is in Tokyo, nature is observed and revered.

Small ghost singing
In a Tokyo alley
Broken mirror songs.

Published in: on September 19, 2009 at 6:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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Ueno Park Goldfish

Ueno Park GoldfishIn Tokyo, there is a lovely, lush public green named Ueno Park.  It is full of beautifully sculpted trees; pines pruned to mimic bonsai motifs and ponds full of koi and carp and goldfish who come up to the surface and make sucking sounds that entreat tourists to feed them.  They will eat anything; hot-dogs, crackers, pretzels, cigarette butts; you name it.  The turtles also come over and mooch food as well.  Ueno Park was established by an imperial land grant in the 1920′s by Emperor Taishō. The official name of the park is “Ueno Imperial Gift Park,” lest anyone forget the largess of the Emperor.

It is a huge park complete with shrines, museums, a concert hall and a lovely grotto. If you are homeless in Tokyo, you probably live here. Though I didn’t notice a huge homeless population, people assure me it exists there.

Every spring, when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, the park is a magical burst of pinks and reds and the Japanese travel from near and far to sit under the cherry blossoms and picnic and drink wine and listen to music.  This is a centuries old celebration.   My next-door neighbor, the fine Chicago photo-based artist, Doug Fogelson, went for the spring this year and told me how magical it was.  Doug’s enthusiasm for this is part of why I went to  Japan and I’ll be forever grateful to him for  making me aware of this.

Ueno Park figures prominently in much of the native fiction and manga.  It occupies the former Kan’ei-ji,  the temple of the Shoguns, who’d built the temple to protect the Castle of Edo.

The carp are huge and beautiful and have as much personality as a fish can have, they have it.  One is struck by the reverence the Japanese have for their parks.  They are very quiet places; serene really, and not full of douche-bags throwing Frisbees to their dogs. Nor does anyone let their dog shit in the park.  Or if they do, they probably toss it to the carp.

Flying back from Tokyo is sad; first because I’m sad to leave that place I am so fascinated by.  Secondly, because the movies on the plane were Sandra Bullock movies, and my iPod ran out of juice an hour into the flight.

When I got back, my dog, Chooch, jumped all over me and was thrilled to see me. . .at first.  About an hour later, he started giving me the shit-eye for being gone so long.  Three pieces of salami fixed that.  Once I left Tokyo, I started missing it.  It is one of those places, like New Orleans, where square-pegs like me actually kind of fit in.

Published in: on September 15, 2009 at 11:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Crazy Horse Among Falling Stars

Crazy Horse Among Falling StarsUpon  returning from Tokyo, I started re-reading my notes about Crazy Horse and at the same time, Basho’s poem-diaries. It struck me how much these two men were alike in a lot of ways. Matsuo Basho would often take long journeys on foot around Japan.  His final one is recounted in his most well known diary, Narrow Road to a Far Province.  It is Basho searching, trying to find, in nature, his reason, his task. . .his definition.

Crazy Horse wanted little to do with other people, red or white.  He was happiest out wandering in nature.  He was as content to sleep in a cave or a hole, as he was in a camp. He loved being out under the stars and was  comfortable with his own company.  There was a reason the Oglala referred to him as “our Strange Man.”  His nonconformity set him apart in a tribal culture.  He had much responsibility in his tribe.  He was among the most fierce of warriors; a brilliant tactical fighter and a superb hunter, and to his tribe, he was necessary and he was up to shouldering his immense responsibility to his people.  He hunted buffalo, he led war-parties and raids, but when the opportunity arose, he would go off by himself to be in nature and fast and seek visions.  He was curious about the spirits and the next world and he sought wisdom.  Like Basho, he was always searching and seeking knowledge.

In Tokyo, I visited some Shinto shrines and was struck by how much Shintoism reflects the beliefs of some Native American beliefs as well.  I’m not religious at all, but do tend to cede the power most attribute to god, to nature.  The Shinto teachings have an intense reverence for the natural world and the shrines are sublimely beautiful.

It may sound odd that I went to Japan to better understand Crazy Horse, but I think it helped.  In every culture, there are these odd-spirited men who don’t quite fit into the world easily, yet they push that culture forward for better and ill.  They are necessary people who don’t want to punch a clock or color inside the lines.   There is an otherness about them.  In Japan, the Haiku monks were thought to be oddballs in their day.  Basho was an admirer of Li-Po, the great Chinese poet of the 8th century, another wandering spirit enamored of wandering in nature.  It is not an accident that Haiku is rooted in nature and  reflects the seasonal shifts of one’s lifetime.

I hope that after Crazy Horse was murdered, he went somewhere.  He certainly deserved better than he got.  I don’t believe in the afterlife, but I’d like it if he had one.  Haitians refer to the land between the living and the dead as the “Gray World” and there is no time continuum; it is a place where Basho and Crazy Horse could meet.  I hope wherever Crazy Horse went, he wore a necklace of stars.

Published in: on September 15, 2009 at 12:13 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary — Jingu Stadium

My last night in Tokyo, I wanted to see a baseball game.  Luckily, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows were hosting the Hiroshima Carp at Jingu Stadium.  It was a beautiful night for a ballgame and Jingu Stadium has the feel of an old-time ballpark; the kind where people go to watch the game, instead of each other.  There are no skyboxes or hundred-dollar box seats or any of that kind of horseshit.  It is a real ballpark.

There are a surprising number of Americans on both teams and one wonders how they wound up here.  It is a different game in Japan.  It is the very definition of “small ball;” the emphasis being on playing like a team.  Hit to get on base.  The most valuable players in Japanese baseball are the guys with the highest on-base percentage.  There are also a ton of women fans here; not girlfriends who got dragged to the game, but real baseball enthusiasts who wear the hats and bang the plastic bats together with  a rabid alacrity.

Me and John McNaughton are the children of lifelong White Sox fans.  Both of our fathers dutifully followed the Sox their whole lives without ever seeing them win it all. The closest they came was in 1959 when they lost the World Series to the LA Dodgers. We discussed our fathers in the cab on the way to Jingu Stadium.  It seems like we almost had the same father; both men being hard to please and somewhat suspect  of their sons’ chosen career paths.  One of the reasons I came to Japan is my father’s having fought in the Pacific in WWII.  He invaded Okinawa and witnessed a bestial, awful battle that forever colored the way he thought of  the Japanese.  I wondered, really, what this place was?  Our countries did grievous injury to each other almost 65 years ago.  Who are they now?  And who are we?

Part of the answer came to me tonight.  A man sitting next to us was wearing a Carps hat and, after a bit of conversation, told us the Carps were his hometown team.

Hiroshima.

I’m not used to thinking of Hiroshima as a place where people live. . .a community. . .but rather as the exclamation point of our war with Japan.  Hiroshima was an action, not a place.  Yet here we are, on a warm summer night in Tokyo talking with another baseball fan about our teams.  He asked us about the Cubs.  Of course we said “Fuck NO!” and he laughed.  We explained that we were real baseball fans; White Sox fans. On this night, almost three quarters of a century after our country tried to erase this man’s city from the earth, I met a  guy from the town of Hiroshima.  He’s lived there his whole life and he likes baseball.  He comes here for the same reasons I do; to try and remember what is good about where we live and who we are.

Published in: on September 10, 2009 at 2:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tokyo Diary — Tokyo Giants Hat

I have walked like a goddamned Sherpa and eaten more tuna than Flipper.  I love Tokyo; its dreaminess, its civility, its attention to beauty and detail.  I wake up here and I am in a city with more people than almost any other on earth, yet, it is quiet.  You rarely here a car horn or a siren.  There is a premium placed on the idea of calm, efficient motion.  One does not expend an ounce of energy one does not have to; life is  lived in a kind of measure.

I went to some art galleries on the outskirts of Tokyo and saw some contemporary art and it was mostly stuff one could see in Chelsea last year.  I was surprised.  There were no Japanese artists in any of the four places I looked; only New Yorkers and Europeans.  I met a very opinionated American trust-fund brat with a gallery in Tokyo who, within the first 3 minutes of our conversation, trashed every artist in Tokyo and New York, and Murakam (the novelist) and Murakami (the artist),  referring to him as an “Orientalist” whatever the hell that means.  He was an annoying, pedantic, name-dropping, ass-wipe who also had nothing good to say about Tokyo, despite the fact he has lived here for nine years.  He also “had a gallery on the lower east side” and spent another 5 minutes trashing everyone and thing in NYC as well.  I wanted to compliment him on his ability to be an unwelcome asshole in TWO hemispheres , but it was clear we’d never get a word in, so we escaped the art district, having given it 40 minutes, and I decided my time would more productively be spent finding the dome where the World Champion Tokyo Giants play and get myself a hat.

I’ve wanted one forever and I suppose I could just snag one off the internet; but I have this memory of my father and uncle buying me a White Sox hat at Comiskey as a kid and I have this particular fetish for buying my hats at the stadium.  So I took the 3000-yen ride to Giants Stadium and found the coolest, most boss, fitted Tokyo Giants hat; and I look like a cool motherfucker in it.  I had to go all the way to Tokyo to get one.    Does that make mine cooler?  Damn skippy, it does.

I’ve had a lot of time to think while I’ve been here and I’ve come to the conclusion that while I love making my work, I don’t much care for the culture that surrounds me as an artist.  It’s like being on a bus full of mental defectives.  The art world’s culture is almost entirely about itself.  There is a curious lack of curiosity about the way rest of the world lives, and an appalling lack of  literate knowledge.  They don’t read much, other than magazines about art, fashion and movies.  They interview each other and they all talk like a roll of toilet-paper; the same banal platitudes wrapped the new buzzwords.  This season “contextualist” is a popular important sounding term that actually doesn’t mean anything.

I’m fortunate.  I have very good dealers who know it’s best to just let me be me and everything will be okay.   But still, I look around and listen to the conversation in the art world and when they discuss “the crisis,” they’re not talking about the huge percentage of our fellow citizens who are without healthcare or a job.  “The Crisis” is about slow art sales and galleries closing.  Really.  I hear this shit regularly.  Maybe it’s time the art world realized that it is part of the real world and embrace a larger set of priorities and step up to a larger responsibility in the community; have its artists mentor kids, do out-reach in the schools and the juvenile detention centers; the other world. . .beyond the  billboards.

Published in: on September 9, 2009 at 6:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary–Ameyoko Market

They don’t want to be salarymen.  The 4 or 5 young men I am standing with are tattooed, nattily-dressed punker types with gangster hats and highlighted hair.  We are standing at the entrance of the Ameyoko market where you can by everything from big-eyed, cartoony redfish, to primrose-colored Ramones T-shirts, to epicurean green tea.  It is a bit of the new economy’s Wild West, with guys hawking everything out loud , specially the fish guys, who pick up their catch every morning from Tsukiji market.

These young men want none of the  stoic and sober countenance of the quiet, brief-case carrying commuters they eye walking briskly toward the trains.  They walked up and started asking me about my tattoos and we, as best we could, talked about what they were up to.  One young man with a DMX T-Shirt told me he was an aspiring rapper, and his first love was American hip-hop and rap acts like 50- Cent and Snoop Dogg.  He even did a bit of Snoop for me; “Snoop upside, Snoop upside,  Snoop upside  yo head. . .”  Seeing this from an earnest Japanese teenager is screamingly funny, and even he thinks so.  The other guys weren’t sure about what they wanted.  As much as they understood what I was getting at.

I showed them a book of some of my work and via the miracle of pantomime, we were able to communicate.  These guys all love Scarface.  I know this because when I told them my name was “Tony,” they started saying “Tony Montana. . .Say hello to my lil friend. . .bang, bang, bang.”  When I told them I was from Chicago, they said “Al Capone,” to which I nodded and replied “Fuckin’ A. . .except now we call him Mayor Daley.”

I got a lot out of talking with these kids.  In some ways they want to be like us.  In other ways, they’re rightly appalled by us.  One of them went to great pains to show his dismay at the reports of people showing up to our President’s speeches with guns.  This idea  gives him the idea that we are crazy.  And they are aware  of the racism cloaked in much of the anti-Obama sentiment.  Outside of our borders, I thought, maybe people are able to see this better than we, ourselves do and perhaps able to take a longer view of us.

These guys are also bat-shit for comics and were trying to ask me why I didn’t do comics.  I tried to explain that this was what I’d wanted to do as a kid.  In this culture it is not unusual for grown men to read and buy comics and Manga.  In fact,  it is a bumper industry over here and sometimes the fans dress like the Manga characters and get together in the parks.  Get on any train and you see men reading comics.  The comic stores in Chiyoda are always full of mostly men and boys and they  wait with baited breath for each new installment.

The market here is almost impossible to describe as it sells everything.  A young man with a shaved head and a Drop-Kick Murphy’s T-shirt is hawking styrofoam cooler after cooler of eel’s, remora,and baby octopus.  Two stalls down there is an older women offering seaweed and kelp; next to her is a guy with knock-off Dolce & Gabana products.  There is no rhyme or reason to how this thing works, but it is wonderful and I realize that for about a week, I’ve not been chained to my cell phone or e-mail, and I have the luxury of watching like a fly on the wall; granted a 6’3″, 250 pound fly (it’s not like I go un-noticed), but nobody knows me here and beyond my freakish large size, nobody pays me much attention and I am able to use my eyes and ears and decode what is going on around me in my own way and on my own time.  I don’t know that I completely get Japan, but I like it.  There is a dreaminess about it that I respond to and a lot of this population often seeks its own world to disappear into.   Nobody understands this desire like I do.

There is a term used to describe certain elements of Japanese art called “the Floating World.”  It was often used to describe narrative art in this country over the last few centuries and it is thought that a great much of Japanese comics and manga come out of this  tradition.  It is not unlike how European whites describe some Latin-American writing as “magical realism.”  The two are not unlike each other.   There is a real world feeling of that in this country; that amid the salarymen and a culture that seems to adhere to almost arcanely comformist behavior; there is a wild imagination woven into the human experience.

Published in: on September 7, 2009 at 11:33 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary – The Flea-Market at Togo-Jinja

Taxi drivers in Tokyo are a dignified sort.  Most wear ties and coats, or vests. Their cabs are immaculate and they know exactly where they are going.  I was warned that cabs were prohibitively expensive in Tokyo, but that isn’t really true.  They are not as costly as those in London and they’re maybe a little higher than New York, but they know where the fuck they are going, which saves you time and money.

Our guy took us to Harajuku, which is dominated by a youth-culture shopping strip full of the fashionable kids from this city.  Their fashion does not seem any odder, or frankly, all that different from American teenagers, which is to say, they look as earnestly stupid as any other teenager.  Among the young women, there is a tendency toward the babydoll sex object look, which is more than a little disturbing, but for the most part, the tights-with-shorts-and-a-shit-load-of-mascara-look seems to be the thing for young women of this district, which is heavily consumerist.  There is lots of hip-hop influenced stuff and bad Don Ed Hardy knock-off shirts, there are snack-shops selling combinations of food I wouldn’t  chance.  A sausage and egg pastry seems like a culinary trend collision to me, and not the kind of thing that should also include….frosting.  Harajuku is charming just for its blinding energy and color, and for all of the youth culture present, you don’t really notice any gang or drug activity.  Tokyo is well-policed.  They aren’t in your face.  They are very present and polite, but they are everywhere.

At the end of this strip is a stairway that takes you into a bucolic and lovely park called Togo-Jinja.  Today was the weekly flea market there and it was lovely and full of color and hard-bargaining.  Men and women who are old pros at this flea market business. . .you can only dicker so much with them.  I never try to “bargain“; I just pay what is asked, if I want the thing they have. But I witnessed some real theater between some of the Japanese bargain hunters.  Nobody ever raises their voice, but there is plenty of back and forth and it can go on for a long time until a deal or acceptable compromise is reached.  You know this when one, or both, of the parties exhorts a curt “Hi” and a brief bow is made.  I watched two very attractive women go at it over a tea set for about 5 minutes in a quiet but very heated parley until they reached some agreement, only to break into a musical kind of laughter when the deal was done.  If you’d been there, you’d know how magical, and funny, and full of humanness it was.  Sometimes words are merely inadequate.

I found a treasure trove of scraps; things loaded and charged with another history, not my own, things loaded with the poetry of. . .chance.  I cannot wait to start working with these treasures.  These things made with paper convey so much.  It is as if each thing is a message of fortunate circumstance, a thing  waiting for a new definition.  For me, they are scraps loaded with hope; the pieces too short to save and too beautiful to throw away.

Published in: on September 6, 2009 at 11:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary – Ginza District

I’ve taken tons and tons of digital shots and I have no earthly fucking idea how to load them onto my computer, because I am a moron.  I walked at least 5 miles today all over Sinjuku and Shimboyu and tonight in the Ginza district.  I also spent a little time in one of the parks which are gorgeous in Tokyo, and oddly quiet.  Public space is revered in this city because there is so little of it and parks offer respite from the crowds.  People are very quiet in the parks and these immaculately manicured places are sanctuary and lend themselves to reading and meditation.  The trees are carefully pruned and sculpted and every park is tended to like a giant garden.  They are beautiful.

I walked a great deal today and saw a lot of Tokyo in a shopping district right by Shiboyu.  There is a youth culture that is hard to discern the look of; part punk, part slacker, part skate-kid.  It is an amalgam of all of these things.  I have stumbled onto something  my host country really likes though–buttons. They are bat-shit for buttons.

My friend, Beth Keegan had a button made from a detail of one of my Drawing-Collages for the publication of Polyphony, an anthology of writing by high school kids that I provide the cover for every year.  After the opening party of the new issue, Beth gave me a baggie full of these buttons and said I ought to hand them out to friends.  On a whim, I brought them with me.  They were in my bag anyway and just for the hell of it, and I started handing them out in Tokyo.  Tipping is not accepted here, so mostly I’ve been giving out the buttons and, Jesus Christ. . .you’d think I was handing out the Hope Diamond.  They LOVE them.  And I began to notice lots of people have buttons with manga characters, Hello Kitty, monsters, anime, comics; these are some seriously button-happy motherfuckers.  From sushi chefs, to doormen, to hotel maids, to art-kids, the buttons are a huge hit.  Every time I hand one out I make a friend.  I speak no Japanese at all and I’ve managed  some marvelous conversations with people about these buttons and Tokyo and art and what they like.  I am so grateful to Beth for giving these to me and I think I’m going to have some more made.  We’ve been treated with such kindness here and such amazing goodwill.  I think to our hosts, maybe the buttons represent a talisman of goodwill.  I certainly mean it this way and it is understood.

Tonight, I ate the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life.  Back home I am a middling fan of sushi. I can kind of take it or leave it.  My daughter loves the stuff, so I go out for it fairly frequently and the experience varies from pretty good, to just okay, to dog-shit.  I never got what the big whoop about sushi was.

Once I got it here, I understood.  This place is the mecca of sushi and a sushi chef here is a combination of things; an artist, a dinner companion, a griot, and, the good ones, educators.  You learn a lot about the Japanese in a really good sushi restaurant.  One learns of the high premium placed on the idea of civility and kindness; that over the sushi bar, one does not merely have a meal, but also forges a communal conversation and fosters goodwill.  At Kyubey in the Ginza district, I ate with my friends and had another of those marvelous conversations  in which neither participant spoke a word of the other’s language.  Oh,I know,  “Ka ni chi wa” and “Arivato,” but the conversation I had with the sushi chefs was more nuanced than many I’ve had with people I’ve know for 10 years.  It was a conversation held almost in pantomime and smiles and gestures and nods.  And it was warm and fine and good.  Watching these guys prepare food was like watching Yo Yo Ma play a cello, or Oscar Peterson, the piano.  It is the difference between watching an artist and a hobbyist.  There are no wasted movements in the preparation; every element is prepared with an economy of motion and speed  and temperature.  Every bite was different.

Tipping is not allowed, so we bought the chefs beers (and so did everyone else) and these guys toast their benefactors and then hammer the whole glass down in one sip.  Though I’ve not had a drink in 25 years, I still admire guys who drink like they absolutely mean to, and they mean to enjoy it, as well. After their toast, they go right back to work preparing delicately realized, and perfect sushi.  My friend, the chef, John Hogan, once told me that every great meal teaches you a new lesson. I’m beginning to know what he means.

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 10:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tokyo Diary – Tsujiki Fish Market

Bird Of The Falling PlanetsTsukiji Market is the biggest fish market in Tokyo.  It is aisle after aisle of all things writhing and aquatic and edible.  It is massive with a business that is blinding; Japanese men zipping around on forklifts and 3-wheelers full of every kind of fish one can imagine.  It is marketplace, slaughterhouse, and auction block all under one tin roof.  It also hosts the freshest and best sushi to be found anywhere in the world.  You think you’ve eaten tuna until you’ve eaten it here.  We sat  at a 10-seat counter at 5:30 in the morning and ate the most buttery tuna I’ve ever eaten and then walked across the perilously slick and massive warehouse to the tuna auction and watched the Japanese version of laissez-faire capitalism at work.  Chefs and seafood buyers are given an hour or so to inspect the tuna for purchase and promptly at 5:30 a.m. the auctioneers start furiously ringing handbells and taking bids.  When a lot is sold, a man with a bucket of red dye goes around to each massive frozen bluefin tuna and designates an owner and a price.  The price of tuna is variable, like any other commodity, depending on that day’s catch.

It smells remarkably like the sea and not rank at all, but briny, in a way.  There are huge scallops, wolf-fish, monk-fish, buckets of live eels, cartoon-like, big-eyed redfish and octopus, all manner of oysters, clams, and mussels and seafood butchering going on all around you .  This is a real Tokyo experience.  Almost everyone I know who has been in this city has told me to come to the fish market.

What is striking to me is not how different Japanese and American culture are, but how alike.  The Fish Market, for me, is not different than watching traders on Wall Street yelling and screaming and trying to get theirs while the sun is out.  Our cultures do not differ at all when it comes to profit-motive initiatives.  Like America, Japan has an arduos  work-ethic  in that it is thought that work dignifies one’s life and provides one with identity.

I will say that the fish market seems infinitely more civilized than the trading pit.  As we walked around this morning smiling at the melange of activity and colors and scents, people smiled back at us.  They were well-aware that we’d never seen anything like this before and were as polite as their schedule would allow.  It is a remarkable place and has been part of Japan for centuries.  When we think of the South Street Seaport and the Fulton Markets back home, they probably have their genesis in this place of brine and grime and work.

Published in: on September 2, 2009 at 10:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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