Kuji Sea Cliffs

Dedicated to friends and mentors:

  • Lloyd Hackl
  • Dr. Stanley Williams
  • Robert Bly

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Vault of Stars


Preface
The night sky I describe below was observed while standing in the parking lot adjacent to my house in Japan. Although a story about a stormy sky doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the Orient, I found it noteworthy because of the unique landscape of the archipelago.  Japan is a mountainous country formed by volcanic action.  Most of the mountains are not particularly tall, usually a couple of thousand feet or less (except for the high alpine regions of central Japan and Hokkaido) but the lowlands are about as flat as you can imagine. The reason is that the vast majority of the non-mountainous terrain is covered by rice paddies. And flooded rice paddies are, well, flat. Many hills are terraced as well, creating even more level spaces. With the advent of mechanized farming, however, many of the old, narrow and steeply terraced paddies have been abandoned.

For centuries, Japan has been a predominately rice-growing nation. Virtually every inch of available land is cultivated and it is not uncommon to see neatly planted rows of rice butting up against high rise buildings. Until the end of the 19th Century, feudal lords measured their wealth in Koku of rice, which was thought of as the amount needed to feed one subject for a year (about 278 liters). So the lord with the most Koku, had the biggest bank account.  Centuries of cultivation produced flatlands between steep mountains ranges which provide wonderful vistas of long narrow valleys and misty hills. Moonlit nights further accentuate a hauntingly beautiful landscape. I find it little wonder that Edo Period artist Hiroshige often drew moonlight scenes in his depictions of everyday Japanese life in the waning days of the feudal era—just don’t ask me why I tied that to large-scale cosmology and the alley behind my boyhood home.


 A Vault of Stars

Late one night I stood in an empty parking lot gazing up at a dark and stormy sky. Not realizing how fast the clouds were moving until the vapor thinned revealing a submerged moon behind waves of gray clouds ripping by like whitewater rapids.
I watched in fascination for several minutes then I saw a rift in the thick blanket rapidly approach from across the valley.  I followed the tear as it raced across the night sky until it was directly overhead.  I looked up into its abyss and saw a vault of stars so bright and intense that the light seemed to pierce my body and bounce off the asphalt like rain in a deluge.  The breach moved rapidly and I could not resist its pull. I fell through the black hole slamming into a wall of stars as my being flattened out, infinitely thin, infinitely smooth, in all directions with no point of reference. 


Distant galaxies glittered through my slice of light like house dust floating through a waning beam of sunlight on a quiet afternoon.


Then I remembered riding my bike down the alley behind my house when I was a kid and turning the corner into my driveway at full speed; knowing that the garage door would be closed; knowing a hundred thousand times it would be closed. Yet, I choose not brake in the millisecond before impact and the collapse of the giant star into a singularity.
Regaining consciousness, I looked up into the warm, loving eyes of my mother as she held my battered body in soft, caring arms. 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Obama in Japan or: How I Came to Love Janglish.

I recently traveled to Japan after a two year hiatus. On my previous trip I toured auto plants in the Nagoya industrial region and took a side trip to Kyoto, the ancient capital and cultural center of Japan. This time the family and I ventured to the town of Misawa, in Aomori Prefecture on the northeastern tip of the main island of Honshu. Our mission: visit son George, stationed at Misawa Air Force Base.

Misawa is a sleepy, provincial town of about forty-three thousand, of which a quarter is either U.S. Military, or Japan Air Self-Defense Force ( Jass Daff as my son calls them). The town seems to have a good relationship with the base personnel and I didn't see any anti-American banners around base parameters as I had seen in Okinawa. A quick read on the history of the base prior to our trip reveled that it had once been a cavalry base for the Imperial Army prior to World War II, then a bomber and later a Kamikaze launching point by the Imperial Navy Air Corps. With the Base being such a big part of the neighborhood, it seemed only natural that local business would go out of their way to cater to the non-Japanese speaking population. This willingness to cater to foreigners is on display in the form of various signs and billboards in English found around town, and what wonderful English it is!

Japanese work very hard at foreign languages and allocate vast resources, both academically and commercially, towards increasing their proficiency. Yet Japanese is sufficiently divergent from English both culturally and linguistically-despite the influx of English words-to be an easy task for the average citizen. One finds few foreigners beyond Tokyo, and although English is compulsory from 9th grade on, most Japanese struggle mightily with spoken and written English in particular. English-speaking foreigners who visit Japan have no doubt seen the well-meaning, yet often humorous results of this disconnect on signs, restrooms, and tee shirts.

But don't misunderstand me; I give the Japanese copy editors high marks for effort and style, if not always for accuracy. Conversely, these public displays often provide a bit of levity to otherwise pedestrian signage for dry cleaning, coffee bars, pachinko parlors, and the like. Here are a few of my favorites from the trip:
"Jam Friend Club," for the name of a pachinko gambling club, I'm guessing they won't be such great friends to jam with after one is in to them for a few grand?
"Sweet Hiem," on the door of a home builder. Maybe they were appealing to local Germans? A bike shop named "Workaholic." Some truth in advertising perhaps?
And I dare you to tell me what kind of establishment bills itself as Shidax Please!
But gaffes aside, I believe that a certain charm would be lost if the syntax was perfect. Moreover, the Japanese penchant for detail and politeness would be subverted if the parking lots sign at the dollar a plate sushi bar read, "Management takes no responsibility for accidents or theft." As opposed to the lovely, poetic, abet somewhat confusing: We don't take all responsibility for accident, theft in this parking area. Please watch out for that well.
Or, found on the same sign: Please don't rev up in this parking area! I made a mental note not to get too keyed-up in that parking lot! However, the most elegant and insightful janglish, in my opinion, was found somewhat surprisingly on the cover of a pot of self-serve rice in a ramen shop.

For lunch on our first day in Misawa my son recommended the best ramen shop in town, or at least the one with the biggest portions. A sign on the wall read,"One bowl of free rice with order." (Just in case you felt you needed more starch with your lunch) It sounded good to me, so as we waited for the super-sized bowl of noodles, I sauntered over to the rice pot. I was in turn greeted by a photo of President Obama, and a Japanese caption with an English translation taped to the lid. The Japanese was pretty straight forward and I would have translated it as: The rice is free, but please don't pile it on, or something to that effect. I am not, however, the eloquent manifestation of the Japanese speaking Obama, who is quoted with an admonishing "Please refrain from rice large vigor." I doubt the real Barrack Obama could have said it any better even if he could speak Japanese, or Japanese-flavored English. Yet what I found most interesting is that the shop owners would choose Obama to be the spokesman for frugality.

I associate President Obama more with government largess and a growing nanny state rather than any thoughts of austerity, but I suppose the Japanese (and this shop owner in particular) see The President as the proper face of restraint for "sometimes arrogant Americans," plus he is the Commander-in Chief for all the U.S. military personal on base. I guess it was just a logical step to put his face on a pot of rice at a ramen shop. After all, the Japanese word for America translates as "Rice Country." No one is Japan has ever given me a plausible explanation for that, but I'm sure it made sense to an Edo Period linguist somewhere.

Nonetheless, I truly love traveling in Japan. I can't think of another place where one can go from riding in an ultra-modern, super express train to having tea at a serene, five hundred year old Buddhist temple all within a matter of minutes. So I look forward to my next trip and the joys of spotting among other things, a restaurant bathroom marked MAN. I wasn't sure if I was The Man, but I used it anyway. A bar named Bluce(?) Or, the ever popular coffee creamer labeled "Creep."

But sometimes the Japanese hit it dead on. During our trip I noticed the "Baby on Board," car signs so popular in America some years ago now showing up in Japan. And when I saw yet another sign on the back of an SUV I thought, Well, there goes another gushing parent. It was only when I got close enough to actually read it did I see the lethal brevity: Samurai on Board.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cage Rage Revisited



In an earlier post (attached below) I jotted down my thoughts on mixed martial arts from a perspective of sustainability. In other words, will MMA in its present form be around in say one hundred years and have the long-term appeal that the traditional martial arts of Japan such as judo, kendo, kyudo, and Okinawa karate. (Karate is not usually considered one of the historic arts of Japan, although this is due more in part to a geopolitical separation rather than a philosophical difference). Moreover, will future fans wait in anticipation for the next big cage match, or is MMA just the latest manifestation of prize fighting destined to rise in popularity then be forgotten when the next big thing comes along. Without a doubt the traditional martial arts of Japan have undergone a transformation from battlefield origins to modern manifestation. Yet one can still find many schools who practice the art pretty much as it was done in the 19th century. To be sure, there are both pros and cons to traditional versus modern fighting from a sport, or competitive perspective. However, I want to revisit MMA from a perspective of the physical toll to participants in the form of blunt-force trauma to the brain.

Serious injuries to the head and neck are not a new topic for any contact sport. Boxing, in its present form, has been around for well over a hundred years and it is still going strong despite periodic attempts to ban, or limit the sport. Yet that doesn't diminish the long-term health effect to fighters, both pro and amateur. Similarly, the NFL is considering changes to the contact rules for practices and games due to the numerous high-profile cases of post-concussion syndrome among current and former players. Nonetheless, I think that promoters and participants in competitive MMA need to seriously consider the long-term health effects of repeated blows to the head from punches and kicks. In particular, the type of blow that I fear is most damaging is when a fighter strikes at a downward angle repeatedly to the head of a prone opponent. This creates a double impact scenario in which the brain is jarred in one direction, then immediately in the opposite direction as the head rebounds violently off the floor. Concussions, neck trauma, tongue lacerations, broken noses, jaw injuries, and lost teeth are common occurrences.

I recently discussed some of the long-term effects of brain trauma with world renown physician Dr. Christian Guilleminault, head of the Sleep Disorders Clinic at Stanford University. Dr. Guilleminault told me that in addition to complications associated with concussion syndrome, boxers (or others who experience repeated blows to the head) can in some cases experience damage to the hypocretin producing region of the hypothalamus. This condition can lead to narcolepsy-like symptoms. Narcolepsy is a neurological condition often characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness and cataplexy. Currently, the Narcolepsy Research Project at Stanford University is the only place in the U.S. that can test for this disorder through a sample of cerebral spinal fluid. The correlation between hypocritin levels and narcolepsy is still being researched, however I feel the implication are clear: cranio-facial injuries and head trauma can have serious consequences for competitive MMA fighters.

During my competitive days, I was often frustrated by what I felt was the lack of adaptability of traditional karate to modern sport fighting. When I trained in Mainland Japan or Okinawa, I became accustomed to the typical sparring session there: no protective equipment, but no punches allowed to the head. Conversely, I found the point-style tournament sparring common in the US permitted more freedom, but left me unsatisfied as a proponent of traditional karate since many matches became a game of tag rather than contests grounded in actual fighting principles. Karate is unique in that virtually any body part (arm, leg, head, hip, etc.) can be utilized as a weapon against an assailant. In essence, catch-as-catch-can. This, however, makes karate very difficult to adapt in its pure form to the sport arena.

Law enforcement and military forces around the world often engage in very effective self-defense training in order to prepare students for actual street combat, while generally maintaining a high degree of safety. However, in much the same way as traditional karate, this type of training doesn't transfer very effectively to a sport application, or a cage.


Of late I have come to the conclusion that if one is willing to train in MMA with the intention of fighting in a cage match, then one should be free to do so. Nonetheless, the risk of long-term injury is significant and whether that outweighs the thrill of the cage is a decision that each fighter should be free to make. However, I also feel it is important for both fighters and fans to be aware that competitive MMA, a sport which is being touted as the replacement for both traditional martial arts and boxing, has the potential to lead to brain injuries, post-concussion syndrome, and a host of other health problems that we are just beginning to learning about.

Cage Rage



Cage Rage

It seems that every few years a new trend comes along in the world of Martial Arts. Maybe it is just part of the evolution from Asian roots to modern practice. Certainly other sports have evolved in technique, performance, and equipment to produce an improved version; golf and high jumping come to mind.
Is karate any different? The current fascination with mixed martial arts and cage fighting would appear to some to be an improvement over the classical arts. The fighters are generally better conditioned, stronger, and able to strike as well as grapple. The birth of mixed martial arts is in part a product of marketing in Japan where the public lost interest in kickboxing as a money sport, and the popularity of formerly obscure arts such as Gracie Jujitsu from Brazil.
So are the mixed martial arts an improvement over traditional karate, or other classical fighting arts? In my opinion, mixed martial arts have some effective grapping techniques and conditioning drills, but as a complete art to be pursued throughout one’s life, I believe they are sorely lacking. First and foremost, karate is a “path or way” that encompasses both physical training and spiritual development. This is evident in the use of the Japanese terms karate do, or judo, i.e., way of karate, and the gentle way, as opposed to jujitsu, or kenjutsu, i.e., grappling, and swordplay, respectively. The difference in terms represents a transformation in how the fighting arts of ancient Japan were thought of originally as skills then later as complete arts, worthy of being considered on a par with other classical arts such as tea ceremony, calligraphy, sword making, etc.
When I see a cage match on TV, my impression is that there is much more wrestling that striking, and that the fighters seem to have more grappling skills than striking ability. However, the strikes that do connect are often very forceful blows to vital organs or joints. I am left wondering how much damage these fighters absorb despite the rigorous training. Moreover, professional fighters endure this punishment many times during their career, and amateurs are often injured due to lack of training or skills.

Even in the ancient swordsmanship schools of Japan, tests of skill were held between rival schools or competing students, using a wooden bokuto rather than a steel blade. Nevertheless, the chance of injury was real, so great emphasis was placed on formality, and on halting the contest once the skill difference was evident. As such, matches were rarely held. Yet outside of practice bouts in the dojo, a proponent might only engage in a small number of actual matches, or shiai due to the risks. Instead, a swordsman would reflect on these rich, but rare experiences to hone his skill knowing that in a real match a single stroke could kill. The majority of practice was kata and meditation, with the ultimate goal of unifying body and mind.
It may be that one day mixed martial arts will become a complete art, with forms and a linage of masters and students. However, it may only be a passing fad that will lose appeal once something new comes along.
The classical martial arts have endured for hundreds of years because of the very fact that they are complete arts that promote respect for others, well-being, and spiritual development, yet retain the capability to “kill with a single stroke.”

- jim noah

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cow Soap















First of all, let me put to rest your fears that this is a story about some new kind of
bovine hygiene product. Quite to the contrary, it is definitely about people soap, or more specifically-Japanese soap. For those of you who have visited Japan for any length of time, I think you will recognize, or more likely, recall the fragrance of the ubiquitous Kao Brand White Soap. Kao Brand has an aroma unlike any soap I have found in the U.S. Not particularly strong, or pungent, it has a unique smell that to me epitomizes taking a bath in Japan. Which, by the way, is a really big thing there.

While most Americans quickly shower in the morning then rush to work, the Japanese love to leisurely soak in a neck-deep tub. Many Japanese also visit public baths, where one can enjoy a spa-like experience for around two bucks. There will, however, be lots of naked people around enjoying the bath as well. But not to worry, public baths are pool-sized, though only about two to three feet deep, and most keep their eyes to themselves. In addition to the home and public baths, hot springs abound in volcanic Japan. Many of the hot springs have lodging as well, however most simply pay for a dip in the therapeutic waters. Now before I diverge further, let me get back to the cow, or more accurately, Kao Brand Soap.

As far as I know, Kao Brand has been one of the most popular brands of soap in Japan for many years. Wherever I lived, or traveled, I would find a bar of it next to a sink or bath, and we had it in our home in Akita as well. To me, it is as much a part of the background aroma of Japan as ramen shops or temple incenses. It has a fresh, mild scent that reminds me of the clean, well-scrubbed land that, in my opinion, symbolizes Japan.

The reason I call it cow soap is that the old packaging had a small picture of a cow on it. Not quite sure why, but since many English words are misspelled in Japan, I naturally assumed that Kao meant cow. When I learned a bit more Japanese I understood that kao can also means one’s face. Facial soap? Now that made sense. That is until a few weeks ago when I stopped in at a large Japanese grocery store in Chicago. I swung buy to purchase some snacks for a road trip when I walked by the cosmetics aisle and saw my beloved Kao Soap. I took a closer look (with my glasses on) and noticed that in the upper right corner of the wrapper were two Japanese characters 花王 (kao) which translate as flower king, but in reality is the corporate name of the manufacturer, The Kao Corporation. Nothing to do with cows or faces. Damn, another of my assumptions about Japan shot to pieces. Personally, I like the cow analogy better, but maybe I could get someone at corporate to rethink the brand ID?

The Cow is currently in its place of honor-the soap dish of my bath. As it waits to set free long hidden memories of the Orient.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Obaa-chan

Obaa-chan, your childless carriage pushed with a back bowed by a meager war diet and the weight of a post-industrial society that has moved from feudal to digital in your lifetime. Where have your children gone?
Was it a .50 caliber round through the chest on Mindanao? His youthful, pensive face staring back through the smoke of your prayer incense. Or perhaps it was a Bullet-Train out of town when she could no longer stand the smell of the farm?
Where have your children gone?
Maybe off to the Juku, or the sex club? Your knowing, patient hands still cooking meals for a generation no longer interested in waving the Rising Sun, dusting off pictures of the Emperor, or toasting victories in Canton.
Obaa-chan, I know you were once young, but do your grandchildren know that you had hair as shining and skin as soft and fair as any who now peddle their flesh in Ginza on a cell phone? Do they know that the takuwan pickles in their bento are from a recipe you learned as a girl at a time when you weren't allowed to speak in the presence of your father without permission?
Do they know you are day-care to a generation, and rain-swept, roadside grime and mud labor to a nation?
I know, but I could never have endured as you have through wars, famine, and now isolation. I know, because you once showed me your picture as a young girl in monpei, bidding your brother farewell at the train station. So handsome in his uniform; you bowed stoically as he headed to his grave in the Pacific.

But I will not bother you now for a story. You are too busy knocking the snow off rows of long, white radishes drying in the winter sun and setting up an offering of rice for your brother's long awaited return.

Author's note:
When I first visited Japan almost 35 years ago, I often saw Obaa-chans (grandmothers) in the Japanese countryside with terribly bowed backs. Purportedly caused by a calcium poor war diet and long hours stooped over in the rice fields. They would often be pushing a cart that looked something like a cross between a baby carriage and a shopping cart. It struck me that this nation would truly have been lost after the war had it not been for these stout, resolute women.

Friday, November 21, 2008

To the Green Sea















Author's note:
I have heard a few comments of late that my recent posts are not very zen-like, or filled with martial arts philosophy. I would agree. However, I find most zen writing rather boring. If you want reflective meditations on peace and harmony, don't go to Japan for zen training. If you want to know what one day was like; read below. I'm not saying this is the only way, I'm just telling you how it was.
'nuff said?

To the Green Sea - a book excerpt

It was one of the coldest and snowiest winters that anyone could remember. Even the old monks who came by on occasion remarked that it reminded them of the days after the war when the monasteries were one of the only places with food and young men became monks out of necessity. Those winters were cold they said. Blankets were scarce and discipline severe. I knew they were right. The worn wooden shoe box with the hand written names above it counted seventy-five in number. Almost three times the number of training monks on hand now.

It was my second winter at the zen training temple in the quiet port town of Onishi. January was the month of kangyo, the winter training. Regardless of weather we would march ten to fifteen kilometers through the nearby villages each day to collect alms in support of the temple. Normally we would take the same course in and around the town, but once each season we would walk through town, cross the river, and visit the small fishing village of Nishimura. No one minded going out there in summer, but the winter trip was hard, and we would be exposed to a piercing, biting wind most of the way.

On the morning of the march into Nishimura, I woke to the coldest day so far that winter. I slept next to an old, ill-fitting window and the wind in the night had blown the snow in through the cracks to form small drifts on the top of my blankets and across the floor. Yet I'd learned that a few degrees below freezing were better than above for marching because the slush on the road would freeze hard keeping our feet dry a bit longer. Feet and hands suffered the worse.

Meditation started at five, chanting at six, and rice at seven. At seven forty-five the roll call began with a monk beating a steel plate which hung in the entrance to the temple. We rushed to get ready. The steel plate sounding out in a jagged, steadily rising clang as we assembled on the hardened dirt floor of the Entry Hall. The head monk shouted,
"Everyone going out today must stand at attention to receive the day's instruction and recite the chant." Our nickname for him was The Apache. He would not have looked out of place in a maximum security facility.
It was cold, yet it seemed that the tighter I bound my garments the warmer I felt. One man would pull the chin straps on his kasa hat so tight there would be marks on his face for hours. We all had our little ways of keeping warm, but it wouldn't matter for an hour into the march warmth was something months away in a dream. In the Entry Hall we stood at sharp attention, heads up, looking strong. It was easy to look tough now, our feet were dry. The head monk spun towards us and barked,
"Move."

We marched into Nishimura to a bitter cold wind rolling off the ocean like a giant wave, dashing against the corrugated metal houses and blowing the cold even deeper into our bones. At the moment I thought,
This is what it really is to be cold. Who cared if I couldn't feel anything from the knees down? Someone had to break a trail in the two-foot deep new snow. It was so cold I became euphoric. Without gloves in the cold we lost control of the muscles in our hands. It would start slowly with the little finger then move on to the next until the whole hand curled into a weak fist. It was a daily ritual watching men try to straighten out a frozen hand with the still good fingers from the other.

Each year important villagers and inn keepers in Nishimura held a formal meal for the monks to commemorate our visit. After our morning march through the village we stopped at the appointed place. A spacious inn with very gracious people. But there would be a price to pay for indulgence in food and wine. The problem was that our frozen feet would swell from the Inn's heat and when it came time for the return march, we could no longer get our now wet, stiff tabi socks on without great and painful effort. Some walked the 5 km back to the temple barefoot.

Dinner that night was instant Ramen-if anyone wanted it. Most recovered in their rooms huddling around small hibachi coals. Some of us sat quietly in the Meditation Hall. I would stuff a thin blanket under my robe to stay warm. Body heat would keep me reasonably comfortable in the still air-and my feet were dry. Not a bad day after all.
© All rights reserved James Noah 2008

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Tea Merchant





The fall had been mild with many warm, clear days, but winter had come hard to the Japan Sea. Frigid Siberian winds pushed down on humid ocean air dumping deep, heavy snow on the coastal plains. Yet by early spring the melt had begun in the low-lying areas. A short month of sun followed; then the rains began.
For many weeks the sky was dark and the rain drove down. Tourists never came to Nihonkai for the dry climate. Now and then the rain relented and a low fog would descend on upon the mountain ridges silhouetting solitary black pines in a sea of mist.

On the eighth day of continuous rain, I decided to get away from the confines of the temple and go into the city. I caught a local train for the ten minute ride to the Central Station. It was unseasonably cold and windy as I headed towards the old mercantile section of town on narrow, wind-swept roads. Two-storied wooden shops and draining rice fields lined the way. A cold rain stung my hands and face as I clutched a bamboo and oil-skin umbrella. The few people on the streets hurried forward, their bodies braced against the weather.
I stepped from the street into a tea merchants shop and banged shut the sliding glass door behind me. In the dimly lit and age-worn shop, I could see large aluminum boxes of tea stacked against the walls. The shop smelled of smoldering autumn leaves.
After a moment a muffled hai came drifting out from behind several layers of sliding doors. An old shopkeeper brushed through a curtain in the back of the store. When he looked up his eyes brightened and he said,
"Please sit down, please sit down." He pointed to a space around a large hibachi where an iron kettle slowly steamed over hot coals.
I told him that I wanted to buy a gift of Japanese tea to send overseas. He nodded and handed me a steaming cup of bitter green tea that spread warmth with every sip. As I drank the shopkeeper suggested that a lighter, less bitter tea might be a suitable gift for someone not accustomed to Japanese tea. The tea we were drinking, he explained, was made from only the young, tender leaves of the best plants. The milder, less expensive, teas were made of more mature leaves and stems.
"I would like a mild tea of good quality," I said.
"If you'll wait a moment, I'm certain I have what you want in back." Then the old shopkeeper stood up and hurried back through the curtain.
As I waited and drank the hot tea, I stared at the glowing coals. A piece of charcoal popped and blew sparks into the dry ash bed. I was grateful to have found a haven of warmth and dryness in a wet land.
The shopkeeper returned with a deep-colored green tea in a round metal container. I paid for the tea, tucked it under my arm, and headed up the wet street.

© copyright 2008 James Noah
As previously published in Hidamari, March 1994

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Autumn in Akita


秋田
Chinese Maples in brilliant crimson
frame the worn, ship-like timbers
of a temple gate.
The air swirls with the aroma
of burning leaves and sandalwood.
Cirrus clouds at the edge of space
draw my imagination out to
ancient mariners beyond the horizon.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Heavy Industry Ships South



A huge factory in Northern Japan stands barren in the snow. Snow that drives through cracked window panes and gaping holes in concrete and brick. A severed and frayed high-voltage cable swings in the wind. The empty hulk of a foundry that no longer pours molten steel. No longer makes locomotive wheels or bulldozer buckets. No longer feels steel-toes boots walking down long corridors to load flatbed trucks with carbon alloy motor cases. Now the loadings docks sit empty, boarded shut. Shipping skids lay strewn around the yard.

I step through a door-less entry. I feel as though I must walk slowly, reverently, as if in a church, so as not to disturb sleeping workers. Shafts of snow speckled sunlight column down from above. Cracked and stiffened boots lie next to an overturned helmet. Someone must have decided that these weren't worth hauling away. The lunch menu still hanging on an oil-stained wall.

The work has moved south and is not coming back, at least not for the ghosts that roam these lonely halls. Now someone else will make gears with grease and iron, and wash off the grime of a full day's work with pumice and cold water. Now someone else will drink coffee at break time from a worn and dented thermos.