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Category: Japan

POEM: Long Distance

Long Distance

I came home from Japan a month early.
A grand surprise.
James picked me up at the airport.
We drove through town.
He pointed out the new post office,
the new Wegmans.
He took me to your house
before he took me home.
Your mom answered the door,
called you down from your room.
As soon as I saw your face,
I knew it was over.

/ / /

29 August 2023
Charlottesville VA

This is poem 39 in a series called 50 Days Till 50 Years. I’m writing a poem a day between now and my 50th birthday. I’m going to try to focus on memories of my past, and the people who inhabited it.

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Mr. W

We all piled out of the plane at Narita,
taking our first steps into the mystery.
A few spoke some Japanese;
most, like me, not a word.
Then suddenly he was there,
quick and powerful and suave,
a smile permanently lurking
just behind his eyes.
He showed us how to use a payphone
so we could tell our parents we’d lived.
“Last call for a month,” he reminded us.
Then it was buses, if memory serves.
Taneen would remember.
Anyway, it was a long trip north
to a hotel in Sendai, where
the next morning a series
of curious families would try
to identify us from the one photo
they’d each been sent.
Halting conversations,
mispronounced names,
then helping us into cars
or onto trains with our suitcases
and our wide-eyed stares.
Mr. W watched over it all,
nodding at the right places,
stepping in to translate,
making sure each of us felt cared for.
Later he’d party with us
and dance and sing songs
and watch us eat soba
till a couple of us puked.
We were all thousands of miles
from our fathers, but he made it feel
like no distance at all.

/ / /

26 August 2023
Charlottesville VA

For Wakabayashi-san, who passed away recently and who was the guardian and guide to so many Rotary exchange students in northern Japan. Arigatou gozaimashita.

This is poem 36 in a series called 50 Days Till 50 Years. I’m writing a poem a day between now and my 50th birthday. I’m going to try to focus on memories of my past, and the people who inhabited it.

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POEM: Chasing Answers To Questions Unknown

Chasing Answers To Questions Unknown

From the moment Father Edgar walked into the room,
I knew I wanted to be a monk.

When we changed teams, moving across the street
to the Methodists, I decided to become a minister instead.

At 15, newly into prog rock and Depeche Mode,
I discovered it was possible to not believe in God.

I flew 10,000 miles to clap hands and bow,
to ring bells and make mochi and stare up at statues.

For Christmas in 1997, Jen bought me a book
about the Lotus Sutra. It was over my head.

Three years later I was in our spare room, incense
burning on the credenza, legs folded, hands in a mudra.

Over the next two decades I went back to the cushion
time after time, trying to quiet the monkeys.

Eventually I threw in the towel, but somebody threw it back.
After all, a frood has to know where their towel is.

/ / /

22 August 2023
Charlottesville VA

Thanks to S for the title.

This is poem 32 in a series called 50 Days Till 50 Years. I’m writing a poem a day between now and my 50th birthday. I’m going to try to focus on memories of my past, and the people who inhabited it.

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POEM: Host Dad

Host Dad

I had never seen anyone stretch before.
Deep knee bends and rotations of the arms.
Folding at the waist and swinging side to side.
Each afternoon, as I hop down to the sidewalk
from the low wall in front of the station,
as I feel the delightful pull in my thigh muscles,
I think of his morning stretches.

/ / /

31 July 2023
Charlottesville VA

This is poem 10 in a new series, 50 Days Till 50 Years. I’m writing a poem a day between now and my 50th birthday. I’m going to try to focus on memories of my past, and the people who inhabited it.

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haiku: 27 May 2022

chats with Japanese friends
trying ramen on YouTube

/ / /

27 May 2022
State College PA

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Reading Shion Miura

This morning I sat in my van outside work crying the good kind of tears – the tears brought out by a gorgeous novel. I can count on one hand the books that have made me cry. This morning’s offering was The Great Passage, a novel by Japanese author Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. It’s the third novel by the pair I’ve read in the last week, and each has been a gem of humanity and compassion and insight.

The Great Passage is about a small team of people putting together a new Japanese dictionary. The book takes place over the course of 15 years and follows the ups and down in the lives of the team members, primarily centered around Majime, the head of the dictionary department. Does that sound like the description of a book that could bring you to tears? But there’s something about the way Miura find the souls of her characters. The writing is never overwrought. It’s simple and beautiful, allowing the actions and words of the humans in the stories to carry the weight.

My introduction to Miura came about a week ago, when a website randomly recommended her book The Easy Life In Kamusari. I’d never heard of Miura or the novel, but for some reason I decided to read it. It’s the story of a high school student from Yokohama (where I once lived) who, upon graduation, gets sent by his parents to the countryside to work for a small forestry company. He doesn’t want to be there and knows nothing about the work, but over time he’s won over by the quiet beauty of the area and its people.

I then read the sequel, Kamusari Tales Told At Night, a series of vignettes told by the same character about the deepening of his relationship with the remote mountain area in which he finds himself, and the mystical beliefs of the people who live there.

I can’t recommend these books highly enough. Miura is brilliant, and Carpenter’s translations are masterful. In particular, her work in The Great Passage is so impressive, being as it’s a book about the Japanese language and Carpenter must make it intelligible to English-language readers while retaining the under-the-microscope look at Japanese that is the hallmark of the book. Quite the achievement.

Find yourself a copy of one of these and slip into a world of small details and real human emotions.  

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Arboreal coinkydink

This week I read this short, wonderful book called The Easy Life In Kamusari by Shion Miura. I read a translated version. It’s about a city kid who graduates from high school in Yokohama, and his parents then ship him off to work for a forestry company in a remote area. A kind of tree called a Zelkova tree plays a role in the book. I’d never heard of that kind of tree. Today I used an app to identify the kind of tree beside which I park each night. Of course it’s a Japanese Zelkova tree.

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POEM: Natsukashii (2)

Natsukashii (2)

I remember driving up a mountain road so narrow
that when we met a truck coming the other way,
we had to go in reverse until the road widened
enough to pull off and let the truck pass.

I remember the whole town gathered on the temple grounds
as 1991 became 1992, everyone taking a turn
at grabbing the big mallet and pounding the mochi
that would be eaten on New Year’s Day.

I remember the three high school girls on their bikes
catching sight of me on a side street, screaming,
then whipping their bicycles around to pedal
furiously in the opposite direction.

I remember walking house to house, dressed
as a demon, throwing beans through open doors,
shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!”
then it was back to the tea shop and Hidetaka’s smile.

I remember playing Shoko’s piano late at night
while everyone else was asleep, trying to play
very quietly so as not to awaken anyone,
enjoying my first house with a piano in it.

I remember miso soup with little clams,
beef tongue cooked by Sanriku‘s chef,
those little pure-sugar candies at tea ceremony,
the constant availability of steaming hot rice.

I remember the backyard cookout, “American-style,”
with me in my Mickey Mouse sweatshirt at the head
of a long table filled with school friends
and teenaged cousins who came for the occasion.

I remember lying on the couch, head in Reiko’s lap,
feeling a little lost and a little lonely,
taking comfort in this second mother
who treated me like one of her own children.

I remember Mizuho’s plaid sport coat,
or at least I think I do, and Teto’s head
popping out of a food container, and Vulfi’s
upturned tail and eager expression.

I remember filming videos around town with Kazuhiro,
who seemed so much more sophisticated than I was,
with his international friends and command of English
and his TMN and Southern All-Stars albums.

I remember the person I was when I went back home,
and how he had changed from the boy who’d arrived,
not speaking a word of Japanese, overwhelmed and confused,
and how this new young man would never be the same.

/ / /

11 May 2022
Pittsfield MA

(Note: I forgot that I’ve already written a poem called “natsukashii,” which you can read here.)

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POEM: Cucumbers

for Jennifer

In a life filled with so many memories
that I’ve had to delete many to save space,
I long ago decided to keep the cucumbers.
You know the ones I mean.
We’d get off the train at Ichigao Station,
walk past the outstretched arms of Colonel Sanders
and enter the grocery store.
Near the exit doors on the far
side of the store stood the smiling man.
I remember him having graying hair
that was a little long for a Japanese man his age.
He wore an apron, and he sold his
cucumbers in clear plastic bags.
The cukes were long and thin.
They snapped when you bit into them,
and the water inside tasted like mountains.
We’d eat them on the bus on the way to our apartment,
sometimes finishing the whole bag on the short ride.
I’ve never tasted cucumbers like those since.
I hold onto them and refuse to let go.

/ / /

4 May 2022
Pittsfield MA

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POEM: A Poem About Tea

A Poem About Tea

There’s an electric kettle at the office,
so I made a cup of green tea.
Nothing special, just a bag.
The kettle has a window in the side
so you can watch the magic happen.
And it is magic.
I didn’t grow up drinking tea.
My parents and grandparents
were coffee people.
It was living in Japan that
introduced me to “the taste
of dried leaves boiled in water.”
As a teetotaler (teatotaler?)
who doesn’t drink coffee either,
tea was my entry into a more adult world.
Tea requires a bit of preparation,
some particular tools,
and ends in a special vessel.
Later I lived behind a tea shop.
The first time I entered I was overwhelmed.
So many colors and flavors and textures!
Tea with little flecks of gold.
Tea that looked like yard clippings.
Tea with hefty price tags.
Later still I studied tea ceremony,
learned the minute details
of offering tea as a sign of respect.
This morning, though, it was just a bag
from a brand that advertises
on baseball games.
Poured from a shared kettle
into a travel mug whose origin
I can’t even dimly recall.
Just a container of tea
on my desk under the fluorescent lights.

/ / /

25 April 2022
Pittsfield MA

(NaPoWriMo Day 25)

The bit in quotation marks is by Douglas Adams.

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POEM: Japanese Punk On The Corporate Wheel

Japanese Punk On The Corporate Wheel

Got my uniform on again. Now, in addition to being
embarrassed by the fact of it, I’m also embarrassed
by the fit. I’ve lost twenty-five pounds and look like
a kid in my father’s clothes. And if there’s one thing
I no longer want to wear, it’s the legacy of my father.
Either of them. Anyway to cut the taste of defeat
I control the music. Me and my Bluetooth speaker
against the world, or at least the office. Right now
I’m playing the Japanese punk band Chai at a volume
that can only be called inconsiderate. I know. But
there are times when four young women screaming
in unison in Japanese is the only thing that will
shove the darkness back a few steps so I can get
a full breath in.

/ / /

Jason Crane
7 January 2020
State College PA

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