Skip to content →

Category: Japan

Finding JAPAN

OK, so I need to tell you a crazy story.

From 1991-92, I lived in northern Japan. Although I lived far from the other exchange students in my program, I did see them occasionally for Rotary events. When I did, we tended to sing the title track from Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi’s album JAPAN. I adore this album, which came out in ’91 and features folks like Roy Bittan (E Street Band) and Arnold McCuller (Phil Collins, Lyle Lovett, James Taylor). This song means a lot to me, and the album means a lot to me too.

Last year I lost everything I’ve ever owned — my entire record and CD collection, all my books except my poetry books, most of my photos from my entire life, my journals … everything. Included in that loss was my copy of JAPAN.

The other day, Elaine and I were working at Webster’s and taking things out from under some bins. She came across a box of world music CDs and handed one to me, asking if I could read it. Against every possible chance, it was a copy of Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi’s JAPAN. I was absolutely stunned. There’s no reason at all for this CD to be in Webster’s. It’s a 23-year-old CD that came out in Japan and, as far as I know, wasn’t released in the US.

I took it from her with trembling hands and my heart pounding. Then I ran over to the CD player and cranked up the first track. I stood there for the whole six minutes with it blasting through the store, I’m sure confusing our customers.

Life is weird and unpredictable and often wonderful. And I have JAPAN back.


One Comment

POEM: my first night in Japan


my first night in Japan
(for the Inoue family)

I slept for twenty-four hours
at least that’s how I
remember it happening

then we had miso soup with
tiny clams in the bottom
of each wooden bowl

we were seated around
a dining room table
on regular chairs

all things I’d been told
not to expect to find
10,000 miles from home

it was my host mom, brother
two sisters and me;
obaasan ate in her own room

we brought her a tray, some
for her, some for the shrine
to her late husband

it was when we put our hands
together to remember him
that I fell in love with Japan

19 November 2013
Oak Street


POEM: smoke from a new stick of incense

smoke from a new stick of incense

fills the cold room
with the scent
of a Japanese temple
or the small room
on the second floor
I used to meditate in
the one I had to unlock
with a kitchen knife

9 November 2013
Oak Street

Leave a Comment

POEM: rainy season


rainy season

the walkway to the laundry is flooded
following days and days of rain
it’s pouring now, in fact
so I’ve opened all the windows
to let in the sound
my first full summer in Alabama
reminds me of Japan
flower petals covering the stones
wearing my outdoor sandals
to haul the bag of laundry back inside
when I arrived here last year
it was in the middle of a drought
I hiked to a waterfall but found
a trickle (and even that’s generous)
this is the part of the poem
where the metaphor goes

6 July 2013
Auburn AL

Leave a Comment

POEM: walking with Basho


walking with Basho

morning and evening
someone waits at Matsushima!
one-sided love

I know how she feels
though there are no pine trees
outside my lonely window

viewing the moon
no one at the party
has such a beautiful face

they are all lovely
in a way I find hard to describe
the scent of tea from the kitchen

in the world outside
is it harvesting time?
the grass of my hut

indoors all day
birdsong as I read the paper
sun warming the room

speaking out
my lips are cold
in autumn wind

I want to kiss you
though I know I can’t
so I picked two yellow flowers

I didn’t die!
the end of a journey
is autumn nightfall

if I am not stronger
at least my feet are toughened
by the stones on this path

from this very day
erase the inscription with dew
on the bamboo hat

starting out again
through the tall grass
where no one has blazed a trail

25 February 2013
Auburn, AL

/ / /

I first read the work of Japanese poet and travel writer Matsuo Basho in 1991, when I was living in northern Japan, in a town he’d once passed through. I’ve been inspired by his style and his daring ever since. The italicized sections of this poem are haiku poems written by Basho. The non-italicized sections are mine. If you’ve never read any of Basho’s travel journals, I recommend Back Roads to Far Towns: Basho’s Oku-No-Hosomichi (Ecco Travels).

I’ve written about Basho before

Leave a Comment

POEM: Naruto Ramen, Brooklyn

Naruto Ramen, Brooklyn

where the cooks speak a mixture
of Japanese and Spanish
Irashaimase!” they call
as people come in off 5th Ave
hang their coats and backpacks
on the wall hooks
those who know sit at the bar
because the bar is a sacred place
where devotion is paid
to the sprout, the noodle,
the bean pod, the tofu square,
the white pepper garnish
the sweat on the brow
the cold Sapporo or Asahi
the cheap balsa wood hashi
that you break at the end
scraping the sticks against
one another to remove splinters
order the extra noodles because
they’re generous with the broth
slurp loud enough to pay respect
to the hachimaki-sporting men
flinging pots on the six-burner stove
like Barishnikovs with ladles
for some, the nostalgia is as thick
as the steam rising off the broth pots
it’s a bit of a surprise to leave
and find yourself in Brooklyn
not in any of a thousand thousand shops
just like this one, tucked around a corner
of a narrow street, in every town in Japan

4 April 2012
Brooklyn, NY

/ / /

It’s National Poetry Writing Month! A poem a day, each day in April.

Leave a Comment

POEM: natsukashii

Listen to this poem using the player above.

/ / /

This poem is a combination of images from my past and images from the present.


genmaicha leaves
in a clay pot

Tokyo sounds
subway travels

tatami mats
against our legs

tangy curry
from little cubes

Tonari no

a cat who steps
on his belly

maybe you should
kiss me again

One Comment

POEM: Tohoku

Listen to this poem using the player above.

(for TR)

there’s a woman on this bus
who looks just like you did
when we met twenty years ago

it’s hard to look at her
without losing my grip on this world
arriving back in Tohoku

where we ate soba noodles
until one of our friends threw up
trying to prove his strength

you were so beautiful
not like a painting
on the wall of a museum

forcing the viewer
to stand behind the rope
or risk damaging its brittle surface

no, you were like a field
of pale cherry blossoms
under the sun of northern Japan

inviting us all closer with a warm smile
as we orbited like honey bees
entranced and attentive

two decades later
the young woman on this bus
could almost be your daughter

for the last few hours
every time she’s smiled
I’ve been back there again

remembering that first taste of freedom
those cold winter days
in the mountains of Tohoku

One Comment

stone #41

the heater’s fan clicks off
the room is a field of silence
I am imagining Mt. Fuji
I am becoming a mountain

Leave a Comment

haiku (stone #40)

This haiku is largely an inside joke. Sorry about that.

/ / /

warm miso soup
cold soba & the taste of avocado
way better than Chipotle (TM)

Leave a Comment

stone #33

Listen to this poem using the player above.

/ / /

Kinkaku-ji glows golden on my computer screen
illuminates a Japan-shaped hole in my heart

a class full of boys who’d never talked to girls
all but one fell in love with our tour guide

Leave a Comment

POEM: Matsushima

Listen to this poem using the player above.

A poem about one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there over the years. I’m translating this one into Japanese, but it’s a difficult process for me.


we sat at the stern of the boat
tossing shrimp-flavored snacks
to the trailing gulls

in the picture, I am smiling

hundreds of tiny islands, each
with its own pine tree
like a flag planted by Mother Earth

“I claim this island in my own name”

Basho, tongue tied, brush quivering
could write nothing but the name
of the place and an exclamation


after, we made tea in a cast-iron pot
suspended from the roof beams
over the coals of the fire

in this picture, too, I am smiling

One Comment

stone #10

Listen using the player above.

/ / /

first my teeth pierce the soft nori skin
then move through the rice into the rich
avocado in the center

the mug of sencha fits perfectly in my hand
and there’s just enough room at the table
for these friends who will miss me when I go

/ / /

part of a river of stones


POEM: Ah, Basho, who were you really?

Listen to this poem using the player above.

I first lived in Japan from 1991-92. During that time I picked up a Penguin edition of Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho’s book Narrow Road To The Deep North. I’ve loved him ever since. Not just his work, but the very idea of him.

Ah, Basho, who were you really?

My friend the Japanese literature scholar —
by which I mean to say he is a scholar
of Japanese literature and a literature scholar
who is Japanese — thinks you were a ninja.
Or a famous warrior of some sort.
I can’t quite remember. But his point
is that no mere poet could have passed through
all those military checkpoints.
And no old-man poet could have covered
all that ground as fast as you say you did.
Were you lying? Is all poetry fiction?

Perhaps you started out from Tokyo —
they called it Edo then —
with every intention of completing the journey
along that famous narrow road.
Perhaps you packed your paper and brushes
to write those glorious verses.
Perhaps you set out upon the path,
made it as far as the first resting place
before your old bones got the better
of your young heart.
Poets invent whole worlds —
all you needed to do was describe
the world that already existed. Even a mortal
could do that.

Me, I like the ninja idea.
Poets are thought of as many things —
deadly is rarely one of them.
We need more poet ninjas, creeping about
on moonless nights, stealing
into the rooms of young lovers, leaving
a verse or two on the pillow.
Gone as silently as the break
in this line.

Then again, maybe I’d rather
you were just a poet.
Not a liar. Not a ninja.
Not a warrior traveling in disguise.
Just a man who wished to see the mountains
of Japan’s interior with his own eyes.
A man who used his paper and his brushes
to let us see those same mountains,
thousands of miles away,
all these many years later.

Leave a Comment