You learn a lot about what words by living them. What you think a word means can be a lot different in your head than in the world. Some words —important words — have a hidden weight to them, a heft you have to get used to. When I was a little kid, the teacher who came in to teach us metrics brought in a piece of metal that weighed about a kilogram. It was heavy and cumbersome, hard to hold on to let alone get my fingers around. Today, at the gym, I held a kilogram weight between two fingers and didn't notice it.
For a long time, I paid little attention to the weight of words. I paid no mind to the weight of their existence or how much displacement they could create in our emotional lives. In a poetry workshop, a few of us argued that haiku didn’t always work in English. English words carried different emotional weights from their Japanese counterparts. I argued that in Japanese haiku, words were loaded with an accepted emotional shorthand. We didn’t do that in English as much, so the Japanese words felt heavier.
For example, the word samishii carries a weight for me that loneliness doesn’t. Loneliness is staring into the sad foam-coated bottom of an empty beer mug. Samishii is walking home on a cold night when the wind sinks its claws through your coat, gnaws at your ears and your feet are wet. I don’t know where I got this idea; maybe it was in my high school Japanese class or maybe when I started reading Japanese poetry. Or maybe I learned it living three winters in Japan. Samishii is more desperate than loneliness, and that is how I felt.
When I lived in Japan, I lived in Fukui Prefecture, a little prefecture by the Sea of Japan. In Fukui, I felt the full weight of samishii. The summers were hot and sweaty. Then, as if someone remembered to flip the switch that turned on the cold and killed off the cicadas, winter rolled in, dumping thick, wet snow. My little Japanese home was the kind of place where you might not need a social occasion to drink. As a result, we spent a lot of time in bars.
So it follows that the best-lit street in Fukui City was Katamachi, the drinking district. On a weekday night, this short stretch could get crowded, but on a weekend, it was packed. Cars inched down the narrow lane in two directions. Pedestrians crisscrossed between the cars as they moved from one joint to the next. We had our favorite places and chose our spots for a variety of reasons. Someone knew someone who owned a place. Sometimes a place had the right vibe. Sometimes it was because they didn’t charge us for putting our asses down. One night when Russ hovered his butt over his seat saying, “Wait! Wait! I’m about to spend 500 yen!” before lowering himself onto the worn green cushion. We hated places with seating charges.
One of the “no sitting fee” places was Big Mug. I liked the natural finished tabletops with their black iron stands, but hated the J-pop blaring over the speakers. Loved the TV screens in the walls that were never on, but wasn’t crazy about the lack of cushions on the seats. It was only two doors down from Akiyoshi, a favorite yakitori place and stumbling distance was always a plus.
But the biggest asset to Big Mug was the Happiest Bearded Man in Fukui. I didn’t know him but saw him all the time. He was the headwaiter. He’d stand in the back of the front room, watching everything that went on. Until Patrick gave him the name, I never noticed the beard. It was pretty impressive, thick and full, well-groomed, meaty.
He looked middle-aged with a thick torso compared to the rail-thin kids who stood next to him. They all wore the same black slacks with waistcoats and white shirts. The younger waiters looked like high school students with bleached, spiky hair and shirts that fit more like tents. The man filled out his uniform and was distinguishable and, for the most part, distinguished.
Sometimes I wouldn't go to Big Mug for months. After all, we had a few favorite haunts and I traveled around quite a bit. But no matter what, this guy was always there. He was as much of a fixture as the smooth barstools and the orange walls.
Living in another country is an exciting experience. All the new sights and sounds and smells lead to days where your senses become numb. But if it’s a country that doesn’t speak your language and you don't speak theirs well, the days are grueling as the simplest tasks are like wading through a swamp. Going from being articulate and educated to being a mute illiterate is hard on the ego. All that time in school feels like a waste when the most advanced conversation consists of monosyllabic grunts about the weather. While I took Japanese in high school and college, I wasn’t fluent and, at first, wasn't conversant. Most frustrating of all, I didn’t have the benefit of looking foreign, so I got no slack.
For me, Japan had always been a kind of Fantasyland. My mother told me immigrant tales of a country from the last century where everyone looked like us. Japan was a mirage made up of those stories and the Japanese kids shows on our UHF channel. That combination can be dangerous when you get there, because things are always trickier once you can smell the people.
In JET, we were brought to Japan in middle the humid summer, which tended to wilt Westerners like a flower in the oven. Then there was the winter of not-so-extreme temperatures except you have no insulation in the walls and no central heating. Huddled next to a kerosene heater in a room floored with straw mats didn’t inspire great amounts of confidence for my safety. The springs, with the cherry blossoms blooming, and autumns, with the changing fiery leaves, were not just pleasant but downright beautiful. The summers and winters really knocked the romance out of you. And that’s when the devil comes to tempt you.
Truth is, I never felt culture shock come along until February, and then it came back the same time every year. I would be sick and tired of Japanese study, both the language and the culture, tired of the cold and not looking forward to the heat. I was tired of what I thought of as a strange mix of primitive and super-modern—my rice cooker having more buttons and settings than my TV and a burner/range that didn't deserve higher status than a bunch of dry sticks surrounded by a ring of rocks. My heater looked like a relic from the Great Depression, but my bathroom was molded from one piece of plastic. I was tired of sorting my trash out into the nebulous categories of “burnable” and “non-burnable” and who decided that plastic wrap was recyclable? I was lucky. I never had any run-ins with the neighborhood garbage police of grandmas in aprons.
By February 2000, I was ready to come home. I had just turned 30 and had finished a pretty horrific falling out a month earlier which I won’t talk about. The job had definitely soured for me after moving from an easy 35-hour week, to a 24/7 job with phone calls coming in the middle of the night. Even aikido practice, which had been my safe haven was feeling a bit strained. I was training for my black belt, but most of the foreigners were not coming as often, which was normal because of Winter break travels, the weather, and general work busyness. Sometimes, I would practice on auto-pilot, never talking with my Japanese partners who, by then, I could talk to and were always my most sympathetic audience.
In other words, I was ready for a good drunk. Often, by the end of the day, I wanted to hang around with other native English speakers. Tired of dealing with Japanese people and often hungry, I would grow depressed sitting in my apartment. So one night, on one of those weekends when everyone else had left the prefecture for places where people drank for social reasons, I found myself hungry and cold, sitting in my apartment. I contemplated the bachelor food in my cupboard, the packets of curry that you could either heat up in the packet in a pot of boiling water with rice ready for the microwave, or curry in a plastic tray with rice all ready for the microwave. I had grown out of eating the instant supermarket noodles. After three years, I had tried them all and was sick of them. At thirty, I felt more like a college-aged teen than ever.
In any case, not to be pathetic, I decided to go out and be with people. That night was a terrible late winter night where it snowed big, wet, heavy crap that stuck to everything. That alone usually kept me inside, but I tugged on my snow boots. I was always a bit proud of them because they were black with a soft warm lining and looked like regular boots instead of those green and yellow “spaceman” boots with “Michelin” stamped on the top like everyone else had. I grabbed my umbrella and left.
Since I would have a couple of drinks, I decided on the cheapest of the cheap umbrellas—an opaque one with white trim and a flimsy looking handle. If it got stolen, it wouldn’t be a big deal and in Katamachi, either I would take someone else’s or run over to the convenience store to replace it.
Walking outside, the streets were quiet. The snow tumbled straight down and formed a thick crust on the top of the umbrella. My street had lights, but as soon as I got to the intersection to walk towards Katamachi, that changed. The long stretch in the middle of downtown didn’t have street lights on one side of the street, making the way a minefield of hidden puddles. Even through my boots, I could feel the cold water when I landed in one. For a while I wondered if my great boots had sprung a leak. The snow piled up along the street and big puddles formed everywhere from the water jets that sprayed the roads to keep them clean.
By the time I arrived at the front of Big Mug, I thought I would be ready for a good drunk. But I wasn’t. I wanted the company of the familiar, to not feel distant and removed from those around me as I would when I entered. I noticed the taxis idling next to the door, lined up on what usually was a busy night. The snow around them had melted into deep puddles and the drivers stared passed me toward the main street beyond.
Through the tall, narrow windows, I could see a few people sitting at the front room’s tables. Of course, no one I knew; I would have been shocked to see someone familiar even if that was what I found myself wishing for. Osaka sounded nice, although I didn't know the town, but I would be with friends even if I didn’t like the atmosphere of dance clubs. I never liked them at home, but seemed to tolerate them in Japan. Still, dwelling about things I didn’t do, couldn’t do, or wasn’t invited to do was pointless and I was getting cold standing outside the bar.
Walking inside, I slid my umbrella into the rack by the door and looked for the Happiest Bearded Man. As he walked towards me, he motioned towards one of the front room tables. When I sat down, he asked, “Kuro-nama?” the black beer that I had started to drink regularly a few weeks earlier. I liked this guy who always seemed to recognize each customer, remembered what we drank and would have had it sitting at the table waiting if he knew we were coming. That felt good.
Sitting at the table, I watched the bartender pour my beer. I fiddled with the small plastic holder for the menu that was on the table. Around me, couples and groups of young people were chattering. I given up trying to eavesdrop conversations like I did at home, and now made them up in my head. My Japanese was a combination of that static stodginess that you learn from a textbook and the slang I picked up from the kids I taught. I could only imagine how I sounded to everyone else, and as a result never laugh at people struggling at English.
I liked the kuro-nama, the odd bitterness of it when you first draw it into your mouth. I miss it now. I haven’t had it in years, but still remember it clearly. There was a quickness to it in that didn’t warm me up, but a steady blanket of numb that pass would over me like when you pull up the covers up on a winter morning. It was comfort food. So was pizza, if I managed to get it plain and without corn or mayonnaise. That was a small blessing of the kitchen in the Big Mug, a clean pizza. And as much as I liked the kuro-nama, I had a limit of two in an evening.
Regardless, there were nights in Japan I broke that rule. No, that wasn’t a healthy thing. Being vain, I would be conscious of my waistline and comments made about it. Being cheap, I’d lament an empty wallet even more than an empty mug. Being timid, I’d grow afraid of the warm sensations of alcohol, worry about slipping in to a drunken abyss. Of course, going out with others was even more dangerous, since I tended to drink and eat too much, spend too much, and disregard any of the warnings in my mind.
Still, dreary, wet and snowy nights alone in Fukui often were too much by my third year. I had watched every videotape my parents sent, my friends’ parents had sent, and that I could understand in the video store. I had never watched the X-Files when I was in the States, but watched each episode of the first five season three or four times each. Then there was ER and the first season of Ally McBeal, along with an assortment of made-for-TV movies that found their way into video stores across the Pacific. And on nights like this, I would rationalize, with the Happiest Bearded Man there, it wasn’t like I was drinking alone. Sure, it wasn’t like drinking with a friend, more like drinking in front of the butler, but it at least was familiar. The warm sensations of the kuro-nama were familiar. The weight on me felt lighter, if only obscured.
But that night, I left Big Mug with a strange mixture of lonely tedium covered in the warm flush of a beer drunk too fast. This wasn’t my future or even where I belonged. This was where I was and what I was doing. This was a kind of Zen drunk. I was lonely, and Japan was a lonely place. The samishii of it all—the heaviness of it all—was constant, something that followed me from home, an odd misery that had become a comfortable companion.
There is something unreal about loneliness, something empty, like arms embracing nothing but air. It’s frustrating, more irritating than painful, although it is that too. Loneliness is about the things around you, that surround you, how you feel when they are gone.
Samishii is different. It is solid and heavy. It hurts because it isn’t inside you; it is you. You are yourself on that cold empty night, and in a way, you always are, even surrounded by others. When I was a student, I studied Japanese history and culture as a major and would let my imagination wander a bit during lectures about poetry and literature. I would picture the new monkish noble, just outside the capital, writing poems longing for old friends and old times watching the cloud-covered moon through a hole in the roof. The whole idea of someone doing this was a conceit, but to write real poems of longing, there had to be something in them drawing on real feelings and real pain. That is samishii—that dense solitude that no one touches and the kuro-nama can only temporarily obscure.
Daryl Muranaka works primarily as a poet and his poems have appeared most recently in the Tulane Review and is forthcoming in Spry. His first poetry collection, Hanami, was published by Aldrich Press this spring, and his chapbook, The Minstrel of Belmont, will be released by Finishing Line Press this fall. His prose has appeared in Potluck, Under the Sun, Ink Monkey Magazine, and The Rejected Writer.