Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet

Tokyo, 7

You have a few hours to kill before taking the overnight boat to the Izu Islands, so you set off to explore Ueno Park.

Ueno is famous for its cherry trees, but the blossoms will not open for another week. People have already begun to claim their spots for hanami, blossom-viewing parties, laying out blue tarps on the sidewalk in much the same way that Americans reserve park pavilions, or lay down blankets in the grass, for Fourth of July barbecues and fireworks. The tarps are the same that the homeless use to construct their foursquare shelters, at the other end of the park near the train station. Clearly they are resistant to wear and weather.

The park is a paradise of cheap greasy food. There is a stand frying up okonomyaki, the Osaka omelet or a pancake, topped with cabbage, dried shrimp or squid, egg and onion, and served up with lashings of mayonnaise. There are skewers of chicken yakitori, looking a bit dry. There are tubs of oden, tofu and radish and fishcake and mystery meats, slowly burbling in broth. There are cuttlefish grilled whole and sliced into rings. There are noodles sautéed with cabbage and Worcestershire sauce, served with hot pink pickled ginger. There are sweet potato fries, and whole potatoes cut into a long spiral, deep-fried and salted and served on a stick.

You watch the man making takoyaki, octopus balls. The griddle for these is like a non-stick muffin tin with hemispherical depressions. Into these the cook pours the batter, thick with chunks of octopus tentacle, ginger, onions and cabbage. Then, with a pair of immense chopsticks, he actually turns the batter over in the mold, like spinning a globe of the world, to create a perfect sphere, golden brown and without apparent joint or seam.

In praise of his skill you buy some for your lunch, six balls to a plastic box, daubed with a thick sweet soy sauce and a topped with a fistful of bonito fish-flakes. Inside they are gooey and incredibly hot – your first bite burns off most of the roof of your mouth, and you will be working off bits of skin with your tongue for hours.

Wandering around the pond, its obscene swan-boats, its small islands with dead reeds and sad birds, the gray slightly soiled quality of late winter, you feel lost.

 

      March in Ueno Park –

            even the night-herons hunch

                  down in their collars

 

Once you took refuge in the world, the this-ness and that-ness of it, the radiant actuality of its just being there. All these new sights and smells, all these flavors for you to sample, would once have distracted you from yourself. But now –


      An tall man in bed

            trying to cover himself

                  with a child’s blanket

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