“We die — that may be the meaning of life,” said author Toni Morrison, who died Monday. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
I‘ve tried many times to watch “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me” and “When Harry Met Sally,” but I’ve never been able to get through any of them. They are ham-handed. They aren’t funny. They clunk. That Rob Reiner directed all of them is strictly coincidental.
I swear, Cubby the dog has a perverse crush on the female cat Tiger Lily. He gawkily flirts with her, and her eye-rolling indifference is touching. Such inter-species passion is a spectacle. I sure hope I don’t see a newborn kitten that barks.
I jot in my journal pretty much every day with purpose and the fugitive hope of substance. The author Yiyun Li writes, “How did I forget to start each and every page of my journal with the reminder that nothing matters?” My head nods vigorously.
The last time I went to Japan I got hooked on the sizzling pop art of Takashi Murakami, whose work spans painting, sculpture, fashion, merchandise and animation. It’s fun and whimsical and dazzlingly colorful — and not a little geeky. His subject matter is cute (kawaii), psychedelic and satirical, with well-trod motifs: smiling flowers, mushrooms, skulls and manga culture. Murakami could be the Jeff Koons of Japan. I’m going there soon. My goal is to get Murakami’d, big time.
A few years ago I discovered I had an adult-onset allergy to shrimp and prawns. It’s like the second worst thing that’s ever happened to me.
A fan of novelist Colson Whitehead, I’m deflated by his new, lavishly overrated book “The Nickel Boys.” It lacks energy, momentum and finally fizzles at the halfway mark. So I put it down (I also couldn’t get into his early novel “John Henry Days,” though I’m all about “The Intuitionist” and “The Underground Railroad”) and picked up Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood.” I’ve read one other Murakami novel, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and I almost threw it against a wall. The edge is where I live.
Tonight we popped a bottle of Suntory Whisky Toki, “blended Japanese whisky that is both groundbreaking and timeless.” It is silky and smoky with strong, sweet vanilla notes. I think none of us is going to bed.
Quentin Tarantino has made 9½ movies. He has made only two masterworks, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” That was a very long time ago. The rest of his oeuvre seesaws from juvenilia to junk. As critic David Denby wrote on the release of the imbecilic “Inglourious Basterds”: “Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque.”
Intimacy is scary. Love is scarier. Someone recently dubbed the phenomenon “the terror of loving.” I like that. Its precision is chilling.
I am typing most of this in the air, row 45, seat G, on United flight 497 to San Francisco. You might say I’m skywriting. Forget I just said that.
Several, actually. And they want my money. Every time I open a website, they are there, pawing at me.
The animals are macaques, with pomegranate faces and heads hooded in fuzzy Eskimo parkas rimming wise, frowning visages of grizzled monks or mystics. They are bathing and grooming and picking at each other in hot springs at the Jigokudani Wild Snow Monkey Park in Japan. They look to be suffering chronic mites and fleas.
They are world-famous monkeys; you see them in every other wildlife documentary, steam rising around their half-submerged bodies. These simian superstars are chillaxing in a simmering jacuzzi nestled amid frosty mountains. And they pick and pick.
I, for one, can’t avoid their pink, pensive faces. They want me to come visit them, terribly. Ever since I began researching hotels, food tours and day trips in Japan, the insistent monkey pop-up ad, hectoring click-bait, has infiltrated all of my most visited sites, from The New York Times to Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t get the goddam monkeys out of my sight. Fortunately, they’re cute and furry. Unfortunately, they’re expensive.
For about five seconds it’s tempting to actually take the ad up on its offer with a simple click: $146 for eight hours of touring, including one (one!) hour at the monkey sanctuary; time at the famed Zenko-ji temple; lunch; some sake sipping; and, really, not much else. Bullet train transportation is not included (rip!).
And can you believe this: “Guests are not permitted to touch, feed or bathe with the monkeys at any time.” I guess I won’t be bringing a towel and a bar of Dial.
So the deal effectively stinks, even if you do get a brief (dry) encounter with the enchanting, lightly parboiled macaques.
Yet more caveats abound, and they are dire. I came across an alarming blog post titled “Why Seeing the Snow Monkeys in Japan Sucked” (read it in full HERE). A grisly excerpt:
“Instead of a snow-covered paradise, I was standing in what felt like a construction site full of rubble, with piles of rocks and exposed cables forming a backdrop against the commotion. I watched in dismay as staff at the Jigokudani Monkey Park threw food at the agitated macaques until they began to screech and fight on the damp mud. This was one of the worst animal encounters I’d ever experienced.”
No monkeys for me. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Click no evil.
So I return to Japan in late October, my first time in several years, and the anticipation is giving me fits of insomnia. The capital, Tokyo, is one of my favorite and most indelible cities, part of a troika that includes Paris and Istanbul. I was skipping through some photos from past trips — people and places inside and outside of that teeming, gleaming metropolis: pagodas and Harajuku Girls; whale meat and cherry blossoms; lakes and a big, cool silver orb that, in its own odd way, sums up the reliable surreality of Tokyo.
I wish I played chess, even so-so. At this point, I have zero interest in learning how.
The best book I’ve read this summer is the acrid novel “Fleishman is in Trouble” by the regrettably named Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Terrifically observant, mordant and relevant, it’s dubbed a “timely exploration of marriage, divorce, and the bewildering dynamics of ambition.” I’m too lazy to describe it. But it’s superb, and superbly smart. If you’re married, or divorced, beware. It has teeth.
It’s in the news today. Never in a million years would I want to climb Mount Everest. Or any mountain for that matter. I don’t do tents. Or canteens. Or oxygen tanks. Or death.
I booked a flight to Tokyo for late October. I’m going to eat sushi and more sushi and sip sake and Japanese whiskey and absorb on a granular level Shinjuku nightlife. I may barf.
When I was 8 I saw big white beluga whales at SeaWorld. They made me kind of sick, all bulbous and albino, their big, meaty cow tongues showing when they smiled. Many years later — last week, in fact — I saw the belugas again at SeaWorld. They still make me ill.
Charismatic badass and “Blade Runner” actor Rutger Hauer has just died. So, alas, has presidential impeachment. R.I.P.
A movie my mind keeps returning to is the new documentary “Honeyland,” which is about a lone female beekeeper in the unforgiving mountains of Macedonia and her struggles with her unruly neighbors, her sick mother and the mere notion of survival. It sounds terrible. It is sublime. I could see it winning an Oscar. See trailer HERE.
My brother and I have reservations next month at Alice Waters’ legendary Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse, where we will dine on such succulent fare as, quote, “Sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli with chanterelle mushroom and garlic brodo” and “Sonoma County duck confit with frisée, haricots verts, fig vinaigrette, garlic crouton, and sage.” I don’t know what half that means. I don’t care. I will delight, as my wallet gently weeps.
Ipromised I would never mention my Sea-Monkeys again. I lied. There are a half-dozen survivors, swirling through the briny tank, each one as big as Moby Dick. I hope the cats are hungry.
Too many critics and other dopes are declaring season two of the amazing Amazon Prime comedy “Fleabag” superior to season one. Wrong. Season one is fresher, funnier, wiggier, better. Season two is splendid, no doubt, and you should watch it, as it’s the best comedy on TV. I’m just saying.
Speaking of TV hilarity, the lamest, most overrated “comedy” is “Bojack Horseman,” a Netflix show so consistently and embarrassingly unfunny, such a bizarre misfire, it just makes me tired. (If you find this show amusing, please leave a comment and explain.)
Some years ago, my Dad took us to an incredible slew of jazz and comedy shows. A few luminaries we saw live: Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as live NBC tapings of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and, way back, “The Goldie Hawn Special” featuring then-pop idol Shaun Cassidy. The whole thing’s a head rush.
I recently bought a can of sardines. I keep looking at it, baffled and fearful.
It’s astonishing how pleasant and doable the weather was yesterday in Coronado, San Diego, what with hair-flustering breezes and temps hardly nicking 70. It’s nuts. I mad-love it, especially considering the 100-ish hell-wave I’ll be facing back on the East Coast. That’s nuts, too, but in a whole other way, the kind that makes you cussy and crazed.
Weather’s the worst. It’s almost never perfect. Climatic sweet spots are as slippery as quicksilver. But these days are pretty swell. I can wear pants. I can wear shorts. I can slip on a light jacket. Or not. Actually, it could be a dash cooler — mid-to-low-60s would be Edenic — but I’m being positive. Sunshiny, if you will.
So. San Diego. I haven’t been here since a wild weekend at my brother’s dorm at San Diego State University, where he went for one semester before beating it the hell to Cal Berkeley. Yes, of course he took the 17-year-old me to Tijuana, and, natch, what happens in Tijuana stays in Tijuana. So quit asking. (Frankly, I don’t remember a thing.)
Now, with six other family members, I’m on vacation at a place I would never choose on my own. But majority rules. We did the vaunted San Diego Zoo, a lush green compound where the exhibited animals play a mean game of hide and seek with gullible human visitors craving a glimpse of (and desperate selfies with) those cuddly koalas. Peek-a-boo at the zoo. No one wins.
The other major attraction here is, of course, splashy, clamorous SeaWorld, where yowling seal barks and the wet slap of bellyflops by multi-ton orcas fill the salty air.
Along with human screams.
That’s because the ocean park has perforce reduced its vulgar killer whale and dolphin shows after cries of demonstrable animal cruelty and have filled the entertainment void with, what else, rollercoasters and marine-themed thrill rides.
Like the Tentacle Twirl, Tidal Twister, and the fearsome Electric Eel, the “tallest, fastest” rollercoaster in all of — hang on — greater San Diego. It’s a bit like saying a place has the best, zestiest tacos in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s all comically relative.
But my sarcasm falls flat because the Electric Eel is a stellar coaster. We rode it today, and each herk, jerk, corkscrew, twist, twirl, drop and fling came out of nowhere. Usually you sort of know the layout of a rollercoaster, how many loops it has and such. The Eel was sheer breathtaking surprise, fast, furious fun.
Waddling, nose-diving penguin colonies; bulbous ivory beluga whales; tubby, slothish walruses; greedy, hand-fed manta rays; bullet-like harbor seals; the inevitable killer whale show, which is now solely an educational experience without dopey trainers standing on the animals’ backs like they’re water skiing. Thanks to foot fatigue, missing on our expedition were dolphins, otters, polar bears, sharks and the almost mythical narwhal, the so-called unicorn of the sea that I would like to ride around the Arctic.
Like yesterday, the weather held today at a tolerable 72 degrees, which still staggers. (And still left me sunburned.) This SoCal trip winds down tonight with tacos and tequila at the poolside cantina, called fittingly enough The Cantina.
This was an accomplishment. I survived all the trappings of a semi-swanky beach resort, swaying palm trees, children splashing (and shrieking) in swimming pools, grown men in flip-flops and tank tops, quaint downtowns, extravagantly famous theme parks filled with captive creatures and $10 beers. I spent time with family and realized its uncanny resemblance to the macaque. I pet a dog at a restaurant that growled at me fiercely. I splurged on too many beverages. I didn’t go to the beach. I didn’t fish. I ate scallops. I didn’t eat ice cream. I had a blast.
I don’t do sun and fun. Yet here I am in breezy, easy San Diego, Calif., for a shortish vacation with the extended family — mother, brother, nephew, et al. Seven of us total.
Why do I shun the pool and the Pacific? I sure didn’t used to, particularly growing up in oceanside Santa Barbara, Calif. There I was like any splash-happy, wave-plunging kid, giddiest reverting to a primal state of fluidity, getting soaked, sandy and sun-baked.
I think I just grew out of it. By my teens, living in the temperate San Francisco Bay Area, I loathed the heat, anything over 75 degrees was excruciating. And it still is. I’m a 40s and 50s kind of guy. Fall and winter are my homies. Jeans, jacket, scarf — the ideal uniform. Shivering is my version of sweating. (Sweat is my kryptonite.) I aspire to be an Inuit.
Against my nature, but not my will, I’ve been cajoled to one of the beachiest places on the planet. Briny water everywhere. The profusion of palm trees — Christ. Boats and bikinis, flip-flops and fish, pink flesh and pervasive pastels. It’s Coronado Bay, San Diego.
I actually sat poolside — in the shade, with shirt and sneakers firmly affixed — this afternoon and survived. I had a book (Peter Orner’s new, remarkable short stories “Maggie Brown & Others”) and the laptop (the resort, yes, resort, has spiffy wifi) and a beer and an al pastor taco, so it worked swimmingly, if you will. Then I repaired to my room for some AC time, even though the temps all week are in the mercifully mid-to-low 70s.
I begged off the beach. The six of them headed out to sit on sand beneath yawning umbrellas and presumably tiptoe into the chilly sea. I had no business there, as much as I love sharks. But the chances of a shark sighting were as good as those of me not being bored out of my skull plopped on mushy sand under a giant parasol. (Instead, I’m writing this. I bet you wish I went to the beach.)
When many of us think of San Diego, the mega-famous zoo (known as the world’s best) and SeaWorld spring to mind. In other words: creatures, critters, cetaceans, crustaceans. Now, those I can do. Captive animals crack my heart, but at least the respected zoo sustains “natural” habitats and breeds endangered species. And even the ethically iffy SeaWorld has banished its dubious in-park breeding and tawdry theatrical whale shows. (Shamu — rhymes with boo.)
Today was San Diego Zoo day, and it was about as thrilling as watching a flock of pink, and a few juvenile gray, flamingos stand on one preternaturally long and spindly leg and snooze, or projectile poop, or, in the case of the gray downy youngsters, stumble and wash and act as adorable as can be. When flamingos are a highlight, well …
Besides being reminded on a double-decker bus tour around the park that hippos are “the most dangerous animals in the world” (for some reason, I find that exhilarating) and that some wolves smell like seething skunk bud, mostly the day consisted of trying to locate animals in their enclosures. Craned necks and dashed hopes were major exertions. It was the land of the empty habitat.
There’s one alpha gorilla sitting tall and proud, and there he goes, vanishing behind a rock. There’s a sole polar bear sleeping up on a hill, partially obscured. Ah, I spy a pygmy hippo — 90-percent submerged in a pond. And so on. Zoos might be the most exasperating animal experience available. Go to a mall pet shop to see more furry mammalian action.
But the weather remained agreeable — low-70s — so things meteorologically were dreamy. And they sell beer all over the place. (Wait, $9 for a can of Corona — where are the hippos when I need them?)
I don’t want to complain. I saw frolicsome monkeys and fat pythons and some Chaplinesque penguins, not to mention a guy dressed in a ragtag rhinoceros costume posing for pictures who made legions of unsuspecting visitors uneasy.
But where, I direly wondered, were the real rhinos? And giraffes? And hyenas. And, come on, the platypuses? We spotted, nestled in thick foliage, a koala. It was like seeing a child’s stuffed animal stuck in a way-up tree. It wanted nothing to do with us, the cranky marsupial. That’s what happens when you sleep 22 hours a day.
A leopard showed its spots — for about 34 seconds. Then there was the funky smelling wolf — a total no-show, just a nose show. The macaques — same. Empty habitats are like unfulfilled dreams, dollar bills set on fire. Enter the gift shop and suddenly the animals are fluffy, smiling, en masse, thriving. A simple magnet of a magnificent mountain lion or a whimsical t-shirt of a rhinoceros (“Save the Chubby Unicorns”) about makes it all OK.
There’s a popular documentary from 2011 called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” As I plan a trip to Japan, I also dream of sushi. And ramen. And Sapporo. And yakitori. And sake. And squid. And Godzilla.
If Jiro, a wispy 90-ish sushi master, merely dreams of sushi, I fully rhapsodize about sushi. (OK, I exaggerate. I only think about sushi, mm, twice a week. But it excites in ways other foods do not: Its silken, room-temperature raw-dacity; glistening, quivering slipperiness; palate-dancing umami-ness. Does that make me a sushi master? I think it does.)
What I’m saying is I will ingest gobs and globs of raw fish during my 12-day fall journey, to the point of possibly getting mercury poisoning, which would be one hell of a souvenir. Sushi, that artisanal seafood delicacy, isn’t cheap, one reason why I eat it sparingly. Another reason is that where I live fine sushi is as rare as Rodan sightings. And mediocre sushi, like a half-ass steak, makes one ponder existence darkly.
Therein lies the miraculous ingenuity of Japan’s conveyor-belt sushi (kaiten-sushi) — not amazing, not bad, but invariably cheap and gratifying seafood that winds through the restaurant on exactly that, a conveyor belt, like an assembly-line of deliciousness. Its brilliant utility blots out its majestic absurdity.
Round and round the little plates go, each saucer’s cargo a slab of prepared-before-your-eyes nigiri, circling a seeming mile on a tiny conveyor belt, waiting for you to snatch it at your desire as it rattles by. Each plate or piece costs about a buck-fifty or less, so a meal, for me at least, ranges a not-bad $10-$15.
But why not try Jiro’s sushi shrine, the tiny 10-seat Sushi Jiro, a Michelin three-star establishment/closet located in Tokyo’s Ginza subway station? For one, it’s $300-plus a meal, no exceptions. Two, it is nigh to impossible to net a reservation, though I did spot the so-called Jiro Dreams of Sushi Jiro Dinner & LuxuryTour at a fee of $1,500 per head. This one’s for Jiro cultists/completists and FOMOs only. Plus, men have to wear a blue or white shirt and a blazer and we know that’s not going to happen.
So I’ll go back to school. Namely Sushi University, a two-hour tutorial pig-out in which you learn while you nosh at a fine Tokyo sushi restaurant. The pitch:
“How would you like to sit at an authentic, Edo-style sushi counter, enjoying sophisticated conversation with the chef? Each excursion includes a skilled interpreter who joins you from start to finish, allowing you to experience the culture and history of sushi as well as learn about the chef’s specialties and style of the restaurant.”
(Smoking and the wearing of perfume are forbidden lest they corrupt the delicate fishy.)
If I’m not a sushi master by now — though I think we’ve established that indeed I am — then surely I will be one after graduating Sushi University. Hai!
On my two prior trips to Japan I was gastronomically rudderless, lost, quite pathetic. I just ambled about, making impromptu eating choices based on whatever looked yummy and inviting in the neon-soaked Shibuya and Shinjuku areas where I stayed. I’d duck into an inevitably minuscule and packed yakitori place or busy conveyor-belt sushi joint, or simply grab some street food. (I ate whale. So sue me.) I must say, I did eat fine.
Structure is the operative word this time. And learning (see: Sushi University) is part of it. Hence the Sake Tasting and Lecture I’ve enrolled in, aka Signature Sake-Tasting Course, a 10-plus glass sake tasting including sake snacks (or tsunami) and a lecture in English. It’s conducted at one of the most famous members-only sake houses (izakayas) in Tokyo, or so they say. (It could be a bar owned by the instructor’s cousin Rocco.) I don’t even like sake. But I am going for liquid enlightenment, to open my buds and brain. By course end, I will be a sucker for sake, otherwise I will upend the table and demand a refund. And then I’ll probably get roughed up and tossed to the curb.
My Tokyo hotel is smack in the thwumping heart of kinetic, cornea-cooking Shinjuku, famous for its oceanic bar scene, insomniac nightlife and seedy red-light district — and for sucking up half the world’s electricity in hyperactive signage. I want to dig in with a little help from my friends, so I’m taking the Tokyo Bar Hopping Tour in Shinjuku — Explore the Hidden Bars in Food Alleys. I beg it’s as bulging as that unwieldy title, as our small group weaves through itty six-seat pubs and sake houses of the Golden Gaifor food and drink and, I hope, staggering wisdom. Keep your tawdry Love Hotels. I’m not playing around. I’m here for elucidation and libation. Now where in hell do I get a stiff whisky?
Capping my Tokyo culinary explorations is an obligatory trip to the famed Tsukiji Fish Market for an early morning, 3.5-hour “food and culture” walking tour at the outer part of the massive market. Here’s some copy that’s as canned as Chicken of the Sea:
“Rub shoulders with Michelin-starred chefs as they shop for ingredients at this sprawling, 80-year-old market for all things aquatic. Investigate the various stalls selling fish, shellfish, and everything in between, and sample Japanese favorites such as sushi, dried bonito, fresh oysters, and sake. Eat and drink like a Japanese local.”
Exactly. I want to eat and drink like a local, not a western bobble-head boob. That’s the point of this Edo-education and sake schooling — to figure how it’s done and cultivate an experience of maximum authenticity. I’m more about learning the history and culture than the language, though I do know three words in Japanese. Maybe four. No. Three.
At this point, I’ll be full up to the gills in raw fish, sake and sundry seafoods. I will have relished a moveable feast, an embarrassment of fishes. I will have been transported, spirited away. Jiro, that old master chef, will have nothing on me. I will have dreamed of sushi, and worlds more. I will at last be sated, and ready to start all over again. After you …