Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Japan (page 1 of 7)

“As long as I have my Cokes and Smokes” — Damaged Goods

“How did you come up with the idea for your story or novel?” is a question that I am often asked when folks want to know what inspired me.

For my first novel, War Remains, the answer is a long one, which involves talking about writing for the Korea Times back in 2000, interviewing veterans and then, talking about how I wanted to do something special for the 60th anniversary of the conflict.

On the other hand, inspiration can be a snippet of a conversation, like the one I had with a female expat on the Number 9 bus in Hamamatsu, Japan one cold, rainy November day in 1989.

This woman, who boarded the bus after I did, sat down across from me, and in the short time that it took for us to reach the downtown bus terminus in front of Hamamatsu Railroad Station, had told me her expat life story since arriving to teach English one month earlier.

It hadn’t been easy for her, but she was optimistic. “As long as I have my Cokes and Smokes” I’ll be okay.

What she said was profound enough to stay with me all these years until I sat down last year and wrote this story.

Sometimes that’s all it takes to write a story.

I like this story a lot. I hope you will, too.

Ghosts of Christmas Past — Japan, 1989

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2qCHLx_4qA&feature=related]

Today, while I was in the locker room at Sol-Sporex (located in one of the lower levels of the SolBridge International School of Business), one of the more upscale fitness clubs I have worked out at here in Korea, I heard the Second Movement of Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony playing in the background.

And in a split second, as I heard the familiar piccolo solo and strings of this composition, I was transported back in a time—21 years to be exact—to a cold Sunday afternoon before Christmas in Hamamatsu, Japan as I waited in the lobby of a community center dressed as Santa Claus (with two pillows underneath my baggy costume to have some semblance to that jolly man in red) before I was to make my grand entrance at a children’s Christmas party.

While I was waiting to make my grand entrance back on that Sunday in 1989, I was listening to some local orchestra perform Dvorak’s symphony in an adjacent concert hall.

It’s funny how music has a way of opening up one’s memory and transporting one back in time. I was immediately overcome with a wave of holiday blues and nostalgia, as I sat there listening to one of my favorite symphonies, tying my shoes. In fact, the holiday blues and nostalgia were so strong I could hardly move. I just sat there, listening to the beautiful sounds of this symphony thinking about 1989, the first year I taught English overseas, and this year in Daejeon, my 20th year teaching English in Korea.

Whenever I heard this symphony, I will always think back to that year I taught English in Japan, when I first embarked on this noble profession. I am reminded of all the dreams I once had and the passion and enthusiasm that filled my life then and still fills my life now. Though bittersweet at times, especially when spending the holidays alone, it is part of the music, the soundtrack of my life.

Picture of the Day: Daejeon, 60 years ago

Yesterday, September 28 was the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Seoul following the Inchon Landing during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Two days later, this photo was taken of downtown Daejeon (back then spelled Taejon) which shows how badly the city was destroyed during fierce fighting in the opening weeks of the Korean War and later, following the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter in September, 1950.

This photo comes via The Boston Globe and their 60th Anniversary Pictorial, Remembering the Korean War, 60 Years Ago.

Looking at this photo, I am trying to get my geographical bearings. If I am not mistaken, this photograph was taken facing south. The mountain in the distance is a familiar landmark in Daejeon and I am pretty sure that is the same mountain that has this antenna tower on top.

In the middle of the photograph you can see what looks like a river or stream running through town. If that’s the case, then on the left side of the river would be where the present-day Daejeon Railroad station is located.

Another thing that is interesting about this photo is the way the streets are laid out in a grid-like pattern, which would indicate the Japanese influence in Daejeon during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Daejeon was founded in 1905 by the Japanese, which would account for the way the streets were laid out–very similar to Japanese cities like Kyoto.

Flash fiction story published in Bartleby Snopes

My flash fiction story, “What is this?” (Kore wa nan desu-ka?) was published in the online e-zine Bartleby Snopes today.

The genesis for this story is based on my experience teaching in Hamamatsu, Japan in 1989 and also learning Japanese. One day I was thinking about how much Japanese I still remember and out of the blue, I said, “Kore wa nan desu-ka.” The story wrote itself.

You’ve got to love and appreciate a literary magazine based on two characters in American literature by two giants of American literature Herman Melville and William Faulkner.

I certainly do and I certainly appreciate my story being chosen as one of the eight stories in the August edition.

I hope you enjoy this story as well as the other stories.

Picture of the day: Fujiyama from Kofu

Fujiyama or Mt. Fuji rising up from mountains hemming in Kofu. Black and white or in color, Fujiyama is one majestic mountain.

Online Asian Photo Exhibition at The Camel Saloon

The editor of The Camel Saloon, Russell Streur, after he had seen some photos I submitted along with some of my poetry, came up with this cool idea about having an online photo exhibition of some of the photos I have taken during my travels around Asia.

Called the Asian Caravan, it is a collection of 50 photos taken in Cambodia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, and Thailand.

And while you are there, please check out some of the literary stylings and support this literary e-zine that is helping some writers get their first publishing credit and established writers to share their stuff.

Let’s Boogie on down to the Boogie Café

Boogie_Cafe_November_2006_006It was a cold, rainy November Friday evening when my Japanese friend, rock and roll and tattoo brother Kenny Shangrila took me to the Boogie Café in Yokohama. On my way from Bangkok to Chicago via Japan, I had a three-day layover in Japan where I would be hanging out with Kenny. After he had met me a Narita International Airport we hopped in his banged up and dinged white Datsun truck for the drive into Tokyo and Yokohama with Johnny Thunders blasting on the tape deck.

Boogie Café. The name alone conjured up images of the 1970s of platform shoes, disco balls spinning from ceilings and The Bee Gees.

However, nothing could be further from the truth when Kenny and I walked in there that November night three years ago. To be sure, as soon as I walked in, I felt as though I as though I had stepped back into time—back to some American diner in the 1950’s or early 1960s—judging from the posters, handbills, signs and other bric-a-brac adorning the walls and filling up every inch of space. It was the kind of place one almost expected to hear Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, or Eddie Cochran coming from a jukebox if there was one.

That’s okay, there’s plenty of classic rock playing on the sound system to satisfy any eclectic musical tastes. Knowing how much Kenny was a fan of Johnny Thunders, that’s what the bartender/cook/disc jockey played for us that night.

I’ve seen a lot of that when I’ve been to Japan. The Japanese are keen to what is cool culturally, especially when it comes to rock and roll and nostalgia. One of the greatest exports to Japan has been popular culture that the Japanese know how market and enjoy.

Back in 1989, when I was teaching English in Hamamatsu I went to this bar called The Ketchup Club—just down the street from where I taught. The owner modeled the bar after some bar he had visited when he lived in New York and everything was in English inside, down to the coasters and the napkins. He even had his friend back in New York record hours and hours of one radio station on a reel-to-reel that he played non-stop in the bar. You really did feel as though you were in bar back in the States, sipping imported beer, gobbling French fries, and listening to the radio.

As for the rock and roll ambiance at the Boogie Café, it is not without precedence. Owned by Mr. Chibo a legendary rock and roll and blues guitarist, who is often referred to as the “Godfather of Japanese Rock and Roll” – when he’s not meeting customers at the Boogie Café, he’s out playing with The Mojos a popular Yokohama rock and roll/blues band.

Even the menu was authentic that offered a standard fare of American diner favorites like burgers, and hot dogs served with a side of chips. Kenny suggested I order a burger and it was one of the best darn burgers I had tasted in a long time. Prices can be, for the lack of a better expression quite pricey in Japan, but not so at the Boogie Café where most of the food was a couple of bucks (under 1,000 Yen).

He joined us at our table where Kenny and I enjoyed some Dad’s Root Beer and our burgers. Having just spent the past two months in Thailand, he wanted to know all about my trip as well as check out my latest ink from Jimmy Wong. Kenny and I had met in Bangkok that previous February at Jimmy Wong’s first international tattoo convention in Bangkok and again in September. Nothing beats talking shop when it comes to rock and roll and tattoos.

The burger and the Dad’s went down well as did our conversation. It had gotten late, by now, Kenny had to drive back to Kofu (I would be staying in Tokyo) and we had a full-day planned for the next day (a visit to the Yokohama Tattoo Museum), so we bid farewell to Mr. Chibo; we would be back again soon.

As for the Boogie Café, well that was what you would call a real Boogie Night.

If you are ever in the Yokohama area and want a taste of what an authentic American diner has to offer, listen to some good tunes, and hang out with some cool people, the Boogie Café is a must. The café is located at Yokohama-shi, Naka-ku, Honmoku Makado, 20-1, Yokohama, Kanagawa-ken 231-0825. It’s small, so you might want to phone ahead (tel. 81-045-621-0990) to make reservations.

It was twenty years ago today…

Not when Sergeant Pepper told the band to play but when this former Sergeant got on a plane at LAX and flew to Japan.

And so began this 20-year adventure of teaching English in Asia—first in Japan and then in Korea. It’s been some adventure that’s for sure.

I’ve already written much about my life in Korea all these years, but that cool, rainy day in June when I arrived in Japan still stands out in my mind a lot. There are some things that a person just never forgets and the day I arrived in Japan is one of them. I had no idea what to do when I arrived and what I had to do to get from Narita and Tokyo to Hamamatsu, but when you are so pumped up with adrenalin to have just flown halfway around the world, everything just fell in place—from getting to Tokyo Station and getting on a Shinkansen to Hamamatsu.

I’ve never forgotten what it was like coming into Tokyo on an elevated highway with all these neon signs materializing out of the mist that made me think of one of my favorite sci-fi films, Blade Runner. I guess if you are going to compare Tokyo in the rain to anything, you can’t go wrong with comparing it to that sci-fi flick.

Like I said, everything pretty much fell into place from the time I arrived in Tokyo, got to Tokyo Station and boarded the Shinkansen (on a busy Friday evening) to Hamamatsu. The adventure had started and my life would be changed forever.

The Great Buddha at Kamakura

ph-10056The Great Buddha at Kamakura

You sit there so quiet

contemplative

meditative and grand

with that peaceful look

upon your bronze face

and heavy hands folded

in your lap.

Gazing straight ahead

you’ve watched the seasons

come and go-

from delicate Japanese springs

of pink and white cherry blossoms

to the vibrant red and golden

maple autumns.

You’ve sat here silently,

patiently marked your time

for the faithful who seek

your dharma greatness.

Not even a tidal wave

could wash away

your presence.

© 2009 Jeffrey Alan Miller

Christmas in Asia

Halfway around the world in Asia, the celebration of Christmas is quite different than the way it is celebrated in the West. Although the true meaning and spirit of the season might be lost in the obvious commercialization and marketing of the holiday in countries like Japan and Korea, certain traditions and celebrations have evolved that at least capture the essence of the holiday.

 

In Asia, there’s really no true meaning behind celebrating the holiday unless you happen to be a Christian. To be sure, having lived in Asia for the past 18 years, I have seen the holiday go from being just a special day to enjoy a “Christmas Cake” in Japan or exchange greeting cards in Korea to having the same overblown commercialism in cities like Bangkok, Seoul, and Tokyo, the same kind of rampant commercialization that I have seen back in the States.

 

In predominantly Buddhist Asia, the holiday for the most part has always been about the cultural overtones and not the holiday’s religious background. While more and more Christians in Asia are celebrating the holiday as the birth of Christ, the holiday has evolved rather quickly into a cultural and commercial juggernaut. Cities like Bangkok roll out the Christmas trees and decorations just in time for the onslaught of Western tourists who would rather frolic on the beaches of Koh Samui and suck down Singha Beer than fight shoppers in crowded stores back in Europe.

 

Yes, everywhere it is Christmas and you don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy the holiday. Of course there is more emphasis on “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

 

I’ve spent a few Christmases in Thailand and I had no trouble getting into the holiday spirit whether it was finding Christmas trees or cards. And just last year when I was in Vientiane, Laos there were Christmas trees and decorations everywhere—of course to make all us Western tourists spending the holidays in Indochina to feel at home.

 

When I was living and working in Japan back in 1989 and Christmas rolled around most people gave a Christmas cake for the holiday though everyone had to work. However, you could find Christmas trees and all kinds of decorations. I went to Tokyo Disneyland two weeks before Christmas and the entire theme park was decked out in holiday cheer. You would almost expect that from Mickey Mouse and friends given the mammoth cultural and commercial enterprise that Disney is in countries like Japan—you know, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly” and lots and lots of Mickey Mouse.

 

The same was true, to a lesser degree the following Christmas when I now was living and working in Seoul (and where I have been since). Back then, in 1990, the holiday seemed to centered on the giving of Christmas cards, some rather nice and traditional; other’s a little cheesy and a commercial mockery of the holiday like the ones I saw of grotesque cartoon interpretations of Santa Claus.

 

Over the years though, the holiday has evolved into the commercial juggernaut fed by rampant consumerism and a holiday cheer. You definitely see more Christmas Trees and decorations than you did when I first arrived here, kids talk about Santa Claus, and at Starbucks, you can buy a special yuletide brew. A Korean family, one who I have been good friends with for about as long as I have been in Korea and who are devout Buddhists put up their Christmas tree last weekend.

 

Much of the holiday’s religious stronghold in Korea started with the Christian missionaries in the 1800’s and since then has grown significantly so the holiday in Korea is not without a religious precedent. At least this legitimizes the holiday amid the full-blown commercialization of the holiday that has evolved over the years.

 

So what is Christmas really like in Asia? It is, for the most part if you are a non-Christian, a cultural celebration, no more and no less and all dependent upon just how commercialized one wants their holiday cheer.

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