Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Time Traveling

Visiting your past can be stupid unless you watch out. My return to Okinawa is no exception. Especially here in Japan I run the risk of perpetrating upon myself drippy nostalgia and worse, regretting what I could have done and should have done but didn't. Going back also has its benefits insofar as you exploit memory lane as a highway to the the beyond. When the past is magical you can imagine a boundless future.

There were a couple of  personal landmarks in Naha I had resigned to never finding again after my 20-year absence, places I used for purposes of navigational on long night time walks around the city when I was down here on assignment. One was a used bookstore.

Had I combed over maps and asked people  I never would have found it. I had a general idea where it used to be, south of the canal and west of the top of Kokusai Dori, the city's  main strip. I was pretty sure it had vanished among the new ferro-concrete buildings. I accosted  an ancient couple hobbling along the canal to ask whether they knew about the bookstore and was shocked when the old lady said yes, it was actually her shop, and she closed it long ago.

Discouraged, I kept walking through the warren of small alleys in the Makishi district, allowing my body to flow wherever it wanted, and when I turned a corner at a busy intersection it was right there in front of me.

The facade with its piles of used manga comic books along the front was unchanged, but inside was a different story. The shelves that once held an erratic collection of unusual books in English and Japanese had been refilled with video tapes and DVDs. Only a scattering of old books had survived.

I recognized the proprietor, who had turned husky and gray. "People don't read books anymore," he explained.  He looked me over. "I remember you. You're the guy who came here once looking for Vonnegut." 

My other navigational landmark is Urizun, a classic Okinawan bar that serves Awamori and traditional Okinawan food. I stopped there on every visit to talk to the locals about the events of the day. It was a long stroll from my hotel. I'd walk there and, incapacitated by drink, take a taxi home. This is were I leaned my my first word in the Okinawan language, Nee-hey-DEB-iru, which means thank you. It comes in handy when you want to make a positive impression, and dispel any lingering assumption you're another ugly American connected to the military.

I rediscovered Urizun by chance. My comrade from UC Berkeley and I were wandering about looking for a good izakaya pub to eat and drink awamori in the Sakae neighborhood, an old red-light district popular for its eccentric bars. I asked a passer-by where to find Urizun, and he pointed to the sign a few meters away. The place got famous since I last visited so famous it became a place for mainland tourists to visit and take each other's photos. It opened a branch in Tokyo, riding on the tide of the awamori boom.

Awamori is the local fire water, a cousin of shochu but unique for the use of long-grain Thai rice instead of potatoes. It's distilled, not brewed, and famed for its high voltage: about 40 percent alcohol by volume., or 80 proof. (Shochu is 25 percent alcohol). I remember drinking it straight and getting used to the faint smelly-sock flavor. But proper etiquette seems to be serving it with water and and ice, like a highball.  Could it be that watering it d0wn is an adaptation to make it more palatable to mainland Japan's drinking public? I didn't have time to find answers. And to my chagrin, I didn't bring my camera to Urizun that night and can't show you the woodsy earth-tone decor.

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