The first three days of January are the biggest holidays of the year in Japan,
and people eat all kinds of special traditional New Year's dishes, including mochi,
which is one of the most potentially lethal foods there is. Mochi is made,
at least traditionally, by putting rice in a big wooden container and wacking
at it with a heavy mallet until it's the consistency of silly putty.
A second person stands around and periodically sticks their hands into the container
to rearrange the big gluttonous lump of mochi and make sure it gets pounded evenly.
This inevitably gives rise to all kinds of gruesome accidents where the mochi wacker
accidently wacks the mochi rearranger with the heavy wooden mallet instead of wacking
the mochi itself.
The real New Year's excitement, though, comes when you actually eat the mochi,
which is served in a hot broth that makes it so gooey that every year, people all
over Japan (mostly old people and little kids) choke to death while eating it.
The number of mochi deaths each year is reported an T.V.and in the paper. This,
I'm convinced, is so you can serve someone a big bowl of mochi and then start talking
about how many people it's already killed this year just as they're in the middle of
swallowing. Partying in the Bay Area on New Year's Eve (where people like to ring in
the new year with like drunk driving and gratuitous gunfire) and then eating New Year's
mochi in Tokyo made me feel like I was inadvertently doing comparative cultural
anthropology research around the world about New Year's festivities and population control.
Speaking of comparative cultural anthropology research, on Day Two of
my glorious three-day trip, Tadashi took me to a Burger King that just opened kind
of near his house. Oddly enough, it was decorated exactly like a '50s diner, complete
with black-and-white floor tiling, big red leather booths,and many many framed pictures
of Chubby Checker. How come the interior decoration of fast food restaurants in other
countries is always so much more interesting than in the United States? Like that
McDonald's in the middle of Paris that has leafy green plants, mirrored walls, and indoor
On Day Three I went with my friend Flo to see a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit
(flowers, naked people, Patti Smith, a whole frighteningly '70s series of pictures
involving a Pulp Fiction-esque leather mask, etc.) that was being shown in the middle
of a huge department store in downtown Tokyo. Flo has a friend back in Houston who
is a drummer and a huge Elvin Jones fan, so afterwards she convinced me to go with her
to see the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine even though neither of us had actually heard their
music. The club was about the size of the basement at my mom's house (but a hell of a
lot smokier). Flo and I comprised two-thirds of the American portion of the audience,
so the band (which was made up of all kinds of big-name famous jazz dudes who I'd never
heard of) talked to us between sets, making the fact that neither of us knew anything about
them -- or their music -- kind of embarrasssing.
The big highlight of the show for me was the unbelievable way that Elvin Jones had of
grunting while he played the drums. I'd never heard anything quite like it. It was kind
of like a sustained version of the sound I'd imagine a really really congested bullfrog
would make just before sexual climax. I spent the whole show trying to figure out if
it was voluntary or not. It was such a weird noise that I couldn't really imagine being
able to play the drums with a straight face while making it. By the end of the show,
I began to entertain the notion that maybe ol' Elvin didn't actually realize his frenzied,
guttural grunting was clearly audible over the music of the entire rest of the band.
Kind of like how Matt Dylan's character in "The Flamingo Kid" is unaware that he sings
aloud when he eats. I used to think that part of the movie was really fake and not
believable, but now I'm not so sure.
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AUTHOR'S NOTE: Outside Kyoto Station a couple months ago, someone handed me a
packet of kleenex advertising a dating service that featured a Lichtenstein-esque
cartoon of a woman grinning wildly, clutching her chest, and thinking to herself
Feel My Wakuwaku Heart in giant pink English letters. Wakuwaku
is the Japanese onomatopoeia for the excited sensation you have when something you've been
eagerly anticipating is just about to happen. Not that I'm feeling particularly wakuwaku
these days or anything, but I thought it would be a funny thing to call this column.