The jaunt to Hokkaido was a pleasant vacation from the past month's mild panic & lingering paranoia. I'd visited the northern isle a few years before, so it wasn't totally unfamiliar territory - just different enough to unclutter the brainspace a bit. I gave myself a few extra days before my band's tour kicked off, so I got to enjoy Hokkaido's panoply of vaguely odd pleasures unhindered by driving schedules or sound-checks. A few old favourites were revisited - the Otaru Music Box Museum, Sapporo's Ramen Alley - but the highlights were stumbled-on surprises that, with the exception of bathing macaques, were of a distinctly unoriental nature: Japan's oldest concrete utility pole and the Lucky Pierrot burger chain! With its Edwardian-cum-Old West sideshow decor and demented half-blind mascot, Lucky Pierrot looks like a frighteningly dodgy proposition - a gastronomic Don Quixote. But I'll be damned if those weren't some of the tastiest, tongue-titillating burgers I've ever had, and for half the price of the mediocre, modestly-sized grub you get in Tokyo.
One burger joint I'd conversely advise against patronizing under any circumstances is Sapporo's Crazy Burger, not the least for its dull dentist-clinic decor. Their menu challenges customers with the 恐怖バーガー (literally "terrible burger") which, by the menu description, is only made daunting by a fish paddy and some extra jalapeño peppers. Accepting their culinary dare, I forked over ¥800 (around $10) only to be told they were out of buns and condiments and so was served two thumb-sized cuts of raw fish, and not just any ol' ichthyoid: Surströmming, officially the most foul-tasting food on earth. I discovered this only after having shoved both measly slices into my mouth. The taste was something like a beached whale carcass covered in cat piss. Or maybe sewer-snake braised in battery acid. I'm not sure. The shock to my digestive track was so rude that my whole physiology forbade the very notion of further ingesting anything more solid than air. My appetite had been raped. I'm just vaguely impressed I didn't vomit.
Much of the conversation on tour - as everywhere else - centered around the triple calamity of March 11. In Hokkaido, the effect has been almost entirely abstract. The tsunami that hit its coast was little more than a large wave. Also, the island operates upon a separate power grid; the dimming of neon facades has been out of solidarity as opposed to necessity. The only tangible impact has been the scarcity of certain items - specifically certain cigarette brands & Heineken beer - thanks to interrupted supply lines.
I suppose much the same is true back in Tokyo. Searching for evidence of the disaster, the devil is only found in the details: certain items are still rationed in supermarkets, gas prices are hiked, and commuter train schedules are bedeviled by rolling blackouts in certain suburbs. But then, if every daily trivium is touched by the catastrophe, that's not exactly an unperturbed normality, is it?
A fair number of those expats who fled during the madness of mid-March have quietly returned. The psychosocial schism isn't nearly as dramatic as, say, the Hollywood blacklisted versus the HUAC informers, but there's still some strain between those who stayed put and those who split. My post criticizing the "byejin" or "flyjin" who left the country ripped open an especially ugly fault-line in our immediate social circle. For my part, I've refused to ask anyone to take sides in the argument, but given the communicative embargo my "nemesis" has imposed against me, it unfortunately looks as though mutual friends will have to orchestrate engagements rather shrewdly to keep us apart.
It's interesting that another friend & I, who've been the most vocal in our censure of fleeing foreigners, are also the most explicitly socialist within our clique. Because of our politics, we likely see the disaster as an ideal situation to reconstitute the social framework of Japan. Never before has there been such an opportunity to forge lasting cooperation & compassion between the native population and the expat community. For all the times we've lamented the insular homogeneity of Japan, this is the moment when solidarity amongst Japanese & gaijin can transform the country into a more inclusive, diverse, and fluidly-identified culture. It's to our dismay & detriment that, instead, the hysteria & self-regard of many expats has pitched them in stark, unflattering contrast to the stoic endurance of the Japanese.