Issue 063
December 5, 2021

Big Walks, Opioids, Short Films

What makes a small town in decline OK?

Hello from the middle of my November / December 2021 Ten Japan Cities Megawalk / Adventure. It has been hot, cold, freezing, a little snowy. One day it hailed with impressive violence. I’ve walked some 200km and biked 80km and have about ten days left on this trip. I ate raw chicken the other night and a drunk fisherman made me eat his raw squid at nine in the morning. That’s not a euphemism. You can still follow along with Tiny Barber, Post Office by signing up here.

I’m Craig Mod, and this is Roden and I am somehow pulling together the umph to wack this thing together today.

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’Tis December, the official time to spend irrational amounts of cash on presents because that’s what “they” say. So if you’re still looking to throw money at things, please allow me to remind you (yet again; apologies for that) that my book Kissa by Kissa comes wrapped and present-handoff-ready.

I also have nine limited-edition photographic prints (of 30) left, signed and numbered.

And, from the deep-cuts drawer: There are 21 copies of the 2010 edition of Art Space Tokyo book available.

SPECIAL PROJECTS Yearly Members get the following discounts: $40 off Kissa, $50 off the Tōkaidō #1 print, and $40 off Art Space Tokyo. When you become a Yearly member, you’ll get the discount codes emailed to you automatically/immediately.

Anything ordered before December 8, should arrive in ample time for creepy chimney-related tomfoolery. My fulfillment center in Osaka ships everything via tracked DHL; most stuff arrives in about three days. But just to be sure, December 8 is a good target.

Also! If you’re a library / institution / non-profit / research center that would benefit from / like a copy of Art Space Tokyo, you can get it for the cost of shipping. Just reply to this newsletter and I’ll get you a free book code.

As always, huge thanks for your support. Buying / gifting my books & prints is the best way to support my work. The membership program is a way to sort of “pre-pay” for stuff (since I try to return more than the cost of membership via discounts each year). All this revenue feeds back into research & production. I’m working on the followup to Kissa by Kissa now, have another book of photos on the docket, and this current walk is turning into a book of its own. All self-funded / membership-driven. Phew.

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Literary Things

George Saunders just started a newsletter called “Story Club” and — heck, just go sign up! It’s an extension of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, his exceptional collection of writing on Russian literature. One of my favorite books of 2021.

I’m mainly curious to see how Saunders handles this newsletter format, and how he grapples with the attendant “requirements” of interacting with us, his (soon to be paying) readers. The first month is free, and then — woosh — behind the pay line it goes. But, I mean, come on. I’ve gotten so much value out of Saunders’ work and his voice (and the permission he implicitly imparts upon the world through that voice) that I’ve already payed for a year.

My biggest question is: How long does this go on for? As I’ve written about before, I think the best newsletter have target dates for completion. (It’s why my last few newsletters — Where are all the Nightingales?, Huh, Tiny Barber, Post Office — have all been timeboxed.) I’m both a) excited to see Saunders work in this space (I think he has a perfect voice for the format), but b) selfishly worry this will take away from Saunders Fiction Writing Time. I mean, I know he’s a big boy and all that, but sometimes technology can befuddle the best of us.

Oh, also — geez, I really hope that Substack offered him a huge advance to do this, and did not put a cap on earnings like they did with previous writer contracts: “The former Vox writer Matthew Yglesias calculated that taking the advance wound up costing him nearly $400,000 in subscription revenue paid to Substack.” That really rankled me — the fact that without a contract some early Substack breakouts would have made hundreds of thousands of dollars more during their first year. I get that Substack is taking a “risk” by offering advances. But also — not really? They’re deploying venture capital (i.e., money that is, by definition, for high-risk use), and if these popular writers don’t do well, then the business itself is fundamentally flawed. The faster you find that out, the better. Drawing up contracts where the more successful someone is, the better Substack — and only Substack — does is, I believe, on the wrong side of the ethics line, and pretty darn miserly (to use a seasonally appropriate term). (Please correct me if I misunderstood this early contract math.)

Anyway, I am beyond excited to see Saunders doing this. I think it’s going to be wildly successful. I don’t think Saunders is particularly desperate for cash, but I do believe he would be an exceptional steward of large sums of money. So I hope everyone converts to paying subscribers. And I also hope that other writers — folks like Alex Chee — take note and get inspired and look to do similar things.

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Opioids and Small Towns

As I walk these small-/mid-sized Japanese towns, and observe, in some, a degree of poverty, I can’t help but think about a few things:

  1. They’re utterly safe. Walking around at night, dark alleys, no street lamps — I feel completely safe. I’m hauling around $10,000+ in equipment and don’t think twice about it. Obvious disclaimer: I’m a dude, so this is a dude’s experience. But still: The scariest walks / moments of my life have been in San Francisco (second scariest: São Paulo). I’m pretty sensitive to ambient danger, and I don’t feel it here.
  2. I think the main reason I feel safe is: No drugs (besides alcohol). So no addicts. No irrational behavior for fixes. You simply don’t see drugs anywhere. They don’t exist. Nobody is hooked on opioids. Lord knows I’ve never even heard a whisper about heroin here. Drunks? Alcoholics? Everywhere. In the first city I visited — Hakodate, a kind of frontier-land in Hokkaido — it seemed like everyone was drunk or heading straight for drunk. Smoking a joint to relax in Japan? Extreme vilification, prison sentence, deportation. Blacking out drunk in the middle of Shibuya? Aw shucks just salarymen being salary men. I’ll never be able to square that dissonance.
  3. The secondary reason I feel that safety is, I believe, that the folks with the least still have enough to maintain dignity. I.e., the trifecta of social safety nets, national health care, and a more evenly distributed wealth curve, keep citizens from falling too far from grace. In America, the pit has no bottom. In Japan, you’re probably going to be OK.
  4. Infrastructure is amazing. Even in the smallest of towns, individual shops may be falling apart, but the general public infrastructure is in surprisingly good shape. Smooth roads, trains and buses on time, clean.

The more I thought about the drugs and safety thing, the more I wanted to read about how America became the contemporary dystopia it seems to be. Dreamland is the book that lays out that framework. An exceptional tome, depressing to the max, and a compelling argument in favor of more regulation for certain industries that otherwise can’t seem to regulate themselves. The 30-year cascade goes something like: opioid suspicions → light-touch addiction research → oh, uh, they’re OK? we think? → policy change → marketing blitz → American private health insurance perverse incentives → doctor loopholes → markets flooded with opioid pills → the swooping in of cheap black tar heroin. This cascade had no real feedback-loops / checks / balances. What happened in the US is breathtaking and heartbreaking, and I’m just flabbergasted that, somehow, during the 90s I never crossed paths with these pills.

That said, in 2011, I had a bad fever/flu in California and was prescribed … a month’s worth of OxyContin? I took one because I felt like I was going to die. I don’t remember the “high” but I remember the itching on the come down, and that was enough to throw the rest away.

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OK, less depressing stuff!

This short film, Bud, is amazing. Everly Carganilla is OUTSTANDING.

This same team also just released another short, with Will Ferrell, and it’s, unsurprisingly, a gem: David.

I’m typing this from the Itami Juzo memorial museum. Itami Juzo is known around the world mainly for one thing: The film Tampopo. A “ramen western.” It’s truly fabulous. Somehow embodying the best of 80s absurdity (with miraculously low levels of misogyny), mixed with Smart Food Takes, plus a glimpse at a bit of wacky Japanese subculture — chimpiras, truck drivers, ramen shop maniacs, gourmands without much money — all hilarious, backed by a pretty killer soundtrack.

The most famous Tampopo scene is probably the egg scene. (Sorta NSFW.) It’s even well done on a craft level — nice camera movements. That said, my favorite Tampopo scene is the French restaurant scene (totally SFW). So much to love. (The hobo wine appreciation scene ain’t bad, either.) But the whole film is a joy.

When I first moved to Tokyo, I joined a three piece punk band. The lead singer / guitarist was basically a character from the film. Neither of us had any money, but he was obsessed with finding incredible food on the cheap. And he did. I had my first bite of basashi raw horse with him at a strange little bar in Nogata. Maybe the most impressive deal he found was a tonkatsu chazuke restaurant in Kabuki Cho. We used to go all the time and … it worked? Tonkatsu covered in tea? And was affordable. Who knew.

The best part of this memorial museum is the utter lack of affordances for a non-Japanese lover of his work. When I walked in, the attendant looked as if a rhino had just entered the room. Everything on display is an odd deep cut — notes from his school books, drawings he did as an illustrator, the many, many television ads he was in (including Johnny Walker commercials). Nothing translated. No English anywhere. One thing that struck me while reading through his notes and magazine articles — he was way more of an ad man than a filmmaker, and only became a filmmaker at fifty-one. Tampopo makes so much more sense with that recontextualization — it feels like a reel of short promos, pivoting around the larger story of a ramen shop.

Thanks again for all your support this year. Last year and this year have been wildly heartening. Ten more days on this trip. Photos in this Roden have been of my beds. I need to pass out in prep for a big walk tomorrow. More soon!


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