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Oh! Oh!
A mystery of mono no aware

Oh! is an
NPR Recommended Summer Read

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Chin Music Press

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I inherited a 1968 three-quarter ton Chevy pickup from my grandfather who mowed lawns and trimmed shrubbery in suburban Los Angeles until he was eighty-seven. He hired undocumented Mexican workers because his three sons and a daughter didn’t want to mow lawns and trim shrubbery for a living. Very few people want to mow lawns and trim shrubbery for a living. When I was a teenager I worked for him one summer. After that I didn’t want to mow lawns and trim shrubbery for a living either. I never told him but I’m sure he knew.

He got along well with the Mexicans perhaps because he made the effort to speak Spanish, perhaps because he paid them on time and fairly. Maybe it was the lunches he provided, usually teriyaki chicken, black beans, rice, and an orange. I suspect, though, the main reason was because he could sympathize with them—he also started out in the US of A as an illegal immigrant. Only sixteen, he stowed away on a Japanese ship with documented workers headed for South America with a stop in Hawaii. Docking near Honolulu, he blended in with the workers, claimed to have left his papers on the ship, and in the confusion slipped out of the port authority. Eventually catching a freighter, he ended up in L.A. when most of it was still citrus orchards and oilfields. Preferring produce to petroleum, he worked in the orchards until they were plowed up and replanted with homes slathered in stucco.

Loading his mowers one morning, he dropped dead. No one knows what killed him, a stroke or a heart attack or whatever, because his three sons and daughter decided it wasn’t worth doing an autopsy on the old man. It surprised the hell out of me when I heard he left me the Chevy. I’d never expressed interest in it although I always admired its power and how cherry he kept the beast of burden.


The Chevy rumbles like a well-greased tank as it crawls in traffic on the 405. We reach my exit and I veer off the freeway. Three stoplights later, I find a parking spot, grab a cup of coffee and a breakfast burrito from Roberto’s stall, and hurry to my cubie in the glass-walled office building of Garza Engineering Services.

Joe Creed, another tech writer, pokes his head over the Garza-gray cubie wall that separates us though not nearly enough. His flex schedule is offset a half hour earlier from mine so he is always there when I arrive. He sniffs, says, “Hey Hara-san, not another breakfast burrito from Chez Roberto.”

“Uh-huh,” I mumble through a bite of tortilla, egg, potato, beans, and salsa.

Joe rests his arms on top of the cubie wall. “And that brownish liquid Roberto calls coffee …”

Joe brews his own coffee from a private stock of freshly roasted beans he brings to work. He acquires them from a mysterious dealer who takes only cash.

“Caffeine is caffeine,” I say.

He dismisses my ignorance with a roll of his eyes. At least he spares me one of his lectures on roasting techniques, mouth feel, or aroma intensity. Instead he asks, “Do anything last night?”

Joe mines my life for experiences. I’m sure he’s writing a screenplay although he hasn’t admitted it. Most of the tech writers at Garza are working on screenplays. The others are writing novels. Me? Neither. I like to read novels and watch movies so why spoil them trying to write one? I mean, does a novelist ever kick back and enjoy reading a novel? Not without comparing it to his or her work. Does a screenplay writer watch a film without thinking scene and plot points? I doubt it. Not to mention I did poorly in the creative writing course I took to satisfy a humanities credit. The professor claimed I lacked “emotional intelligence.”

When I have time, I make up a story for Joe about stumbling on a drug deal gone bad, or a tale about two sisters and a tattoo parlor. This morning I shake my head, turn on my computer, and raise my Styrofoam cup. Joe curls his lip and disappears behind the wall. I take another bite of burrito then open my latest project, a twelve-hundred page opus in small font titled Water Tower Design and Field Erection.


“You’re really leaving?” Carine says. “For good?”

Carine is an Armenian name. It means “friend.” Our relationship is like this: one third lovers, one third friends, one third mutual counselors. We exist together, yet not, in a benign parasitic relationship reaching the pinnacle of convenience. A 7-Eleven relationship.

“I’m really leaving,” I tell her again. “I don’t know about ‘for good.’ I’m not sure what that means.”

“Let’s examine this, Zack,” Carine says. She pulls back a flip of her espresso-colored hair streaked with copper highlights and tucks it behind her ear. “Why now?”

“I don’t feel anything.”

“You don’t feel anything.” The psychoanalyst is in the building.

“Nothing. Except maybe frustration or annoyance now and then. But those aren’t really emotions. They are reactions to irritation.”

“Reactions to irritation,” she parrots.

“I feel like I’m merely playing a role.”

“What about pleasure? When we, you know …”

“Sure, that’s pleasurable. I’m not saying I don’t have moments of pleasure. Or pain. It’s that I feel empty of sustained emotion.”

She waits a moment, probably thinking How weird, then says. “You don’t feel anything except the occasional moment of frustration or pleasure.”

“Nothing. No love, hate, sadness, happiness. It’s chronic numbness.”

“Really?” she says, now just Carine. “I’ve felt all of those today and it’s not even like noon. I don’t understand how you can’t feel those emotions. How long has this been going on?”

It wasn’t like one morning I woke up and thought What happened? You’re an emotional eunuch. There was a kind of slow awakening to the idea I’m different than the average person on the street. I’m not sure how to answer her question. “For a while,” I say. “I’m almost thirty and can’t imagine feeling, not feeling, like this for the rest of my life. I’m thinking a change of scenery might jar something loose. What do you think?”

“It might. Need a traveling companion?”

“Wouldn’t work. And you know it. Besides, you’ve got the job you’ve always wanted.”

Carine glances away and says nothing for a few moments. “I hope you find whatever it is you need.”

“Thanks. I’ll miss you.”

Carine thinks about this too. “At least that’s a start.”


Within a month, I’ve quit Garza and sold most of my stuff to raise travel finds, except the Chevy, which I leave with Carine who has a space in a garage she doesn’t use. At my going-away party, she gives me a photo of the old truck. She promises to drive it once a week and check the fluid levels once a month. On the back of the photo she wrote: “I’ll be waiting.” I don’t know if she means her or the truck.

Joe Creed shows up at the party wearing a leather jacket and smoking a Gauloises cigarette, its dark paper matching the color of his jacket. As a going away present, he hands me half of a pound of his precious coffee beans. He gets a little teary, either because of the pain of parting with the beans or because he’s been assigned the task of completing Water Tower Design and Field Erection.


I decide to start my travels in Japan. I’ve never been there and it will be interesting to see the country where my grandfather was born. At the airport, I pick up a discarded Los Angeles Times. In the World section I read an article about three men and a woman who killed themselves at the foot of Mt. Fuji. They were found in a car parked in a forest named Aokigahara, apparently a well-known spot for suicide. The four met through a website for people wanting information about how to kill themselves. The news report translates the advertisement one of the victims posted on the website:

Applicants for suicide friends wanted. We will die of carbon monoxide poisoning. We can take sleeping pills and use portable barbecues to build up lethal gas in a car. I have everything ready. I will provide the pills and whatever else we need to anybody who wants to take part. Age/gender/reasons are no concern. The place will be Aokigahara. The plan will be carried out from September to October. Only serious applicants need apply. Let’s face it, dying alone is lonely.

Oh! is an edgy, art-filled mystery of Zack Hara’s self-discovery through Japanese suicide clubs, underground poetry, and the aesthetic of mono no aware (the sadness in beauty).
Have you ever wondered about the secret affinities between a 1968 three-quarter ton Chevy pickup and a cherry blossom? If yes – or no – read Todd Shimoda’s genre-bending Oh! a mystery of 'mono no aware'. Overwhelmingly novel, with dashes of art historical inquiry, cog sci experiment, and self-help manual, this beautifully illustrated book traces Japanese-descended Zack Hara’s journey from Los Angeles into a mind-awakening labyrinth of underground Japanese suicide and poetry clubs. In this setting, guided by a mysterious professor obsessed by the ancient Japanese notion of “the sad beauty of things” (mono no aware), benumbed Zack searches for the capacity to say, “Oh!” to life. Shimoda spins a damn good tale. Oh! is a drop-dead funny page-turner, which carried me to its end in a single sitting. Still, the author has bigger, more secret ambitions. Like the novel’s own professor, Shimoda plays the evil genius and laboratory scientist – or perhaps the Zen Buddhist sensei – leading us the readers ineluctably to our own experiences of ‘Oh!’ Read this metaphysics in the guise of a pulp mystery for its poignant beauty, for the way it uses lovers in a bathtub, the game of Go, art, pear-shaped rocks (Asian not Western pears), runaways, philosophy, and petty crime to illuminate the emotional forces that connect and disconnect us from each other. Or, simply read it for the experience of Joe Creed, L.A. technical writer, cubicle jockey, burrito critic, and aficionado of the good things in life: Gauloise cigarettes, for example, and coffee beans so aromatic they are dealt like drugs on street corners. Joe and Oh!’s cast of quirky dysfunctionality are dissected, tenderly yet pointedly, by Shimoda’s subtle surgeon’s hand. But Shimoda, who wears another hat as cognitive scientific investigator of human wetware, does not only dissect consciousness. This book has heart by the wheel-barrowful. It also brims with mono no aware. But to get closer to what this means, you will need to accompany Oh!’s author on this mysterious journey toward awareness.

- Jeff Snodgrass, Professor of Anthropology, Colorado State University author of Casting Kings
Can an aesthetic concept developed in Japan three hundred years ago be revived and made relevant to a contemporary American audience? This is what Todd Shimoda so masterly achieves in his fascinating novel Oh! A mystery of Mono no Aware. This is a journey through a delicate world of emotions and poetry on the part of a young Japanese American from Los Angeles who in his search for the native roots uncovers the complexities of being human in a world framed by skepticism and rationality. Structured as a thriller with a most unexpected finale Shimoda’s novel unravels like a Japanese scroll—one cannot put it down until the last scene comes into full view and, with it, the realization that the realm of feelings (mono no aware) is far from being an innocent enterprise; it carries risks that one must be ready to pay in order to fully understand. This is a brilliant novel—it makes the reader feel the pleasure of thinking.

- Michael F. Marra, Professor of Japanese Literature, UCLA, author of The Poetics of Motoori Norinaga: A Hermeneutical Journey
The mysterious tension between material things and emotional attachment to them oscillates throughout Japanese history and culture. With a keen and sympathetic eye, Todd Shimoda explores an individual’s dangerous quest to waken his numb soul to this exquisite reverberation. As in Kawabata Yasunari’s famous novella, The Master of Go, the lacrimae rerum of a dying tradition become a river, inexorably flowing toward the ocean of death. Fascinated, the reader cannot help but follow the flow.

- Liza Dalby author of East Wind Melts the Ice, The Tale of Murasaki, Geisha
Oh! is a deeply beautiful book, perhaps especially because it offers the reader a chance to feel the very experience that the novel thematically explores -- that of mono no aware. In fact, this is the most compelling and complete account I have read of the exploration into the sudden, intense moment of awareness; the inherent state of sadness of life; the moments which, as Shimoda's character explains, makes us gasp "oh!" with heightened awareness and wistfulness. With his surprise ending, he makes us do just that, and we leave the book with an eye out for the moments that can reveal the deepest feelings of men and women and what it is to be human.

- Laura Pritchett, author of Sky Bridge and Hell's Bottom, Colorado
Todd Shimoda has that rare gift of beguilingly connecting the insights of an older Japanese culture to the vicissitudes of modern life. Shimoda’s hero is an unmoored Japanese American teaching American English in Japan as an undocumented alien. He becomes enamored of a modern Japanese social more – the group suicide - whose members clandestinely hook up over the internet and then plan in meticulous detail their united ritual of death, “Let’s face it, dying alone is lonely.” Throw in this modern social oddity, an old literary conceit of mono no aware (mostly likely with roots in Buddhism, i.e., the practice of mindfulness), a professorial mentor with hidden secrets and a devious mind, and like a wonderful Sherlock Holmes of the psyche, Shimoda leads us down yet another, thoughtful, hard-to-put-down denouement of transcultural sensibilities. Just as the nourishment, subtle richness, and joys of food are being rediscovered by the “slow food” movement, so too, if I can coin a phrase, OH! is a slow read, truly a delicious, complexly flavored, and integrated novel on a number of levels, one to be savored by mind and spirit.

- William Poy Lee, author of The Eighth Promise
Technical writer Zack Hara lacks “emotional intelligence.” What’s a guy to do? When Hara goes to Japan in search of his roots, he finds an odd kind of inspiration through a professor with a past, suicide clubs, poetry, and petty crime. Like his previous novels, Shimoda’s multilayered OH! shimmers with verve and nerve. Channeling Haruki Murakami, Nietzsche, Kawabata, and points in between, Shimoda mines the concept of mono no aware to give us an engaging emotional whodunnit that keeps us thinking—and marvelling—at how deeply we can see, feel, and create the ordinary world, day by day, word by word.

- Leza Lowitz, author of Green Tea to Go: Stories from Tokyo and co-author of Designing with Kanji: Japanese Character Motifs for Surface, Skin and Spirit
The Fourth Treasure Web site The Fourth Treasure

A novel published in 2002
New York, New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (translated into Italian, German, Dutch, Russian, UK publisher: Vintage UK)

365 Views of Mt. Fuji:
Algorithms of the Floating World

A novel published in 1998
Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press

365 Views of Mt. Fuji excerpts and art gallery

Murder Makes the Magazine

Collaborative Internet story for A story begun and ended by John Updike.

Published in 1997.

The pecan tree war.

In B. Satterfield (Ed.),
Tilted Planet Tales 2, (pp. 112-1219).

Austin: Tilted Planet Press.

Published in 1985.

Works published as Adrian Too:

Success in pill form.

Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics (Issue 24).

Short story published in 1996.


Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics (Issue 13).

Short story published in 1991.

Altered Egos

Ft. Collins, CO: Blind Chameleon Press.

Collection of short stories published in 1990.

All text and images copyright Todd and L.J.C. Shimoda, 2012
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