Japan has been a place in my imagination ever since I was a teenager. I studied in an idyllic residential school burrowed in the Horsley Hills of Andhra Pradesh. This was a land of ochre mud, groundnut fields and non-flush toilets. But here in rural south India, Japan came to me in the form of stories and anecdotes, books and authors, because of two Japanese friends. The sister Ran, studied in my class, and her brother Tomo was two years my senior.
Thanks to Ran, the wonders of origami became part of our after-dinner prep hour. I had little knack for it, but when I look back to our classroom, I see cranes perched, and boats sailing on our pitted and pockmarked wooden desks. She would tell us tales of her home in Hamamatsu, and the flower shop that her mother ran. Because of the influence and recommendations of these siblings, I knew about Japan in a strangely first-hand fashion. And thanks to them, I first read Banana Yoshimoto and Yukio Mishima back in 1999.
Tomo introduced me to the oyster- like beauty of haikus. He cribbed that their 17-syllable splendour and essence could not be known in English, as the two languages had different roots. He maintained that joucho (a word he felt was impossible to translate) but which roughly means the emotion, sensibility, atmosphere of a Japanese work could never be rendered in English. From one of his letters I came to know of the connection between the famous poet Matsuo Basho and the banana plant. I read recently that ‘Master Banana Plant’, was a name given by his students, because of a tall specimen that crowned the teacher’s garden. The 17th-century poet wanted his haikus to be the like a banana leaf that would heed the wind, obey the sun and wait for the rain.
Japan to me, as to everyone who has not been there, was the Japan of neon lights, billboards and Mt Fuji. But through my Japanese friends I also knew that a quieter Japan thrummed; a Japan that can be found in its warm people, serene countryside and unique culture. I’d have to wait 20 years before experiencing it in person. But finally in April 2019, I got the chance to visit the country with a friend. It felt wonderfully familiar and alien, all at once.
A short story that had stuck with me since school was Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto. I didn’t remember the nuances, but I knew that the leading lady had the tattoo of a lizard on her inner thigh. Walking through Omoide Yokocho (Memory Alley), more commonly referred to as Piss Alley in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo, I wondered how many women I passed might have a similar tattoo lurking beneath their skirts. If I looked close enough, would I find ‘reptile eyes’—‘round, black eyes that do not reflect anything’?
In these narrow lanes, crammed with impossibly small yakitori shacks, that could barely seat six, and which forbade photographs, we had the best meal of my 10-day stay. Our chef, with a blue and white hachimaki tied across his forehead, expertly wielded bamboo skewers over a charcoal grill, inches from our face. The proximity of the grill, the smoke, the sizzle, the grease, his style as he placed before us bite-size pieces of pork, chicken, peppers and asparagus that had been marinated only in salt and yakitori sauce, made this dining experience a deeply intimate act. Seated on the narrowest of benches, we tried to fold ourselves into compact shapes, afraid of elbowing our neighbours. But two young women next to me, who were making a night of it, turned to us and started a conversation. One of them even insisted I try her drink, as she turned her nose up at my sweet plum wine cocktail, and approved only of my friend’s whiskey highball. Her drink was not on the English-language menu, clearly it was a special meant only for the locals.
That first night in Tokyo was our preview to the people of Japan. They aren’t the suited-booted-unsmiling- aloof race that they’re so often made out to be, instead they are helpful to a fault. If you ever ask a Japanese person directions, be ready to be accompanied halfway to your destination. The warmth that we found on our first night at the bar, flickered like a glow worm throughout our trip, never leaving our side for long.
In the small heritage town of Takayama, we walked to a clearing in a park that overlooked the Hida Mountains. As we nibbled on prawn crackers and basked in the sun’s shadows, a retired elementary school teacher walked up to us. She asked if we were okay with company, and told us her hobby was origami. And soon, as only the best serendipities would allow, she opened her bag and conjured up samurai helmets and bunny rabbits, cameras and ships from squares of paper. As we followed her instructions, trying to create sharp edges and clean lines, sucked on sweet oranges, felt the pine needles beneath our feet, and watched the mountains, we knew this moment was exceptional.
In Kyoto we found a beauty that hurt. Here the trees, the sky, the temples, the alleys, the cherry blossoms, the women in their kimonos; they all seemed pieces of an immense and immaculate canvas. I feel inadequate to the task of describing it, so I turn to Pico Iyer in The Lady and the Monk; Four Seasons in Kyoto. He writes expertly about the ‘sharpened intensity of solid colours in Japan, so strong they knocked the breath out of one: pink against blue, gold on black, a blaze of reds..’ He continues, ‘I noticed how the pines and maples on the hill behind, faintly red and orange and green, blended seamlessly into the pattern of raked gravel. Nature consenting to become a part of art.’ And in Kyoto that is exactly what we found. Everything was art; from the calligraphy on our entry tickets, to the bows tied around sakura jam jars to the bento boxes that we had for lunch.
Coming from India, we, of course, wondered how they’d succeeded in pulling off this perfection. And the answer as Iyer identifies stems in part from the Zen emphasis on the merits of ritual, rigour and repetition. Nothing is done in half measures; not the sweeping of the sidewalks, not the curtseying of the ticket collector every time he enters and leaves the compartment, not the stacking of fruits in a store. This attention and absorption in every deed and action is because to the Japanese nothing is inanimate, not the pencil, not the table, not the chair. As Iyer elaborates in Autumn Light, if a child throws a pencil across the room, she is told she might well have been flinging her older brother against a wall.
The people of Japan hold up a candle to our collective failings and deficiencies. Here in India, I wear the smugness of one who knows and follows the rules. But in Japan, I felt like a philistine, always worried that I’d stepped an inch out of line (which I often had) and fretful that the wheels of my strolley were too loud (which they always were). Travelling across the countryside in the Shinkansen and in the local trains, we would marvel at the terrifying symmetry of the passengers waiting at the platform. But this order simplified and expedited processes. People knew rules, people followed rules, and thus things got done on time, and without drama.
To an outsider Japan seems idyllic. Everyone is thanking and apologising, all the time. There is little, to no, crime. In Tokyo, we walked 6 km to our hotel, past midnight, because we’d missed the last train, but not once did we feel on edge. We passed the occasional drunk throwing up in corners, and women in high heels teetering and tottering back home on their own.
But, of course, shiny veneers hide rot. Sitting in the darkened plane en route to Tokyo, unable to sleep, I read Ikebukuro West Gate Park in the collection Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan. In Tokyo, we ended up staying at a hotel in Ikebukuro, a neighbourhood packed with anime stores and lady bars. Watching painted and pouting women dressed as French maids and carrying welcome signs unsettled me. I tried to see them as empowered adults, who’ve made their own choices, but I wondered how their clients treated them, and how their days and nights panned out.
I blamed the story I’d read on the flight as that revolved around the choking and death of young girls such as these. Ikebukuro West Gate Park (often referred to as IWGP) is a series of urban novels, in which the author Ira Ishida explores drugs, addiction, prostitution, NEETs (a person who is ‘Not in Education, Employment, or Training’) and the mob. And that is the rub; even in a place as ‘perfect’ as Japan, the dark also persists, and at times prevails.
Ishida writes, ‘The true face of Ikebukuro West Gate Park shows itself in the middle of the night on weekends. The circular area around the fountain becomes a hook-up coliseum… The public restroom in the corner of the park is a market. All night long they’re all buying and selling stuff. Every five minutes a seller goes into the bathroom and a schoolgirl wearing loose socks disappears into the men’s bathroom with him.’
These goings and comings occur so discreetly that as a tourist we saw none of it. And perhaps these occurrences are more vivid in a writer’s eye than on the streets. Today, when I revisit the authors I’d read in school, such as Banana Yoshimoto and Mishima, I am surprised at how ripe their stories are with sex and violence, desolation and death.
Banana Yoshimoto’s short story collection Lizard was released in English in 1995, it must have landed in my school a few years later. Today, I notice that the bestselling author had dedicated the English translation to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Maybe that helps to explain our teenage fascination with her. She was one of us. Us, who had Kurt Cobain’s suicide note pinned to the walls above our heads. Us, who believed in Cobain’s credo—it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
Yukio Mishima held me in a macabre grip because I knew about his death before I knew his work. The 45-year-old author, who had the physique of Jackie Chan and the pen of an extremist, famously committed seppuku—the ritual suicide of a samurai warrior. Today, I pore over the details; he sliced open his belly with a sword and then ordered his followers to decapitate him. However, the careful choreography failed. He did not succeed in disembowelling himself, and his followers were so distraught at the botched effort, that they fumbled, and couldn’t lop his head off in one fell sweep. The author who had once been in the running for the Nobel prize, died a slow and inept death.
In Mishima’s novella The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea, I read about the murder of a kitten by a group of schoolboys. The act makes the boys feel like ‘giants of men’, as they revel in the splatter of blood and the gore of their deed. They dissect and de-skin the kitten, which is still breathing, exulting in every slice and rip.
It is hard to reconcile the cruelties that Japan has been historically known for with the gentleness and graciousness that one sees and experiences all around, all the time.
One day we find ourselves walking through a wooded trail at the base of Mt Fuji. Tufts of snow kiss the ground like the froth of beer on a tippler’s lips. The forest is entirely ours, as we pass no other walkers or hikers. But the whoosh of distant highway traffic lingers, reminding us we aren’t truly in the wilderness. Weeks later, back in India, we learn that we’d walked through the fringes of Aokigahara, also known as the Sea of Trees or the Suicide Forest, because of a number of deaths that had occurred there. We had unknowingly tramped through a thicket of conifers and moss, which had witnessed the planned and lonely deaths of too many people.
As a traveller in Japan I often felt that I was missing something. Something always lay just beyond my vision and outside my grasp. We saw so much, yet we understood so little. I needed my books to help unpack it all.
What deserves the hype Cherry blossom or the sakura season of April attracts tourists in droves. But the papery blooms are truly a thing of beauty.
What to miss Every Tokyo guidebook includes the Shibuya scramble crossing in its must-dos. Best avoided unless you enjoy being a fish in a school.
A special something The many buttons and settings on the Toto, or the Japanese commode, it is a spa for the posterior.