A Love Letter To Japan

February 25 2010

There are no words to express how much I’m going to miss you. Words seem inadequate when we have communicated through smiles, intuition and vague interpretation…all I can give you is an endless list of little things that over time I have come to love, that have become the fabric of my life with you…things that have formed the patchwork of amazing moments that will sustain my memories for 50 years time, things that have opened my eyes and my mind and things that when gone I will surely miss:

The mountains, sushi, hilariously bad English everywhere, being genki!, Myochans, ramen, good green tea, Annie’s floor, amazing stationary shops, Lawson, baton men and their elaborate gestures, glimpses of awesome views as I drive along unable to stop, calpis, new family, boys that hold hands and play with each others hair, long sleeved T-shirts that fit as ¾ lengths, cooking on one ring, telling kids the Queen is my Mum, futons, queuing for the train, raw horse,  being employed for my oddness, people that exude elegance, karaoke, the pleasure of saying dozo, chopstick cramp, driving in typhoons, one undeniably gorgeous person in every five, shower rooms, skiing an hour from home, getting excited when I go to a supermarket in a city, cliffs, serenading Lou, cherry blossom, Shibuya back streets, my beautiful apartment, indoor bbqs, fires to heat schools, clear blue skies and snow, lovepumper, clean malls, neon green caterpillars, meeting inspiring people, table licking, shinkansens, recycle shops, been stared at, eeeee!, singing for children on cue,  English films with Japanese sub-titles, been my own source of everything, fashion of all types, public transport that runs to the second, the lady who gives me free cake, dancing around my apartment, sashimi, Emily’s under-floor heating, good manners, amazing friends, hot coffee in a can from a vending machine, gesturing the most elaborate things, people sweeping the streets, Buddha, no-me-hoe-die, mochi, Japanese beer, phone calls with the parents, teaching over the sound of bugs, Iwaizumi beef, singing emo in the car with Emily, feeling ridiculously safe, Jeff’s mother in law’s shop, rice fields, kids unaware they have swearwords on their hats, houses jumbled together using corrugated iron and wood, the little lady who looks terrified every time I walk through the door of her café, hearing the freight trains at Annie house all night long, graceful people, how hip it is to have a flask, heated toilet seats, having time, perfect sunrises, the tiniest taco shop in the world, teachers in tracksuits and me in a suit suit, having friends that know when I need to eat, living out of my car, cheap glasses in every design possible, purikura, the Italian that makes me feel like I’m at home, cherry blossom sweets, wooden schools, being part of a community, playing soccer against 20 7yr old boys, automatically responding onegaishimasu, the English book section in the Moss building, my amazing view, getting lost up mountains in the dark with Emily, ordering food at a ticket vending machine, feeling proud, home-ec, Lake Gando, being off the beaten track,  being able to see a volcano every weekend, quiet, singing- dancing- making kids laugh, my fridge full of milk, muji, Toyoko Inn, kickass earphones, treating myself to an FBC order, bowing, giant penguin suits, trees in schools, igloos, wooden floors, no fear of being sued, style, walking through curtains to get to restaurants, afternoon chats with Jeff, the river, watching British TV  with Lyns, individuality, giant pitchforks to catch intruders, the cute Starbucks guy, mini earthquakes, making up activities based on drinking games, rapping about carrots, cabins in the woods, long ferry journeys, shrines, Lou’s killer bacon sarnies shaped like a house,  dancing for strangers, bamboo forests, Ueno market under the train tracks, rickshaw men, random characters climbing up buildings, 1hr trips to McDonalds, giant TV’s in the street, hat shops, monks chanting, Mr Donuts and their American radio, clean underpasses, hanging rice, kimonos, talking to Lou’s belly, skiing with Annie, my pimpin’ phone, getting mail from Granddad stuffed with tea bags, feeling like I live in a dream, 6yr olds beating me at table tennis, skate girls being cool, trying to eat onigiri whilst I drive, the Papas Café waitress who’s always grinning, furry bras, sunken tables, hanging your prayers under a tree, the hippie shops, going slowly crazy, awesome backpacks, the reaction I get from people when I say I live in Iwaizumi, befriending random gajin, figuring out the Tokyo subway map, ninjas, kids clapping when I arrive, the million different ways my name can be said and spelt, ordering by pointing,  hospitality, temples, tsunami escape signs, skyping my granddad, gesture, Emily’s kotasu, the sound of birds in the bathrooms, Mt Iwate, mini shinkansens that bring you sushi, magnetic blackboards, races up snow mountains, reminding people I’m not from America, Philip, figuring out the world of Japan with Caley, so much food I can’t even list it all, knowing the places BSB go to in their video ‘Bigger’, English indie nights out, waving at strangers, construction men and their sweet baggy pants,  heart to hearts, 24 hr shopping, starry nights  on my balcony, feeling alive, the village chime, sometimes being incapable of speaking English coherently, Japanese adverts, being really cold at Lou’s, Freshness burger, old ladies with big straw packs full of rice, talking to myself, meeting people who know the world, plastic food displays, old women digging up the road, seasons that change overnight, being in sync with Annie’s tea cravings, waiting at traffic lights when there is no traffic, people always willing to help, the crazy inspirational quotes on T-shirts, Tokyo bay at night, driving for an hour and not seeing another car, Annie’s F and B, Don Don down on Wednesday’s and the chatty dude in there,  hai!, automatic cars, restaurants that look like someone’s front room, Lou’s mansion, the lack of rain, elementary kids with craft knives, driving dance parties with the girls, smiling to survive, donuts for breakfast, representing the UK- usually unsuccessfully, snow mountains made by teachers at 4 in the morning, road-tripping with Jeff, making kids speak in a northern accent, festivals that are completely baffling, cleaning the school with the kids, knowing that you can dare to dream, feeling capable and knowing I survived with a smile on my face.

For all of this I thank you Japan…I’ll be back.

 

Between Homes

November 3 2009

So I’ll admit it. Right now I want out.

Eight months down the line and I’m having unfamiliar feelings…I think normal people call it homesickness. (In my defence it is coinciding with culture shock bottom out and from having 10 days left to decide whether I want to stay in Japan or not…I’m still a kick ass explorer ok!)

But 10 days. For the past two weeks or so I have been mind achingly pouring over every aspect of my life trying to figure out what my options are, and which one appeals the most. I can honestly say I have no idea. So I thought ok, head or heart…narrow it down. What does my head want? To go forward. I know I couldn’t stay here up this mountain another year. But where? Naturally, when I can’t make a decision I turn to those that know me best, listen to what they say and usually end up doing something different. I get the usual response of ‘follow your heart’. I feel like this advice is worth a try right? Ok, so what does my heart want?…What does my heart want?!…well besides Jason Mraz, a yacht and an oscar…I guess it wants to be happy. But what makes me happy? You know, you’d think this question would be easy and a year ago I’d have thought that too… surrounded by a million little bits and bobs that tickle me pink, in a situation where I knew where I was going and what novel I had to read next, where I was going to buy food from. I was surrounded by people in University, camp, skiing…people who’d grown up with the same fabric of life, seen the same things, knew stuff I knew…it’s easy to be happy. It’s all right there like a giant feast of options, so many people, so many chances to not be alone, to make connections, to fall in love.

 

But here, here you have to make yourself happy. You have to actively think ‘what is going to rock my world right now?’ You have to build a world out of things you don’t recognise or understand and cling on to the few things you do. Ultimately, you have to think about what you need. Knowing what you need is a tricky one…it usually involves loosing it to establish whether or not it is missed. And boy have I done some loosing while I’ve been here! Intentionally and unintentionally. A while back it was important to cut ties with home, with people from the past and situations that were over. I had to build a new life here and I let things get lost. But now comes the time when life is once again changing direction. The home I have here will fall apart as people leave and move and I am having that horrible realisation that what my Dad says is the truth; ‘nothing lasts forever’. What do you do with that? Well apparently you follow your heart to what makes you happy. So I wrote pages and pages one day of what makes me happy…I’m fairly easily pleased! Once I’d taken out all the independent stuff, the people here and my family, I was pretty much left with ancient history. People and places and situations that I have lost in the last year or so, some that I think will someday return, others that I am not so confident about. Places I can’t return to and situations that exist now only in my mind. But all, at some point, I called home. All of them at sometime were the centre of my world and everything that was true and safe and reliable. Now…now I guess the centre is me…and as different as some may think…I hate being the centre.

 

And now I am sick for a home that is beyond me. For a home that doesn’t exist. I yearn for a situation that no longer continues or people that have moved on or away. I realise what I need right now is home: the familiar, the comfortable, the safe environment where I can re-charge and make some mind choices whilst the heart is at ease. But where is home? My actual home has changed too and if I’m honest doesn’t appeal to my inner grown-up. No, I need a new home. My own home. One I made myself. I guess it’s a common twenty-something, graduated, first-jobbed feeling to feel in-between homes; suspended between a past that doesn’t want you and a future that doesn’t know you.

 

Where does that leave me? Back to square one I guess. I mean I’ve made myself really happy here. I’ve made a home. I’ve done it once, I can do it again right? Next time I think I’ll add a few more people into the mix and the odd coffee shop! But it’s tiring to always be your own source of what you need, your own entertainment, your own psychologist, cook, teacher and maid. I think I need a travelling home. I need someone to share the burden with. Someone to help me re-build countless things that ‘never last forever’. So I guess I should follow my heart to a place where I can find that…where on God’s earth is that…I don’t know, perhaps I should just do what I always do…scatter plan like a crazy girl and jump head first into the one that looks the most exciting and hope that somewhere along the way I find someone else whose an in-betweener too…or I could just buy a boat, find Jason and scoop my Oscar!

 

‘You Could Swim Across My Cheekbones Right Now’

July 24 2009

Tokyo is hot. Mind achingly, sweating in all places, I just want to be naked, h.o.t.

Not that the Japanese seem to notice. Really, I don’t know how they do it! We can be in a subway station praying the train arrives soon so we can crisp in the freezing cold air-con, meanwhile there’s men looking comfortable in suits, women with long sleeves, jeans and doc martins, kids in hoodies. How is it possible?!

Oh but the rain! The rain is sweet relief!

Today it has rained, no, tsunamied from the sky for about three minutes every couple of hours. It toys with you. The heat builds and builds until you think you’re going to pass out it’s so hot, then the heavens open briefly, then the cycle continues and you’re begging for rain and it’s oooo soooo wonderful. Ok, I’m being incredibly British right now- I’m practically on the moon and all I can talk about is the weather! So today was our first day in the big city and as we ate brekkie in our cute little hostel communal area we realized we had no plan. But, influenced by all the chattering and swapping of stories going on around us in several languages (Nic’s a bit of a language genius) we came to the conclusion that all places that started with the letter S sounded like good starting points!

However, getting there is another issue. Have you ever seen the subway map for Tokyo?

Well, it’s like the city planners gave a piece of paper and a few coloured pens to a small child and based their designs on its scribbles. And I thought London could sometimes be a bit tricky! It doesn’t help of course that only the odd place name is in English, it means you have to resort to lots of map spinning and counting and ‘ok see if you can find the sign that looks a bit like a teapot, I think that’s where we want to go’.

Anyway, one lovely old man later and we’ve found a train to Shibuya, home of the crazy crossing, the young and hip and all that makes Japan mental. It did not disappoint. We walked the narrow streets flanked with neon signs, music blaring from shops, refreshing wafts of air-con, moving adverts on the buildings, men in blue uniforms directing traffic, a sea of umbrellas occasionally blooming then disappearing with the flow of the weather, and we were mesmerized.

We went in Tokyu Hands, a shop that literally has everything in it, from some rather nifty looking laboratory equipment to a money box with a face on it that eats your coins and poos them out when you want them back. We went in a Disney shop complete with its own spiral staircase tower. We got coerced into a gangsta shop by a guy on the street recruiting shoppers…that was fairly amusing. We stumbled upon the best art exhibition I have ever been to in the basement of a theatre on the outskirts. It was all optical illusion and interesting composition don’t you know. It was nice to get away from the city rush for a while and enjoy some more constructive insanity. Though I must admit, the umbrella lockers outside the entrance put me in a pretty hypa mood, so I’d have probably enjoyed anything! Seriously, they’re incredible.

I think if you haven’t clicked an umbrella into place, then you just haven’t lived.

We had a ‘point to some Japanese word and see what you get’ dinner which went surprisingly well then we made our way to the Meiji-Jingu shrine for some enlightenment time. Now we have seen a fair load of shrines and temples and stuff in our three weeks, but for some reason I just really like this one. I think it might be because it’s in the middle of a city and when you go there by comparison it seems all the more serene and peaceful. I like that it’s not gaudy and brash like some, but wooden and calm. The prayers are all hung around the bottom of a big old tree; people get a little block of wood and write on it whatever they wish. Some are prayers. Some are life mantras. Some are just kind words. They’re in all languages and hung 6 deep on pegs that surround the tree and they’re so amazing to read. Some are truly poetic and heartfelt and I just couldn’t help joining in. It might be corny, but I think there’s something beautiful about hanging your hopes under a tree.

So naturally the next place beginning with S was Shinjuko. Now we had obviously read about it being noisy and crazy in the evening so we were heading there for dinner…an hour or so later and we still hadn’t made it, but instead appeared to have wondered into a local community festival/fate thing. This was well worth getting lost for…a little garden full of lanterns and tori gates and food cooking on big hot plates and music and games and little girls in kimonos…we looked well out of place. We took refuge over a chocolate milkshake and tried to understand how Shinjuko had suddenly become Notting Hill- a kind Englishman who lived in the area, told us, between laughs, that we had walked in completely the wrong direction and we were in some obscure area that did most definitely not start with the letter S. Sweet.

When we finally get to Shinjuko we are starved, overwhelmed and slightly angry at the nice Englishman for sending us into another dimension. I have never been anywhere so thoroughly mindboggling. It makes New York look like Blackpool! There is such an atmosphere here…I can’t even put into words what it’s like. Just signs and noise and music and people and boy bars, girl bars, cafes open to the street, beer, gambling, clubs and so many different smells. It’s intense. We both had splitting headaches by the end of the night.

But then help came in the form of a rather odd fellow from Nigeria who was recruited to get people into a club.

JT: What you looking for girls? We got it all here. Soul, funk, hip-hop, dance. Name your tunes.

Me: food.

JT: I know just the place, follow me!

So here our knight in shining armor takes us to a restaurant where they serve a variety of meats, including pig rectum, chicken neck and cow aorta…what a saviour! To get rid of the dude I had to give him my number and promise to hit up his club when were done eating some un-mentionable meat…which if I had eaten and gone to his club, would have probably have ended up on his floor… Instead we opted to break his heart, scoff curry and stumble home for sleep… besides the club didn’t have an S anywhere in it!

Tokyo, You Had Me At Konnichiwa!

August 18 2009

What is it about wondering through cities at night that makes you feel like you own the world?

Perhaps it was because I was about to embark on the most adventurous adventure I had ever had that made me all the more euphoric as I walked the streets of Morioka in the dark waiting for my midnight bus. I don’t know, but I find being a stranger in the dark of a foreign city is one of the most uplifting experiences. There’s something so liberating about walking streets that aren’t yours and having a distance from all the other lives around you. You don’t belong there. You are free to choose who to be and how to be. It’s empowering to have the opportunity to see all these different ways of living and not really have to subscribe to any just yet but just take the time to look and learn and in the meantime be a complete mystery to all those around you. Some people have come here with the idea that they want to belong and be included and complain about the impermeable nature of Japanese society but, as I argue, we are not, nor will we ever be native and however bicultural and bilingual we get, we will always stand out. So why fight it? Enjoy the fact that there is freedom in our viewpoint; we can observe, but never really have to commit, we can be welcomed, but with sympathetic understanding that we are western and so will probably get it all wrong. I’m not saying then that you should screw up, but just that there is space for us in the fact that we can and rather than resent that space, hell, I’m going to enjoy it!

That was my mood as I whiled away the hours until my bus. Once I boarded said bus I wished I could do my nomad bit in a more comfortable fashion and perhaps figure out a way to un-belong to the laws of paying for stuff…alas the search continues! So, a bazillion back-aching, leg-jumping hours later and I rock up at Tokyo station, prise my self out of my horrifically uncomfortable seat and stumble into the craziest place known to man. Well it was like waking up after been in a coma! It was busy, there were shops, there were cafes, there were news-stands.

There were bagels.

Now I don’t know if you can really appreciate the immeasurable happiness that a bagel can evoke in the heart of a bagel-starved person who happens to love bagels, but I tell you, it is quite something. And as I sat in a cool café with cream cheese dribbling down the side of a hot bit of holey bread in one hand and a giant mug of coffee in the other, I decided Tokyo had me at konnichiwa.

Whilst I was sat there I looked around, there was a western family a few tables away and everyone else was Japanese or Asian at least and everyone that walked past the window too. I guess I thought I would feel less of a novelty here. I liked that I didn’t though. As I glanced back to the family the mother caught my eye and gave me a smile and a quick little wave as if to say she knew what I was thinking, and I can’t really define what it meant, but it meant something. To be mysterious and a minority is liberating and empowering in some respects, but still when something like this happens it brings a lump to my throat. It acknowledges similarity in such a forward way and with such a sincerity that would never be found in my actual home country and reminds me for a second that sometimes it’s nice to be un-mysterious. It made me really happy to think that I was spending three weeks with someone who knew me, who knew I was in no way mysterious but instead a giant goon who has probably used that western space with more liberty than she is aware of.  It was nice to think we could adventure, observe and screw-up together. It may be difficult to belong to Japanese society yes, but we will always belong to the western society here, and lets face it, it’s a more welcoming society than the real thing.

As the trip went on and these small interactions continued I started to realise that we do belong, we belong in our united un-belongingness.

 

You Can Call Me Jacqueline Sparrow, Iriana Jones…Betty Grylls!

July 10 2009

Greetings my furry little friends of near and far! How dost thou? I do hope I find you in the most joyous of moods, swinging from the stars and dangling your feet in the river of life!

Forgive my over articulation, I am in somewhat of a joyous mood and with no local companion with which to annoy, I must write my excitement…and perhaps dance about it a little later, it’s still light outside and people might be able to see me. Let me explain my merriment! Today I have, as you say, dotted some I’s and crossed them there T’s in regards to my summer travel adventuretron. Finally my plans have been dipped in concrete and all that remains is for me to empty my penny tin, count my greens and, if needs be, rob me a bank or two. And boy do I have one helluva adventure planned! It would make the scurviest pioneer curl his toes in jealousy.

I do not travel alone. My loyal companion will be Lady Nicola of Colchester.

We have before braved many a snow peaked mountain and wrestled the bears in the valley of three…granted everything did go wrong when she was around, but I will look to the light when I say at least this time there will be no one for me to loose. Only myself…pants.

So my adventure begins in the dead of night when I will board a country bus headed for the city lights of that hallowed suburban sprawl, Tokyo. Once there I will meet my friend and we shall set forth to taste, see, smell, eat , drink and dance with all things that cross our path. We are to take a short break in Nikko for a few star-filled nights with Zen Buddhist monks, cleansing our souls of our countless sins and finding meaning in….stuff. The early morning will call for yoga on a balcony above the trees and night will beckon us to….probably by this time, gin.

We return to the city again, no doubt relinquishing our new found clarity and purity as soon as humanly possible and rapidly returning to our previously shabby selves. From here we make our way to the heart of old Japan, Kyoto. We will feast on temples and shrines and see geisha and rickshaws and bamboo and noodles and trees and other such Japanese ubiquity. We will spin a web of journeys around the area, frame our faces far too many times and walk our feet to blisters.

On the first day of rest that August has we will board a boat to take us to the island of Shikoku, island of pilgrimage, tales, myth and tradition. We have caves to explore, a sea and tiny islands to claim and mountain-top monks to visit. When this is through we prepare for the most epic of journeys as we make our way back to the mainland, straight across it to the Sea of Japan where we board a much grander boat. What follows is a twenty hour journey hugging the west coast of Honsu and finally coming to rest on the northern most island, Hokkaido.

We will watch the sun rise and set and sleep on tatami mat with 12 other voyagers and I undoubtedly will talk with the mannerisms of a pirate for an unsuitably long time.

We are due to disembark at Otaru, the Venice of Japan and on this remote and wild land we will stay until I can figure out a way to get back to my humble abode- that just so happens to be situated in the most inaccessible place on the planet.

Seriously, the moon would be less of a challenge!

I feel that to truly experience this trip as the explorer I wish to be I must leave this laptop at home. I must not tap on these keys but scribble into a leather bound notebook with an old short pencil and take photos with the heart of artist and the eyes of a journalist. (hahaha) I shall not speak on the telephone, nor write sloppy postcards filled with ‘I wish you were here’.

Fear not, I will save my words and when I return from canvas shorts with a flip-flop tan and too much new jewellery, cleansed or un-cleansed, I will tell you all about it!