Tag: japan

この世、あの世

In the gray light of very early evening, the cherry blossoms along the river glow like clusters of tiny moons. A brisk, unseasonably cold wind hums pleasantly through the street. Its voice mingles with the rumbling of cars and the pitter-patter of soft rain, generating a misty, muffled soundscape that feels like standing with toes in the ocean. A half-dozen private security guards stand, in plastic raincoats, at each intersection. One holds a posterboard encouraging would-be flower-gazers to return home.

We walk to Tokyo Tower, a smaller Eiffel Tower-style monument painted in vivid neon red-orange, now surpassed in popularity by many taller, newer, more glamorous buildings. A few people wander idly around the entrance, but I don’t see anyone cross the silver cylinders of the ticket turnstile. Tokyo Tower weeps soundlessly. A vermillion has-been, tucked into a nondescript office district, nestled inconsequentially into the dense sprawl. It’s east to be lost here. Tokyo is formed, like an insect’s gem-colored, segmented eye, into a million corners, blind alleys, broken-down storefronts, rooms seeking tenants, concrete bridges, glittering skyscapers, bustling avenues, cavernous sewers, and secretive, dark-doored basement bars. Anonymity is a staple of identity. Living alone, you can go years yearning for company, without knowing that, just around the corner, not twenty feet away, a man makes the most delicious coffee and the most engaging conversation in all of Tokyo.

A few subway stops from Tokyo Tower, we ascend three flights of stairs to a temple complex. A elderly cat sits on a step, so completely still I am not initially sure if it’s a real animal. A wounded koi fish, gouged flesh protruding like foam from a cut along its back, swims briskly through dark water freckled with lily pads. The temple is located dizzingly high above the road below; I look down the steep steeps, lined in stone lanterns, my pulse shooting through my body in a flood of vertigo. Below us, Tokyo unfolds, the ultimate in urban ugliness. Reinforced concrete, glass, asphalt, and steel: the four twisting strands of its DNA. Daylight seems to bring out the absolute worst in the city’s features: heat-exuding four-laned roads, frantic intersections, blocky, glass-walled department stores, squareish buildings clothed in endless banner ads.

A paradise of commerce, a den of inaccessible subculture, a froth of traditional symbolism, 90’s holdovers, and cyberpunk aspirations. It’s strange to think that Tokyo is where I will have spent the bulk of my twenties. It’s not my home, per se, but it is where I cycle through sleep, dream, wakefulness, and where I live out the days from within my catalog of moods. Each day starts out the same way. I open my eyes in a four-story apartment building at the base of a concrete hill, located by the hip of a canal that snakes through the city before draining into the glassy waters of Tokyo Bay. I open the curtains onto my skinny street, where even small cars manage to skim my sleeves as they inch past. Chunky telephone cables thread the air above, like strands loosed from a tapestry. Crows hop from roof to roof. A few hours after dawn, they swoop down, yelling as vociferously as roosters, their pebble-like eyes catching and scattering the light like cheap rhinestones. When I leave the apartment, I notice where the flowers have fallen and gathered on the dimples in the sidewalk, in depressions leading to the storm drains. Their tiny pink thumbprints studding, for a few more days, Tokyo’s vast, intricate urban body. As the hours pass, the edges of their petals yellow, like old newsprint.

Fons et Origo

I sit in the bathtub with my hair braided into a loop and pinned to my head. In two weeks, Strawberry and I will be moving out of the dorm and into our first real place together. Now, when I run errands, I try to be intentional about where I look. This neighborhood will soon become another silvery scale in my armor, another scalloped edge in the closed book of my past, and, before I go, I want to notice everything.

The ginkgo leaves like tiny open fans, the setting sun herniating over chrome buildings in a torrent of blue, pink, and orange. The corner greengrocer with its plywood walls and gold-and-purple stacks of fermented radishes and pitted plums. Moving downhill through the red, saturated air, my breath hot inside an ice-blue surgical mask. Eyes darting. The butcher’s display. Styrofoam trays of eggs and dangling cuts of meat (I stare, disgusted and mesmerized, at the florid fat swirls surrounded by ribbed tissue, swaying on a hook: the colors and textures remind me of a ruffled cream-and-crimson underskirt in a Rococo-era painting). The dilapidated double doors leading to the dormitory’s underground passage. The old cork bulletin board with its evolving sequence of neatly-typed notices about the pandemic. The dark mouth of a sprawling garden.

Jumping across stepping stones. Climbing up a ladder and then sliding down several rungs. A cicada struggling on its back. The perennially empty flower store with the striking, blue-veined blown-glass vase in the window. Rain smacking the pavement with the flat of its hand. Waking up fully rested and clear-eyed, like a woman newly escaped from an enchantment. A stray phrase catching on an edge of my mind like unraveled thread on a thorn.

Sarushima Summer

Every year, during the summer months, I develop a taste for pickled fruit and vegetables. I eat pickled plums in bowls of rice: they are round, soft, and purple-red, like gluey, zombified eyes. I buy trays of kimchi from the supermarket: lasagna-like layers of briny cabbage and chili spice. I think longingly of my year in south India, during which time I ate pounds upon pounds of chunky, fragrant Andhra-style mango aachar. Though I’ve always had a sweet tooth, sourness manages to linger more indelibly on my palate and in my gustatory memories. It makes me wonder what types of sensory experiences overpower others in my mind, and quickly I draw up a classification: Darkness over brightness, sharpness over softness, silence over sound, foul and fecal over faint and flowery. I don’t enjoy many of these experiences, but they resonate deeply enough to end up splashing onto the timeline of my life. When I recall a day I’ll fill it in with its strongest sensory impressions, as though possessed by a single-minded algorithm designed to prioritize attention-grabbing content. But that is likely too simplistic; maybe what I consciously remember is not all that has left its mark on me. I have never been the best curator of my own feelings and memories.

I think of my life immersed in brine, or preserved in resin. I think of my life as a terrarium: A miniature, individualized world encased in a glass globe, featuring a mismatched assortment of color palettes, textures, and shapes. Clay figurines of friends and family cast into different poses. Striped-and-spotted flora and fauna rustling in the underbrush. Decorations handmade out of styrofoam, yarn, and tinfoil hanging from the ceiling like Christmas ornaments. A fully formed climate system inside, defined by cloudbursts punctured by glossy sunlight. All of this hidden underneath a thick veil of vines, because I’ve always been secretive.

Sarushima, a tiny island located in Tokyo Bay, also holds its secrets close to its chest. Though the island’s main purpose–to serve as a military battery for various wars–is clearly described on the many explanatory placards placed alongside the main path, the general atmosphere is one of mystery, not clarity. We wander around, from the moss-covered stone fort to the frothy, rocky coastline. I circle the remains of a massive artillery unit constructed on the island’s high point, situated at the perfect angle, I am informed, to shoot enemies at sea. Unexpectedly, the glass terrarium that holds my life fractures ever so slightly, and I cup my hands around it to contain the sudden tide of confused, sad anger. There’s many facts about our world that fill me with a brew of dark, quiet, sharp, sour emotions but I feel that blend press against me acutely as I stand there, in a place that locked and loaded meaningless death, that mounted devices to strip breath from bone, now overrun with tree stumps and bathed in sea spray.

Plague Doctor

Shinjuku, at night. The lights from the blinking cinema marquee are a funky, druggy rainbow of fuchsia, indigo, taxi cab yellow, sunset orange, and baby blue. On the screen above them, the mayor of Tokyo speaks into a standing microphone; the chyron below her displays the municipal virus helpline in rounded white numbers on a background the color of mint-green medical scrubs. In a printed ad, a tattooed, gray-scale male model reclines, frozen, with one hand in his hair. In another, a charmingly cartoon woman in a tube top poses behind bright coral-pink Japanese characters decorated with stars. The windows around them are dark with drawn blinds and unlit interiors. The rain shines on the tarred road like shattered glass.

I go downstairs, in a secondhand sweater and Strawberry’s old sweatpants, to check our mail. I find, to my dismay, a healthcare bill that I thought we’d already paid, but not the government-issued cloth masks we’d been expecting. Listlessly, I return upstairs and go through the textbooks lent to me by my adviser and find, like a good luck charm, an old postcard celebrating the Year of the Rabbit (2011). Bushy-tailed, bright-eyed, pencil-drawn Sylvilagus. I think, for maybe the millionth time, how reliant we are on the unknowns midwifed by the nebulous future and I imagine a new essential service: a forest oracle, a rabbit soothsayer, who could divine these outcomes. Located between the grocer and the 100-yen store, an oracle with the head of a hare, diving 24/7 into a slipstream of contingencies in order to fan out the future on a bed of predictive cards placed on pine needles. Emerging from a trance to assure me, most importantly, that I will be forgiven for making the wrong choice.

The tall concrete-and-tile buildings in central Tokyo seem gloomier than ever. At sunset, their roofs and upper floors are limned in clouds, steely, cool, and gray, while their massive lower halves are radiated by the dark rose glow of a dusky sun, looking for all the world like an enormous glass half-empty. I check video feeds of Tokyo’s prairies of zebra crossings; they are now drowsy, inert, bare. Occasionally, a masked pedestrian scampers across in slow motion, their movements translated inelegantly into staccato by the stuttering bandwidth. A municipal truck outfitted with a loudspeaker, driven by a pair of volunteer firefighters, blares the same message every Saturday and Sunday: “Please refrain from going outside. Please refrain from going outside.” The sound bounces off the buildings, pulled apart by the Doppler effect, and arrives to me as totally garbled, breathy, dystopian crooning.

Maybe I just don’t pay enough attention during the day, but now it seems like earthquakes always happen at night. A little past 1 AM, Strawberry and I are jolted out of sleep by the shaking of the bed frame. In the dark, we stare at each other wordlessly as we decide, in that critical split-second, whether to stay put or move.

Deadly Cherry

Sitting on the subway, I notice, for the first time, the tartan pattern on the train seats: maroon diamonds, with tiny, dark pink blossoms in the center of the repeating design.

The trees sprout fistfuls of white flowers. I stare up at the boughs, mesmerized. The color instantly reminds me of the vivid, graphic white of Georgia O’Keeffe’s painted ram skulls. My brain connects it to another secluded memory, and suddenly I remember, with unbelievable clarity, my elementary school art teacher helping me tie-dye a shirt in a bucket. She was the woman who first showed me how a painting can operate on the mind: painful, striking, stinging. A rebuke meant to pull me out of stillness. The ram’s head, a many-petalled flower emerging from a bone socket. I blink as the cherry blossoms, small and charmingly delicate, flutter in the breeze. I imagine reaching out and wrenching them from the branches.

An elderly man approaches me and Strawberry as we admire the multi-colored (red, pink, white) blossoms growing from a tiny tree at the center of a roundabout. “Peach,” he says gently, when Strawberry idly muses that the flowers might be cherry blossoms. He walks us over to an authentic cherry flowering by the roadside. “This is a Yoshino cherry,” he tells us in Japanese. All Yoshino cherry trees, he continues, cannot produce seeds; they are not descendants but clones of an original cherry tree. I furrow my brow, unsure that I’ve understood correctly. He joins his two fists and then parts them so each hand heads in a different direction. He repeats the motion, looking at us expectantly. I am still cheerfully confused, but Strawberry understands the pantomime: the cherry trees don’t grow unassisted. They have been propagated by man via grafting.

Grafting: uniting tissue from two plants so that they continue their growth together. There’s something both unexpectedly happy and sad about that. I sit at my desk, in front of the computer, scrolling through photos of cherry tree after cherry tree. Each time, I click through images of the same tree placed in a different setting, a different fable, accompanied by a different cast of characters. Yoshino gilding the river in petals. Stippled around a school yard, providing tree cover for new graduates posing in their cap and gown. Part of a curated assembly, Yoshino slotted between radiant Japanese wisteria. Vapid Yoshino, overseeing a picnic. Growing fitfully, Yoshino awash the mountainside.

I video chat with my father, ten thousand kilometers away in quarantine, and he gasps aloud. “You’re outside?” he says, unfazed by my attempts to show him the cherries in bloom.

Fish Owl and Ruddy Kingfisher

The day after the typhoon, the sky shines like a freshly painted wall. I walk through the puddles of dry, yellowing leaves; for once, my mind feels clear as a diamond. My plans for the afternoon open up before me like huge-petaled and cream-colored flowers. I am wearing the too-big burnt orange coat and checkered scarf my father bought me two winters ago; at the door, Strawberry had stopped to knot the scarf carefully around my neck. In such armor, in such sunlight, I am immediately king-sized.

I ripple through the people clustered around the station, boarding the green train line just seconds before it swings away. I stand by rows of commuters lost in the rich, singular worlds generated by their sleek mobile phones. Through the windows, I see smears of the city after rain: the gray concrete glittering like a gemstone. I imagine leaping drunkenly from my body, my arms swinging forward like the wings of a ruddy kingfisher. Joyous and unashamed. Too often, if I am a bird, I am not the kingfisher, but the fish owl. Alone, encased in the rotting tree trunk of a faraway forest. My mind self-flagellated into a bloody pulp. It feels good, for one spell-binding day, to escape the confines of such dark philosophy.

Hate myself, but really love you

Strawberry and I move in together. He finds a job in central Tokyo, and I start my third semester of graduate school. The new apartment is filled to the brim with cockroach nymphs. Over the phone, Strawberry takes pains to warn me about the infestation: “Don’t freak out, okay?” he says, in his gentlest voice. I spend the better part of a day furiously Googling insect life-cycles and laying down glossy black bait traps stuffed with toxic hydramethylnon.

During the first week, we subsist on blackcurrant-and-orange alcohol and prepared meals from the supermarket. I take two daily pills recommended by my parents, both vile-tasting but prescribed out of love. The building is ancient, and the communal rooms on its lower floors–a dark, dusty library, an empty, grey-walled lobby, a three-legged table with a splayed-open and dog-eared copy of Time magazine, circa 2003–re-appear in my dreams, contorted into a set of horrors where my imagination eats itself alive. But the apartments are heavily subsidized by my university, and so in the interest of avoiding financial ruin I learn to cheerfully accept the terrifying aesthetic. How would a director frame me? Born in the Lost Decade, a wild-haired nihilist walking through neon-lit Shibuya with a mind full of rapidly darkening thoughts on the brink of explosion: the heroine of a banal J-horror about human life in all its insipid, boring, sad, loving glory.

I open the silverware drawer and am greeted by a chocolate-colored cockroach that reaches forward to feel the air with twin, twitching antennae, only to draw back rapidly at the first sign of light.

Girl of your dreams

At the start of the spring thaw, my mother, brother, and I go on a road trip up to the snow-capped Pyrenees. The family lapis lazuli Toyota ferries us resolutely up the incline, and at that altitude, each turn on the road reveals a new vista. Mountains jutting out into the sky, roughly pyramidal, mottled, and incandescent. It is nighttime when we arrive, and the wan glow of the stars reflected in the snow holds me in thrall.

We stay at a small local hotel, and at breakfast we toddle sleepily into the dining room amidst a crowd of skiers in bright, Pepsi-blue salopettes. The hotel owner–a small, elderly man with imperial bearing–cooks half a dozen (obscenely delicious) potato omelettes for the buffet before pausing to hobnob with the guests. He balks visibly when my mother asks if he is French or Spanish. Neither, he replies haughtily, clarifying for us instead that he is from Occitania, a historical nation associated with ancient Gaul, and whose modern borders are hemmed imprecisely into northern Spain and southern France. Later, I search for the region on Wikipedia and wonder about history and heritage. What does it mean to belong to a place, and people? I can define it only in the endlessly abstract: The accretion of time and imagination over the eternal landscape; those cumulative sensations of living (hearth, heart) pooling into a kaleidoscopic realization of individual, and communal, homeland. But, truly: what does it mean to belong to a place, the way the bee belongs to the honeycomb?

In Tokyo, lightning smears over the clouds, and submerges the day in sudden rain. I walk to the station; the rain droplets, sweetly saline as tears, collect on my eyelashes. Usually during this commute my gaze wanders to my smartphone, but today I try to pass the time by impressing the fragile aesthetic of my neighborhood in a storm onto my memory: the wet, crushed velvet red petals behind the chain-link fence, the cherry blossom trees stripped of flowers. Most of what I can recall about Japan, when I describe it to others, is based on images and colors: sunset-red, calcimine-white, gem-green. Flowers, kanji characters, and insects. Is there any substance to remembering a place purely for its appearance? Can the surface values–the RGB color codes, the indexes of light and shadow hovering over each pixel of the world–have significance beyond pure superficiality? Can this country be my home when I understand only how it looks, but not how it feels to move within it?

Surely, the home of my dreams must be something more than colors, chiaroscuro, and the occasional blossoming tree. The effect home has on my body chemistry must be something else entirely. But perhaps what I imagine does not exist. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been swept away by fantasy, and wound up smashed against the shores of desert of the real. When I imagine home, I think of awaking suddenly from eerily deep sleep, and hearing, in the impassive dark, the tiny noises Strawberry makes while he dreams. The comfort and joy rippling out from my heart to encompass my whole body. A chain of mountains, dappled with trees in bloom, arriving to shelter me.

The Lance of Achilles

The apartment shakes; I can’t immediately tell if it’s another earthquake, or if the downstairs neighbor is running her manically energetic washing machine again. I lie perfectly still, limbs pressed close to my body, preferring to remain immobile amid the jostling of the sheets rather than prepare for the worst. Later, I’ll wonder at the idiocy of that: remaining in a certain mood rather than reacting to imminent danger. Fortunately, after a few seconds, the shaking comes to a sudden stop, and I get up and move to the kitchen; I put the kettle on and examine the state of my nails as the water boils. In the background, NPR plays stories about algae farming, the opium epidemic, and election recounts in Palm Beach, Florida.

Strawberry is at work, and my head aches. I focus on everything, and nothing. I cook elaborate recipes involving seasonally-appropriate vegetables, French sauces, and spices sourced from the burning tropics. Caramelizing onions requires just enough focus that it keeps the mind engaged while still pacifying me like a meditative trance. I think of myself escaping to an astral plane, wooden spoon still in hand, wading knee-deep through the shallows of a world adjacent to our own. Moving farther and farther into the absolute darkness, with my everyday life still preserved behind me, visible through a sheet of cloudy, trembling glass.

We spend 36 hours in Northern Kyoto. The mountains in November are painted in washes of plush, prodigal green, splashed with varying shades of yellowing orange, from apricot to amber. The foliage, its colors dispersed throughout the forest in mottled patches, reminds me of the fur of a tortoiseshell cat. I think of this cat, massive and languorous, extended lazily over the natural landscape like the feline protagonist of a creation myth. Just imagine that cosmology: a fanged predator camouflaged between sea and clouds, ready to swallow the Earth whole, Cronos-style. Imagine venturing outside at night as she stretches, and mistaking her movement for the wind on the mountain, and her reflective eyes for stars and streetlights.

We encounter a spectacular maple, positioned in front of a temple for maximum effect. Its leaves are an uncommon red; too yellow-toned for a crimson, too neon to be blood-red. I smile awkwardly for the camera. I imagine myself later, scrolling through the stream of photos with an inevitable combination of love and disgust for my body immortalized through image, immersed in that wave of confused, eerie melancholy that floods the heart when I look at my face and don’t recognize myself. I feel that wave at other times, too; for instance, I feel it while navigating the digital trove of my writings, that chest of textual keepsakes suspended and preserved in the immortal fluid of the Internet. Intimately identifiable to me, but also hideously foreign, because it was created by an iteration of Emma that no longer exists. I click through Tumblr, Twitter, and other horsemen. My presence on the web, filtered through the prism of social media, feels scattered, desperate, and needy, but also sincere, lucid, and magical. Diaristic entries of the thoughtful and thoughtless varieties. Dialectic cocooned within 140 characters. Soulless, but occasionally soulful, shitposting. The Emma of 201X surprises, horrifies, and enchants. She is utterly pathetic. Oftentimes I believe she does not deserve to live. My cursor hovers, tantalizingly, over the garnet-red “delete” buttons at the corner of every post. But eventually I let her go. 201X Emma is a freak of nature. She is a lamb of God.

Angel with a Destructive Personality

The circular grab handles on the Kyoto rail are made of glazed, lemon-yellow plastic; they hang from thick, sturdy fabric straps of the same color. I watch them sway back and forth with the movement of the train, like burnished, distracted leaves caught in the gentle stirring of an incoming storm.

Next to me, Strawberry sighs audibly. Between us, our relationship comes to life as an emergent property of our combined feelings; I imagine it suddenly externalized as a ring of citrine, like one of the train grab handles, dangled within my reach by a god of love and melodrama. “Take it,” he calls fervently, and the ring, as though suspended on an invisible string held by this god, shakes violently with enthusiasm.

I look up at the train’s ceiling; dark, forest green metal buckled together with fist-sized rivets, but curved like the inside of a church. The observation spirals, and a religion begins inside the train car. A statue of David shrouded in the the red, blue, and yellow of the route maps. A priest in a school uniform, playing Tetris on a cracked, gold Apple product. The gospel ringing out as we approach the station. Joan of Arc, dissolute, and drunk as a skunk. Lambs, leopards, and other sacrificial animals sitting mutely in the fetid, plush seats. I look back at the ring hung between me and Strawberry. Is it a flotation device, or an eject button?

It’s nighttime when we pull into the last stop. The laminated plastic is peeling at the corners of my train card, which I finger obsessively in my pocket. Outside, I am seized by a vision of summer in the depths of this autumn as tears well in Strawberry’s eyes. The yellow ring has followed us from the train, and it bobs expectantly in the air behind him, inside my line of vision. The temptation to curl a fist around it and yank it down reaches its apex. To be lifted up and carried away like a soul at the end point of a linear cosmology. The great escape. The ultimate fate. Instead, I fold up like a dried flower, and place myself in his arms. The righteousness of this decision I will never know; but at least, it is healing.