Tag: japan

Life, defamiliarized

In the east, the apartment buildings rise into the evening. The multi-colored lights in their rooms blink slowly on and off like approaching airplanes. Against the intensely black horizon, their size reminds me of the gods from the Cthulhu mythos, but more benign somehow, quasi-angelic: a reversal of the fall of Lucifer.

Clusters of trees between houses, their trunks so tall and so slender that I can’t understand how they hold up their huge, unwieldy bouquets of diamond-shaped leaves. A tiny Shiba Inu dog lying on its side in a miniature Japanese town enclosed in trees. An orange tabby cat poised by a vending machine. Thickets of bamboo, so dense no light can make it through, and the vaguely mechanical sounds emanating from somewhere within. The dirty patina of old coins exchanged during purchases of yuzu-flavored soft drinks at a lonely convenience store.

The nighttime view from my window reminds me of a gloomy 80’s music video, slowed down fifty-percent; dark, melodic, glittery, soft, the cars visible as beams of light, moving at a steady pace, in and out of my line of sight. おつきさま, the full moon, penetrating through a field of clouds with the brightness of a switchblade.

Dimensions are altered slightly here in Japan. The cars seem designed for Polly Pockets, but the insects are massive. Cicadas, wasps, and moths flit through the air with gold thoraxes the size of human thumbs. Compound eyes unreal in their size. Animals crop up in uncommon circumstances, like omens from nature I don’t know how to interpret. A bone-colored crane motionless in the middle of a river. Monkeys close enough to touch, emerging during the autumn rain to crawl along the phone lines suspended above a shrine. A single olive-green lizard I’ve named “Marmalade,” found in a paper bag on my shelf.

In Kyoto, with Strawberry, I walk through the nighttime, along the bridge straddled by a sprawling bamboo forest. It is late into the evening on Sunday, and we are mostly alone in Arashiyama. A typhoon warning has prompted an exodus of tourists and the shuttering of the cat café, the tea parlor, and the kitschy smattering of Edo-style souvenir shops dotting the main road. Immersed in a darkness that arrived swiftly and unexpectedly, we linger by the river’s edge, the mountains close enough that I feel their figures present as third parties to our conversation. Strawberry leans against the railing and his eyes, though stripped of color in the dusky conditions, gleam with an authenticity untouched by artifice. After a lifetime of cultivating a suspicious nature aimed mainly at my own behavior, I am thrown by how deeply and fully he believes in an idea, a conjuring, of me, that I myself have never trusted.

A tiny bookshop open in the hour before midnight, where I flip through pages of a Japanese fairy tale, a butcher called “Fishery and Chicken Tanaka,” an eggplant-purple subway train leading back towards the city proper. The night like pitchblende. Aphrodite in the foam. The wind, felt and not seen, from the kingdom east of the sun and west of the moon.

How important is shared sense of humor in a relationship? How important are common priorities and visions for the future? Under his clothes, Strawberry’s skin is like almonds split open, in color and odor. The sudden protagonist of a folktale à la Oscar Wilde, guided by a lark of silver, a witch in disguise, and a god clothed in peach blossoms, I arrive at a final miracle. The birds outside, lost in a song of autumn. The once-green leaves, shedding in whirlwinds, a shallow tide of amber, orange, and watermelon red. A twin-sized mattress, moved to the floor, and fitted with navy blue Mickey Mouse sheets. How likely is it that Strawberry might be the one I’m writing about in all my stories?

Thunder Thighs

Every couple we pass on our bicycle tour of the Tiergarten seems to be in the middle of the most somber conversation of their lives. On a park bench, a young man stares tearfully at a female companion seated beside him. The content of their partnership is drawn in between swaying branches in the Impressionistic style: light and feathery strokes, framed in the gilded notes of a plump, sylvan July. There’s something touching, albeit hardly unique, about his expression, drenched in that Romanticism that feels so Edgar Allan Poe, and naturally, takes on a pained, sepia-toned form. Ah, adolescence. I imagine him clutching her pallid hands as he promises, in the center of Berlin’s fairy tale gardens, to cryogenically freeze himself alongside her in their old age. There’s a pause and he looks up, the spell briefly broken, to catch my eye. I am perched on a Dutch bicycle borrowed at the hotel reception, one foot on the dusty path for balance. I half-smile, feeling suddenly and severely my intrusion into their intimacy, and pedal away, into the glossy shade cast by the flowering trees.

In the mountains surrounding the Elbe, my brother and I are halfway completed with the day’s trek when I hear the white noise for the first time. It sounds like muted, distant thunder, or like what I imagine it feels like in the mind, when you are looking at a body after death. The waters of Lethe against the shore. At that altitude, when we peer down, the granularity of the leaves of the valley are erased into a mottled, still wave of mutton fat jade. As the white noise fades away, the question of its origin comes up and freely we speculate: the river down below, the Bohemian winds, the reverberations within thousand-year-old layers of white and salmon pink sandstone. Unreasonably, but maybe understandably, I’m possessed by the notion that the noise has something to do with the ocean. Everything mysterious seems like it must come from the sea, you know?

In the Palace of Sanssouci, which I, with my usual grotesquely unhistorical humor, describe as a dick-measuring contest between the Prussian emperor and the residents of Versailles, we wander amid ultra-detailed landscaping and 18th century chinoiserie chic. Hundreds of tourists traipse across the terraced lawn. Life seems so urgent now, and I can’t decide if that’s due to the current stage of my life, or the current state of the world. But I myself am detached. In Sanssouci, surrounded by vineyards, playful Rococo, and caramel yellow Caryatids, I find myself incapable of prompting even fractured emotions.

I remember an afternoon from three years ago, during a similar summer, in Kyoto’s Ryoanji. In the gold-toned heat, Alex and I sit on the wooden viewing platform beside the temple garden for the better part of an hour. Flanked on both sides by a varied crowd of strangers, we stare at the five groupings of stone and puzzle over the meaning behind their number and arrangement. Alex’s theories from that day are still my favorite: The principal emotions, the bodily senses. Most of my life I’ve enjoyed paired objects, triptychs, and, being an April-born Aries, the number four, but I see now there’s something robust and mystic about sets of five. The Ryoanji zen garden is one example, but then there’s also five-petaled flowers, five-faced Shiva, the five wounds of Jesus during the crucifixion. Taste, hearing, smell, sight, and touch. Anger, disgust, happiness, fear, and sadness.

I come across a photograph of snow online and am overwhelmed, unexpectedly, with a crushing nostalgia for winter. The hours of night filled with darkness, but also the violet, ultra-reflective glow of the snow banks. The sensation of submersion in the honeymoon of a situational “otherness” when snow, delicate, translucent, and symmetrically shaped, is falling. The temperature at white twilight, as the wind slows and stills. An ode to winter, written during a season of cherries, plums, and beaches.


The perfect plum sits in the palm of the hand like a flushed cloud
during sunrise, or a bowling ball of decadent purple hardwood.
Sliced into half-moons, the meat, fibrous and dense like pork,
starts a deep red, lightening into a blend of rose, orange, and bronze,
before finally pooling into a core of soft blonde. The skin pulls off easily
with teeth, thin as lily petals but firm, and its taste fills the mouth
with brine that recalls the sea, with the final promise of sweetness.

The perfect boy drags me into the intimacy of a dark place, and his hips move
over me like the revving of a engine running on blood. In a blazing corner
of my mind, a rifle goes off. The shot strikes Eve in the heart and returns
her, instantly, to dust. Later, he tells me I touched him as though begging.
Both too tender and too calloused, this body, both too ashamed and too
proud; how to describe the violet shadow that’s beaded over me, like sweat, seeds
of pearl, the reminder that summer’s heat will make maggots of chopped plums?

Biking Across the Pacific Ocean

Every morning, from Monday through Friday, I stagger along on a borrowed bicycle through the pale green pearl of the rice paddies. The commute to school takes me past the local bait and tackle, a Yamaha dealer, and a luminous river that leads into the largest lake in Japan. Before this month, the last time I rode a bicycle I was fourteen, and though I am older now I am just as ungainly, and more distracted than ever.

Danger tracks me, as always, through the trees, in the moonlight, but her manner here feels unusually, charitably benevolent. I pass her on my bicycle, resting on her haunches by the red gates of the neighborhood Shinto (神道) shrine, and yell out, foolishly, daringly: Can I assume I am immortal until proven wrong? She rolls her eyes but it’s a lenient gesture, like she understands, and forgives, the cockiness of girls like me. In a parallel universe half a degree away, she knows, I collide with a chrome Honda, slide off the slim country road and tumble, head over heels, through the fragrant grass. The clouds, massive and supernatural, continue to cast their shadows of dark lilac over the water.

Adult life–or, rather, the expectation of living a convincing adult life–arouses the bitterest courage in me; like all emotions revealed when dislodged by weakness, it starts behind clenched teeth, moves to the soul, and erupts there. Self-assurance still doesn’t come easily to me. I don’t know how it’s possible to be simultaneously so afraid and so determined to never be afraid. Was there a young adult seminar on this topic that I missed? “Fear, fearlessness, and the twenty-two-year-old who isn’t a child anymore”?

Thank goodness for this landscape, its green-blues, and especially for the mountains. Even while inside the classroom, I think of them constantly, and their vision in my mind expands and pools behind my eyes, thick as slick gore. During a field trip to a Buddhist monastery, we practice zazen (座禅) and I imagine the mountains emerging, painlessly, from my chest, ribbed and gray-gold, and my breath traveling, zig-zag, over them. Where these images come from, I cannot say, but somehow they don’t belong to me, and never did.

Maybe the imagination isn’t some proliferation of my jellied neocortex, but a thousand-armed body, loaned to me only temporarily, accompanying me everywhere, and eternally sick of my shit. I hound after it until it sighs: God, what do you want now, Emma? Well. I want a great many things, but right now I want you to open that hand that houses my memory of that night. You know which one. When the rain chopped through my teflon jacket, soaking everything–from scalp, to nape, to the elastic band of my underwear–until the coral-red fever of my own breath and the smoke of his eyes on me were all I could feel, and we were both lit only by the bloodless duo of Venus and the moon shredded by clouds and the sudden flashes of snowy cranes in flight.

Recently, I was passed at an intersection by a young man in sportswear and muddied white-orange sneakers. His forearms were resting atop the handlebars, neatly folded, his hands cupping his elbows. His weight was shifted forward in a way that seemed to elevate him a foot off the asphalt, like an angel, exiled to Japanese suburbia. I can still picture his total stillness, broken only by the circular movements of his exposed calves, pushing against the pedals in a constant, gentle motion.

Existential crisis of the butterfly

At the supermarket I wander through the narrow aisles in my cornflower blue work blouse, stopping every so often to stare intently at packages. I pick them up from off the shelves, and turn them over in my hands, trying to read the nutritional information on their backs. Each time I wade into the the mystery of the characters on the labels it is as though I am circling the center of a lake in a rowboat without oars; if I am lucky, I can pick out stray characters, like meat (肉) or sea (海), but mostly I am at a loss, mute as a beached mermaid. I end up buying five dollars worth of bottled green tea (お茶) and the cashier bows so low to me my heart rises into my throat; I am sure I have never done, and will never do, anything half so grand so as to deserve this reverence.

I walk back to the house, plastic shopping bag around one wrist, submerged in drifting air from a season the Japanese call the plum rain, feeling, not for the first time, like an actress in my own life. There’s a darkness inside me even here, in a neighborhood peopled by roses, but it’s comforting, and it tethers me, not to home, nor reality, but to truthfulness, to fidelity to the woman I am in other places, at other times.

The house I’m staying at is old, but pleasantly so, and I find I am not bothered by even the sound of rats in the walls, or the tiny moths that hover like stars in the living room. I have always been good at enduring inconvenience cheerfully, but as I grow older I think I’m becoming more mature about it; I’m not haunted by the need to congratulate myself for suffering anymore.

My morning commute to the office includes a fifteen minute walk to the subway station through a residential area. It’s a neighborhood I might see in a dream during a fever: sinuous, narrow roads lit by a blue sun enclosed in fog like satin. It’s always raining; the air tastes like an elixir of immortality. On days like these are gods from myths born. I find myself thinking of the future, with fear, but also with a warm-hued optimism that beats in my breast, hanging there like a single pearl.

The front and back passenger cars of the subway train are separated from an unmanned control cabin by a door embedded in a panel of glass; if I can, I like to stand by it, and look at the soft, tactile buttons, the electrical panels intricate as honeycomb, the off-white phone near the floor. When the train moves the tunnel falls behind in smooth, lush waves. For me, tunnels are not so much a location as an emotion, dusky but intimate somehow, like an evening in late, sensual spring, a period of violet darkness marking the rhythm of the lives of sacred flowering trees. There’s a fish-eyed other-worldliness there too: the walls around me, punctuated by occasional gold fluorescent lamps, temporarily illuminating my reflection in the dark glass. I imagine the veil thinning, from opaque, impenetrable to translucent, vulnerable. I imagine stepping through it, with zero resistance, easily, like rainwater seeping from soil under the slightest pressure. The objects, and people, on the other side vary from hour to hour, desire to desire; right now, for instance, I’m seeing mountains, and forests, and ghosts, in rain jackets.

Sensory details braided, manifold, into my psyche: a tiny store called Takahashi Fruits, a man, presumably Takahashi, in green overalls with one strap hanging off his shoulder, a pained, bitter expression on his face. A fire station, purple-pink hydrangeas, a young blind man in Shinjuku Station being guided to the exit by a stranger, telling him「助かりました」(you saved me). Peaches encased in protective netting, priced at five hundred yen each. The cashiers I see working the 2 AM shift at the 7/11, whose names, printed in hiragana on tags, I try to memorize with a desperation I don’t know how to explain. The garden of a long-dead emperor, a hotel room in a suburb outside Tokyo. The windows of the train, where on a few summer afternoons I can see the sun start to descend at the same time the moon makes its appearance at the opposite end of the sky. My mother’s voice saying: Ser feliz es triunfar. To be happy is to triumph.


When I fell in love with you I lost my appetite for seven days.
My arms and legs ached, dully, tenderly. Along my throat, and beside my breasts,
lymph, oval-shaped, milky white, swelled like new peaches: Emotion, a pathology, pathos of.
The needs of a body silenced by the greed of the soul; my senses so changed
just walking to the convenience store in the suburbs I smelled the sea.

You’ve never even touched me. What would I do if you did —
Every nerve ending would dissolve into blossom.
The little death darkening my blood to hematite.
The largeness of love, the demands it places on pride,
would either cure or impoverish me permanently.
I don’t know if I could survive that fire.

This feeling has never been gentle to me, and fear lies
like a fragile gem in my skeleton: too tremulous
to touch, a breath away from rupturing
into a cloud of gold. The mortality of love,
its half-life a night in Pyrrhic, pellucid springtime,
is a lesson I have learned over and over again,
but never managed to commit to memory.

What does it even matter. Oh, it is not as though
I would dare think of forever. But I do
still remember the Yamanote line at six in the morning,
the train hanging suspended by a single thread
as I put my hand on your shoulder. The purity of
that instant like heroin. Like Mount Sinai.
My heart so changed when the doors opened there was lavender filling the air.

Mientes mucho

My mind often returns to August of last year, to that beach in Kamakura. I remember it was mid-afternoon. I was sitting alone on the cold sand, feeling time within me like an organ of my body, like a second heart, heated, and fast. That entire day I had been alone, on autopilot, but there, by the the ocean, I found myself shifting back into a realer, more organic state, and I thought of my life, how it had developed into this foreign animal I knew to belong to me, but did not recognize, nor control, a life powered by something other than me, something more innocent and magnetic, and free.

Life possesses its own momentum, I think, a type of gravity generated by the soul. Like the survival instinct, but more human, more mundane too; less about danger and more about memory, and desire, and the muscular, spiritual pull in the body that comes with the existence of beauty, the appearance of pain. I don’t always feel it but when I do its effect is tidal, and immediate, like an electric current. I think of that instance, a few years ago, in Washington D.C.’s Ronald Reagan Memorial airport, waiting in a shuttle bus on the tarmac wet with rain, and pausing, suddenly, to think: I’m living. I’m here, and I’m alive. It was a forceful, and tender, and gently, momentarily paralyzing thought, like passing by a garden for the millionth time and noticing, for the very first time, the row of tiny flowers lining the path.

There’s a difficult, intractable, callous, evergreen part of me that my mother often calls my “nature.” I love, and require, this solidity but I wish I could change the angle of it, give it substance instead of just density. I wish I could carry resilience like a physical object. I wish I could swing it like a sledgehammer.

I think a lot about my character, how it sees, and reflects, and pursues the world. I think a lot about possibility, and emotion, and owning up to my bullshit. I think a lot about how for years I dejectedly but willingly described myself as a neurotic girl, and then a neurotic woman, just because my father called me that once. I think a lot about what it means to judge, to separate, to reject, to forgive, to value, to cherish, and how love intersects with these, individually, and in a sequence, and all at once.

Instances of peace are close to my soul. They slow time down, prolong my life for just a few more seconds, and the pretenses of calculation — how to be, and say, and act, and to what degree — which have so sustained my identity slip away, and I am not afraid, for once, of excess, or hesitation. I return to the beach at Kamakura, alone, entirely responsible for my own life. No need for excuses; no need for lies. I go through my photographs of the trip, the snapshots of white-petaled flowers with rosette cores, the plain and dignified mountainside vistas, the gray roads, their subtle, gold-toned luminosity in the summer evening. I go through images of the sea, its mirada vidriosa (“glassy stare”) and of my face, which some have called “heart-shaped,” on those impulsive, rare instances that I turned the camera around to capture my tired but smiling expression, framed by iron and blue.

松 / 待つ

I take the night train from Narita to Umejima. I sit in the second of three seats facing a window, knees together, my head resting against the backpack in my lap. Every so often I check its pockets, confirming that I still carry three items: a square passport, a cantaloupe orange debit card, and the tiny notebook containing the only photograph I have of my parents together. Though cold to the touch, the weight of the photograph is familiar and comforting, like a nebulous, gentle memory of childhood not yet rendered bitter by time.

The woman next to me sleeps; occasionally her cheek falls against my shoulder, like a honeybee settling on a flower. The vertex of her summer’s evening has bent and met with mine, and her face is so meaningless but will remain in my memory like the smell of brine. Though I travel — and live, to a certain extent — alone, her touch on me is close, immediate, and dolefully, doggedly human.

Rilke said, once: Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.

It has always been easy, and enjoyable, to be painfully, perversely hard on myself. I have pined for men who would not love me, and women who could not; for a release from shame, and a return to it; for thorny roses, phone calls, cool midnights, total respect, physical power, emotional intimacy. And I know it is wrong, to beat myself up over what I do not have, but I don’t know how to avoid, or correct, or suppress these feelings, which are half-man and half-beast, and which follow me even when I have left the labyrinth.

Maybe I am at my best when I am by myself. It doesn’t matter if I am a good person or just a good liar — there is no one to impress. I make it from point A to point B and point C; I feel proud of small accomplishments like counting out exact change in Japanese yen, or crossing the street in the dark, or noticing the beauty of a whole, red moon, partially obscured by apartment blocks.

On the train, the sensory hearts of the world are sliced away; no taste, no fragrance here. I don’t feel much of anything beyond the eternal, neutral desire to live, to complete a journey to its natural end. When I see my reflection in the window opposite me, the gentleness it rouses in my breast is both narcissism and pride, in my soft and tame face, which which may not be beautiful but is mine, in my alertness in an illusory world of ghosts, in my independence, which was not easily won. I am thousands of miles away from anyone who knows my name. I feel unknown, and tender, and pure, like nude, luminous snow. The world is easy, translucent, cooked down to its tendons; I am a twelve-ribbed twenty-year-old who treasures her life, whose soul is trembling, cracking, and spilling, like egg yolk.