Tuesday, 15 November 2011


A trip to Hokkaido marked a transition into a cooler, calmer chapter. Sapporo reminded me of Manchester, a city I still (perhaps misguidedly) call mine. It's a grey, wet sprawl where the people look as if they are cold for most of the year, and it felt somehow familiar to me. Unlike anywhere else I've been in Japan, in Sapporo I could sense the human unpredictability of the city around me. In short, it was kind of miserable, but in a way that felt not unlike home.

Since then I've entered a period of quiet reflection and slow growth. It's almost as if I was just simmering with the heat of summer, spurred on by the constant drill of the cicadas and the sun dancing in my eyes each morning. Since my trip north, autumn has crept down the country to Tokyo and beyond. My blood has begun to cool, and though at first I was terrified of slowing down I'm starting to see the merits of sitting still for a while.

I always hate winter, because for me it's something I have to physically battle against. I feel robbed of my energy by the cold, and the dark evenings press down on me. But to be so full of energy as I was in the summer is exhausting, and now I'm taking the time to sit back and take stock of my collection: people, places, pictures, thoughts. I just wish I could hibernate on it.

Something feels different about autumn this year. It does feel like the world is winding down, and I do feel the pang of loss for summer. But this year autumn feels very cyclical, like this, too, is the beginning of something. A few weeks ago I was brimming with positivity, skipping into every room and laughing out loud. Now I feel quiet, and tired, but every now and again I catch myself smiling at something without even trying and I feel...well, happy.

Monday, 15 August 2011

full circle

We're back where we began, and look how far we've come.

I've been talking a lot to a friend/guru who is big on Buddhism lately, about cutting ties with the past and shedding all our expectations for the future, the idea being that we live entirely in the present and no other time exists. I can accept that there is no future, that it's pointless dwelling on events that have yet to (or may never) pass, but how can we sever ties with the past? The past is everything that we are, and while a lot of the experience that we've accumulated does little but weigh us down, carrying that knowledge with us is how we learn, playing with it and building on it, and if we're not learning then what's the point? 

Speaking of points, I do have one somewhere. My point is that my past took me right back to where this whole journey started, eight or so years ago: Hachijo-jima. It's a powerful literary device, this framing technique, and I should have spotted that that's what I was doing; tracing my steps back to the start for a better picture of how much has changed. Eight years ago I landed on that island, a cripplingly self-conscious teenager with no serious intentions (because that wasn't the time for intentions) and a stack of uncompromising ideals that had yet to be tried and tested. It's where, on a whim, I decided to learn Japanese, which is a decision that has changed the course of my life beyond belief.

Now here I am, living in Japan with a degree in Japanese, doing a job that makes no use of my knowledge whatsoever, once again clueless about where to go next. But I think what I had forgotten is how easily I made the decision to learn this language, before it took on so much meaning and dreams became metiers. I thought it would be cool to live in Tokyo, to speak a language most people are clueless about, and it is - but it's not my everything and it was never going to be. 

Going back to Hachijo, which was as seductive and enthralling as the first time, reminded me that  this seemingly key decision was totally arbitrary - and it's impossible to regret the consequences. The future didn't exist for me then, so I used my imagination and committed to something big without fear of regret, and what do you know, it actually worked out (I think my 16-year-old self would be pretty proud of me). Obviously we can't go through life making decisions like a teenager at every juncture, but right now it seems as good an approach as any, and frankly I could use a little more faith.

I recently read a novel called The Elephant's Journey by José Saramago, and one idea really stayed with me. As a convoy consisting of several men, some royalty and a very valuable elephant travels through the perilous alps, the narrator describes the royal carriage tumbling down the mountainside and the mahout heroically leading his elephant to the rescue. The episode is described in some detail before it's revealed that it's all in the wandering imagination of the bored and under-celebrated mahout, but just the fact that he imagined it means that it had the potential to happen, which is significant in itself. So: there is no future, the past is not how I remembered, and imagination = possibility.

Thursday, 5 May 2011



It's been a very surreal couple of months. While existential crises may not be unprecedented, it's hard to know exactly what's happened in the wake of the major earthquake/multiple tsunami/nuclear meltdown (personally, nationally, internationally) and if we've dealt with it well (or not at all). Trying to find your own path when an entire nation is floundering is not easy, but I can say this: fresh air really helps.

I once had a very eccentric boss who insisted I take a walk by the local duck pond when I received some bad news at work, and though I laughed at his illogical concern at the time I am beginning to think this might be my ultimate goal in life. On a hiking trip amidst Japan's hot-spring-punctured mountains I walked the length of Lake Ashi, listened to the wind rustling through the trees and the water lapping on the shore, and I thought - what if happiness is really this simple? What if, whatever happens between here and there, ultimately all I need to do is live by the water?

Obviously, a fair bit of whateverhappens has to happen first, and I'm faced immediately with the small matter of deciding what I want (discovery part II: I'm so petrified of staying true to myself I can't work out what the hell it is that my self wants).

Monday, 14 March 2011


And so Tokyo shakily gets back to its feet, grabbing greedily at the shelves.

Things that have sold out: bottled water, tofu, noodles, bread, candles, batteries, rice, torches, and petrol is running low.

Things we are being told to do: stock up on bottled water, non-perishable food, and non-electric sources of light in anticipation of regular blackouts, fill our baths with water in case the water supply is shut off, switch off all electrics at the allotted times.

Things we are being told not to do: not to worry about impending nuclear doom, not to go to Sendai, not to go to work by train if we can help it (which we are being asked to do anyway, by our bosses), and not to leave the house without a bottle of water and a phone (regardless of whether you are able to use it).

There is a very eerie atmosphere hanging over this otherwise functioning metropolis, interrupted by rolling aftershocks and the official warnings which blast out of little vans and clatter around the walls like gunfire. Trains are running, and then they're not again, and when they're not it means a long walk home (or an all-nighter at the office). Tonight I spent three hours in the dark just waiting for a powercut, which had been announced by loudspeaker from the street but never came, and in the end I gave up and resumed fanatically scrolling through several different news sources at once, each with a different story.

The aftershocks are slowing down, despite a big one this morning of six point something that had me sitting bolt upright in bed and putting on a cardigan, ready to run into the street in my pyjamas. But even when the ground isn't shaking it feels as if it is, and I have taken to glancing at a half-empty glass of water on my coffee table to verify the ripples I'm feeling. Big ones that make the lamp swing are often followed by sirens outside.

It's easy to go a little stir-crazy, staying cooped up at home because it is the right thing to do, pretending you have a clue what a nuclear meltdown even means. I'm torn between rushing up north to be useful (and stop pretending that the earthquake has had any real impact on our lives in Tokyo) and getting as far away from Fukushima as possible. Pride shouldn't have anything to do with this, nor duty, and I am attempting to remove both from the equation.

I tried to relax by re-filling my tub with hot water and sitting in it for a change, but my rubber ducks floated with their heads half-submerged in the water as if they were drowning.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

a state of non-emergency

I was teaching when the earthquake started. Immediately before I had felt intensely nauseous, but then I saw the look of recognition in my student's face and I realised what it was. Earthquakes regularly interrupt my classes, so we waited quietly for the gentle motion to pass. The earthquake continued for some time, and I busied myself putting pencil-pots and plants back in their upright positions until the building was swaying so dramatically I had to forget the books and CDs that were flying from the shelves and back up against the wall to slowly slide into a sitting position on the floor. I thought to myself, when are you supposed to start thinking 'oh shit'?

I was just starting to think 'oh shit', and wondering where the emergency exits were, and what you're supposed to do in an earthquake, and how would I get the 91-year-old woman taking my class out of the building if the walls started caving in, when the motion subsided. At its most violent, the earthquake was rocking the old lady's chair back and forth, back and forth, repeatedly knocking it into the wall behind her. She smiled the entire time.

During the earthquake my overwhelming instinct was to be outside, which it transpires is the logical thing to do. For a time afterwards people gathered in the square in front of the station, watching the lampposts shaking in the tremors. It wasn't long before shops and restaurants were back open, and they quickly became full.

The school's entire contents had been emptied onto the floor, and our efforts to clear them away were hindered by frequent and significant aftershocks which, 36 hours later, I'm still experiencing as I type. Too sea-sick to help, and finally permitted to go home early, we attempted to make our way home. Trains were suspended, taxis scarce and inevitably occupied, and in the two hours we stood at the bus stop three packed buses passed us in line without stopping. We had just resolved to join the hoards of people marching by and walk along the train-line towards home, when I bumped into a friend I hadn't been able to call with the phone services down and, luckily, was offered a place to stay.

Sleep was uneasy, and we were frequently rocked awake by aftershocks or startled by the megaphone vans barking out unintelligible warnings outside.

There is no doubt in the news as to the scale of this disaster, and the risks still posed. Yet Tokyo appears to be continuing regardless. The shops have sold out of bread and tofu, anything that doesn't require electricity to prepare, and the the comforting drone of radio news broadcasts can be heard drifting out of most cafes and bars, but young Tokyoites are still stumbling out of izakayas and browsing through vintage clothing shops as usual. 14,000 supposed dead, and you wouldn't know it to look around town. What's the protocol here? Shouldn't Tokyo be a little more worried? For a country in red-alert, people seem remarkably inert, going about their day-to-day business in a state of distinct non-emergency.

In one of the aftershocks yesterday my manager shot out of the door while one of our students dashed under a table, leaving my colleague and I standing there wondering what on earth to do. That feeling still hasn't left me.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

now we know what bodies are made from

There is nothing so dissatisfying as total, nihilistic freedom.

It transpires that carelessly indulging yourself (if getting battered counts as indulging yourself) with no thought to tomorrow just leads to a string of long, sad tomorrows and an unfailing preoccupation with how best to fill the gaps. Apparently time won't stop passing no matter what you tell it to do. The question is, why was reckless abandon so much more fun the first time around? Age seems too pedestrian an answer.

I've met some amazing people out here (and I've long since ceased to be amazed by people easily), but I almost feel as if our time together is cheapened by how much fun we're having.

Perhaps I'm just frustrated because I'm reluctantly coming to the realisation that there is nothing stopping me anymore. Apart from me, of course.

Thursday, 3 March 2011


Today I will make an attempt to move into the less-pretentious. I've always been embarrassingly wordy, and I have no intention of curbing my verbal instincts, but I have human instincts too so I'm going to try to let them take centre stage a bit more often.

So I'm currently living in Japan, losing my idioms to the world of eikaiwa, and spring is coming. Some aspects of this I recognise: more daylight in the evenings, bi-weekly glimpses of a future summer (interspersed with cold, sharp reminders that winter hasn't left us yet) and a sometimes overwhelming sense of possibility. In Japan this is accompanied by fanatic anticipation of the coming cherry blossom, a wealth of advertisements beckoning you to invest in the new you before it's too late, and a national hay-fever epidemic.

I didn't know hay-fever until I was seventeen, when suddenly my body decided to be intolerant to everything and the pollen of Crete was no exception. Plenty of people I know suffer from seasonal sniffles, but I guess in England we accept that there is a price to pay for a bit of good weather. The entire population of Tokyo, however, seems to be disproportionately overwhelmed by this minor ailment, to the extent that hay-fever now tops the weather in the small-talk ranks. This is particularly notable in a nation so schooled in endurance that they have a one-word reference for the phenomenon of 'working-oneself-to-death', and I can't help but wonder if it's all a subconscious extension of the national preoccupation with 'the seasons'.

I recently discovered that when a bug is going around, in Japanese you say it's 'popular' or 'in fashion' (流行っている).

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

timespace and the me continuum

I begrudge constantly how little time I have on my hands, but the truth is that the empty hours are most daunting. I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that I'm not relishing the opportunity to get to know myself. While we all want to be socially adept, there is this pressure to embrace solitude (for it is sacred), this common philosophy that we somehow owe it to ourselves to seek out our own company and prove that we don't need anyone else to exist. Strange behaviour for a pack animal.

But doesn't solitary just mean lonely? And without the right people there to reflect us, don't we start to lose shape? There's no nicer feeling in the world than spending time with the people you love, reminding each other of who you are.

I am in a very lucky position. Like a modern-day monk, I've been afforded the chance to live out a life in a new landscape. With all of the landmarks of my old life (or lives) gone the only constant now is me, and 'me' is subject to change. I'm free to tailor all of my tastes, habits and ticks, which is an extraordinary privilege. But I've never spent so much time with myself, and I'm concerned we are becoming shadows.

Monday, 28 February 2011


It's time to get used to my own voice.

Someone who would be a firm friend in another (or later) life recommended I read Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis (pictured right - she has a degree in 19th century French poetry and magic. Who knew?). Having been told it perfectly captured the feelings of a young woman wandering in an alien city, I had been saving it for when I moved to an alien city of my own. I have to admit I was initially underwhelmed,  but gradually it has become a comforting daily go-to, and I'll be sad to finish it later today.

It's got me thinking a lot about time and space, things I've previously only thought about very academically. I've recently started living in a new time and space, and I'm slowly making my peace with it. I've been here before, so there's none of the heady excitement of a newcomer this time. But nor am I home.

I know your place shouldn't be your person, but if a house plant can drop all its flowers because you move it three inches to the left doesn't it make perfect sense that humans, too, are products of their environment? Book of Clouds centres on a Mexican woman's courtship with Berlin, a city she has chosen for herself but can't quite accept as her own. I flirt with Tokyo in very much the same way, running hot and cold in waves of jealousy and disownership, giddy infatuation and tired tolerance.

A moment of giddy infatuation: standing by the station, eyes closed, trying to identify the source of the singing I could hear on the wind. It was a festival, I don't recall which one, and this song was competing with the indefatigable chirping of the station jingle and the hoarse calls of the men at the vegetable stand ten feet away.