First days of a new life in Japan. The tanaku of the night, the silence of the streets, days of mystery, the urban hustle and bustle, and a lot of literature.
Edited in English by Kathelijne Bonne.
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A whirlwind in the present
Of my first days in Tokyo not much is left in my mind. Time passes in such a fast way, that I can no longer assimilate all the images that have passed by. I still have that tunnel vision that settles in when I am doing many things.
Changing country has the effect of putting everyday life in such an important level that it is like losing the map of life. My ability to bury things is kind of scary.
Madrid is already half buried.
I don’t even try to hold on to those memories of the first days. They’ve escaped. I lose myself in my senses and take it all in.
My skin is sweaty all the time. I’ve got a rash, because the food is different. The vegetables have a different color, a different shape. The meat looks different. The smells are strange and diverse.
I walk a lot because it’s the only way to move around. I don’t have a car or a bike. It’s hilly. Vegetation is everywhere. There is silence. Murmurs. Buzzing cicadas. Nature that sneaks into the cement. Yesterday, even at night, I saw the famous Tanuki, Tokyo’s raccoon dog and, being a city person and having read a lot of fairy tales, I get scared easily. Will the creature change shape and attack me at night?
Cicadas that sound like tractors. People are silent but nature shrieks in Tokyo, especially in the parks.
And I see workers everywhere directing traffic with those fluorescent sticks. Everything glares, from the supermarket, to the stores, to the bazaars, to the dogs in the street that are tiny and coquettish. And the people are so neatly dressed and groomed, the rich, the poor, the workers, the housewives, the kids. They all look impeccable and I wonder if I look a bit sloppy to them with my unruly hair, my imperfect skin, my colorful, cheerful clothes. I imagine they see me as a shrill, exotic insect to be avoided, like those eye-catching, subtropical ones.
They don’t make eye contact; they seem to avoid me because they don’t speak English or because life is on the inside. There is never hostility because they are polite. Maybe it’s just a lack of interest or time. It doesn’t bother me because I’m rather reserved with people myself. They don’t kiss strangers either, they just do that bow. But this distance suits me well, because sometimes I am distant too.
The smallness of things
It seems to me that I’ve been here for several months and it’s only been two weeks. Time is like a heavy blanket, the kind that is so hot that it suffocates. I’m already familiar with the neighborhood, the bars are a concern for me, because I always want to have one at hand.
I was saying that dogs are small here. Actually, everything is very cute, and this is in part because of the size. Small is beautiful, EF Schumacher says, and it’s already a commonplace.
And yes, there is even a mini cheese grater, a mini mop and a mini broom, not only because children usually clean here but also because people live in small houses and things have to fit in.
The izakayas are so small sometimes that you can’t believe such places can accommodate people. Maybe that’s why they are so tidy. The small space requires that everything is in its place, even the people sit in front of the bar but not all pushed together like in Madrid, each one in his chair keeping a prudent distance from each other. I find that order very comfortable. It doesn’t scare me at all. I like to be seated and have my space. Standing and shouting is something I have never been able to incorporate in Madrid.
Izakayas are small but spotless. Everyone in their place and it all starts with a damp towel to wipe your hands.
Another related issue: everything is potentially foldable, from the bikes to the dish drainer. I like the art of folding. Part of Japanese ingenuity goes into reducing the size of things.
The other day I went out to get some sponges and they were too small. I looked at them a bit puzzled but, in the end, they were of good use. You also get a little hungrier at the beginning. Yogurts, cheeses, meat trays, pasta, everything comes in small packages. Everything seems cheaper but, in reality, less food comes. Maybe they eat less, I don’t know, but I’m getting used to it. I confess that sometimes we run off to Tully’s and finish our meal with the big sandwiches they serve there.
But in the end you realize you don’t need that much food.
Miniature cheese grater. Everything is small in Japan.
Haikus and eyes
I have to go to the supermarket every day. I have no way to carry food and I see that people carry small purchases. A lot of bento is thrown away and the rest is daily groceries. Peaches come in twos, bananas come in fours or fives, salmon comes in two thin slices on a tray. What I like the most are those miniature detergent jars. What happens to the eye that small things generate so much tenderness?
That’s the feeling we Westerners get, because things look different than what we are used to. Sometimes I observe them, the Japanese, they don’t experience the same emotion for small things. It’s normal. It makes me melt to see the children all by themselves with their mini mobiles, their beanies and their gel collars against the heat. You see them so well equipped and on their own on their journeys that it gives me satisfaction seeing them walk by . The locals just pass by them not noticing. It is the eye, I think, that looks around and is trained to see the things it knows. Then when it sees something different it is surprised or generates an emotion in the body.
Tom (my son) tells me about a creature. I don’t remember its name anymore, but he tells me it has a very long neck.
Like the giraffe’s, I ask him.
No, not that long. But longer than ours.
And I tell him that what we think is long or short depends on the eyes with which you look at it. Our eyes are not only a window, an orifice that perceives, they are also the metric of things. A ruler, a measuring instrument.
If we had the giraffe’s eye, it would seem to us that that neck is too short, I tell him.
Shadows, once more
Haikus, in a way, respond to that. It takes just a few words to convert what we perceive with our eyes, with our ears, with our skin. And transform it into words.
Goethe says that sight is the only sense capable of perceiving without resorting to touch. When we hear there is a vibration, when we touch the skin intervenes as a receptor, in the case of taste, something similar happens, the tongue is in charge of doing the job of messenger, but with sight something magical happens. Goethe was a fan of optics and devoted years to the study of colors. Perhaps he saw something in this sense that escaped logic.
Haikus, with its simplicity and smallness, it also extracts something from what the senses leave us. . A few words to convert what we perceive with our eyes, with our ears, with our skin. And transform it into words. Sight is important. We not only read the haiku, we also look at it. We observe its form. I analyze it as characters on paper, with their contours, their length, and then I let myself be carried away by the sonority of reading aloud. In those few words, everything is concentrated or else much is left unsaid because one word can never encompass the entire universe.
The rest is intuited, left in the shadows. I love this idea of the shadow.
I always look for it. The darkness. The silence. Tanizaki wisely says:
In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration.
I walk through the hot streets, looking for a darkness that almost doesn’t exist. The Japanese, especially the women, wear parasols and cover their arms, their faces. The art of the hat in this country is spectacular, I suppose it has to do with the fact that it is very elegant to walk through life wearing a hat. I see them on the street, all covered up. It’s not about decorum, there’s no ethics behind.
You have to run away from the light.
And I think of my bronzed arms and my uncovered face as an eccentricity. I look for a tree. A thick branch. Something to shelter me from the light.
Taking refuge in the shade.
I leave you with Matsuo Bashō’s haiku, which completes what remains in my body. That which I do not express in words. He’s there to do that.
to be alive
under the shade of my hat
enjoying the coolness
Matsuo Basho, Summer 1675
 Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Thomas J. Harper, Edward G. Seidensticker. In praise of shadows. Leete’s Island Books.1980
 Matsuo Basho. Basho. The complete Haiku. Kodansha International. 2013
You can read this article in Spanish.
- About me
- An arrival in Japan
- Sobre los plásticos en Japón
- Nikko: reflexiones sobre la cultura del onsen
- Cómo debe ser una buena mesa de luz