In truth my relationship with Japan, above all else, is defined by nostalgia. However stimulated I may be by ponderings on the psychological and philosophical connotations of our British-Japanese biculturalism – as Naomi and I like to explore on Thinking Japlish – my emotional interaction with Japan is nostalgic; it is why I love it, it is why it’s the only place I ever really want to go.
Nostalgia, though it is perhaps the most enigmatic emotion of all, is also one of the most distinctive and compelling. Whilst it can never be consciously summoned and only an external trigger can bring it out from your subconscious, no one could mistake that cocktail of joy, yearning and regret it evokes. It is a particularly apt emotion to explore in the context of Japan when so much of Japanese art is pre-occupied with it – just think of any Hayao Miyazaki film; and consider how much more common a word ‘natsukashii’ is than ‘nostalgic’.
Let me give you a tour of one of my nostalgic escapes from normal life – the 15 minute walk from my grandparents’ house in Tokyo to the train station.
I am engulfed by a warm cushion of wet, sweet air as I step out the front door. To my right a box-like Toyota is shuttling along the main road running perpendicular to mine, making only the gentlest rumble, its white paint flashing in the glaring afternoon sun. Whatever ruckus there had been within the house, the stillness of the outside is resolutely undisturbed.
Beyond the car are three vending machines are standing in a row beside the road, facing towards me. I cross towards them. They look sad, like a trio of elderly hitchhikers who never got a ride, now condemned to sit, forever wakeful, watching each car go by. But as I near them, their delicious coolness and soothing fridge-like rumble gives them a vitality that radiates into the soporific calm of their suburban surroundings. 120 yen for a Kirin Afternoon Tea, not the usual 150, and I am struck with that sense of surprise that what you thought was a mindless clone has a subtle element of individuality. The red lights on the buttons turn green, as if in approval of my interruption of its noble roadside vigil, as my coins slide in with metallic chinks. With a satisfying immediacy there’s a thud below as I press the plastic button.
I cross back to the side-road I came out from. There’s no pavement so I walk along the concrete gutter lids taking care to only step on the tablet shaped gaps between each slab. In the near distance the telephone wires droop haphazardly over a junction. The drink is cold in my hand and deliciously refreshing down my throat; the taste utterly addicting in that cabbagey, cloying way Japanese sweet things always seem to be. The houses are in that odd but unique Japanese suburban style – traditionally tiled black temple-like roofs adorning functional grey-beige brick; set with small brown-framed windows. Not at all pretty, but for me intensely evocative of Doraemon’s opening sequence; and so enchanting.
I walk past the green nets of label-less plastic bottles and meticulously flattened cardboard cartons that is the local recycling point and then turn onto the main road which leads downhill to the station. The shimmering heat distorts the blue or green (have never worked out which) light emanating from the set of traffic lights down below. The cars which set off as this blue or green light flashes out are plentiful; and yet all still seems a-slumber. The innocuous set of dark blue curtains on my right as I pass down mark the entrance to the most esteemed ramen restaurant in the town; and yet only the white ラーメン painted across the double curtain flaps would even tell you what it was.
Further down and I’m walking beside the park. The hum of the cicadas is suddenly deafening and unsettling close; a few specimens as big as a sumo-wrestler’s thumb are lying dead on the pavement. In one side of the park boys in their white and navy kit are playing baseball in the customary dirt diamond; the rest is a very urban looking arrangement of some trees, grass and neat foot paths.
A young boy in a vest and shorts and a baseball cap scuttles past me towards the park entrance carrying an insect net over his shoulder, an exasperated mother pushing a buggy calling to him as he does so. The gentle motherliness of a woman’s Japanese above all else fills me with a sense of my early childhood.
There’s a Lawson just before the station and the icy cool of the aircon cuts away the heavy humidity of the outside as I step through the automatic doors. The prize is the katsusando – the bulldog lathered battered pork in the meticulously triangular crustless bread in the soft film packaging. But the additional pleasure is the beaming smile of the man behind the counter, which accompanies the “irasyaimase!” as I come in and his announcement of the amount I’ve put in the spiky rubber dish as I pay.
And then I’m at the station, pasmo-ing my way through the default open doors. And here the dream ends; I’m back to the English, the stress, the cold of reality.