Atami is a weird place.
A couple of hours south of Tokyo, on the tip of the east coast of Shizuoka prefecture, the town was once, in its heyday, from the post-war economic boom to the post-Bubble burst, a fashionable seaside hot-spring resort where you went for your honeymoon (Atami literally means ‘hot sea’ due to its position above a volcanic caldera ): flashy bar spot, naughty weekend get-away (with strip joints, karaoke bars and even a sex museum). It was once, a long time ago I would imagine, known affectionately as the ‘Miami of the Orient’.
And if you narrow your eyes, and look at the palm trees, the promenade, the sun, you can still, almost, visualize the thick, pomaded quiffs; the sunglasses, the eighties kids and their slicked back hair; their pastel jeans and their swaggering convertibles driving round the town as the music rang out, replete with laughing, Japanese chicks and trailing cigarettes – even if it is now, like many such anachronistic seaside towns wherever you go, deserted, comparatively: a ghost town.
Strolling gently through the rain on Saturday afternoon, we had the town centre practically to ourselves. Two years since we last came, the moribund sense of decline was quite apparent, more so even than our last visit. Shuttered up buildings, shops and cafés mainly closed, yet still a partially elegant decaying shell of its former glory, quite eerily so, in fact, despite the resonance of its mood, its lingering, ice cream parlour appeal.
Wandering aimlessly, coming across a sign for a place which anywhere else would have probably been a gallery, an art space, a residential complex – Marugen 61, we were drawn to enter, as we love to explore new places, but to our creeped out fascination it turned out to be in fact a deserted apartment-block full of bird-shit encrusted stairwells, pools of dark and dank collected water, and a menacing and murkful atmosphere that could quite easily have been the setting for a Japanese horror film. Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water came immediately to mind, especially when it then transpired that the lights were on and that the lifts were still functioning: the hairs stood up on my neck as Duncan got in and I could imagine the ghost child invisibly lurking malevolently in the corner. Foolishly (who knew how safe the place was?) we ascended up to the roof to take pictures, testing our vertigo and our nerves – there was a strong wind blowing, and old barbed wire and decomposing fishing nets, garbage, twisted pieces of metal and the uncanny realization, when you looked down below at all those empty apartments, that yes, there were some people living there….
Scores of evacuated, dark and empty apartments, but then, suddenly, some plants, or letters stuffed untidly in a mailbox. The dilapidation, the unease, the slow, dripping water, the filth of the bird mess that made the stairs unusable…the atmosphere of Marugen 61 had a fascinated grip on my conscience and my senses, but I was glad when we were out of there, and again back on the familiar streets.
In the comfortable confines of a delicious Chinese restaurant that evening near the seafront, when the fantastically retro neon signage comes on and the trickle of people in yukata (soft summer kimono, worn for comfort after a soak in the town’s famous sulphurous waters) were traipsing happily about the streets in groups and couples, the town seemed to have come, slightly, back to life: but at Marugen 61, which we could see clearly from our second floor table window, there were just three lights on – a vast, cavernous, hollowed out warren, with, unsurprisingly to put it mildly, ‘some of the lowest rents in town’, or so the husky old waitress told us.
This weekend is the fourth time that we have been to Atami. a place I could never for a moment contemplate living in, but which has some kind of compelling fascination for us both. My school has an apartment here in a swanky bay view complex (even if it is the worst one there), a place called Atami Plaza, complete with its own communal hot spring which we both love to soak in, and as teachers can stay there for just 1000 yen a night (ten dollars or so), this makes for a very inexpensive weekend break once in a while. Apparently, back in the day -the 1970’s, when my company – a chain of cram schools – was started, groups of teachers would come and stay, drinking and smoking and bonding over boardgames, or else bring their kids for a quick getaway or cheap family holiday. There’s a swimming pool outside and the view over the bay is quite fantastic, gorgeous on a hot, sunny day, although I get the impression that hardly anyone uses it anymore except me. The miserable looking woman who sits on reception, who I refer to as Madame Grey Face, looks quite unglad to see us every time we turn up there – most of the residents are moneyed retirees by the look of their cars, and there are certainly no other foreigners around. Yet while the flat may be in need of a facelift and some more current decor, that is also part of its simple, unpretentious appeal: a place to just chill and read, or wander about the town centre taking pictures, as we usually do: something of a hideout.
The place also has a lot of emotional resonance for me, as it is where D and I ‘escaped’ to after the hideous maelstrom of the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011, when our friends and family were screaming at us to leave the country because of the impending doom of Fukushima and the nuclear fallout (see my piece on the earthquake and its aftermath to get the fuller picture of that horrible time in Japan). When we eventually made the decision to strike a compromise rather than leave the country, like the multitudes of foreigners who were fleeing towards Narita airport, we decided instead that would go south, to Nagoya and Osaka, with a stop on the way at Atami Plaza to just get our breath back and reflect on the unprocessed horrors that had just occurred, as well as worrying much less about the safety of the air that we were breathing and the hysterical fear-inducing daily radiation reports. In fact, it was in Atami that I broke down and wept for all the people that had died and finally expressed all the pent-upt sorrow and stress that had built up to the point where it threatened to overwhelm our sanity. I am not really usually one to cry, but somehow, the fact of having opened those floodgates there in Atami has bonded me quite deeply to the run-down little place (the ‘sulphurous dump’ as Duncan calls it), as though the streets, which we wandered about in like ghosts in those shellshocked days, when we weren’t huddled up in the apartment under blankets, with the electrical blackouts and hours of no heating being possible as the country tried to save on electricity following the switching off of all the nuclear power generators (god that was a strange time…) Watching films or just sitting there in silence, thinking about what had just happened and trying to rehydrate ourselves mentally, spiritually, physically.
The following year, our close friend Nina came to stay, also with a strong attraction to the town, and a strange coincidence: a Henry Moore sculpture (one of three) that Nina had been working with in an performance art piece was one of the main attractions at the ‘Museum Of Art,’ or MOA, and she had independently been yearning to see how it was and how it felt, placed as it was in a magnificent position atop the bayside. We all had a fantastic day of hilarity and fun there, but also, spookiliy, uncovered another, quite sinister side to Atami that we were needless to say quite compelled by. The Museum, the most ridiculously overblown place you have never been to – an overstaffed, white Elephant of monstrous proportion: an almost Stalinesque monolith that hovers over the town from on high, with escalators that reach up in celestial coloured lights and Spielbergian effects – the most colossally exaggerated prelude imaginable, yet once you finally get to the entrance, which can feel like eternity, as though you were trapped in a bad sci-fi movie, you find a rather paltry collection of art light years away from the futuristic overblow of the entrance: a lot of ceramics (and I was never one for staring at painted pots), some so-so Japanese paintings, one Rembrandt and an uninvolving minor Monet, and you can whizz through the whole thing in about ten minutes, wondering what the hell just happened and certainly discinclined to bother with the gift shop.
But the MOA is not, actually, just an art gallery. It is in fact just a front for a peculiar and insidious religious cult, the Mahikari, who run the entire enterprise and who have a huge devotional hall adjacent to the ‘museum’. Like some North Korean brainwashing facility, the building has lots of Orwellian sounding rooms and spaces and we were not allowed to enter, although all three of us could not resist just milling about and peeking through the glass into the rooms of worship, thrilling to the creepiness like kids in a haunted house, laughing and making jokes, but also genuinely unnerved by it all. Later, when we researched it all further, back at the flat, the coercion, the mantra of ‘the hand that reaches out’, the donations that the cult members are forced to give the institution, the ‘divine pendant’ that they have to pay for and protect with their life if necessary and never open on pain of spiritual death; the anti-intuitive Japanese/Jewish connections – according to the leader, Yoshikazu Okada, Moses was in fact Japanese (and so is Allah, come to think of it) (and we had noticed the presence of Orthodox couples in the Green Tea room, earlier, not a common sight in Japan, and wondered what the significance might be), but all religious cults are anathema to me ( although I can certainly understand a person questioning the meaning of life as I do it all the time myself, I can still never relate to the idea that someone could treat another person’s words as gospel or the living truth, because, well, how can you know?), and on this occasion, this weekend, neither D nor I had the slightest inclination to revisit any of it. Let them keep their MOA and their rituals. The memories, hilarious as they are, feel somehow quite sufficient.
On this occasion, we both suddenly felt the urge to go back to Atami independently, perhaps because it’s the beginning of summer, or because this was about the time that we went there with Nina I don’t know, but it seemed the right time to be getting away for a weekend, and so I booked the room with the school secretary; we slung some stuff in some bags, and off we went. On Saturday morning in the brooding clouds and drizzle, meandering about, trying to locate a brilliant antique shop on the road that leads down to the seafront, where I had, on the first or second visit, bought a beautiful, boxed bottle of vintage Bal A Versailles parfum and I was lusting after another bargain (when I know that these places exist, these old, dusty shops that are selling vintage perfume masterpieces unawares, I am always game for another visit) but it seemed, unfortunately, to have closed down. Most of the businesses, aside restaurants and hotels, seemed aimed at retirees – lacey old clothes shops for bent-over biddies; bric-a-brac, fishy Japanese snacks, and tacky seaside souvenirs; but we enjoyed just having a look at it all, and just zoning out anyway (both of us were in a total daydream on the Saturday), Duncan easing the air behind him with Penhaligons’ Sartorial, something of his signature scent now that I bought him a bottle of for his birthday, and a scent that lasts and lasts for the entire day and night and comes in different stages that are cleverly delayed. While the initial impression is a crisp and gentlemanly lavender, with powdery, spiced and almond-flecked undertones, the base of the perfume is very sensual: suave, suede-like, with touches of honey, woods and cacao ( I almost feel as if I have tricked him into wearing an oriental with this scent, as the sillage it gives of come evening is quite extravagantly sexual). I find it really quite magnetic, Sartorial, the tension between traditional, barbershop manliness and elegance and the more modern, metallic, Bertrand Duchaufour impertinences. It tingles the air with its complexity; it holds your attention throughout. I remember us meeting one evening after work in Ofuna and I was tired and angry with him for arriving so late when I had been standing there frustratedly doing nothing, but I found that my mood was immediately being tempered by the scent. By the same token, bad smells of any kind would only enrage me further in this situation, but Sartorial, which smells so very grey; pressed, complex, elegant, has quite a calming effect on me, with its urbane, suited deliberations. It suits Duncan perfectly.
There is a beautiful piece of music written by John Tavener – The celestial and arcane Protecting Veil, but I also think that those words can equally apply to perfume. Though we were obviously just playing it up and messing around with our Japanese Horror Story in Marugen 61, at the same time there was something genuinely disquieting about it, particularly, at the time, cimbing the ladder to the roof, where the wind was blowing quite strongly. Not enough to be overtly dangerous, but the body’s internal calibration systems were definitely on alert, and it was much colder outside than it should have been for this time of year. To be with one’s lover, and to have his smell mingled with a scent as well constructed as Sartorial, leaving tendrils of familiar comforts on the air behind you, mitigating the dark, and the unholy, illustrates its power. Velvet reminiscence; the touch of skin.
The next day, Sunday, the rain had stopped, the sun was starting to peek through the clouds in fleckered bands of blue, and by rights we should have gone out to see something new, really (the recently opened Trick Art Museum had been one possibility, a place where you could take pictures of yourself being eaten by sharks or coming out of a gorilla’s mouth, that kind of thing), but D had tons of lesson planning to do for the week’s lessons (me, I tend more to wing it), so we just lay in bed, me just dozing and reading a novel (the wonderful, hilarious and delectably stimulating Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins – this man, whose command of language leaves virtually everyone else I have read in the dust and makes me just want to constantly scribble down quotations, is fast becoming one of my very favourite authors. Strangely, I have only recently discovered him, but the bawdy and beautifully philosophical way he tells a tale – I had just finished reading the incredible Still Life With Woodpecker, which I bought for 100 yen from a bookstore in Yokohama (best 100 yen ever spent), and been dazzled and totally bowled over by it – is gloriously life-affirming and lip-smacking food for thought).
If we were going to be staying in all day, though, or for most of it, then I at least wanted for us to test out some scents (unscented apartment; bland and neutral space – ideal), so D was my guinea pig for a couple of things that I had wanted to try but could not face putting actually on my own skin. Bay Rum by Olympic Orchids, kindly sent to me in one of the fantastic perfumed packages I have received over the last year, sounded promising enough: I loved the idea of this as I love bay leaves themselves – we have a laurel tree out front and I often just pick the leaves, fresh to use, in cooking. I have also tried steeping the leaves with ginger, cinnamon and honey as a sore throat remedy ( it was really effective, actually), and the perfume was somewhat akin to that hot, sweet beverage; a boozy, cinnamon and cloved opening – warm, effusive – one spray on the bank of the hand filled up the entire tatami room that we were lying about in, and it was quite nice initially, particularly the Jamaican bay-infused top notes, though the presence of a certain kind of synthetic sandalwood (javanol: a note I despise more than I can even express…. Duncan calls it ‘scandal-wood’) made it immediately a no-go scent for us both. Despite the pleasingly mellow drama that this scent evinces, ultimately it was a touch too splayed out and woozy to achieve the medicinal tautness I was ultimately hankering for. Not for us, then, though I can imagine the scent smelling good on the right person, possibly female.
To compare and contrast, doused on the other arm was also Spice And Wood by Creed, from their horribly and shamefully expensive Royales Exclusives range ($675 a pop…..) While Vanille Sublime, from the same ludicrous rip-off line is almost as divine as its name would suggest – an airy, angelic vanilla that I would love to have in my possession if I were for some reason inexplicably indundated with cash, Spice And Wood is just too generically after-shave -ish to possibly get excited about (despite the ‘essence of sun-drenched lemons and aromatic apples from Italy’; ‘desert peppers, a hint of white birch’, ‘Egyptian iris and pungent cedar, and finest musk for depth’). Though its sweet, familiar, woody warmth is very pleasant and rather dashing in a well-kempt, patrician kind of way, this masculine refinement (although it is not in fact actually all that refined), ultimately seems to me to be about money and hierarchy, purely for money and hierarchy’s sake.
Another stroll about town (where we also, at the convenience store, had our ultra expensive premium tickets issued for the upcoming Lady Gaga Art Rave Ball – I was staring at them afterwards, over lunch at a curious jazz bar/curry eatery that had apparently been patronized by Prime Minister Abe, like Charlie and the Golden Chocolate ticket: it is surely going to be the best Thursday night in August, ever); a nap, and another dip in the hot spring later, we headed out for the final meal of the weekend (a really excellent yakitori, or grilled chicken, place – fresh, tasty and healthy – I would comeback to Atami just for the food, seriously), and to go back to a gloriously outmoded rubber bullet ‘shooting range’ where Duncan had won a ceramic Bambi figure the night before, but where the batteries on my phone had died and I frustratingly couldn’t take any pictures (that place was photo heaven ….the greens and turquoises of a Wong Kar Wai movie like Days Of Being Wild) but sadly, although the proprietor had told me they would be open until ten, probably due to the the fact that there was no one around to participate, it, also, was closed.
This time around D was sporting SS Annunziata’s Arabico, a much more successful match I must say. These are the people who make my beloved Vaniglia Del Madagascar, and the marvellous Patchouli Indonesiano, so I seem almost predisposed to be drawn to their wares – rich, liquorous scents, made to just smell good, with no themes, gimmicks, lies, or trickery, and Arabico, with its delightfully potent black pepper note fused intuitively and expertly with frankincense, cedar and patchouli is another such scent, with depth, intrigue and character, again with that ‘greyness’ that I use in this case in a positive connotation, and that typifies such scents as Hermès Poivre Samarcande and Eucris, but also the masculine crispness of Grigioperla and the like, an Italianate manly number that I was always drawn to with its suave, fougerèd freshness. Arabico belongs to this group of scents and is certainly not original as an idea, but the way it hung about Duncan in the evening air as we zigzagged slowly through the strange old streets was really quite alluring, inviting. Later on, after he had gone to bed and I had a glass of wine by myself on the balcony (here is the view from the bottom of my glass)
when I came into the bedroom again I realized that the name of the scent was not as erroneous as I had initially thought ( I don’t necessarily associate a strong black pepper note with the oudh and amber heavy perfumery of Arab cultures), but the base of this scent – heavy, musky, virile – had the heft and bodiliness that we do often associate with such proud scents. This one is definitely a winner, and one I can definitely imagine him getting a full bottle of.
So. Atami. I was glad to be leaving this morning ( I always am), having had my fill of rusting kitsch, ageing gangsters, swathes of snacks and eyed-drying fish on racks and abandoned arcades, and I was happy to be bound for a bit of modernity in the form of Tokyo, where I am now writing this, on the monstrously crowded rush hour train. I could not, as I said, ever entertain the idea of living somewhere as decrepit and era-bound as Atami, where the sense that time is running out becomes more tactile, to be honest, each time we visit, and the streets seem just that little bit more grubby, as though the town itself didn’t really have enough money anymore to maintain its own upkeep.
And yet, there is something – a thickness of atmosphere, the small geysers of steam that rise from the drains in the road like a John Carpenter movie (The Fog…..yes, you can imagine it happening, perfectly in Atami, see it rolling in from the shore…..); I could see it in my mind’s eye, defiantly, as we walked along towards the town centre on Sunday night for the last time – a place that has certainly retained its dishevelled authenticity, if not its population (if it’s like that on a Saturday afternoon in June, what must it be like on a cold Tuesday night in January or February?)
It’s part of our shared history, now, though. Mine. Duncan’s. Nina’s. An eccentric, lurid, post-war curiosity that I feel some strange kind of love for. I know that we’ll be back.