It was very strange coming out of hospital. This time last week exactly, I was sitting on my bed, all my things packed up, waiting for my neighbour and ‘Japanese dad’, Mr Mitomi, to come and pick D and I up in his car and take us back to Kitakamakura after two months in my swaddled, beige cocoon. It was raining quite heavily, and I felt quite afraid as I had only ever walked outside once before that moment and was terrified of slipping over and having to start all over again.
I was leaving. And just wearing casual, realworld civilian clothes – jeans instead of those big, shapeless, pyjamas, felt like a big psychological step up: the staff see you differently. You are no longer theirs.
I said goodbye to the nurses, my surgeon; said goodbye to my physio: the lift doors closed, and we went downstairs to the entrance, me and my walking stick, as I leaned on D heavily and we figured out how to pack me, and my newfangled legs, into the front of Mr Mitomi’s car.
As we drove off, I felt queasy, seeing the institution I had been in so long get smaller and move away into the distance; the straggle of electicity lines and all the shops and buildings and cars and people emerging and disappearing as we entered the city of Yokosuka and real life; the sheer velocity and level of movement after being stationary or self-powered for so long disorientating. I am not one for car sickness, but I felt a bit dizzy, lost – while at the same time unencumbered and newly liberated.
We drove along the coast of Hayama: past the Imperial summer palace, where the guards stand year round to protect the emperor and his family outside the gates, as the rain slapped the windscreen and the sea opened up into vast vistas and the hospital suddenly seemed to me like the most claustrophobic place on earth. I felt as though I could hardly even breathe just remembering it, wheareas ten minutes previously it was all that I knew. I had been scared to leave it; unwilling, even, but now as we sped away from it and it came into a different, new focus, it was like a kaleidoscopic vision, a reversed telescope of myopic constriction in which I realized the full extent of my long, addled confinement, and the ceilings seemed miraculously tiny like a doll’s house; my room just a dot in the world in which I was stuck, but deluding myself that I was free and happy, when really I was just dealing with the day to day and suppressing all anxieties as much as I humanly could while in the very necessary, and lengthy process of healing.
Meandering along the coastline to Zushi, and then to Kamakura, former ancient capital and Zen centre of Japan, I was unexpectedly dazzled anew by its beauty, even though I have lived here for twenty years. When you have only had visual banality, and pastel pinks and creams, and sense-nulling hospital realities for so long, to see classical Japanese temples and traditional buildings, the boulevard of cherry trees in the rain; the umbrellas, the black, shining lacquer, the wood, the sheer refinement of it, I felt, almost, as if I were seeing it all for the first time.
The road up to Kita-Kamakura, the quieter, lusher, less tourist-infested area at the top of a mountain valley where we actually live, was joyously familiar to me but also so lush, green, dazzling – so wet and verdant and beautiful I felt almost alienated by it. The species of azalea that was flowering in one of the temples, a deep, dark venemous pink, looked so salacious and drenched with colour against the verdant backdrop as we drove past it looked like paradise.
When we got to our street I felt overwhelmed. It was difficult getting out of the car, and it was extremely hard getting up the steps and into the house. It was as if I had lost all the abilities I had developed in the hospital and were bungling each movement, stolidly stuck and hobbled and devoid of free movement (they had warned me about this: everyone finds it extremely challenging the first week back apparently; your body is completely unadjusted, and going from the space of the walking circuit and the physio room, having the freedom of the wheelchair to vent your frustrations and roam virtually inch of the hospital and the gardens as I did, to suddenly being reduced to a more cramped and unergonomic space – and our house is full to pieces with objets and curiosities and old Japanese furniture that get in your way, was perplexing to the joints and mental wiring and I practically had to be hoisted into the house and onto the new rental bed into the kitchen; the place I must stay and sleep and live for the next few months until my legs can make it up the stairs. My world has been reduced.
At first, on that first day, last Saturday, despite my great relief on the one hand that I was out, away from the clutches of the nurses and the food and the slowly exhausting hubbub of the ward, at the same time I almost felt panicked at being so closed in. In just one room. I was depressed at my knee situation, really tired, and as I lay on the bed, with the cold grey outside, I found myself actually missing the hospital. Confused. I didn’t know what I was feeling, and just wanted to sleep to block it all out.
From one perspective, it was quite interesting – I had some brief insight into how incarcerated, institutionalised inmates might feel leaving prison, a conflicting maelstrom of claustro and agoraphobia and not knowing where you belong or should be, but I didn’t like the sense of feeling so out of control, no longer the owner of my life. I just lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling.
But a long, long, sleep can cure many things. Eleven hours of the deepest sleep – both of us sleep so much better with the other in the room – was a sturdy, solid tunnel back to the other side. I finally had dreams again. Vivid ones, a nightmare, but I slept so well and profoundly and woke up in my own home. Back. Conscious. A sunny day – much happier, delighted to have my possessions around me and my perfumes (I asked for certain bottles and vials to be brought down from upstairs: PERFUME: just so decadent and full and delightful and practically evil in its sensuality compared to the anodyne, bland restraints of the hospital, where I tried, and failed, as you know, to fully restrain myself but nevertheless, did (for me, anyway). No. The entire time I was there I was ultra-sensitive and paranoid about smell, way too worried, and now, back home, it was time for me to bask. BASK. And slowly uncoil.
Playing music loud in the kitchen I just found that I was starting to spontaneously cry from the sheer pleasure. The total release of it. From being cooped up all that time, tamped down, wanting stimulation to get through the days but also always trying to be sensitive to others; watching films with headphones on, or with the sound turned down low with English subtitles so as not to disturb the patients in the room next door; of constantly being aware, basically; of all the other people coming in and out of my room; of being the ‘weird foreigner’ who refused to have the bright fluorescent lights in his room, and brought in his own lamps, like Colette.
Smells, perfume: I have had a week of leisure and beautifully brain-dead relaxation. Which is why I haven’t written anything, and haven’t wanted to. I have just wanted to absorb. And not think. To move beyond the hospital by means outside of myself, by other people’s words and actions. To be entertained. Re-Westernized. To be a couch potato, a bed slob. Immerse myself in easy pleasures.
I promised to myself that on leaving there I would do nothing but watch TV programmes on Netflix for a week in a marathon of binge viewing (there was no internet in my room in hospital; just RuPaul’s Drag race initially, and then I would perhaps, possibly, move on to something else. Initially, I watched 28 episodes over a few days, continuously,from morning until night: toxically or intoxicatingly gay depending on your perspective: outrageous, foul-mouthed, but soulful and real at the same time. I just needed camp and humour and ridiculousness and anything to dislodge me from the prim and properness of the hospital and the internalized Japaneseness. And I have loved it, actually – it has been fantastic therapy, just doing my exercises and trying to get used to walking around the kitchen while blasting out Madonna records and trying not to dance because it could be dangerous and EATING WHAT I WANT. All the fresh fruit. And D’s cooking. Oh lord how unbelievably good that Indian takeway was the other day. Heaven. I could hardly believe how delicious it tasted.
And I have just marinated myself totally in perfume. Layer upon layer. I didn’t shower for five days. Or was it six? I just didn’t feel like it. I didn’t care. I had to retreat and recalibrate myself from the inside, and lie on my dais inhaling scent and indulging my senses. A total sloth. Instead, I washed on occasion but covered myself and the bedspace with pure vetiver essential oil – so deep and decontaminating and deodorizing that my clothes hardly smelled at all when I finally decided to face the contortions of the shower ( a kind of nightmare of moving from chair to chair downwards with D holding on to me for dear life ), a coating of oils, both my own and from nature, that blended with all the perfumes next to my bed in a wonderful, self-deluding melange, just luxuriate, spray: spray, pour, dab, stink up the house – fuck it.
The first perfume I sprayed on was Caron’s Nocturnes. It was lavish and bliss. I have discovered that, contrary to what I would have expected, I really like tropical white flowers against a backdrop of vetiver. What seems anti-intuitive – that cool, deep, dry/wet, earthy, post-monsoon mystical masculine essence of roots, juxtaposed against the febrile fecundity of the most luscious white florals, might seem like a study in opposites, but when I used to always walk up the hill- and I hope to again, despite the terribly steep incline at the top – in the rainy season I would come home at night in the muggy steam of the mountain and smell the vetiver grass hidden in the shadows (it is used in Asia to stave off floods), so dark and deep you can almost feel yourself being dragged down into the soil; and, amidst the droplets of mist and moisture, jasmine, honeysuckle, and another white flower whose name I don’t know whose smell is positively indecent it is so animalic and single-minded in desiring to be pollinated, clammy almost, too much, certainly, but overpowering in a way that is positively delirium inducing, especially after a drink or two and the dull odours of the working day.
Nocturnes is not like this, but it does have vetiver and vanilla in the base, and the stephanotis/ jasmine/ mandarin aldehyde brightness of the top was the perfect start of my delicious nose mayhem, like a colouring book finally being being filled in, a monochrome man being doused upwardly in thick, redolent notes of flowers, fruits, spices, unguents and unsuitable bases.
Trying or wearing perfumes like this would have seemed just over the edge inside, hospitalized, but here I can just do what the hell I like, my homemade patchouli incense drifting over there by the window (inexpensive camphor Japanese o-koh sticks coated in the essential oil and left to dry….love it; clouds of the most sinuous patchouli smoke tinting the room’s surfaces as I indulge and see what is next); the thick, vetiver oil on my blankets and clothes drying down into tindered, Indonesian mellowness.
I reach out for Sin Garden, Boudoir’s flanker from 2007; a scent I was unaware of previously until recently (I love the original Boudoir and consider it genius; absolute knickerbocker naughtiness perfected; exactly the right balance of cheeky beauty and filth). And Sin Garden, in my hospital bed, an old bottle, from the nozzle, smelled extremely sinful indeed, in that context, like a woman’s armpit unwashed for weeks but still untowardly erotic and feral. I think this must have been the sandalwood musk of the base that had collected, during its time of unuse, in the last spray around the mouthpiece of the flacon, but was not representative of the scent as a whole which, when sprayed and allowed to breathe, was merely – but quite enjoyably – a precursor of the later, standard vanillic fare we have come to know so well in contemporary flower bomb perfumery. Also a successor, perhaps of Rochas’ quietly torrid Tocade from the early nineties. Heliotropic and gentle in the opening fusillade, vanilla and softness in the base, I have quite enjoyed it.
If you want ‘sin’, though, and sometimes I really do, then you truly can’t get very much more licentious and wanton than Ferre by Ferre, a nineties perfume I wrote a little about in hospital and which lay there in the drawer next to my bed like a tight, frightening hand grenade, but which is so sexfully ripe and bustiered Monica Bellucci it could practically turn a gay man straight. For me, this is the real flowerbomb and utterly seductive.
Another perfume I had hidden away, but which was quite reprehensible in a repetitive, uncoloured, clinical environment, is Attar by Parfums Isabell. A quiet shocker, this one, replete and of itself and kind of perfect, if you like your smells to be naughty. I think this was probably the first ever ‘dirty’ perfume I ever bought.
Long disappeared now and probably an obscure perfume to be talking about (although it wouldn’t surprise me if some readers remember it with some nostalgia), back in 1996, before ‘niche’ really took off as a concept, this range of flower-inspired perfumes by New York florist Robert Isabell was released, and I remember coming across the full range in a now-closed department store near where I worked in Kannai, and being curiously transfixed by this perfume in particular. Back then, I don’t think I could have identified this as being an spiced, animalic rose incense – to me, it simply smelled filthy and reprobate, but compelling and rounded at the same time, something that made you blush, like a lick across the face, the base compound composed probably of labdanum and civet, but which blended beautifully with the soukness of the savoury spice and the dust-pollened flowerheads of the top.
A friend of mine was so taken with this perfume when she stayed at our house for a period of time that I ended up giving it to her as a present (it ended up getting smashed at her house back in Dorset and drenching the carpet beneath in lust), and I hadn’t seen it again, until a couple of months ago – I found it on my ‘last night out’ before all this knee surgery nonsense – for almost two decades. Coming home here and wearing beastly amounts of the perfume was thus a great memory jolt. I wore it the other day, as I lay in my unwashed squalor, in large and obscene amounts on one of my arms and was still shocked by just how sticky and rude this perfume is. It lasted all day. It is insatiable. It is the scent of a sex addict.
Reve Indien by Fragonard is probably more my own kind of skin scent for the sheets, less overblown, and so nice to return to physicality again after the self-containment of the hospital ward. This kind of sink-into-you, balsam plumbed softness is definitely my kind of bag. Though overly alcoholic at the outset, it is a powdery vanilla amber opoponax blend that soon settles down to a delicious layer of kissable goodness: an unbothered Shalimar, without the pomp and circumstance and the carefully strategized accord gradation from citrus and orris to leather. Less complex (and clever), I find this Fragonard scent to be more just a simple, sensuous liquid you can trust.
My sample of Rose de Nuit, sent to me in hospital along with a whole selection of rose and orange blossom vials in a wonderful bubble-wrapped selection pack by Tora, I have found to be more problematic. Difficult. Purposefully forfending you against liking it too much. Unbalanced. And this is odd, because although I have only smelled this perfume once before – at the Serge Lutens shop at the Palais Royal in Paris over a decade ago, where I bought Sarrassins and Cuir Mauresque (when in fact I should probably have bought Tubereuse Criminelle and Fourreau Noir – an ambered lavender perfume I still crave), I remember smelling Rose de Nuit on the counter there and thinking ah yes, leather jacket, very 80’s, very Knowing: that neon red pink rose of a certain ilk that was in vogue at that time and which Serge Lutens was obviously still hankering after (his first scent for Shiseido, Nombre Noir, was not so very far away from that style either; all those plummy damascones and maquillaged,, lipsticked poses).
But something in this is off. Either it has turned, or it is one of the ‘remakes’ that the Lutens store is passing off as the originals. I have known about this first hand for a long time, from my own purchases of the standard line (Un Bois De Vanille was criminally changed, for example), but also realized this fact keenly last summer at my brother’s house in London, where Olivia took out some treasured Miel De Bois from her vast and very enviable niche collection and I was very excited to see the honeyed weirdness that I thought had been shelved from the permanent range. However, not only were the labels on the box completely different, but the scent inside was nothing like as shocking or amazing as the boxy honeyed urine of the original – probably Lutens’ most contentious and divisive scent (the friend I was writing about who loved Isabell’s unwashed morning after kiss, Attar also loved this; alongside Etat Libre d’Orange’s Jasmin et Cigarette, these are the only scents that she likes ie. DIRTY). Some scents are supposed to be that way, though. Something has happened chez l’oncle Serge, and Rose De Nuit to me just smells like a wrong amalgam of rose molecules, some animalics, and a nasty pepper that reminds me of a very difficult meal I once had at a Thai restaurant in Yokohama. The waitress kept assuring me that westerners were unlikely to enjoy one particular item on the menu, a pepper soup of some kind, but I assured her that I LOVED pepper in large quantities and it would be fine. She was of course right: although I usually enjoy everything there is at Thai restaurants, this was inedible, as though an entire pot of black pepper had been poured into some mysterious fish broth, just unpalatable and impossible to get down. The confusion of notes in this particular sample of Rose De Nuit definitely reminds me of that meal. It just doesn’t work for me. And in any case, when it comes to retro, I am not often convinced. I prefer to wear vintage originals or else something modern; not a throwback that doesn’t quite have all the necessary ingredients to pull off the effect. Give me Jean Marc Sinan instead for an eighties animalic rose. It reads more convincingly.
There are no such problems with Rose Musc. I wasn’t even sure who this perfume was by – which is quite good when approaching a scent unbiased and openminded and applying practically the entire contents to your person, but any rate, this is a gorgeous, rich, longlasting rose and musk scent, soft and pale pink in the opening, with a carnal labdanum and ambergris base that clings to the skin lovingly and potently all day. One can imagine it being part of an all-day tryst, mingling with sweat and sex and yet still maintaining its essential composure. At times almost suggestive of an updated and modernized Ombre Rose parfum by Brosseau, with its hints of pressed face powder and warm skin,this is an appealing, if in some ways simplistic scent that makes a perfect partner to the other rose I fell in love with in hospital by Sonoma Scent Studios, Velvet Rose. The two are like night and day, but complementary.
Blossom Love, the new perfume by Amouage, is another marshmallow potion for the sensual and openly amorous, based on rose, cherry blossom and an amaretto almond/vanilla theme that I naturally immediately take to. There are few flavours or smells on earth that I am more born to like more than bitter, sweet, lovely almond, be it in the form of annin dofu, the Chinese dessert based on apricot kernels and almond paste that forms the heart of Serge Lutens’ Louve ( I also like his Rahat Loukhoum – give me Turkish delight!), or a drink of Amaretto liqueur itself (straight, on ice, or mixed with milk). I have considered getting L’Artisan’s cherrytastic Traversee du Bosphore numerous times and still might (though I am always slightly troubled by the leather/apple/tulip ‘Istanbul’ish high accord you have to get through to get to the gourmand amande I am always searching for), and am immediately in favour of anything almondy to add to my more sometime sweet-toothed repertoire.
Arab perfumery uses this sweet, baklava like combination quite often in its female-oriented fragrances, and one of my favourites is the inexpensive, (and perfectly constructed) Bakhoor Al Arais by Swiss Arabian, which I have written about before. But I also once bought an even cheaper oil roll on in the Small Heath area of Birmingham, which has a large Arab/Pakistani community and shops hidden away where you can buy all the reekingest, strong, sweet, gorgeous middle-eastern/South East Asian perfumes you could possibly want for the price of a single high street brand name disaster. These perfumes usually pack a punch, but I remember an occasion when we walked down the hill from our house to the station one summer and I was wearing this particular scent and we were both loving it. Almondy, sweet and smooth and balanced as hell. Gorgeous.
For some reason I often really suit this kind of sweet, enveloping scent (so edible and suggestive on a warm late spring/early summer evening), and if I didn’t know about the existence of such cheap alternatives and this were the first time smelling this kind of smell in the Amouage, I would probably fall in love. It has all the stated ingredients – pink flowers, tonka bean, ylang ylang, amber, in finely rendered proportion and on first application is rather appealing, although in the base there is a Montale-ish synthetic oudh musk (the ‘suede’ note? )not mentioned in the listed notes that I find a tad flat and generic. The packaging is delightful- a cherry blossom pink on the box and the bottle that match the perfume inside perfectly, but at up to eighty times less expensive, I think I will personally wait until the next time I am back home in England and find myself fancying a foray into the Other Birmingham, where the perfumes, if not ‘sinful’, exactly, are equally enticing and pleasing on the skin, and can be gathered up for your pleasure, at a tiny fraction of the price.
16. PEOPLE ARE GOOD
I really do believe this, and not just because every day I am serenaded with muzak renditions of Disney’s A Whole New World and Billy Joel’s Just The Way You Are ( alongside Richard Clayderman’s shimmering Ballade Pour Adeline at 11.30 am.)
I think I may have misguidedly given the impression that I have been locked away in some grim institution led by severe, unsmiling Japanese staff who forcefeed me fish. This is not the case, even if I feel that I have eaten enough fish to feed the five thousand. I just sometimes wish there had been those nice loaves to go with them as well.
But seriously. People are good; well meaning; kind-hearted and compassionate with the right intentions: and I am not only talking about the staff in this hospital or all the friends that have visited me or all the well-wishers on here or the support I have had from people I know from around the world, but about human beings in general. I believed it before, and I believe it even more so now.
Sometimes I meet people : care-worn adults; cynical, reticent students, who have decided that no one can be trusted and that all unknown people in their lives must be treated with suspicion: but to me this is closing yourself off from life and all kinds of possibilities. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t any malicious and twisted people around: there are. For whatever reasons- innate, circumstantial, or both, these people have turned fully towards the dark and the negative, but my instincts, very strong, are piqued immediately with such people in any case: the warning antennae know.
I really feel that mort people are basically good, even if far from perfect, innately. We human beings do of course have inherent, seemingly inbuilt vital flaws: greed, cruelty, lust for power, violence, fear of The Other; and many other unpleasant traits that essentially stem from insecurity and a terror of being left behind or failing in some way. It isn’t easy for a person to feel secure and truly happy in their own skin, hence our snobbery, one-upmanship, shallow, meaningless materialism,the pretentious vagaries of fashion, and any other aspect of the weaknesses of human culture that serve to make us feel, temporarily at least – because it never lasts – that we are ok, better, superior.
No. Human beings are very far from perfect ( which is why I have never been able to take the Garden Of Eden mythology seriously. It is just too illogical:
if these creatures, swanning about innocently in this primordial paradise had been created ‘perfect’, by the Supreme Being, to begin with : flawless, immaculate, sinless, surely they wouldn’t have ever ‘sinned’, or even been capable of it to begin with,because of their divine, harmonious, and faultless construction. To then punish them both ( for using the bodies that they had been bestowed with, that they had no hand in; for following their instincts that were presumably part of their design from the beginning ) seems ridiculous and ludicrous- sick, even – and don’t tell me it was the fault of some hissing, egg-laying tree snake.
All that guilt and misogyny and ‘honour’ , all that deeply ingrained shame and unseeing judgement and penitence, the desire to be perfect when it was always impossible from the start…God what a lot we have inherited!
But the atrocities and horrors of the world aside, going on since time immemorial but continuing even now ( do you think that the killing and hatred will ever stop?) I still feel inside myself that despite all of the unthinking insanity and deep hatred of difference – because most people are so susceptible to simplistic, button-pushing influence – I believe, ultimately, that people are essentially good. In here I have felt it very keenly.
17. I really am completely, and utterly, obsessed by smell
The entire time I have been here, every hour, minute and second of each day I am conscious of smell. Hyperconscious, really, almost problematically so. I feel that I have breathed in every atom of the hospital, from its foulness to its over familiar, quotidian hum.
At night, I wheel slowly round the ward and can’t stop myself assessing the odours emanating from the shared rooms. Inhale the air analytically, as I pass.
The patients lie there, encircled by tent curtains under bright lights: silent: but aware of each other; you can tell. Some rooms smell foetid; others merely warm with breath, but I pass each one then pass my own and try to see how bad it seems to smell, from the outside ( even if in many ways I will be immune ); my own body smell and the traces of perfumes, and the weeks that I have spent here, commingling.
Apologies for the length, the incoherence, the rambling, the ponderous bullshit ( which has turned out even worse than I imagined it would as my phone – oh thank the lord I will be able to write on a proper computer with immediate internet access: this phone has mangled up all of the spacing and pictures, and again, won’t let me correct anything properly).
Usually I wouldn’t put something up that is so shoddy. But I just need to expurgate everything tonight. I don’t want any of this lingering about me tomorrow.
This all started out as a piece about Japanese food. I spent a whole day writing about it and then deleted it all by mistake, which made me so angry I could hardly contain myself ( that was the day I had that huge problem with the flirtatious nurse and blew up in the x-ray room. In the end, by the way, we just kind of learned to live with each other and ‘made up’- though she never again really looked me in the eye……)
A few days after that, to just pleasantly while away time in other parts of the hospital, I decided to just write about some aspects of my experience here, and it somehow just turned into this sprawling mess that I didn’t quite know what to do with ( and the whole thing tapped out letter by letter on my iPhone….)
Really, of course, it needs to be massively edited and reordered. Possibly posted in small segments. With proper spacing, and everything the way I like it.
And some readers may possibly stop reading, because of today’s manic bombardment, but if that is the case then I am sorry, but so be it.
Ideally it would have turned into a proper account of my time in here, but time has caught up with me. I am leaving tomorrow. And I instinctively feel that I just have to put this up now, to leave these feelings here in the hospital, like a magnitude of combined sensations pressed into one.
From here I will be writing things differently.
Tomorrow, at 10 am, I am going home.
14. I am really quite good in a wheelchair
I am! And this is surprising. I am famous in my family, and all those who know me, for my hopelessly hamfisted clumsiness and tragic ( if often amusing for others ) lack of spatial awareness. It is taken as a given that I should never drive. It was confirmed in ‘intelligence tests’ we took at school when I was 15 or so and ranked in the country’s lowest percentile when it came to problem solving in this category ; ‘if shape A is reversed, which of the following shapes would it be?’ requested the alarming, multiple-choice question ( the page was absolutely full of them), but try as I might, in my head I simply couldn’t turn it around, in the same way that at home, I literally am incapable of working out which room is directly above or below me. An architect I certainly could never have been.
I am not sure precisely how much spatial awareness is required to drive a traditional hand powered wheelchair, but I do know from the moment I got into mine for the first time, it was like a new duck taking to the water – effortless. Where many of the wheelies move slowly, with little, unsure, grasps of the wheel, I knew intuitively how to curve, fit through narrow spaces, and come to a sudden halt. Necessary, because I have often been caught ‘speeding’ ( it’s actually really rather fun- like riding a bicycle as a kid ) and told I might crash into other patients.
In any case, from the moment I was allowed by the doctors to use one, this brilliantly designed vehicle represented energy and some freedom; I was no longer confined to my bed, could get outside and round the entirety of the hospital, and could burn through some built up frustrations.
15. I like solitude even more than I realized
Have I been lonely, seven weeks ( and counting ): the single foreigner patient, the jovial but aloof one, stuck in the only private room on the fourth floor rehabilitation wing of a dreary, out-of-the-way suburban hospital?
Not at all.
There have been moments of claustrophobia, and anguish, of course – particularly at the beginning, which as you know was a horrible kind of purgatory for me, but I always knew that I had D at the end of the line, and in those first, hideous, oppressive and overwhelming post-operative days he was like an angel, comforting, patient, and constantly there by my side.
Later, however, once I had got used to my second room, I also got used to the solitude. I have actually kind of loved it. The truth is, I find being alone infinitely preferable to small talk or fake conversation, the repressed and fixed phrases of the Japanese office, uncomfortable, overdone banter, or vacant-eyed, glib repartee. My visits, I have found quite exhausting. I wanted them, needed them, certainly, and have been extremely grateful to all the people (many ) who have taken the time to come down to this hospital in the middle of nowhere just to see me for an hour or so, but after they have gone ( I find I get overanimated and super energized during the conversations) I sink into a coma of sudden tiredness.
12. I don’t need alcohol, but I will
I haven’t been this sober since I was fifteen. Two months with no alcohol, and I haven’t missed it.
I haven’t wanted it either, just the occasional slight pang when friends have drunk beer in my room ( as it turns out, according to a long term British science research project, there is now evidence suggesting that long term beer drinking is directly linked to cartilage loss – well, now you tell me…..so all those beer-drenched dance parties were ironically destroying my knees….)
Red wine, though, my main tipple of choice for quite some time now, is apparently actually quite good for knee degeneration, which is good to know, but even so, the thought right now at this moment of any form of dizziness, queasiness, spinning, or loss of even the slightest hint of control is total anathema to me. These still unready, healing legs I feel intensely protective towards and I am not going to do anything that could endanger them. The thought of an unctuous, thick, Spanish red gliding down my throat into my newly freed, unvolptuous bloodstream feels very scary ( he says, unconvincingly..)
I can imagine falling and hitting them. Plus the physiotherapist has said it increases pain. Quite a lot.
Besides which, I am already full of drugs. If anything, I need to try and detoxify, not add to the overload. Hangovers, dehydration- bad for the joints.
Without drinking alcohol I do feel calmer. More stable. More sharp-minded, and clear-headed. Also a bit slimmer, which is an extremely welcome ( but undoubtedly shortlived, knowing me) side-effect.
But it is also boring. I could, but wouldn’t want to, go on like this indefinitely. I’d rather die younger. I love life passionately, but simultaneously, time is like an endless, white continuum that proceeds without flux ( it is in this that the deep appeal of drinking most definitely lies).
According to the staid, biblical prohibitionists, you are just supposed to continue, until the day you stop living : getting up, having your day, going to bed, getting up, all with a similar level of consciousness and awareness of life, and of death- well no thankyou: from the very first brain-altering taste of alcohol as early teenagers, neither Duncan nor I have looked back, never could and never would. It is a wonderful respite; an evasion of the vast and overriding scope into the velveteen personal; deeper, more enclosed, both more and less intense, where you can just be suspended and womb-like for a while: to prick the continuum and slide mercifully and with a gulp of relief under its belly. Laughing.
I am not of course talking here about alcoholism. That, like heroin addiction or any other pitiless craving that ends up destroying you, is destructive and cruel and affects so many peripheral people around you like a life-sucking vortex. And I have never been one to drink from morning until night nor on workdays ( except the occasional binge after work when things get stressful), even if I do have a couple of drinks on the way home – because my head categorically needs it.
I have never been interested in drugs, but wine really works for me. I need the neurological distancing, the immediate relaxation. I couldn’t keep teaching otherwise, and would get no sleep from the constant psychic overstimulation.
Weekends, well yes, we do get through a few too many wine bottles sometimes. But somehow I don’t find myself really regretting it. For me, wine, and alcohol generally is like a beneficent gift from the gods: human beings have always loved the stuff, and with extremely good reason.
13. Beauty is amplified in the confines of a hospital
A hospital is white.
White, light grey, sometimes yellow. Or pale blue. But predominantly, it is white.
Like my room.
It goes without saying that going white is tranquillizing; calming, even numbing. But as a ‘break from the world’, two months of my life sealed off, or at least very distanced, from what goes outside, beyond room 402 and the hospital, it has been ideal.
An environment devoid of colour is definitely not my preference. I can see the appeal of minimalism ( for other people ) : a way to escape from the clatter and and chaos, to retreat to a void. A cool void: deliberate.
That is not me, though, because my senses require stimulation for me to be properly happy: visual, auditory, olfactory, I crave it all constantly and greedily, but at the same time it has been interesting, for a while at least, to have been placed in this temporary mode of ‘sensory deprivation.’
Gradually, the peacefulness of the white has dimmed the sharper edges of each day, and they have morphed imperceptibly into one another, like imaginary snowdrifts, contoured in clinical, cotton wool, so that I am no longer really aware of time, in the usual blocked way of days, weeks, and months. It all just flows together uninterrupted within The Routine.
From my window I have seen one cherry tree blossom and go green; the mountains in the background, also, heralding summer. In the garden, narcissus ( quite perfumed; I would sit nearest to it on a wooden bench, exposing my scarred legs to the sunlight and open air and drink in the scent) flowered, and then withered; tulips that have bloomed forth and then been headed; next it will be time of the peonies : round, stubborn fistheads whose bitter, hard pink unfurling I am now look forward to ( and I really want to steal for my room…just one flower would look so beautiful against the white – magnificent – but they would know, immediately, that it was me).
Perfumes rise up in my head like apparitions; fully formed in my smell memory with their accord-to-accord harmonies and alluring,magnetizing personas, and i miss them, like the ghosts and spirits of real people. Today it was Calandre or Rive Gauche: I just wished that one of the nurses could have been wearing a silvery aldehyde rose that would trail luminously around a corner.
Cinema has been incredible. The vivid, viscid, almost vibrational reds, pinks and oranges of the films of Pedro Almodovar have been a beautiful, private thrill. Talk To Her, set in a hospital, and seen, also, in a hospital, I finally understood, for the masterpiece that it is. This environment – my slowed down, analgesic reality, categorically changed my perception of it.
The Skin I Live In, his recent gender/ medical horror masterpiece, I have never been more engrossed.
Another film, and one I had been waiting with great anticipation to see, actually left Duncan and I floating as if in a dream: an effect that has actually lasted for several days. But thus is the power of art. For the receptive, it can be like a pupil dilator of the soul: quelling, and purifying.
The film in question was 2016’s ‘Cemetery Of Splendour’, by one of my very favourite directors, Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasthukul, whose ‘Tropical Malady’ I once wrote about on here in relation to D’s sickness in Laos.
I watch all kinds of films. Forget food, I am a cinephile. My brain and body need it. I was thrilled by the latest Bourne film, for example, which I watched in here by myself with the headphones on, exhilarated by the propulsive, ceaseless, heart pounding action. I saw a brilliant and unpredictable Italian drama called Hungry Hearts ; a commercial horror film- perfectly executed and with unbearable tension, recommended by one of the younger, more hip and fun nurses, that had me practically jumping out of my skin but which gave me a nerve-jolting morning energy :Don’t Breathe, amplified greatly by the bored, and deadening surroundings.
And then, finally, one of my ultimate films of all time, Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, starring Al Pacino, which I must have seen about seven or eight times now but which had never been more satisfying on every one of my levels: so tragic, so romantic, so sweeping, so exciting, that at the end, and before, actually, I was weeping tears of pure emotion and catharsis into the white, crumpled hospital sheets of my bed.
Cemetery Of Splendor is an entirely different fish. It is slow. It is mesmeric. About dreams, it puts you in one. We sat, with the curtains shut, but the wind blowing gently; a warm sun-filled evening, with apricot orange sunlight, quietly enraptured together and not talking (the slow, languorous takes and intuitive capturing of a peculiar kind of strangeness set in a Northern Thai village, where in a small local hospital – and former school – a group of soldiers are lying comatose with sleeping sickness, but looked after by volunteers :one of whom, an older woman, begins to fall in love with a member of this regiment who wakes up at intervals and begins to talk.
The film is at once an example of social, but also magic, realism, as a psychic reveals that the original site was once a royal palace, and place of battle, and that kings from a thousand years ago are sucking down the living soldiers’ spirits, now, to continue their crusades. This keeps them anchored in deep sleep.
What is wonderful about this director’s films, aside their striking originality and visual beauty, is their restorative, contemplative sense of healing. I am not the most political of people, but most of the TV and cinema fare we are exposed to, in general, is violent, aggressive, or full of dramatic sentiment that nevertheless, once you have finished watching it, just dissipates rapidly from your mind.
This is entirely different. Reality became fused with the film. If you look at the picture that Duncan took above, unknowingly, the soldier in the hospital is wearing almost identical pyjamas to mine. There were several other coincidences, also, and I started to feel that I were entering another portal.
Strangely, the second picture you can see above, of nurses, actually isn’t. They are actresses. Just before Duncan had arrived with the projector, a TV crew had appeared at the hospital ( the Japanese love their medical melodramas ), and it was pleasingly disorientating for me for a while, as I watched the filming, to see people dressed up as doctors and nurses without actually being so.
The film, so multilayered, oneiric and strange, unifying, touching, left us both in a mellowed out trance for several days ; altered, like genuine magic.
9. You don’t know anything
We all construct internal narratives about people and imagine we are clever enough to imagine their back stories; we take visual and ‘psychological’ clues from our own subjective perceptions and think we can understand who other people ‘are’ (at least I do).
But you can’t, not really.
Take the nurses: one, perhaps my favourite, is this sweet, gentle, quite big young woman with squinty laughing eyes, modest and shy ( but not grovelling or pathetic, which I absolutely cannot abide ), for me quite easy to talk to as she just talks to me like a normal human being and laughs very easily.
Looking at her though and her self-deprecating – embarrassed, almost -air, in this sexist, categorizing, weight-obsessed country in which women are supposed to be like dolls, I had assumed that she, I am sorry to admit, was probably ‘unmarriageable’, likely to live with her parents for a good many years until they too became her care patients.
Today, though, as I walked gingerly around the ward on my cane, I saw her there, day off, casual clothes, new expression ( firmer; more adult; self-contained), sitting there happily with her three, very beautiful children of 4,3, and 1 -she had come with them to visit her grandmother who was in the same hospital – friendly, but more distanced, obviously; I am only her patient when she is working, and I realized, wow, I got that TOTALLY wrong – she has kids, she is married ( Japan doesn’t do unwed mothers ), I know nothing. Unmasked ( literally :the staff wear surgical masks all the time) , you come to see that what you presume about people is just that – an assumption.
10. Mitsouko is kind of magnificent
Mitsouko and I will never be proper, betrothed, bedfellows. But for some unknown reason I had been craving her presence. So when Duncan came across a sealed vintage parfum for just twelve dollars or so at a recycle shop a couple of weeks ago in Tokyo, I said I wanted it.
I know this perfume like the back of my own hand. And yet it surprises me. There is always some other facet of its forested, chypre complications to beguile you or draw you : be it the Japanese incense furls in the base, the suppressed, underflowing florals, or the dark spiced facets of the muted peach.
The most amazing aspect of this perfume though is shared by only one other perfume that I know, 1955’s Chanel Pour Monsieur, and it is one I find difficult to describe. Whether or not it is because of the downy, dulcet contrasts between the base of patchouli moss and the citrussy bergamot up top, I don’t know, but both of these perfumes alter the air around you, also allowing you to smell quite clearly the other scents you have been wearing that your nose has become immune to and you can’t tell the existence of any more; you can suddenly smell everything around you again quite clearly, like different palimpsests of scented reality.
And all this from just one dot on the skin of parfum.
11. I have never liked Japanese food
I have to qualify this ‘shocking’ statement a couple of times or more before delving into what is a far more loaded and complicated issue than it need be, but for a great deal of people in this country, Food Is Everything. It Is Life. And to denigrate this supposed holy grail of culinary civilization, is almost akin to a national insult.
For someone from England, where food is basically just food, not the entire reason for being and existing (an attitude I can’t help but personally look down on; but there are reasons for that also, which I will come to later ), it is very difficult for me to truly understand the constant, extreme obsession – and it really is an obsession – with what you put in your mouth and release from the other side of your digestive tract on a daily basis to the point where it becomes the purpose of existence. I find it bestial.
I myself think of food more as fuel, as something to enjoy – and I do really enjoy it, I am no anorexic – but not something to dominate my entire way of thinking; to be the main object of my desire, MY REASON FOR LIVING, what drives me to get up in the morning, no, never. When you talk to many people here, though, it sometimes seems that it is. As if there is nothing else. That eating in itself is the object of life, like an animal. I actually really hate it. But to try and grasp the reasons for those differences, as usual ( yawn), you have to think culturally analytically.
Firstly, I have to qualify saying I don’t love the sacred washoku by admitting that obviously, hospital food is not representative of the food you can find outside. I do realize that. It is a soft, mushier version for the toothless, and the aged, with less salt, sugar and general flavourfulness, which is why in all countries it is thought of as unpalatable, and especially by my fellow rehabilitation patients.
Despite its slight pallor though, this hospital’s food is actually well-made and of good quality, nutritionally balanced and fresh, and if I had been able to stick to solely what they have given me ( it is a calorie controlled diet to reduce the burden on my new knees) I would be a slender man indeed. The problem is, most of it I find really revolting on quite a profound level, and I just can’t stomach it, so my ‘diet’ has been ‘fortified’ by a hell of a lot of other things brought in for me by Duncan and other people, as otherwise I would have sunken into a morose, foul fishiness of despair.
Not that I think that Japan is a country of bad food. Quite the opposite is true. The level of food culture here is probably second to none in all my travelling experience, in the sense that you just don’t get bad restaurants because they would close. Japanese people will not tolerate mediocrity when it comes to what they eat; there are restaurants and eateries everywhere, everywhere; it is cheaper to eat out than cook at home, and what they serve in these establishments had better be top notch or at least pretty decent or else no one would ever go there again. Literally.
England, despite its supposedly ‘foodie’ culture, can never approach this. It is two or three times as expensive and three times less enjoyable. D and I couldn’t get a truly good meal last summer if we tried; and we did: things were only ever so-so at best, overseasoned but underflavoured ( like perfume, Japan understands the importance of top notes, middle and base; the cooking is nuanced and full but not strong with artificial flavours like the food that we had for example in America).
No, to be honest I started to avoid going out for meals when I was back home as much as possible because I essentially considered it a general waste of money ( at the same price I could have bought a new bottle of perfume instead ): chips from the fish and chip shop ( delicious, perfect, inexpensive) were ideal for me, to be honest, or else some good home cooking. You can’t beat a nice Sunday roast with your family.
And then you come back to Japan and realize that, those lovely roast beef dinners aside, everything is better. Everything. Much, significantly, better. The bread is better ( Japanese bakers often win international patissier competitions) The yoghurt is better ( but not the cheese: you can’t beat a nice block of mature English cheddar); the Italian and the Chinese are incomparably, disastrously better – it would be embarrassing to try them side by side: even the European food is better ( no, seriously, one of our very favourite restaurants is Chez Tsubame near where we live, a steakhouse/ German French place, always thronging with people – a place we love going to because the food is never less than perfect -the soups, the salads, the salmon meunière ( magnificent!), the hamburger sets, the scallop cream croquettes, it is mine and D’s ideal place to eat. Not cheap, but a proper meal with a nice bottle of wine and dessert usually comes to about 5,000 yen ( or fifty dollars) a head, and we always leave happy and completely satisfied.
And then there is Japanese food itself, far more extensive than the sushi and tempura that is known in other countries.
When I am in the mood, about once or twice a week or so, because traditional Japanese food does form a small part of my repertoire, I will go to a teishoku style restaurant like Ootoya or Yayoiken, popular places that serve rice, miso soup, salad, and the main dish of your choice, always perfectly cooked and tasty hearty fare which you choose by ticket beforehand from a vending machine.
Whether it be grilled fish, Nagoya pork cutlet, or nanban chicken; fried oysters, ginger pork hotpot or beef and green pepper stir fry, the choices are uniformly excellent, come with endlessly refillable rice and green tea, and come to a grand total of under 1000 yen. Tell me in England where you can get a satisfying meal for six pounds eighty three. For the price, the quality is absolutely amazing. And Japanese people are thrifty and economical and so such places naturally abound. You can eat cheaply, and you can eat very well.
Not that all food is cheap here, though, obviously. Traditional kaisekiryori, Japanese haute cuisine, can be extortionate. High end sushi and sashimi places in the middle of Tokyo or Kyoto will leave you bankrupt, as will any ‘kokyu’, or high class restaurants of note.
Then again, there are the ‘family restaurants’ that serve a wide range of dishes at decent prices, and for the more traditional Japanese fare like Oyakodon, or soba or udon, low cost eateries that cost between six and ten US dollars; kaitenzushi places that are far more affordable for sushi loving families, popular with millions of people, Nihonjin and foreigners alike, as the dishes of choice come round on the conveyor belt and you fill your hungry belly with raw fish.
I wouldn’t know, though, because I just don’t like it and never have done. I just vastly prefer the taste of fish when it is cooked. Japanese people are often up in arms about this : but HOW can you not like sushi?
I don’t know. I just don’t. And neither do I like sukiyaki, yakiniku, shabby shabu, gyudon, most of it in fact, heresy though this will be to the ears of a significant number Japanese, who truly believe, and quite often tell you, that this is by far the greatest cuisine on the whole of the earth and who CANNOT accept, or comprehend, that you don’t like it. They find it simply incomprehensible.
Yes, I like tempura, and some nabe and okonomiyaki, but this food is never, ever going to be my favourite, not by a long mile, and I knew that the second I arrived here. Oden, a kind of soup stew that people adore here, with all manner of simmered and broiled – and floating- food objects grimying about the broth, made me heave the first time I smelled it.
Comfort food to many Japanese, especially in winter, it is more like an unclean sewer, where things from the kitchen sink have dropped down and been boiled and turned grey and then slopped on a plate ( the hospital gave me a version of it the other day for dinner and Great Buddha it was wholly repugnant).
The fundamental problem, for me, is in the fundaments. In Chinese food it is soy, oyster sauce, and whatever it is that makes that sublime gravy they use that rocks my boat ( Chinese is probably my favourite food in the world, something Japanese people loathe hearing you say as they are arch enemies: sorry it just tastes, infinitely, INFINITELYmore enjoyable to my palate!); Indian uses fatty buttery ghee, yoghurt, herbs and spices so I am there in a jiffy before you can say chapati; Mediterranean all those tomatoes ( GOD I miss tomatoes, they are the base of all food for me and I am dying just surviving on this fermented fishy shit); give me olive oil and garlic, give me Greek, give me Turkish – now THAT is the way to cook meat, not this flabby, white-flecked, ‘melt in the mouth’ vileness of Japanese food that so sickens me (I detest the way they cook meat, it is just disgusting), oh god the horror of horumon, or offal, just the smell of it; all these watery, unearthly moingy textures that render my stomach; the raw creatures, the mildewy wetness, the smell of it….. it has got to the point, now, with some of the food that just a sniff of it and I just have to push it away ( or else have to hold my nose and just swallow ).
The problem, as I was saying, is the base. I have a very deep problem with seaweed. With the smell of it – any variety – and the taste. That marine, rank, undelicious odour. can’t help it. I grew up in England. Seaweed is what floats in the bay, what drifts onto the sea; ALGAE : what dries in the sun, popping, and decomposing with ants and those tiny tiny lite crustaceans, and though the memories of my childhood beach holidays might still be good for me, the smell, even then, did not appeal.
Japanese food is based on the broth known as dashi- a combination of boiled kelp seaweed and kazuoboshi fishflakes, that forms the basis of Japanese cuisine. I have come, over the years to be able to tolerate it. I can eat it, sometimes, but not all the time. Deep down, I don’t really like it, but I have got used to it now from living here so long.
Seaweed, a staple, and a natural and nutritious source of minerals on these islands for millennia, and what people have grown up with since childhood, finds its way into plenty of food here though, unfortunately – from the horrible black strands of the nauseating hijiki to the slimiest green, rock-clinging wakame to one kind, whose name I don’t know , with its slithery snake like strands of the most pungent, algae-like foulness that there are no words for me to describe how utterly HORRIBLE this taste is to me, hidden in rice ( which I don’t really like that much either), among fancies, coiled; chopped; emitting the odour of washed-up tentacles in the sun…… to me, it is the absolute culmination of repugnance.
Naturally, we all have our preferences. Our likes and our dislikes. Innate, I don’t know, or learned. Before coming to Japan, though, I didn’t consider myself a fussy eater. When I lived in Italy I could eat ( and in fact loved), everything. What didn’t I like as a child in England ? Liver pate, steak and kidney pie ( not that anyone really eats that any more), really putrid French cheese. I can’t really think of anything else, to be honest. I didn’t like mushrooms or broad beans, though I quite like both of those now, as an adult. But coming to Japan, wow, it was a real eye opener ( and mouth closer). I just…. couldn’t. So much of it. So slimy and offputting. Fermented. Soaked. Profoundly peculiar.
This I would have left just at that, because I don’t consider eating to be the most important thing in my life by a long shot and in any case there is so much good food available here, as I said: Japan is a cornucopia of fresh, well made things to eat and if not you can just make your own. The supermarkets and import shops are fantastic. You are not going to starve to death here, you can get practically anything that you want, so even if like me you find yourself not entirely to the indigenous offerings, you can pick and choose as you like. And if all fails, if you really insist, there are always McDonald’s, Burgerking and KFC ( yes, the people here adore their American junk food, ass well, although I happen to think that the homegrown equivalents, Mosburger and Becker’s Burger are healthier and more rewarding).
But any case, I like to think that I have enough cultural IQ and sensitivity to not go proclaiming from the rooftops, “Japanese food is foul!” “Japanese food is disgusting!” even if that may well be what deep down I actually think about at least half of it.
Because who actually gives a damn about what I think? The general consensus by everyone else is that Japanese is among the world’s very top cuisines. It is venerated, and rightly so. It is art. From the attention to detail and exquisite presentation (I am l physically embarrassed when I see pictures of ‘sushi’ from other countries, as are most Japanese I would assume) to the ‘subtlety’ of the flavours- to the freshness of the ingredients to the seasonal variety of the dishes that evolve from month to month with the changing of the weather, washoku is an ancient tradition that I do in all honesty deeply respect. It’s just such a terrible shame that it doesn’t actually taste good.
No, sorry, ignore that last line, I couldn’t resist it. But you see, there is no such thing as objective deliciousness. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, as the wisdom of that old saying goes.Try telling that to Japanese people though. And this is where my bottomless irritation comes from. This country is obsessed, obsessed, OBSESSED with their own food. And this is irrefutable.
When I lived in Rome I don’t remember people going on and on and on about their food. It all just tasted glorious and amazing and I ate it. End of story. And perhaps it was just the friends I had, or all the experiences I was living, but besides great dinner parties at friends’ apartments in the beautiful of district of Trastevere, where we had delicious home cooked food and drank wine, I simply don’t remember alimentation being the main topic of conversation. Because, quite frankly, I would have been bored to death by it if it had been.
Here, good gracious. I know that Britain and many countries worldwide have seen the rise of ‘foodie’ culture; gourmet and Michelin star fascination ( I personally have no interest in any of this: I am a total peasant when it comes to eating: liquified molecularly reconstructed abstract art foam squiggles on a plate with torturously titled concepts are just completely not my bag ( again, just give me a bottle of perfume instead !) – I am much happier with a plate of penne arrabbiata and a nice handful of freshly grated parmesan, with side salad, thankyou very much, or else some bread, some olives and some tomatoes).
I know that cookery programmes are all the rage- The Great British Bakeoff, all the celebrity chefs and all the other stomach based mumbo jumbo, and that Britain really thinks of itself as a gourmet nation now, but none of it, none of it, can compare to the daily onslaught of Japanese TV- which, thank Amaterasu, I haven’t had for about twenty years now but which I can’t on occasion avoid, is engrossed, captivated and endlessly possessed by the endless, mind-drilling quest for The Perfect Food. People watching other people eating. Celebrities travelling the country in search of untasted regional ‘delights’, entering a well known local eating establishment, as other celebrities, boxed in the right hand corner of the television screen look on with fake or real bemusement and fascination as the dish is served, as the chopsticks or spoon or fork penetrate the food’s glimmering surface, and the camera swoops down, or hones in, and the morsel quivers moistly on the implement like a pornographic money shot, and we wait, we wait with great anticipation, for what they are going to say ( even though we know full well in advance because we have seen this a million, billion times before – god, I am literally getting a headache writing this, outside in the hospital garden, because I find it so organ-achingly annoying), and we see the studio paid actor or actress moving their mouth down on the piece of local dish and we watch as they close their eyes and chew or savour it and the famous people in the TV screen corner look wide-eyed with gluttonous interest as the seconds are passing agonizingly and then, when, the eyes come alive again and the mouth opens wide, the eater will exclaim, with gut-pounding enthusiasm…. OISHII!!
Or, UMAI !!! It’s delicious !! !
And everybody claps. And I just want to shoot the screen to smithereens.
But this is fine. Just ignore me. I am just a grumpy, opinionated fuck who is stuck in a wheelchair. I am not a television person anyway. People need their entertainment, and if that entertainment for them means constantly watching other people eating, then that is great, even if for me it’s a mind-gnawing, suicidal abyss. It’s fine if people travel the country to try a particular bowl of noodles, or take overnight trains to Hokkaido to eat snow crab, or six hours by bus just to try a tiny slab of beef in their holidays, if they ever get them, and are entirely focused all the time on what they can eat, because that’s what gourmets, and true food lovers, are meant to do.
And I suppose it is fine ( even if I actually think that it isn’t ), that the first question anyone will ask you when you travel somewhere is how was the food, or that people will mainly go to Italy, or France, for that reason, and that nobody asks you about the architecture, the atmosphere, the art, the way of life, the people, the landscape, the history, no – it is always the food, and if that holds no appeal then half the people won’t even want to go there. Ever. No ‘delicious meal’ no deal. And this. appalls me.
The food, for me personally an incidental detail, was actually crap in Laos, Mexico, and the Czech Republic, but that said, it took nothing away from the beauty of Luang Prebang, the stunning Aztec pyramids, or the Gothic vampire bridges of Prague in the early morning mists, all of which thrilled me and were more memorable and important than the sopped perishables that glid down my fucking throat. I am willing to forgo my ‘favourite foods’ for a few days for these other sensory, emotional experiences ( because who gives a shit!) but many people here in Japan are doggedly not, and it is definitely valid enough a reason for them never to venture out of their comfort zone. Food. Is. Everything.
Again, different culture, different priorities: who am I to judge, etc etc, etc, but then again, with the deeply superior attitude that Japan has in its own culinary heritage towards other nations, judgement becomes an extremely relevant term.
British food, for example, is a big, national joke. It is famously horrendous, apparently, tasteless, awful – and even usually polite people here sometimes can’t restrain themselves from making snide remarks. One student of mine once did the same, a sarcastic gleam in her eye as she asked me how the food was in my country, the received wisdom being that London is good for sightseeing and afternoon tea, but you’ll be at a loss what to do for dinner. Better take the cross channel train for that from King’s Cross, and enjoy a leisurely, properly cooked meal in dear old Paris.
And I can’t really deny of course that there is me some truth to this. I remember very clearly the first time I went to France on a student exchange. When I had a pain au chocolat and a cafe au lait at a common, bog-standard Parisian bistro, I simply couldn’t believe what I was eating and drinking. So simple. But so perfect. So utterly, and totally, delectable.
That was in Paris. But even after that, when we went down to Moulins to stay with our respective families, and I was overwhelmed with homesickness ( I was only thirteen ), I was still deeply intrigued and sense-stimulated by the way that they served up a salad ( vinaigrette :delightful!); the method of cooking meat and serving it with baguette ( one of my favourite things on earth, with butter- how the hell had I been surviving on crappy white processed bread all those years?) and perfectly cooked meat in sauces I had never tasted before served with petits pois, far more interesting, and redolent. After years of plain boiled British vegetables, peas suddenly made some kind of sense.
To my young and tender Anglicized palette, much of the food that I ate on that trip was exotic and rich, the sauces and the garlic quite voluptuous, though I probably wouldn’t have known that word then. But even so, all was exciting and new, the peak being a huge Easter celebration held in the countryside where all the extended family gathered, and I tried my best to speak French with deaf old ladies in their nineties and there were kids running around all over the place and a feast; a real feast, a banquet, set for everyone there with tables and tables of beautifully turned out, time-consuming dishes, some of which I was horrified by ( a plate of cow tongues organized cruelly in an upward curling circle) but it was also the first time I tried real mayonnaise with cold hard boiled eggs and an asparagus salad – utter heaven, in fact – and for the life changing piece de resistance, dessert: a pouding a la vanille with real vanilla beans, those also a first, that completely and utterly blew my mind. I remember gasping in pleasure; the texture of it, the gorgeous, vanillic creamy flavour ; like nothing I had ever had back home ( I still think that the best editions of Shalimar that I have had take me back to that day), a brain-altering experience that, I suppose, showed up my blandly cooked home country’s food for what it was.
That is what the current Japanese stereotype of the UK is now based upon. As having no taste. As being the culinary equivalent of watching paint dry. A famous actress once scornfully proclaimed with an ironic, half-knowing smile that she ‘loved British food, it’s so easy! Just put the meat under the grill, boil the vegetables, and serve !’ much to the side-winking amusement of her knowing, Japanese television audience.
But no matter how many ‘world class’ restaurants open in London, this does, to a certain extent, still hold true. I saw an article somewhere saying that the capital was now the culinary capital of the world….. YEAH, RIGHT!
You don’t judge a city or nation’s food by the number of astronomically priced celebrity restaurants there are for the super rich, but how the quality of the food is generally, across the city. And in that case, despite my own proclivities and tastes, there is no doubt whatsoever that Tokyo immediately pulverizes London into nothing. Traditional British food, aside the pies and bakes and pastries and crumbles and raspberry trifles – ( love!) does ( does it not?) largely consist of boiling up something, chopping it up and grilling it, and then plopping it down rather haphazardly, on a plate.
I oversimplify. I can imagine enraged British foodies reading this feeling very indignant that someone who hasn’t even lived in the UK for over twenty years could make such sweeping generalizations. For whatever reason, food is a very passionate subject for large numbers of people. In all countries. After all, if I must state the very obvious, it what we ingest into our stomachs is what literally keeps us alive . I GET IT.
But in Japan, to me personally, the all consuming interest in all things related food just reaches quite gut-miring preposterous levels. Ever run out of things to talk about? Just mention food and your conversation will be swimming. When the class isn’t going too well, and you are wondering what the hell to doto make it work, just watch students’ expressions completely transform as they break into smiles and the light in their eyes becomes fiercer. Practically the very moment you mention Japanese food likes and dislikes. The very facial musculature transforms sometimes, as only THIS were the truly interesting topic of conversation. And I find it astonishing. Even now. The cultural difference.
I was mentioning the piece that you are reading now to Duncan yesterday when he came to visit me in hospital ( burdened down, bless him, with French bread, avocados and all manner of diet-busting necessities ) and we agreed that, as school and university students, food as we remember, had simply not factored remotely into our consciousness. It just did not feature.
I actually didn’t meet him until the very last week of my time at my college, but all the same, in all the time that we didn’t know each other, we were running around the same town and colleges so consumed with passions and ideas and people and the sheer beauty of it all that who the hell had time to even contemplate what you ate? It felt utterly irrelevant. I have virtually no memory of it. You either fixed yourself something in your college room kitchen or you ate in the college canteen; tasty, serviceable selections that I was perfectly satisfied with because it was never my priority or the focus of my day: call me pretentious and overly ‘cerebral’ but I always did value mind over matter.
I think this is probably a quite British thing, though. The aristocracy and rich upper classes traditionally actively disdained talking about food, as they did about money- it was considered vulgar, so perhaps, though of ‘lowlier stock’, and nothing of an aristocrat myself ( though some of the nurses apparently think that I am) some of this mindset has snobbishly, disdainfully, rubbed off onto me.
However, I have been influenced by Japan now for so long that such food unconsciousness as I might have felt once is impossible ( plus, as you get older, perhaps you start to appreciate the ‘finer things, and on top of that I have become much, much better at cooking: slapdash, haphazard, instinctual, but on the whole, tasty).
So you might say that in some ways, I have capitulated to those masses who are besotted with their guts and said, yes, yes, yes, your divinely ordained food is infinitely superior, yes yes (just shut the fuck up and don’t TALK about it anymore. Eating Japanese food is the closest we will ever get to heaven on earth.
So you can see how and why the Japanese government applied to UNESCO for the country’s washoku to be given Intangible Cultural Heritage Status, a few years ago- and succeeded: so many artisans and sushi chefs and specialists in all the wide variety of culinary styles ( most of which I don’t like, but that’s by the by) are still here perfecting and continuing traditions that go back centuries and millennia. It is for this reason that the Japanese have the right to feel proud. If they really want to. This doesn’t mean, however, that we need all the attitude, and the terse, disparaging comments about other countries’ food.
D and I, being English, do once in a while ( shock! horror! No pre-preparation in marination! No fish flakes to soil the goodness !) have what we call a simple, unfussy ‘English dinner’, ( the shame ! the simplicity !), with nary a glistening fish entrail, or raw chicken’s liver, or aqueous squid’s eye, in sight. Plain food, just a piece of grilled fish or meat and boiled vegetables, because that’s what we feel like on that particular evening and would prefer that to the squelchy; the rubbery; or still alive ; or else a nice cottage pie with vegetables and gravy – yum -just comforting foods that are tasty and uninvolved, just something to wolf down and get on with the main focus of the evening : whatever that might be.
And when we DO really want to focus on the food, to spend money on a sense-pleasing, genuinely delicious meal, then we will usually go to our favorite Nepalese restaurant in Ofuna, where everything on the menu is completely up our street (few things are more enjoyable for me than a really spicy curry), or else to the Isezakicho district of Yokohama to have authentic Thai, which I really adore, with its coconut, lime, and lemongrass tang. I love the herb chili contrasts of Thai and Vietnamese food, the amalgam of cool and hot, the complexity of the flavours. It is gorgeous. I get physical, erotic pleasure from it, it’s like perfume, and nothing in Japanese food comes even close.
And yet despite the profusion of all kinds of restaurants, because in case you hadn’t realized it yet from reading this, Japan is a FOOD country, the overt superiority complex of a place that also looks down on what it terms ‘ethic’ cuisine- which usually means Asia, as though Japanese food itself were not also ‘ethnic’ ( which is a really objectionable and thoughtless, moronic word in my view), is what ultimately infuriates me the most.
As I have already said ad nauseam throughout this interminable piece ( are you not feeling sick yet?), though I personally have a deep aversion to some of the essentials that make up Japanese food – and just writing this is bringing up taste memories of everything I have consumed in the hospital over the last seven concentrated weeks ( I don’t think I will ever feel the same way again, no really, I’m kind of traumatized), in general I would not, go around making my revulsion public. Thai or Vietnamese cuisines, though, to many people here ‘smell bad’, or ‘stink’ ( a person quite close to me doesn’t even consider them ‘food’); there are countless people who have an inexplicably morbid horror of the smell of coriander, one of the endlessly tedious food fads you get here, where everyone is raving about mangoes, or acai berries, or chia seeds ( but again I ask you, who gives a flying fuck!): you are either in the ‘can eat coriander!’ or ‘can’t eat coriander’ contingent ( yawn myself to death as I refuse to even answer, but I will tell you, because you must be FASCINATED to know……( yes I do quite like it, but not as much as Duncan does); all the endless debates who can eat spicy food and who can’t, just shoot me now this endless absorption with what you put in your mouth and then ranking it.
I am tired. As I am sure you yourselves must be having to read this. This subject exhausts me for some reason, EXHAUSTS me, because I am so bloody sick of it, but please feel free to comment and/ or psychoanalze me if you see fit and you feel the inclination, it’s just that this looking down on Asian cuisines to me really smacks of the racist imperialism of seventy years ago, an assumption that Japan has always had of superiority over other Asian countries ( even if people rarely acknowledge it openly) that just drives me to distraction. It is there, under the surface.
The darker skin, the more ‘pungent’ the food.
Heaven is a white bowl of Japanese rice, some pickles, some fish, and some miso soup – the food of the mountain gods that I personally, once I get out of this hospital, where I have had to eat it every day – am unlikely to ever, ever want to eat again.
7. I have come to love kiwis and blueberries
The fruit and the vegetables doled out here have, on the whole, been marinated, syruped, or canned. My passion for fried foods and sweet things aside, in my usual life at home with the D – where we can eat exactly what we want – god I can’t WAIT -I eat healthily, and not because I am supposed to get down my five a day like some kind of nutritional duty but because I just love, love, love, love, fresh fruit and vegetables and always have. All of it. With no exceptions. Weekend late brunches chez nous are usually compromised of a big plate of fresh, crunchy salad vegetables, cheese, bread, mayonnaise, fruit, yoghurt and coffee. Oh how I miss it.
But among the moistened, wetted vegetables and weird, soiled, fermentedness, there is, on occasion, a whole, cut green kiwi fruit: and in my happy nutritional derangement I almost exclaim in pleasure each time that there is.
Usually, these strange hairy fruits I find slightly lacking in character. Like blueberries ( Duncan’s favourite ) they are less distinctive and ‘of themselves’, say, than strawberries, oranges,or pineapple (not only my favourite fruit of all, but possibly my favourite food in the world).
It’s all about context though. Compared to the dull, gerontophile slop served from the kitchen that I have been eating every mealtime for fifty five days in a row, the kiwi – a rare moment of respite, so tart, so vitaminized and green; the blueberries frequently brought in by Duncan: so small and economical and packed with purple goodness; along with the cut, fresh pineapple and dekopon oranges (heaven!) all just remind me that simple, and natural – not boiled and souped and mutated by cooks in transparent latex finger gloves toiling away in the underground kitchens – is the best.
8. The heart, both physically and emotionally, can be controlled
My family has a tendency towards high blood pressure. As do I. But I have always felt that the blood pressure reader itself raises the level of my pulse, because the constricting sensation and that taut, pulsing vein contraction as the pneumatic sleeve puffs up and presses down pinchingly, and painfully, on your pulsating blood vessels is unacceptable. I HATE it. It makes me panic. I find injections easier.
Thus, though not disputing that my furious, aortic pushings might be elevated, -particularly with all the coffee that I drink, because I love it – I have often wondered if it might not be the case that anxiety, and hatred of that evil pressing armband, might be at least part of the reason for my unhealthy readings.
One morning, I decided to consciously try to relax. Breathe more slowly. Make my heartbeat slower ( I was also enjoying the conversation with one of the nurses so that took my mind of things, a little.)And lo and behold, my heart wasn’t palpitating, I was hardly aware of it, and my blood pressure rate was close to normal- and quite healthy.
This might not seem especially miraculous to you – it might seem obvious, in fact,but it got me thinking about the fact that although sometimes we can’t get a grip on ourselves, and can, in moments of panic, just let our heart beat faster and faster until it feels as though it were going to burst, in fact, you literally can, through conscious effort, slow, it, down. I could FEEL it slowing. And it WAS slowing. I could see and hear it on the heart meter.
And this must be what the yogis in the Indian mountains do, where they exist for weeks at a time without food or water. Or winter crocodiles, who can bury themselves deep under the sands in the desert and hibernate, slowing their heart rates to just a handful of beats per minute, and sleep throughout those nocturnal months, slowed to a whisper, their heavy bodies still, and silent.
It is often said that you can’t control who you fall in love with. And it is true. Unless your wellbeing or dignity or something precious is actually threatened, when it’s then time to most definitely ‘get a grip’ and become rational.
While sexually, in terms of sheer, raw attractiveness – just physicality, I have extremely wide ranging appreciations across age groups, types, and nationalities, it is extremely rare for me in my lifetime, in the past, and especially now, to develop a real, proper, crush on another person; almost impossible, even. I am incredibly picky. About everything. And smell especially. I am put off extremely quickly. I am the opposite of an orgiast.
When this has happened ( in the last twenty five years or so, less than a handful of times), I have never acted on it. There were possibilities, but I resisted.
Firstly, I am not going to jeopardize what I have. I am fully aware of how lucky I am to have found a person who complements me in this way. I don’t think I would ever find it again.
Secondly, I have always been able to see the slight infatuation for just what it is – a ‘crush’ ( such a good word I think, even if it might seem a bit age-inappropriate when referring to myself): that rejuvenating, almost chest-tightening feeling of being almost subjugated by your feelings for this new person, when it hits you out of the blue – exciting, yes ( it certainly helped with my healing process, as a kind of happy, human diversion, and something to look forward to each day).
But I hate the feeling of the losing, the loosening of control. There can be a pathetic desperation to it: when you hear yourself talk the way you talk, and the way you look into each other’s eyes, particularly when it is with a person, whose orientation you do not know because you would never ask, and who is a Gemini, so is impossible to see through anyway, and who is precisely half your age.
These ridiculous, if pleasureable, hallucinations just had to be stopped in their tracks. And so they were.
In my defense, a traumatic surgery, a long confinement; anxiety, and pain, will sometimes do things to a man when he is vulnerable, and if the person who is responsible for putting you on the road to recovery each day is not only very capable, intuitive, professional, supportive and kind, but also very gentle ( the one linking factor in all of my relationships or temporary fixations- I have enough aggression and volatility for two, and will only fall for goodness ); has eyes that draw you in deeply like a deer drinking at a forest pool; smells lovely to boot, as he is manipulating your body into wellness each afternoon – then you know that you have a recipe for trouble.
Fortunately, as my feelings began to go beyond my comfort threshold, taking up rather too much a part of my mental processes, my sterner, more rational self took over.
This will not do, it said.
And so, after one triumphant breakthrough or another – even the smallest improvements feel like exuberant milestones when you haven’t been able to move, and a walk together around the hospital garden on a beautiful spring day, well, that was the final goal of the therapy, and the ticket out of here.
Afterwards, he led me back to my room, as usual, and in gratitude I spontaneously decided to hug him,
And then I realized : suddenly, that it was all in my head ( though it did to me feel mutual, and I think possibly was); but still a traitorous diversion, a way to pass the time; innocent as courtly love, and with no transgressions, but also almost undignified, impossible: unseemly.