The longer I live in Japan, the more I realize how culturally unnatural it is for Japanese people to wear scent. Strong, western perfume is inherently incompatible in a place where people live in such close proximity and value social harmony. It has its time, and its place, but will never be the norm. Such perfume here feels too exhibitionist, indulgent – even selfish. I have known this factually for a long time, but now I feel it intuitively. I sense what perfumes will be appreciated, allowed – condoned. As a decadent and opulent perfume addict myself, I will admit this has sometimes placed certain restrictions on my scented possibilities; the flaunting of my invisible wardrobe when at work or in public spaces. I am aware that my own clouds of perfume have been quite frowned upon. Detested, even. Yet rather than bemoan the lack of perfume appreciation among the majority of the populace, at times, despite myself, I have almost even come to admire it.
Perhaps this is partly because much of the rest of the world at present is so noisy, vulgar, and in your face (I know that it is not necessary at all for me to elaborate). Perhaps it is also because despite my occasional frustrations at the stress and strain of rush-hour living and the held-back intricacies, the social hypersensitivities of Tokyo, it cannot be denied that the converse side to it all is a calm, tranquil order and flow to daily life here – a sense of gliding through the neon gleam, unharried – that is beautiful.
In this more sensitive and socially aware context, strong, over sugared, or overtly ‘glamorous’ western perfumes can feel antithetical. Anti-intuitive. Tasteless and heavy, like elephants in a china shop. Yet despite this, the pleasure of smell being universal, Japanese have historically long used perfume, for centuries – even millennia – and have devoted an entire art form to its appreciation – ‘kodo’ : the ‘way’, or path, of incense. Perfume, as aesthetic and spiritual adornment, but transformed into a very different physical dimension. To be ‘listened to’.
When discussing the word ‘incense’ and its standard associations, it is important to differentiate between the inexpensive, rough, cheaply perfumed ‘joss sticks’ used at music festivals and the like and what I am describing here. Their scent is quite incomparable. While Japanese temples and shrines also sometimes use the more inexpensive and mass-produced incense sticks in big bundles for ritualistic use in daily ceremonies: a generic, pleasant, wood smoke smell with a touch of camphor and patchouli, not significantly different from what you might encounter at the more sandalwood-influenced Chinese temples in Malaysia or Vietnam, the incense I am referring to here – created from recipes, formulae and time-trusted aromatics – is truly a form of perfume. Rather than a liquid applied to human skin, though, one that mingles with your skin scent and evaporates, this is a perfume that is experienced from without, like the millennia-old origin of perfume culture itself; per fumum – through smoke – that surrounds; that inhabits the air around you; trails your hair, your aura, and then subtly scents your clothes (particularly the kimono, trailing the padded, embroidered silk with an embodying caress of dusky softness).
While there are many kinds of incense available in city Buddhist apothecaries and religious artefact establishments, specialising in the more ritualistic types of incense (austere, dark, even disturbing in their camphoraceous blackness and used for praying for the dead or commemorating ancestors), one type of more floral and balsamic incense that I have particularly enjoyed personally over the years – and which is available even in good bookstores, demonstrating its popularity in daily fragrancing – is the beautiful Horin series by Shoyeido, a Kyoto incense company founded in 1703 that has long produced the exquisitely soft, warm, but mesmerizing blends that can gently transform your living space, your mood, and, when you step outside – as the airborne powder lingers, quietly but perceptibly, on your coat – even your atmosphere.
Horikawa (River Path), the most expensive of the three types of incense in the collection, is a rich, spiced, ambered sandalwood blend that is almost vanillic in its sweetness, with a strong, powdered heft faintly reminiscent of the finest French oriental perfumes – yet drifting, slowly, in the air in the form of coiled, almost ravishing, smoke. It is quite glorious , as plush as Guerlain: the sandalwood – or byakudan in Japanese – not recognizably sandalwood in its more unvarnished, solar and unctuous Mysore sense, but pulverised, compressed; blended seamlessly with soothing unguents, sea shells, cinnamon, patchouli cloves, and balsams, all forming a very warming, and sensuous, salve to the soul. Horikawa is probably in fact the luxury incense that I have used the most over the years, either in stick form or coils (drifting dreamily, quietly, throughout your living space for hours….. friends that stay now often associate that scent with the memories they have of staying here); but recently I have also found myself being drawn to the other two fragrances in this particular series: Shirakawa (White River), a less forceful interpretation of the Horikawa scent structure, and the cooler, more introverted Nijo (Avenue To The Villa). Really, all are nuanced variations on one olfactory theme, with Shirakawa being a more gentle, crepuscular version of River Path, less closedly intense and erotic, but still retaining that incense’s internal, reality-averting thematics.
While I have certainly been greatly enjoying using Shirakawa, the big revelation for me recently, over these winter months, has been Nijo. In the past, when sampling the incense from the box – you can, in truth, never truly understand what the fullness of the incense will be until it has been lit and its secret interiority has been revealed, I had somehow quite wrongly dismissed this incense – the most inexpensive of the three – as being rather bland and quiet in comparison to its more soignée, courtesanish stable mates: far more subdued, masked; best saved for a distant twilight. And yet feeling more reclusive myself recently after the sometimes overwhelming political events in the world outside (I have sometimes had to simply cut myself off from the news), I impulsively found myself buying a box of the coiled incense the other day and, immediately entranced by its powdered, gossamer suggestiveness, as the delicate smoke snaked its way into my consciousness, I am becoming quietly addicted. With none of the overtly perfumed ‘thickness’ or spice (but there, intermittently, under the diffidently gentle surfaces), a more smooth, uniform scent emerges when this incense coil is lit, with a subtly floral element, possibly violet, and iris, that I find assuaging, and benevolent, to the spirit.
Looking at Shoyeido’s international website, written in both Japanese and English, I was pleased to see that this venerated old house accepts international orders (a selection of incense is also sold at the Japan Centre Food Hall and Bookshop in Piccadilly), and that there are also far more varieties of high quality incense, with various olfactive themes and ‘storylines’ created by the perfumers that I haven’t yet tried (“Translucent Path”, “Beckoning Spring”). There are little satin pouches, filled with clandestine powder, to be secreted onto your person, or to be deposited in your clothes drawer, to gloriously evocative – and sensuous – effect. I also see, to my delight, that in Kyoto, it is possible to reserve a place on tours of the factory there and watch the Shoyeido artisans assemble their wares with the natural ingredients they have used firsthand, for centuries, in their studios. This is something that I will absolutely have to do myself the next time I find myself in that ancient and unforgettable city. But failing this, even if you aren’t going to be coming to Japan any time soon, I would wholeheartedly recommend at least trying one of the three types of high quality incense that I write about here, or take the plunge with another. This is perfume of a very different, and quietly powerful kind. Redolent of worlds beyond. Of the ether. Of the untethered. And in these aggressive and turbulent times, what is needed for the spirit is perfume that is placating: beautiful: transcendent.
WHICH ONE ( S ) WOULD YOU BUY?!!
I was in Kamakura today and ventured into one of my usual haunts, Strawberry Fields (in case you are interested: Kamakura station, Enoden station exit, shopping street, it’s just a bit down there on the left) :
Today, 1000 Japanese yen = 6.86 British Sterling
11.73 Australian Dollars
11.38 Canadian Dollars
8.48 US Dollars
From the outside, you probably wouldn’t imagine that inside there is an Ali Baba’s cave of vintage perfume among the bric-a-brac. Well, that is an exaggeration perhaps, but seeing that all I have to compare this with is threadbare Mother Hubbard selections at British and American flea markets and antiques fairs (tell me more: I am very interested in the comparisons), there is no doubt that this shop, for the perfume maniac, is like a dream come true.
Before I go any further, this is not by any means the first time I have been in this shop. It does tend to yield. And Duncan will sometimes pick me up something from there on his way home from work (for my birthday he got me a gorgeous extrait of Lanvins’ My Sin, for instance). But you can go for a long time without any new additions. Today, though, she seemed to have a whole new influx of perfumes, of many different kinds, and I was in my ELEMENT.
Here she is – sorry I forgot to ask her name – with a bottle of Amouage Gold (by far the most expensive thing perfume wise), which I have considered buying (a beautiful rose sandalwood concoction) but which doesn’t quite smell right on either of us (yes, the lady does let you try the perfumes a bit, within reason): anyway, she is hoping that I will buy this set at some point, and who knows, on some hot summer’s sultry night, maybe I will.
Otherwise, things are MUCH cheaper. Some things are perhaps a bit overpriced, like this Infini
which pops up everywhere and which you can get more cheaply. On the other hand,
are exquisite prices for intact, vintage editions of such classics.
Things are presented in something of a jumble. But that is how I like it.
I’m thinking now that I should have got that beautiful Jolie Madame. In that size, and that price, that is a bargain from hell. I already have one the same, though.
And can anyone tell me about Gres Eau De Cologne? I forgot to give it a sniff.
Lilybelle, look: vintage Eau De Joy and Joy parfum!
For anyone who loves vintage Madame Rochas, there is TONS of the stuff in Japan….
….quite often very cheap as well.
Obviously, my heart leapt at a full bottle of
as I only have a couple of miniatures and this stuff is GORGEOUS. However, the colour alarmed me a bit and I felt the top notes weren’t there (for me, the beauty of La Nuit is in the contrast between the sweet, strawberry innocence of the head and the nymphomania of the base, otherwise there is no point).
Mmmmm……. Other animals available today included the much sought after
which I could never get into for some reason (please take it, it’s yours – there was another bigger parfum there as well), and
which I have quite enough of already (love that bottle though: very Antoinette – I might have to get it anyway).
Speaking of animalics, what I saw and knew I would definitely have to have today was
the DELIGHTFUL Parfum d’Hermes, (in parfum!) which I happened to be wearing upon entering the shop in any case (in edt): a kind of Marquis De Sade meets Chamade, ET QUE J’ADORE.I seriously love this stuff.
No, there was no way I was leaving without that one. I can’t quite carry it off, but on a red cashmere scarf, oh yes, baby, yes.
Also, how could I say no to this?
Never seen a boxed edition cheaply of this legend in Japan (they actually had TWO – I might have to hurry back and get the other one, in spray: on my arm tonight it smells like someone wearing Givenchy’s Insense while walking down a midnight avenue of sad and beautiful Christmas trees……..really sexy actually. I might get Duncan to wear it tomorrow when we go to the Cranach exhibition in Ueno.)
The proprietor also, as she always does, gave me a discount and let me have both for 5,000 yen (which for 34 British pounds is a SERIOUS bargain), and threw in a boxed Dolce & Gabbana miniature boxed set for the hell of it ( I happen to really like the original releases by them so was rather chuffed).
La la la.
What else was there?
Some Interdit parfum, if you’re interested
and of course some
(somewhat overpriced I thought), as was this, but then this is CAPRICCI ( SO beautiful, and it is a really big flacon)
argh I want this
(does anyone know what this is?)
Some old chestnuts
and some more recent perfumes as well.
Still, you can’t really beat the vintage thrills. There is something about the rectangular shape of this Mitsouko eau de cologne that blows my mind, but I couldn’t afford it.
I want to CLUTCH IT IN MY HAND.
(This round bottle isn’t too shabby, either.)
Anyway, there were others as well, plenty of them, that you could rummage among: miniatures, half used bottles, even sample vials stuck at the bottom of wooden boxes………..things that the average punter on the street wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow over, but which for the perfume enthusiast, are nothing short of heaven, really.
If you do come to Japan and make the day trip to Kamakura (for all the beautiful temples and the Great Buddha, the mountains and the history), aside a few Japanese trinkets, you know what souvenirs you want to be taking back home with you….
Better bring a big suitcase……..
Madonna once caused a minor kerfuffle when she was in Japan a few years back.
Asked what she loved most about the country, she, to the nationalist dismay, didn’t praise the temples, the sushi, the literature, or the sake, but rather, she gushed passionately about the toilets.
“ I love the toilets”
the perennial provocatrice exclaimed in her typically imperious manner.
“The toilets? “
the collective consternation.
Who, in reality, though, can actually blame her?
Once you have got used to these beauteously convenient contraptions, these genius works of toilet technological art, nothing else will ever do again. In fact, I would even go far to say that once you have known the most technologically advanced of Japanese restroom conveniences, you can never, ever, ever, go back.
It wasn’t always this way.
The traditional ‘ o-tearai ‘ is a nightmare.
A hole in the floor on a raised platform, it forces you to squat like an undignified primate if you get the gist of it; and if you don’t, or cannot, like myself and plenty of other grimacing non-Japanese, you are forced to perform the most obscene and mortifying contortions to do your business without sinking into flailing dehumanizing degradation; hands clawing at the walls and the toilet roll dispenser trying as you grunt and panic and try not to topple into the horror, in moments of thank-god-there-are-no- cameras-in-here, privately humiliating, shame.
Plenty of such unsuitable ‘conveniences’ do still exist across Nihon, especially in almost all of the railway stations, and they are stressful and disgusting if you are caught unawares in the middle of your day and aren’t in the mood for Cirque Du Soleil acrobatics and creative, contemporary dance interpretations. And with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics only four years to go and the inevitable coming influx of the westernised hordes, some metropolitan think tanks are now apparently ‘scrambling’ to revamp their urban water closets with the more up to date, but really quite expensive, hi-technology alternatives. The majority of the population, however, has long outgrown its traditional squat til you drop benjo, and has come to only expect the best, and the cleanest, when it comes to its sparklingly white, self-refreshing ‘Washlets’ and ‘Purelets’.
To the first time visiting gaijin, the most hi-tech editions of these beloved latrines are truly a dream of comfort, hygiene and simplicity, catering to your every need when you are on the go between assignments and find that you suddenly have to ‘powder your nose’: a veritable think tank of preconsidered needs and solutions, among futuristic, white-walled interiors.
You enter the facility.
Sensing your presence immediately, the lid of the toilet is raised, automatically, slowly, the throne pre-flushing and re-cleaning itself to assuage any doubts you might possibly have had regarding its cleanliness.
You ready yourself, eager to get on with the operation, safe in the comforting cocoon of your surroundings.
Worried about ‘sounds’? in case, someone, somewhere, might know what you are up to?
Toto has it covered. Cover Up buttons can be pressed, bird noises or sea waves to counter the primal shame, as you settle in, soothed , for the proceedings. If you are in an upscale restaurant or shopping centre, soft jazz, harp music or Chopin preludes, piped in from invisible speakers ensconced in the walls, will also accompany your shameless ablutions, as you sit, cradled in civilisation, awash in a beautiful sea of pika pika, blurred and oneiric, twittering.
Now comes the fun part (no wonder people seem to spend so long in these places!)
Swathes of velvety toilet tissue expended (oh, how it never runs out as it often does in less conscientious nations; oh the copious rolls of back up paper, that nobody steals here, miraculously as they might back home, stocked up by scrupulous cleaning ladies, soothe your future anxieties), now that you are ready, at long last, for the machine-intensive, meticulously computerised, clean-up operation.
The ultra-tech toilets in the highest of the toire manufacturing categories sometimes make distinctions between ladies and gents, providing ‘forward’ ‘back’ and swirling options for the pudenda (‘oscillating‘ and’pulsating‘, though I have not, as yet, tried either of these alluring options). You can also control not only the temperature of the toilet seat (fabulous in winter; unfortunate if someone has left it sweltering on a hot summer’s day and you feel like you are being bottom slo-cooked like a casserole), but also, for your pleasure, the jet strength as well (there is even a function called a ‘massage’).
Inevitably, first time visitors sometimes emerge from these space age toilet booths flushed, dreamy, and googly-eyed with a sometimes slightly guilty look on their faces as though they had been indulging in a spot of overextended ‘afternoon delight’. They wonder to themselves, how can going to the toilet possibly ever be this much fun?
But whether you have let the Japanese toilet robot explore your nether regions in an unorthodox manner is entirely up to you – let’s face it, no one is ever going to know – but at any rate, with the ‘powerful deodorizer’ button having been activated along with the wavy ‘blow dry’ button to tidy things up nicely, anyone who has been in one of these delightfully well considered places feels vastly more contented and squeaky clean than they certainly would have done otherwise. If there is one thing that Japan is justly renowned for, it is in its glorious attention to painstaking detail. And when it comes to the water closet, or the powder room, or the bathroom, or whichever euphemistically shrouded name you might want to give it, this country has it totally, and absolutely, down pat.
It happens every time. Every extended holiday, although I am here in Japan, physically, in other ways, I am not. I enter my own, specifically, edited version of it, where I keep it outside of me and observe its cold beauty, its out-of-reachness (a foreigner, ultimately, can never, never become part of this place; and perversely, much as I find that detestable as a concept, part of me likes that fact. I came here impulsively for no reason other than escape and a desire to discover something different, both within and without, am no Japanophile despite my deep-seated, always ambivalent addiction.) The country – gleaming, dream-like, with a level of safety unattainable anywhere else that lets you just glide through it like a fish in water, is my playground. I immerse myself in it like neon in a pool of rain. I breathe in the sacred air of Nikko, feel the history enter me; the ice green breath of the avenue of ancient trees (it was literally snow falling on cedars when we were there), the spiced, heliotrope camphor of the Rinnoji temple’s self-crafted incense.
And yet whenever I go back to work after the break, I feel that I can’t breathe. When I am free ( and I do really feel free at these times, and there is nothing more important to me in this world than that ), atmospherically, aesthetically, intellectually, Nippon fascinates me, rarely leaving me indifferent to its annihilatingly frustrating contradictions. Yet I can pick and choose, work within it. And then come back to the nest, our cinematheque, the New York Times, endless films and conversations in English, novels in the same, the far more expressed and uninhibited and selfishly me me me of western culture, in which we put ourselves first and our idiosyncracies and wants and needs and individualism, screaming to be heard over the hordes in our desire to be ‘someone’ (always my most despised aspect of American culture, that one; the separations into somebodies and nobodies, of people who have managed to ‘live the dream’ and the rest who have been fucked over by it).
In, Japan nobody is a nobody. There is a fundamental sense, here, that people should be afforded respect on some level. A cleaning lady here has a different aura to one back home, not at the bottom of the trash heap, just doing her job, and I like this. But it all comes at a cost, one I know full well and have accepted at the conceptual level, but still find utterly suffocating. Coming back to the office after a month of being off (I know, I know, hideously spoilt – why do you think I took the job in the first place? Paid holidays are like mirages here now for foreign workers in the current clime of exploitation), after spending time with Duncan’s parents and slouching into the warm, Christmas and New Year spirit, I got used to being myself, of saying what I wanted whenever I wanted (sometimes too much; my self-repression valve wore out decades ago) but that is the point: I CAN’T BEAR REPRESSION. And I have chosen to live in the most self-repressed country on earth.
And at the moment I just can’t stand it, as if my diaphragm were being pressed down by unseen forces. But in actual fact they are seen, because Japan is a country of eyes. Eyes that look, all the time, but don’t register that they are doing so: infinitesimally quick glimpses that there is a foreigner, then invisibly render them void, not there. Or in the workplace, where unlike in offices chez nous (wherever that is) there is a wall, or a divider, or a private space you can call your own, here you are constantly within the gaze of others, facing people (who often ignore you) in work spaces that are designed to be communal, cooperative, working together, no secrets (yet always secrets, because no one actually says anything they really feel), never being able to extricate yourself from your dog-worn, exhausted colleagues because you are constantly facing them. The desks are positioned that way.
But it is so exhausting for me, spiritually, even after all these years, to be positioned in such a space: my foreignness an extra barrier, my innate ‘weirdness’ yet another. When you arrive in the teachers’ room, no one ever asks how you are, how your weekend was, or anything else, because that is not the time nor the place (conversation of a more personal level can happen while you are cleaning the classrooms later on, or at work parties, under the influence of sake). You come in, utter the required aisatsu, or greeting, like a robot, and get a robot greeting in return, and then you get down to your lesson preparation with the atmosphere as heavy as a fishtank filled with mould and bitter algae, desperately trying to breathe.
It is not always like this, by any means. As the term progresses, and when spring comes, it will be different. But right now is the ‘exam hell’ season (for more on the unbelievable, slave-like conditions during this time, read my ‘Narcissus You Stink’ piece – I lack the energy to reiterate it all here), and the teachers, not having any days off for two months, or they won’t have by the time the exams are finished anyway, are understandably not exactly feeling communicative. They have to get through it. And I understand that. But it doesn’t make the daily fact of being trapped in such an environment any easier.
The classroom is an entirely different proposition altogether. There, it is my world and theirs; fantastically upbeat – this year – and positive, funny, intelligent students who I love teaching, where I can ‘perform’, if you like (and teaching is definitely a performance: every day I wake up thinking nooo like an actor before a nightly play, yet once I get going I am in my element, usually, though it always takes time for me to gradually get my spirit tamed enough to actually give a shit about what I am doing, and I am still very much in that defiant, hate this, can’t be arsed stage at present, recalcitrant, unwilling, and unable. At some point something clicks and the other more conservative and ‘proper’ side of myself kicks in and I start to get into it but oh! the lazy Sagittarian just doesn’t want to be there at all at the moment (and this piece might have to be a limited edition, come to think of it – I don’t want anyone there reading it: good jobs are much harder to find these days in Japan, especially in a place so bloody ageist (and sexist, and racist, but don’t get me started; wow, this really is a Japan-basher this one isn’t it)
This world I am working in is so colourless, so odourless; (so colorless, so odorless). The greys and beiges of the halls and the classroom, plastic walls. The ban on perfume. The drab, black, fraying suits. The surgical masks that most of the students wear to protect themselves from colds (now they really are not odourless but don’t let me go there). It all brings a chill to my soul. The pointlessness of it all. The arbitrariness of any given culture, and how the people mindlessly stick to it.
And the same thing happens every year. I begin, at first, by heeding the rules. I don’t wear perfume. I don’t wear scent. Yes, I am shampooed and fresh: yes there are lip-balms and hand creams, ah so we are already circumventing those fascistic fragrance rules aren’t we, but in essence (and I can tell from the smell of the classroom if I leave it and come back), the overall vibe is sweet and pleasant, at least I hope so; salutary and amiable, if damn boring, but then, after a couple of weeks or so something within me starts to ache, terribly, for some colour, be it visual or olfactory. I bought a new pink DVD player to use with one class, and it is quite pitiful really how much pleasure it now gives me. Against the black of the TV screen we now have some colour, for christ’s sakes, and it’s like a chink of light for a prisoner in solitary confinement. A decant spray of La Traversee du Bosphore, L’Artisan Parfumeur’s sweet, Turkish delight scent of almonds and roses, and leather and apples, has also somehow found its way into my coat pockets, this week, and the other night after work, I found myself thinking fuck it, fuck this, and spray, spray, spray, went I as I walked along the platform coming back into Kitakamakura, in my coat pockets, on my scarves, all things that can be removed once I get back to work and hung up on the malingering coat rack but which nevertheless, this week, have been wafting nonetheless (“ I smell some exotic aroma coming from you” said my right-wing, Russian literature major colleague yesterday evening, a person as averse to perfume as I am to his nationalism, whose pallor and nervous palpitations are definitely affected quite badly by this stinking queen from England but “too right, baby” thought I, and thank the heavens for it). It’s like colouring in a colouring book; reaccentuating the monochrome, the constant repression of the self that a Japanese person is forced to perform in order to fit into the society.
On Wednesday night I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Even in the classroom. And with two, lovely, sweet, unusually innocent seventeen year old students, a boy and girl, as we were doing an entrance exam reading comprehension on the spice trade, and the history of cinnamon, and cloves, and cardamon and black pepper, I asked them, as I had just bought an essential blend from Muji, Winter Spice, if they would like to smell the real thing. Yes! they said, enthusiastically, and genuinely, and so out came the tissue paper onto which I shed copious drops of the oil, the aforementioned blended with orange and benzoin, and handed it to each of them quite happily as they inhaled the smells and the classroom suddenly came to life, taking on a richness, and three dimensionality and realness that it had previously been lacking. The oils will also help to keep colds at bay I told them, they kill bacteria: and would you by any chance – I know it is our last lesson before the exams (and these exams, in this strictly hierarchial society, really do determine how the rest of their lives will pan out) – would you like me to bring in some perfumes next week? We can do it in the break time, it might be fun, I can bring a selection (in truth, when the boy was absent one time I had already starting talking about scent with Manami, and given her a perfume by Ex Idolo). YES, they said emphatically, visibly excited. And so next week, we are doing perfume. Big time. I am going to take in a whole selection, and possibly give them some, though it is totally against the rules, as well. Because they need to know that these strictures within which they find themselves, these stiff, societal pressures, are not the only way forward. Yes, I know that Japan is the master of imaginative escape and curious invention (why do you think they create such brilliant animation?), but they need to also realize the sensuality and sensuousness of existence as well; that pleasure can come in the inwardly, bodily form of scent, the sheer physicality and joy it can bring. And to learn that smell is a connector, and a language all of its own, quite apart from the cutaneous mie of Japanese society, where everything is done for appearances, and to maintain, and not fuck with, the precious wa, or societal harmony that is always the goal, and the reason, practically, for existence here and what makes the country, in many ways, so superlative. But there are limits. And sometimes you just have to let go, or attack, even, to free yourself from the asphyxiating insularity, inwardness, and monstrous obedience to all the rules and the regulations. To just burst through that membrane of cold respectability and meaningless societal approval with a spray; an inhalation; that hot, sensual shiver of appreciation that marks the pleasure of true olfactory retribution.
Tomorrow will be the second anniversary of The Great Tohoku Earthquake, a day that all Japanese, and all people living in this country, will never forget. It was a catastrophe of such destructive proportions that almost 20,000 people were destroyed and entombed in the devastating carnage that was wrought by the unprecedented tsunami that tore the north of the country apart; footage of which, unlike my family and friends back in England and elsewhere, I could never bring myself to watch because it was too horrific, too close to home.
It was a completely surreal and terrifying experience. One day we were going about our daily business, the next we were being told that we couldn’t go out in the rain in case it was radioactive because of the fallout from Fukushima: we found ourselves sealing up windows, stuck inside like some B-movie, shielding ourselves from an invisible threat; the aftershocks continuing for a very long time afterwards, constantly rattling everyone’s nerves; we had no idea what to do, whether to leave the country or stay, assailed on either side by the hysteria of the western media, family and friends; contained, on the other, by school responsibilities and the eerie reassurances of the Japanese authorities. I have never been so confused in my entire life, and was only kept afloat by phone calls to my mother who somehow managed to absorb all the information that was being given and relay it back to me in calm, objective fashion: you don’t have to flee…..yet. Wait it out. See what happens…
There we were, stuck inside the house, not sure what was going to happen, bunkered down, unsure of whether the air was safe to breathe, or whether a nuclear disaster of cataclysmic proportions was about to rain down on us if the nuclear reactors at the Daiichi plant did, as threatened, explode and destroy everything in their wake.
I was for fleeing (though what to do about the cat was a huge, boiling point of contention between us that made Duncan refuse to leave and me hysterically exasperated….)
We didn’t have to stay. We had friends in England and Australia offering to put us up, even fly us out if we didn’t have the cash immediately to hand, as hordes of foreigners panicked and rushed towards Tokyo Narita airport. There was even a message from the British Embassy saying that there was a charter plane TONIGHT which can get you to Hong Kong, and from there you can ‘get to’ Britain, as though we were part of The Great Escape. All this while the Japanese around us went about their business as usual, stoically (or brainwashed? we didn’t know), and the teachers at my school continued to go to teach. For the first time in my life I really felt totally at a loss.
Apart from my mother’s brilliant handling of the situation, the other thing that truly saved me was Facebook and the support and advice of my friends within and outside of Japan – it really was a lifeline to sanity (and yes, I realize, I realize guiltily, profoundly and completely that what we were going through was NOTHING compared to what the poor people freezing up in the north were going through, those whose families had been washed away, homeless; bereaved, in situations beyond imagining, but this only added to the weird emotional maelstrom. Even though you yourself had thought you were going to die in the earthquake, because it really did feel like the building I was in was about to fall down, as parts of the ceiling started to collapse and I clung to the wall praying that it wouldn’t): despite all of this, you knew that you were so lucky in comparison to all the others who were going through unimaginable sufferering in the affected areas that you felt you couldn’t moan or complain in any way. You had to pretend, almost, that nothing had happened.
It was a noble collectivism that the Japanese in the streets around me evinced, and it was profoundly impressive, but at the same time disturbingly coercive, especially to someone as childishly in need of self-expression as myself; I am a person who, if forced to contain strong emotions too long, feel as if I could go mad. And at that time, I really did feel as if that were a distinct possibility.
Aside my mother, then, the other thing that saved me was Facebook. Really. There were so many people giving us encouragement and advice, or just allowing us to vent with dark humour if necessary; just the very spontaneity of having that connection to the outside world at your fingertips was an outlet that allowed me to see, feel, process and interact with my friends and family and in the process try to understand what was going on and what we should do next. Flee? Stay? (We went on an eight day ‘adventure’ down south, to Atami, Nagoya and Osaka as a compromise in the end…, and it was only once I got away from the immediate confinement of the house, and the seemingly imminent dangers, that I could finally come to terms with what a dreadful calamity had happened to the country, and all those poor people and families, and, seeing the first cherry blossom trees of the season, break down properly and grieve for them.)
* * *
With the recent ‘timeline’ function on Facebook it is possible to revisit exactly what you wrote at particular times in the past, rather than those impressions immediately flying off into the ether, never to be retrieved.
I have not looked at the conversations from that time until now, but have just scrolled down to the posts from March 2011 and all is raw and vivid. I can feel it all coming back as though it had just happened . There is a lot of humour, but also unkempt, intense feelings…..
Is it emotionally pornographic of me to want to publish some of that here on The Black Narcissus today? Possibly. But I don’t really care. I find that now I have started writing about this subject I don’t have the desire or ability to stop, particularly considering the date. This time two years ago the country was functioning as normal; the next day it was to be ripped apart and come to a virtual standstill. No trains, electricity, rations in the supermarkets, the dire and very real treat of radioactive poisoning, bodies still buried under mud. It feels right, somehow, to revisit it.
March 15th: My Facebook status was:
COCKTAIL CHERRIES. Apparently the red food colouring contains large amounts of iodine, something we all need against radiation. This is a product unlikely to be swept from the shelves by the panicked..
Reading this strikes me as bizarre; I had totally forgotten about it, but I am writing, apparently seriously, about cocktail cherries, and how we could surreptiously secure ourselves supplies of iodine if it ran out (or if foreigners were somehow excluded from getting them). But we really were deeply worried about radiation, and still are to a large extent. I don’t trust the government and have no idea if the air we are still breathing or the food we are eating is in fact safe.
Another post from March 15th:
In terms of scent, Demeter’s Pina Colada is working for me right now.
Funny how perfume could work its way in there…anything simplistic, charming, stupid, was quite good at this time in the days of the aftermath…banal TV drama box sets, sweet scents, just things to relieve your mind and nerves.
The same day:
The poor people! I am sorry: I have been selfishly cocooning myself in pop irony and all, but I think me and the D are just in deep shock, like most others. It is only starting to dawn on me how much people are suffering around the country. We actually realized it was real only this Sunday morning.
When the earthquake happened, and I was evacuated from the building I was in, I had to walk home, alone, for three and half hours, along the river, just following people as I wasn’t sure what direction we were supposed to be going in. Looking back I think I was in a trance, as I remember stopping to take pictures of plum blossoms and noticing how beautiful the sky looked. And standing next to the railway lines, seeing old ladies being lifted down on emergency ladders from the carriages, but watching from below, these people huge and cinematic, the sun glinting through the pine trees as they walked slowly and warily along the tracks. By the time I got from Fujisawa to Ofuna I saw that there was a blackout there, and that there were no traffic lights; cars making sense of it all but in danger like some 80’s horror movie. I kept walking, and up the hill where I live which is always dark but which was now almost completely pitch black except for some very faint emergency earthquake lighting, and some Japanese voices droning through speakers placed somewhere that intoned advice on what to do next. I still hadn’t heard from Duncan, but for some reason, which I am ashamed to admit now, all I could think about was Hitchcock. I HAD to see The Birds.
My first reaction when it happened was to come home and watch The Birds.
Because I am, how can I put it, cold perhaps? The Birds was so right you can’t imagine. Because when I was walking home, in a daze, everything was extraordinarily beautiful. The light was obscene. And there was a row of cormorants, about twenty, perched weirdly on a telephone line across the river. I was in a strange state. The earthquake was real, but The Birds is so abstract, just fear manifest, that it was perfect.
* * *
March 13th: I had a japanese lesson yesterday in Kamakura. It was like a ghost town. And in a chichi cafe, quite empty aside me and Ms Nagai, I learned all the vocabulary. Radioactivity, leak, and three words for dead body. ‘itai’: corpse (polite nuance);’shitai’: ‘corpse’: (a bit direct) and ‘shikabane’ (which i already knew): dead body, a bit old, with fishy circumstance.
Seriously, we feel a bit seasick. is the ground still moving? this is HIDEOUS
Can’t sleep. Panicked.
Duncan is so exhausted he is zonked out: I am lying there in a froth and no sweet marjoram is going to change it
Just awoke from a dream in which I was pushing my mother from an earthquaking hotel in Paris.
When it comes to nuclear rain, i could do without the exquisite japanese ambiguity. Fuck! Another aftershock.
….as i write!
This country is prone to cover ups and anything to avoid losing face: then the bastards at the helm apologize sometime later at a news conference; a hypocrisy i DESPISE!
It’s like my internal calibration system is all wavy; an unpleasant drunkenness.
D has gone out to scope for supplies (March 14th)
We are in bunker mode!
Status: “Earthquake?” “No: two eggs.”
This is a conversational exchange D and I have just had. Our brains have turned to gelatin.
it’s like living in a Frankie Goes To Hollywood song. My piano teacher just said ‘don’t get wet in the nuclear rain!’
‘Ok!’ I cheerily replied. ‘I’ll try not to!’
Dare we emerge?
Seriously, my friends: if you have any information regarding radiation and nuclear bullshite, feel exceedingly free to share it with me. Particularly if it is reassuring (you may edit apocalyptic broadcasts accordingly).
….and I don’t watch any TV either: just snippets of internet news. Who wants to continually watch death and destruction? Just voyeuristic vultures. I feel for those people so much but feasting my eyes and soul on it for hours and hours at a time seems pointless. Masochistic.
Neil Chapman : Hanging my shirts out in the nuclear air.
bring em in you tit!
Just opening the window to get some ‘fresh air’ has suddenly taken on sinister implications. should we be sealing ourselves in a la Sylvia Plath?
And so it went on and on, trying for a bit of levity, and trying not to let too much of the horrifying information get to me. Having friends to talk things through with ( I haven’t put up much of that here as they might not want it to be made public) but in any case it kept me feeling more balanced.
There was one post, though, something I wrote on a day going back to work in Fujisawa, when my senses were simultaneously dead, yet more alive than they have ever been, which captured precisely what I was feeling. I have just found it:
Neil Chapman: Plugged In To The Matrix.
Now where shall I begin?
There is no doubt that this has been one of the most surreal and extraordinary weeks of my life,
and today I felt myself confounded and actually unable to comprehend the world around me. It is hard to explain, but I have spent the week, as you know, in this melodramatic swirl of hysteria, though I was never as close to ‘breakdown’ as I may have appeared: this is just how I choose to express myself, or rather I don’t ‘choose’ anything: it simply comes out the way it comes out. But there is no doubt that the country is traumatized, and I know I am, mildly. For a few days, though the emotional core was ultimately safe, I did find myself in unfamiliar waters of panic and shutdown (rarely do I go to bed at midday to avoid the world but on this occasion I did), and would spring from relative calm to spiralling anxiety the second I read news reports, or, ill-advisedly, looked at images of the tsunami. Believe me it is much easier to do so when you are out of the country than when it is in the place you live, just further down the coast. The devastation, on loop, just created a maelstrom in the brain you couldn’t wash away; it was buoyant under everything else even when you slept, and then this nuclear reactor thing which, obviously for us personally, it is a literal threat.
Or is it?
And this is where The Matrix comes in. The last two days have seen our parents pleading with us to leave; terrifying reports on TV, and you lovely people sending us advice or more often ordering us to leave. By Wednesday night I was whipped up into a frenzy again and was utterly incapable of even imagining going into work and thus we began the escape plan. I wrote a well-worded, but clearly boilingly concerned, e-mail to my boss saying I couldn’t work today but as you know, just as we were about to join our friends in the above adventure I called my school manager and really, the sound in his voice when I told of my radiation fears really was one of total puzzlement.
What are you talking about?
Everything is fine.
The air is fine.
Everyone is at work, your students are waiting for you, we would really prefer it if you would come in (silent pressure, like a megaphone)…..
So I finally leave the sealed up stuff-chamber we have been inhabiting; dark, unsound, all the past week’s mad feelings still floating about uninhibited in the rooms, and I dragged myself out of my clothes: shaved off the beard, and became Mr Chapman again.
Outside was blue; bright, a typical, beautiful cold Japanese spring day.
I boarded the bus, and caught the train to Fujisawa. Nowhere was anyone wearing masks, except for the usual ones for hay fever. And yes, the lights were dimmed in the stations and vending machines, and yes, people were collecting for charity, but otherwise, everything was utterly normal. Gleaming, happy reality, not an iota of the armaggedon panic of the computer and the pleas and the oodles of milliverts about to subvert our biochemistry and turn us instantly cancerous.
And i stood there, with my coffee in hand, and actually had the sensation of not being able to mentally compute the astronomical difference between my life on here with you, and all the internet reports, and all the foreigners fleeing the country in charter flights, and my dad writing DISASTER in my in-box, and the swirls of atomic clouds and dust in my mind, and the absolute NORMALCY of what I was perceiving before my very eyes.
And I experienced some form of split down the middle of my consciousness as if indeed, this were The Matrix that those in the world, the real world, the dark world, were plugged into.
Happy, bright, everyday boring life. not even a JOT of darkness in the air. (March 19th)
But it is not that simple.
What I have realized is that possibly neither of these worlds is correct. Most of you on here are seeing this hypohysteria news reports which play the greatest hits of horror over, and over, again. And I don’t doubt they are true for a minute, when hordes are streaming out of the country and losing the Japanese respect (if they had any to begin with.
But you step into work, and it’s all subverted.
There is nothing to worry about.
All the foreigners leaving are being panicked by leftist anti-propaganda: the dangers are no way near as acute as being reported:
the US navy is reporting nuclear particles out of spite…..
I have never, ever, in my life, felt so incapacitated in my ability to distinguish fact from fiction and reality from irreality, hyperbole; information from misinformation; and just stood back from my own perceptions and watched them all, fascinated.
I LITERALLY DO NOT KNOW WHAT IS REAL OR UNREAL YET KNOW I AM ABSOLUTELY SANE. THE MEDIA CONTROLS US: WE KNOW EVERYTHING: WE KNOW NOTHING.
…….two absolute, sharply cut realities: a collage of panic and drummed up horror, vs sublimated trauma and a fierce, fierce desire to get back to that shiny surface where Japan thrives best. I am defeated.
But I did my lessons, and enjoyed them. And managed, a little, to salvage the Vivian Leigh I have descended into this week. Got back a bit of respect, just about, as if I represent the foreigner in capital letters.
And then walked home up the hill, convinced I could smell it in the dark, and something metallic, and something like a sunburnt feeling on my cheeks; but then I am a hypochondriac neurotic so discount what i have just written: (don’t)
Anyway: we head south, the D and I, tomorrow; hopefully it will be fun but everything feels different once you get out of the glare of the shop windows and the urban sun: there is a watery, pale vulnerability in the air: we are shellshocked.
It really was a time when I felt that there was no link between the Japanese and The Foreigner. Never have I felt more estranged:
The Japanese create a force field around themselves; unite their egos, or dissolve them at will: it is something we in the west simply cannot do. They can make an atmosphere so powerful that everything wilts in its path. Seriously. It is both highly admirable and somewhat terrifying to me, so obviously self-centered and egocentric. I do not WANT to disappear. They can.
What I don’t understand is how much of today was forced. I can’t quite get to the bottom of that: is it sheer willpower forcing normality to the surface?
…I was talking to my friend Setsuko on my cellphone earlier, trying to get a grasp on what i was experiencing, and, I quote: “….we also pay little attention to something intangible, such as radiation.
If you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist…”
I am not sure if this is interesting for anyone out there reading this, if it all just seems far too self-indulgent, but I think the above illustrates quite well the extreme confusion that being a foreigner in Japan after such a terrible disaster entailed.
It took a long time to recover (again, I realize, of course, that relatively speaking I suffered nothing and have nothing, absolutely nothing to complain about). Yet I felt terrible, so deeply unsettled.
Even today I could have sworn there was an aftershock as I sat outside in the sun. And then maybe again this evening….just a weird feeling that you never know is real or not. The ground has not felt the same since…all those idioms…..’he is very grounded’…’she has her feet on the ground’…. have suddenly stopped making sense.
And I know that it was nothing compared to up north but the shock of that quake at the gym brought tears to my eyes and left me very shaken (like everyone else: people were screaming in other rooms as I clung to the walls…). and then no phones working…and the immediate huge aftershock…and then that walk home…tomorrow I go back to work: maybe that is a good thing.
Just seeing footage of the tsunamis, the little I did see, left me with nightmares for the last few weeks, as well as endless ones about radiation and losing Duncan. I cannot begin to imagine the psychological damage of those actually devastated by those waves…God.
April 15th: What it feels like tonight: five minutes off a rollercoaster, still unsteady on your feet; rolling, rolling rolling, nice and slow: lurching. Like a huge hull of a ship in the moonlight. You are in your cabin and it is CREAKING. These floorboards are creaking. And it might just be the wind but you know it isn’t.
:somehow not an earth’quake’ but a gargantuan rock-a-bye-baby;cradling us all: malignly imperceptible, almost: but vast and uncontrollable.
And disconcerting in the strange depths of your being you never knew existed; that you had this barometer connected to the ground and what lies beneath it; that you resonate together..
* * *
I am sitting here, looking at keys dangling and wondering if they ARE moving. Seriously: there is a beast beneath! Growling very subtly.
And i am starting to not be able to entirely see or walk straight but am now seeing a profound beauty in it.
The fucker is taunting us.
Now it seems to have stopped. But it has got to the point where I just think. Yes. I am mad. It is that. And I was in the other house for about fifteen minutes, and it was honestly like being in some haunted ballroom of an abandoned, huge, cruise ship. And it is interesting: perhaps if you ARE mad; do you just go with the, er, flow? But still hugely gratifying to come in and find duncan in bed, saying, yes yes it has been rocking for about half an hour now: I can feel it.
There are pink earthquake clouds in the sky tonight. don’t be surprised if something happens tomorrow. This isn’t me: it is several women friends who always comment on these particular, perpendicular lantern-shaped clouds that often appear the night before.
At this point i am not even complaining: merely observing. Because it is so odd, and so monumental, to have the earth no longer solid, for so many days consecutively. With the imaginary quakes to fill in for the time when the earth itself is not rocking. April 16, 2011, at 1.55am.
A constant, neverending circle.
March 10th, 2013 :
Tomorrow is the second anniversary of all this. Reconstruction is taking place, although not as much has been done for the people from the affected areas as should have been; charity and volunteer work still continues, as do the aftershocks and tremors, which we were told would continue for years.
In fact (and now I am finally coming to the story suggested by the title of this post), the other night there was a minor earthquake in the middle of the night and the first thing I did was to leap up and hold onto the perfume cabinet. Not because I am so shallow that I think that my perfume collection is the most important thing in the world – much as I love it, I do realize that it is merely a collection of delicious, ephemeral pleasures and memories – but the old, wooden Japanese antique cabinets they are housed in, I realize, could in fact quite easily crash down and kill us in the night. We foolishly sleep on futons directly beneath them.
It had been on mind anyway, that we might need to move these vertical treasure chests, but there was a news programme on the radio yesterday as well which was warning about the dangers of having heavy furniture in your bedroom, especially when it is not properly secured to a wall… It has struck me that this huge thing, which I love, and which suits the tatami style room perfectly, could literally be lethal.
The threat of another major earthquake never goes away. But the least we can do is to avoid being crushed full of a huge, grande armoire of Guerlain, Balenciaga, Dior….
The irony of it; a perfume lover being killed in the night by the thing he loves most……