I have just come in from a Sunday night lesson, the last one before one particular class takes their entrance examination for a prestigious bi-cultural school, and I am feeling guilty and worried: although the other Japanese teachers have been going in every day since November (no: every day, literally every day, poisoning their spirits and bodies), this is the first time this year I have gone in on a Sunday, and that was only because there are two boys who are very borderline and who could really benefit from my lessons and I just couldn’t not: tonight I went through every tense in the English language, did the subjunctive, countable and uncountable nouns, a myriad of linguistic things, until it was 11.10 pm and last trains were looming and their energies were draining and we had to call it a day.
I feel guilty because I should have done more, should have gone in on more Sundays to help them further, but I have already been going in on Saturdays (my days off!) and giving them seven hour lessons, which always leave me feeling depleted with worrying levels of mental toxicity…..
The fact is that I am an extremely, extremely sensitive type: porous, absorbent – I take in everything and it AFFECTS me inordinately in my soul: I have tortured sleep when I teach too much and I simply can’t understand how the other teachers can endure such a work schedule, how their families can accept it, how they can survive, physically and mentally, for years on end: I have even had counselling on the subject with a very expensive Tokyo psychologist, been told that they are they and I am me, and westerners can’t be expected to put up with such conditions ( my job is very cushy in comparison, very) and, essentially, just try to care less and switch off.
I am lucky. In any given year I have more days off than on, and I love teaching, in many ways, for the spontaneity, the energy and the connection with young people, and for the fact that I have enough free time, can concentrate on perfume and writing and playing the piano and having fantastic days out in Tokyo wandering the streets and going to the cinema, before I return to the working week – which is always exhausting nevertheless for me, even as it stimulates.
One day soon I am going to write a book about my years in Japan, and all of these experiences, because it is all in me, floating on the surface, and also in the depths, and whatever preconceptions you might have about Japan are always, and I mean always, wrong: the place is far more nuanced, beautiful and deep than you might imagine (the school is a kind of joyous place despite the long hours; the kids seem to love being there); the Japanese produce such a positive energy even as it depletes: it is a constant, sadomasochistic push pull of trying and doing your best and making an effort even in the face of adversity (look at the earthquake two years ago and how they pulled together), while equally punishing in a way that can only be described as sick (and yet, as any person who has lived here will tell you, all highly and completely addictive). Yesterday, after another all day lesson, though, I felt quite ill.
And we had a dinner party in the evening in Yokohama with my Japanese sister as I call her and her husband. But it was one of those things where a bunch of J-stiffs, nervous, awkward, and so CRAP AT BREAKING THE ICE gathered together in a house that was too bright (oh lord, don’t people know the value and the importance of the right light) and it took about three hours to relax (thank god for alcohol….without it Japan simply could never function…..), but still…. those first couple of hours…the BLEEDING EFFORT REQUIRED TO JUST GEL AND RELAX…
I love Aiko and her family to death, but after a day of, well, ‘Japan’ it was the last thing I needed and Duncan and I got completely wasted to cope and try to blend and feel good.
But not wasted enough it would seem..
The taxi back from the station was expensive but necessary (there was no way we were walking up the hill yesterday: I just have, and there were narcissi everywhere, which I am coming to in a minute), but as we got out I saw that our little local pub, or izakaya, was still open (yey!) and I insisted we go in…
This place, Yamaya, or ‘mountain place’, opened shortly after the earthquake, and it has been an amazing hub of social activity that has completely transformed the neighbourhood I live in, essentially quite a chichi residential area at the top of a valley (when you walk down the hill there are all the most exquisite zen temples in Kamakura: I absolutely love where I live ), but there is nothing, really, in this area – only a 1960’s Showa-era shopping street – we rent our house from the fruit and vegetable store’s owners, the Mitomis, my Japanese parents, whose daughter’s house we went to last night).
The opening of the izakaya brought a whole collection of eccentrics out of the woodwork and it has been fabulous: where everyday culture here can be so fucking draining with its rules and regulations and keeping oneself under control, there is an incredibly libertarian, utterly unfettered openness and feeling of fun in that place – we are all like family, you can plug in your iPod and play your mixes, and last night I had so much crap to get out of me, so much poison to exhale, that only more poison would do ( I swear that if someone had come out with syringes of heroin I would have taken them): I was smoking even though I don’t smoke, we were drinking beer til it came out of our ears, and it was wonderful: I felt so myself, so released, in an environment so human, with friends and local weirdos who I have all the time in the world for, and as Duncan and I crashed home (and I mean crashed, the house was like a bomb site this morning) it felt like a huge, delirious, fuck you middle finger to this world that I sometimes truly feel I CANNOT ABIDE.
I had a lesson from 7 this evening, which went on til late, as I said, woke up at 2.30 this afternoon with a monster hangover, D still fast asleep and groggy as a chameleon, and I had a long, long bath in coconut oil and essential oils of cardamon, cajeput and ylang (my heart beat wake up remedy), and then thought fuck it, today I am wearing perfume, I am slapping it on, and wore a large amount of Vanilla Del Madagascar by SS Annunziata: boy was it wrong; as you might know if you have been reading the narcissus, we are basically not allowed to wear perfume to work ( I know, me working for a company that forbids scent), but it is never enforced, and I have recently been wearing Eau Duelle by Diptqyue in subtle (for me, anyway) amounts: though I am displeased by the bitter, pepper/incense opening – which seems so tedious somehow – I love how it develops and lets me wear my favourite note, vanilla, in a covert way that no one is going to find objectionable: delicate, light, lovely….
The woozy, boozy vanilla tonight, coupled with the bath I had had, which left me weirdly scented (plus the smoke on my suit from last night in the bar), my boozer’s breath and garlic from some Vietnamese noodles I had, concealed under the synthetic peppermint of gum, all made me smell quite foul I realized, as I stood at the blackboard, self-conscious, feeling myself reeking…
Still, it wasn’t a proper day at school (BECAUSE IT WAS SUNDAY NIGHT FOR CHRISTSAKES), and only the hardiest stalwarts were there, and anyway I think my kids enjoyed the lesson, as did I ( I could have gone on all night once I hit my stride), and I didn’t see any undue wrinkling of noses – though one girl did have a slightly grimaced expression……lesson: never mix your work and private life; never mix your weekend perfumes, where my Vaniglia smells quite gorgeous (it IS my scent now) and your daily, sanitised, laundry musks: I felt, in a way, like a marauder in my own life, sabotaging my own smell.
Coming home and going up the hill, which is my silence, my solace, an ancient valley turned suburb, but with such spirit it nourishes me on a daily basis, I came across two kinds of narcissus: one, with yellow eye-centres, beautiful and haunting, like a portal to another world.
I keep using the word ‘piercing’ in relation to this type of narcissus, but it is the only word that works for me: the smell of this variety (pictured at the top of the page) kills me and contains so much condensed emotion I honestly can’t explain it to you, I can’t: I find it heartbreaking, as though the flowers and that smell contain Japan, and all the feelings I have for the place, itself.
The other flowers, these white ones here, stink. There is no other way of putting it. They are the most animalic, cowshed flowers I have ever smelled: close your eyes and inhale thecowpat; open them and see starry beauties with bad breath, decaying at the edges, exhaling their foul florality by the roadside in moonlight; as I wearily make my way, in their drifting, pungently placid scent, back home.