When we’re asked what we remember about a place or time in our lives, we aren’t always honest. The truth is that what sticks with us, the indelible element of our life experiences, can be kind of mundane, or just downright fucking random. Social media encourages us to think of ourselves as linear beings assembling ‘narratives’ of our lives- I am guilty of this- but despite the conditioning power of screen time, we mostly experience the world as a jumbled series of impulses and associations. The story is something we build because we have to.
So I thought I’d share a few sensory inkblots on the Rorschach of my long summer. Because it’d be unreadable otherwise, I’ll impose some kind of order on it, but after all these blogs of facts and history, this one is pure emotion.
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Immanuel Kant called smell the ‘basest of the senses’, and there’s probably truth to that. But by the same token, then, smell is the most primal of the senses, the one that appeals the most purely to emotion and not reason. So it’s often the one that claws back memories the most fiercely. Incense is burnt in this spirit of hypnotic redolence, mixing with the pine and cedar of temple walls. However, the smell that really stays with me in Japan is the damp reediness of the tatami mats, which always reminds me of muddy wet clothing on camping trips. In a weird way, I like that smell; I guess it reminds me of good times.
Then there’s the ‘fake bakery’. Certain supermarkets will pump out a chemical fog mimicking the aroma of freshly baked croissants, and that smell is the intoxicant to end all intoxicants. However (and this is true), like the itch of a phantom limb, I’ve started smelling it even when there’s no supermarket or bakery in sight. Croissants are the food of Olympus, man- or Asgard or Takamagahara, whatever. Choose your heaven, there’s croissants in it.
What colour was my season, though? It’s tempting to remember the day-glo crimson of the English Adventure shirts we wore at camp, the perfect red of a kid’s paintbox before the colours all get mixed. Or the brilliant saffron robes of the monks visiting Tofuku-ji- I saw one seeker of enlightenment leaning against a post staring into his smartphone. Looking in all the wrong places, mate. Ahhh, but who am I to judge.
Perhaps the colour that most sums up my summer is the gold-flecked greenness of fields before sunset; I’m always skulking around with my iPhone camera, letting the dimming light do my work for me. Meanwhile, buried beneath the surface of the Earth is the cool lava-grey of a hundred subways stations, done up in aggressive neutral for reasons I don’t fully understand. To dim passions and stop people falling in love on Line 2 to Hongik?
The subway also contributed to the sound of my summer. I’ve been in transit a lot this summer, on ferries, city buses, coaches, trains, streetcars, cable cars, and one or two regular cars to boot. The particular gift of the subway was the voice of the disembodied announcer: ‘doa ga hirakimasu- deguchi wa hidarigawa desu- doa ga shimarimasu- gochuui kudasai’1. In a rush hour crowd they’re just practicalities, but on an empty subway ride at night they take on their own quality, that of the voice of the train itself speaking to you, watching over you. One of the most ethereal, unforgettable albums I own, Burial’s Untrue, was once accurately described as ‘the balmy gust of air that precedes an underground train’. I hate the subway at rush hour, but at night it calls to me.
Unusually, I can’t spell my summer out in songs. Ever since I was thirteen, I’ve spent my summers around music, whether that was huddled around shitty speakers in the park, or crammed into some basement under a pub in Hyde Park or wide-eyed in the Big Top. But this summer, I haven’t had a lot of time for music, and although I’ve been dragged headfirst through Disney and Doraemon I’ve mostly blocked that from my memory. What’s left is Joe Hisaishi. One of the great film composers of all time, Hisaishi is one of those rare people who played a significant part in bringing me here across the Eurasian landmass. I still remember the first time I heard that unearthly music, in a friend’s cottage in Hebden Bridge. Joe was born in Nakano city, close to our summer camp in the mountains, and he’s spent his life crafting wonderfully evocative music that draws you into someone else’s childhood summers, someone else’s nostalgia. Sometimes, we listened to them as we sped along the high mountain roads between the rice fields.
At each port of call, I promised myself I’d try something different, from wonton soup in Yokohama’s Chinatown to hotteok filled with syrup and cinnamon in a market in Seoul. Japan and Korea are both famous for their endless regional specialties, but the top two meals of my months on the movie were both classics. On the eighth-store of a department store in Shibuya2, sushi chefs made the most flavourful, lightly seared fish parcels, and never put a foot wrong. Then just the other day at Cafe/Bar Daijobu in Kyoto, I was served ma po tofu that was delicate and inventive (served with raw egg and parsley!), and ate it to the radio soundtrack of Ebo Taylor, playing skittery, maximalist jazz and building the foundations of what would later become afrobeat.
But the flavours I’ll always conjure up with this summer are the ones that were… repeated. The bento boxes we were given, with the pickled plum that half the kids didn’t like. The sesame sauce I kept marinating my rice in ‘cause I was so gosh-darn-fucking-bored of rice. Not to mention that peach Fanta, which is absolute nectar.
In this long summer, I fell in love with flyovers, constantly spinning cars around and barelling them out in seven directions, showing off the energy and ain’t-got-time-for-you-busyness of the city. I loved and hated the blank anonymity of cities, which can suck you in and pull you under if you’re not careful. I asked a thousand thousand people ‘so, whereabouts are you from?’- heard it’s a microaggression, don’t care- and had a good third of ‘em describe their holidays in London to me. I shadowed a naked business meeting, climbed a volcano and found the best flavour of ice cream3 (not all at once). I’ve seen some things and some stuff, and on the whole, I’d recommend both.
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I’ve been sitting at a pivot point in my story. I stayed with the wonderful Aroni in Kyoto, a music promoter and man-of-many projects, about whom I’m planning to write more (when I get the chance, I’m gonna interview him about his life in Kyoto and his family.
Aroni took me up to Funaokakyo, in the north of modern Kyoto. From there you can see the five great mountains that surround the city, and from there the city’s original east-west axis was laid out. Aroni told me about his complicated and fascinating family, and the story that brought him to Kyoto. He also showed me the shrine and tomb where Oda Nobunanga, the first of Japan’s three unifiers, was allegedly laid to rest. Then we bathed at a beautiful old sento and bought bread and cakes from one of the city’s best bakeries.
In the end, I decided against staying in Kyoto right now. Instead, I’m on a ferry again, this time heading west to Oita Prefecture. There, I’m going to work on an organic farm outside an onsen town for a few weeks, do some autumn photography, and probably take life slowly.
See you in a week or so,
From your Correspondent in Transit.
1- the door will open on the left hand side. The door will now close. Please be careful.
2- Sushi Katsu Midori, for the record. You should absolutely go.
3- Baskin-Robbins’ LoveStruck Strawberry, which is like (Haagen-Dazs) Strawberry Cheesecake crossed with (Ben and Jerry’s) Cookie Dough.