Where to start?
I remember it was a summer two thousand and five. It must have been August, because it was raining everyday and the Sun was going down pretty early. My mum was on holidays with my little sister and I was left home alone with dad, pretty cool time. We both have always been horrible cooks, so I didn’t have to come back home at any certain time for a dinner. Instead I was getting some twenty zlotych to get myself a pizza and was let free. Twenty zlotych is not a bad money for a fourteen years old, who reminds more of a bony boy than a girl, and can survive a day on big cup of hot chocolate. These days twenty zlotych felt like you got a freedom.
That summer they opened the big shopping center in the town, twenty minutes walk from home. It was a pretty big thing and a great first step in forming my generation of consumers. I remember how after school we were all going there and window shopping all the things we couldn’t afford. Anyway, that end of summer two thousand and five was particularly boring. So I was taking my twenty zlotych and going to this shopping center. I remember they had a big book store. It was a proper thing: with all the CD albums you could think about, rows of books and red sofas, so people could sit down and read a book. I remember it was a pretty cool thing.
I went around that bookstore and grabbed some books with nice covers. When you’re fourteen you only want to read books with nice covers. I got to the sofas hoping that any of these pretty books wasn’t totally boring so I could sit there still for a short while and look smart. These sofas were always full of people looking smart, especially these days.
There was one book looking particularly interesting. The cover was pink, the kind of Japanese cherry blossom pink, with the name of the author written down to up. It was Murakami’s Norwegian wood.
When I think about it, it is actually quite funny that this was the first Murakami’s book I bumped into. Even thought I think he has many greater novels, this is the one that has made him famous in Japan and all over. Apparently you can find t-shirt and pens with that title in Japan. It is the only one of his books ever filmed. I am not a particular fan of it now, but that day I was miles miles away, and hardly even noticed how it became completely dark outside. By that time I was the only person reading on the red sofas.
That was my first trip to Japan.
It was a first trip to many other things in my life too. It was my choice of later studies and many other choices too. But let me tell you about Japan.
After Norwegian came all the others: South of the Border, West of the Sun, Dance, Dance, Dance, Sputnik Sweetheard – from this one I still have a picture of a woman imprisoned on a top of a still Ferris wheel in my head and I remember it every time I look at one, 1Q84, later Tony Takitani, Wind-up bird Chronicles which is still my favorite book, Kafka on a shore, Sleeping woman and blind willow in a hard cover that I got from my childhood best friends for eighteenth birthday. All of them.
I used to be pretty obsessed about Spirited away which was the beginning of my romance with Hayao Miyazaki movies. When I remember Howl’s Moving Castle it makes me want to get into bed and watch it over and over again. At uni I discovered Kazuo Ishiguro.
Saying all that, I had a pretty vivid picture of Japan in my head when I was boarding on my Osaka flight. It probably doesn’t make me the best person to tell you about Japan. I have pretty much loved it, long long before I even knew I will ever get to see it.
I must have looked pretty stupid using my both hands passing the tiny chopsticks, bowing million times saying “arigato” and doing all that just to be at least a little bit Japanese. Japan is a good lesson on culture.
First thing that made me smile once I got to my room was a toilet. I know it sounds ridiculous, but Japanese toilet is the highest art of technology. I don’t want to tell you too many details, but once a European person sits on the heated toilet desk and see around four or five buttons with other toilet shower options, it feels a bit confusing. A light shower, spraying shower… let’s not go into the details.
Osaka is busy. If you don’t know where are you going, you will be lost after passing two crossings. Hundreds of people run somewhere, they all look like they knew where they are going. Heads up, look straight. They wear white shirts inside the black office trousers, some of them have surgical masks on the faces. Women hide their white skin under umbrellas. Some people look straight into my camera. Later on I find out how empty these looks are.
The trees are singing. Everything is Japan is living. Streets are full of people, grass is full of grasshoppers. Osaka is loud, but not noisy.
After getting lost in the massive underground train station and struggling with buying a ticket we went to Arashiyama, the bamboo forest. Arashiyama is a small place. It looks exactly how I imagined Japan when reading all these books. It is green and quiet. You can hear the birds singing, it is green everywhere around. Ice cream shops sell two types of ice creams: milk, white one, and a green tea. Everything is a bit smaller than in Europe, the ceilings are a little bit lower, you take smaller steps on the stairs. Seventeen meters high bamboos give a misty light to the path. It feels very spiritual. Girls in kimonos walk slowly in their high Japanese shoes looking like they were some forest creatures. Some of them hold the phones in a pink cover and text somebody. Geishas must be texting somebody too.
In the middle of a forest there is a wide river. Maybe fifteen meters wide and maybe forever long. It has the colour of the trees. The forest is so dense you can’t see it properly at the first sight, but it is there, surrounded by the mountains. When you look at the water you can see it’s moving in all the different directions. It is full of fish, turtle. There is a three meter snake sunbathing with half of the body out. Pilot is running around trying to take a photo of it from every possible angle. It makes me laugh. The little girl in kimono covers the face with both hands when I try to discretely point my camera at her. I feel like I discovered the sense of sight for the first time in my life, that is how beautiful this place is.
After the walk we catch a train to Kyoto. There is a boy and girl sitting on the opposite side, I can see them taking photos of us and laughing. Me, pilots and the other girls must look for them like some crazy creatures from a different world.
Kyoto is much much older and quieter than Osaka. Have you seen Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha“?
Imagining little geishas running between old Japanese houses for their music lessons comes pretty easy. Me and another girl went to the tiny hidden local sushi place for a dinner. Even though we probably have made the older lady who was serving us a little bit uncomfortable, you could see we were a bit of an entertainment. There were only us and an older local lady eating something from her tiny bowl with chopsticks. I ordered sushi and the other girl tried to communicate with a lady and order a same thing, but at the end it didn’t work quite well. The older lady tried to talk to us, and the fact we could not understand each other at all gave her a great laugh. The place was tiny and very tidy. There was a quiet traditional Japanese music in the back, and it all smelled like a seaweed and a green tea. I loved it so much that I almost left a tip, which is a rude thing in Japan. Yes, that’s right – no tips.
My impression of Japan is just the same as it was nine years ago when I read the first serious book in my life sitting in the bookstore.
It sounds like Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune and smells of million scents. It is full of helpful hands and kind-hearted, focused faces.
Everything goes smooth like a wide river.
If you lost your cat than you probably should go on a walk to find it and if it takes five years, it doesn’t matter. If you decided to invent planes, you go to school and invent planes.
Life is so easy – This is how I feel in Japan.
The cherry tree blossoms, people run to work. If it starts at eight, be there at seven. Some people hold hands. Their skin is very fair. Girls are very skinny, they hide their doll-like faces under colorful umbrellas. There is a man with an electric guitar playing on a street.
I buy two bottles of sake in a local market and go back to the hotel.
It’s time to go back.