Bear with me: at this eleventh hour, I feel compelled to attempt the complex task of fitting eight years of my life into a short essay. I wasn’t planning on doing this—the haphazard entry dating in my journal attesting that self-reflection, at least the kind organized on paper or screen in paragraph format, has not been my strong suit of late. When the personal life moves fast, rare is the indulgent hour in which the whirlwind can be tamed with coherence. And at this particular moment, the personal life is moving particularly fast.
I could tell you about watching my last sunset from a terrace I called home for more than five beautiful years but that would be getting ahead of myself. Rewinding some eight years ago, I first landed in Tokyo on the 27th of February, 2003. At the time I had not expected to stay long in Japan. Not a week into arrival, I had lucked upon representation for my first novel (any good news or career advancements in an artist’s life is 90% luck, 10% talent). My agents at the time were excited about my story, eager for it to make the rounds in large New York publishing houses. They were certain of imminent success. I imagined returning that summer as some kind of hero, feted by a literary community apologetic for overlooking me for so long. It seemed then my primary reason for leaving America in the first place—disgust with the direction of Bush America— had been misguided. Watching footage of the Iraq War my third week abroad, a war in which I’d marched in protest against, I felt the world I’d known (the one I had always felt comfortable writing about) needed my attention. After all, I had to come up with a story for my second book and being a fictionist interested in the social novel, I was confused how exactly I would do this away from America, embedded in a culture to which I had virtually no experience or genuine interest.
There it was, the ugly truth. I had none of the idiosyncratic curiosities that draw so many foreigners to Japan. I didn’t really care about karate or manga or ikebana or anime or video games or Zen gardening or kimonos or design or tea ceremony or karaoke or J Pop or kawaii culture. I didn’t know anything about the language, was not a huge fan of sashimi, and had no real yen for Japanese girls. What I liked was literature and cinema and though there were some great masters in both disciplines, I wasn’t avid enough a fan that it warranted relocating across the Pacific.
As I said, I’d wanted to get out of America— America and its corporate gangsters and its strip mall environmental character and its fanaticism with war and revenge— I found deplorable its rank materialism for her winners and dead-end cages for its losers. I’d wanted a break from all that, a place where I’d make enough money to travel. America might have been a horror show, but I craved a frame of reference, journeys within other cultures and figured that Japan, for all its recessionary gloom was a place I might make enough cash to fund adventure.
Some plans bear out, others don’t. My novel didn’t make the grade in New York and my agents and I eventually parted ways due to creative differences. It would take me nearly five years to compose my second novel. It takes place in India, a country I’ve visited five times. I have been extraordinarily fortunate for my travels (occasional lucrative bookings as well as commissions from a national travel magazine) but this story is not about India or my novels or even how things pan out exactly as you hoped (your career as a novelist excepted). It’s about Japan, particularly Tokyo, and the home I’ve made for myself.
Last Thursday, the 23rd of June, a moving van came to the apartment in Meguro I have shared with my girlfriend, Ariko, for more than five years. They took everything we needed to Kyoto, our new home city beginning this September. After a dinner at a local Thai restaurant we’ve enjoyed for years, Ariko left on the bullet train to manage the storage of our things on the other side. I have stayed on alone with just a backpack, a few books and items of clothes, a computer, and a ragged Thai cushion to sleep on. The areas uncovered by sofas, fridges, washing machines are amok with tufts of dust and undesirable matter. All that’s left of the pictures, drawings, charms, and mementoes on our wall is the tape’s sticky residue and a few thumbtacks. Our rock garden is bagged and boxed, the houseplants drinking Kansai water down south, the sofa where I’d loved to loll for the occasional afternoon nap, gone. There is no more music. The gas is off, the showers are cold, the pantries are bare. The air-con still works, as does the Internet, giving the place the feel of a squatter’s paradise. Home is as much about possessions and person as it is place and it’s hard sometimes remembering what was once was. Something’s already gone. I’ve compensated by sleeping at friends’ places, though last night I bedded down on the Thai sofa, awoken at five a.m. by an aggressive mosquito.
From those early times of asylum and dreams through my current last days of Tokyo residency, a lot of things went right, a lot of things went wrong. Nearly every aspect of Japanese culture of which I had once been indifferent I now entertain very strong feelings (some loving, many loathing). If I might never altogether adapt to the culture, it does not mean that I haven’t found communities within, and within these communities, good friends that make urban life bearable.
At times, it can be very difficult to enjoy Tokyo. When the enormous crowds lose their novelty, they are simply annoying. As are the lights, the barkers, and the buskers. While I have acquired a strong appreciation for the national cuisine, for all its pretensions of a Michelin-rich restaurant scene, it can be an expensive, disappointing trial-and-error journey finding a decent bean burrito, pepperoni pizza slice, or pan of squid paella. Teeth-grinding music blares constantly from storefront speakers and politicians sloganeer from obnoxious election vans. The youth culture frightens the sensible with its hopeless mediocrity and tasteless heroes. Too many read manga, not enough read books. The geek culture, its obsession with cartoon porn and blow-up dolls, is completely beyond my comprehension.
But for all that I was happy here. Tokyo doesn’t lead itself to a singular understanding—it’s a collection of fragments that never add up to a whole. You get lucky when you find your community. Luckily, I found a few. The reality then is not the city itself, but the home you’ve made for yourself and the friends you keep. Eight months abroad can only become eight years via a series of accidents. Nothing was planned. I simply got lucky.
Having been terrible at self-reflection all this time, I cannot begin to imbue it with any higher meaning beyond this. It’s too late for swift and decisive declarations and I’d be a fool to commit myself to revelation. And Tokyo, as anyone who has spent any amount of time here can assert, defies any assessment beyond the usual clichés of enormousness, peculiarness, and bedlam. What I can say for sure holds true for any other city—that if you can leave in better shape than when you arrived, the city has been good to you. And when you consider your person-metropolis relationship in this context and you come out on the plus, then your complaints might be a bit shrill. But then when you and the city you adopted for some considerable and impressionable period of your life fall a little short of greatness, it’s no big deal. Fallibility is what makes things real.
I feel sad in this coming darkness, this end of things. The sentimental fool feels saddest when something splendid has passed into ephemera. He will miss all of it, especially, the things he’s taken for granted, the things he looked at ten thousand times. He knows this move is significant— he’s getting older but it does not make him any wiser. He is, in fact, a fool. A fool enjoys his foolishness, most especially because it makes him feel connected to the greater powers within and without.
So he says, ‘Sayonara, then, for now…’ and means it, swearing some kind of bittersweet return, knowing it will never feel quite the same way again.