Mr., detail from Tokyo, the City I Know at Dusk: It’s Like a Hollow in My Heart, installation (2016), exhibited at the Yokohama Triennale 2017: Islands, Constellations & Galapagos
I live in a house with twelve Cinderellas. Its name, translated, means pumpkin carriage, reflecting the Japanese love of all things cute and Disney. These houses dotted around the city are advertised as places of comfort and safety for women. In some ways, I do feel like Cindarella. I live in a tiny room. I sometimes have to clean up after my sisters. A pair of shoes plays a significant role in my life (more on this later). And though I’m not waiting for a prince on a white horse, I’m open to magic and transformation.
It’s not where I imagined I’d be living at this age, or any age, even temporarily. Mostly I’m fine with the fact that my life hasn’t followed a conventional path, and I appreciate the freedom and opportunities I have. But there are times when societal conditioning takes over and I catch myself playing the comparison game that is hard to avoid but inevitably ends in doubt and discontent. A game which has often stopped me from doing what I really want to do, and being who I want to be. I’m still figuring out ways to keep myself from getting sucked into it.
One thing living in this house has shown me is that you really don’t need much to be content. I often think of the Viktor Frankl quote, “a person can get used to anything”. It’s true. Now, as I sit at my desk beneath the open window letting in the soft autumn light, I watch an elderly man tending to his garden in the orange-roofed house below and I’m perfectly content.
I remember a friend warning me that I might have to consider staying in a sharehouse for a while, and telling him that was the one thing I wasn’t prepared to do. I could handle being broke, as long as I had my own place. But before moving here I’d been assured that privacy was prioritised as there was no communal area, and the website’s pictures showed a small but clean, light and tastefully decorated room, with air-conditioner, wi-fi and a mini-fridge.
On the day I arrived, there was a girl at the basin outside my room brushing her teeth. My greeting was met with silence, and I wondered if something was wrong. But I soon found out that it’s an unspoken house rule that nobody talks to each other. After my initial discomfit, I was relieved that I wouldn’t feel obligated to make conversation with strangers every day. And in my first month I crossed paths no more than a handful of times with anyone. A silent system is in place, everyone listening out for each other and coordinating their movements so that you always have the kitchen and bathroom areas to yourself. Just like in this overcrowded city where people adapt and accommodate in various ways to make it livable.
Artist unknown, installation exhibited at the Yokohama Triennale 2017: Islands, Constellations & Galapagos
Of course I was curious about the other inhabitants. The main clue is in the shoes. There is a cupboard at the entrance with a space marked by each room number. You can tell things about the shoes’ owners by how they’ve been stacked: neatly side by side, on shoe racks or tossed onto a jumbled heap. Then there is the condition: scuffed and smudged or clean and well looked-after. And the style: chunky heeled sandals, neon orange Nikes, Converse trainers, high-heels in assorted colors, leather moccasins, shiny black court shoes. They all tell a story.
There are also slippers outside each bedroom door, providing further hints and indicating whether the room is occupied or not. In front of the door two down from mine is a pair of slippers that stands out from the rest. Pink, with the word “Baby” in Barbie-doll font printed on the soles, they have to be the tiniest shoes I’ve ever seen. I imagine one of Cinderella’s step-sisters trying to squeeze into them: I don’t think they can possibly fit her whole foot. (My friend says they might be fitness shoes designed to exercise the legs.) And unlike most indoor shoes, they have hard heels, making it clear who’s clumping up and down the stairs.
It’s not only her shoes that make a noise. One evening I couldn’t help listening to her loud phone conversation with a man on speaker, which consisted of her responding “Yada!” in a scandalised tone to everything he said, followed by high-pitched giggling. I hear her as she does her hair and makeup in front of the basin and not in her room like everyone else, listening to music or chatting on her phone while she gets ready. And I have no doubt that she is the one who sometimes throws her leftover cup noodles in the basin rather than take them downstairs to the kitchen.
Baby slippers aside, it amazes me how smoothly things run, how quiet everyone is and that there is not more thoughtlessness, considering the fact that no one would know if it was you who left a mess. And hard as it can be to sympathise with someone who wakes me up at three in the morning and causes my stomach to turn when halfway through brushing my teeth I notice bits of spring onion and noodle stuck in the sink filter, I think I get it. My guess is that this is the first time she’s lived away from home. And I’m sure she’s lonely. She’s always here and I don’t think she has a job. I get the sense that she wants to be heard, literally, as she marches up and down the stairs; for people to know that she’s here. Because in a big city like this you can start to feel like a ghost. It can’t be easy going straight from living with your parents to a place where you don’t know anyone, as some of these girls have done. And cities are notoriously hard, even for families or couples who’ve moved together. It can take years to build up friendships and form networks.
Much has been written about the isolation experienced in big cities. If you choose to move alone, I think it can require an aptitude and preference for solitude. Which is one of the reasons why they’re so attractive to writers. There is endless inspiration in cities. So much humanity to observe, as Ruth Ozeki writes about in A Tale for the Time Being, in which a novelist (also named Ruth) living in a remote fishing village in British Columbia reminisces about her previous life in New York:
It was only in an urban landscape, amid straight lines and architecture, that she could situate herself in human time and history. As a novelist she needed this. She missed people. She missed human intrigue, drama and power struggles. She needed her own species, not to talk to, necessarily, but just to be among, as a bystander in a crowd or an anonymous witness.
View from the Rockefeller Center, New York City
Endless material is available to the observer in a crowd. Yet there is connection in crowds, too. I’ve felt this in various parks around Tokyo where people are less closed off – at bohemian Inokashira where boaters bump into each other on the pond, musicians entertain passersby with guitars and violins (even a harp, once) and dog owners stop to chat to each other, or at Yoyogi Park on a Sunday with its lively picknickers, giant bubble blowers, rockabilly dancers and drummers. And I’ve felt it during my morning commute, too. Transferring at Shibuya Station each day I pass the famous zebra crossing, joining the constantly merging and branching streams of people, each tributary with its own direction and pace. I have the sense of being pulled along by a current, part of something – with the occasional jolt when I accidentally step out of line and find myself upstream, tossed about and battered by elbows, bags and bodies. But more often I feel a kind of companionship in these purposeful crowds, a small part of the giant force of workers passing through this immense metropolis.
More than a hundred years ago in another great capital, Berlin, Robert Walser wrote this description of a busy street which could describe Tokyo or any modern city.
And always people are walking here. Never in all the time this street has existed has life stopped circulating here. This is the very heart, the ceaselessly respiring breast of metropolitan life … Here is the wellspring, the brook, the stream, the river, and the sea of motion. Never do the movement and commotion here fully die out, and just as life is about to cease at the upper end of the street, it starts up again at the bottom.
The Tokyo International Forum
The crowdedness produces extremes of experience. There are times when I’ve felt more alone surrounded by others than by myself, like at an event I went to recently, where I found myself a room full of long-time expats, seated at a table of book club members who all knew each other. But then I recall a day during my month off work, when I hadn’t spoken to anyone for a few days and went to an art exhibition in Yokohama, “Islands, Constellations and Galapagos”. The theme, fittingly, was isolation and connection. I came across a darkened room where a movie was being screened. The room was full and I could only make out the other watchers’ silhouettes. Sitting on the floor in the dark, I felt my loneliness ease, soothed by the proximity of these strangers as we watched the movie together and rested our legs. In Japan, a collectivist culture, society is almost a religion. Getting along with others is more important than obeying any universal moral system or religion. Togetherness and presence matter – even if you don’t actively participate, showing up counts for a lot. Thinking about this gives me more compassion for Baby slippers – this is not a culture where spending lots of time alone is the norm.
In her story “Vissi d’Arte”, Lorrie Moore captures the allure and paradox of big city life perfectly, how it can embrace and reject you, leave you longing, like a lover. During the years I lived in a city a few hours north of Tokyo, I came here often, at one point because I was involved with someone who lived here. He was troubled, often unkind and I should have left him sooner. But I know that part of what kept me coming back was really this city. Though I may not have realised or admitted it then, it was Tokyo that I’d really fallen for. This is not the first time I’ve felt this way about a place, something like unrequited love. In Moscow and New York City too, I experienced my heart opening up as Moore describes. It’s funny, this phenomenon that seems to happen to people when they move to Paris, New York, London. It reminds me of a documentary I saw about people who fall in love with inanimate objects, one woman going as far as to marry the Eiffel Tower.
There is a way of walking in New York, midevening, in the big, blocky East Fifties, that causes the heart to open up and the entire city to rush in and make a small town there. The city stops its painful tantalizing then, its elusiveness and tease suspended, it takes off its clothes and nestles wakefully, generously, next to you. It is there, it is yours, no longer outwitting you. And it is not scary at all, because you love it very much.
I know too the feeling of being in a city when your heart is broken, like in Angela Carter’s story “Mirror and Flesh” in which she writes about a woman returning to Tokyo to find her lover, wandering the streets feeling alone among “the never-ceasing, endlessly circulating, quiet, gentle, melancholy crowds who throng the wet alleys under a false ceiling of umbrellas”.
… I was searching among a multitude of unknown faces for the face of the one I loved while the warm, thick, heavy rain of summer greased the dark surfaces of the streets until, after a while, they began to gleam like sleek fur of seals just risen from the bottom of the sea. … The crowds lapped around me like waves full of eyes … And I moved through these expressionist perspectives in my black dress as though I was the creator of all and of myself, too, in a black dress, in love, crying, walking through the city in the third person singular, my own heroine, as though the world stretched out from my eye like spokes from a sensitized hub that galvanized all to life when I looked at it. …
Terunuma Atsuro, The Tale of Mieteru Nozomu’s Dream Making, oil on canvas, 2016
Carter lived in Tokyo for two years in the seventies, and as well as her short story collection wrote several essays on her experience here. Her description of the neighbourhood where she lived in “Tokyo Pastoral” reminds me of where I’m living now.
I can touch the walls of the houses on their side by reaching out my arms and the wall of the house at the back by stretching out my hand, but the fragile structures somehow contrive to be detached, even if there is only a clearance of inches between them, as though they were stating emphatically that privacy, even if it does not actually exist, is, at least, a potential. Most homes draw drab, grey skirts of breeze-block walls around themselves with the touch-me-not decorum of old maids, but even the tiniest of gardens boasts an exceedingly green tree or two and the windowsills bristle with potted plants.
Our neighbourhood … has considerable cosy charm, a higgledy-piggledly huddle of brown-grey shingled roofs and shining spring foliage. In the morning, gaudy quilts, brilliantly patterned mattresses and cages of singing birds are hung out to air on the balconies. If the Japanese aesthetic ideal is subfusc, harmonious austerity, the cultural norm is a homey, cheerful clutter. One must cultivate cosiness; cosiness makes overcrowding tolerable.
Like my cosy little room in the pumpkin carriage. It is not where I expected to find myself. A few years ago I lived in a house with a garden, two pets and an outside office, then alone in one-bedroom apartment, and now in a single room. I’ve earned half what I earn now and twice as much. I’ve been various things: a waitress, a book editor, a teacher. But regardless of what I was doing or where I was, my days were much the same – I worried about everything and nothing, I had a vague sense that something was missing, I thought the past had contained better moments, that things would improve in the future; the present was mostly something to get through and then reminisce about or regret later. It was only when I started paying attention to my thoughts that my life started to change and my days became a little less about to-do lists, shoulds and wants, and a little more about appreciation and presence.
There are still many moments when I see those pink slippers lying at the entrance and I’m tempted to throw them out the window. There are days I worry about how I’m going to pay my bills, about my future, about relationships that I’m not sure how to fix. But I’m not thinking of those things all the time. Not as I pass by Shibuya’s zebra-crossing each morning on the way to work, feeling a small thrill each time at the iconic sight I don’t yet take for granted. Or as I walk through the narrow shopping street on Friday evenings after one of my classes in a part of the city that seems set back in time, lanterns strung overhead, tinny enka music playing from loudspeakers somewhere, the smell of grilled chicken wafting from a yakitori stand, flower sellers and fish mongers greeting regulars on bicycles with baskets attached to the handlebars. Or when a tiny boy spontaneously puts his hand in mine as I’m walking up the stairs at another school, a bright ultramodern building that wouldn’t look out of place in an architectural digest. Or in a very different neighbourhood playing onigokko, a version of tag, on a dusty field surrounded by massive high-rise apartment blocks. Or at night, in my comfortable bed with its iron posts painted white, reading or listening to music. At these times it doesn’t matter how much money is in my account, who’s in the rooms around me, what’s going on in anyone else’s mind, what I’ll be doing three months or three decades or three hours from now. I know I’ll never stop thinking of these things completely, and they have their place, but I have some good teachers, like Baby slippers, who challenge me to give less space to thoughts that don’t make me happy, and make more room to let in the beauty that is always there if you look for it.