Kumi Obata, Refreshing dream, etching (2007)
Early on a summer morning, the park is a magical place. On the way there, I pass other early risers along the river pathway. Dog walkers, joggers, a man facing the water with his stand and sheet music set up, strumming a guitar and playing the harmonica as one foot taps out the rhythm. In the field across from him some boys kick around a soccer ball while a group of elderly people practice tai chi beneath the trees.
I walk under the railway bridge and enter the park, where the river opens out into a large pond. On my iPod, Maria Callas is singing an aria by Saint-Saëns. It begins to rain, and I feel my heart soar with the beauty of her voice and the trees and water, and gratitude that I am here.
It feels like home. Though I am careful with this word. Home, I have learned, is not one particular place where you belong more than another. After four years in Japan, I know that this country will never be home in the conventional sense of the word. Yet still I use this word because of the feeling that being here, in Tokyo, inspires in me. I feel at ease. In this vast, varied metropolis, my differences don’t seem as significant as they did in the city where I lived before. Here I am neither an insider nor an outsider, still foreign, but not out of place. By now, in any case, I have grown to accept my in-between status and appreciate the freedom that comes with it.
Further into the park, I notice people in the path ahead of me, arms raised above their heads, stretching in unison. I see there are perhaps fifty or more of them spread out along the length of the pond. Taking out my earphones, I hear a loudspeaker giving instructions, and some of the exercisers counting along with the tinny voice. ‘Ichi, ni, san, shi.’ Some stand a little away from the others, facing the water. Everyone seems to know the moves, and there is no leader. A few people have brought their dogs and tied them to benches where they wait patiently watching their owners.
As I take this in, a voice in my head says simply: ‘Yes.’ That people would come here so early in the morning to practice these simple movements together, in this beautiful place. Yes. I have heard this word often since I arrived in Tokyo, this time not on holiday but to live. I heard it on a hot day in a seaside town nearby, watching an elderly woman in a white summer kimono ride past me on her scooter, up a steep winding road into dense green hills. I heard it as a young man cycled by in a bohemian area known for its chic second-hand shops and coffee bars, a long muslin robe printed in bright tropical flowers flying out behind him, achingly cool. And I heard it sitting next to the window in a café late one afternoon watching people hurrying to the station under their umbrellas or ducking into shop entrances, in one of which I saw a shopkeeper drying a fluffy Pomeranian with a towel. Yes.
I heard it standing in front of the glass-fronted library at Musashino Art University, through which you can see the vast spiralling bookcases built to house a ‘forest of books’, and the white, nest-like Tsutaya building in Daikanyama, voted one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. And then this morning I heard it once again as I walked through the narrow, green streets past houses nearly swallowed up by foliage, their gardens overflowing onto the river pathway lined by great bushes of purple and white flowers, opening now and then onto rest areas with low benches, neatly tended hedges and flower beds overlooking the water.
Masaji Yoshida, Moss No. 3, woodblock print (1958)
Now, I pass the last of the stretchers and stop at a vending machine to buy some cold green tea, continuing along towards the wooden bridge that looks out across the pond onto a red temple, made brighter by the pea-green water below it. I watch people crossing the small footbridge to the temple entrance, stopping to clap and bow and pull the braided cords of the temple bell. There is a meditation session in progress, and I listen to the chanting over the water, watching a little duck weaving a trail through the soupy surface, like oil paint on water, diving down and popping up unexpectedly far from its entry point. Pond skaters skim and dart about, and the ring of cicadas rises above the chants.
I rest on a bench for a while, observing the passers’ by. A park worker sweeping leaves greets a man and his French bulldog, smiling. I have come to recognise some regulars too, like the Italian grey-hound in its stylish striped jumper, the man who reads his book on the same bench every day, even when it rains, the woman pushing her elderly Akita in a pram, and the man in a long grey coat who strides purposefully around and the park, elbows back, with what looks like a toothbrush hanging out of his mouth, his eyes fixed intently ahead.
In the months before leaving the town I’d lived in for four years, a few hours north of Tokyo, I was often asked why I wanted to move here, with varying degrees of concern. Besides the valid worry that I didn’t yet have a job, other issues were mentioned – the heat, the crowds, the expense, the tiny apartments and the impatience of people here compared to the shy but kind-hearted northerners. Why would I want to leave the City of Trees, a town really, but with all the conveniences of a big city. And why didn’t I want to ‘go home’, to South Africa?
I’d been to Tokyo many times before, and each time I’d felt a longing to be more than just a visitor. So about a year ago I decided that once my contract ended I would move here. Despite being usually indecisive and risk-aversive, I had no doubt that this was where I wanted to be. And since that decision, I have been visualising my life here, where I would be living and what I would be doing.
In the last few months, though, caught up in the practicalities of moving, worrying about money and visa issues and trying to find the right job, I’d stopped doing the visualisations so often and had forgotten about some of the things I’d imagined. I was not moving into the apartment I’d envisioned, but into temporary accommodation, in an area close to but not exactly where I had planned. A place I’d never been to before. But when I arrived, I found myself in a lush green neighbourhood, minutes away from a river and beautiful park, and in a tiny but light, airy room with a little desk under the window, sun shining onto it, and a view of orange-tiled rooftops and a tree-lined street. And I was doing what I wanted, too. Writing. Despite the busyness of relocating, I have not been able to stop myself from writing, on the last weekend in my empty apartment, on the bus on the way here, in coffee shops around the city and in my little room with its view.
Kumi Obata, The day I hit a jackpot of a no loss raffle, etching (2016)
The many hours of visualising have become reality, and things are falling into place. But this is not to say it has been easy. My decision to leave behind a secure life and move here before finding a job or apartment (which I wrote about here) was accompanied by plenty of anxious moments. Over the past months I’ve had to remind myself frequently of other people who’ve done this too. Like Debbie Millman of Design Matters, whose meditation on uncertainty I wrote about previously and have often brought to mind:
This, just this. I am comfortable not knowing.
Millman’s lifelong dream was to move to Manhattan, which she did even though it meant being broke and living for a while in a shared apartment where she had to walk through a couples’ bedroom to get to the bathroom and kitchen. But she knew it was where she needed to be, even if it would have been far easier and cheaper to live anywhere else in the world.
And as I continue to write and share my thoughts and feelings, revealing more of myself than I ever thought I would, I recall popular podcaster and blogger James Altucher saying that the more fear he feels before posting something, the more he knows he has to put it up, regardless of the reactions it may get. Since publishing, some of those closest to him have stopped speaking to him, often with no explanation, but he continues to be driven to be more honest with himself, inspiring his followers with accounts of his and mistakes and successes. He also talks about his decision to go minimal, and in the process of giving away most of my possessions this year, I kept reminding myself that if someone like him could be content with only a backpack, I would be okay with my few boxes. Besides, I wanted a fresh start, to make space for the new, unburdened by possessions.
Leaving the park, I see a lean-muscled man with greying hair stretching his legs against a railing. I watch as he adjusts his tucked-in vest and then, suddenly, swings his whole body up and over the pole and for a brief and surprising moment flies through the air before dismounting neatly in front of it, an unexpectedly accomplished gymnast.
I still don’t know exactly how everything is going to turn out. But I’m glad I know where I want to be and what I want to do. In the past year, I have doubted these things only once, on my last night as I waited for the late bus to Tokyo. After a week of emotional goodbyes with students, colleagues and friends, I sat at the station alone and wondered, Why was I leaving this comfortable life I had made for myself, my cosy apartment, supportive friends and well-paid job? Why not stay? But through my sadness I knew it was time to leave. Time for change. Like when I left South Africa four years ago. I recall two quotes I’d written down earlier in the year, the first from Mozart and the second from Virginia Woolf:
A man will go to pieces if he remains forever in the same place.
A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.
I remind myself of these words again as I fall ever more in love with Tokyo. That nothing is forever. And home is everywhere and nowhere.
The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land. – The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor