Saturday, 21 April 2007

Reading Naked Lunch in Tokyo

I got back form Tokyo a week ago and since then it has been troubling me how i can possibly write about it. It is hard enough trying to get the true impression from my photographs, to distill it into words seemed pretty beyond my capability.
In the end i figured the solution was to try and write it, and not care about how good bad or honest it is. just write what i thought.
so this is it.
it is kind of a lie and a truth.

Reading Naked Lunch in Tokyo

‘So, what you mean is, she was your ex, and then you lived together?’
I nodded. I wonder how many times now I have had this conversation.
‘Wasn’t that weird?’
‘Not really. I mean, if it was going to be weird, then we wouldn’t have done it.’
‘But she was your ex?’
I nod again. This conversation is dull. ‘But we’d broken up a long while before.’ Pause. ‘Then not spoken to each other.’ Pause and consider. ‘We were much better off as friends than we ever were as a couple.’
‘But it doesn’t make sense. It sounds awful. I mean, what about when she got a boyfriend?’
I shrug. Whenever we get on to the question of how it could possibly have worked, I’m just reminded of the girl in the kebab shop, telling me I didn’t live on Oxford Street. I knew where I lived much better than she did, right? So, I knew that our seemingly bizarre living situation was fine. People didn’t have to understand, because they weren’t living it.
‘But she was your ex…?’

It was cold on the plane, and the manufactured breeziness was making the back of my throat stick to the bones in my neck. The baby’s cries at the front were getting raspier and more painful to hear every passing hour. I am trying to sleep. I am trying to sleep. I have never until this moment realised how much more complicated sleeping becomes when you are trying to make it happen. Like how much harder it is to breathe synthetic air. Frustrated I lift my foot above my head and wave my toes at the crowds behind me. Somehow I think they are asleep.

Six months is a long time, and even longer when before that we had seen each other every day. We’d been apart for six months before, longer maybe, longer even, but that had always been by choice, when anger and bitterness and the how could you do this to me arguments would be volleyed at one another via text messages, because to talk would be too painful, too real, and so it is easier to digitise into hw cd u do ths2me.
Then we made it alright again, and lived together as friends, with new people to ask that question of, new people to wrap legs and arms and hair around, new people to watch sleep. New people to dissect in the mornings drinking genmaicha and nibbling brie and bread, laughing over an embarrassing conquest or grinning inanely at how loved up we were with the new other. But still this love for each other, still this tie that binds us closely, even if now we choose not to knot it in sex.

That is the introduction to my visit. Do not ask what is it.

Am I being self conscious?

‘Look at the sky!’ you exclaim, as Happy Road suddenly darkens, enlivening the fake plastic cherry blossoms that hang from the lamp post. I look up and it is true what you say. The apocalypse is hailing down, I marvel, for what else explains the livid yellow that is turning the sun into a pale moon so that the light is thin, thin as on the prairies in Antonia’s morning.
It is like yellow split pea soup, or the sulphur mines that we will smell when we reach Hakone (but watch me, I’m going to fast), the colour is not of fire, it is neither bright nor dark, it is the cigarette stained magnolia wall of a war vet’s apartment. It is the colour of the end of the world, solid in a Mississippi swamp, the nuclear clouds over Chernobyl on a clear day, and it is hanging there, over my head, as the rain bounces so hard that it skips up the ankles of my skinny but not skinny enough jeans.
Yet no one is looking up but us. And in the middle of this moving earth of suited and coiffured people, bending round us like a liquid flood circumventing a tree, we look up. The sky falls heavy over our shoulders, and we look up and together we are there.

‘Why don’t you pluck your eyebrows?’ you ask wonderingly, your perfectly arched Dietrich brows arching higher over your perfectly lovely, perfectly weird, perfectly alien eyes.
I curl up. ‘I don’t see the point,’ I reply, preparing myself for a barrage of questions over why I don’t see the point, and a comparative essay on the hair removal habits of Japanese girls against those of British girls. And me.
‘I mean, your eyebrows are fine. Really. They are. Really.’
There is a but coming, and I know it.
‘But…’
I groan. ‘I really don’t care about my eyebrows! I only notice them when you talk about them!’ I see myself, hairy and grotesque, spilling thick dark hairs down my face, matted body hair stretching from my arms to the floor.
‘No, they’re fine, really, they are, but they have a good shape, and you could just tidy them up a bit, just the odd stray hair…’
‘I don’t want to pluck my eyebrows! Now, come on, green or cream dress?’
Dancing to the Copacabana at a hip hop club later that night, I finger my eyebrows nervously.
‘We’ll get these guys to buy us drinks,’ you inform me confidently.
I don’t want these guys to buy me a drink. ‘It is fine,’ you tell me. ‘They like to buy English girls drinks.’
I don’t want you to think I’m uptight. So I smile and say ok, maybe, then I curl up again as images of sand filled bath tubs swim into my imagined vision.
‘But won’t they think we owe them something?’ thinking of the shocked face of one man I turned down back in the early days of sex and university, who assumed because he had bought me a drink I was obliged to go home with him.
You shake your head vigorously. ‘It is different here. You should never pay for your own drinks. And when you date someone, you should never pay for dinner. If you go Dutch, then the guy will think you are easy and that he can just get you without having to work. No guy will be obsessed with you if you behave like that. He has to work and pay to get you. Otherwise he won’t think you are worth anything.’
This is a dizzying amount of information to take in. ‘But…’ I stutter. ‘But, I…’
‘Seriously, if you pay for men they won’t respect you!’
But if I let men pay for me, I won’t respect myself.
‘What about the sisterhood?’ I resort to wildly.
‘You can’t pullout the sisterhood when it suits you!’ you laugh.
‘You always pull out the sisterhood when it suits you!’ It is ok, because I am dissolving into giggles too.

The matter is out of my hands when I remember how it is, being with you. Although you confidently inform me that I have the kind of prettiness that Japanese boys are wild for, when I stand next to you, your dazzle hides me under it, and my face is drowned out under your rapunzel blonde hair. I am proud to stand next to you, and the guy buys you a drink. He tries to kiss you and you push him away, and in sisterhood we gang up on him and tell him damei!
But I am confused. Who was right in the end?

The crows fly across Shibuya and the fresh dawn light is like a tonic to the end of the night. Like a shot of adrenaline, we skip over giant zebra crossings, past the business men leaving their homes, as the buildings tower over us, lit with colours as garish and gaudy as anything seen in Barcelona. A small cat sells me a drink, whilst a gurning business man presses a finger to his stretched lips as he tells me about a mobile phone. Languidly lying across a skyscraper, the beautiful Sawada Shin offers his mobile phone to me, and a dragon curls in on itself against a shop front. Stumbling out of the final tune (Sade, By your side) into the grey light that in spite of its lack of colour seems as bright as water against my jet lagged drying skin, I’m amazed by the light. I want to wrap it in a box and take it home, to open at discreet intervals, like a sun box executives buy, my own little spot of Tokyo mornings. I am amazed by the burgeoning life filling the streets, and amazed by the fact you can buy a breakfast of fish rice and miso for £1.50 at 6am.

Gothic Lolitas pretend they wish you weren’t looking at them as we wander through Harajuku, and for the first time in years I feel underdressed. A girl in a miniature top hat set at a jaunty angle glares moodily at me over her cigarette. A man squats on the ground, looking, you say, exactly like he is taking a shit. Apparently it is the way to sit (shit) if you want to give off attitude. Long mullets of ginger hair stick up all around me through a dizzying cloud of menthol cigarette smoke, and everything is brash and bright and taken to the extremity.
Until we turn a corner and we vanish. The city withdraws from us, the skyscrapers fall back against the twinkling sky, and in a rush of wind the sounds of the city and the Harajuku drawling chatter is immersed as though under water. But we aren’t under the ocean.
To reach the shrine you have to leave the city of which centre you are currently standing in, and enter a miniature forest, built to worship the Gods of thunder and water and trees. You explain that the makers of the shrine planted the trees so that all the city is invisible, and inaudible, that everything was planned carefully to hide the concentration of hectic, tacky, cheesy urbanity. Candy coloured giggles and neon television is abandoned for her natural counterpart, and when the drum bellows out to respect the thunder gods, your mind forgets the former roar of the traffic and the trains and the people on top of people on top of people, and you look up with a start to check the apocalypse sky hasn’t returned to haunt you.
The bride steps sedately in procession, her red lips contrast against the white kimono and hood and I wonder if I have ever seen anything as beautiful as her poise in her happiness, after the spectacle of girls walking pigeon toed and floppy wristed in an effort to look helpless and childish.
When we leave, the noise and bustle of Harajuku hits you harder than sixty belting beats of the drum.

We cross the zebra crossing with at least one hundred people at once, as Sawada Shin smiles ironically down at us, as we wander in to a room full of German techno and girls with samurai top knots whirling swirling dancing.
‘We’ll get these guys to buy us drinks,’ you inform me confidently.
I don’t want these guys to buy me a drink. ‘It is fine,’ you tell me. ‘They like to buy English girls drinks.’
He tells me the murder in the bath tub was a matter of miscommunication.
Like Pearl Harbour.
Like Manchuria.
Like all these crimes.
I don’t want the red wine he offers me after this, but it seems rude not to accept, and you have already knocked back four tequilas from his younger, more attractive friend.
‘I like your hair.’ He says.
‘I like the way you dance.’ He says.
‘What is the difference between England and Scotland.’ He says.
I smile. I dance. You lock your eyes to mine and swing your hips in time with mine and I think: are you Lily?
You’ve gotta swing your hips now.
Click.[1]
Kei rei[2], I say. You laugh because my accent is so appalling.

We leave your friends and walk through Shibuya in the dawn light. We take photos of ourselves on your phone next to the buildings, multi-coloured against a monochrome sky. With you, in the morning, wondering when I last felt so perfectly happy out of the other’s bed, curled up around his legs.
‘Hey, let’s have sex!’ a group of guys shout at us, as I prepare to walk quickly on, but you want to talk to them and the next thing I know they are taking us for pizza at 6 in the morning, whilst I, yawning, glare at them in distaste and lie and tell them I have a thirty year old boyfriend and eat my half of the pizza as quickly as I can, you’re your half too, wondering what we are doing there, wondering how the fuck we can get out of this one.
You provide the answer by grabbing my hand and we rush out the café before the bill arrives.
The happiness of the dawn light is shattered, as the sun breaks in to the grey, smashing its calm with its glare.

Posing cheek to cheek in our oversize shades, feeling like a child in fancy dress and dancing so hard my dress sleeve slips down over my bra for the hundredth time until I safety pin the two together. All around us people are looking like they have taken more ecstasy than they should have done, but this is Japan, and they don’t take drugs here. The bass is coursing through our veins, like the drugs that we haven’t taken would do. For these moments I think I actually like psych trance, as I move at one with the heaving mass of brightly dressed humanity around me, the dance unifying us over the language gap. Like an army we are held together under one command, and even though in our outfits and in our hairstyles we are convinced of our own special individuality, we have all become the same automatons controlled by the overriding bass. We grab each others hands and move from stage to stage, eating rice nachos and drinking from mini cans of Grolsch, changing the tempo of our hips to suit the techno or the hip hop or the funk or the movement of those surrounding us. Then, breaking into the Paris Hilton-ites, come a troupe of traditional dancers, accompanied by traditional instruments and I think wow! this country is just one big juxtaposition and I try and tell you what I mean, what it all means, because here, right now, everything that came before, from the conception of this holiday back all those years ago when you told me your nose goes red in the cold, here is when I make sense of it.

In the mountains, there you feel free. After the noise and the colours of the city, it seems strange to see green that has no fluorescent tint to it. I am overawed. Everywhere I look, once we step off the Romance Car, is a spot of beauty, from the river flowing over rocks, to the stately bamboo forests falling down the mountains towards where we are standing.
Like everything else, it is almost too much. How much can they cram on to this island? Even nature herself has gone crazy here, pushing into every available space more and more. It is a glutton’s paradise, a sensualist’s heaven. Constant bombardment of object, of sight, of sound, if it is not an artificial colour then it is a new lushness of overpowering greenery and the bright startling pink of blossoms. The smell of the cherry blossom makes us both sneeze and, when it is combined with the stench of sulphur it is enough to knock us out.
Fuelled by sake and beer and ice cream and the headiness brought on by the ohn-sen we end up arguing about the things we always argue about, both convinced of our own righteousness, both convinced that the other is wrong. Wrong! I know that I am right. You know that you are right. Paranoid I am nervous you think I respect myself less than you respect yourself. We both are running scared that our own opinions may be wrong, who is betraying the sisterhood, who is the lesser feminist?
There is an unspoken argument here.
And it will remain silent.
We repeat ourselves over and over, until we both feel so ridiculous that we start to laugh. It cannot be solved otherwise. The steam from the bath makes me dizzy until I think I will faint and have to sit very still and silent for a long time.

We travel over mountains and over a lake and all is at peace again, talking to cats and cooing at babies and posing cheek to cheek for photos in our oversized sunglasses. We make a three clap prayer to Buddha and I am constantly amazed by the simplicity and beauty of the shrines in a country that simplicity forgot. The tea lady gives us a cake with a bow, and I find myself wondering what she thinks of the girls who walk pigeon toed in frou frou mini skirts with their teased and dyed hair. We meet your friends and they take us for dinner, and this time I have to leave my principles behind because we have spent so much money that I can no longer afford to primly refuse hospitality. You whisper that I have to take my cardigan off at an opportune moment, and I don’t know whether to giggle or glare, but I obey, thinking, I’m on the other side of the world, what does it matter here, what does it matter? I smile and nod and say ‘oeshi’[3] over and over. You explain for the umpteenth time how it isn’t like in England, that guys pay for things here to “fuel a good time”, that we are making their evening more enjoyable by giving them company.
Company in a pretty low cut top and an extra smear of lipstick.
Because I know that it isn’t for my scintillating conversation.
Still, I knock back the cocktail and smile as prettily and modestly as I know how, and make them laugh with my mono collection of Japanese words.
Konichiwa
Oeshi
Kei rei
Dai jo bu
Nani.
You look at me and laugh, and I laugh back, then they laugh so we laugh more. We tell them colourful lies and they accept what we say, and we just keep laughing because suddenly it seems so funny to be this ridiculous, to spend this time living the life I don’t have.
They drive us back to the city along roads that are as high up as the buildings themselves, and as the skyscrapers lift out of the ground to meet us like a brightly lit carnival I think I am living in Bladerunner although I have never seen Bladerunner, I have never seen something like this. I lay my head on your shoulder and we smile. We smile a lot.

When I was in Tokyo I read Naked Lunch.


[1] Inland Empire
[2] The pronunciation of beautiful. I don’t know the spelling or character, or word.
[3] Delicious or tasty

1 comment:

Rabid Pounder said...

Wow, sounds like you had an interesting trip. I'm a bit jealous, although it sounds like the sort of place that would make me claustrophobic pretty quickly.

On the topic of plucked eyebrows: I find obviously plucked eyebrows the most unattractive thing a woman can do to her face (only marginally more than too much make-up). So stick to your guns on that front! And the having drinks bought for you thing too. I would think MORE of a girl if she bought me a drink, not less!

I will dig out my copy of Naked Lunch and re-read, it's been a few years and summer is my "reading season". I think I have the film of it somwhere too.