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Getting to the Japan of My Fictional Dreams

Only now do I realize that I may well have already visited Japan long before I set foot in the country. Just as Holden Caufield running away from Pencey Prep one late December night took me with him on that fictional train to New York before I first visited that city, I'd been to Japan in books I read and movies I watched before ever touching down at Kansai International.

I've not gone back to it, but Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha was a novel I really liked in my early 20s and though, even after reading it, I'd not once considered going off to live in Japan until my cousin suggested it, perhaps the book got inside me. Closer to my actual departure, I saw Hirokazu Koreeda's After Life (Wandafuru Raifu in Japanese). The movie is set in an unnamed part of northern Japan. Much of the story, about a group of people who have died and are in a sort of in-between place, between life and afterlife, takes place in a very ho-hum simple wooden building or set of buildings. Only in Hollywood does death evoke bright lights and Enya-like music. Here there is no orchestral music, no Viennese choral choir of children. Here all is quiet, simple, rustic. It is winter and there is snow everywhere. Often when there is no talking we get that quiet only winter can bring - blankets of white silence over leafless trees.

A scene comes to mind: a young woman in a steaming Japanese-style bath, only her head above the water. The water is not moving. The girl is not moving. She sinks her head beneath the hot water to take a break and go deep within. She does not rush to resurface.

I remember a line from the movie: "I love the sound of snow falling," one character says to another, and perhaps already on some subconscious level I left Canada at that very moment, at the moment of watching, in search of this part of Japan. 

These things, these works of art, attracted me. They drew me in. Drew me closer to the place that would for 5 years become my home. So follows the nonfictional event, ie. something actual. My cousin Greg asking what I'll do next year. I'm twenty-four, just finishing my first degree. I say,

"I don't know. Get some shitty job and write."

He suggests travelling. I say, "yeah, but I don't want to return to Canada poor."
He suggests Japan. It's as unromantic as that. My head come out of the steamy water.

Eleven months later I am on that plane.

But the book and the movie. They don't just effect what we know, but what we experience. That great art gets in you, we've all hopefully felt. But that it becomes a part of you! It becomes your experience. Even a piece of music, how it can stay with you, change your mood, and even touch on the core of who you are and will be.

I think to myself: what fiction reader, what lover of the novel, if they're read Arundathi Roy, if they've read A Fine Balance or Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, what fiction reader hasn't wanted to visit India?

But even better, is if you have ever had the good fortune and keen sense to travel to a far off land, and whilst there read a little of that country's fiction along the way.

You ever done that? Read Hesse while hiking through the Rhineland in Germany? Read Murakami while staying at a ryokan in Tokyo, Japan? Or read The God of Small Things while stuck on a slow train, perhaps leaving Mumbai to visit Kerala, India?

I want to tell you about a book called Kokoro written by one of Japan's most famous writers. He was, until very recently, on the 1000 yen note (think $10 bill), and yet I know almost no gaijin who've even heard of him.

That'll be my next post. Of reading Kokoro in Japan and beyond. Of the way a place you were not born in, that you do not blood come from, can still seep its way so deep into your heart.

Kokoro. It means heart in Japanese.

See you then.