The strongest attachments come to one without reason or prior warning. A stranger brushes a strand of hair away from her face, and suddenly one feels a pang. A rainy sky goes blue, and one feels like singing hymns. One turns a city corner and finds the landscape of one’s past. s Or so, at least, it seemed to me when first I fell under the influence of Japan. I had no reason for being there, other than a brief layover on a flight back from Thailand. I was nowhere more exotic than the area around Narita airport. I had no designs other than whiling away a few hours before my plane left. I took a bus into the little airport town, followed the signs toward a temple, stepped through the gates into a hushed October sunshine filled with schoolchildren, and suddenly fell, as through a trapdoor, into a self I had not known before. s There was nothing out of the ordinary in the scene: just the bright blue quiet of an early autumn day, its silent, sunlit energy almost unbearably freighted with elegy; the startled clarity of the rain-washed air; a familiar grammar of small lanes and corner shops. But it was the ordinary touched with a sense of magic.
It was the island where I grew up, transfigured – the England I knew, with just enough foreignness to sharpen and make strange the sense of familiarity. I was in Oxford. I was in childhood. I was in that timeless, suspended part of me that was not affected or smudged by the passing of the seasons, and yet I was somewhere new enough to give me a sense of novelty and discovery – like coming upon the poem one memorized in second grade and suddenly seeing what it means.
Love always pulls one with this mix of self and other, an unlooked-for blend of recognition and fresh wonder. Opposites attract, and so do kindred spirits. And so it is with places.
Japan in that moment gave me back the island that was my long-forgotten home (not a tropical or languorous
place but “insular” in the truest sense, guarded and moated and far off). It also spoke to the island in me, that part that would feel removed from wherever I happened to find myself.
Thus I set about the hard and delicate task of making the intimation real and letting the romance mature into a permanent attachment. “Islands can only exist/If we have loved in them,” writes Derek Walcott, great hymnist of sea-washed places, and I take that to mean that we must not just fall in love with them but learn to love in them.
And so I came to live in Japan, to find an apartment here, a laundromat, a barbershop – and slowly began to domesticate the dream, to know the moods of the place as one does those of a lover: to tell the time by gauging the dark above the maples in the park, to know the season by smelling the daphne in the lemony September light, to speak the language enough to laugh along when my taxi driver pulled out a bamboo flute and started playing “El Condor Pasa” at all the red lights. I tried to learn what Japan has to teach about seasons and generations – the interplay of constancy and movement – and what it can impart with its psychological cleanliness, its gift for listening
and attention, and its genius at self-subordination. I tried to do what I had never thought to do: fit myself into a home, a family, a community.
The place I live in now is a long way from the misty Japan of my early dreams: a makeshift, mock-American suburb in the countryside, where the streets are given English names (Park-dori and School-dori) and Colonel Sanders wears a blue kimono. The room where I am writing this is in the Memphis (as in Elvis) apartment building, and the store where my girlfriend works is named Gere (as in Richard). The area where I live has no temples, no theaters, no buildings older than myself. And yet its pleasures are even richer than the ones that I first glimpsed: the cry of O-hisashiburi! (“Long time no see”) from the overexcited young girl at the post office, the photocopying twins at the Akebono (or Dawn) photo parlor down the street, the vending machine where I can buy my peach juice and muscat tea, the kiddies’ store next door with its sheaves of panda stationery.
Once a week I go to the bank to change my traveler’s checks, and to the library to read its tiny collection of English-language newspapers. At lunch I go to the convenience store and buy a Cola of America (“Pop and Tasty”) and an Ohayo lychee ice cream.
Yet for all the surrounding dailiness, Japan can still pierce me with a stab of recognition. Returning here – returning home – last fall, in the ghostly quiet of jet lag, I looked out on the streets of Kyoto, as intricate as the tracings of an X-ray, crooked with thin lanes, luminous with white lanterns in the dark, the mountains to the north and east shadowed and immense. It looked to me, somehow, like the diagram of a heart, complex in its curlicues yet ringed by presences that never change. That, perhaps, is how an island finally inhabits one: by giving one back an image of one’s secret self.