I have a few heroes in my life and whilst in Japan I met one of them. Her name is Saeko and she doesn’t seem real. We crossed paths when I was 18 or 19, about to set off for university and whilst working as a kitchen porter at a Japanese restaurant in Soho. It was great. I washed dishes, I cut sushi rolls, I sliced raw meat and washed and drained the rice, multiple times. She was a waitress, so she was customer-facing and looked presentable and pretty all the time whilst I looked sweaty and smelled of onions and had my hair scrunched up in a bun under a grubby white cap. We had loads of laughs over the internal restaurant phone as she sent up orders in a funny voice pretending to be a monster or like a mouse and stuff. After work we’d go out and have fun sometimes too. She danced professionally in the arts clubs, there was one in Notting Hill with a strange sloping floor and eerie ultraviolet mood lighting, like a cave for neon night creatures. She had a room in Paddington in a shared flat with too many cables running across the ceilings, and in her own room she had a wardrobe that doubled-up as a mirror the size of a dance studio’s to practice her movements in. Against the opposite wall was her bed and although the whole room was coloured an off-yellow, possibly darkened by the cigarette smoke, there was one pale blue circle painted above her bed. Just off-centre. The blue little moon floated there since she had arrived. Her theory was that someone had painted the whole room yellow whilst leaving a clock permanently stuck to the wall. And so, when a new tenant arrived they had removed the clock and behind it was blue, the original colour of the room. I thought the circle could likely have been painted on top of the yellow for some unknown reason, but I preferred her theory in the end. Because I imagined her staring at the pale blue moon for days - between dancing and the restaurant - and coming to the fixed conclusion that a small wall clock had hung there first and found peace in it. I really didn’t mind, it was a nice feature.
The day was so bright it hurt and I waited outside Harajuku station for Saeko to arrive, she had come all the way from Shizuoka to see me. When she was there standing in front of me it was like no time had passed since - forever - and the moods were all the same, like they always have been, goofy and full of surprises. Lots of corners to turn and things to stare at. We laughed and joked and reflected and found a gluten-free cafe (neither of us have an intolerance it was simply the first thing we found down a busy narrow street filled with too much) and sat down.
‘How is your singing going?’ She was now part of a few bands in Shizuoka ever since she won her local karaoke contest in her village in the mountains.
‘I have bookings as a sessions singer for some older people’s ballroom dancing’ she looked wide-eyed and around with a smile forming across her lips, ‘but they are really old’.
I always forget that the Japanese sky looks so different and not only that it feels different. Like flat, like a mass of something rolled-out with a sheen, and it’s clear but a vapour and it goes on for much longer than you would expect it to. Perspectives don’t exist in the distance everything looks flat and right there. Here’s a funny thing that I forgot I wrote when straight off the plane:
The sky and the sea
It’s bigger than any giant
And you know in Japanese the word for ‘sky’ is the same as for ‘air’ and ‘empty’ and ‘open’. It’s that sort of sky that I’m talking about that isn’t just a thing but the lack of a thing. It spreads out to nothingness. We walked and talked and got accosted by a vlogger who made us do a pose and say happy new year to her ipad and arrived at Meiji Jingu - the shrine in the middle of Tokyo - slap bang next to Harajuku filled with fake nails and vloggers. But here it’s another world: serene. At the start of the new year people do Hatsumode, which is the first few visits to a shrine to pay your respects and maybe eat some market food and pull a few fortunes. I love Meiji Jingu because of the trees, there are so many trees there that it feels cool in the summer and warm in the winter and the woodland shot up from seedlings in only 200 years, which I think is impressive in tree terms. I got out two 500 yen coins and bought us a ticket in to the private gardens inside the shrine’s grounds, where we met an old man and a woman who had staked out a kingfisher with their telescope and let us have a look through too. He was cobalt blue with a sash of ginger red round his chest. He flew not too soon after we’d seen him, so I guess we had been lucky. Later on we turned a corner in the woods and there was a flurry of tiny wings, perching and then flapping, perching and then swooping. A small pair of children, brother and sister, had their hands raised and out flat above their heads and the little birds were flocking to their palms to eat some crumbs, then to disappear. They were so excited, we were so excited. A groundskeeper-cum-priest who was passing through said it had become the highway of the birds and told us, ‘If you young ladies place you hands out flat they will surely perch because they think you have food for them’. Saeko went first and soon one hopped on and stopped, had a look and flew off. I did the same and a tiny thing perched on my hand, gently clasping my ring finger as if a twig with her dark delicate feet, she searched and failed to peck and left. It was a joy and the rest of the day continued as it had been set out for us. We laughed and joked and reflected.