I always take note of August 23rd. It was on that day in 1998 — so long ago now — that I set out alone to travel for the first time. I took the train from Dundee to London, then, although I’d never used an underground before, made it to Heathrow and onto a flight to Tokyo with an onward ticket to Australia. Each step of the way, I advanced by copying people around me. I followed strangers onto the tube, through the airport, and then, seated on the plane, watched my neighbor snap apart then position her fingers around chopsticks, and then imitated her — I was going to Japan, on a Japanese airline, and had never tried to use chopsticks before.
For each action, I chose to copy rather than to ask. I was painfully shy and that, perhaps, was the reason I was travelling. Travel would make me a better person, I hoped, more confident.
The thought of travel had been on my mind for as long as I remember. It started with a path behind one of the big fields in my small village. Time and again, I imagined myself walking down that path to … where? I imagined myself just walking and walking; entering the world that remained stubbornly outside of mine. Even as I grew older and the world became bigger, I never did walk down that path. I chose instead to go further, and so it was that on August 23rd 1998 I got on a flight to Tokyo, a destination chosen for no good reason. Maybe soon, to mark 15 years of setting out to travel, I should take a walk down that path.
It was early when I set out for the Japanese island of Naoshima. So, when I boarded the morning ferry from the port town of Uno, I did not notice the sun, comparatively tardy, begin its ascent.
Tiny Naoshima, located in Japan’s Inland Sea, has, over the past two decades, reinvented itself from a struggling fishing community to a world-famous contemporary art site. The island is home to museums that are incredible works of architecture, such as the Tadao Ando-designed Chichu, which, lit only by natural light, blends harmoniously into its natural surroundings; abandoned houses and shrines that have been converted into art installations; public sculptures such as a giant yellow polkadot pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama; sandy beaches, and sunny weather.
I had sat on the sun deck on the ferry and watched as the surrounding islands and calm Inland Sea unfolded. Arriving on Naoshima, I hopped on a borrowed bicycle and started to make my way around the five-square-mile island.
I cycled from art installation to museum; through back alleys and through woods. High on art and creativity, it never once crossed my mind to cover my bare arms or to put a little cream on the backs of my hands that lay flat on the handlebars, as if in an offering to the sun gods.
In the early evening, after hours of cycling and several loops of the island, I came to my final destination: a public bathhouse called I Love Yu (a play on words: the name uses the character for hot water, which is pronounced “you.”) The bathhouse, or “sento,” is itself a work of art, maniacally filled with kitschy objects accumulated on artist Shinro Ohtake’s travels; such as an aircraft cockpit, tile murals, and an elephant statue culled from a Thai sex museum.
There, surrounded by colourful chaos, I stripped out of my clothes only to immediately hold up a towel to cover myself back up.
Having travelled extensively in Japan, and visited many bathhouses, I had long ago shaken any shyness at public nudity. That was not the problem. The problem was the fiery shade of my arms that burned so bright I thought I could hear them sizzle. My chest and shoulders were a ludicrous criss-cross pattern of reds and whites. I was embarrassed.
I glanced around at the other bathers: young women stretched out on a tile floor that featured a collage of erotic art; old women on yellow stools scrubbing themselves at the faucets. I realised that none of them showed any interest in looking at me.
I shrugged off my little towel and began to wash. Making my way over to the steaming hot bath I thought to myself that, with my oddly placed red and white stripes, I blended into to the jumble of the bathhouse. I fit right in.
I carefully slid into the boiling water, but submerged my body only up to where the redness and prickling pain began.
The next morning I had never been happier to see rain.
Note: Around twenty years ago the small fishing islands of the Japanese Inland Sea, who were faced with an aging population, declining birthrate and disappearing industry, caught the attention of the art-loving billionaire chairman of the Benesse Corporation, Soichiro Fukutake. Fukutake’s donations helped revitalise the economy of the islands (particularly Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima) by turning them into contemporary art centres.
Throughout the islands, you will find eclectic artworks by Japanese and foreign artists in museums, abandoned houses and in the open air. The art and architecture blends harmoniously with nature on these mellow islands and demand to be experienced rather than just looked at.
“Rather than art, it would be more fitting to discuss how each individual being perceives richness and fulfillment before they leave this fleeting mortal world. This perception is an intensely personal process that involves each person thinking for him or herself.”
Visiting the art islands of the Inland Sea was an intensely personal experience. Few of the artworks are mere things to look at, hung on a museum wall. Instead they were to be to be experienced; to enter, to physically connect with.
At Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima I slipped off my shoes and donned the provided slippers to view, first, Monet’s water lily paintings from the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, stepping across an inlaid floor of small cubes of white Carrara marble in a room where the walls are rounded so as to wrap around me, natural light blinking in from above. Chichu, designed by Tadao Ando, is built entirely underground and lit only by the natural light that comes in through the skylights and courtyards.
In slippers again, I walked towards and into James Turrell’s blue lights, and up and down the staircase of Walter de Maria’s Time/Timeless/No Time granite-and-gold leaf installation; walking around the piece, viewing from different angles and watching the movement of sun and time change my perspective.
In Naoshima’s Art House Project I wandered through old abandoned houses remade into works of art. At the Minamidera house I found James Turrell again. His house is a piece that requires visitors to enter a pitch dark room and feel along the walls to take a seat at a bench. And then … well, I won’t say as that would ruin the experience.
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s contribution is a restoration of an Edo period shrine and construction of optical glass staircase linking the main structure to an underground stone chamber, “uniting heaven and earth”. You enter the chamber with a torch and look up at the shrine, and heaven, from below.
At Naoshima Bath “I♥湯” (a play on words: it uses the character for hot water, which is pronounced “yu”) I steamed myself in hot water under the gaze of a massive elephant statue that was salvaged from a Thai sex museum, while surrounded by all manner of kitsch collected on the artist Shinro Ohtake’s travels.
On Teshima at Les Archives du Coeur, I stood alone in a dark room as a stranger’s heartbeat, recorded in Paris in 2010, thumped in time to a blinking lightbulb.
But nowhere felt so intensely personal as Teshima Art Museum. This place, calling itself a museum, designed by Ryue Nishizawa, is shaped like a droplet of water and perched on a hill among terraced rice fields. The museum houses a single artwork, Matrix by Rei Naito. And it’s like nothing I’ve seen — and like nothing at all.
No slippers here, you walk inside barefoot and are advised by a solitary, serene attendant to not step on the small goblets of water that skim across the floor. The water springs from little ping-pong balls placed on the floor, or from the rain that falls through the two large openings in the roof. Again, there is only natural light.
I was alone in the museum with nothing to break my focus on the little puddles breaking into streams that trickle away into the void. The only sound the wind, the birds and, in the distance, the sea. I wondered if this is what meditation feels like; I don’t think I have ever felt so close to absolute stillness. It is an emotional experience and one that is difficult to describe because, essentially, it was a feeling of nothingness. Just a careful contemplation of the something that lies at the point where art, architecture, nature and existence meet, and boundaries fall away. I didn’t want to leave.
Les Archives du Coeur is a collection of recorded heartbeats housed in a small building on the island of Teshima in Japan’s Inland Sea, a ten minute walk from Karato Port. A walk that goes through woods, past crumbling old houses, faded shop signs, moored fishing boats, and past a couple of shrines. The small building in its remote location is constructed from a dark wood that blends into its surroundings.
As I was walking there, alone and in silence, I questioned if anyone would find me here, should they try. Was there any trace of my being here?
The artist Christian Boltanski says that his archive of heartbeats is proof of the lives of the participants. It is, at least, proof of around thirty seconds or so of what was, at the time of recording, a life. When you visit the archive you first see a monitor displaying the name of the owner of the heartbeat that you hear coming from behind the next door, as well as the date and the place where it was recorded. When you open the door into the main room you step into a heartbeat so loud that the walls seem to vibrate — or maybe that’s the effect of the bulb that flashes on and off in pace with the heartbeat.
When the bulb lights the room up for a split second rows of mirrors lining the walls become visible. Catching an image of yourself in one of the mirrors, you might say to yourself: I am here. Or, you may find yourself wondering about Sophia whose heartbeat (recorded in Paris, 2010) that you can hear and, in a way, see. Where else is her heart beating?
And where was I? I was not lost, but I was in a place where I could not be found. No one would even know where to look.
I remembered myself at 13 years old. I had stayed late after school for hockey practice and had to walk about a mile to the bus stop to get back home. Somewhere along the way I got lost. Lost: it was the end of everything. I sat down on a strange street and cried, sure that nothing would ever be right again because I was lost and no-one would ever know where to find me. The terror I felt then was nothing like the quiet sense of nowhere I felt on Teshima.
And anyway, there is always a way home; though we may not mean to, we leave crumbs wherever we go.
You can search for people on the heartbeat database by typing in their name or a place or date — the artist has recorded heartbeats in London, Berlin, Helsinki, Stockholm and New York. I had the option to record mine and add it to the database for someone to hear in the little room in the little building on this faraway island. It would be my stamp on Teshima that said I was here. But I chose not to. I was content with leaving crumbs.
Despite all the time I have spent in Tokyo, I have not taken that many day trips out of the city. I have been to Kamakura a couple of times, for example, and Nikko and Fuji Five Lakes, but that’s about it. When I lived here I preferred to go far from the city — Kyoto, Thailand, Hong Kong … — when I needed to get away.
So this was my first visit to little Enoshima, with its beaches and surf, and what a time to visit: right in the middle of Golden Week. I was shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other daytrippers walking around the tiny island. So much for getting away from it all.
Part of the Enoshima experience is travelling on the vintage Enoden train from Fujisawa to Enoshima station.
The beauty of the sea and clean, fresh air comes as a relief from a long time spent in Tokyo.
Food stands line the little streets and alleyways on Enoshima, selling delicious treats such as mochi …
… and octopus presented in all manner of different ways.
There are many shrines (Benzaiten, goddess of , among other things, water is enshrined here), offerings, and places to purchase offerings.
There is a lighthouse observation tower from which you can look out across the area and, if you are lucky, see Mt. Fuji. A ticket for the tower gets you access to the botanical garden at the bottom.
The back side of the island, at the bottom of a steep descent near the Iwaya Caves, is a popular spot for fishing shirasu.
The house I always stay at here in Tokyo is a five minute walk to Roppongi’s main drag and the favoured lodging for the women who come to Tokyo to make their money in Roppongi’s stripclubs, hostess clubs and bars.
Right now it is quiet. So quiet. Quiet enough that I can almost hear the whispering ghosts of 2005 – 7; the hustle and bustle of early evening when 20+ ruthless bitches battled for the use of two showers and the corners of too few mirrors to prepare for a night at the club — always with the rising optimism that this would be the night, the night you “make.” Make money.
The previous Australian manager’s — long gone now; settled in Sydney with a husband and three kids — friendly but firm notices are still tacked up around the house. Clean up after yourself. Ta!Keep the doors closed as cats are getting in. Ta!
But none of them are there anymore.
There are some nightlife workers carrying on the house’s tradition, but they are few: a Ukrainian on the third floor, a Japanese hostess working in Ginza, and a couple of Estonians who only leave the basement to tell us to be quiet.
The near-empty house is a reflection of Roppongi’s current nighttime state. It’s like this because — after the carnage of a financial crisis, puritanical governmental clean-up campaign, and masses of raids and deportations — who in their right mind would come here to work anymore?
Well, my friend C, desperate for money, returned in 2011 and, somehow she is still here. Lucky, she says. She overcame police, cheap customers and coworkers who unlevelled the playing field to not only survive, but to do OK as well. Not like before, but OK.
Up and down Gaien Higashi Dori there are signs warning both the flyers (touts: the mostly Nigerian men who bust their asses to bring customers into the clubs) that they are not allowed to approach potential customers, and potential customers that if they allow themselves to be guided into a club by a flyer, they will most likely have their credit card abused.
How the flyers can make money now, I don’t know. C suggests drugs.
I walk up and down the street looking for faces of the flyers that I knew and cared for, but there’s none. I wonder about them and where they have gone. Snippets of information suggest that generally their fates have been an unholy trinity of arrest, deportation, or death, but I hope for something more gentle like retirement; a flight back home.
I look also for old clubs; places I worked, places I knew. Most are gone either replaced with a new name or with just a dimmed neon light that stands as a memorial to a place, and time, that used to be.
Yesterday I met with an anthropologist studying the Japanese sex industry. She bought me lunch at Cafe 8 near the Grand Hyatt.
The anthropologist told me that the era I worked was an infamous time in Roppongi’s history and something that even she didn’t know a lot about.
The word “era” suggests closure. That the time was and no longer is. Though I am physically here in Tokyo, and I fit back into Tokyo as if I had never left, that Tokyo, the Tokyo where life happened in the nighttime, is, for me, gone. I can’t help feeling nostalgic.
I could lose myself just wandering through Tokyo’s streets: from the back alleys bursting with tiny bars and restaurants; below the noisy underpasses, and along the wide tree-lined boulevards.
When I lived in Tokyo I wandered for hours but I always had someplace to be at 8 p.m. Work. Now, I just wander, unanchored, and it makes me feel a little lost — but in the mental sense, never in the physical. I can wander through the streets that are imprinted on my muscle memory and never lose my way. I just follow my feet and they guide me through the city I know so deeply that their map seems to exist inside of me.
In Japan, and other places where Japanese culture is strong, this is the time of the O-bon festival — the honouring of the spirits of dead ancestors. At this time it is common for Japanese families travel to relatives’ graves, or to set up household altars so that their spirits may visit them instead.
O-bon is celebrated with a three-day festival and a dance, Bon Odori, to welcome the spirits of the dead. While the style of Bon Odori varies from region to region, it almost always involves a large group of people circling the yagura, a kind of elevated wooden platform where the musicians stand.
Both of my Japanese O-bon experiences were in Tokyo (in 2005 and 2007) where August 15th is the official first day. Hawaii has a whole “Bon Season” that runs from June through August.
Tokyo is generally miserably hot in July and August, but I would happily sweat through another summer there to dance around the yagura and eat festival food once more. Of course, in all the festivities I did tend to forget the sober heart of O-bon — the respect and remembrance of those we have lost. Read another way, however, O-bon reminds me of the joy of being happy, healthy and alive.