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.
My Beastie Boys story is an indirect one. I never met them or even saw them live. They just happened to form a backdrop to one summer 14 years ago.
It was 1998 and Intergalactic had just been released. I was working as a nurse’s aide in the dementia unit of a nursing home; saving up for my move to Australia, which would begin with a few weeks in Tokyo.
I watched the Intergalactic video over and over again.
The pristine streets, florescent glow of the subway stations, the bemused but politely quiet bystanders and the neat uniforms of construction workers: the Intergalactic video came into focus after I arrived in Tokyo and took to spending my days wandering, shellshocked, through the streets.
I listened to Intergalactic repeatedly, hitting rewind on my Walkman each time it finished, because it seemed like the right thing. With each step and each note, I imagined the video and it gave me a sense of being connected in that loose, lonely city. I would spend hours wondering through Shibuya and always end up at the big Tower Records where I would pull on a pair of headphones and listen to Hello Nasty on the free listening booths on the ground floor. Eventually I bought it but, because I hadn’t brought a CD player with me to save room in my backpack, I continued making the trip to Tower Records.
One Saturday night at the end of the summer and the beginning of typhoon season, long after I had changed my ticket and decided to stay in Tokyo for three months rather than three weeks; after an unshakeable feeling of tension, caused by my bar hostess job, had begun to set in, I set out in the rain to wander. I walked from Azabu Juban to Roppongi, through Nishi Azabu and Aoyama, ending up in Shibuya. I was carrying one of those light, transparent umbrellas that everyone in Tokyo seems to use. I was walking down the hill from Aoyama to Shibuya station when a gust of wind whipped my umbrella inside out and snatched it out of my grasp. Immediately a car pulled up and a woman handed me her own umbrella.
I wandered through the back streets of Shibuya, past brightly lit love hotels, clanging pachinko parlours and indecipherable clubs, stores and bars. I ended up in HMV where, inside of a polite circle of people, Money Mark was bent over his keyboard playing songs from Push the Button, an album recently released on the Beasties’ Grand Royal label. I took my stumbling across his show as a turn of good luck. It was a show I would have planned to attend, if I had known about it. But in Tokyo, where I spoke little Japanese and read even less, I couldn’t ever really know about anything.
The rain, my loneliness, the tense, nervous feeling I couldn’t shake: Money Mark’s quiet voice and precise words articulated my feeling. My Tokyo wasn’t the cartoonish, synthey city of Intergalactic at this point, it had become bluesier, more melancholy. Cry became my new song.