In future posts, I hope to bring you the freshest, latest London haps.
I mean, my posts probably won’t sound like that, except in a slightly ironic way. Because I am no way cool enough to pull off words like ‘fresh’ and ‘haps’. We’re also not in 2004.
Anyway, as I was thinking about the kinds of things I wanted to write about, I thought of a collection of short stories I’m currently working on called Places we belong, in which I’m visiting the idea of belonging. A sense of belonging is something many of us, myself included, struggle with on a daily basis. As an adopted, gay, mixed race man I have three bonus questions to ask myself, not to mention the daily struggle of trying to understand how I fit in with my friends, my coworkers, and my love life.
But there’s something about the experiences, people, places and things that we revisit. The ones we keep coming back to. Some of them are harmful, addictive things we feel powerless to avoid – but others bring us joy. This is one essence of belonging I wanted to tap into through here.
I couldn’t get to sleep that quickly last night, so I wrote down a list of places I keep revisiting again and again with my partner. I’ll be going through that list a little, and adding to it, of course. I was going to take a photo of the note, but then I thought no one likes spoilers.
So, for now, here’s a short excerpt from a short story entitled, “Zen”, from my collection Places we Belong. The place I talk about is somewhere I have visited only twice, but I found it just as enchanting the second time. This particular story is a real experience of mine that has resonated with me ever since. I hope you like it.
“Irasshaimase!” Welcome! I hear from a few places on this floor of the electronics store in Akihabara. Normally such bright lights would give me a headache, but not here. I briefly wonder if they’ve thought of that, and put filters on the fluorescent tubes to cut out a painful light frequency, or maybe they were just using ones that didn’t flicker. Probably, I’m just too excited, but everywhere I go in this country, I can tell it’s a place where they listen to the needs of their people.
I haven’t come in for anything – I’m only here a short while and I’ve planned to fill my rucksack with souvenirs, sweet treats and gifts for friends. I still haven’t found a kimono. I’ve made it my mission to come home with one. Proper ones cost tens of thousands of yen, I was told, so I might have to settle for a yukata, which is lighter, and usually worn in the summer. The department stores in Ginza and Shinjuku are my next stop.
My Japanese is still rather elementary, and the language is ranked as the toughest to learn in the world. So when I try to ask an elderly retail assistant in the depaatou, in Japanese, ‘honourable lady… I beg you to teach me where the kimonos are’, she begins to talk at me with such speed and alacrity I can only smile, nod, and try to humbly slide away between my soudesukas and my arigatous as my friends split their sides at my misfortune.
I manage to comprehend enough to learn that the kimono shop is on an upper floor – but they are indeed far too pricey, so I end up buying a yukata in dark blue, with golden dragons leaping across it. It’s something I will end up owning for years to come – though I won’t really wear it after the novelty wears off. The politeness of the staff is something I thought I was prepared for, but I’m still caught off guard. Nothing else matters to them but my satisfaction, even though the chances of my repeat custom, or even of telling anyone of my experiences, are practically zero. I’ve never experienced such VIP treatment in my daily life.
After the madness of the shopping centres, we make our way to the calm restoration of Asakusa. Not the souvenir section, of course, which is so crowded with tourists one can barely squeeze through, although the fact that anyone feels they have to ‘squeeze through’ in Japan, a country where personal space is the most prized commodity, provides me with a strange form of enjoyment.
At last, the temple, with its red torii and lantern. Beyond, multilingual signs teach you how to pay your respects. My friends and I are atheists, but I welcome the peace it brings anyway, and carry out the rituals; purification by water, and by incense. At the temple, I follow the others, clapping my hands and bowing. I have long hair, and I feel a cool breeze clearing my hair from my face as I return to an upright position. As silly as it sounds, I have a euphoric moment there, in that temple, in the middle of the struggles of city life. Despite the crowds outside, despite my frantic and strange urge to own a piece of Japanese clothing and frustrated interactions just moments before, I am at peace.