I first arrived in Tokyo almost half a century ago, and the feeling that I remember from that first encounter with a foreign land was one of a barely contained inner thrill. I can imagine that an explorer – of new or unknown lands – would have a similar surge of excitement, with perhaps some prickles of anxiety thrown in, in anticipation of discovering something never seen or experienced before. I liken that sensation to having a slight case of butterflies in the stomach, but it is not an unpleasant feeling. I still get this prickle of excitement, even now, whenever I am in any place that I do not know and have never been — where everything and everywhere is novel and unknown and begs and waits to be known.
This intense curiosity to see what is out there is my earliest and most vivid memory of childhood. Just beginning to heave myself up and stand, I recall holding myself up at one corner of our dining room table, then covered with some kind of cloth – an oilcloth most likely, called a mantel – and feeling quite aggrieved that I could not see the top of that table from where I was. It was such a strong feeling of frustration at not being tall enough, and not being able to articulate that I wished to see, to know what was up there, so near yet way beyond my reach and my eyes and my hands.
Those first few hours in Tokyo, I remember glancing out of the minivan that came to fetch the lot of us, seven new Mombusho scholars, from the airport – then Haneda — trying to make out from the misted windows what was out there in that dim, densely packed urban landscape. I remember my companions chattering excitedly all around me, but I was engrossed with what might be just outside. There was nothing much for my eyes to pick out as the minivan sped through empty streets, isolated from and elevated above the shadowy crowded structures of urban living below. It was well past midnight – it must’ve been around 2 or 3 in the morning – and all was still and, remarkably for such a huge metropolis, hushed. Our minivan seemed the only one on the road. Our flight had been terribly delayed. My impression was of a super clean, smooth, and complex futuristic road system – elevated expressways crossing each other this way and that at all angles, above and below. Such a world of difference from Manila’s gaping potholes and litter-blown streets. It was chilly too on that early spring morning.
Our first stop was to drop off the postgraduates and one of our sempai (older colleague) at what I would later know as the Komaba Ryugakusei Kaikan – the foreign students’ dorm near one of Tokyo University’s campuses. We reached our own dorm, a brand-new one as I was to learn, some while later and after being greeted by a welcoming committee and signing forms, we were shown to our rooms. I remember it as if it were just yesterday – my room being second from the left as you enter. It was on the ground floor.
My first task was to make sense of the Japanese way of bedmaking. There was a bed – familiar enough – a Western-style bed, along the inner wall. There was a pile of white – brilliantly white and precisely folded – bedclothes on them. I remember seeing a Japanese quilt cover for the first time with its round cut- out front edged with a decorative border, seemingly crocheted, and I can still hear the sharp, tearing sound – immensely satisfying to one, like me, who has fun popping the bubbles on bubblewrap — as one draws apart the layers and folds of stiffly starched bedlinen. I fell gratefully onto the bed once I had finished making it. My first impression of the heavy futon was how unwieldy it was, but I was immediately convinced of how right it was in that chilly room. How absolutely right its weight was, as it immediately comforted and warmed me as I settled in under it, snug and cozy. I fell asleep at once — it had been a long, tiring, and exciting day.
I have been in love with traditional Japanese beds ever since. It is such a comforting sight to behold in a ryokan or a minshuku or a traditional house — a set of futon all fully made up on a sweet-smelling tatami floor – the lower thicker and more solid one of the shikibuton and the fluffy top quilt, the traditional textile motifs peeking through the cut-out front panel. And the pillow! It is packed more solidly than a Philippine or Western pillow, and thus a bit uncomfortable for those who like their heads to sink into it – but when it has a panel insert filled with grainheads – wheat or rice — their rustling and that curious bumpy texture that I like to run my fingers over, strangely enough send me off into a deep, peaceful slumber like nothing else has ever before or since. There is nothing like the comfort of slipping into a Japanese futon in its starched, super white splendour. Do I sound nostalgic for the days of my life in Japan?
On this the 55th day of my gratefulness journal — things to be grateful for: I had a marvellous day yesterday – which turned out sunny despite the forecast for rain; a positive outcome for something I had hoped for; and for still being able to call back and record snippets of my childhood and youth despite a memory through which certain things slither away like quicksilver even though they took place just a few minutes ago. Today it is a typical grey autumn day here in Bonn, and I am glad to be home, warm and dry.
On a day like this, I am reminded of autumn days in Japan. Here are some photos of a first unexpected snowfall around Lake Biwa, taken years and years ago so that their colours have faded. One of them is of a persimmon (kaki) tree — bare but for its cheery fruits still hanging — a familiar and iconic sight that never fails to gladden my eyes in the cold months of the year.