Reading the Air: Meredith records her impressions of Japan

MukaijimaThe small digital recorder is switched on, the standby light turning from red to green. Meredith prepares to record.

‘I am sitting in my small room which serves as an office and bedroom. During my time in japan, I am staying in a centre for foreign students and teachers in a new town area of Kyoto which has been reclaimed from swamp-land.  It is filled with concrete apartment blocks of identical construction along the wide terrace by the river, bounded by delightful strip gardens in Japanese traditional design, by supermarkets, which are quiet and unidentifiable, and train stations with their social equality in Japan minimal signs.  Nothing is overstated here. No individual or company allowed to get more advertising space or brighter neon lights.

Everyone here has a bicycle, because the walk to the station from this apartment city is too long.  They have permits to park their bicycles next to the train station in a huge bicycle warehouse.  All stations have them here.  Most Japanese people seem to crave the silent speedy mode of travel in preference to walking, apart from pedalling homeelderly people who have been warned about possible strokes and urged to walk vigorously by their doctors.

I am really happy to use a bicycle again as it is not possible for me to use one near my city university office in US. I especially enjoy the ride home in the evening, when the dark straight streets are shared with others who have been released from work.  There is a kind of forgotten joy in pedaling the evening in with Japanese strangers.

My small room, with the sole door opening outwards on to the external corridor of the  external corridorsrectangular student apartment block is high above the ground-nine stories actually.  It’s very strange and exciting to burst out of my room to immediately feel the quality of the air, which is either boiling hot or icy cold.  There are two reasons for this.

First, Kyoto’s weather has so many extremes, and second, the railing is the only thing which prevents me from walking off the edge of the corridor and crashing into the car park below.  i think, this open-sided quality of Japanese apartment blocks is perhaps meant to reflect the Japanese preoccupation with safety, as fires seem to break out quite commonly in this country. The buildings are increasingly pre-fabricated in the event of earthquakes.  But on the other hand, I might feel safer with a wall.

Of course, living in a student centre is not always as quiet as this.  Quite often, groups of students chatter together on the corridor, and let their metal doors bang constantly as they go in and out of each other’s studio rooms.  But mostly, it is incredibly quiet.  It’s almost impossible to believe that I am quite near the centre of the city so calm and muffled is it.

bosorzoku boysThe only distinguishing sound feature is the bosorzoku boys, the motorbike riders-a kind of virtuosic Hell’s Angels.  They deliberately tune up their engines and rev up their throttles to make rapid drum rhythms while they wait at the traffic lights.  This is a recent development among young people who want to show their displeasure with this repressive society in a novel, harmless, but incredibly irritating way.  The other way they do this is by throwing themselves on to railway lines.  Japan still holds the word record for suicides.

Now, the uncharacteristic wind ruffles the metal charm which hangs from the outside peephole on my metal door. With a lump in my throat and palpitations low in my chest, I must prepare for the important Fire Ritual ceremony which Nohmen wants me to attend wind chimetomorrow.  I will happily study the buildings and ancient plans of these beautiful temples, but when it comes to what goes on inside them, I feel very Japanese.  Apparently, the majority of Japanese people are allergic to any talk of religion!  Some call them ‘Irreligious.’

It feels as if I am coming under some kind of powerful force, as if someone is going to hypnotize me so I’ll be lost forever. Invisible world?  Visible world?  I really don’t know what Nohmen and Kokoro are talking about.’

irreligious Japanese




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