Making it her own

World Crafting: Author's picture of Japan’s essence through the words of her favourite writers like Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro

I pan my head to study the symmetry of the houses around me. Single-storied, wooden, roofed with silver terracotta. Most had cane blinds covering the glass windows that are already secured by crisp white curtains. It’s difficult to identify the entrance to most of the houses — as if only those who earnestly sought it would see it. And yet, just a handful have pale curtains demarcated with beautiful Japanese calligraphy.

I’m standing in Gion in Kyoto, one of the oldest cities in the world — a place I have only seen in words until now.

From immaculately clean, tiled streets to nondescript lanes flanked with these wooden houses, it’s a perfect opportunity for me to lose myself. Except that I have Arthur Golden’s words from his famous book, Memoirs of a Geisha, published in 1997.

Golden’s book was my first insight into the Japanese culture. It introduced me to ‘salaryman’ — an overworked man in a salaried job; sakura — cherry blossoms that fill the country during spring, and geishas — professional entertainers and highly skilled women of Japan.

Title and claim

Gion has been the home of geishas.

“Beginning my training meant going to a school in another section of Gion to take lessons in things like music, dance, and tea ceremony.” Golden’s words have enticed me so much that every woman I see seems a geisha. But training to be a geisha is a painstaking career choice. They are adept in flower-making, calligraphy, tea ceremony, art, music (including the use of Japanese instruments like shamisen) and above all, as great conversationalists. The superiority of a geisha lies in her art of conversation.

When I come face-to-face with a geisha, unlike Golden’s portrayal of geishas as high-ranking courtesans in his book, I freeze in time. From the dark narrow lane, I see a figure gracefully walk towards me and pedestrians move on either sides to make way for her. In those fleeting 10 seconds, I am enamoured by her elegance and intimidated by her presence. Her face painted as white as porcelain, not a pleat disgraces her lilac kimono, and her posture is tall, balanced by her geta (traditional Japanese clogs), which makes a loud clattering sound.

I look at Ikuko Iwasaki, my guide, as if acknowledging her words from earlier in the evening. “I did not like the book (Memoirs of a Geisha). He failed to explain the stature and skill of a geisha, making them look like prostitutes.” I finally know what she means.

But in Kyoto’s charming Ninenzaka, an alley ahead of Gion which is lined with traditional Japanese houses, I see many women unlike geishas but more like Sachiko. Sachiko, a character sketched by Pico Iyer in his book The Lady and The Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, is charming, vivacious and curious.

These attributes make her an engaged conversationalist. She speaks with her eyes and convinces with her smile. She blends gracefully in a social gathering while maintaining her distance.

I see numerous women dressed in traditional kimonos in Ninenzaka (it is an auspicious day). They pose for photographs with their friends — some of whom I spot exchanging hidden smiles with the opposite sex (also dressed in male kimonos).

As the play of hide-and-seek continues, there are others who congenially stand next to each other and smile, looking into the other’s eye, for the camera. I silently observe the subtleties of their social encounters — a delicate balance of cultural concealment and modern abstinence.

The subtleties of Japan are many.

As Kazuo Ishiguro writes in his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World: “I would be the first to agree many of the old ways must now be erased for ever, but don’t you think sometimes some good things are being thrown out with the bad? Indeed, sometimes Japan has come to look like a small child learning from a strange adult” — a book where an artiste indulges in nostalgia through the aftermath of World War II.

Home away

Even though Ishiguro moved from his birthplace, Nagasaki, at a young age of five, his stories often trickle back to the country. From A Pale View of the Hills in 1982, his first book, there seems to be a certain melancholy in his idea of ‘home’. Oftentimes I have also felt the manipulations of memory in his work. “Memory, I realise, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.”

Even then, Ishiguro’s stories have contributed immensely to me staying in love with Japan.

But perhaps Haruki Murakami is the most read writer from the land? Murakami made me curious about Tokyo in his The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and strengthened this feeling with the fragile relationships in Men Without Women.

As I return to Tokyo to stay for a night (or two), I follow the path that the protagonist in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle takes in the book — Ginza, Shinjuku and Imperial Garden.

Yet, somehow, my thoughts are overpowered by his characters in Men Without Women’s stories, where Takatsuki’s rationality shines through: “If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.” And Tanimura’s relentless attraction yet pragmatic conversations with Erika, “Dreams are the kind of things you can — when you need to — borrow and lend out.”

If Golden’s portraiture has deceived the real, Murakami’s narratives have added truth to the existing delicateness of the Japanese culture. If Iyer’s love for Japan can restructure his sense of belonging, Ishiguro’s stories on diaspora only add gravity and maintain balance.

For me though, Japan is ever-evolving and its facets only grow in their wonder. What, however, remains eternal is the magic of my first visit to the country, through their words.

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Making it her own

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