Original Departures

By Dipika Kohli

I am in Narita: as in Tokyo Narita, as in, right next to the airport. From the window of this hotel you can see the sun about to set behind a crop of trees: a scene that reminds me a lot of Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

It's so quiet here, right before I go, and I've found a moment to quickly jot impressions before going to meet the high school friend of my college friend, both of whom are waiting at a station a bus ride away. It'll be good. Stern drinks this time instead of the sodas we used to share in rounds over in Kyoto and Washington D. C. at karaoke boxes years ago. We've all done a lot of growing up. Of course. Lucky to have longitudinal friendships, I realize, in these last few days: I've been catching up with some, here and there, these last few weeks. After all, it's been eight years since I was last in Kanto, which is this side of Japan. Studied abroad in Kyoto, got handy enough with Japanese to land an internship in an architect's office, and kept coming back. Nine times, ten? Often. Opportunity, as they say, is an admixture of preparedness and luck. Or was it another permutation of those words? I've forgotten exactly, but it sounds good, right? Say it like you know what you're quoting and people believe you. A little too readily, if you ask me. Better to trust, instead, the Book of You. Guess that's what I'm doing here, checking in with the past, re-examining that which I think I remember, seeing where ideas have shifted shape, or revisit the spots that taught me to soak in, when you can, the things that are right in front of you, in the moment. A week ago in Mito, the ume were in full bloom, for example, at the Kairakuen, which calls itself the world's second biggest city park. After the plum tree's flowers, the cherry, or sakura, came out, too.

But let me back up. A couple of weeks ago I was in Hà Noi: taking the desperately important time that one needs to simply pore through gobs of paper, typing some lines into a computer, then dumping the rest. Wish I could say that this processing had opened a plateau, from which point I could visit Japan with new eyes. How best to approach this old-and-yet-new-again conversation? (But honestly, all the revisiting with my old lines had just left me very tired. What used to matter no longer does: why hold on to obsolete records?)

Here in Japan again, weirdly, I started seeing ideograms, or kanji, when people spoke to me. I remembered my very first Japanese language teacher, Kyoko Murakami, showing us how to draw them, in high school in Durham. She'd had immaculate calligraphy. That kind of attentiveness to detail: where to apply pressure with a brush, how to move the hand, the formality and order... learning from here these things opened my eyes to a place very far from North Carolina where aesthetics are... important. And not just in an academic or throwaway kind of way. They're built into the whole thing. This past week I saw some Edo-era buildings, and more, and was reminded all over again of the great care taken in the arrangements of things there, and at the Tokyo National Museum with its many sutras, bowls and scrolls.

On the train up from the Izu Peninsula this morning, there was a transfer at Tokyo Station. The Yamanote Line. Many of the stops on the familiar circular line are places I've been before in years past, and spent good chunks of time in. Memories. A very late night once, with a missed last train from Ueno, for example, had led to a wander underground with a friend born and raised in Hiroshima whom I'd first met in North Carolina; on that particular day, I had met her to return a borrowed coffee maker, so after dinner, I think we missed the train, and then, stuffed the machine into a coin locker and ducked into a crazy disco that used to be in Roppongi, I think, called Velfarre. Recounting this story often in the years since, I always talk about the weird experience of taking an elevator down, down, down, after handing over Y4,000 for admission (which came, I remember, with a free mini-deodorant.) Gosh, I still remember that. I mean, it was one of those all-time crazy explorations that push your edges, and confirm there is way, way more out there than you ever dreamed. Legend's in Raleigh back in the days when my girlfriends dragged me to a drag show once, or Limelight when it was there in Manhattan: similar. Art can be a moment. Shared experiences of seeing and learning, together. With comfort and familiarity. Japan: where I first heard jazz, where I first saw major skyscrapers, where I tried my first beer at a dear friend's family home. Fear of other melted a bit when I got closer towards uchi from soto. Inside from outside. Inches, but still. It makes a difference.

“That's just you, though," said a friend in Tokyo, whom I met after more than a decade of not seeing one another. Last Tuesday we shared lunch. “Other people are doing something, the group, but then there's you, off somewhere, walking around, alone..." (I'm translating, and sometimes things get lost, of course... Add some air, here. A pause, lots of space, between the words...)

“Really?" (Me.)
“Yes. You haven't changed."
“I have, surely."
“No. You haven't. Exactly the same. And, well. You're just an adult now. Naturally."
“Um—wait, I can't have not changed at—-."
“And one more thing."
“Your brother. Call him. I still remember when we hung out together, with your cousin, and..."
“...I can't..."
“Don't make excuses for the things that are important. Like this conversation. I'm sorry it took me so long..."

I have to stop taking so many notes, now, or dreaming up books-to-be. Must make a space. Let go. Nature. Shifts. Goodbye to the old post-it notes that never inspired a piece with real substance. Goodbye index cards large and small with a smeared pencil obscuring words that probably don't matter now and which, anyway, I can no longer read. Writing this today with a 4B pressure-proofed pencil, made, of course, in Japan. Hello, new page. Hello, writing without even writing. Compositions in dream-form, waking up with a brightness that comes from the same motion of moving a pen on a page, that wondrous, 'Yeah, that's it, maybe now we're getting somewhere. Let's keep going, there.' Where did I learn these things, first?... Ah yes. Japan. And here we are again: a curious rapprochement.


Dipika Kohli is the author of Kanishka, The Elopement, and Breakfast in Cambodia. See kismuth.com.