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Suszynski: My sacred lot

The only time I have spent in Japan was for a 12-hour layover. As soon as the plane landed, I found a place to stash my bag and then I hopped on the train to Tokyo. I was looking for something. On my way there, I got lost and ate almost everything that presented itself. I picked up every o-mikuji, or random fortune, at every temple I visited and at one point, I was sucked into cheering for a baseball game.

Five hours in, I found myself in a small tavern. I ordered non-alcoholic Hoppy beer mixed with shochu. It was cold then. The beer was doing a good job of warming me up.

It is easy for me to recall this experience because it was so short. It’s all coming back to me because I am turning the last page of the book “Strange Weather in Tokyo” by Hiromi Kawakami, as the snow accumulates outside my window.

The narrator is relatable. Her name is Tsukiko. She’s 37, works a lot, likes to drink sake (a lot of sake), and she often sits at a small bar near the train station close to her home. She’s sometimes lazy and sometimes, very loveable. At this bar, on the very first page of the book, she runs into her old Japanese professor from high school. She calls him “Sensei” because she can’t remember his name.

Sensei and Tsukiko sit next to each other and order food. Tsukiko asks for, “‘Tuna with fermented soybeans, fried lotus root, and salted shallots,’ while the old man next to me requested ‘Salted shallots, lotus root fries, and tuna with fermented soybeans’ almost simultaneously.”

On the one hand, I long for this interaction. How nice it must be to have a casual encounter of connectedness. On the other hand, this small moment is so precisely rendered. The narrator is the one recalling the memory, which makes me think: How do you remember exactly what the other person ordered if you spoke “almost simultaneously.” The point is not necessarily about unreliable first-person narratives, it’s more about the stories we construct around our loved ones. How does one portray a connection?

In my two favorite chapters, titled “Mushroom Hunting, Part 1” and “Mushroom Hunting, Part 2,” Sensei and Tsukiko go on a trip to the forest with the owner of the bar to harvest mushrooms.

Tsukiko sits down on a stump and catches her breath. Alone, she assesses her surroundings: “I realized the undergrowth was alive with all manner of things. Tiny orange mushrooms. Moss. Something that looked like coarse white veins on the underside of a leaf. … It seemed strange to be surrounded by so many living things.” Here, the reader begins to sense that Tsukiko is emerging, perhaps realizing that for the first time, loneliness might be the absence of conscious observance. As soon as she opens her eyes, she becomes a part of her surroundings.

“When I was in Tokyo, I couldn’t help but feel like I was always alone, or occasionally in the company of Sensei. It seemed like the only living things in Tokyo were big like us. But of course, if I really paid attention, there were plenty of other living things surrounding me in the city as well,” she says.

When I was wandering through Tokyo, a big part of me was like Tsukiko. I felt lost in the sea of people, they became flecks to me, not anything really, and I felt very disconnected from their rushing about. I was lonely in that great, big city. But as I was drinking my beer and shochu, I realized that yes, there were many living things around me. I had stepped into a new ecosystem that was both like the system I was accustomed to, and yet very different. I think loneliness, too, is its ecosystem.

At one point, Tsukiko has a full day to recuperate after a hard work week. Toward evening, she decides to leave her cozy apartment. “This time of year, rather, with its prolonged nightfall — it’s not dark yet, soon but not quite dark yet — seemed to play tricks on me. The moment after I realized it was dark, I would feel a surge of loneliness. … That’s why I left my apartment. Out on the street, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t the only one here, that I wasn’t the only one feeling lonely. But this wasn’t the kind of thing you could tell just by looking at the passerby. The harder I tried to see it, the less sure I was about anything. … It was then that I unexpectedly ran into Sensei.”

Loneliness isn’t something we can see necessarily because it’s so internal. For Tsukiko, it took meeting Sensei in order to pick her head up and notice the moss on the rocks. For me too, it took surveying my surroundings. If my internal ecosystem is caught in an endless loop, I will never be open to the snow falling or the new taste of shochu. Years later, after my visit to Tokyo, as I sit here watching the snow blowing in, as the days grow shorter, my Sensei is the o-mikuji, literally the “sacred lot.” That day in Japan, I had only picked up good fortunes.


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