Japan

An Earthquake in Tokyo and a lesson in Fear

Its 5.30am and the entire room has just shifted from left to right. 

My 75 year old father and I are spending three nights in Tokyo just across the road from the Park Hyatt where Scarlett Johanson first coyly flashed her eye lashes at a jet lagged Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation.” 

It happens again. 

I sit up and hold my breath, as if making myself quieter will help me feel the vibration of more tremors. 

There is a pause and nothing.

Nothing but an oily empty swilling feeling in my stomach, the fizzing of adrenaline starting through my nervous system and the strangely, calm and rational shifting of options as my mind hurriedly pulls through its old filing cabinet of experience to look for possible explanations. 

No, my mind reports back to my body. This is an earthquake, we can sit still, we can leave the building or we can look out the window for what to do next.

And yes, uncontrollably and inevitably the next thing I think about is the World Trade Center. Its hard not too stuck on the 23rd floor of a skyscraper that is now swaying from side to side.

I've never felt so physically and primally vulnerable surrounded by steel columns and shaded glass.

I was awake already of course. 

One of the great things about being on the road by myself was that the middle of the night insomnia bursts stopped at the same time the day job did. 

 

But now my mind has conjured up lots more things that for some reason I absolutely have to try and solve at 4am in the morning. In addition- having stripped my life of absolutely everything that could preoccupy me from doing what I love I can now see how thickly set the obstacles are that stop me from making progress. And most of them are internal.

Procrastination - in all its forms -  laziness, lack of discipline, and perfectionism. 

An American I’ve become friends with says later: 

“Oh god that whole thing, like we can’t do anything unless its 100% perfect, who ever came up with that?!”

“I think you’ll find that was my father” I wisecrack in truthfulness. The man I'm now sharing a hotel room with. 

Back when I was little my drawings were never good enough, my piano playing was never done with feeling and my writing was “verbose.” 

 

School teachers came and went but a sexually inappropriate English teacher and an art teacher for whom everything was “just about OK” meant my creativity went screaming in the opposite direction and years later perfectionism and procrastination are reigning queens. But they are just fear dressed up fancy. 

The fear of change, the fear of doing something new, the fear of not being good enough and perhaps with this blog, the most pertinent of all, the fear of being truly vulnerable and exposing exactly what i’m feeling to any random person at any given moment. 

Fear, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing of course.  Its our natural survival instinct kicking in. But the old flight or fight system that once upon a time protected us in as hunter scavengers somehow got passed over modus operandi into less life threatening situations. 

Our brains still think we’re in an episode of the Hunger Games when in fact all we’re trying to do is set up a new website or start a creative project. 

That’s the kind of fear that normally wakes me up in the early hours of the morning. 

Now, however i’m suddenly right in the middle of experiencing real survival fear. And it feels different. Every fibre of my being is awake, alert and responsive.

Suddenly I have a benchmark with which to compare.

I get up and go look at the window.  It is eerily silent. I suppose it is 530am. And at this height everything feels like that anyway - so removed from the heat and scrabble of the real world. 

As if on cue my architect father wakes up and- ever the master of sanguine understatement - says:

“well that was a bit of a shock wasn’t it”

“Don’t worry”  he explains. "The Japanese architects plan for earthquakes when they design buildings like these, so it can absorb the shock.”

Hollywood, up until this point,  has been having a party in my brain. When something so infeasible starts to happen in reality the first reference point perhaps my only reference point,  is the movies. 

Bright lights big city, Tokyo

 I envisage a thousand smoky glass window panes being blown outwards from the skyscraper opposite, people screaming and flooding through the doors, swarming out onto the perfectly manicured gardens of the hotels; maybe its Godzilla rampaging around the corner to shake my building between his great scaly paws my sleep addled brain jokes to itself hysterically. 

Although i’m not entirely convinced even if the great lizard himself made an appearance that it would cause this most polite and gentle of people to run screaming, eyes bulging in the opposite direction. 

Everything here is run with such pristine elegance, safety and consideration.

Impeccably uniformed ticket collectors on trains bow deeply before entering carriages, men in bright, starched uniforms pick litter between exquisitely white cotton gloved fingertips. Even the leaves on the trees seem to grow in an orderly fashion. The great lime starbursts of the trees that festoon temples and shrines create perfectly ordered starlike geometric patterns against the sky. 

Here no one jaywalks but waits patiently for the lights to change. 

“Why would anyone want to walk early? we follow the rules because they work!” says my Japanese friend Dai genially.

I’ve only had a glimpse of Tokyo, we’ve spent three nights here and i’m not exactly tripping the light fantastic until dawn but what i’ve seen is the electrically charged blinking, glinting mans world of neon,light cubes and glass or order and precision. 

I can’t imagine anything as chaotic as the zigzagging earth split of a natural phenomenonsuch as an earth quake would dare to disrupt this glinting, electronically lit, perfectly ordered man’s world. 

Later in the trip, we escape to the soft waters of Lake Ashi and a traditional Japanese Ryokan. 

I’m enjoying the tradition of a Japanese onsen (a hot spring) andstart chatting to the young student i’m sharing a pool with who is also from Tokyo.  She asks if I was there when the earthquake happened recently. 

“Yes! I was scared….was it a big earthquake?” 

She giggles at my question and shakes her head.

“hahaahha nooo not big, not that one…” 

And then in explanation

“No Tsunami!!”

Well that is a relief. 

And an important lesson. 

I have a feeling my fellow bather wasn’t scared by the minor tremors that had me clinging to the bed covers because to her they were a known quantity, she’d lived through them before, she knew what to expect and could expand herself and experience to tackle bigger, better or worse head on.

And if you can do that by wrestling Hunger Games survival fear to the ground and stepping over it rather than around it or backing up the other way then suddenly perhaps my pursuit of creative freedom, individuation and setting up that all important website, doesn’t really seem so terrifying after all. 


END


Naked Lady Bathing in Japan

sakura (cherry blossom) in Japan

One of my favourite parts of a recent two week whistle stop tour of Japan with my 75 year old father was getting to escape the neon lit,  smog filled cities of Osaka and Tokyo (and my father) and enjoy the ritual of a female only hot spring bath in a traditional Japanese Onsen. 

We have travelled for hours on the famous bullet train and taken a winding local bus up the hills towards the shores of Lake Ashi near Mount Fuji and are staying at a traditional Ryokan where the walls of our room are made of rice paper dividers and the only place to sit is a small mat on the floor. 

The Onsen are divided into male and female bathing quarters and the rules are strict. One washes first and bathes, naked. 

A young student in her twenties laughs in delight when i ask if i have to get in naked.

“It is strange for you, are you embarrassed?” she asks.

Although i’ve never been body conscious it makes me wonder - there is a second of discomfort due to the strangeness and unfamiliarity of disrobing in front of so many of my own sex that has never happened taking my clothes in front of a man before.  

I drop my towel and perch on the little plastic stool, and then wash using the shower handle to rinse myself down.

Peering over the steam drifting in layers over the sunken stone baths I make my way over and ease my way into the hot water. The onsen is beautiful. A sunken stone pool outside, lit up in the early spring sunshine with bright pink bursts of cyclamen decorating the grounds. 

I gaze at all the different women’s bodies I'm sharing this pool with. I look at their thick, creamy white legs and the heaviness their hips, of the young student who talked to me and the xylophone of her ribs and study with envy the sheets of their black, shiny hair twirled up into chignons.

It's like a Degas painting in here, beautiful and sensuous and steamy. Women of all shapes and sizes huddling in corners or floating in the water in a world of their own. 

Old ladies help each other over the slippery tiles, giggling and a mother guides her little girl down into the waters. 

There is a something I find so special about this ritual of communal bathing with our own sex and soothing - the softness, camaraderie and safety of women of all ages gathering and bathing naked.

It reminds me of other times and other cultures where i’ve had the pleasure of experiencing something similar.

I oncespent several happy nights in Luang Prabang, Laos wandering through the tumbling rain and jumping over the puddles in the broken stones of the road to join the local women at their herbal steam room. 

Here young girls in their twenties showed me how to wrap my cotton sarong and tie my hair up in a knot. They handed me barley tea outside when i needed to cool off and gave me the communal pumice to slough away dead skin on my body. I will always remember the deep, steamy heat and medicated air of that steam room and the soft hushed giggles and whispers of the women I shared it with whilst the dark, chilly rain pounded outside. 

In Morocco and Turkey I’ve stood naked and shivering whilst a little old lady in plastic knickers throws a bucket of foam and water at me and then scrubbed me down with a brush. Laying on a thick marble slab i remember anticipating a relaxing western style spa massage only to endure an hour long torture of my poor muscles being slapped, poked and pummelled into submission.

It reminds me of an anecdote one of my friends told me,  who also experienced the baths of Morocco and, unable to believe that one should enter naked,  found herself standing in soggy bra and knickers in ornately decorated tile room where everyone else was naked. I wonder how much i’ve missed not having a ritual like this in my Western world where its more normal that women have been pitted against each other in the office or are held up for scrutiny in the gossipy trivia of the glossies.

Would we be as fixated with the body beautiful and burdened by the pressure to conform if we had this regular ritual in our day to day experience in the UK.  Sharing a zumba class together and then getting changed after at the local gym just doesn't cut it. 

That sense of female bonding seems so far removed from the smoothies and hipster cafes and mindless TV and grafitti of South East london. Perhaps my female friends who are mothers get to share a female solidarity in baby and toddler groups with each other i've missed out on so far - but even that portion of our lives is such a small segment in comparison with the whole. I imagine having a place when I was a teenager where, instead of the likes of Page 3 or Conde Nast dictating how and what our bodies mean, we were able to experience the whole gamut of female body shape and life from the very young to the very old. Where we could find solace in a regular ritual amongst women of all ages and use that to define both our comfort and our relationship with our own bodies as well as with other women.

I like to think, if i ever have a little girl, I would try and incorporate this ritual into her life...Not sure how achievable its going to be this side of Waterloo Bridge though... !