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30 years of Japan

Today will be remembered by many as the 1st anniversary of David Bowie’s death, but it also represents a special anniversary for me, as it marks 30 years to the day that I first set foot in Japan.

10th January 1987 – a date ingrained into my memory. It was a one-way ticket into the unknown, on a year’s working visa for a sponsor I knew almost nothing about. A country in which I was to live permanently for 21 years without a break, and have frequently returned to in the years since I left in 2008.

What was I thinking? Previously the longest I’d ever been away from the UK was a 10-Day excursion to Europe with my mum & dad. I’d only been on a plane once before and had never travelled anywhere overseas on my own. I was walking away from a promising expanding illustration career in London, I’d just finished my debut trade picture book for Andre Deutsch (The Secret in the Matchbox), my editorial illustrations graced the pages of everything from City Limits to Cosmo, Working Woman and Homes & Gardens. I’d just said farewell to the solid community of my Crouch End studio, abandoning everything I’d worked for over the previous five years, and plunged into this weird fascination for a country I knew only from it’s art history, and second-hand through friends in Anjinkai, the London-based Anglo-Japanese society. It was madness, but I just had to go, something just took over, I had never felt so strongly that I had to travel to a place, not just to visit, but to live there.

It was no accident I went to Japan, it was an irresistibly unstoppable urge. Since becoming fascinated with Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, my interest in Japan had expanded into wider appreciation of Edo-era history, then finally through the wide circle of Japanese and former ex-pat British friends I made through Anjinkai, people who had all lived in or were born in Japan.

They all knew Japan first hand, now it was my turn. All I had was a suitcase of clothes, some language study books and my illustration portfolio. The plan was to study the culture of shitamachi (old downtown Tokyo), do whatever illustration work was commissioned by my sponsor, and learn the language. I was committed to one year, hoped for two, possibly even three. Thinking back on it now I can barely imagine the risk I was taking. I had an unshaken belief it was the right thing to do, that everything would be alright…. and after many arduous months it did eventually turn out alright. Little did I suspect I’d be there 21 years, encountering acclamation, frustration, triumph, transgression, love, tragedy and cataclysm in great, smothering dollops. Tokyo would bring it all on.

What would have happened had I never set foot in Tokyo? Would I even still be an illustrator?

I’ve actually just come back from nearly 3 weeks in Japan, where daughter and I spent Christmas and New Year with her grandparents, this latest visit was my first time back to Japan in 2 years, so the longest I’ve been away from the country since I moved there all those years ago. As there’s not much to do over the New Year period (virtually all clients were away and many of my old friends) on this latest trip back I spent a lot of time just going to my old haunts. Looking around familiar locations I was intensely aware of the significance in my personal history.

One of the most memorable days on this latest trip was to re-visit Yanaka, an old downtown suburb of Tokyo that survived both earthquakes and wartime bombing, and where I lived for a year from May ’87. Prior to that I was housed by my sponsor for a few traumatic months in a far-flung new town out in the countriside. Higashi Kurume – nothing there was as old as I was – at that time the town (mostly fields) was less than 20 years old, about as far removed from my fascination with old Edo as you could get. Unsurprisingly things did not turn out well with my sponsor. To their credit they did their best and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity they offered – they wanted to help me and thought I would be a useful asset to their company. But nothing had been planned, they had no work role for me or any understanding of my aims in Japan. We were as different as chalk and cheese – I assumed they were a sophisticated illustration rep involved with the creative business, they were in fact a hack office for the worst kind of businessman’s titilating magazine, with fingers in various other activities from Chinese medicine to a local bakery. They thought of me as a student on a gap year, a foreign visitor they would (eventually) think of some role for. Relationships deteriorated rapidly.

So discovering the tranquil beauty of Yanaka and eventually finding my own residence close by was I feel the real start of my life in Japan. Though only a drab condominium flat, it was my own rented property in an area I wanted to live, away from my sponsor, and it got me on my feet. Seeing the old town again on this trip after all these years was fascinating and heart-warming. I loved Yanaka then, and still …. I only moved away eventually because things moved rapidly for me in uptown Aoyama, and I needed to be closer to facilities.

Things have changed in Yanaka since I lived there, very many of the old wooden buildings have gone (as I examined in previous blog posts here and here), nevertheless the town undoubtedly has a much more lively and tourist-friendly culture now, the atmosphere of the area has if anything become even more enhanced through the arrival of tiny galleries, crafts and boutique cafes. It’s become a landmark place to visit for Tokyoites and tourists alike. When I lived near Yanaka I rarely saw another foreigner, it was incredibly hard to find a letting agent that would even show me property. Now the area is one of the most cosmopolitan in Tokyo.

Most satisfying of all was to once more stand outside the Yoshida Yasake-ten, a preserved Edo-era Victualler, part of the Shitamachi Museum. My old mansion flat stood a minute’s walk away, and the whole of the crossing around the old building, the cafe on the corner, the Sembei-seller, the public Sento – all was exactly the same as when I lived there in 1987. Nothing had changed – one memory at least was completely preserved!

As I cast my mind back to that fateful day of 10th January 1987, I vividly remember every hour – it was cold and crisp, blue sky but dry air, everywhere was new and luridly bright, I was terrified and somewhat bewildered, and yet fascinated. That night it clouded over and snowed heavily, giving everything an even more surreal image the following day when I was taken, not to somewhere in Tokyo, but out to the fields of Higashi Kurume. The property I was left alone in that first winter was so bitterly cold I spent almost all my time under a kotatsu or in bed. The first few months in Japan were tough, but I was gripped by a fascination for Tokyo that has never diminished over these 30 years.

Tokyo, you’ve given me enlightenment, glamour, terror and heartbreak. I’ve more crazy experiences than I can remember – some wonderful, some anguishing. You picked me up, bathed me in limelight, chewed me to bits and cast me down. 30 years of toil, enrapture, triumph and loss. But I still love you, and today I celebrate!!

#Japan #tokyo #Yanaka #Yanesen

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