“Heeey,” says Kevin with a tired smile as he steps into the flat.
“Hey! Awww, you’re baaack!” Jon hugs him tightly, beaming. “How was it?”
“It was great.” Kevin slips his backpack off. It hits the floor with a thud. He closes the door with his foot. “It was – amazing. It’s so different over there.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it is! I wanna hear all about it.” Jon goes back into the kitchen. He’s frying something with garlic.
“Well I took lots of pictures.”
“Oh, great. You must be really tired right now.”
“Yeah … Kind of. I don’t know; I feel weirdly awake. But I’ve – been in the air for 15 hours.”
Kevin goes to the window and stares out at nothing. “How have you been?”
“How has everything been around here?”
“Uh, fine. Same as always.”
“Where’s Jakob? Are you still seeing him?”
“No? Why not?” Kevin turns and walks up to his friend in the kitchen.
“I don’t know; he just stopped answering my texts. I can’t get ahold of him.”
He stares at his toes on the tatami. He knows there’s bedbugs in this place. He scratches the bites on his ankles as he sits on the mattress in a t-shirt and boxers. Outside, in the dark blue 6 o’clock twilight, a traffic jam buzzes and honks on Quanqian Road. He needs to go get dinner soon. He might go for McDonalds again. Taiwanese cooking has had weird effects on his bowels.
He could try to find another place to stay for tonight, a nice, clean, bedbug-free hotel. But he can’t be bothered. It’s only one more night. Let the bedbugs go to town on him. As long as they don’t get into his backpack. But he read that that’s not very likely, if you keep it zipped up. He’ll wash all his clothes and throw the backpack out when he gets home. It’s had its day, anyway. He had that backpack when he was in college.
There’s not that much to do in Taipei. There’s a hundred museums and temples, but they get boring. Today he saw the Mengjia Longshan Temple and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Weird to see a memorial for someone who was basically a murderous dictator. He watched the Taiwanese visitors’ faces while he was in there. They were inscrutable, quiet.
When he got to Kyoto he shaved his beard off. It took longer than he’d thought. He had to run the blades over the same spots several times, standing shirtless and shivering in the ryokan corridor. It was late in the afternoon. From down the hall he could hear the voices of an Australian family. His stomach was rumbling; he needed to get dinner soon.
After shaving he stared at his newborn face, irritated and blotchy. His upper lip had reappeared, surprising him with its fullness and its weird slant to one side. He’d had the beard for a year, since last November. Strange to feel his smooth face again.
His friends would no doubt joke when he came back, about him having re-invented himself in Japan, having found his inner zen. Had he meant this symbolically? Wiping the slate clean? Yes, maybe, why not. Now that he saw his face clean-shaven again though, he wasn’t sure he liked it any better. Some people are just never satisfied, he mused, making himself laugh drily as he went back into his room.
The coolest thing I experienced in Tokyo was, without a doubt, the film lover’s bar La Jetée. It’s a tiny, dimly lit joint, about 5 square metres, tucked away on the second floor of a building in Golden-Gai, the deliciously dingy and compressed Shinjuku drinking district. Golden-Gai is a must-see if you’re in Tokyo; it’s all tiny bars crammed together like tetris blocks in a labyrinth of narrow, dark alleyways. It feels like somewhere Harrison Ford would chase a replicant through in Blade Runner, but also like somewhere Yasujiro Ozu’s middle-aged salarymen would get drunk on sake while discussing their daughters’ marriage options. It’s great.
Anyway, La Jetée: My guidebook claimed that this is a favourite haunt of famous directors from Quentin Tarantino to Wim Wenders, so naturally I had to go there (even though I find both those directors overrated, but never mind that.)
The tiny room is decorated with posters from avantgarde cinema, including the bar’s namesake, Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), a short film about memory and time travel (of which Twelve Monkeys is essentially a remake). Behind the bar, slightly hidden behind piles of cool CDs, stands Tomoyo the owner, a sweet, soft-spoken woman in her 50’s or 60’s who speaks good English and very good French. Talking to her in the latter, I learned that she’s at least as big a film lover as me. And yes, people like Tarantino have been in the bar (“he’s very cinephile,” Tomoyo told me; no surprise there.)
But the greatest thing was that when I mentioned the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien being my personal favourite, Tomoyo casually said that oh; he’d been in the bar to shoot a scene for Café Lumière (2007), his one film shot in Japan – a lovely Ozu-homage about a young woman adrift in life. Amazed, I asked if the main actor from the film – the very attractive Tadanobu Asano – had also been in the bar for that scene. Yes, said Tomoyo; the camera had been right here on the bar, and they’d been sitting in the booth over there, improvising dialogue for an hour.
"Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current; this is what we call the floating world …"
— Asai Ryoi, Ukiyo monogatari (Tales of the Floating World, 1861)
"Some things can’t be solved just by going wild every now and then."
— Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
He watched the two taiko drummers playing their instruments with such speed and joy that it made one’s own heartbeat quicken, commandeering it; an almost sexual tightening of the body; a natural high. Their jagged Japanese hair fell over sweaty brows; their arms pumped, fingers twirled.
They finished, releasing him, so that he could join in the smiling applause surrounding him, a happy gaijin tourist in the crowd. The music had held him in its grip, the rhythm more insistent than any house or techno back home in London. Some ancient things are still more effective than their modern counterparts. More durable.
"He developed an addiction for internet pornography and began to indulge in strange auto-erotic practices which involved plastic coathangers, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, the leather belt of his trousers and a spatula."
— Jonathan Coe, The Closed Circle