I: Warm up
I’m thinking about moving.
One foot, then the other. Up the mountain, down the mountain, thoughts follow each other like feet, on a path that they’re not directing, the logic of which is mostly unseen.
It’s the Sunday before the spring equinox, when day and night are of roughly equal length everywhere in the world, as the sun crosses the equator. I’m taking a path — up — that I’ve been before, but last time I was going in the other direction — down — flying with gravity to beat twilight.
I’m thinking about moving. Where to, and also why.
The day before, I held a Japanese credit card with my name on it for the first time since I got here. Sort of: My first name was absent a hyphen or space, so it all ran together like the sound of an arrow hitting a target, then a victory cry: THUHUONG…HA! It seemed like the culmination of three and a half years of learning this life, a diploma for a degree in searching, translating, fitting in boxes, conforming to systems, politeness, the language of formal documents, bureaucracy, rules, fine print.
Most expat websites say it’s not worth it to try and get a Japanese credit card. They say it’s not necessary and that foreigners might have issues because their credit scores don’t carry over. I’ve been using my US credit cards, one a piece of metal so slick and premium that entire days of the internet news cycle were fed by articles about this status credit card when it first came out. The hyphen on it is neat and narrow, making up a line of round sans serif embossed letters on this unshreddable symbol of upwardly mobile American millennials of a certain time period. I’m no longer paid in a currency that can converse easily with this card, and so it’s finally time to pry my fingers loose of the $ and embrace ¥.
On the mountain, my education and degree are of no use. No one takes card, there’s nothing to read, Tokyo decorum has to be unlearned. It’s almost rude not to disrupt strangers with your presence. KONNICHIWA! This day…!
Meanwhile, I’m thinking about…How much to buy a motorbike in Vietnam? How hard is it to learn Portuguese? Just leave all the cards in a stack and never look back. Be quiet, says Presence: Look at the trees, the grasses, the roots, the bay, the moss, the benches, the mitsumata. Look, with your eyes, at what’s in front of you, not your mind’s eye, at where you might be instead.
As I was saying, continues Memory.
The credit card had initially come a month earlier.
I opened the door and saw him standing there, this young delivery guy holding my credit card-degree in his hands. I’ve heard many stories involving banking system issues and mismatched names and failed package delivery; I was ready with my residence card, determined to prove my identity. The dude held up my ID next to the plastic window in the envelope and scrutinized them. After three and a half years as a student of this life, I could read in the shifting shades of his silence that something was wrong. Before he said anything, I knew I wasn’t getting the card.
I tried to preempt him: “My middle name wouldn’t fit in the form.”
“That’s not it,” he said. “There’s an A in the address on this envelope.” He pointed to my apartment number. “There’s no A in the address on this ID.”
Did he think I was defrauding an American with my exact birthday who lives on the B side of my building? But I knew there was no use in trying to reason with him. He seemed almost excited, practically waved as he ran away with my card still in his hands.
As I watched him go, a memory flashed across my mind of being inside the ward office, a grim window-less floor with low ceilings that might have been conjured by Charlie Kaufman, unfortunately without the Malkovich portal. I was being shown on a computer from another era the block I lived on. “Our system doesn’t specify which building is A and which is B,” the woman told me. “We can’t include the letter in your address, because the system doesn’t recognize the difference. Is that OK?” “Sure,” I said. Was there another option? She stamped my ID, creating a wave of clerical issues that would knock against my fraying patience a year and a half later.
Four bureaucracies — the regional immigration office, my local government, my credit card company, and the delivery service — all with complex systems of rules that couldn’t talk to each other. The red tape was wound so thick and tight that the centimeters between this person’s hands and mine could not be traversed by one human decision to just be fucking cool for once. I closed the door and went back to packing for a trip out of Japan I had told no one about.
I think it’s a common experience for expats. Somewhere on the vast mountain of language learning and adjusting to life in Japan, you’re climbing, cutting through a dense forest, and suddenly you come to a clearing. It’s littered with bodies. A few people look shattered and worn out, but a lot of people seem relaxed: They’ve decided, happily, this is as far as they’ll go. A few more are regarding this final section, formidably steep and craggy, filled with dirty snapped ropes, making a methodical plan to power to the top. Others are looking to hitch a ride on a native who’s effortlessly gliding by. I’ve been here for a little bit, pacing around, eyeing the cliff with suspicion, thinking I’ve started climbing only to realize I’ve somehow regressed down the incline. This is the keigo jump, the final boss of Japanese politeness and formality and nuance, and while I’m very averse to turning around midway on a mountain, I’m not sure that a glimpse of the top is worth my life.
This disenchantment seeps into everything. I feel really tight. The rules, the conformity, the tiny spaces, the inflexibility, why does it take so much patience and energy to go to the doctor, or search for an apartment, or sign into my bank account? Why did I do this to myself?
I’m thinking about moving, I tell TM.
She makes a face when I remind her where I live. TM suggests that my very bougie neighborhood is phony and superficial. She suggests, also, that if I look harder, past the celebrity moms with perfectly evenly separated eyelashes, there are normies, weirdos even. (She suggests, also, Osaka.) I process all of this and continue refining the filters on my apartment search.
Two days later, I go to pick up a pair of jeans whose zipper has broken during a routine shimmy. The man who runs this dry cleaner never remembers me, always has absurdly long return times for fixes, and seems to charge a lot, yet I keep going back. As he’s ringing me up, I grope for a non-phony comment. He has a pamphlet on the wall for Hanzoman Museum, a Buddhist art museum in central Tokyo that I like, so I ask about it.
Cleaner-san launches into a 15-minute monologue, about 80% of which I understand. A mixture of curiosity, politeness, and amusement keep me rooted in place, as well as this constant shame I feel, left over from being a student, that I don’t comprehend more. It’s not the first time I’ve been proselytized to, but certainly the first in which I am paying extremely close attention to the vocabulary. He says something about how when your foot gets stepped on on the train, you shouldn’t think of it as someone maliciously hurting you, but that your foot was in the path of their foot. I nod slowly. Sometime after he says that his family has only women in it except for him; that his house is haunted; that I should join him on his next temple visit, I politely excuse myself.
I walk to Kuhonbutsu and see a few newly opened sakura blossoms and reluctantly draw a fortune. (Maximum luck: “Hurry up and move”; “Believe in love.”) I try not to stare at a big well-dressed wedding party taking photos on the steps of the main temple building. “Rich phony fucks,” I think in a shiver of bitterness toward my neighborhood, but then I glimpse something out of place: The groom has a big, colored tattoo climbing up his face. A bold choice anywhere, exceedingly so in Japan.
At home, I get a text from Cleaner-san about his branch of Shingon Buddhism, with the reassurance that should I ever face troubles, 真如苑, or Shinnyo-en, the “Garden of Truth,” “literally a ‘borderless garden’ of ‘thusness’” is here is help.
Feet: ground. Head: clouds. Fingers: cold. Mind: open. Heart: hard at work. I reach the summit of Tōnodake and look out across the valley at Mt. Fuji, which should be visible from here. All I see is cloud.
It’s still winter on the mountain, but the air is wet with the promise of something that wants to burst forth. The way up is crowded, but the way I take home has only me. It’s beautiful and quiet. It’s also late. The sun goes into the ocean while I’m still hiking down, and I feel little pulses of fear as I look into the forest with no light. Shift my feet in my shoes. Step, step, step, step, step, step, step, ste