In 2003 I completed my Masters of Multimedia, got my wisdom teeth removed, packed up all my stuff, moved out of my rental house, broke up with my boyfriend (almost) and went to live and work in Japan.
Why? All I know is I felt like a stranger in my home country, I was lost and I needed to get out. It still remains one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I arrived to a hot and sweaty Japanese summer and spent a couple of weeks getting orientated to my surroundings. I was there on the Jet program and I was to be an ALT ‘Assistant Language Teacher’. I met fellow ALT’s and we did things like buy cellphones that had the internet on them (I was still using my nokia ‘dumb’ phone so this was a miraculous thing to behold), take purikura as well as eat as many new things as we could before we were all shipped off to English summer camp.
English summer camp was were all the best high school students of English spent their summer and we were there to give them some ‘rooly good, actual English, talkin’ lessons’. The Jet Programme has been running for years and the reason it exists was so native English speakers could sit in on lessons and assist Japanese junior high school students on how to speak English, or at least that’s my take on it. At this camp we all marvelled at how the students didn’t raid the beer vending machines that shone like beacons in the night in the middle of forest where are cabins sat but instead studied English all night. Our job was to coach the students on how to sing various songs, most of them by the Backstreet boys, so they could all perform in the talent contest at the end of the week. We also played games with them and basically just hung out and ‘tried’ to talk about stuff. It was as awkward as you would imagine it to be.
This was my first month in Japan, sweaty summer surrounded by geeky, studious adolescents and sleeping in cabins in a pocket of old growth forest surrounded by miles of suburbia and cities.
Did I get culture shock, absolutely not! I relished every single minute. Here I was living my Princess Mononoke dream and getting paid for it.
Summer in Japan is a time for ghost stories, it is said they are told on warm summer nights so that the goosebumps you feel on hearing them will cool you down.
One such tradition is the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai
The game was played as night fell upon the region using three separate rooms. In preparation, participants would light 100 andon in the third room and position a single mirror on the surface of a small table. When the sky was at its darkest, guests gathered in the first of the three rooms, taking turns orating tales of ghoulish encounters and reciting folkloric tales passed on by villagers who claimed to have experienced supernatural encounters. These tales soon became known as kaidan. Upon the end of each kaidan, the story-teller would enter the third room and extinguished one andon, look in the mirror and make their way back to the first room. With each passing tale, the room slowly grew darker and darker as the participants reached the one hundredth tale, creating a safe haven for the evocation of spirits.
However, as the game reached the ninety-ninth tale, many participants would stop, fearful of invoking the spirits they had been summoning (from Wikipedia).
For me something happened that first summer that summoned a part of myself that had laid dormant for some time and I feel I have not looked back. I found stories within me that I finally wanted to tell, I found a sense of humour I wanted to share, I found a way of expressing these stories in the months and years that followed. I had gone to live in Japan for only a year but I would not return until over three years later and even then I was reluctant.
It’s like I was seeing again for the first time, yet this time I started seeing ghosts. On journeys in trains and on bike rides, through my local town Chiba, I would see ideas and pictures everywhere I went, characters floated with me, my ears slowly started to understand the language and from it emerged a way of seeing and story telling that still feeds me today.
It is true that only love, thieves and fear make ghosts. There is the shape shifting Fox woman who seduces men just like a Ginza girl after a salary man and the cheeky Zashiki Warashi child ghost that brings good luck or great misfortune depending on how they are treated. There are even objects in my kitchen that jump up out of cupboards in the middle of the night that remind me of my own weaknesses and past indescretions.
I have many personal ghost stories I could tell from my time in Japan, there’s the one about the shape shifting Tanuki that stopped me dead in my tracks as I jogged in a park, there’s another about the three ghostly white kittens I found behind an abandoned house who spoke to me in Japanese , there’s the night my friend Kumi and I found an alternative reality down an alleyway Haruki Murakami style, but the one I will tell you now is the one that began my second week in Japan at that summer camp.
I was sitting on the steps of the cabin with an icy cold beer in my hand that I had purchased for only 200 yen from a forest vending machine and laughing along with my new found friends, there was Joey from America, Andre from Canada and Sim from NZ as well as Owen from Wales, when my phone (which I had just purchased 5 days prior) started ringing.
It was a Japanese man, he was speaking English but with a very heavy accent.
‘Is this you?’ he said. I was taken aback given I knew no one in Japan but also who says that anyway? … ‘Is this you?’
‘Ah’ he cut me off ‘The new girl in the Fujirokuchi biru?’ he said telling me my address. It felt like everything around me suddenly went silent. The chatting, the cicada’s, the wind in the trees. Dead.
‘Huh?’ Um…. ‘It’s you, well I’m going to come see you, can I come?’
I’m stunned, why does he know my address? Why is he calling?
‘Um no, I don’t think so!’ I blurt out as I hang up.
After staring into the forest for a while I eventually snap out of it and tell Joey, the 6 ft tall African American guy. I tell him because he’s really funny but also really sweet and serious all at the same time, but mostly I tell him because he’s so tall and strong looking and he’s the only man I can trust at this point.
Who was that man?
Fast forward three and a half years to the night before I am about to get on a plane to leave forever. I am still madly cleaning the house with my best friends Onnoman, Jun, Kumi, Yuriwa and Kenji. They pull the couch out from the wall in my apartment to clean behind it, shamefully I have never done this before, they all gasp when they see some scratches on the wall. What? What is it?
I see the scratches and notice that it must be some Kanji, shamefully I can’t read it very well, I did study some Japanese I did! I beg them to tell me what it says! They all go silent. Finally Kumi says to me ‘No, not now’.
They leave around 2am, after throwing me into the air three times and shouting ‘Banzai!’. I have to leave at 7am to get to the airport so I get into my futon for the last time, it’s summer so I decide it will be easier to not wear any clothes. To say I have a fitful sleep is an understatement, I dream I writhe, I hear voices and at some point I am pretty sure I see someone in the dark. Then sometime, maybe it’s dawn but this is the land of the rising sun so who knows, I am awoken by a knock on the door, it reverberates loudly as the door is made of steel.
‘Is this you!’ it says. I freeze.
I wrap a sheet around me and tip toe to the door. I peek through the hole and see a man, it’s….(I squint)…………it’s my boss (wtf).
He’s offering to take me to the airport.
‘I’m ok, thanks’ I whimper with my heart beating out of my chest. My friend Jun picks me up an hour later and he whisks me to the airport. He’s stoned, I’m sleepy and sad. I cry, I see everyone at the airport has come to surprise me, I cry even more. I get through the gates and I turn to my friends and say to Kumi.
“Hey, what did it say, on the wall? What was the kanji?’
She hesitates. Then looks at the others then back at me. Super serious face.
‘Death’ she says not flinching at all.
Then they all look at each other and break into laughter. I’m numb but goddam it I fucking love them.
Death I think. Well shit I escaped him this time.
I cry the whole eight hours home.
‘Love, Thieves and Fear make ghosts’ is on at Burrinja Cultural Centre until July 16th. Hurry before they float away!