Tokyo and the scent of the Old Gods
on place, spirit, and the man in the black robe
I always feel sorry for people who grew up on Hollywood movies and then visit LA to discover that the land of their fantasies is a parking lot of gray highway, tent cities, and SUV-shuttled zombies searching for their lost souls in strip malls.
I think about this in my first morning in Tokyo as I trudge past long beige rectangle blocks of office buildings. I recall running home from school to catch the last 10 minutes of Sailor Moon, tucking a manga inside my math textbook, singing along with Evangelion's theme song... how could I not possess an overly romanticized view of Japan?
On rainy streets I survey the throngs of business men clad in pressed black suits and shining loafers. The Japanese workers missed San Francisco's memo on casual business attire: no one sports a hoody and Allbirds here.
I had heard about Japanese work culture—the high pressure and impossibly long work hours. I recall a story of a man who worked at Toyota and learned there had been a mistake in his division. That afternoon he suffered a heart attack and died.
Riding the subway, I can taste a sense of the claustrophobia so many must feel. Overhead, flashing screens play a terrifically fantastical ad where a man is bestowed with samurai powers upon sipping the brand's bottled green tea. Perhaps the whole culture is escaping the rigid grind by means of fantasy.
I visit Akihabara, the district for otakus. I wander into an arcade and find row after row filled with Japanese men playing video games. I joke to myself that I have solved the mystery of Japan's plummeting birth rate. But I don't blame people for deciding to only take on the responsibilities they think they can manage. If you have so few hours to yourself, if the pressure is closing around your neck already, perhaps abandoning burdens of spouse and children is not unreasonable.
Riding back on the subway, I'm a bit depressed, wondering if my intoxication with Japan's spirit was all sheer fantasy. The subway doors close and I look up. There before me stands a man dressed in a black robe, white socks, and wood slippers. But what strikes me most is the scent that lingers around him. It is the scent of Shinto shrines and yellowed curling calligraphy pages and the fermenting vegetation of sacred forest mountains. It is everything I've ever loved about Japan in one breath.
Maybe Japan's spirit has had to hide, adapting and burrowing itself away to survive in globalization's desecration. Haven't we all had to tuck parts of ourselves away in our scurry to meet the demands of the Anthropocene?
But in this man, in this scent, I know: they may be scarce, they may be hard to find, but Japan's old gods? They live on.
This post is influenced by the mythopoetic lens of The Emerald, a podcast that has greatly enriched my world.
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