This is a Literary Cities post by Pepi Ronalds --- Commuting In the Snow, via Pepi Ronalds Commuting In the Snow, via Pepi Ronalds

I’ve spent a lifetime writing the words, ‘Tokyo, Japan’ under the section ‘Place of Birth’ on official documents. But it isn’t until I’m in my thirties that I come to perceive Japan as a place: not only a place to have once left, but also a place in which to arrive. I haven’t been back since I was six weeks old. I become curious and booked a holiday.

Passing through immigration that first day I wonder if someone might welcome me back (no one does). I look curiously around Narita airport for clues of what lies beyond (I get none). I leave some fingerprints and an image of my questioning face before I take a train to Shinjuku.

That trip tilts a dormant tide in me – one that sees me stretching between Japan and Australia ever since. I’ve been there five times now. My longest stint was when I lived and worked for a year in the city of Sendai.

Sendai is north of Tokyo in Miyagi prefecture. I arrived as a fascinated stranger. I remember the oddness; of moonlight in the afternoon, of traversing snow on my daily commute, of new smells, of trying new foods, of being in a workplace where I didn’t speak the language.  I also remember being wordless, and failing to write anything.

Yet when I look at Sendai on Google Street View today all manner of words and stories come to mind. I list the things I want to write about the city, and all the places I want to return to, to document in some way. I plan to find some cash, book a ticket and get back over there. This time, I tell myself, I will make time to write. I will heed Natalia Rachel Singer’s advice and keep a daily diary of the senses. I will follow Walter Mason’s schedule and spend two hours – one outside my accommodations and one inside – making notes about the day.

I even ponder which cafes I will frequent. I imagine myself walking down the stairs into Mozart’s and sitting with pen and paper on the balcony overlooking the river. I can hear the crows. I feel the cool air above the blanket on my knees. I catch the anxiety of verbalising my order in my poor Japanese Sukonu keki setto, hitosu onegaishimasu (Scone cake set, one, please). And I can see the words flowing onto my little B4 notepad. I feel this way right now,just two months after my last trip, even though I know better. 

Mozart's balcony, via Pepi Ronalds Mozart's balcony, via Pepi Ronalds

In my first eight months of living in Sendai the writer in me was silenced. I was so taken by the difference between life there and being in Melbourne that I couldn’t parse my thoughts onto paper. I’d bought a desk from Muji within days of arriving. I positioned it by a window overlooking the car park and an old house beyond. I sat at it with tools in hand but nothing went down. My muse was absent.

The Great East Japan Earthquake shook it out of me. From the first groan I heard beneath the earth at 2.46pm on the 11th of March 2011 I knew I would write about the experience. I haven’t stopped writing about Sendai since, although never, it seems, while actually in Sendai.

In 2012 I went back to Sendai to mark the earthquake’s anniversary. I counted down the days until my departure from Melbourne. I sat on the plane to Osaka, ripe with imagery and full of ideas. Yet the moment I was on a train leaving Osaka’s Kansai airport my focus shifted. Once again I was in Japan, trying (and failing) to write.

Then, back in Melbourne, I wrote again. I shaped a long-term nonfiction project around the city of Sendai. I wrote an essay for Arena Magazine detailing my experience there after the quake. And I planned my next trip – a research trip – convinced that the absence of my muse in Japan was just a case of poor scheduling. With a gap of 18 months it would surely return.

One night in Sendai this last December (18 months since my last visit) I couldn’t sleep. I’d been in Sendai a few days but hadn’t kept a diary of the senses nor spent the two hours documenting my thoughts like Walter Mason does. I got up at 4am and went into the streets. They were the very same streets that inspire my writing via Street View today. But that dark morning they were empty and quiet: as was my muse. I resolved that morning that I couldn’t write my big nonfiction project about Sendai. I thought to abandon it entirely. Then quietly, just quietly, I counted down the days to my departure.

When my countdown reached zero I boarded the shinkansen (bullet train) to leave. It pulled out of the station gaining speed, clattering past my old neighbourhood. ‘Sayonara Sendai,’ (Goodbye Sendai) I said – deliberately eschewing the less final Matta ne (See you later) more commonly used for parting. Bye Sendai. Bye.

But by the time I got to Tokyo I could feel that pull again. Just like every other time I have left Sendai (and Japan): that strange elastic pull. Write about me, Sendai seems to say to me. And I will oblige. In a strange way Sendai is my muse. Perhaps that’s why being in Sendai and writing in Sendai can’t seem to coexist.

Since this last trip I’ve come to accept that Japan is a push-me-pull-me place for me as a writer. If you think about it, there’s a weird logic in that. After all, as it says on my official documents, Japan is my place of birth. Yet it’s a place I left in my first six weeks. That means that unless I die in Japan I will always be a departure short of an arrival.


Pepi Ronalds is Melbourne-based freelance writer. She has been a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow, and an emerging blogger for Melbourne Writers Festival. Her work has been published in MeanjinKillings, Open Manifesto and A List Apart. She blogs at The Future of Long Form and tweets @futurelongform.

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