This is a Literary Cities post about Tokyo from Callie Doyle-Scott.

The back streets of Kichijoji, Tokyo
Image source: Anni Doyle Wawrzynczak

Dark. Bitter. The subtle tang of exhaust smoke. Brightly blazing multicoloured signs hung from the high-rise buildings surrounding me, advertising pachinko parlours and convenience stores in lurid hiragana. People thronged the pavement, heading home for the night, going out drinking with the boss, grabbing a quick bite to eat from the izakaya on the corner: sleepy-eyed, dark-haired, a sea of identical faces all blurring into one another. Rapid-fire Japanese blared from a set of speakers nearby, taunting me with fragments of sentences I could only barely understand. My palms felt sweaty, head spinning, feet aching despite the last hour I’d spent curled up in a cat café with a fat ginger tabby asleep in my lap. My nerves jangled, desperate for a place to sit and recollect, but my hotel was still a good half an hour away. Despite having dreamt of coming to Japan for years, and now being surrounded by countless hundreds of people, I’d never felt so alone.

When writing about another country, another culture… about anything, really, empathy is important. Being able to place ourselves into the minds and situations of others is what allows writers to tell stories and create characters. A writer can’t just portray the brave princess who breaks out of her tower and rides off into the sunset on a grand adventure. She needs to consider the villains, love interests, side characters and jokers, what they believe, think, feel and long for. Truly obsessive writers might even take on aspects of those characters, verbal ticks, physical mannerisms, ways of thinking, as they get to know their characters better. This empathy for character helps to cultivate a more convincing portrayal, and of course, it applies to culture and country as well as people.

My current manuscript is set in a world heavily based on Japanese culture, which I’ve loved for almost as long as I can remember. From the moment I first read the tale of Princess Kaguya as a child, I was hooked: I couldn’t learn enough about the history and folklore of this amazing country, from the wily and terrifying youkai of village myth and legend, ghost stories in summer, cooking where presentation, flavour and season combine to create near-indescribable masterpieces, to Japan’s seemingly limitless capacity for innovation. Of course, I knew that the country had its darker sides - depression, repression and staggering expectations placed on working adults and schoolchildren alike - but that didn’t discourage me. I wanted to speak to the people, make friends, chat endlessly about everything, anything, eat the food, go walking in the parks, visit shrines and temples. I yearned to grow out of my shameless touristy excitement so that I could understand Japan, faults and all. By doing so, I hoped that I could get some of my more embarrassing preconceptions kicked out of me and so create a world for my novel that felt authentic, instead of one woman’s romantic parody of a country she idolised.

I’m still working on that, to be honest. A fortnight-long holiday isn’t long enough to even scratch the surface of a whole country.

Instead, it reminded me of something that I’d been taking for granted. You see, I considered myself to be an empathetic, imaginative sort of girl. I’d devoured shelves of travel memoirs, from Anthony Bourdain to Peter Mayle, and sat with my imagination blazing, lips stretched so wide that they hurt, at their descriptions of places both weird and wonderful. I knew what travel was supposed to sound like, what readers look for in stories about other countries. I thought I knew how to describe them. After all, when we think of a place or a person, often the first thing that springs to mind is something striking. A birthmark, or the sound of their voice. The Eiffel Tower and snails for France. The red torii gate of a Shrine and ramen for Japan. These things are quintessential landmarks of culture: they draw an instantly recognisable picture of their homeland. Describing something like that? Too easy. Travelling to Japan would simply allow me to do so in more detail.  

Author with Basho poem in Gion, Kyoto
Image source: Anni Doyle Wawrzynczak

But that’s not all there is to a place. Describing a culture based solely on architecture or foodstuffs? Uh-uh, doesn’t work. To make a place, a country, come to life on the page, a writer needs to take notice of the little things. The way the streets are paved, changing from modern asphalt roads to winding flagstone alleys in the space of a few blocks. Snoring cats on a ryokan porch. The sight of a group of elderly citizens standing out in a sudden shower, soaked to the skin, patiently waiting for their turn to worship at a district shrine. A dubious flicker in a chef’s eyes as he pushed a bowl of spicy ramen across the counter, his silently challenging expression opening into a reluctant grin as I slurped it down. His loud guffaw a moment later when the spices almost brought me to tears.

What prompted the epiphany was the night in Tokyo city after coming back from the cat café, feeling lonely and detached from this country I wanted to adore. I opened the curtains and flopped back on my bed, staring out the window. Skyscrapers loomed on the other side, windows blazing with electric light.

And then, in the distance, I heard a chime - a jingle, really: bouncy, childish, and somehow soothing. The simple tones drained the tension from the air, the streets below falling silent to listen.

I found out later that it was five o’clock in the evening exactly, when most of Tokyo’s workforce finishes up for the day. It was as though the city itself was saying: “That’s it. You’re done for the day. You can finally relax. So have fun, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I still think it’s one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. A tiny, simple detail that I could so easily have missed. That sound will always be ‘Tokyo’ to me.

The tiny detail that, in the right context, describes a whole world.

Callie Doyle-Scott completed her Honours Degree in Creative in 2013 at RMIT. She is currently living in Canberra, working a variety of part-jobs, and writing her first novel. She plans to return to Japan in the near future.

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Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.