I didn’t think of beauty when I first saw sakura in full bloom. I thought of you instead.
We were shivering in our sweaters, unprepared for the biting cold of early spring in Tokyo and exhausted after a long train ride in the morning rush hour, when we arrived in our apartment for the week. Through my bleary, post red-eye flight eyes I saw a shock of pink by the door, a stark contrast to the ashen sky and weather-beaten brick walls, and the words that came to mind were yours: In the spring gloom, they looked like flesh that had burst through the skin over festering wounds.
Of course they were beautiful, those early blooming pink petals. But beauty can be momentarily forgotten when you heart is not at ease; mine has not since I read your story on the plane. Your loneliness peaked once upon a spring, when you started detesting the sight of sakura and wrote a letter saying that you would rather have three Februaries than a spring so painful. Your shadows crept out from the pages and into my skin, and there it stayed as I adjusted to Tokyo.
Adjusting to Tokyo means adjusting to Shinjuku Station, the nearest station to our apartment. We thought we made a wise choice, knowing that the station is the largest in Tokyo and should be a convenient hub for any spontaneous out-of-town trips we might want to take. Knowing and understanding are two different things, though. As our days started and ended at the station, I began to understand what it means to spend time in the busiest train station in the world.
It means navigating your way in a station with dozens of connecting lines and hundreds of exits. It means being one over three million people who are in the station every day, most of them in a hurry and all seem to know exactly where to go. It means rushing yourself to keep up with the pace of the crowd, feeling like you are a part in an assembly line. It means having people bump into you when you had to stop to look for signs or change directions, feeling more and more incompetent with every sumimasen you hear. It means feeling like you’re drowning the longer you are at the station, losing the will to swim and stay afloat. It means, at one point, wanting to stop in your tracks and curl up into a fetal position right there and then until you disappear.
Shinjuku Station made me want to disappear. It hurts to admit that, to see it on paper. I was born and raised in Jakarta, I thrived in New York and Mumbai. I am supposed to be a city girl who could effortlessly fall into rhythm with Tokyo, yet being in Shinjuku Station made me feel so small and insignificant that feeling lonely in a crowd no longer seem like a cliché.
Toru, you might scoff at me. My discomfort is not even remotely comparable to your pain. How could they be, when I traveled to Tokyo for adventures while you came to the city to escape the death of your best friend? I will never know how it feels to carry such deep sorrow, but as I said, you were under my skin. I remember you finding relief from loneliness among the crowds of Shinjuku and Shibuya, and if you could, perhaps I can too.
When you travel, you give meanings to what you see and do based on what you have in your head. Since you were in mine, I experienced Shinjuku and Shibuya through Toru-tinted glasses. We passed many bars outside of Shinjuku Station, all closed in daytime, and I thought of your evenings out with Nagasawa. Those were evenings when you most needed another human’s touch and hoped to spend the night with girls who need it as much as you did. We walked by love hotels in Kabukicho and I wondered which ones you had your fleeting affairs in. We didn’t find any conspicuous cinemas while we were in the red light district, but this must be where you and Midori went to see porn after her father died. The further we went from the station, the more jazz bars we saw. There is one that I think you might like, it has a poster of Charles Bukowski plastered on its window and promised bossa nova. We heard jazz streaming out of cafes and saw people reading inside, as you did when you were upset. We couldn’t help but go into every bookstore we saw, from small ones that mostly sell manga and magazines to the book section of the nine-floors Tower Records in Shibuya, and in each of them I looked for The Great Gatsby because it was your favorite book.
I remember feeling upbeat, at least until we found ourselves at the Shibuya crossing. As all the traffic lights turned red at the same time and pedestrians from all edges crossed simultaneously in different directions, I felt a tension creeping up my neck. I held on tight to my partner as we poured into the streets, feeling like a tossed marble, bumping against other marbles tossed in opposite directions.
We landed in front of the Hachiko statue in front of the Shibuya Station, where people in ball gowns and professional photographers queued along with tourists and their mobile phones to take pictures. Shibuya Station might not be as big as Shinjuku, but there will be the same swarm of people rushing and that tension on my neck had settled into a throbbing pain on my forehead. We were supposed to catch a train to Ebisu to visit an independent bookshop, but I couldn’t make myself go into the station.
So we walked. My partner held my hand as we turned our back to the Shibuya Station and walked ahead, letting go only when we found a narrow street by the railway. It was a long walk, from Shibuya to Daikanyama to Ebisu, with stops at small neighborhood shops in back alleys and sidewalk vending machines every time we needed something warm to hold in our hands. It was then I realized that Tokyo is not flat and saw some of its rivers, and it was then I felt calmest since we arrived.
You once told me about a time in your life when weekends meant walking all around Tokyo with Naoko, the girl you loved and longed to save. At first you were walking a few steps behind her as the two of you climbed hills and crossed rail lines; a year later, you were in love and walking side by side. You said you were thankful that Tokyo is such a big city that you and Naoko would never run out of paths to walk on. Toru, I am thankful for that too.
I remembered another letter of yours as I saw the sakura tree in front of our apartment. You once wrote letters only about the wonderful things in life, like sakura blossoms and the smell of grass, so that you’d feel that life is truly wonderful when you re-read the letters. You know, Toru, travelers often do the same and I am no different. It’s the secret that lurks behind every photograph, every journal entry recording our time in a foreign land, every story we tell our friends at home. We tell ourselves that no one wants to hear stories of when we felt overwhelmed or embarrassed of ourselves. Nobody needs to know about moments when our travels are not ecstatic or poignant. The truth is, we do it to trick ourselves to remember only the wonderful parts of our travels, just like the letters where you wrote only the wonderful things in spring.
That night, I wondered whether the moments we tend to gloss over are worth written about and shared. It is hard for me to admit to myself that I was weak, that I crumbled among the crowds in a metropolitan like Tokyo, a place much more benign than my own hometown. It is embarrassing to let other people read about the time when I didn’t overcome myself, when almost all the travel stories you read are about how it allows people to bloom. But perhaps letting this out in the open is what will allow me to embrace myself, in all its strengths and weaknesses and, if I’m lucky, to bloom like the sakura outside the apartment. I think you would agree, for it was when you wrote about how lonely you felt that spring that you reached the company you were looking for.
The next day I felt lighter as I left the apartment, although my heart was already bracing itself for the heaviness that would come once I arrive at the Shinjuku Station. The sky was even gloomier than the day before and the pink sakura still looked shocking against it, but this time the sight of the tree made me feel hopeful for a sunny afternoon. Like you, Toru, I have chosen to acknowledge my weakness, and I hope that in turn, you too could find spring to be hopeful once again.
Toru Watanabe is the main character in Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, one of the books I read when traveling to Japan a few weeks ago. A special thank you for my friend, Syarafina Vidyadhana, for reading and editing an earlier version of this letter. Your feedback means a lot to me, Avi!