Once Upon a Time...in Japan

Uthis Haemamool

Photo: Tadao Kawamura

It was August 2009, only two months after I'd been named the winner of that year's Southeast Asian Writers' Award, and I was in a state of high excitement. I had received an email from the Japan Foundation office in Bangkok telling me that I had been selected for the Takeshi Kaiko Memorial Asian Writers' Lecture Series No. 19, sponsored by the Foundation's Tokyo office, and inviting me to do a two-week lecture tour of four cities: Tokyo, Fukuoka, Osaka and Hakodate. The purpose of the series was to allow people to learn about the literature of other countries through lectures and cultural exchanges, and I was asked to talk about my life and works accordingly. They also told me I would have time to visit various places in Japan. This would be a fantastic opportunity for me, and I was honored to have been selected.

Photo: Tadao Kawamura

Thinking about my visit, the opening phrase of a folktale, "Once upon a time....", suddenly popped into my head. These words captured my feelings exactly. This trip would be the first time in my life that I had traveled overseas.

I left for Japan from Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok on March 15, 2553 (according to the Thai calendar). It was a sweltering day, but hotter than the weather was the political turmoil that was raging in the country, and I prayed that I would be able to depart without any problem. (Two days after I arrived in Japan, I saw a photo on the front page of a Japanese newspaper with members of the Red Shirt group gathered in front of the prime minister's office holding up 6-liter plastic bottles filled with blood.) I arrived at Tokyo's Narita International Airport early on the 16th. I was drowsy, but the chilly air immediately cleared my sleepy head. I told myself, "You are here to carry out a responsibility and you must do your best to live up to the honor bestowed on you."

Photo: Tadao Kawamura

When I stepped out of the airport building, the first thing that greeted me was a bitter cold that I had never experienced before. The constantly changing weather in Japan made a deep impression on me during my two-week stay. I gathered that the people there are very conscious of the weather, seeing that so many weather reports are broadcast on TV. I began paying more attention to the weather forecast too, sometimes even going outside to see for myself. My first three days in Tokyo were very cold, especially after dark, and I had a hard time adjusting. But Fukuoka was very pleasant. On the day before my lecture, the temperature was 25 degrees Celsius and the sun was shining brightly, although later in the day it started to rain. It rained again while we were in Osaka and Kyoto, and the wet weather made the cold seem even painful. We had two more rainy days in Tokyo after we came back from Osaka; the sun finally came out on the day we were to leave for Hakodate.

Hakodate appeared to be a calm city, with a very peaceful atmosphere, and they gave me a warm welcome, as though I were someone special. When we checked in at the hotel, we saw the national flags of Thailand and Japan displayed side by side in the foyer. In contrast to the warm reception inside, it was a stunning minus 2 degrees Celsius outside. Dark clouds covered the sky and snow fell without making a sound. The snow fluttered down, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, with the occasional gust of wind whistling by. In the distance, I could faintly hear the wind from the ocean, as if it were licking the seashore. The cold made my hands numb and my ears felt like they were frozen and would crumble like a freshly toasted slice of bread if I broke them off my head. Standing on the snow-covered sidewalk, I looked up at the sky and felt the delicate but pricking flakes falling on my face for the first time, like a baptism in snow. It was a strange feeling, like hundreds of nurses sticking my face with needles with their soft hands. The snow was beautiful and reassuring, but at the same time inflicted a dulling pain.

Photo: Tadao Kawamura

The landscapes we saw along the road as we traveled from one place to another were also fascinating. We took a taxi from Narita Airport to our hotel in Akasaka in Tokyo and, looking out, I saw row upon row of mountains, a magnificent sight. The taxi followed a route that wove up and down through the foothills of the mountains. Sometimes we were looking up at houses perched on a level higher than the road. We wound our way around the mountains, then went through a tunnel running under Tokyo Bay. The trees along the route were lovely too, each with its own distinct features. Pine trees with crooked branches grew in profusion, and there were thickets of conifers. Tall bamboo trees swung to and fro in the wind and between them were cherry trees just starting to bloom. Peach trees were decked with vivid rose pink flowers.

Photo: Tadao Kawamura

I looked back at my fiancé sitting in the rear seat. We were little tired after the flight. "Look! Pine, bamboo forest, cherry, then pine, bamboo forest, and cherry, again. It goes on and on," I said. She just smiled back, so I carried on. "In Thailand it would be kraing (sweet acacia, pea family), banana forest and madras thorn, don't you think? Can you say that backwards? Madras thorn, krating, banana forest..., banana forest, kraing, madras thorn." She apparently found this funny, turning red with laughter and slapping my head gently with one hand. "Oh, you're being silly! We're not here on vacation," she said. "You're right. I sound like a country bumpkin, don't I?" I answered.

The taxi drove by the Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo Central Wholesale Market) and headed to Ginza. I saw sidewalks filled with people. The men all looked sharp, wearing coats over their navy suits, each with a briefcase in one hand. They were walking comparatively quickly, all at the same pace. These were the Japanese salarymen that I had so often heard of. When it hit me that they were there, in real life, I got goose bumps. The sight immediately reminded me of the movie "Innovation" (2007, USA). As I encountered many scenes that I had heard or read about, I realized not only that Japan is different from Thailand in many ways, but the countries are overwhelmingly unlike in every way. From the taxi, I saw the beautiful skyline of Tokyo soaring in front of me and it seemed as if the city was greeting me in its own special way. If I wanted to learn and understand, I had to go into the city. That's the best way to understand something. Dive right in and look for it. Don't wait until it comes to you. I kept on repeating these words to myself.

Photo: Tadao Kawamura

What I can say about my character is that I like to see, learn and try everything for myself. This curiosity of mine grew even stronger when I was in Japan. I shivered in anticipation thinking of what might lie ahead. I think Japan has two very distinct features; it still strictly maintains its traditions and customs in daily life, but on the other hand, it also contains a completely opposite world of entertainment and comfort for the soul. But these two aspects were no hindrance to me, as I have always hungered to learn and understand new things.

I had prepared different subjects for each of the four lectures. This way, I would be able to enjoy the lectures myself and the audience in each city would be interested to see a distinct facet of my identity. We started our lecture tour in Tokyo. More than 100 people came to my talk titled "From Representational Art to Literature: The transformation of art within myself." I was so excited I couldn't stop trembling. I took out a camera to take a snapshot, but when I looked at the captured image, it was blurred because I was shaking so much. The audience included young and old, with students from Thailand mingled among the Japanese students. Journalists from various media also came. Immediately after I started talking, the audience went completely silent. I felt insecure throughout my hour and a half long lecture, thinking that the audience might be bored. But when it was time to take questions, the atmosphere changed, the audience came alive, and the hall filled with laughter. The lecture in Tokyo made the deepest impression on me.

Photo: Kazuhisa Shiihara

My lecture in Fukuoka was called "The Power of Description: Between fact and fabrication." The title sounded a bit serious, and the content was equally hard to understand, so I showed pictures of works of art that I had made. But the audience seemed to understand exactly what I wanted to say. I was told that they did, after the lecture. Fukuoka is a city of art and is very active in introducing contemporary Asian culture. It was an older crowd, with many people in their 40s to 70s, so I was only a youngster among them. At one point in my lecture I touched on the topic of sex. When I did, I was honest with the audience and told them that I live in the art world and that I am not a monk. Hearing that, several people in the audience burst out laughing in agreement. I felt a bond of understanding in the laughter.

Photo: Kazuhisa Shiihara

The audience in Osaka, as in Tokyo, included people of all ages. There were university students studying Thai, and a Thai professor from a Japanese university. About 100 people came. They all listened intently to my talk titled "The World of Art: The charm of literature that captivates me." The people listened quietly and many took notes. They looked very serious as if they were listening to a lecture at some university. I spoke about how graphic arts, literature, music, films and other genres mix together within me, and explained the process of how I came to be called an artist today.

In the quiet city of Hakodate, I gave a talk titled "From the Standpoint of a Writer: The future of modern Thai literature." It snowed the whole two days I was there. The heavy snow prevented many people from coming to the lecture and the audience was the smallest of all. But that was not a problem. The people of Hakodate were lively and very friendly. Everyone I met was kind, and, in spite of the harsh cold outside, the hearts of the people in this region are full of warmth.

Photo: Kazuhisa Shiihara

I went to tourist spots in all of the cities, as often as time allowed. I was wide awake day and night, and I wished many times that there were more than 24 hours in a day. When I look back on my journey, I often heave a sigh, wishing that I had had more time in Japan. But, of course, having been given the opportunity to visit Japan is itself a fantastic thing. Although my stay was only two weeks, I really had a splendid time. Visits to Nara, Katsura Rikyu (a former imperial villa) in Kyoto, and various places in Tokyo were moments I will cherish. It was incredible to stand at the enormous crossing in the Shibuya district in Tokyo, and to walk through its back alleys, alive with color. Mandarake (Full of Manga), a store specializing in manga, and the various faces of the entertainment district at night, were all amazing. I will never forget the many people I met, especially my conversation with the renowned Japanese writer Yuko Tsushima.

Photo: Atsuko Takagi

I went to many cities, but, of course, there were places that I could not go. Should I feel deprived at missing an opportunity? No. When you think about it, losing one opportunity means that you get the chance to do something else. So I am happy that there are many other places in Japan that I have not yet seen, because it gives me a reason to visit again.

My stay in Japan gave me a lot of creative materials to work with. It was an occasion to learn new things and at the same time to verify my inner identity. I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart all the people who gave me this wonderful opportunity. Right now, I am itching to write about my experiences. I'm sure it won't be long before you see my book in Japan.

Translation by Seiji Udo

Photo: Atsuko Takagi

Uthis Haemamool, Novelist
Winner of the 2009 Southeast Asian Writers' Award for his novel Laplae Kaeng Khoi. His other works include The Capacity of the Mind (a collection of short stories), Sex Dance and A Mirror of Shadow/Shadow of a Mirror (novels), 151 Films (a collection of film reviews). He was invited to Japan (March 16, to March 29, 2010) by the Japan Foundation to lecture in the Takeshi Kaiko Memorial Asian Writers' Lecture Series No.19 in Tokyo, Fukuoka, Osaka and Hakodate.

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