Memory and space

For the walker in Tokyo, the unexpected is always waiting (Jinnai Hidenobu)

Craig Mod is a publisher / artist / entrepreneur and flaneur whose newsletters I follow. He is based in Tokyo and accompanies his regular dispatches with great photography in which he captures details of the Japanese capital that are sometimes hard to describe in words.

His most recent “pop up” mailing list was a weeklong walking tour through the Tokyo of his memories. I was reminded of some of the academic stuff I have been teaching my students at Temple about space and memory, but also of my own time in the city.

The newsletter is behind the paywall of Craig’s Special Projects membership page, although it was free to receive at the time of his walk in August. It is split in seven walks of about 20km each. Most of the areas intersect with “my” Tokyo, so there were quite a few personal echoes when following Craig’s walk.

Tokyo’s impermanence, conditioned by its wooden building tradition and frequent natural and man-made catastrophe, has led to a paucity of monuments and a very short average lifespan of buildings.

Craig’s walks reflect that — oftentimes he stands in front of the site of a former building he’s lived, eaten or bathed in, only to realize that it has since been replaced with a new, often taller, structure.

How, then, does one create and evoke memory in a city without monuments? My recently published OUP Bibliography on Tokyo lists several works that have helped me and my students understand that impermanence of the physical form might even kindle stronger attachments to a place.

Jordan Sand’s Tokyo Vernacular is a must-read in this regard. One chapter is devoted to how local activists in Yanesen recorded history in the high-growth 1980s, while another delves into the curation of the Edo Museum and its problematic focus on “everyday life”.

Jinnai sensei’s A Spatial Anthropology is another classic book on walking the city and tracing its past through the layers of consecutive developments. The quote at the top of the post is from there.

Thornbury and Schultz’s Tokyo is a collection of essays that discusses writings and films in which Tokyo is not just a stage but a protagonist in the act of creating memories and fueling one’s imagination despite its fleeting and ephemeral urban environment. It provides a deep and intimate portrait of how the city’s inhabitants form emotional bonds with the city.

There are two texts which echo many of Craig’s sentiments, one being Schultz’s essay on “spatial (auto)biographies” and Iwata-Weickgenannt’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess of the City, the Mind, and the Social”.

There is so much of relevance in the first article, in which the author draws attention to the body of works that connect transformations in the city with a writer’s personal memories about his or her life in it. Schultz introduces the works of several authors (Kobayashi Nobuhiko, Fukuda Kazuya and Ishizeki Zenjiro) and places them in continuity with the writings of Walter Benjamin and Nagai Kafu.

The second text discusses the novel Tenten and its film adaptation Adrift in Tokyo. I watched the latter in class with my students. It depicts two men’s long walk across Tokyo toward Kasumigaseki, where Fukuhara, one of the two, wants to hand himself in to the authorities for killing his wife.

Along the long walk, Fukuhara connects with people and places from his former life, while building a connection with the accompanying Fumiya. The author concludes that the “Tokyo depicted in Tenten and Adrift in Tokyo is full of loneliness and alienation, eccentricity and weirdness, warmth, friendship, and emotions, coincidental encounters and goodbyes”.

Now, almost three years since our departure from the city in late 2019, my memory is beginning to fade, station names are harder to remember. It is therefore all the more important to keep immersing myself in the place from the distance, and nothing is better than reading about the experiences of other people. Or crawling through the archives of this blog, which will soon have its tenth anniversary and started out with Tokyo observations during my first stint in the city back then.

Without this level of introspection initially, I too got to know the city walking everywhere. One of my favorite walks was the yamanote loop, in two day sections of about 20km each. The rhythm of the city’s rail network, and the ebbs and flows of busy station areas and quiet residential areas in between was an amazing sensation to experience.

Above all, Craig’s walks are an ode to the city that most inhabitants can relate to. He chose to make his base here to pursue his creative dreams and never looked back. There are many citable sections in the letters, but the finale stood out:

After twenty-two years and seven consecutive days of walking the hell out of Tokyo, I now realize that I’d go to the mat for this city. I still can’t believe I made my way here so long ago, and found a way to stay. The city taught me care, introduced me to aesthetics and design and literature and people that would inform my entire career. It taught me loneliness and solitude, too, and in doing so forced me to confront both, to transmute them into more than hopelessness. The city showed me and continues to show me what’s possible. Continues to set the bar for what should be expected — no, demanded — of life and infrastructure and social goodness. The city says people can live with grace, can be honored, just like this, just like you. Look, it says — grace abounds. It’s yours to bear to witness to, if you choose.


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