In front of me, displayed on packed shelves, is laundry detergent. Around the corner, are a variety of dildos. Strawberry and milk-tea-flavoured Kit Kats, and cups of spicy noodles line the next aisles. Next, a row of boxing gloves and Hawaiian-style t-shirts. I think I see a gun (although I’m not sure if it’s a real gun), as well as genuine luxury European handbags & luggage on display behind glass. There are no windows or store attendants, and like a carnival maze, once you’ve entered, the only way out seems to be completion of the labyrinthian itself. I check my phone; it’s nearly 11:00 pm, and the crowds of locals and tourists still perusing the goods seem endless.
This is the paradox that is Don Quijote, Japan’s largest discount store – where I do not see any actual discounts on the merchandise; I stand in awe, forced to contemplate all I thought was possible, or even probable, in the world of brick-and-mortar shopping. Beyond Don Quijote, after eight days in Japan, I conclude, I need to re-think just about everything I’ve thought possible about cities, countries and even myself.
Many blogs have been written about the striking contrasts, the tangle of opposites, that is Japan. It takes at least some mental gymnastics to process how the futuristic Blade-Runneresque lights of the Akihabara, Dotonbori and Shibuya Crossing areas are somehow part of the same place where ancient onsens and sentos (which are types of bathhouses), tea ceremonies and traditional shrines live side by side. It’s not my prerogative to write what others have before other than to say, it’s real. Just as real are the contradictions of conservative dress, humbleness, quiet demeanour and deep respect alongside the pervasive over-sexualization of Magna, Anime, CosPlay and Shinjuku’s Kabukichō (aka Red Light) district.
This is one of the reasons Japan has long held the imagination of travellers, and the world at large, for many years. Why I bring this up, however, is not to sell you a seat on JAL’s next seat sale. No, I share this because of what neuro-linguistic programming (or NLP) refers to as pattern disruption or a pattern interrupt. Which is anything
that forces someone to change their natural pattern of thought, and, according to NLPL, a series of interruptions that break a habit or state.
Which is exactly what Tokyo did to me.
It takes at least some mental gymnastics to process how the futuristic Blade-Runneresque lights of the Akihabara, Dotonbori and Shibuya Crossing areas are somehow part of the same place where ancient onsens and sentos (which are types of bathhouses), tea ceremonies and traditional shrines live side by side. It’s not my prerogative to write what others have before other than to say, it’s real.
Essentially, I had travelled to Japan because I like a nice thread count. I’ve been in the garment trade for about 15 years, and I went to the land of the rising sun to source fabric for a new project. A Long Staple Cotton, Preferably Sea Island or Egyptian, was what I had crossed the Pacific to find. Japan has a reputation for doing almost everything exceptionally well—dare I say, the best it can possibly be done. From sushi to technology, cars to selvage denim, pottery, pastries and tea to video games and cartoons, the list of what the Japanese do well is endless. So, it’s no surprise that I found fabric so damn nice it would tantalize the very nerve endings of your hands if you touched it.
While I was there; however, something unexpected happened.
On my last evening of the trip, while sipping a Negroni at the New York Bar and trying to synthesize the sensory overload of the past week, I entered a state of reverie that offered an interesting revelation.
I’m a sensualist.
I’d kept that part of myself in the shadow realm of other repressed ideas, instincts, impulses, weaknesses, desires, perversions, and embarrassing fears for as long as I can remember. In Tokyo, however, even the lasting effects of my conservative, western Protestant-Christian upbringing couldn’t be suppressed by the inspiring and delicious temptations.
Switching from the Negroni to a succulent Zinfandel from Francis Ford Coppola’s vineyard (fitting, given it was his daughter Sophia’s movie, Lost in Translation, that inspired my visit to this bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt in the first place), the truth of myself continued to reveal itself.
They say scent, emotion and memory are intertwined, and one small scent can trigger powerful memories. This meant Tokyo would provide a reckoning of my sensual past.
In Tokyo, however, even the lasting effects of my conservative, western Protestant-Christian upbringing couldn’t be suppressed by the inspiring and delicious temptations.
First, a waft of cigar smoke from the lounge provoked the memory of a rooftop dinner in Istanbul. Where, among the meze and Raki, the menthol-scented secondhand smoke intermingled with sumac spice and the salt of the Bosphorus Sea while while my guests conversed in a lively combination of Italian, Turkish and English. Spellbinding! Another flashback: a sunset on a shore in Thailand, while vagabonds put hand-rolled cigarettes to their sun-kissed lips and the earthy aroma of tobacco and curry hung in the humid air.
I’ve never smoked. I’ve always romanticized it.
After the Park Hyatt, it’s on to Golden Gai, a back alley maze of izakaya’s—essentially small pubs. With the scent of yakitori (chicken skewers perfectly charred on open flames) floating through the alleyway, I time travel again: back to Vietnam where, energized by the pulse of a bustling Saigon afternoon, a sip from a cold beer causes almost rush-like sensation beneath my warm skin. An added blessing, the smell of meat sizzling and fish oil vapour drift in the humid, exhaust-filled air.
I’ve always liked a place more when it smells of cooking meat.
On my stroll through the Ginkgo-tree-lined Yoyogi Park, there is a smell I just can’t place. Here, in the cool shade from summer heat, I’m reminded of my childhood, exploring the swampy jungle of my suburban backyard, beyond the safe reaches of a parents’ call.
When did I totally lose myself in the jungle last…I can’t remember?
Next, the surprising, candied scent of Gourmet Alley in Tokyo Station, a near holy place for Japan’s renowned pastries and deserts, and I’m a kid again, spoiling myself without remorse on scores of ice cream and whatever sweetness I could get my hands on. Repentance only came if I was caught.
There is no one here in the Far East to tell me I can’t indulge.
And, of course, now there is this glorious Japanese spun-cotton fabric I’ve found. A reminder of my travels in Peru and my first encounter-turned-love-affair with Peruvian Pima cotton and luxurious fabric. Purchased at a local market in Lima, the silky smooth fibres caressed my skin in ways I had never experienced—and I dare not explain on this blog—literally changing my life forever.
Thanks to Tokyo, the sensualist I always was has revived
Interestingly, at first I was reluctant to be excited about Tokyo. I’d dreamed of it for too long; I’d only heard how amazing it was, and my expectations for a good time were simply too high. Like many of the great firsts of my life, sex, outdoor concerts (granted I was way at the back) or American buffets, I didn’t want to be let down.
Next, the surprising, candied scent of Gourmet Alley in Tokyo Station, a near holy place for Japan’s renowned pastries and deserts
So, I held back. I played coy. I almost hoped it wouldn’t be good.
Then, at a soba-noodle bar in Kanda, the grandma sitting beside me at the tiny bar, slurping noodles proceeded to chug the last remains of her beer, chase it with a shot of Soju, turn to face me, raising her now empty glass and say “Welcome to Japan.” The sheer joy that hot noodles in spicy broth and chilled suds seemed to bring her kicked down the door of my dirtbag traveller’s heart and let the sensualist in me out. And that was day one.
From there, on it was beers and egg-salad sandwiches, blue fin tuna and wasabi pizza, Japanese yakiniku, (that’s Japanese BBQ) with lemon-flavoured-whiskey highballs, Tonkatsu (pork), beef Katso, what-kind-of-fish-is-that sushi, spicy ramen, Takyoki (octopus balls), Okonomiyaki, (Japanese pancakes) to whatever, whenever, wherever because life’s too fucking short and I’m in Japan.
Whatever Tokyo did to dislodge the sensualist in me accompanied me on the plane ride home, survived the jet lag, and unlocked a pleasure state I hope is permanent. Upon returning home, I sat on my patio and smoked a cigar I’d been saving for the right occasion (going on 4 years now), pulled a few nice bottles of French vino from the crawlspace, and my wife and I had at-home spa bath with all the scents, salts and candles you can imagine.
Why not grant myself the permission to enjoy things for the sake of enjoyment, not just having earned it?
For much of my life, I have sought pleasure, partaken in it, and then punished myself for it. I shouldn’t have spent that money, I should be eating healthier, I have work to do so I can’t go on a vacation this year. Sure, I went ahead and did many things, but I never did them without allowing some measure of guilt to sour the experience.
I grew up poor, and the Western ideals of conservatism, responsibility and good behaviour were nearly beaten into us as children. For years, I lived a near-monastic life as a runner. Discipline and martyrdom were my recipe for success.
My past blogs are littered with examples of the benefits of struggle and resistance in building character, finding success and achieving a sort of stoic happiness. Thanks to Tokyo, I’ve been humming a different tune lately. One that asks the question: Why not? Why not embrace pleasure? Why do I not deserve a better hotel bed? Why not grant myself the permission to enjoy things for the sake of enjoyment, not just having earned it?
I guess I’ve never trusted myself with the indulgences of the senses, and relished in the wildness of my being. I didn’t think I was worthy.
Now, I say: Why wait?
The benefits of pleasure are innumerable. But I’ll enjoy writing this blog at lot less if I get sciency and include citations of the evidence. You will too. For now, let me be an ambassador for the irresponsible and, instead, pose a challenge.
If you have suppressed your passions and sensual indulgences because you felt unworthy, it’s time to come out of the shadow and dance naked in the sunshine. This is Shadow Integration work—the re-integration of the aspects of ourselves we have hidden. I’ll write more in-depth about this at a later date.
For now, play with pleasure. Play with allowing yourself to experience the luxuriousness that invigorates your soul and ignites joy in your life. Travel. Eat. Fuck. Breathe. Bathe. Be in Nature. Sleep in silk. Get a foot massage. Get a whole body massage. Be a sensualist. Fly your own freaking pleasure flag; do it fearlessly and see what happens.
I know I will.