Monthly Archives: December 2013

On shopping in Japan

I’m back in Japan, finishing off the research for the sequel to Bodies of Light. This time I’ve come alone and independently, and I’m renting a machiya, a nineteenth-century wooden townhouse, all to myself.

When I planned this trip I imagined that it would be blissful to have eight days alone in Kyoto. It’s the longest I’ve been alone since just before we were married, twelve years ago, and since, like most writers, I cherish solitude, I thought more could only be better. Just before I left home I thought it was obviously a crazy idea to commit myself to loneliness and silence in a place where I can’t communicate, and also that no benefit to the book could justify the evident dismay of my children at my departure. As usual – maybe one day I’ll learn – experience falls between fantasy and dread. I have been lonely,.On the other hand, I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do almost all the time and therefore been enormously productive and covered far more ground (literally) than I could have done under any other circumstances. I’ve looked forward to evenings of reading, writing and catching up on some of the films I always miss because they either start so early I couldn’t eat with the children or end so late I couldn’t cope with work the next day. I’ve taken classes in Japanese paper-craft, lacquer-work, bamboo and sweet-making (it’s all research, honestly). I’ve walked up and down the river, found my way out into the mountains to see a textile factory, admired many temples and gardens (probably not really research, but there’s a momentum about Kyoto and temples that it would be foolish to resist) and spent several days doing proper work in museums.

And I’ve also been shopping. Well, it is nearly Christmas, and I am writing about the European interest in collecting Japanese objects, so that’s kind of research, too. I spent this morning being overwhelmed at a craft market held in the grounds of a temple, where I bought rather a lot. (It was a choice between insufficiently discriminate spending and declaring an overload and running away. With ten days to go, this is my first Christmas shopping.) I bought things from potters – I always buy things from potters, mostly mugs – and wood-turners (so easy to pack!) – and spinners (I can never have too much hand-spun yarn). I looked covetously at leather goods and waxed paper hats and hand-woven scarves and a very appealing rag doll in an ikat kimono and interesting cakes and linen tunics and some other stuff that I could perfectly well make if I really want it. And right at the end, just as I began to realise that I was too cold to think straight and had bought too many fragile pots, I saw a bag. It was made of folding squares of canvas and leather and was utterly beguiling because it had so many pockets. (There’s a terrible delusion that having lots of pockets in a bag means life will be shipshape, rather than that all the pockets will soon contain old receipts and tissues and Very Important Pebbles collected by the children and I still won’t be able to find my keys.) It was also very beautiful, and being sold by a nice young woman who designs them herself. And I walked away, because it cost more than I could justify spending and because I already have many bags and none of them make me a better person, and after ten minutes the bag was calling me and I thought I’d go back and just make sure I really didn’t want it.

I couldn’t find the stall. The market was about as crowded as the Northern Line at 8 am on a weekday, and the lanes were narrow and made odd turns around bits of the temple. I went round again twice on purpose and another time trying to find the exit, and I saw everything else again but not the bag stall, and when I got back to my little wooden machiya I googled several possible sets of terms but of course these particular bags are so special and clever that they don’t exist on the internet, only in the courtyard of this particular temple in Kyoto on this particular day in December. So I’ll never own one now.

Of course it doesn’t matter. There will be another covetable and slightly too expensive object along soon. I don’t need another bag. (I don’t need anything, obviously.) But this, I think, this yearning desire for a thing that somebody designed and made and that I can’t now have, is rather like what my Victorian collectors felt.

Research, after all.