It’s my first night here, and I’m lying open, melting in my room. A streetlight peers in through my window, my head pounds from exhaustion and the heat. I’m wondering what I got myself into: after throwing my body against the wall in Tokyo, here I am in Tottori—little Tottori, where the signs are rusting and you can see the city limits from the largest hill. What am I doing here? I should sleep: I can’t sleep. You can only take so much sweat rolling off you in these 35 degree nights you have to leave.
I take out my bike and roll along mostly lightless streets, with only the grinding of my spotlight to cut a path through the night. A feeling’s curling up round me, one I can’t put a finger on, that’s battering down my fears and preconceptions. My bike rolls out across a bridge, where I’m met with a sound so deafening I have to stop. Now it’s only me and the stars—and the frogs, the legions of frogs under the bridge, croaking so fierce it’s like a storm rising up against me.
And it hits me: I’ve never been in a place this alive.
Darkness is a powerful force in Japan. It’s taken me months to really appreciate just what it is about the nighttime here that’s so different from anywhere else. These feelings, and the reasons behind them, are still mostly a mystery to me, but I’ll try to capture what this sense is like.
It has something of the magic wand-effect, making everything larger, more beautiful, more meaningful than before. That first night in Tottori, I was pulled—trance-like—from my room and from my negativity, forced to realize just how much bigger and fuller my new life was than what I was giving it credit for.
After that, I set out on my bike almost every night, and it felt like being a kid at my cabin again—setting out into the wilderness, where every direction was an adventure, tinged on the edges with foreboding, always pulling you forward, always holding something back, for further mysteries new adventures.
In Tottori, what were old decaying streets of a post-boom frontier town in the day became winding hypnotic alleys by night, framed by black mountains and the shimmering shrieking of cicadas. Tottori was as big as I needed it to be.
And I needed it to be—when all my friends, it felt (in those first couple weeks), were down in Kansai living (it seemed) it up without me, I was still able to have an amazing time. I could still jump off after a disorienting day at my new, cold-shouldered school and go wherever—across the river there might be that lone radio tower, its beeping red touching the shadows of the roofs around it, and if I squinted hard enough, I could believe I was back in Osaka again.
I didn’t realize till much later that the same thing was happening in places as opposed to Tottori as Osaka or Tokyo. By day the Japanese city is a gray fortress, sprawling across an endless landscape. By night, these places are carnivals and ferries and endless lightshows. The neon turns on down the Dotonburi canal of central Osaka and it’s like the whole world has turned up for the show: you’re here with all your friends, running through the streets, dancing till dawn.
Dawn: it seemed so strange, that first time in Osaka—that we could go all night and not feel tired. That it’d only be on the train home when the sun is climbing out across the bay that we’re all ready to collapse across the seats and piss off the Japanese grandmas sharing your traincar.
It seemed strange, until it kept happening. Before coming to Japan, my all-nighter count was probably around 4—saved for the most epic of occasions back home, most epic occasions or the messiest mistakes. Here? Since coming it’s definitely over ten: I stopped counting.
Going all night here is a pretty common, sensible occurrence: your train stops at 11:50, and unless you wanna spend 200 on a cab, you’re in it for the long hall. For me, that’s never really been the reason: there’s an electricity running through the streets that’s always made me feel like I shouldn’t be anywhere but exactly right here.
The first time I did an all nighter alone, I really noticed its power: Shinjuku at midnight, Shinjuku at 3, Shinjuku at 6 am when the train cleaners come in and start collecting the trash from the crevices of the raised rails—it never stops. There are crowds and billboards and the innate sense that it’s never been so right to go and dance in the streets, and that it’ll never be quite so right again. This itching sense that something’s always about to go away forever, and then never does. That’s enough to keep the bloodstreams turning and spinning like the record skipper.
And they seem so far apart at first—the complete emptiness of the Tottori dark, and the screeching howling electricity of Shinjuku. But then I consider the middle ground, the towns where the old Japan still glimmers. Nighttime feelings there are the hardest to describe, probably in part because it had the greatest effect on me.
Days 1 and 2 of Kyoto was a menagerie of crowds, photo opportunities, paper cutout temples and friends I laughed with so much we were like the laughtrack on a 90’s sitcom. But I didn’t feel anything. Not anything, at least, that would sink into me and keep me turning long after I left. Then there was the third night: splitting off with my would-soon-be best friend and seeing the Gion district long past the time sensible tourists roamed the range. There was a glow in the air that made me wonder if all they said about Kyoto was true; a restaurant across the river that, nothing special in the day, had become the Spirited Away bathhouse by night.
We called it an early night, and the moment I got back to our (unreasonably swanky) Air BnB, I hopped on a bike and went off on my own. I didn’t know where I was going, but every avenue I turned down felt like the right one. Across tiny canals I could look in on restaurants and pleasure parlors closing up for the night—so perfectly put together, it was stage after stage on plays that had just ended, but where the usher forgot to close the curtain. I was being let in on a secret, someone was smiling at me from the wings.
I made it back to Gion, and from the corner I spotted a Geisha escorting a client home. She had a jasmine kimono on, and she wasn’t from this century. She turned and smiled at me for a second, before going back through the sliding door. The lantern above her door went out.
And then, when I followed those feelings of the night in the day, I found the temples and the backways that saved me. What I saw in the darkness had been a promise, and also a guide; whispers that “there’s more here than you think.”
Not everything, after all, is Instagrammable.
There’s something connecting all three—something significant about the fact that the country with the brightest lights also has the most pervasive darkness. There’s something watchful, winking at me like the Geisha.
Darkness has a way here of erasing the lines I set in the light: what’s gone, what’s still here, what will never actually come. I stop making declarations about what Old Japan is and what New Japan is.
In Kyoto by day, the two sides of the Kamo river are practically different countries, where the tall uniform buildings lie on the west side (with its office towers and shopping arcades) and the narrow diverting alleys are on the east (the temples, the Geisha district). At night those distinctions stop mattering so much: there’s that sense, travelling through the lit and the unlit, that you’re walking through streets that are older than the entire history of your family. I couldn’t understand Kyoto without the night.
Even though Shinjuku can feel like the brightest place in the world, the night’s still there, just above the cityscape. As bright as it is, the light only goes up at most four stories, and then after that there are just a few empty towers and the glowing rods of the airsignals. You never really escape the darkness.
Japan is supposed to be a land of contradictions: narrow tea huts aren’t supposed to make sense in the face of Shibuya. At night, I’m no longer sure that’s true. Even though you can’t exactly explain it, you begin to feel they’re not contradictions at all.
In Wind Up Bird Chronicle (probably Haruki Murakami’s best work), the hero Toru Okada digs a well and, while living in perfect darkness, comes to understand that darkness is where most of the world is.
What we see before us is just one tiny part of the world. We get in the habit of thinking, this is the world, but that’s not true at all. The real world is a much darker and deeper place than this, and much of it is occupied by jellyfish and things.
He discovers the truth by living in darkness, in a world that bridges samurai, kappa, and vengeful spirits to economists, Shibuya, and five star hotels.
Sure it’s just a book, but it’s amazing how much it’s probably influenced the way I engage with this place, and how true I’ve found some of those revelations to be. In the day, you’re walking through these old streets and wondering how this shot might look on Instagram. At night, you’re just forced to feel your way through. And you begin understanding the things that couldn’t be understood when you’re only ever using your eyes.
The night brings an order to curving backstreets and history to the streets bathed in neon. Brings life to the empty streets and clarity to the ones packed with people. It’s all connected and it’s all saturated. Darkness might not end up being anything more than darkness. But it’s allowed me to see what’s always been there in the day here, just winking at me. Bringing me to new places. And maybe when I leave Japan, I’ll start seeing that in other places too–places I thought I knew but, like Toru Okada, actually know nothing about at all.
It’s June. The nights are heavy and humid enough to go back out again at 10 and not feel there’s any deadline for how long you can let your bike wander (work be damned!) I’m reminded now that, in spite of how amazing Kyoto Geishas or raucous Shinjuku/Roppongi/Shibuya all-nighters are, there’s something about nights in Tottori that still grip me the most. The black mountains, the sea breeze, the life slithering through these almost-farmlands. There in the summer, there in the tight grip of winter.
Because what I realize now that what felt crossing that bridge is that I’ve never lived in a place so alive. And that feeling that this little town can be anything and everything when I’m lacing through it when it’s long past the people hour is something that will never stop being amazing.
The night’s breathing again; it was always breathing.