Music can do a curious and powerful thing. When it becomes emotionally significant, it has a way of tunneling into one’s mind and arranging details such that it, and its associations, become indelible.
It runs wires of interconnection between detailed remembrances of people, situations, and the emotions of the day. Music connects memories like a string of fairy lights that comes on when a song flips the switch of spontaneous recollection.
In 2002, when I was in my third year of at Ohio University, I began corresponding with Kotone1, a Japanese woman a few years older than me who lived in Saitama and worked in Tokyo. We got along well and quickly became close, exchanging emails and pictures almost daily. One thing we really bonded over was music, particularly rock.
Becoming close with her is probably what first led to my active curiosity in someday living in Japan. The pictures she sent were captivating, as were all the details of daily life she shared. She gave me my first real insights into what daily life was like in the Tokyo area.
She’s who first helped me see Japan more as it is, and less as the idealized travel-guide version of itself that tends to dominate the picture when looking at the country through the dual lenses of tourism and fantasy.
Of course, what I remember most strongly from that time are the feelings that we developed for each other. We were sincerely into one other, in the manner and to the extent that two people can be purely through written correspondence.
She was wonderful, but despite the closeness we shared for a time, the nature of things was such that our paths would never intersect in the physical world. Oddly enough, though, I now live in Saitama City, very close to where she lived then, and she now lives in Chicago, not far from my old neighborhood.
I don’t think about that time with any real regularity anymore. It’s been a long time. However, I remember it fondly, and all of it remains wrapped up in the music she introduced me to. Albums from bands like Guitar Wolf, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, and The Pillows, and from artists like Tujiko Noriko.
It was music that connected me to someone I loved. It was music that connected me to a life and a place that were distant from my own, in which I was deeply interested. It was music that pointed at possibility. And it was music that made me feel more like the version of myself that I wanted to become.
When certain songs from then come on now, it all comes flooding back with great clarity. I remember sitting in my dorm room, writing to her and sending her every new picture. I remember the pleasant rush when a new email arrived from her or when she signed onto the instant messaging app we used. I remember listening to the music on my minidisc player as I walked across campus, our latest conversation fresh in my mind.
And I remember how it felt like all of this was changing the course of my life, steering me in the direction of Japan. Which, as it turns out, it actually was.
The eventual shape life took turned out to be quite different from what I had hoped for back then. I’m an English teacher here, not a commercial photographer. I didn’t get my master’s degree at Tokyo Polytechnic2. She and I never even met face-to-face.
What I had originally wanted and what actually happened are quite different. Which is fine, basically. Different isn’t bad, it just isn’t same.
It’s common enough for people to find themselves on diverging paths, and while the separation can be painful, sometimes we get to hang onto at least some of the good that preceded it.
Last weekend, I put on Gear Blues3 by Thee Michelle Gun Elephant and spent some time just inhabiting the memories and feelings it brought up, contemplating how it all had so much to do with where each of us wound up.
I’m happy for both of us, for the lives we now live, and I’m happy to have known her when I did. The memories I’ve kept are the good ones, and I can bring them back in high fidelity any time I want.
All I have to do is press play.