Diary of a Nihilist
by Aaron Hayes & Daniel Dives
part 1 of 2
I am nowhere yet everywhere, as is the reflection of one who sees he has no Ego anywhere. — The Lotus Book of Essence
My name is Steve Allen; I am a nihilist. A foreigner, lost in the stillness of stacked rice paddies in a rural area at the edge of Kyushu’s Saga prefecture, I padlocked my bike to the bench as I let my eyes absorb the soothing view of terraces filled with water and green, which lead up the surrounding hills and mountains as if built as a staircase for an imaginary giant.
A swallow sped low over the greenery, flying erratic patterns, catching insects, while a little sparrow checked the rice plants for grains. One admired and heralded, because it brought luck when it nested on a farmer’s house and left the holy crops unscathed, the other loathed for its indiscriminate destruction. The world in a nutshell, right there before my very eyes, in the middle of nowhere.
I am a twenty-seven year old Australian and had been living in Tokyo for a year and a half, teaching English, when I finally visited Kyushu and dove into the reality of rural Japan during my break in May. I had hoped to escape the maelstrom — that endless, featureless chaos of concrete and metal.
I’d been growing tired of the ever-encroaching walls of the modern-day Colosseum, tired of watching 21st-century gladiators and slaves decked out in blood-stained armor and Hermes Etriviere shields, being led toward primal growls, and tired of seeing Versace-wearing, Prada-carrying spectators cheering them on from the stands, wearing five-dollar shoes.
Tokyo, with all its temptations, was an exciting place to be for a country boy from the antipodes, but recent months had taken their toll. The once bright lights of its brutal neon landscape had begun to fade, gradually taking on a more sinister tone.
On Sunday, sake-fueled hangover in tow from the previous night’s school enkai, I caught the bullet train down to Fukuoka. It was my first time. The sleek, sterile interior reminded me of that of an airplane — business class. A lady with one of those nervous, ever-shivering Chihuahuas sat beside me. I like dogs, but they have to be bigger than rats. It showed its teeth and snarled, embarrassing its owner and its miserable species.
You gotta be kidding. Of all the seats! I thought, studying their echo in the window, wondering if someone, somewhere, had spotted my foreign name on the passenger list and in it read: ‘expendable’.
Awaking in Fukuoka to the high-pitched screeching of the over-excited fur ball on legs, I caught an express train down to Nagasaki where I visited Ueno Peace Park and the Atomic Bomb Museum. If ever there were a cure for a hangover, that museum was it. I had seen the bomb explode on TV many times, but was never directly confronted with the harsh and deadly reality it represented at and around ground zero, where it had meant an instant but horrible death.
On TV, it looked clinical, distant, almost safe. In person, the images seized me by the throat: the pictures of survivors, the charred lunchbox of a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, and the bones of an unknown child mixed in with the melted glass of a window or bottle. The last thing I saw was a photo of a disfigured elderly face; beside it, reflecting in the glass frame, a familiar skull wrapped in pale flesh — looking decidedly less dazed than it had an hour prior — stared back at me. I left feeling embarrassed to be human, the reflections of unwanted history forever caught in the mirrors of my eyes.
“Hey, you want faku?”
A ‘Yankee’ looking yakuza-wannabe approached me as I walked back down the street toward the tram stop.
“You want sex?” he said, giving his hips an unintentionally comical thrust.
Maybe it was just the media hype, but I could not help but picture a seedy joint filled with Filipina girls lured to Japan with the promise of hostess work in the ‘snack bar’ industry.
“No thanks. You’re not my type, buddy,” I said, my mind still trying to make sense of the nightmarish visions of the internationally accepted rape I had just witnessed.
I headed back to the main station and checked in early to my hotel for a good night’s sleep. As I inserted my room key into the door, I noticed a tiny inscription on the back: ‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?’
Nagasaki, first port of call for missionaries.
The door unlocked with more of a sigh than a squeak. Exhausted as I was, I crashed into the softness of the bedcover before my backpack hit the floor, martyred letters in tow, chasing me toward malevolent dreams.
The following morning, I headed off for Glover Gardens — the former houses and gardens of Thomas Glover, the 19th-century Scottish merchant who helped industrialize Japan and whose wife was probably the inspiration for Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly.
At the tram stop, I checked the color-coded board map for which trams were bound for Glover Gardens then double-checked with the little old woman waiting beside me. She stood, shaded from the sun, beneath a navy blue umbrella twice her size — a sight I was still unaccustomed to seeing.
I boarded the crowded tram and immediately felt a number of eyes looking me up and down. Ironically, even though Nagasaki had been Japan’s original gateway to the world, people there, compared with the likes of Tokyo, were still fascinated with blond hair and blue eyes.
“Dude must’ve been a Freemason! Man, they’re everywhere.”
At the entrance to the gardens, two young foreigners, Canadian or American, were taking photos of the Masonic symbols engraved into the stone pillars.
“Take another one up close!”
“I wonder if we can take photos inside the house.”
“Worries, man. Just say we don’t speak Japanese.”
“That’s ‘I don’t eat Japanese’, idiot.”
I felt those photos would wind up on some conspiracy theorist’s website, dedicated to ‘exposing’ the likes of the Illuminati and Freemasons — the political manipulators who are supposedly pulling the strings, controlling the machine.
It must be a comforting thought to feel someone is in control, I thought. Reality can be a terrifying thing... the realization that nothing is at the clutch, break or wheel of this non-sentient phenomenon: the machine.
The gardens were nice and, after living in Tokyo for so long, it was good to see a little greenery. The koi fishponds added a nice touch with flashes of orange, yellow, black and white darting everywhere; the view of the harbor was excellent, and the old western-styled houses offered a glimpse into the lives of well-to-do foreigners in 19th-century Japan.
After doing the rounds, I took off briefly for the Dejima Historical Museum then I caught a bus to the outskirts of the city and tried to hitch a ride towards Saga, Nagasaki’s bordering prefecture. I’d heard all the stories of lonely, bored housewives stopping to pick up the exotic foreigner, but within the hour, Takafumi, a truck driver in his late forties, who insisted I call him ‘Taka,’ had picked me up and said he could take me as far as Oura, a small country town on the border of Nagasaki and Saga. He had a strong southern dialect, was the talkative type, a little excitable, but overall a decent sort of guy. He just seemed to have somewhat of a penchant for all things foreign, judging by all the American paraphernalia decorating the inside of his truck: photos of James Dean and Marlon Brando, a U.S. flag, Elvis Presley badges.
First, he had a problem pronouncing my name. He said, “What brings you out here, Stifu-san?”
“I’m on summer break. Thought I’d get away from Tokyo for a bit.”
“Ah, Tokyo,” Takafumi replied, as if talking about a holy shrine. “You like it there?”
“It’s all right. Have you ever been?”
“No, but my Grandmother is from Tokyo. She moved to Fukuoka after the war, after my grandfather died there in the great firestorm of ’45.”
His matter of fact tone took me by surprise. “I’m sorry to hear that, Taka,” I said. Tokyo, Hiroshima, Dresden, Nanking, Leningrad, thoughts of human destruction on a scale I could barely comprehend flooded my mind. “War’s a terrible thing.”
Takafumi nodded in agreement, when a thought popped up between his brows. “Death is honor, though.” His face relaxed and his eyes got a serene, proud glare over them. “Therefore nothing to be afraid of.”
I nodded respectfully. The thought of not being alive was one of those ideas that occasionally kept me awake at night. I loved life and hung onto it with all my strength. One of the reasons I tried to enjoy every minute of trotting around on this planet was that life was short and I’d be dead for a mighty long time.
“You don’t hate America, Taka?”
“Eh? Why would I?” He laughed heartily. “A nation is just an area of land made up of people, and I try not to hate any one person more than another. It’s all just human nature. Only reason the weak don’t do as the strong, is that they’re not in the position to do so.” He looked over at me appraisingly. “Nations, corporations, the wealthy... they all basically just reflect what the rest of us do every day of our lives. Just on different scales.”
I nodded, again, not quite sure what to say.
“So why did you come to this place, Stifu-san?”
I stared blankly for a second at James Dean striking an ‘ain’t-I-the-shit’ pose. He just asked me that. “To Japan or Kyushu?”
“Here,” said Takafumi, waving one hand around the rugged terrain we were passing through.
“I read about it in a book.”
“Did you? What did it say?”
“The usual. Famous places, shrines, museums, hot springs, restaurants, mountains...”
He shook his head. “That’s a shame. Saga is the birthplace of many Japanese myths. We have so many legends here we tell our kids.”
“Like what?” I asked, feeling curiosity bloom in the fertile ground of my thirst for ‘different’ stuff.
“One is about ‘Akuma.’ Ghosts who lurk within windows and mirrors, rattling the dressers of widowed women, scratching the glass of window panes, snatching those foolish enough to ignore them.”
Legends should have meaning.
“I don’t get it, Taka.”
He repositioned the rearview mirror toward me. “Think about it,” he said with a warm smile.
Taka enjoyed having a fresh face to tell his ghost stories to, and for the remainder of the ride we exchanged tales, in the end concluding that some did contain noticeable similarities, whereas others had no interlinking whatsoever.
“Well, here we are. Oura ,” said Takafumi and brought the truck to a halt at the side of the road. “ This is as far as I go. Enjoy your stay.”
I gave him a hand and a smile. “Thanks for the ride, Taka. I will.”
I waved goodbye, while he bowed and shifted into first gear. I stared at the diesel fumes, hanging bluish against the backdrop of the rice paddies’ emerald hue. The truck turned left and disappeared out of sight. I started walking and saw several old ladies with bamboo-hitched baskets on their backs, bent over and taking care of the rice fields. Their eyes followed me, a perfect stranger.
According to my guidebook, it was about ten kilometers to Tara, a small town with an affordable yet supposedly quaint inn.
A schoolboy on a bike swooshed by. “Halo!” he yelled.
“Hello!” I yelled back.
A little before four o’clock, I arrived at Maeda Inn, located on the shore overlooking the Ariake Sea. The Inn was large, two stories high, a little on the dilapidated side, but the unbelievably gorgeous receptionist more than made up for any shortcomings. When she smiled, it beamed sincerity — something I missed in Tokyo.