My Toru Watanabe Moment

I have now been two weeks here in Nara. By this time I’ve started to settle into my new environment, picking up on the habits and routine that will define the next three years of my life.

Though the cherry blossoms had already long bloomed and started to fade before I arrived, I was lucky to have caught sight of many of them still lining the small town roads in Ikoma and all over campus, as if greeting me into this new chapter. Despite the cold (why did no one tell me spring in Japan would still be freezing), I found it delightful to be walking around campus, letting it sink in that the year of hard work preparing for exams, doing entrance interviews, writing personal statements, sending out transcripts, and what have you has now paved the way to this.

When we yearn something for so long, we sometimes have trouble coming to terms with actually having it. I guess that explains the dizzying, melancholic undertone of the last two weeks.

The university put me up in a spacious Japanese-style apartment, complete with a tatami mat room where I sleep on the floor with my simple futon and duvet setup. I wake up early in the morning to the smell of wood filling the spring air, like I’m some character in an isekai, waking up to feudal era Japan. I’ve decided to dress the part too: I’ve brought along the indoor yukata that I purchased in Nagoya during my trip back in 2018. I lounge around the apartment pretending I’m a confucian scholar – and I might as well be, as I spend all my time surrounded by papers and books filled with esoteric knowledge, inscribed with notations and characters that the general public would find unintelligible.

Some time ago, an old friend found herself moving out of her family’s house to get closer to university. She moved into a dormitory to be by herself. Her first week, she described to me how it felt to be tending to herself and her new living space in solitude. She called it her Toru Watanabe moment, in reference to the narrator of Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood, who at the start of the novel has also just moved into a dormitory. I never got the chance to do the same until now, as our house was conveniently located to the university. Even when I got a job in Ortigas, the prospect of moving out had always been just barely out of reach, though by that point it was mostly because of budgeting concerns (I wouldn’t have afforded it). So I guess this is my Toru Watanabe moment.

Mornings tend to be slow for me. I’m an unusual sort of morning person, in that I like waking up early, but I rarely enjoy diving straight to work. So I opt for a slow start to my days: I get started on my coffee, while I clean up my sleeping mat, duvet, and pillows. The temptation to lie down for a couple more minutes is always strong before caffeine hits my system, so it’s important to have them out of the way. Then I sit down on the tatami mat (wearing my yukata and everything) and do a little stretching. The intention is actually to exercise, but I never seem to reach that point. Hey, we don’t want to soil the tatami with sweat.

The coffee ready, I sit down at my desk. My desk is right beside a sliding glass door that leads into the balcony outside. I open that and let the morning breeze in, which in April is cold enough to chill the bones: a perfect pairing for that first cup of joe. Sometimes I’ll crack open a book, but most of the times nothing beats taking the opportunity to not be thinking or doing anything, just being. Being all alone has made me realize just how much I’ve been jetting through life until now, always rushing from one task to the next. I must have gotten it from my dad.

I typically prefer doing some work back in the dormitory before heading out to the laboratory. But as my schedule begins to fill up I can see that changing soon. I answer all e-mails I have left over, and pore through some of the material that I’ve assigned for the day. If it sounds vague, it seems it just comes with the life of being a Ph.D. student. At any given moment I’m either going through a research paper, listening to a lecture, or doing some advanced reading. This is where the confucian scholar simile rears its sophisticatedly bald head. I’m here to do literally nothing but study. And I get to do it in Japan’s old capital?

Pretty sweet deal if you ask me.

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