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Letters from Tokyo, October 2021: Gingko Gold

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

September still feels like late summer in Tokyo, with stretches of sunbaked days and lingering cicadas and humid stillness. But by October the air crispens and the leaves go vibrant. October coaxes forth the city’s magnificent foliage, blanketing its far-flung hillsides and spreading colorful canopies across its parks and university campuses.

This year, the humidity got siphoned away overnight and evenings grew chilly fast. But for someone like me, raised in the northeastern US and north-central Japan, the shift to windbreakers and warmer bedclothes is welcome. Wherever I am, that transition in temperature feels like home.

Speaking of overnight: Have any other Olympic Games dissipated so quickly? No disrespect to the athletes, medalists and their retinue, but the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, held less than three months ago in 2021, almost feel more ancient today than the first Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

Things here have changed, and not just the weather.

After a slow and chaotic vaccine rollout last spring, the percentage of Japan’s fully vaccinated now exceeds that of the US population. Tokyo’s daily tally of Covid infections is at an 11-month low. The city’s izakayas, bars, restaurants and commuter trains are once again packed. And the whole country has a brand new Prime Minister.

In short, this is an auspicious autumn in Tokyo. The Olympics and the wilting humidity are gone, Covid has been tamed (at least temporarily)—and the biggest crisis in the media now revolves around an imperial suitor with a tacky ponytail. This October, the entire city feels like a sigh of relief.

It’s a good time to sigh. Partly owing to my years in academia as a student, teacher, professor and general hanger-on, autumn always feels to me like the true start of a new year, far more than January or February or the onset of spring. In the cities I’ve lived in, primarily Tokyo, New York, London and Boston, the air turns crystalline, “severe clear,” as my friend, the writer Paul Elie, told me during our long walk through lower Manhattan last month on the 20th anniversary of 9-11.

The breezes perk you up and demand a response. The sunlight sharpens the edges of things. The big new books and movies are released ahead of the holiday season, Broadway’s major shows open, restaurants update their menus. Some will feel like second homes when winter takes hold.

As Rilke wrote about facing true beauty in his poem on Apollo: “there is no place that does not see you / you must change your life.”

And so every Autumn I usually do, or at least I try to make changes. Some of them are small and may look trivial: haircuts, exercise routines, altered habits and new clothes, books and writing and travel.

This year I’m entering a zone of what I think of as pure writing, trying to revive the yearning that drove my first written words. All summer I’ve been reading my old notebooks, short stories, letters, poems and songs. It’s been quite an encounter, a confrontation. Who wrote that stuff? Who are you?

To me, autumn in Tokyo is golden. Gingko gold. Though the trees actually bloom in late-November into December, they flame in my mind as bright signatures of fall across the city’s sky.

I’m walking across the Komaba campus of the University of Tokyo, where I taught for several years, and the yellow leaves pierce the pristine blue above with a delicate urgency. I start to walk faster, write more, trim down and simplify.

You must change your life.

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