I arrive in Japan for what is to be a long stay, a reply to the imperative of recent illnesses in the family (my father's long and continuing recovery from cancer, my grandmother's quickening decline into the twilight of old age; my sense that I have, in Japan, a host of lost relatives). And it is somehow appropriate that this journey should start on a train – trains being an old obsession of my father's, touched with the dust of the years running from childhood to adulthood and then to middle age, those selfsame years that took him from Japan to America, and then back again to Japan.
Burrowed drowsily in the centre of a non-smoking coach – illogically sandwiched between two smoking carriages, so that the acrid pong of cigarette smoke drifts in as the carriage doors slide open and then close again – I sit aboard the express train running from the suburban outskirts to which all airports are exiled, towards the pulsing centre of Tokyo. Weighted down with its cargo of returning salarymen and the occasional family or two, bursting with fatigue and luggage, the train pulls out of the station at Narita Airport and into a misted morning light, already burning off into a hazy winter noon.
As it gathers towards a slow momentum, the train's placid efficiency is many miles and decades away from the laborious straining of the trains that populated my father's childhood imagination. Those trains – the trains that tracked across the landscape of post-war Japan, and then also the movie trains that burst out of Hollywood, their celluloid coaches somehow always destined to go off track – affected him so that even when he was older, his vision of happiness flanked the course of some imaginary railway, lodging itself inside the inarticulate bliss of watching phantom coaches, sprung from the canister of childhood and sweeping by according to a regular timetable.
And so it must be through some longstanding empathy with my father that I too have always had a particular inclination towards train journeys, so that they conjure up for me the most longstanding romance of all, that of childhoods known and unknown. And now, newly disembarked from the flight between London and Japan, I find myself observing the strange timelessness that will often declare itself towards the end of long journeys, the product of accumulated fatigue and abandonment. Gradually, it swells through the rocking motion of the train's body, therein finding its rhythm, perhaps because these trains were always more a part of me than I realized.
I always have a feeling of displaced recognition upon returning to Japan, a place that is not my home, and yet for which I often find myself feeling something more than homesickness. It was maybe the wreckage of my father's old obsession with trains that led, via the resultant American professorships in civil engineering, to this state of being. The second child of Japanese immigrants, I was born and raised in California, and brought up mostly American – though in hidden, quiet ways that only showed themselves later, also partly Japanese.
Then, some sixteen years after I was born, my parents made a belated return to their native country. My brother remained in California, I went away to an East Coast university and later moved to London for my graduate studies, and as a family we tacitly agreed to inhabit different time zones. It began, though, with my father. He needed, it seems, to return to the trains of his childhood, to their carriages, to the spinning of their wheels and the shifting of their gears. Perhaps he always knew there was going to be some kind of return; perhaps that was why my brother and I grew up in a household that was never entirely certain whether it was going to remain in America or return home, and why, as a family, we were in some sense always bound to live across different continents, and in different patches of land.
A young couple move down the carriage aisle, steps jolting according to the swaying of the train. My ear listens idly as she speaks over her shoulder; he responds in slow grunts, and their conversation – not simply their spoken words, but the language of their gestures, the floating of hands, the flickering of eyes – comes to me in a dulled clarity, apart from fluency and only partially apprehended. Several minutes later, when the train conductor passes through, I speak to him in a gummy Japanese, words spilling out unsharpened. But he understands me well enough, and everything about his crisp uniform, from the weave of its navy fabric to the stitching on the white gloves, bears with it an air of old familiarity, so that I feel a steady sense of inexplicable recognition.
They are both – the young couple and the train conductor – part of a Japan towards which I bear an intimate curiosity, a curiosity that travels in the company of a contrary hesitation. They are part of a Japan that is muffled, speaking in hushed tones and appearing in the half-light of dream corridors. Drawn through this world there is perhaps a dull feeling of regret – the awareness of relatives, cousins my own age hardly known, dead or ageing grandparents whose affection is based on kinship more than knowledge, the consciousness of childhood memories that were so long displaced, so long illegible, that they finally drifted into the fog of a growing forgetfulness. But there is also the growing expectancy of arriving in a place that is part known, part forgotten, and part present with a particular richness of being. And it is for this feeling of anticipation, as much as any other, that I travel to come back home.
Katie Kitamura's Japanese for Travellers is published by Hamish Hamilton this month. Read more