I have always been strangely drawn to old places. The overgrown remains of a house in the forest close to where I grew up. The ruins of an abandoned mountain village in southern France. The crooks and angles of the hundred-year-old house I used to rent. They set my mind spinning. Plant story seeds in my brain. Conjure up images of a past I can only imagine. Bare feet tiptoeing up the same stairs as mine. A glance in the mirror across a century.
Five train rides from Koya-san, I get off at Niino, a tiny station in a valley surrounded by mountains. Daisy, a workaway volunteer from Hawaii, guides me to the house I will be staying in for the next three nights. She tells me it was empty for ten years, and that Mark, our host, has left all the belongings of the previous owner, and I’m thrilled.
By now, I have walked through enough old Japanese houses to know they require a certain kind of awareness. I take my shoes off. Find a pair of soft slippers. Nudge my way through narrow passages and slowly push the sliding doors open, careful not to make any noise. These houses seem alive, somehow. I don’t want to disturb them.
This is not a silent house. A hard wind is rattling its screen doors and making a loose downspout whine like a ghost. And it is freezing. I spend my evening under the heated kotatsu table in my room, writing and catching up with some work. On my way to the bathroom, I catch a flicker in the corner of my eye. I turn my head just in time to see a cat slip through a gap in the wall.
‘Oh,’ Daisy says when I tell her about it the next morning. ‘Yeah, you should probably keep your door closed. Apparently the house was overtaken by feral cats while it was empty, and they still believe it’s theirs.’
An hour later, she’s on her way to Kyoto and I’m alone in the house. I flip through a tourist brochure about the area and find I’m less than twenty kilometres away from Mineyama Highlands, where some of the key scenes from one of my favourite books, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, were filmed. Unfortunately, there is no bus connection at this time of the year, and I’m not brave enough to hitchhike by myself.
Instead, I explore the house. Stroking the sun-bleached spines of old books. Breathlessly leafing through journals that haven’t been scribbled in for eighty years. I wish I could read them, but then I feel like I’m intruding, so I put them back. The mere thought of someone reading my journals eighty years from now makes me nauseous. I wonder what they would make of my scattered mind.
In a bamboo grove at the edge of the garden, half a house is resting between the green spears, completely merged into nature. Daisy mentioned it in passing. There’s a haunted house in there. I feel silly, but I stop outside the door post and bow quickly, somehow wanting to ask for permission before I step inside. Again, my mind is filled with traces of scenes that could have played out between these walls. I return to my room with an urge to write something, but I don’t know where to begin. Instead, I pick up one of the empty canvases Mark has left for his guests and make an attempt to paint the magic I can’t put into words.
The illustrations I had planned to finish before I left for Japan are still only a bundle of sketches. I have been putting the final steps off, because I’ve never done this kind of work before and I’m scared it will turn out terrible. But painting with acrylic paint for the first time since primary school for pure enjoyment helps me bust through my own barriers. I bike to the supermarket and stop at a deserted but open coffee house on my way back. Sipping tea to faint jazz music, I feel like I’ve stepped into a Murakami novel. Then I finally start drawing for real. When I rise to pay two hours later, the man behind the counter jumps, having completely forgotten I was there.
I once read an article by American painter Chuck Close, where he said: ‘Inspiration is highly overrated. If you sit around and wait for the clouds to part, it’s not liable to ever happen. More often than not, work is salvation.’
Whenever I get stuck, the work itself is almost never the problem. Because no matter how impossible my mind tries to convince me that the task at hand is, it is only painful as long as I resist it. Once I start making something, no matter what, once I release my expectations and let myself actually begin, things always end up falling into place. Some days, I can’t even get close to the result I want, but if I never start, I will never even know if I can.