How could I possibly resist Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo? As soon as I glimpsed Natsumi Hayashi’s cover photograph (see right) I knew I had to read it. The woman looks as if she’s being reeled in by homely temptations, just like in those old cartoons when the aroma of a freshly baked pie lures Mickey Mouse towards the kitchen window. It seems fitting to me, then, that so much of the book is dedicated to the social and corporeal pleasures of food.
Tsukiko eats her food alone. That is, until she and her old teacher Sensei become friends. Together they share fried lotus root, fragrant yudofu, grilled ayu, ponzu-dipped octopus, steaming tea, hot saké, crisp beer. Even before their romance blossoms, their world together is a sensual one, full of tastes, textures and aromatics. Tokyo buzzes around them as they eat, like the thrumming organisms of the Tochigi forest during their mushroom hunt: “all around me, it felt like it was bursting: with the leaves on the trees, the undergrowth…it seemed strange to be surrounded by so many living things…leading the same kind of complicated life I was”. Their shared meals hone this complex network of life down to just the two of them: Sensei and Tsukiko, with food, together. Simple.
Every mouthful described in Strange Weather in Tokyo seems to emanate warmth. Homeliness, even. Not because Tsukiko and Sensei are surrounded by family or friends – quite the opposite – but because the purpose behind each sip and bite is joy as well as sustenance; joy in the food, but also in the shared experience. As I read each page, I found myself daydreaming about evenings I’ve shared feasting at various tables: devouring cold soba with mentsuyu from a plastic bottle and nori that we snipped into delicate bands with kitchen scissors. Or eight of us sitting cross-legged on the living room carpet, dipping crispy-based, steamed gyoza into our mouths as the zing of vinegar and chilli oil tingled our lips. Or on a lazy night, stirring a heap of parmesan into hot, buttery spaghetti drenched in marmite, which we ate lounged in front of the television as snow drifted outside. On those nights, nothing was worth consideration apart from the good food and exceptional company.
These memories are intertwined with my reading of Strange Weather in Tokyo, so it’s no wonder I feel a kind of camaraderie with the book, despite an ending that is expected but more bitter than sweet. Like Mikage in Banana Yoshimoto’s novella Kitchen, the bustle of lives and intimate friendships that define Tsukiko and Sensei are tinged with the sentiment that “we are really, all of us, alone”. And also like Mikage, Tsukiko and Sensei ally themselves against this by seeking companionship and pleasure while the opportunity is there. “I would make carrot cakes that included a bit of my soul,” Mikage says, “Having known such joy, there was no going back. No matter what, I wanted to continue living with the awareness that I will die”. The loss and suffering of each character, whether previous or predicted, not only amplifies their joy but makes it possible.
And so, as Tsukiko recalls towards the end of the book, everything good “grows because you tend it”. Food, partners, friendships; all are worthy of labour. Reading Strange Weather in Tokyo made me want to head to a bar, have a cold bottle of beer – maybe with some hot salted chips – and talk to my friends about the day we’d had. Best to do it, I thought, while we have the chance.