A True Story / Eric Valentine

There’s a city in my recurring dreams I’ve been to many times. I know every section of the town. I know where the best street food is and which vendors entertain special requests. I know where the red light district is and what is and what is not a line to cross. I know how the breeze feels on your face as the wind flows along the open patio of the highest-building-in-town’s twentieth floor. There’s a flower shop there.

When I wake from these dreams I require a moment to remember I cannot drive there, walk there or plan a trip and fly there. The nanosecond of being hard on myself for not visiting enough is gone. The experience becomes pleasant memory, not pipe-dream fantasy.

I used to think this city was an aggregate of every great city I’ve ever loved and in which I’ve ever been. When I walked the Tokyo streets with my 17-year-old nephew yesterday I realized it was something else.

When we dream, we learn. That’s not some Tony Robbins soundbite or Rumi-esque half truth. That’s science. During sleep, parts of the brain kick into high gear. The sights and sounds of our nocturnal cognitions unleash, surrendering themselves to the hypothalamus—the content editor of our brains, vetting them as story in an attempt to help us keep what we need for survival and filter out what we don’t. 

The reason you dream? Your storage space only has so much room. 

The reason some dreams loop? You have more to learn.

Back to my walk through Tokyo …

I was dumbstruck by the number of times I spotted a building and remembered being there. 

“I think that’s where I ate lamb brain and snake for the first and last time,” I told my nephew. 

But the restaurant was no longer there. The establishment had changed. 

“I bought some cool houseware there, but it looks like they turned it into a hybrid cafe-and-houseware store.” 

Then I wondered if I was simply misremembering the part of town. 

“I had a farewell meal with a couple from Australia right there on that top floor of that building with all the glass and dimmed yellow lights.” 

Or was it a different location, a different set of people?

Cut to: remembering my last meal in Japan after wrapping three years of teaching English there. I don’t remember exactly what I had because I had all the things I had been having for three years. It was delicious though, and it was located in a part of Tokyo I hadn’t frequented much but wished I had. It overlooked the water, something you can forget you’re close to in the cement jungle of Tokyo. And it had every Japanese classic pub and street food live-cooking at every corner of the simple, rustic space. There was a basic selection of sake and beer. No pretty umbrella drinks. Vibrancy was propped within the patrons—young, eccentric, nondescript too, and all letting loose after a long day of work or more.

My walk was taking place seven years since I walked Tokyo last—vacation style—and twenty-one years after I walked Tokyo as my daily grind. But more importantly it was happening 17 years after the night I had to be hospitalized. Doctors would call it a breakdown. Contrived. Jerry Maguire would call it a breakthrough. More contrived. It was both, a paradox like Japan itself, the land where politeness and form, graciousness, humility and empathy, coexist with things like seedy anime, street pizza (public vomit), robot restaurants and cat cafes. 

Everything I battled back then made me a better and deeper everything. But some of the details of my time in Japan had become lost on me. It was not a PTSD-triggered, short-term memory fail. It was more subtle than that, a loss of veneer from your favorite something. Maybe just part of growing old.

Back to my recurring dream …

I realize now the city in my dream is my virtual Tokyo. It is more than all the places I have been. It is all the places I’ve yet to be.

Tokyo, my nephew jokes, is Middle Earth. “We’re charging our phones and drinking melon juice in a coffee shop on the 5th floor, under the ground floor,” he tells his friend who called him from the States.

His description couldn’t be more accurate I tell him as we venture off Omotesando Dori—one of Japan’s most famous shopping streets—to the back streets where the less corporate, more artsy shops lie. We stop into Beer Garden, a small tip-the-cap-to-non-Japanese-alcohols watering hole, and have an early afternoon beer. No one asks for ID, they ask us what we’d like to drink. We have our first talk about girls.

Back to the shiny modern corporate stores, and outside are neon-shirted men and women handing out primary-colored A4-sized Keith Haring fliers. 

“Doshite (how come)?” I ask the genki (spirited) man. “Keith. Haring. Show,” he replies. “Ikura desu ka (how much)?” I ask. “Free,” he replies, practicing his limited English as I practice my limited Japanese. “Doko desu ka (where)?” I ask. “Basement 3,” he says. Of course it’s in a basement.

Tokyo goes on like this forever. It’s not grid-like Manhattan. It’s not circular Paris. It’s not picturesque Vancouver. Its beauty rests within the stone grays and the neon haze, along the rustic red lanterns under the exposed cluster of utility wires, and at the confluence of koi fish ponds drowned out by the ear-blistering cadence of the cicada—a tree bug that takes 17 years to evolve from its larvae state. Yes, the bugs we hear resonate now were born around the same time as my nephew, and around the same time I had lost my mind.

Tokyo is brain-shaped, full of crevices and underneaths, skywalks and alleyways, all of it connecting separate spaces so things can flow and realities can form. Everything I know tells me my recurring dream is my brain’s way of keeping all my most pleasant memories and deepest hopes in one spot—a baseline for how I should feel at all times, in all places, amongst all people. And if I don’t feel that way, I get to move on to another street, another floor, another group.

All this makes me excited for my team’s arrival Wednesday, a group of artists collaborating to make a film about my hike of Mount Fuji twenty-one years ago today. I took a lava rock from the top of the sacred volcano back then, something I didn’t know some Japanese believe it’s something one shouldn’t do. I wrote a story about it and now perform it to music with Laio, my dear friend and a singer-songwriter whose performances always seem to make people feel they must’ve seen her somewhere before. It’s not delusion, it’s deja vous.

She and I will hike Fuji-san together, I’ll return the rock, and we’ll perform “Fuji” on Fuji—the name of our film directed and written by Cary Judd. Our director of photography, Tetro, rounds out the crew and hauls the bulk of our gear.

The end of “Fuji” talks about how we must feel at our moment of death, because that’s the out-of-body-sort-of-experience you can have atop the mountain if you let the lack of oxygen increase your imagination a bit. The conclusion goes like this:

“I think that when we die, for a second we’re still alive. And it’s during that moment I believe our mind pulls above our body, knowing exactly where we are, knowing exactly where we’re going, knowing exactly content. That’s how we felt on Fuji-san at that moment. Our bodies and minds at rest. The subtle cues of ambivalent nature revealing themselves in the silence of the world …”

When I reach my final silence, I know now where I’ll be. Happy, exploring my Tokyo virtual reality. For a moment at least. Above all the fray, and into the depths of whatever seems worth the dive.