Alessandro Wm Mavilio

The Fence
Glances and Reflections on Japan

Alessandro Wm Mavilio
The Fence
Glances and Reflections on Japan

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Cover Image Credits : Alex Rainer

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Sapporo, Japan
I cannot understand you.

'T is because
You lean over
my meaning's edge
and feel a dizziness
of the things
I have not said.

The Soul of Time
by Trumbull Stickney
To Zainal Muttaquien,
my Indonesian language teacher.
"Eightfold Fence of the Bamboo Plain" is one of the ancient names of Japan, but being enclosed by a "Fence" is also the feeling one experiences when living there for a long time: a sense of isolation and protection, accentuated by the characteristics of its society. It's as though the islands of Japan are enveloped by a mystical boundary, a sanctuary for those who traverse its landscapes and immerse themselves in its culture.

Japan has always had an industrious, mysteriously vibrant character. Its history is a tapestry woven with threads of tradition and innovation, where ancient temples stand in harmony with futuristic skyscrapers, and where the echoes of honor resonate alongside the hum of high-speed trains. This duality, this juxtaposition of old and new, is a testament to Japan's ability to evolve while preserving its rich heritage.

The language here is more than a mere means of communication; it's a reflection of the Japanese spirit, a vehicle for conveying the subtle nuances of emotion and thought.

Yet, it is not just the external aspects of Japan that fascinate; it is the profound depth of its society that captivates the soul. The notion of community is sacred, and there is an unspoken agreement to respect the individuality of each member while cherishing the unity of the whole. It's a society where punctuality is not a choice but a way of life, where the art of giving and receiving is a ballet of courtesy and humility.

Japan's cultural emanations are not confined within its borders. They have a global resonance, inviting all of humanity to partake in the wisdom and creativity they offer. It's as though Japan, through its art, its technology, and its philosophy, extends a hand to the world, inviting it to join in a collective journey towards progress and enlightenment.

The invitation to our deeper-inner exploration makes today's Japan an exceedingly modern magic mirror, perhaps the other side of the Western cultural paradigm, a special place to experience complete wonder, to deconstruct and reconstruct oneself. Japan encourages introspection, an exploration of the inner landscape, a journey to uncover the layers of one's own identity.

This book tells the story of contemporary Japan through memories and personal digressions, meaningful encounters and dialogues collected over ten years, which convey the subtle image of the mysterious entity that animates the country.
Born in Napoli in 1974, I was a frightened little boy from the Vomero suburb. For some reason I remember my childhood through a dark green filter, perhaps the colour of an old city bus, or that of the shades on buildings’ windows that I watched with obsessive curiosity. I was frightened because in those years all people talked about were terrorist attacks: bombs on trains and in railway stations, hijacked airplanes and so forth. AlsoI was keenly aware that I lived in a world of which I knew close to nothing, and in which even adults did not seem at ease. I didn’t know what waited at the end of the roads I walked on; everything in my life seemed just a fragment of something else.

When I was a kid I was constantly drawing, and soon I became reasonably skilled at observing and representing the reality around me. I tried several different media and techniques, and finally settled for comics. I wanted to become the new Charles M. Shultz, and I even exchanged letters with him! Thanks to an old Everest typewriter and a massive stock of stamps, both of which I discovered in my grandparents’ home, as a kid I began to write, ceaselessly and shamelessly, to my heroes, as well as to some companies, particularly makers of toy trains. I begged for gifts, discounts, and even personalised alterations to their standard models. All I got in return were catalogues with exorbitant prices.

As a teenager, I attended the Filippo Palizzi Art Institute in piazzetta Salazar, behind Piazza del Plebiscito in Napoli. I commuted every day from the suburban town of Camaldoli, in the hills behind the city, where my family had moved. To this day I wonder how I endured such an ordeal. It took two hours to get to school and even longer to come back; at the time school days were eight hour long, and urban transport in Napoli was completely unreliable; the only certainty was the Funicolare cable car. More often than not I got home at six PM, having skipped lunch. I was in the Printing Arts section. I spentmy first year of high school being mostly confused, but eventuallyart school allowed me to reach some sort of maturity; it gave me the ability to balance schoolwork and friendships, and the right to dream, discover, and make mistakes. That school somehow miraculously enabled me to retain the spirit of a child and an explorer, as I grew up pushed and pulled by all kinds of distractions and risks.

I distinctly remember that none of us kids ever had the slightest fear of making mistakes in our artwork. Any technical failure was another experiment, a draft that could be stored in a cardboard folder that simply recorded our evolution. And we brought the same spirit in all areas of life. In those years school became for me a veritable creative and productive tide. Despite my dedication to schoolwork, particularly in the art subjects, I still had a lot of spare time, and on a summer night, when I was fifteen, as I was up late studying for the third year Maestro d’Arte exam, I had my first true and enlightening encounter with Japan. I turned on the TV and on Rai Tre public television channel I came across a movie by OzuYasujirō. I was thunderstruck, and the effect lasted for a long time. I had become a neon light, turned on even in the daytime. It was as though I had suddenly discovered cinema; the existence of movies, and worlds, distant in time and space. That distance was a path to be treaded; that distance had become my goal.

Thus in the summer of my third year at the Art Institute I taught myself Japanese. I started that very night: I somehow managed to record the rest of the film on a VHS tape, and for a month I re-watched it and repeated all the dialogue lines that I was able to grasp, without understanding their meaning and probably getting the pronunciation wrong half of the time.


With every iteration my ability to hear and reproduce those sounds, and to recognise the slight gestures of the actors, improved. Having spent so much time dissecting a masterpiece of Japanese cinema also gave me a deep technical understanding of the movie, the director, the actors, and the artistic medium. For a month, every night, and when I could in the daytime too, I secretly met with Ozu and his film, and I was transported, body and soul, in 1950s Japan. The film was “Sanma no aji”, translated into Italian as “Il gusto del sake.” Not long after I also watched “Tokyo Monogatari”, and I gradually saw all of Ozu’s other movies. By the end of it, the Japanese language with its range of sounds was deep inside me, eager to pour out to reconquer its new world. I had absorbed the stories of distant families, and those stories and those sounds welled up in me like an overflowing pitcher. It was July of 1990.

In August, I worked part-time as a delivery boy, together with my brother. Before the city closed down for the holidays, I decided to buy a Japanese grammar, and I found one at the Guida bookstore in Via Merliani, where I had helped out in the art section over Christmas. My brother did his rounds on his Vespa, while I did the deliveries via public transport, and between buses and cable cars I had plenty of time to read. Mr. Guida sold me his only Japanese grammar, a thin and worn-out book, the only exemplar he had in the shop. It must have been forgotten in the farthermost shelf of the underground storage room. I did not care about that, and I devoured it from the first day. Finally I could visualise and write what I had always rehearsed mechanically. I couldn’t wait to transfer on paper and in a thousand shapes the sounds that had possessed me. The quality of the book was not great; as a typography student I could not help noticing that the volume was old and poorly printed, god knows where and with what means.

In September, I went back to school, and in the last years at the Art Institute all my works screamed Japan, from xylography and serigraphy to advertising graphic projects. My teachers looked at me with marvel and affection, and encouraged me to continue my studies at Istituto Orientale, a university specialising in Asian Studies. I was over the moon that I had found my path, although I still had to wait two more years before graduating.

But suddenly I made a chilling discovery. I had made a Japanese pen pal, with whom I exchanged postcards, and one day she politely pointed out to me that my Japanese was a little odd. In the extended and uncertain time that it took for my postcard to reach her, I reminded her just as politely that I was only sixteen, and moreover I was self-taught. Her terse response was: “check the date on your grammar book.” I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. I took my little book and opened it carefully, to prevent the pages from falling out, already looking at it differently. I realised that it was a reprint of a Japanese grammar from the Meiji period, originally published in 1911. The title was ‘Grammatica e vocabolario di lingua giapponese’, edited by Bartolomeo Balbi, “former chair of Japanese language at Regio Istituto Universitario Orientale.” If this story were a comic book, this frame would be in reverse colour.

How could I have missed this detail? The answer I would give today is complex. At the time, I had gotten into the habit of covering my books with wrapping paper, so I did not look at the actual jacket; I had devoured book excitedly, without looking at the front page, let alone the preface or introduction; both at home and at school I was surrounded by time-worn books filled with important-sounding names, and all this had diluted the old-fashioned aura of the text. I had focused uncritically on the content, ignoring the form. The only criticism I had, as a visual arts and typography student, was the poor quality of the inking on some pages and the uneven pressure of the galleys on others. So here I was, building a relationship with Japan, exchanging postcards with Japanese girls and inviting home the Japanese solo travellers I came across on my way from school, and all along I was trying to converse with them with a ridiculously archaic language. The final blow came when another Japanese friend noted, with surprising accuracy, that I talked like Hara Setsuko. Who is Hara Setsuko? She was one of Ozu’s iconic actresses, a mythical figure, the Greta Garbo of Japan, who became a veritable legend after she quit the scenes. There you have it: a six-foot-tall Neapolitan teenager that spoke like a Japanese woman from the 1940s, and wrote like a drunken ambassador from the nineteenth century.

But, after an initial period of confusion and disappointment, I got over it. My life had become much richer and more enjoyable thanks to this experiment. I stored this failed draft in my mental cardboard folder, and I moved on.

Japanese language gave me many satisfactions. At sixteen, I went to Rome to take the official Japanese Language Proficiency Test at the local branch of the Japan Foundation, and miraculously passed the beginner level. I started hanging around the Istituto Orientale well before I enrolled, sneaking into the classes of professors Sakamoto and Cutolo, in the Faculty of Political Science. I also started to learn Norwegian by myself in the library, under the perplexed gaze of Professor Saquella. I felt like Hermann, the protagonist of “Heimat Two”, when he goes from the little town of Shabbach to Munich. As a guest I felt already at home at Istituto Orientale. The tools to understand the diversity of the world were all within easy reach: I felt a sense of empowerment similar to the one we would get many years later from the Internet. The idea that in Napoli there was a place like this, full of exotic books, classrooms, students and professors willing to teach even a clandestine like myself, was beyond my wildest dreams.

After graduating from high school I enrolled in a “corso di laurea in lingue e civiltà oriental”, a bachelor of Asian languages and civilizations. I felt like the privileged member of some kind of important youth group, as though I belonged to a junior diplomatic corps. I studied Japanese and Indonesian, and, once again undercover, I took one semester of Chinese. Of all my classes I remember the strictness and the affection of the teachers, which reminded me of my experience at the Istituto d’Arte. I often thought about the fact that I have always studied in some kind of Institute: the Art Institute first, the Orientale Institute later. This coincidence of names struck me as more than coincidental, and was probably the reason why I unconsciously brought to my university life the habits that I had developed at art school, first and foremost the freedom to interpret and use the contents of my studies in immediate and real applications. Today I realize that, unlike my classmates, graduating was not my first priority. I am grateful to my family for never commenting on the quality and the pace of my studies, even when had to repeat my first year of high school, or when, after four years as an undergraduate, I still had many exams to go. The ocean of youth was so vast that swimming in it was enough to give meaning to life. Studying for me was an immersion in the spaces and times of school, and I wanted it to last as long as possible. Life would call me back to shore at some point.

My first trip to Japan was to Tokyo in 1996, when I was still a second-year student. I stayed with some American relatives that were in Japan for work. I was suddenly thrown into an international jet-set, among ambassadors and CEOs. I had no idea where I was; the first night they took me to dinner to Marechiaro, an Italian restaurant in Yokohama. Since I was going to be their guest for two weeks, I was determined totreat them to dinner to thank them for their hospitality.So I decided to seize the opportunity on that same night. After all, I was the only Italian at the table; it only made sense that I would treat everyone to an Italian dinner. Of course I knew this would probably mean being on a tight budget for the rest of the holiday, but I preferred to get it over and done with. When the bill arrived I almost fainted: five people in a couple of hours had eaten a little over ten thousand dollars! I sat dumbfounded with the bill between my fingers, while a Neapolitan guitar player patiently waited for me to give him his hundred dollar tip. After a few seconds everyone laughed, the guitar player went to another table, and someone politely took the little piece of paper from my hands. Just so you know, I had brought with me a total of five hundred dollars, that had to last for the whole two weeks! That Japan may no longer exist. And that myself too seems so far away now.

I went back to Japan several times, to buy books, to take photos, to take a break from my homeland that did not seem to grow up at my same pace. For me Japan has always been a “wild strawberry patch,” like the Ingmar Bergman movie; a place where I could reorder my thoughts and get new creative input, reassure myself that it was ok to be different. I came to the decision to move here permanently quite late, in 2003, when I realised that I felt trapped in Italy, that to stay back there was a betrayal of a personal path that had been building up all my life. I felt to emotionally rich to remain in Italy. My life trajectory had made me too full of gifts and too eager for action. I do not see myself as part of the “brain drain” of people who cannot find jobs at home. The “brain drain” concerns highly skilled people who are forced to operate in foreign countries; I don't think that applies to me. I see my background, and that of many people like me, as a sort of “meta-skill,” my skill was being elsewhere. It was not a professional flight but a love affair with the unknown. My life arc had prepared me for only one thing: leaving.

I never dreamed of a specific Japan, I never fell for ninja or samurai, geisha, robots, or kawaii characters. And naïve as I may have been, I never really imagined I would find the black and white Japan of Ozu’s films. And still, I feel that I live in a dreamlike Japan, because for me the Japan of everyday life resists any categorization. To let oneself be permeated by a different culture is often a painful and confusing process, that generates ambiguity and instability. But what attracts me to Japan is the fruit of its culture. The moment I bite that fruit, a new story is born, with a myriad unresolved issues. What if one doesn’t like Japan after all? It will be our fault, for thinking that Japan was there to please us. We should ask ourselves whether it is not more fitting for us to try to please Japan instead.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
I here.
From a note of mine. April 2004.
Suddenly I find myself in the "Eightfold Fence of the Bamboo Plain".


Still at night I wake up and in my sleep wonder where I am. Then I answer myself. And if I am lucky I catch sleep again. Otherwise I stay awake listening to the silence of these alleys, and the rumbling of my heart, which I have never before I had to listen to every night.

I know almost everything you need to know about this country, and yet I am a newly landed foreigner who understands little.

I live in Kyoto, one of the ancient capitals, where the people have a reputation for being particularly courteous, but this detail for now affects my life little.

I have permission to stay here longer than usual, and I always have to walk with this permit in my pocket.

I still don't know how long I will stay. And this is the first time in my life that I am not planning to leave again.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
The passport photo
The first two years in Kyoto I worked with ISEAS, the Italian School of East Asian Studies. At that time I lived at the "Ise Dorm," a dormitory in the Okazaki area.

I really liked the area, very close to the center, quiet and stately, and it seemed to me to represent Kyoto city perfectly.

The dormitory, on the other hand, was, alas, the old and dilapidated house of two elderly men who had jumped into the business of teaching English perhaps twenty years earlier and who had also put to use the many rooms they had to make a kind of hostel. The name "Ise" in fact had nothing to do with the famous place in Ise but was an acronym for "International School of English." In any case, it was an indecent general arrangement: my room was on the ground floor, and remembering it today it is as if they had made me sleep in a car garage. Lifting up the floor mats I found there directly the... ground! I shared the space with all sorts of insects and a giant spider, a spider so large that when it left its corner on the stove at night to stretch its eight legs, passing over the sliding door of thin glass made the plates vibrate.

As soon as I arrived in the city, under the guidance of the very kind ISEAS secretaries, I expeditiously fulfilled all the conventional necessities required of a foreigner.

The first thing I did was to report to the municipality in the neighborhood where I lived to obtain my "Alien Registration Card," the ID card specifically for foreigners. With other foreign acquaintances much was said about the label "Alien," somewhat obsolete, very British, but in Japan even more betraying the government's well-chosen choice to confine foreigners to a precise and detached semantic area: the quintessential quarantine. However, to be fair, after many years the system and its wording have changed.

Having obtained this card I could have opened a bank account, activated a telephone contract, in short, begun all those things that in modern society shape an individual. So I went to the City Hall, where there was an office in charge of foreigners, and I must say that I had gone there with the sole intention of getting information and then returning with the necessary documentation. That morning Japan presented itself to me in all its essence.

Since many foreigners in Japan, especially if newly landed, generally do not speak Japanese, and since almost all Japanese do not readily speak English, offices that must have contact with foreign users rely on procedures of commendable fluency, procedures of the utmost conciseness, relying on as little communication as possible.

To be fair, linguistic courtesy formulas aside, similar fluency applies to procedures involving Japanese, but the fear of linguistic misunderstanding makes the experience reserved for foreigners all the more...fluent. In any case, that little office for foreigners, appeared to me to be extremely quiet, stern, not at all courteous.

A beautiful, very serious girl sat at her desk under the obvious somber atmosphere of her boss, a woman. The whole room reminded me of Ebenezer Scrooge's office in The Christmas Carol: in a way the room was vitiated by something, a heavy ghost hovered there, the spirit of thrift. My intention was to enter, say hello, and simply ask for information. I had no time to do anything, the girl - silent and low gaze - handed me a form to fill out that was practically illegible because of how many times it had been photocopied, and still held out her hand intimating, "Passport, please."

In an almost unconscious gesture, I pulled out my passport and handed it to the girl who, just as quickly, I believe, handed me back a piece of paper with the date on which I was supposed to collect my Alien Card written on it. Low stares, somber atmosphere and the fact that the girl appeared to me under the close watch of her boss made me desist from asking anything else, especially from asking about the photographs, much less from leaving my habitual trail of smiles. I didn't have the pictures with me, hadn't even taken them yet, and didn't even know how many were needed. That was one of the reasons I had gone to inquire. The fact is that I also hand over the completed form and decide to leave, to return on the agreed day. Maybe they would ask me for the photographs at the pickup, and anyway I had escorted a vending machine nearby.

When I returned, I was ready to be asked about the photographs. I hadn't taken them yet, but I was ready to ask: black and white or color? What size? And most importantly, how many are needed? Instead with surprise, in exchange for a signature, I received my ID card. And on it was a photo! How was that possible?

Then I understood... Inside my passport there were some odd passport photos left over from the past. I was no longer aware of them because they had been tucked away for years in a pocket of the passport cover, on the last page, but evidently the girl had seen them early on, accustomed to leafing through the stamped lives of hundreds of foreigners.

I had a further surprise when I saw which photo had been chosen! It was a photo from the year Two Thousand, thus four years old: the last passport photo of four that was taken of me on the first day of my military service, in Avellino, Italy... My hair was still almost all black and, above all, I had a grim expression. Dare I say it, is there a more inauspicious day to take a picture of one's face? More importantly, in the photo I was wearing the camouflage jumpsuit of the Army, on the collar of which stood out the two small stars, the symbol of Italy...

Could a worse photo have been chosen?

Or rather, could a less suitable photo have been chosen for a foreign country's identity card?
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
The Kyoto School
I came to Japan on a permanent basis in 2004 after missing there for five years. Although I had already visited Japan many times between 1996 and 1999, incredibly, for the first time I was coming to the Kansai region and for the first time I was seeing Kyoto.

Until a few months before, I was working part-time at the University "L'Orientale", in Naples, where I was teaching first-year students "computer literacy applied to Oriental languages", and in recent times I was at the Tutoring Office where I was taking care of so-called "historical out-of-class" students.

I came to Kyoto to collaborate with the Italian School of East Asian Studies, referred to by everyone as "the ISEAS". I affiliated with it with a very particular idea of field research: although I had an intense personal history with the visual arts, from the first moment I set foot in Japan, back in 1996, I always felt a very strong interest in investigating its sounds.

For many months in Kyoto, I simply recorded the sounds of the city, taking notes and analyzing waveforms. I would compare the type of sound, its nature - human, analog, mechanical, the method of amplification or diffusion, the surrounding materials on which the sound waves broke - and so on.

I would simply collect audio data and also catalog it according to its use in society. I was going to do something with it sooner or later. I had no idea where such research would lead me, and certainly my way of operating and understanding it was, I think, barely tolerated by other researchers.

All the Orientalist colleagues with whom I came across, whether Italian, Japanese or foreign, embodied a much more traditional makeup, were scholars in very different fields but of classical methodology: long hours in the library, surrounded by tomes that were thicker than they were large and in an absolute and ecstatic relationship with ideograms.

My research did not lead to anything concrete in the academic sphere. But it was a very important opportunity to approach the city and the country with a spirit free of agendas and expectations.

I had the opportunity to experience the city, to crawl it completely and over and over again. I crept into tiny, compact, dense places and enjoyed completely... anomalous perspectives. It was a real solo exploration, an exploration much like those of the 1500s: less maps and more territory.

Even today, when it comes to Kyoto, I am always the only one whose perception is completely off-axis from that of others.

Anyway, at the ISEAS I also had an active, internal role in the structure. I was in charge of its IT needs for more than two years: I remember putting some databases back together, building the trilingual information structure of the website (at that juncture I met Markuz Wernli, a very talented Swiss graphic designer with whom I began further creative activities), and filming some afternoon lectures.

For a while I was also in charge of watching over the interns who were arriving from Italy for shorter stays: although almost of the same age I was the one who had been at ISEAS the longest and would stay there the longest.

The ISEAS team consisted of the Director and three female staff members: Ms. Yamamoto at the secretary's office, Ms. Yamashita who took care of the school's editorial and graphic needs, and Ms. Mashita who took care of the library.

Then there was Markuz Wernli who had been composing posters and posters for conferences for some time, and who also prepared the graphic container for the website, and last I think I was added. I am grateful to Prof. Vita, then director of the School, for patiently tolerating my lack of academic sense and especially my punctiliousness on technical matters of the School.

The connection with the University "L'Orientale" has always been strongly felt by me, and at ISEAS, the smell of books - with my eyes closed - would take me back, in a flash, ten thousand kilometers away, to another fourth floor, to the Taddei Library of Palazzo Corigliano in Naples.

During my ISEAS years, I got to know Prof. Antonino Forte directly. At Palazzo Corigliano, I had only ever caught a glimpse of him when he quickly walked up the flight of iron stairs to the Student Lounge on the fifth floor. For some reason I always saw him with his back to me already at the top of the staircase: he was evidently arriving in a hurry and with large strides heading for the sixth floor studios.

In Kyoto he had been one of the founders and the director of the School but at the time of my arrival he was not in charge. However, when he was in Kyoto he was often on the premises with us. He was a very kind and extremely friendly person. If he was absorbed he could appear stern, but if you called him, he would look up from his papers and his smile was always amused, intrigued and a bit childlike: -What is it?

Professor Forte was both a classic and modern example of an Orientalist scholar. A personage who read and wrote constantly, but endowed with the energy to achieve the physical ubiquity necessary to handle multiple worlds: he was in Kyoto, he was in Naples, you would meet him on a plane, always with a pad of papers in his hands and a smile. I am sure that to his scholarly work is also due all the admiration and benevolence with which Oriental students have always been received in Kyoto and Japan. To him we owe patient philological, scientific and philosophical investigations in the very broad field of Eastern religions and numerous publications. His greatest focus was on the political history of Buddhism and other foreign religions in the Tang era.

Prof. Forte became ill and passed away suddenly in 2006. It was summer, it was very hot, the Kyoto heat to which one cannot get used. When I told this story no one seemed to believe me but one day I was going to the School and - myself, annihilated by the heat I was barely climbing the stairs of the building - I saw him there, high above, reaching the fourth floor before me. Just enough time to catch my breath to perhaps greet him from behind that he had already pulled the door to the secretary's office to himself and entered it.

Once again I had seen him coming up some stairs. And I am sure it was only two days before his death.

To have seen him at the School, at noon, in that heat, and walking four floors just to say something to the secretaries returns whole all his passion for his work and for ISEAS.

Since his death, a blond light has seemed to be missing inside those rooms, but in the director's office there is a beautiful photograph of him, a simple but very successful photograph, one of the few I have ever seen perfectly representing the spirit of a person.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
A second childhood
I lasted very little in the first dormitory in Okazaki. When due to the time difference I would wake up in the middle of the night, I would see the huge silhouette of the spider on the glass door of the room, illuminated against the light from the neon permanently lit in the driveway.

April nights were freezing, so cold that often to warm myself I would leave the house and take a ride on a bicycle lent to me by my friend Antonio.

On an evidently even colder night I woke up and noticed that the room was enveloped in a kind of fog, the typical low aerodrome fog. I sat up on the futon to try to figure out what it was, and yes, a low fog was in the room and rising from the floor. It was at that moment that I realized I was poorly housed, sleeping in camp-like conditions despite paying for a room. Bad would have been getting sick. Without much drama, the next day I set about changing my condition. Once again the ISEAS secretaries were of great help to me.

Laura Napolitano, an ISEAS researcher and colleague at Orientale, accompanied me to the new dormitory, "Coop Tadekura" in the Shimogamo Shrine area, a stone's throw from the Kamo River, where she herself had lived for a time. "Tadekura" is the name of the small bridge one had to cross to reach the dormitory.

This dormitory was much better organized, occupying an entire white building that was very lived in, in a very quiet area. It was run by the Tabata family and housed students much younger than me, mainly Taiwanese and Thai students. All of them were either studying Japanese or, when they finished their course of study, were staying in Japan to look for work. There was also David, an Australian student who seemed to have been living there much longer than anyone else - a beautiful boy, I would say a Brad Pitt look-alike.

Mr. Tabata was a Japanese man who was very nice and jovial with all the guests. He often talked to us on Sunday mornings but on weekdays he was practically absent: he worked as a personal driver for some rich person, which explained why such a fine car could be seen in the parking lot, in obvious contrast to the somewhat... mediocre construction.

Mrs. Tabata was the body and soul of the Tadekura dormitory. A Japanese woman in her fifties, she was petite and very bright-eyed and intelligent. When I first saw her it was obvious to me that she was very fatigued by life.

The Tabatas had two children. A male sleeper and a daughter who lived in Australia. They lived on the ground floor of the building. On the second floor were the male students and on the second floor were the females.

Although there was a toilet on each floor, the actual bathroom was only one and it was on the ground floor immediately next to the front door.

The rooms were tiny, all completely occupied by a crib, very high, under which everyone crammed their suitcases. There was an electric meter in each room and everyone's concern was to keep those numbers at bay. Mrs. Tabata herself came to tell me to unplug the mini fridge.

By bicycle or on foot, another way to get to the dormitory was through Shimogamo Shrine, or along its perimeter. It is a large park with many consecrated trees and a light all its own, even at night. I did this often and was intoxicated by the darkness and scents of the earth. I also took a few romantic walks there but more often the hand-holding was a consequence of a shared ancestral thrill.

Shimogamo is certainly a special place.

The period of many months spent at Tadekura is one of the best memories of my life. Mrs. Tabata was sweet and stern, a necessary presence to those of us who were so far from home. I was the oldest of the guests but was treated like everyone and like a son: sternly, with sporadic displays of affection. I was the only one who paid half! I had managed to wangle a contract that did not provide board but only lodging; the lady in fact cooked for everyone and it was obvious that this tired her out. I, of my own, was on the bill.

I was no stranger to such things but I don't know how I did it myself: while living in the dormitory I designed and built an aluminum filming crane, a good five meters long! The day of testing came and I certainly could not assemble it in the small room. I asked the lady if I could test it out on the street and she fried something evasively replied "yes, yes" but evidently she had no idea what I was asking. I carried all the crane modules down the very narrow stairs, then did the same with the cast-iron counterweights, and set it up on the street. A thing of beauty! It was built with nautical and aviation parts; it needed to be light and reliable. I secured a small camera to it on the tip, added the counterweights on the tail one by one, and magically my camera had lost its weight and could float in the air. I filmed everything the road offered, mainly people and bicycles coming and going, framing and following each subject as I had wanted to do for years.

Happy that I was, I disassembled the crane, brought everything back to my room, and quickly looked at the footage. I was ecstatic! The kind of sequences I had achieved were in filmic language what only wasteful production cinema could conceive of. I quickly edited the footage to the first available music and arranged a screening in the dining room on a Sunday morning when everyone was there. Not everyone understood that it was an experiment in cinematography, but everyone enjoyed seeing the way home and recognizing each other.

"That's Ni-san going to work!" or, "That's me coming back from school," and so on. Then a man appeared in the picture with his back turned to walk away: the crane slowly followed him, adjusting the frame to his pace, rising slightly, higher and higher, until it included the man and the whole street in front of him. Perhaps abetted by a guessed pitch of the background music, that was truly a powerful scene. Mrs. Tabata recognized the man and almost in a moved voice said, - But that's Mr. A! Poor guy, he lost his wife a few days ago... Who knows where he's going, who knows how he's doing, who knows what he's thinking... -

What Mrs. Tabata said ripped something in me. It was an enlightenment and a warning. Even if one does not want to believe in the soul, it is certain that every individual has his or her own story... At that moment I decided that if I ever continued in the film business it would have to be in the least violent and most respectful way possible. I aspired to something even less invasive than documentary filmmaking, and at the same time it had to be a way of understanding filmmaking that allowed me the greatest freedom of expression.

The dormitory was blessed with something. If a new guest arrived, automatically a family integration procedure would start. The relationship between everyone was idyllic: we greeted each other, exchanged opinions, walked together, and, in the meantime that it had become summer, it was impossible to last in the rooms or in the communal kitchen and therefore we often went to the river to cool off a bit. It was enough to dip our feet in the water and after a while we would splash each other like children. We would come home at sunset and we all smelled like turtles.

After a few months had passed, I began to feel a little out of context. In the meantime I had started teaching at the university, and that was what brought me back to an adult dimension. The time of Tadekura, the time of my Kyoto childhood was coming to an end. It is a time that was given to me, I know, even today I perceive it as a priceless gift.

The dormitory is no more. As is often the case in Japan, the entire building has literally disappeared, razed to the ground, probably in the time between a sunrise and a sunset. Mr. and Mrs. Tabata divorced and she joined their daughter in Australia. The father changed cities but nevertheless I often met him around Tadekura in tourist attire: purse and camera. Even after many years we always recognized each other, always exchanged a chat or had coffee together. There was a lot of nostalgia in his eyes.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
Peace and Evil
I cannot believe that there is no more pure air and silence in the world. I am in a pure place, and I am not alluding to the temple I just visited, the Ginkakuji.

I am on the Philosopher's Path. Three old men exchange information about their walk, pairs of girls chirp as they stroll along the bank of the stream, some schoolgirls hum mysterious tunes.

It seems absurd that these very Japanese were able to accept and practice war! Even more absurd that they were its undisputed protagonists. But it is nice that they have limited war to times of war and instead practice peace in the long times of peace.

The other day I was eating a sandwich sitting on a bench. I am joined by an old man who without wasting too much time asks me:

- Is it good?
- Indeed!
- Can you eat the things from your country here in Japan?
- Sure, and they are always good! They taste just like home!
- Where are you from?
- I'm Italian!
- Italian? - And his eyes really light up, as if he told me about a thousand things in an instant.

Then he asks again:
- Do you like Japan?
- Oh, yes...
- What do you like about it?
- I love its tranquility, the feeling of security.
- In fact, the Fence is peaceful.... We have true peace here.

I don't interfere by waiting for him to complete his thought. And indeed:

- You see, Japan has always alternated between periods of peace and periods of tremendous evil.... There have always been periods when you would leave home and go a thousand miles and nothing - I say nothing - bad would happen to you. And then there were periods when you would leave the house and get your head cut off for no reason, periods when women were raped without even contempt... And then again peace, and peace. Now it is peace. We in Japan call it "Heiwa".

- Does this mean that sooner or later wickedness will return? - I ask him.

He doesn't answer and bids farewell with a nod.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
After the first few months spent in the dormitory in the Shimogamo area, for almost four years I lived in an area called Shōkokuji Monzenchō, abutting the Shōkokuji Buddhist temple.

The latter is a large complex of pavilions, large and small, open even at night because its inner alleys are arteries of some importance for pedestrian and bicycle traffic. For a period of its early days, ISEAS, the Italian School of East Asian Studies, was also housed inside a pavilion at Shōkokuji.

Films from the black-and-white era were often shot in the park, and even currently it is used to shoot samurai-set films or television dramas there; I myself have done my own video-technical experiments there. It is a large and quiet place, and I often laid my trolley tracks there and set up my filming crane.

My home was a studio apartment on the ground floor of a nice new apartment building with the unlikely name of "Purple Cloud II."

Japanese cadastral customs are abstruse and consequently addresses are a real mystery to foreigners, who are used to the linear unraveling of streets and house numbers. In Japan, every house, even the meanest, is christened with a name - I must say-often a little too high - sounding. My "Purple Cloud II" sounds a bit like the name of a rich man's yacht, but it was an ordinary, albeit tasteful, clean, modern mansion. Other houses have names like "Maison de la Pax" or "Villa Sofia" but they are often shacks or barracks that have nothing in common at all with the maison or villa.

However, Shōkokuji is a decent, quiet area with houses that are all low and decent. I was the only foreigner in the area. From time to time I would pass another foreigner at the Howdy-Clara supermarket next door, a man who, judging by his appearance, must have arrived in Japan in the 1950s and his time there seemed to have stood still. But supermarkets are special zones; in the narrow streets around my house, I said, I was the only foreigner.

In the early days I was spied on, looked down upon or sometimes just ignored. I often felt strongly the racial difference more than the cultural one. Few young people were to be seen in my neck of the woods. Only very small children and the elderly and, at certain times, high schoolers going to or from Seian High School, just behind my house, in sloppy uniforms, jumped out at me.

To the right, down the street lived an elderly couple, right next to an unclassifiable dive bar, open day and night. In two years they never answered my greeting. She confabulated with the manageress of the emporium on the corner, and he, always silent, tended a makeshift flower bed in an undeveloped, poorly fenced lot.

Even the emporium lady, a gray, mole-faced woman, never answered my greeting. But one day I realized that she was the "street rumor editor," a kind of living daily newspaper of the little things that might happen and affect the neighborhood. When a confab was heard she was the common denominator of every little group. So I decided to announce myself to my neighborhood in an indirect, somewhat sneaky way.

It was obvious that everyone knew that a foreigner had joined the residents of the area but the problem was that no one had any way of knowing who I was, and more importantly-what was really important to the Japanese-what I did for a living. I got the impression that the Japanese mask their morbid curiosity about the different with fear. None of them, individually, can unravel the web of doubts and fears around "the alien", and therefore no one, by virtue of a collective feeling of good neighborliness could feel authorized to open a gateway to this stranger who was trying to greet everyone. I assumed that the first authority in the alley was the lady of the small and somewhat seedy corner emporium. "Mrs. Mole" seemed to me to be an outstanding ambassador, but nevertheless she had always managed to sell me an ice cream or a lousy onigiri without ever allowing me to strike up a real conversation.

Another attempt had already failed. One morning I had asked her if I could take video footage of the street by placing the crane not far from her store. I expected her to say no, or to ask me - finally - who I was and what I was doing. Without even wading me, indeed, even more afraid of such an out-of-the-blue question, she answered something by slurring her words evasively. So here was the idea! I later took advantage of an official census, which came to me in an envelope in the mail, telling me to deliver the completed envelope to the person in charge of the block: just her! I went to see her at the store, this time without even buying anything, to get her to help me fill out some forms. And I must have looked to her like a Wild West gunslinger at the saloon doors. This time she was invested with an official charge, it was her duty to collect all the envelopes in the area, and I managed to engage her in a more human and satisfying conversation, under the guise of some parts of the forms that were unclear to me.
At first, she tried to be evasive as usual, then suddenly she sort of calmed down, sat down on a stool behind the cash register, put on her reading glasses, and opened the envelope. And together we filled out the forms.

- Italian.
- Yes...
- Ah, not married!
- Eh, no...
- Ah, professor at the university!
- Eh, yes!
- Ah, living in a small apartment...
- Yes...

And so on and so forth. All my information finally reached the official ambassador of the little street.

Since that day, albeit slightly, something has changed! The elderly couple on the right corner continued to ignore me. But I got the impression that they lived in a dimension all their own and never had much relationship with the rest of the alley.

A young woman with a child, who later left Shōkokuji but lived in a sort of cockpit right across the street from my front door, suddenly took to greeting me and even sending toward my house her child-who had recently begun to walk and talk-to play and make my acquaintance. A child, a whirlwind.

A student, my direct neighbor, also on the ground floor of Purple Cloud II, then appeared. A beautiful brown, southern face who invited me into the house to have a hamburger with her and another colleague of hers from Doshisha University. I would have gladly gone but at the time of the invitation I was expected at dinner by other people.

The carpenter, whose sawmill was just to the left, attached to my building, continued not to greet me, although in the early days I also asked him to do some work for me-which he politely declined... Even his very elderly and stooped mother, who cleaned his sawmill and tended a microscopic flower sill, never greeted me.

A little further up the alley was a complex of beer vending machines. He was headed by a crude man, always in a greasy tank top, dreamy-eyed and perpetually tipsy. As a shopkeeper (albeit a mere vending machine operator) I always greeted him with a certain amount of caution, but, abetted by that lost and unreachable stare of his, he always made me feel transparent. After two years of daily greetings from me, one summer evening as I was riding home on my bicycle and riding down the dark alleyway, expeditious and particularly nervous about personal matters, I caught a glimpse of him from a distance who was squatting on the ground with a younger man: they were drinking beer at a makeshift table with a box of booze. The scene was lit by the same light as his machines, and they both looked very cheerful. As I passed, treacherously, he said to me in a squeaky voice:

- Konbanwa! (Good evening!)

I remain... interjected.... But then, lowering my chin only slightly, I reply:

- Good evening to you.
- It's really hot these days, huh?
- Eh, yes! - I smile in disbelief, braking my bicycle a little, and unable to stop my ride I find myself in no time at the entrance to my house, still smiling, genuinely happy about that flying exchange of banter. I would have gladly joined that little table and sat with pleasure on the asphalt as they did.

Since that day, perhaps having disposed of the joy of the beer, he resumed not greeting me but the young man who was with him always smiled at me. I think it was his son because he had the same alcoholic, dreamy look as the man in the greasy tank top.

Then there was a little old man, thin and all brown in hair, in complexion, in clothes. He bowed deep gestures, smiled broadly - always - and a cocoon of words he could never bring himself to utter in my presence. But this man greeted me for everyone.
He lived a few doors down from my apartment building in an old machiya, a typical Kyoto wooden house, and he was often on the doorstep, lean but strutting. Once he was letting a very small child (perhaps a grandchild) play, one morning he was doing gymnastic exercises (he seemed to break with every movement), one afternoon he was refreshing the asphalt with sprays of cool water, and one night when I came in late he was outside, standing upright as his usual self, whistling old tunes. And every time he saw me, every single time, he would raise an arm, as if mechanically, and greet me, smile at me, and begin a bow that always led to deep undeserved fulfillment.

Late one afternoon that I was returning home, as usual I was about to pass the house/shop of the man in the greasy tank top. Out from the end of the narrow street came a very small car, which for some reason stopped its course for me, pulling over exaggeratedly at an electricity pole. Not even had it had to cross a large truck and share the roadway with it! Without caring then too much about this strange maneuver, I approach this car and then point toward home. Out of the driver's window (in Japan on the right) peeks a mechanical arm that greets me profusely, a monosyllable can barely be heard coming from the window: inside the car, the brown old man smiles at me with a wistful look. And his eyes moist with tears....

The next day, I straddle my bicycle and ride out of the house to the right. There he was, with his arms raised to the low, gray sky, and his gaze all on me. I stop and ask him:

- "Shigure, kana"? (A brief autumn drizzle? - Secretly referring to his tears the night before...)

- "Yūdachi"! (Evening downpour!)
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
Hands up!
After a dinner with my students, I took a cab from downtown all the way home. As usual, to explain myself quickly and with few words, I said only: "Seian High School, please."

- Eh, excuse me-can you explain where that is?

A little surprised, I explain to the taxi driver how to get there. He sets off like a rocket, forgetting to attach the meter. After a while, worried about not seeing the fare, I elegantly point it out to him. He, elderly and with a feminine, somewhat chesty voice, like that of a professional thespian, apologizes and says:

- Ah, sorry! I always forget about it! And - thank you very much for taking my cab on such a cold night!

- For goodness sake - I say - thank you, taxi drivers, for always being there for us!

- Dear sir, this job is not easy, especially at night! Young people like you lock yourselves in karaokes and come out only in the morning. And then you go home on the first train at dawn. And we cab drivers wait, wait, wait with our cabs wide open. And in this cold weather...

- Come on - I urge - this is a mild winter!

- Is it? But you know, dear sir, I'm from Okinawa and I just arrived in Kyoto. So I don't understand much. I have so many problems, especially with the language.

- Is that so? I never would have imagined!

The road flows smoothly in this cab with a vague smell of smoke.

- You speaks perfect Japanese. I envy you! What country are you from?

- Me? I'm Italian!

- From such a distant country? Life must be difficult for you....

- Well... I got used to it - I tell him, to pity him a little.

- Lucky you - I still don't! - He answers me point blank. - What is it that causes you the most suffering in Japan?

- Well ... Nothing in particular, but in the beginning everything was very different from Italy. In particular, in the beginning, in Japan I didn't like to ride buses.

- Oh, I understand you! I was very anxious on trains!

- How come?

- Because from me in Okinawa there are no trains! And all the villagers would tell me: when you get on a train, you have to keep your hands up in plain sight, so you won't be confused with the many maniacs. This used to bother me a lot, so I would always get on with my hands up and stand the whole way with my hands up! But then...

- But then?

- But then I realized that I was the only one with my hands up... Everyone else had their hands down... And that these "chikans", these maniacs, were not really there...

- Well, a maniac can happen but I don't think they are frequent!

A few moments of silence. The air hissed from a poorly closed window.

- Also, shall we talk about the level crossings? I had never seen one! The first time I happened upon one I backed out.

- And why?

- I didn't understand how they had to be used...

- Well, you just have to cross if the bars are up!

- Yeah, sure... But are we sure the train doesn't go through?

- And... who knows?

- So I now think of you, a person from Italy, who surely must have had a lot of anxiety, certainly a lot more than me!

- Um, enough!

- Is the temperature of the car okay? Not too hot or too cold?

- Perfect, thank you!

- How many vowels do you have in Italy?

- Five, just like here by you in... Japan!

- Ah, I see... Oh yes, just like here in Japan...

After stopping the meter and opening the door he says to me:

- But are you comfortable in Kyoto? With the people in Kyoto?

- I would say yes! Quite! How about you?

- No. Everyone smiles here, but only with their face. The Okinawan smile comes from the navel and lasts much longer - sometimes days at a time.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
Her first job
After my second Japanese childhood had run its course, and quickly I had also become an adult and an employee, love came.

All excited, my little girlfriend came to tell me about her new job.

I'm working now! I'm at the fruit stand. I've suddenly become a fruit seller. Oh, I'm doing well but at the end of the day my back hurts. But didn't I tell you I'm at Daimaru's fruit stand? Not just any little store! Daimaru!

I have to be very polite, and make deep bows. I make so many mistakes and always have to say we have all kinds of fruit. The fruit is beautiful, very big, shiny! Apples, pears, bananas, watermelons, mangoes! Beautiful they look fake!

I even had a uniform! But no skirt... Horrible pants, and the whole uniform is orange. An old man came and told me, "How beautiful you are! You look like a cherry!" I smiled but then he didn't buy anything....

I work on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays! It's hard, it's my first experience! But what luck! Such a store... Daimaru!

Every time I go in I feel this privileged atmosphere, every department has different uniforms, everyone is polite and makes deep bows to customers. There's the makeup department which is gorgeous: dozens of stations with mirrors lined up and a girl doing her customer's makeup. Um, I have to say that many people wear too much makeup. They almost border on the ridiculous... But I can't say anything. I have to pass, and go to my fruit stand.

Woe if a customer asks me for a fruit we don't have... I was taught a polite formula for saying it's not there. And I cannot propose another kind of fruit. How strange, if it were up to me I would propose an alternative... But no! Only if the customer specifically requests it.

The nice thing about this job is that at the end of the day I get a lot of fruit for free! Especially the ones that are scratched or bruised! But I don't care! Fruit is good to eat, not to look at!

Have you ever heard of "omote and ura", the front and the back, the two opposite sides of us Japanese? Definitely, huh? Well, it is typical of us, but I myself had never really experienced it!

The department store is full of lights and colors and smiling faces. But when it's break time we all take turns going to the inside cafeteria, gray and dirty. You go through an area that is obviously not open to customers. It's amazing how different it is... Dark and dirty, very dirty. I myself could hardly believe it belonged to the same company. Neon lights, sales clerks on break sleeping everywhere, sales clerks sleeping standing up with twisted ties. Walls all scribbled and... you know, there are a lot of them drawn! Yes, those. Everywhere, all shapes and sizes! I was surprised! But who draws them? In the back no one is smiling and everyone is incredibly rude and crude. The first time I couldn't believe it, but then I realized it's because I'm tired. I hardly ever go to the bathroom...

Once there was someone who looked like she wanted to attack me! In a corner of a hallway two were touching each other... Can you imagine?

I don't even go to the cafeteria anymore. It's too big and gray... I bring my obento from home and... Do you understand obento? It's a little tray of food that we prepare from home! I take it to the terrace, up in the open air, and eat it there by myself.

It's fun when I go away. I quickly take off my uniform in the locker room and go back to the public area. There are hundreds of clerks and certainly no one remembers me. I then have such a standard face... I pass the makeup department again, and smiling young ladies invite me for a free demonstration of new cosmetics. I hint a bow and slip away. On the way to the exit I cross the gaze of solicitous clerks who welcome me. When it is clear that I am on my way out.

I knew about omote and ura. But I didn't realize that the more omote, the more ura!

Did you know that?
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
The dialogues with her
Her: - I wanted to ask you, are there poor people in Italy?

Me: - Well, yes!

- Have you ever been to a poor person's house?
- Yes, it has happened to me a few times.
- Do poor people's homes in Italy also smell of "oden"?
- Um... I would say not at all. Maybe they smell a little like cooking beans.
- Beans! Do poor people eat beans?
- Well, no - it's not quite that simple. But sometimes the more modest homes have this smell of beans, or even cabbage.
- When I was a little girl I used to go play at a poor girl's house.
- Oh yeah?
- Yes! They were very poor and so when they sat at the table they didn't say "itadakimasu" and then I heard that they couldn't give blood transfusions in an emergency! They were of a strange religion. There are so many of them in Japan!
- Um... This is familiar to me!
- What? Do you believe in "Ehoba", too? I didn't think so...
- No, I'm not a Jehovah's Witness!
- Ah! So you can have transfusions!
- Of course! But it's not like I care much, actually!
- Is Ehoba a Greek god?
- No, no...
- I heard that in Greece there are so many gods: Zeus and so on! Is that true?
- You ask me such questions, you ask me! I, then, am Italian!
- Then is it true that today even in Greece they believe in Jesus?
- In Greece they are Orthodox.
- I do not understand! But then, all their deities? What happened to them?
- They remained in the past!
- But that is absurd!
- I understand what you're saying - they had forgotten dozens of gods!

- Are there Negroes in Italy?
- Yes...

- Are there also in Italy? And what do people think?
- What maybe you think about me!
- But you are white!
- And you are yellow!
- I am not yellow!
- And why, do I look white to you? I am pinkish!
- I'm pinkish, too!
- Well, at least we agree, then!
- Yes...

- Are there Chinese people in Italy?
- Oh, yes! There are a lot of them!

- If I went to Italy, on the street, would they shout "chaineezu, chaineezu"?
- I don't know, but you better not go there! Who knows, maybe they would tell you "japaniizu, japaniizu"!
- How are the Chinese doing in Italy?
- Fine, thank you!
- No, I say, what do they do?
- Ah! Well, they sell things, they copy bags....
- Do they make imitations in Italy, too?
- Yes, quite a lot!
- But this is a serious thing for the economy! And the Italians don't get angry? Prada, Benetton, all these very important brands!
- Uhm, I don't think so...
- And what do you do to avoid these imitations?
- I heard that we imitate the imitations of the Chinese!
- However, in Japan, those who do these things certainly go to hell!
- That much? I don't think so!
- In Japan one certainly goes there! And then he has to spend so much time in spots full of needles, next to stinking monsters, never being able to wash!
- Is it so?

- Is there Hell in Italy?
- Yes, but no one goes there.

- Do you have it too? I thought there was only here in Japan! And why doesn't anyone go there?
- Because no one believes in it, maybe.
- But Hell is there! It's not a matter of believing in it or not!
- But would you go there?
- I am a good girl. I don't do anything wrong! Besides, we Japanese reincarnate after a while.
- Oh that's right, I meant to say.
- Do you Italians reincarnate after you die?
- No, I guess not.
- But then... Do it, too!

Me: - Have you ever taken a trip?
Her: - No...

- So you've never been on a plane?
- No...
- Would you like to fly in an airplane?
- Yes... But it would be a problem...
- Why?
- Because I have a habit of eating often... And sometimes I carry a little box with lots of things to eat. Do you understand "obento"? In Japanese it's called "obento".
- Yes! Yes! I know "obento"! And well, so what's the problem?
- Maybe I can't take it in the plane....
- Why not?
- Because you have to buy the plane's food, right?
- No! They don't sell food in the plane.
- They don't? And how did you do that? Wasn't the trip from Italy very long? So many hours...
- Well at certain hours in the plane they give out food.
- What if one doesn't have the money?
- But you don't pay for food on the plane!
- You don't pay for it? This... This is unbelievable! How kind! But then does one have to eat the food they give them?
- Ah, that's the problem! Well, usually one eats the airplane food and then if one is still hungry one eats something else.
- But don't the airplane staff get upset if one eats other things?
- Of course they don't!
- But they give the food without charging for it... Isn't it rude to pull out more food?
- But no, it's not like that...
- Have you seen other people eating? I don't know, candy, sweets?
- Of course! It's normal!
- Were they Japanese?
- Yes, mostly Japanese people!
- Oh... Then... I can take a plane trip. I eat a lot of sweets.

Oden: Boiled food in big pots very much in vogue among young people.
Itadakimasu: thank you expression for the food received.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
I talk about Japanese alleys. But perhaps I should call these alleys "little lanes." In my experience the alley is a small street, often dark even in the daytime because it is perhaps oppressed by very high walls.

But I cannot say the same about Japanese alleys, which, by contrast, are clear and crisp in the daytime, animated yes, but never too much so. So, these of which I write to you, are nothing more than small - very small - alleys. Little lanes, indeed. And in Kyoto, the houses that shape these narrow streets are no higher than two or three stories. And each floor is certainly not developed in the height we Westerners would expect since the interiors have been designed for centuries for a seated life, often in the center of a room: living like dolls, being unable to move, one must ideally be able to reach every accessory with a simple extension of the trunk.

But at night? At night these alleys change character. They become dark, silent and mysterious like the worst alleys. Yet on the flip side, there is an increased sense of security, a feeling of being truly alone and protected by the maze. You seem to be its only occupants and protagonists. Walking at night is not intimidating. On the contrary. The silence is pressing, riven only occasionally by a few faint noises, such as the ticking of an insect against a paper window, the little bell hanging outside a veranda, a radio playing old songs, the sneeze of someone in a bathtub. "Then someone else is there!" But if there is someone else it is not outside on the street, it is in another dimension, an inner and private dimension, a universe a second and a millimeter away, yet unreachable.

The characteristic of these alleys is precisely their ability not to propagate noise. Familiar quarrels or noisy amplexes are heard only in the precise place where they are taking place. For a reason still unknown to me, sounds cannot easily leave their native place.

Light has a similar behavior. Japanese alleys at night are extremely dark, we said. However, one can find there rather tawdry and blindingly bright signs, artificial light sources that, however, fail to affect the surroundings. Only the official lamp-posts cast their beams on the ground, creating a well-circumscribed but still faint zone of light. Between one streetlight and another there is an abundant zone of darkness. Pitch darkness. If one of the famous soda or cigarette vending machines is located in these areas of darkness, it too succeeds in the miracle of illuminating only itself, giving of itself the feeling of an apparition and perhaps increasing, in those passing by, the desire to buy one of its products.

Japanese alleys give an experience of eternal time, with no clear direction anymore. Yes it is in the past but also in the most possible future of that place. It is always a time of human grain, what I am talking about, and I believe that this fusion between the time of the observer and the time of the observed world happens because of a kind of psychological interpenetration between... materials. Everything around is part of a biological emanation: the hedges in the tiny garden, the moisture-swollen wood of the small doors at the entrances, the straw blinds hanging from the windows, blackened by decades of sun and rain... And if we look at our feet, a trickle of water leaks out of that house giving it a human feel as a whole, making it resemble a living organism. In this strange perceptual situation, one has the impression of grasping the whole world, of recognizing each house for what it is: someone's natural shell. There is certainly also a dimension of stone: a statue of a dog, a grey granite column, a path of boulders for hopping from the road to the "genkan", the entrance, but the biological dimension, on the whole, surpasses the... geological one. The traditional Japanese house, ancient or even just old, lives symbiotically with its occupant and probably shares its aches and needs.

Japanese houses like tents and camps. If you walk in them in the morning you can hear the alarm clock of every house. Tinkles, beeps, and classical music. Usually the sounds do not propagate as well as they could and so Mr. Kimura's alarm clock is heard only in front of the Kimura house, and so for Mrs. Nakagawa or the son of the Kato family.

Equally in the evening, the alleys take on a scent of bubble bath, and from every house rivers of water and soap flow and trickle under the road surface.

All of Japan wakes up. All of Japan washes.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
A dialogue at dawn
It is summer night, and like a ghost I walk lightly through the deserted streets of Kyoto. It is incredibly cool, as if the night is exempt from seasonal rhythms. I go to the river and look eastward, it is already vaguely clear but it is barely three in the morning. The early morning hours, when one is awake and alert, pass quickly. At half past four the sky is crystal clear, but still you can see "that one star". To the left is the usual saucer-shaped cloud. I don't see the sun but a crow flying very high has seen it for me: that's why it comes from the east croaking like a diligent sentinel.

I forage for my bicycle and look for a kombini, a convenience store open at all hours, for hot coffee. Vending machines in summer sell only cold ones. The sky is now clear. It might as well be ten o'clock, as far as I'm concerned: the sun is suddenly strong, and layers of cirrus spread its light like noon. But even in the big streets there are no cars. Only a few cabs hurrying to finish the night shift and a truck stopped at a traffic light whose driver pours himself something from a thermos.

I dart down Kitaōji Street looking left and right. The road of always, of every day: the bus terminal, usually hectic, is now as if helpless, hibernating. No buses, no minuet of guards, of waving flags, warnings. All the stores are closed, but it is no longer dawn now. If I woke up now, without a watch, I would think I had gone crazy! What happened to everyone?

I finally find a kombini, from the Lawson chain, and buy a coffee and a swiss roll. The kid at the register looks at me as if I were a Martian. I reciprocate the look. I return to Kitaōji, and immediately slip into the first unfamiliar alley, trying to head south. But unfamiliar alleys are capable of confusing even the experienced driver. And indeed I get gently lost. And I find myself under the houses of people who are perhaps just waking up, or at best lazily tossing and turning in bed. I sit on a little wall and drink my coffee and eat my swiss roll. I'm lost! If someone were to ask me something now, I wouldn't know what to say! What am I doing here, where am I precisely...?

Lost, I keep slipping through the clean alleys. Suddenly I realize I'm in Kuramaguchi, just the way home. But I'm all the way west. Never seen this street like this! With a feeling of happy, legal drunkenness I head east in disbelief that no one is on the street yet. Finally I cross the big road in Karasuma. Approaching home, channeled on now familiar trajectories, I pass the main entrance to the Kamigoryō Shinto shrine: it is already open! I get off my bicycle and enter it, attracted by something.

Everything is wet, dew is flowing from the trees, the gravel is soaked, the wood of the pavilions is soaked, an old man is sitting under a canopy. It is five o'clock and he shouts good morning to me. I yell back good morning. Because humanity is more human in the early morning and even in Japan it is like that.

I sit down next to him, a sprightly and alert old man, who asks me in bursts where I am from, how old I am, and if I am a tourist. I answer in order and he proudly tells me that he was in Italy in 1949! And having seen all of Europe, parts of Africa, Australia, America.

-I? I'm ninety and one years old! I bet you wouldn't have said that!
-Well, no...
-I do temple cleaning.
-At ninety-one?
-Yes, what's wrong with that? Am I too healthy?
-No, no, it's not that!
-You see I've always woke up early. The morning air is good for me. Do you feel how good it is?
-Smoke a cigarette with me!
-You smoke? - I ask him!
-Oh, yes, I do all the good things!
-How many cigarettes do you smoke a day? - I ask him.
-Now only about twenty. But I also drink sake! Do you drink sake?
-Yeah, a little bit...
-You must drink sake! Do you have a sweetheart?
-I am thirty-one years old!
-You need a girlfriend. Just one, though! Is the one you like Japanese?
-Well, yes!
-Do you work? What kind of work do you do? You must earn at least 500,000 yen! If not, how do you make a living?
-Well, I barely make over two hundred. Is that little?
-It's little! A sixty goes for the house, at least a hundred for food, and how do you buy sake and cigarettes? And then there's the girl!

I was laughed out loud. How did I expect to compete with someone like him? At ninety-one years old, he obviously knew everything about me.

- Listen, do you drink coffee? - He asks me.
-Oh, thank you very much but I just had one!
-I don't care, you have to drink it. I'll buy it for you. Wait here!

Like lightning he walked away and returned with a can of iced latte.

-Young man, where do you live?
-Me? - Right back here!
-Well! I am here every morning, now that we are friends we can talk! I start cleaning at seven, but I come at five to talk to people. Because talking is a good thing, like sake, food, travel.

I hadn't noticed but indeed, despite the hour, the temple had filled with children and... classical music. One child had set up an old radio recorder on the handrail of a wooden pavilion. But what are so many children doing alone at five in the morning? This is a ritual, or something like that! Not a religious rite, an even better rite, with no name or quality! We are in a hidden and unseen fold of the world!

The children were playing, some were chasing each other, another was picking pebbles from the gravel mantle, one was sitting next to me and looking at me and the old man as if we were a boring sight, yet worthy of some attention.

-What is your name again?
-Ah yes, my name is A-les-san-dro, nice to make your acquaintance!
-I am Hideichi! Here is my business card! Alexander, nice to meet you! You have a camera, right?
Upset, I replied yes. - I sure had a camera hidden in my bag...
-Would you take a picture of me? I am crazy about pictures!

I took two of them, one of which came out of focus and badly exposed.

-They must be good photos! You have a nice camera!
-Well, let's hope so!
-Do you buy this in Italy?
-No, I bought it in Japan! They're cheaper here!
-Really? They're cheaper in Japan? I would never have guessed that! The pictures, please send them to me? I'll show them to my grandchildren! I have lots of pictures of me!
-Shall I email them to you?
-No, I can't even touch those things. You have to print them out, like postcards, and send them to me by mail, the regular mail!
-Ah, all right...
-Did you understand?
-Yeah, I think so!

Then several people started coming in for morning prayers. Old and not-so-old women. They shake the cowbell of the main temple, a few clap their hands. To all of them the old man shouts good morning!
It began to get hot. The cicadas have started and the mosquitoes have stopped.

-It's ten minutes to seven, I'll start cleaning soon.
-All right! I'll go too, and let you do your work! - In an unconvincing tone of voice I added: - Let's start this other day!
-What's it got to do with you? You need to go to sleep. You have the face of "1 yen".

On the way out of the temple were all the children's bicycles stopped neatly. Tiny little ones, brightly colored, with plastic accessories, baskets, mirrors, some stuffed animals attached to a handlebar, some still with side wheels.

No sign of parents.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
The taste of chopsticks
I went again tonight. And I didn't think you could reach such a level of intimacy. At first, when I walked in, he didn't speak, he didn't make a sound. He would look at me with those slightly feverish eyes of his, sometimes just swollen, and let me sit, settle, choose, in silence. Then slowly he began to understand, to get the hang of it, when he realized that it was not a one-time thing. Then time after time, as love was born, he began to greet me fully, to loosen up and even talk to his men about me. With Matsumoto, there is not much choice... I could say that the menu is almost fixed. But the whole Fence is like that.

Once I didn't go there for almost a week, he started not greeting me again, almost not looking at me the whole time. Of course he couldn't not let me in. I was on edge the whole evening until he blurted out telling me of his concern, his fear that I had returned to my country, that I might even be sick and need help! And who helps a foreigner in the Fence?

That was the only time we properly talked...

Recently the tone between us still seems to have dropped. His concern today was how I had parked my bicycle outside. He didn't tell me but I could tell. He rearranged the bike for me, and on the way back in he gave me a furious look. But I swear it was fine and he did it just to communicate something to me. Maybe that I don't go there as often as before... What was the point of his furious glances, or the rant about being a stranger in the Fence?

For a few weeks now, I said, he hasn't spoken. He changes boy every two or three days, and the last two are students at the university where I work. I might think it's more than a coincidence but... I wouldn't dream of asking anything, I'm perfectly fine with this silence, even considering that a real talk we've never really had. We all have our troubles, of course, I know.

But tonight I wanted to displace him.

Instead of the usual "S-Lunch," I asked for "Sakana Fry." He was almost crazy about it. And the love came back! He burst out a resounding "thank you" and told the two boys to bring me some lukewarm tea and snacks.

I, too, relaxed - and felt like a fool.

What was the point of going to so much trouble? "It's the routine, it's the routine!", I thought, and my vacuum cleaner, with its twisted electric cord, came to mind.

As I ate, I thought about the routine and began to lose myself in the flavors of this Japanese tavern. Flavors I know like my own mouth.

I pick up my chopsticks, strip them of the paper (it says "Matsumoto Lunches" on them), and spread them apart until I hear the "crack."

As usual, I immediately take the cold spaghetti and place it on top of the hot fried fish. But sometimes I do this with meat as well. While I discard the fresh tomato (which I don't like) and two-dozen-thin pieces of cucumber, the spaghetti warm up just right. Then I pour hard pickles over the white rice and watch the mound of rice streak green. The spaghetti are ready! They are few, and I eat them as if they were my first course.

Meanwhile, the boiling soup with seaweed cools down just right. Then I move on to the fish. Matsumoto is as precise as an architect when he builds the dishes. Underneath a single piece of fried white fish is a leaf of green salad that is delicious, but always at the limit of its natural preservation.

This lingering of the salad between life and death makes eating it something close to the sacred. It is a single leaf, I would say beautiful and shabby together, but it is I who sanctions its true end. I dip the fish in a smear of mayonnaise that seems measured to the gram. It never leftovers and it is never little. Finishing the fish, I return to the miso soup, kept watch the whole time. First it smoked like a volcano, now it looks more like a pool of thermal water into an unfamiliar forest. I pick up the wooden cup and dip my chopsticks into it. The doodle on the surface breaks like a mirror and curls and yellowish swirls are drawn. It's a game that lasts a moment: I pull out the wrinkled wooden rods, and up come the seaweed (which slept placidly at the bottom), all attached to the sticks. The illusion of a miraculous, ancestral catch: out of a stagnant, boiling water something edible. I alternate sips of soup with chunks of rice. My dinner is ending, I am full but still hungry. While at the bottom of the soup I catch glimpses of square-shaped yellow debris (imagine emptying the Earth's seas?) the chopsticks, a kind tool that is no better, are finishing eating with me. The rough wood causes infinitesimal particles of the chopsticks to become food themselves. The wood deforms, at times fraying. Death, the corrupting-decomposing of matter before the eyes.

The last small bites are like a show that ends. As eyes and taste buds applaud, the conductor bows and salutes. The chopsticks release all their flavor. I lick them and - without being too visible - gently nibble on them. Sometimes I have found myself eating threads of wood, tastefully. A taste of forest, trees and rain.

I close my eyes and see billions of monkeys sitting cross-legged and looking wise.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
The doorman
When I felt the need to live in a bigger house, I somewhat reluctantly left the Shōkokuji area and in 2007 moved to Ichijōji, in northeast Kyoto, on the top floor of a yellow building from the late 1970s. Code name: Haidensu Kitaōji.

The doorman in my building is present only two days a week. He is quite old but like all old Japanese men he never misses work. The few times I see him, he is always bent over washing on the floor, moving garbage bags, sorting out bicycles, removing shadows, fingerprints and stains from windows with unlikely rags.

He calls me "the white guy," and when I took over the apartment he peppered me with questions about Italy and Ancient Rome. When someone comes to see me, he doesn't do any filtering in the concierge and even if you don't ask him anything, he is happy to say: - The white guy? Fifth floor!

Some time ago, as I was returning on my bicycle, he intercepted me at the parking lot and asked point-blank:

- Do you understand Japanese? - And he started polishing my bike handlebars, with me still riding.

And I replied - Of course! You and I only ever speak Japanese!

- No, I say, can you read it? - And bent down to give the front fender a wipe down.
- Uh, enough.
- Bravo! So what does it say there? - Getting back up he pointed to a sign, just off in the street.
And I answer, "Futaba Nursery."
- You are good! You can read!
Then he thought about it for a moment and added:
- I do not understand your language instead.
I gave him a smile as I dismounted from the bicycle. But to go up to him I said: - It is not difficult to read! It is in Roman characters, you Japanese use them too.
- Yes but I don't understand the meaning. The letters don't tell me anything.
- Well...
- How do you people understand anything with only As and Bs? I see an A but I don't understand what it means. Does the A mean anything?
- Well... No...
Taking the broom he walked away: - I don't understand anything. But whatever, I'm an old man now.

Another time, around two o'clock in the afternoon, in the stifling heat he was cleaning the hovel where we in the building throw the garbage. He was dripping with sweat and I saw that he had grown a Hitler mustache. He sees me, stops, smiles and says:
- Hot, isn't it?
- Uh, to die for! - I answer him!
- Is it also hot in Italy?
- Yes!

And he took his leave mumbling: - I don't understand! What is the point of such a big world if things are the same everywhere?

And again, months later, one evening joining autumn and winter, I was going downstairs to pop into the nearby emporium. I see a figure leaning against a van in the parking lot of the apartment building. In white overalls, strutting, chin high, almost Mussolini-esque, gaze stuck in infinity. I approach - circumspectly - pushing my bike, wave and add:

- Aren't you cold?
- Huh?
- I say: aren't you cold?
- I look at that light, there in the sky. What could it be?
I turn around: - That? It's a star, I think.
- A star? So bright?
- Perhaps it is Sirius, the most visible star at sunset!
- Venus! Venus, you mean!
- Ah yes, Venus!
- Well, if it's Venus, it's strange for it to be there.
- Why? - I ask.
- Isn't that Southwest there?
- Uhm... Yes.Well, I don't know what to tell you....
- The important thing is that it's not an American secret weapon!
- Oh, I don't think so! - I reassure him.
- It's cool, White! Where do you ride your bike?
- I just go to the kombini near here!
- Oh yeah?
- Yeah, I'm out of cigarettes.
- Cigarettes, huh?
- Yeah.
- It would be nice to be able to quit, wouldn't it?
- Phew, yes! But it's difficult, isn't it?
- No! I have quit!
- Ah what envy! But how did you do it? Didn't it feel like you were going crazy?
- Going crazy? No... The important thing is to have the cure!
- The cure? And what is it?
- Reading! I used to read books to distract myself! Time passed so quickly; I often fell asleep! What a shame, to lose consciousness in the middle of a story...

I smile.

- But do you Italians read? I say, you can read, can't you?
I smile again and answer: - Yes, of course! (And it flashes in my mind the Japanese reading exam he gave me months ago, always there: me, him and the bicycle.)
- No, I say can you read Japanese?
- I do!
- And can you also read upright?
- Yes but it is more tiring, for me.
- Because you write and read horizontally, right?
- Yes.
- And you really never happen to write or read vertically? In Japan our books are written both vertically and horizontally!
- And we don't! Only sometimes the signs of cinemis and pizzerias.
- Cinemis?
- Cinemas, cinemas!
- But you said "cinemis!"
- I was wrong, I meant to say "cinema."
- Maybe in your language you say "cinemi"?
- No, no, it's "cinema"!
- Words change with you, huh?
- No, no! Everything is fixed!
- Ah, well.

He gets distracted and then blurts out, excited:

- Look the moon came out!

I look at it:

- Beautiful. Mikazuki. It's three-day Luna!

- In Italy it's the same moon, eh?
- Yes!

- To me 'these things drive me crazy!
- I guess!

- Because...How is that possible, I wonder! Same Sun, same Moon and everything else is different. But now go, go buy your cigarettes. Itterasshai.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
Leaving the house, I walked along a sidewalk. Two brats in the distance were chasing and taunting each other. One of them leaps forward, crouches down, picks up something from the ground and throws it at his companion. I squint, thinking the worst. A fistful of cherry petals.

Getting on the Eiden train of each day there was a lot of hubbub. All the middle and high school boys and girls, as if gathered for a big event. What turbulence, and what shaking. And how much nastiness I heard, the kind that only kids on the way home from school know how to say to each other.

A quiet little girl stepped forward, opening a gash in the crush of the carriage. The lost look and the ability to crumble the crowd, to melt it, as flame does with Styrofoam. She had the same uniform as everyone but the skirt, though gray, was not pleated. It came down vaguely bell-shaped. But the ungainly body, not even to the eye, made her a flower.

Her hair was short, very short; but a tad grown out, like a month after a full shave. His chin was huge, his head square, and his gaze sincere and excited by the jolts, the noisy gang, the smells of garlic and sport. For a moment he looked at me, and I was inflamed, melted, blackened.

She walked like a log, her little feet perhaps too small for her body, and she walked up to the head of the train, and as boys generally do, she watched the engineer, intent on his work, his gestures and his voices. She watched the train line, seemed to guess the slow curves, looked at the cherry trees on the banks of the tracks. Her commuter pass, tied to her backpack with a string, hung on her back. From time to time she would turn around and observe those around her. She watched, but did not seem to understand.

Her eyes were a little far apart. The cut was almost Western. So was the diffuse blond hair on her cheeks, her hair already injected with white despite being eleven years old. I have seen hundreds of those eyes, in my country, in front of ordinary people.

Suddenly he began to hop around, clapping her hands on the glass of the door, leaving fingerprints there. The train was entering Nikenchaya station, the engineer as his usual takes a lot of air out of the brake in one bang, the little train chock-full of kids responds quickly and loses about ten kilometers per hour in a few meters: the yelling and screaming, the "what are you doing," the "excuse me," the "hold yourself, dumbass."

The little girl was there clinging to the glass, in front of everyone, second only to the engineer, ready to slip out of the train as soon as it stopped. She jumped imperceptibly, greasing the glass with her sweaty hands. The door finally opens and she spurts out performing a heavy jump. She dives on her mother who was waiting for her on the platform and already knowing the question of each day the girl anticipates her, "beautiful, today!"

And the mother nevertheless:

- Hello, love. How are you doing today?
- Beautiful today.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
Identity and freedom
I was talking with a friend and the talk fell on people's appearance. Orientals look young, Westerners look more mature, you know... From here the talk flowed to photographs and especially photographs of documents.
- They are a disgrace - I trivially began.
- No more than that! - she replied.
- Oh, no? And look at this ID photo of me. (And I pulled out my foreign resident ID card).
- What do you need this card for?
- Well, personally nothing, but I have to carry it with me at all times. It is the law!
- You are right: you look like someone else in this picture! More mature.
- And keep in mind that it's a photo from the year two thousand!
- But how are you dressed?
- Forget about it! It's a long story...
A moment's pause and I, too, asked her to show me her ID card. To maybe laugh together about the photo.
- I don't have it...
- You should carry it in your wallet too!
- I just don't have it!
- How? You don't have the ID?
- No. I have the library card but it doesn't carry a photograph.
- But that doesn't count! What about a driver's license?
- I never got one.
- Do you have a passport at home?
- No, I've never left Japan. What would I need it for?
Suddenly a shadow fell over me. Who is the person in front of me? I asked myself. And again, to provoke, I asked her:
- What if the police stop you for a check?
- The police don't stop people like me! - And she hints at a scowl.
- Okay, but let's say you have a problem on the street and the authorities need to check your identity.
At my uttering the word identity she has like a moment of bewilderment, and with extreme slowness responds:
- If they ask me who I am, I answer with my last name and first name.
- Agreed! But how do you legally prove your identity?
- I-I answer with my last name and first name.
I realize that I have led this woman into a dark gulf of her own society, which she herself has evidently never explored. And intrigued by the problem of identity, I asked her again:
- We agree that you will never be stopped by the police. But there will be people, I don't know, drunks, molesters, thieves, who are stopped by the police. How do they declare themselves?
- I think if they don't declare something they go straight to jail. And then the police, before the name, they ask for the address. There must be someone at home, right?
- What if they provide false name and address?
- The police notice and you stay in jail until you tell the truth! - He laughs.
- So those who are stopped tend to tell the truth?
- Sure. But no one gets stopped. - insists.
So this conversation has thrown a door wide open to an incredible universe. I am in an admittedly overpopulated country where the problem of legal identity seems not to be addressed by the authorities, with the exception of foreign residents. Everything takes place under a regime of self-certification, there is free movement of individuals, of bodies I would say, and the lack of an identity document makes it so that virtually anyone can be anyone. The passport is an institution created ad hoc for foreign countries, but it turns out that the identity of Japanese subjects in Japan ... is not important. It is certainly more useful for the authorities to make sure that all Mr. Anybody does what they are supposed to do than to worry about the delicate but cumbersome problem of their identity. I understand that. I suddenly understand. In fact, it seems blatant to me.
And suddenly I understand the police in this country who have always seemed inert to me. The Japanese police are very much present but their actions are purely for collective public order; they do not care at all about people's identities, and prefer to apply themselves in their daily lives to mass observation. If Mr. Yamada runs a red light, a squad car hidden in the dark will simply operate its megaphone and soundly remind people that running a red light is dangerous. And Mr. Yamada can be seen slipping away in the dark with a annihilated silhouette. If a happy couple whizzes by mounted on a single bicycle (she standing on the hub of the back wheel), the same squad car will warn them to get off. But she will not dream of intervening. For the little girl with a knowing hop will actually get off. And of course she will climb back up as she turns the corner.
Why does this happen? Certainly because the Japanese enjoy the greatest freedom, a freedom unknown to the peoples of other countries: freedom from identity.

Between the freedom-most desirable-to not exist for society, to move in it as free ghosts, and the non-intervention of law enforcement, however, there is a gap. It is that dark zone where the all-Japanese miracle of the obedient if unprosecutable society takes place. Here it takes nothing to vanish into the dark, to escape capture: many times I have simulated this. But the system still leads everyone to obedience, including foreigners. Because it is an artfully generated system, certainly not accidental.
Even: doing wrongdoing under the eyes of the police does not necessarily lead to arrest! At most it leads to a lecture, but if possible while maintaining as much distance as possible between the individual and the guardian of the law. And there is still more, even more incredible! The police move only on someone's call, on a complaint or report from a third party. Anything that has not yet brought overt harm does not authorize tearing up the blanket of anonymity that reigns in the Enclosure. Perhaps because the latter is precisely the most reliable support of society.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
The bullet train
"Shinkansen" is the term for Japan's high-speed railway line. That line runs through all of Japan and is traveled by so-called "bullet trains." In all the years that I have been visiting Japan, I have never had to take a trip aboard a Shinkansen train. Recently, to join a friend who lives in Tokyo, the opportunity finally and naturally materialized, and I realized how much expectation I had for this mythical train. It is the first train in the world to realize true commercial high speed. While locomotives and high-speed trains were being designed in Europe without giving much thought to the lines that would have to accommodate them, in Japan the Shinkansen project started in 1956 and by 1964 it was already available to customers. Today it has become an integral part of being Japanese, rising to a true symbol of the country, a symbol that radiates its myth alongside Mount Fuji itself, with which the Shinkansen seems to share space in the Olympus of Japanese imagination. One question the Shinkansen ticket agent asked me was, "Would you like a window seat with a view of Mt. Fuji? There are still free ones!"
If even normal railway lines do not shuffle their tracks to ensure on-time movement, all the more so is the Shinkansen detached from normal railways. It is detached physically, but so it also appears in the discourses of the Japanese themselves. They cannot fully grasp the manic perfection of their traditional railways because they are convinced that subways and suburban railways in other countries are equally serviceable, and then they perhaps apply all their technical-nationalistic pride to the Shinkansen, their true world railroad supremacy. A Shinkansen ticket costs somewhat more than an airplane ticket for the same route, and it is glaringly obvious that for passenger care the Japanese Railways have been loosely inspired by airline standards. At busy stations, the focal points of Japanese people's movement, there are dedicated areas for the Shinkansen line where the atmosphere and passenger services suddenly change. Not better, not worse, merely a different psychology of the environments that communicates without error the difference in service, that one is in a different railway context. The Japanese spend a very large part of their time aboard trains, and it is clear to me that special communication resources have been invested in creating and maintaining the myth of the Shinkansen.
The Shinkansen is a different train, far from the others. Its trainsets - with a blocked composition of sixteen cars - are nearly 400 meters long, and so are the platforms dedicated to it. All of Japan's railway experience is found optimized to the fullest and at the total service of the Shinkansen, which, in spite of its narrow rail gauge, has been the world's first high-speed train for more than four decades. Today the commercial speed of the Shinkansen is only 300 km/h, but in fact the technological miracle of this train is its frequency and punctuality.
Dozens arrive and depart for the same destination every hour, even with a gap of only four or five minutes. The trains silently and impressively enter the station and find comfort in the hard work of the platform managers, human beings who are in charge of smoothing/facilitating the encounter between the human clientele and this now almost divine machine.
The platform master inserts his or her voice among the various recorded and predefined announcements and customizes/redefines the action so that the train - clean, dumb and serviceable - can leave the station as quietly and safely as it entered it, with its new load of passengers.
There is a curious note to make. Messages addressed to customers, which in Japan often reach very high levels of linguistic politeness, sometimes excessive, do not seem to be on the same register of politeness in the case of the Shinkansen. Here the god is not the customer but seems to be the train itself. The customer must conform to the will and timing of the train and never get in the way of its operations, contaminate its stage, spoil its fluid performance. The conductor, with a cordless microphone, directs real invectives at the disrespectful travelers of the god, without any regard whatsoever and in a high, contemptuous tone of voice not even heard on the most forgotten suburban line. It is not the high speed that is the characteristic of this train but-as mentioned-its punctuality, and thus the dominance it can have over time and space. And it is peculiar that the platform master addresses a certain lady or father with child just as the nervous director directs and hammers his actors. (At times I felt like I was watching Truffaut's film Night Effect.)

White and blue, shiny like an ancient Chinese pottery, white and round like a beautiful woman with a moon complexion, the Shinkansen enters the station with such elegance that makes it seem more master than its masters. In the small square windows we catch glimpses of bored, sleepy faces, people who seem to come from other worlds: some wrapped in a cloud of cigarette smoke, some intent on licking the greasy sticks of their lunch. The nose can change from model to model and, as with all vehicles, it is the thing that characterizes the year of construction, the taste of the designers, the aesthetic phase that Japan went through at a given moment in history.
To grasp the character of a vehicle, one cannot but observe its nose. Certainly aerodynamic in shape, our gaze rests on the train starting at the lowest part, sliding up as if following its fluid threads, past the headlights and meeting the windshield, tempered black glass. Like Polyphemus, the electric train of Fascist Italy so named for its unique and small front window, the Shinkansen also seems deliberately to embody Japanese racial traits. The window-eye (thin and inscrutable) is wider in the center and elongates at the ends just like an Oriental eye. Polished like a cornea, one cannot help but look at it carefully, trying to catch its reflections, flashes and inner workings. That is the focus of this face, and if you look closely, there is life in it: the one machinist, dressed in black, motionless, but in fact alive and well, is its mysterious, glittering pupil.
As I entered and sat in my seat, I realized I was not in a train. I climbed into something that is ... less than a train. A vehicle that certainly looks like a train, which was presented as a train but has changed its essence over time. My Shinkansen was a little dirty, certainly dirtier than an ordinary Japanese subway. The idea of high technology I had was immediately disappointed. There is nothing technological in the passenger service. The curtains are manual, the seat recline is manual. There is only so much legroom available, and, to be fair, the backrest can go down a lot. But all this still has no relation to the myth of a superfast train. So, we can say that the Shinkansen was not inspired - for its interior - by airplanes: in fact, it offers too much space. The entire cabin appears far too wide when one considers that the rail gauge is narrow and the train speeds at 300 km/h. The windows are square and not too wide, and their shape seems not to go along with the speed design. Square windows, in fact, intoxicate this train by giving it a less sleek appearance. This is undoubtedly intentional because even the sound announcements inside the cab are designed in a way that greatly slows down the perception of speed: too much time elapses between the din-don introducing a message and the actual message. Although, once launched at high speed, the Shinkansen surprises with further, slight but noticeable linear acceleration, the atmosphere there seems to want to deaden the experience of speed in favor of that of mere displacement. The Japanese themselves have learned to ride the Shinkansen in a bored, normal way. Some doze off, some stand in the vestibule, many watch a spartan screen waiting for the warning for the next station. There is little point in looking outside because the Japanese landscape - while immense - offers little variety and many, too many, cables and rails.
The superfast train par excellence is not a train; it looks more like an elevator and is asked to do the same things. It is a platform that runs horizontally, where travel, speed, is not important, only the millimeter-accurate certainty of its stops.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
Between life and death
After a day of classes at the University of Art and Design, I still had something to do to wrap up the day, and it was not work but the completion of some video footage for a documentary on blindness that I was pursuing with my Swiss friend Markuz Wernli.

That day it was a simple interview to be done with Masaru, a young man who had caused a minor accident in the past to Hiroshi, a blind man whom we had already interviewed and who had first told us this story.

I had arranged to meet Masaru in the small amphitheater of the University, I would set up my camera there, and no one would bother us. Precise we were joined by Markuz. The interview went very well, and with this addition we could have closed a circle by also telling Masaru's honest and still embarrassed version of the story. The documentary turned out to be a fresh picture from which it was clear that blindness, often understood by the sighted as a handicap, is actually nothing more than an additional cultural dimension, a dimension that in order to be understood by the majority, to become an everyday social solution, needs exclusively more intercultural encounter, more opportunities for exchange and conversation. The Country of the Blind, which I had the opportunity to visit, is a country through and through; and better still than other countries it has no flag, certainly no colors, and includes people of all races, creeds and genders. Its Constitution is based, as in no other country ever, on an inalienable list of ... perceptions and assumptions about reality.

Having finished the interview with Masaru, it was perhaps five or six o'clock in the afternoon: I gather my equipment, compact it in my duffle bag, say goodbye to Markuz and Masaru, and on my bicycle make my way home. Suddenly I feel very dizzy. I pull over, stop, I'm sweating: I feel my body like it's shrinking, drying out. I still have a lot of pedaling to do, I think... I realize I have a discomfort and force myself to go home to rest. I think that was the wise thing to do. I get home and feel a little better, it must have been the long day, the tension from the interview; at the end of the day, camera work is still a sort of performance, I think, requiring many kinds of concentration, not the least of which is the linguistic concentration to handle the Japanese language.

I relax at home and decide to fade out the evening by doing some testing with a new digital camera, purchased only a few days before. I play with it lying on the bed, framing, focusing, reviewing photos on the screen. Then I decide to do some more focus and exposure tests and then go into the bathroom to frame myself in the sink mirror, where I can play with doubled depth.

Shock. My face was deformed, swollen... I thought of a spell, I thought for many moments that I was dreaming, perhaps for a moment I even literally lost my mind, plunging into a mental place... motionless. But woe betide staying there inert. I give myself a shake, time to set the camera down on the washing machine, and with extreme circumspection I bring my face closer to the mirror to see if it was a real image. In the instant of that tiny movement I realize that even my fingers and arms were completely covered with huge liquid-filled bubbles. And so was my whole body, even between my fingers, under my feet and inside my mouth... And in the meantime a sense of nausea was rising and seemed to convince me to something, perhaps to give in, surrender for a while. The body, which after all is our only real possession, seemed to be going crazy from within.

On the bed, with my eyes closed, I imagined night views of skyscrapers that, floor by floor, were extinguishing their lights. Entire floors were going dark in unpredictable sequence. With much effort I reached my desk, connected to the Internet, and between dizziness and the inability to focus I self-diagnosed chickenpox. It was the only possible disease. And this diagnosis was relief from the spell, an embarrassed asking for permission at the gates of reality. I calmed down a bit, decided to first follow the directions to rest - many other options I did not have - and lay down hoping to regain my strength.

I will be absent from the world for days, I will be absent, silent, missing, even given up as a fugitive. Instead, I am a prisoner of the deepest darkness and silence. For days I don't eat, don't go to the bathroom, total blackout. Then I wake up and as if only minutes have passed I long for a glass of water. I will have to earn it myself and it will take me a long time to recompose my body, to get my legs off the bed only to find that standing up I could not get into it and that every inch of flesh and skin was still in painful metamorphosis. No water… I let myself fall back on the bed. I wasted a glimmer of physical strength but I have one of intellect left. Like Alberto Sordi used to do in certain movies, I look at my wristwatch by bringing it very close to my eyes. I squeeze them to focus: it is three o'clock in the morning. Then with a sideways glance I look at the house phone, it is so close to me, just reach out an arm. I grab it and it hurts my palm, it is square shaped with sharp edges and my skin is very sensitive. I call 119, this is an emergency. In a low voice I announce: I am a foreigner, I have chickenpox, I need help, I am very sick.

To this day I still wish I had dreamed this scene because the voice on the other end replies: - For chickenpox there is no emergency, tomorrow morning go to the nearest clinic. Odaijini! (Take care of yourself!). And, click.

I spend a few more hours in the bed and my only thought was huge, immense, a thought without language that like an umbrella covered all the other thoughts of a lifetime. An immense timeless silent loneliness: had I been alone from birth? Would I be so even after death?
And then it happened.

It happens that as I sit in the middle of the bed: I want to get up to go to the bathroom: I urgently need to vomit. Good sign, but vomit what? Somewhat crawling I get as far as the bathroom only to find to my dismay that another me had been lying in bed! Bed and bathroom were not visible to each other; they were separated by two doors, a master wall and a ninety-degree angle. But I am observing the two scenes from above, from a height that is higher and not compatible with that of the low ceiling of the room. I am obviously higher, certainly invading the apartment above mine! There are three of us then, me observing from above, another in the bathroom and yet another in the bed. In this experience, wonder exceeded fear.

Then on the chest of the me lying in bed appears from nowhere a cross of light, a regular cross that I have always remembered as being a kind of crosshair. This cross descends very slowly downward, from the chest slowly it makes its way across the belly, then again in a dilated time it descends down the right leg. From above I watch everything with indifferent amazement but with the body that is in the bath I feel the pain increase, it is the final sickness of a poisoning. I realize that the more the cross descends, the more my body shuts down. It is a full-fledged surrender, a shame. The cross comes down with exasperating slowness and lands on my instep. It is the end. I sense it. I put my head in the toilet in the hope perhaps of hiding. I squint my eyes and... clearly hear a deafening noise, like the crackling of a great fire.

How embarrassing to be found like this...burned alive. Darkness again, but it's a noisy darkness, as if I were already underground, the sound of the heart, of the blood pumping through my veins in spite of everything: endless giggles. I open my eyes in the darkness and still see the double scene from above. Damn it's not over! But the cross of light is now on my knee! It has risen, and rises, and rises! And the more it rises, the more I seem to recover! Yay, it's not over! I watch that miraculous cross return to the belly, stop there, and this time dissolve on the navel, as if blown away by a wind.

Slowly that whole incomprehensible scene also re-enters. The self that is in the bathroom re-enters the room, and literally re-enters the self that was in the bed. The vision from above also ends very naturally, precisely it too re-enters. The first memory I have after "re-entry" is the soreness of the corners of my mouth and eyes: I must have produced the truest smile of my entire life.

After this event I almost could not walk for three weeks. I was not hungry but forced myself to eat what was in the house. Crumbs, more than enough to convince me that I was a good boy who was not neglecting himself. Mrs. Nagakura, secretary at the University of Art, together with Professor Matsubara, a very nice art history professor, completely arbitrarily, intrigued by my unexcused absences, came looking for me all the way home. I remember opening the door in an obvious groggy state, and they must have been very concerned to see me in that state. Long beard, swollen body and completely ruined skin. She disappeared in a flash and returned shortly after with two shopping bags overflowing with food and fruit. She must have spent a fortune... Then a few friends and acquaintances showed up on the phone.

To avoid official dismissal, I had to return to work even though the same Art University doctor had specifically requested that I remain "at rest for the entire remainder of the semester plus the two months of summer vacation."
- Really? - Mrs. Nagakura, who had accompanied me to the examination, asked.
- Of course! - replied the doctor visibly displeased. - With chickenpox as an adult one can easily die!

Death, I recalled.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
- The Fence -
Mrs. Mirai
The nations of Earth number just over two hundred: a number compatible with the number of students in a small suburban school: the outskirts of the Galaxy. Two hundred entities, children of stories, encounters, customs, a couple of rapes, a bunch of kidnappings and many burning loves.

The Nations of the World today are almost adults; their childhood is far in the past centuries. There was the time of diseases and... how many deaths! Times of the impetuosity, of the beatings in the courtyard, uh! The bruises!

History has been a teacher for many of them: big and small ones, sturdy and puny ones, silent ones or the ones with a big voice...

It is now the time of natural choices for the Nations of the World, the time of farewells, of the bouquet of flowers to the Teacher. She, the History, cannot repeat herself again, History cannot further teach the same things to the same people, not even to their children. Even if she wanted to, there would be no more time, and even her best students could not transpose any further. The time of childhood - so dilated as to seem eternal - is really over. Everything is faster now: growth has bestowed speed and this is not the feeling of a single nation but the certainty of all ones: they are now a well-rounded generation of graduates in the same subject: History.

Ah, so many memories! In the centuries and centuries of the History course, the Nations have all more or less studied and done the same things. Very young, many were called by the war: those who ran to it energetically, those who went with heavy footsteps, those who called in sick, and those who stood by, scoring points on the board and stealing something from the bags left on the edge of the field.

After the wars, aching and sometimes more friendly than before, the states returned, already playing the new game: the race for rich objects!

- It is necessary to have more than everyone and above all to conquer more space and secure one's place! - Shouted the Teacher, that day, to make sure that even the most timid Nation understood the game.

The Nations of the World were giving each other a hard time to conquer space because they wanted to... lie down with each other! This time, in the heat of the crush they had felt a new urgency, that of love. They felt the itch of it, but space was needed and intimacy needed to be learned, maybe even put up some walls.

The camaraderie had soon stewed. The good was yet to come!

History was their old teacher; yes, some had even been in love with her for a few centuries, some even longed for her in that somewhat strange way, but today everyone heard about another woman, a galactic woman who had nothing to do with History, apparently named 'Mrs. Mirai. A very strange name, indeed. None of them have seen her yet, but her arrival is certain, you can tell by the way everything has been arranged. Even the dirtiest Nations of the World have cleaned up, detergents and soaps now run under the table as before only notes and threats knew how to do. Those whose place is most chock-full of things are even making room, sprucing up, wanting to give away. No, objects are not important to Her, perhaps not even Wealth. Mrs. Mirai likes kind-hearted, smiling, listening, talking, behaving Nations.

Nations now seem to be trying to differentiate themselves from their comrades and... rivals. But today it is already a mature rivalry, the one of the intellect: indeed, the one who is chosen by Her will win, not the one who takes her home violently. How? I beg your pardon? No, rumor has it that she will not be anyone's lover... It is once again a matter of listening, humoring, pleasing. Mrs. Mirai wants to listen to what we know how to do, she is intrigued by the peculiar abilities, she comes to help all the Nations, to nurture, to develop everyone naturally.

Among all the Nations one remained silent, blushing, separated from all, already felt ashamed... The name "Mirai" was kind of already known.

It is night, good old Teacher History has already returned home. She had a course almost four thousand years long. She must have a rest! The Nations of the World still entertain themselves in the schoolyard. Perhaps it will be the last time they will tread that ground... They appear different now, the one who looked like a child still has a stubble already, the one who wore short pants today has a tie, the one who always slept has discovered art, the little thieve never returned the marbles of war, yet he is there with everyone, in silence: he has been forgiven, good sign. Those who talk to each other, set a navigated tone.

Illuminated by the stars in the darkness, it is clear from their chats that they will all no longer do the same thing! The night has brought advice. School is over, the paths are decided. They will specialize.

They are now adults, the Nations of the World, and have already organized for the future on their own. Everyone sat in a circle and started a long discussion. Yes, it was a party after all, and it could not have been otherwise. The Moon came out and brightened even more that night, then went to bed. The Nations, on the other hand, no! It was time to stand, such a time would perhaps never return.

- I will take care of energy! You will see the bills!
- I will take care of transportation. To me you will pay the fare!
- I care about plants, I will go all green again! I swear! And if you give me some water I will give them to you fruits!
The chubby one: - I like cooking and I will cook for all of you!
- What about you, Japan?

- Japan? Are you there?

- I will... I will dream for all of you. And I will teach you how to live outside the matter. I will make capitalism a good thing. You will all be able to get rich without destroying the Earth anymore. I, who have no space, will create space out of nothing, even for your children, and your children's children.

- And... what are we to do? - They asked almost in unison two Nations that, upon closer inspection, for centuries had never even spoken to each other.

- I only ask you for the courage to imagine with me. - Japan replied.

At that instant came Mrs. Mirai, beautiful, a Galactic Entity. Everyone held their breath. Caught up in the discussion they had all let their guard down; they were not ready for that visit. And she appeared with the rising of the sun. The first ray illuminated the very center of Japan's eyes, who dazzled brought his hand suddenly to his forehead, like a soldier.

Two moments of silence, then everyone laughed. History was indeed over.
Alessandro Wm Mavilio
Author, Entrepreneur, Orientalist and Teacher, Alessandro Mavilio has taught at the Industrial University of Kyoto. He now lives in Hokkaido.