Title/Author: Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami translated by Allison Markin Powell
Publisher: Counterpoint LLC
In a nutshell (Publisher):
Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Asian Literary Prize, Strange Weather in Tokyo is a story of loneliness and love that defies age.
Tsukiko, thirty–eight, works in an office and lives alone. One night, she happens to meet one of her former high school teachers, “Sensei,” in a local bar. Tsukiko had only ever called him “Sensei” (“Teacher”). He is thirty years her senior, retired, and presumably a widower. Their relationship develops from a perfunctory acknowledgment of each other as they eat and drink alone at the bar, to a hesitant intimacy which tilts awkwardly and poignantly into love.
As Tsukiko and Sensei grow to know and love one another, time’s passing is marked by Kawakami’s gentle hints at the changing seasons: from warm sake to chilled beer, from the buds on the trees to the blooming of the cherry blossoms. Strange Weather in Tokyo is a moving, funny, and immersive tale of modern Japan and old–fashioned romance.
“This strange weather must be a result of the strange thing you said, Tsukiko,’ Sensei murmured, leaning out from the veranda. It wasn’t strange, I retorted. Sensei gave a wry smile.“
Ah…. This story broke me. I’ve never read something quite like this before. The story was short yet offered so much depth in its narration and characters that it was hard not to be drawn towards them. Each time I wanted to put it down to think and reflect, I almost immediately want to pick it up again to read the rest of the story.
This was a beautiful, sad, and a moving love story about a relationship between two of the most unlikely individuals – Tsukiko and Sensei.
Thirty-eight-year-old Tsukiko was hanging out at a bar she frequented, and happened to recognize one of the customers, Sensei, her old schoolteacher, thirty years her senior. This chance meeting then developed into more meetings at the same bar. From here on, Tsukiko gradually developed feelings for Sensei. ‘Despite the more than thirty-year difference in our ages, I felt much more familiar with him than with friends my own age.’ But you’d also see, or rather, sense how Sensei treated her in the beginning changed as their ‘relationship’ progressed. In the beginning, he seemed to me, more of a patriarchal figure, who corrected her whenever he saw it right to do so – like her posture and mannerisms, for not being ladylike, then later, I could sense that he too, had liked her more than just her company.
Their relationship deepened when they went mushroom hunting with the owner of the bar they frequently met at, who invited them to go along with him and his brother. There, Tsukiko saw the other side of Sensei and was surprised by how much he knew about mushrooms. “Within the forest, Sensei seemed quite different from his usual self. He was like a woodland creature who had lived among the trees since ancient times.” She also got to know more about his previous marriage and family life.
They also went to a cherry blossom party together where Tsukiko bumped into someone she once knew. She started seeing him, hoping it will help her from trying and wanting to meet with Sensei whom she was avoiding, even changing her routine at the bar, when she realized how deeply she had fallen for him. She even changed her routine at the bar. None of these worked out well for her because in the end, it only made her realize how much she wanted to be with Sensei.
She hinted Sensei on wanting to go on a proper ‘date’ with him and when he finally officially asked her out, they went to an island. It was there that her feelings for him intensified.
“At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a hold on this sense—I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would cozy back up to me.”
When she got to know more about his previous marriage, the feeling of jealousy overcame her so much that she left Sensei alone on the island as she ran back to the inn they put up at. There were intimate moments shared between the two on this date, and it was so exquisitely written that you’d feel the strong tug and pull between them, of how much they wanted to be together, yet at the same time, Sensei was hesitant, and it drove Tsukiko up the wall.
Throughout their entire time together, it was Tsukiko who was more ‘expressive’ in showing her feelings for Sensei, of wanting to be close to him, but each time, Sensei showed resistance and hesitation.
“No matter how I tried to get closer to him, Sensei would not let me near. As if there were an invisible wall between us. It might have seemed pliant and obscure, but when compressed it could withstand anything, nothing could get through. A wall made of air.”
It wasn’t so that he didn’t feel the same towards her, but he was afraid to be in a relationship with Tsukiko for reasons he eventually revealed to her.
You know how some books try to squeeze in as many themes as possible to make the story more relevant and appeal to a bigger audience? This one doesn’t at all. The main themes were simply love and loneliness that were explored with such depth that it left me thinking about the story for days. It was how the characters feelings were shown instead of told – the awkwardness, the hesitation, the doubts, the disappointments, and the ability to love someone despite the differences in interests, outlook in life and age. Also, the elegance of the writing made their relationship felt so vulnerable, raw, yet intimate at the same time. Kudos to the translator! (It makes me wonder what it would be like reading this in its original language.)
At only 190 pages, it might feel hefty to a reader who is used to a fast-paced story and/or expecting a plot-driven story. I’d liken this story to a ballerina dancing slowly, but gracefully invites you into her story through her movements. I am not a fan of romance stories, but the ones like this, I LOVE. I think ‘Strange Weather’ is a story that would appeal to readers who enjoy introspective, cliché-free, no-eye-roll love stories with complex characters.
I love this book so much I just purchased a physical copy of it (waiting for delivery!), just so I can enter Tsukiko’s world again whenever I feel like it.
Tender, quirky, and quiet, this was one of those novels that grew on me and one I know I’d treasure for a long time to come, like Convenience Store Woman. If you enjoyed CSW, you’d probably enjoy this too. When reading this, remember to go slow. You’d want to savor every moment.
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Please share with me your thoughts!