No More Hurt

Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

They’re everywhere.

Pushing past me in the street and nudging me as I walk by. Climbing over walls and sauntering across roads, giving callous glances to futile honking cars. They linger outside Starbucks, chasing those foolish enough to walk out with food.

They don’t talk to one another and I find that odd. Though far from timid, they don’t appear to be social animals, deer. They’re not as beautiful as people say they are, but I haven’t been good at noticing the beauty in things lately. That’s part of the reason I came.

I’m only here for a week. I left Tokyo because I thought it might help me. The night bus to Kyoto was cheap, and the train to Nara easy. I’m trying to get to the shrine, but the deer won’t get out of my way. It’s summer and the first state of emergency has just come to an end.

I only arrived in Japan a month before they announced it. I came to Tokyo to teach, but it wasn’t supposed to go like this. The school I worked at closed. The days were long and I tried it all. Running. Cooking. Mindfulness. I tried to write a novel. There was day drinking and night drinking and moments when I wondered if I’d done the right thing. Coming here, that is. There were many moments like that. But three months passed and the government were rewarding us now. They were saying thank you. It was called the Go-To Travel Campaign: they’d cover 35% of costs on the condition that we go out, that we travel, that we please spend money.

So I arrived in Nara, an almost empty city with almost empty streets. The hostel owner left me the keys, the only keys, because of course I was the only guest.

‘You’re lucky,’ he said. ‘You have Nara all to yourself.’

That night I checked the bunks for monsters before I fell asleep, with a sickness in the pit of my stomach. Maybe I should have stayed in Tokyo. Vast, bright, suffocating, lonely Tokyo. They say there’s nothing worse than feeling alone in a room full of people and to that I would disagree. There’s nothing worse than feeling alone when you are alone, when you’re staring at empty beds in an empty hostel seemingly serving to mock you.

I find the shrine at the base of Mount Wakakusa. The sky is bright and offensively blue, but in the shade of the trees the air feels rich and damp with moss. The shrine sells ema, wooden plaques on which you write a wish. I’ve never written an ema; I don’t know what I’d wish for, what I’d need to stop feeling like this.

I like reading them though. Most are Japanese scribbles I struggle to read, but I find one written in English.

I hope Randolph will be in relationship with me. I hope for success in love and to be happy every day. No more hurt!

I like that one. I find another requesting the end of coronavirus and the simultaneous fall of communism. I like that one too. I’ve escaped the deer down here. Though there’s the occasional crunch under my feet and a whistle of wind through the trees, the only sound is the noise my head starts making when the world is truly silent.

I wonder if I craved the escape more than the place I was escaping to.

I walk to the top of Mount Wakakusa and I sit on a bench as the sun warms my face. I look out at it: the city, the mountains, Japan. She sees me before I see her. It’s just the two of us up here. She comes over and nuzzles her nose into my bag. I stroke the fur on her head and I look at her spotted back, her spindly legs. I realise I got it wrong: she’s beautiful.

I talk to her. I ask her if she’s noticed how empty the city is now, if she’s struggling with the silence. I ask her if it’s taking longer to adjust to than she thought it would. She chews on the ticket I need to get out of here and I take that as a yes.

I tell her she’s lucky to be in such a beautiful place, such a beautiful country. I know it’s hard right now, I say, but you’re going to be fine. You’re going to get used to it.

She looks up at me then; her expression deadpan, bored. There’s nothing else she can eat in my bag so she walks away. I sit there a moment longer, smiling at the city. It’s small and flickering but I feel it for a second. I feel like I might be okay.