One of my earliest memories is of my dad returning from Japan laden with stories and stationery for me and my sister. I knew then that I’d visit one day, and perhaps it was prophetic that the present I remember best was a candy-coloured pencil box from which a rainbow of crayons shot out at the touch of a button. I used them to colour in maps.
Decades later, I descended into Tokyo through a bloodshot sky, having spent the 12-hour flight from Heathrow contemplating the ‘difficult second novel’ that I had come to Japan to research.
Alone in the energising capital, I’d finally reached the future that I’d imagined for myself. But it was Osaka, further south — where I somehow ended up spending the majority of my 24 hours there underground — that gifted me the book’s story.
I travel and write in much the same way; starting with a few inspiring images and a sense of the things I hope to examine, often without a map and always open to a change of direction. And so I arrived in brash, beautiful (and rainy) Osaka by bullet train ready to explore.
The city, with its unpretentious charm, is home to some of Japan’s most exciting emerging artists. Guidebooks speak of its stylish shopping, the spectacular views from the Umeda Sky Building and its reputation among foodies as the kitchen of Japan. I’d second all this, but when I cast my mind back, I remember the rows of double-stacked sleep-pods that characterised the underground capsule hotel I stayed in.
I also remember the fiery November foliage, almost neon at sunset, and the steaming wet streets that glowed the colours of boiled sweets. It was their traces that lit up my mind as I listened to strangers snoring beyond the rattan shutter than separated me and my designated capsule from the corridor.
I didn’t sleep much that night. Thoughts of home caught up with me. An old friend had passed away a few days before I left and I’d recently abandoned a career of 10 years. My health was precarious and my doctor had only cleared me to travel the night before I flew.
In an attempt to make my second book less autobiographical than my debut, I’d collected images that had nothing to do with my own life including a derelict swimming pool, a lonely beach and a handmade globe. Lying under Osaka in my comfy but sweaty sleep pod, I scrolled through those pictures and wondered what would happen if Arlo (my 19-year-old male protagonist) fled to Japan after a tragedy? What if he had a sketchbook of maps with him but wanted only to be lost? How might his experience differ from mine?
The next morning, I went with an artist who I’d met in Japan to the National Museum of Art on the island of Nakanoshima in central Osaka. The gallery’s first basement level housed a retrospective of a Japanese art collective called ‘The Play’ and immediately presented me with a huge coincidence: among the images I’d saved before travelling was an abandoned hospital, and one of the first photos on display was of just that. Coming face to face with something so familiar in a place that was foreign to me felt too interesting to ignore. I already knew I wanted to write about male mental health, but realised in that subterranean gallery that the story demanded art and adventure too. A plotline began to fall into place. I decided Arlo would meet someone who was also trying to get lost, and that they’d have to figure out whether you can ever truly outrun yourself.
Although none of the locations in the book are named and some are imagined, I gathered flavours, photos and feelings to build a sensory infrastructure that I could call on back home — everything from the shade of guests’ yukata kimonos at the underground capsule hotel to the sizzle of Osaka’s okonomiyaki pancakes.
Nothing forces you to confront yourself more than being alone in front of a blank page. Fiction can be the best place to tell the truth so, despite my efforts to avoid it, I wrote another personal novel.
Recalling the colouring tin and crayons from my childhood, the perfect title came to me. It captures both the story and what I asked of Japan: Colour Me In.
Lydia Ruffles is the author of Colour Me In and The Taste of Blue Light (both Hodder, RRP: £12.99)
Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)