The Tinderbox

July 25, 2008

It was well after the Muromachi and Azuchi-Momoyama periods, golden ages for Japanese architecture. It was a tad before the bubble economy, and its fancy toilets. It was, in fact, to be specific, the 60’s when my apartment rose like a weary phoenix from the post-war ashes.


And to ashes it shall return, I’m sure.


In the effort to rebuild Japan in the years following the war, traditional wooden structures, which were very susceptible to fire, came to be replaced by more and more concrete and steel structures.


The thing is, whoever (re)built my apartment decided to ignore this trend completely. My apartment, its floors, walls, and ceiling, is made entirely of wood, or other equally flammable materials…such as grass.


Yes, that’s right, you read me correctly. Grass.  


Don’t get me wrong: I do not have a lawn for carpet. That would be silly. No, I have dried grass; it’s been woven into tatami. I have it in my bedroom/living room, and the study. It is very old and brittle, and as such I have to spend a great deal of time vacuuming up little tatami splinters. (Actually, the truth is I’m much too lazy for regular vacuuming. I much prefer to spend a modest amount of time plucking tatami splinters from my feet.)


The walls I can only describe as being of a woodfibrey variety. Look closely and you will see what appears to be a mixture of cardboard and paper pulp, tiny stones, staples, and myriad other little unidentifiable objects. If you touch, brush, or lean against my walls all of these things will stick to your person.


Being paper-thin and made of such flimsy material, these walls allow sound to pass through with alarming ease, as I discovered on the first night I spent here.


As I recall, it was a very quiet night as I lie in bed drifting off to sleep to the faint and rhythmical tick…tick…tick…tick of the clock hanging on my wall.




I had just enough consciousness to be aware that something about this ticking bothered me.




Something was not right…


Then it hit me: I do not have a clock hanging on my wall.


I do not have a clock at all!


I sprang out of bed, literally leaping to the conclusion that I had unwittingly (as opposed to wittingly) moved into some kind of obakeyashiki (haunted house) with a ghost clock. A moment later, with my ear pressed to a spot on the wall just behind my bed, I discovered the truth of the matter, and was both relieved and stunned. It was not—surprise, surprise—a ghost clock…it was my neighbour’s.


But if I can hear their clock, I thought, then they must be able to hear…


My mind raced with thoughts of all the things—all the noisy things—I shouldn’t, nay, couldn’t, do if I was to avoid embarrassment and a loss of face.


I made mental notes.


I made a lot of them.


No need to discuss them here though. That would be in poor taste.


The point I’m trying to make is it’s highly flammable. Flimsy and flammable, and liable to spontaneously combust.


I mean just look at my kitchen would you. There are blisters on one of the walls because the stove sits too close to it. (The blisters, mind you, were there when I moved in. On general principles I stay out of the kitchen as much as possible.) As if that alone is not scary enough, there is an electric chord running diagonally along this very same wall, up to a fan near the ceiling… it runs along the wall less than an inch from the blisters.


Why then, you may be wondering, do you choose to live there if it is the death trap you make it out to be?


Well…it has character. Did I mention the SQUAT TOILET? (It is exactly what it sounds like.) It is a survivor. It’s been through earthquakes and typhoons, and floods, and most impressively, many a high-fire-danger summer. And the clincher: it is cheap. Like 20,000 / month cheap. How can you say no to that?