At the café on my first visit to Paris, 1965. (Photo courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto)

To job hunt or travel, that was my choice: Yohji Yamamoto (8)

It was an easy decision to make, one that led me to 'my' Paris

In the third and fourth years of university, students are typically busy with job hunting. I, however, could not bring myself to participate in society. Many of my friends at Keio were the heirs to well-established stores and famous companies, which makes our starting points as different as could be. There was no way I could seriously compete with them.

(Well then, I'll set out for some traveling!)

I was so vexed that I decided to go wandering around the world for about three months, just as the job hunting period began. I worked part time to save money, and my mother helped me with the rest. It must have taken a lot of courage on her part, but when I told her that I wanted to broaden my horizons in preparation for the future, my mother helped me with the money.

I traveled cheaply with a classmate who was my mahjong buddy. We first took a boat to Nakhodka, in the Soviet Union, and then moved on to Khabarovsk. From there we caught a plane and headed to Moscow. During the Cold War, the cities in the Soviet Union were dimly lit, and the people's faces were downcast.

On the plane, I was taken aback by the brusque service staff, who tossed down our food and drinks as if they were throwing them away. There was no sense of service. At train stations and airports, soldiers armed with machine guns were everywhere, keeping a watchful eye on the surroundings. It was my first personal brush with the tense atmosphere and modest living people experienced under communism.

However, the atmosphere changed entirely upon entering Northern Europe. The cities were bright, orderly and clean. But growing up in Kabukicho, I found them rather boring. The people were tall, and it was as if I were a dwarf, lost in the woods. I was reminded that the Japanese of my generation, who suffered from food shortages, were noticeably small among the peoples of the world.

After visiting the Netherlands and Germany, we arrived in Paris by train. For some reason, I felt at ease as soon as I stepped onto the platform. The wafting cigarette smoke, the surging waves of people, the lively hustle and bustle... it somehow felt familiar, even though it was my first visit there. "I'm back in my city," I felt. That was my first encounter with Paris.

The journey back to Japan also left a deep impression. We boarded a cruise ship in Marseille and spent a little over a month sailing back to Yokohama, stopping at ports in the Middle East and Asia. This sailing trip was one of discovery.

My strongest memory is of Mumbai, in India. As we disembarked, we found ourselves surrounded by street children and were unable to move. The streets were littered with foul-smelling filth; the sanitary conditions were nothing but poor. I felt a thump on my back and turned to see a boy with only one arm and a girl whose face was covered with scars from a severe burn. I stood there, shocked.

It seems that to win the pity of travelers, and thereby increase the amount of money they received, some people would deliberately amputate children's limbs or burn their faces with boiling oil or sulfuric acid. Even though this was a means of survival, the reality was so cruel that I could only stand there paralyzed.

The second strongest memory is of Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam. I was about to go out into the city on my own when a Japanese woman traveling on the ship with us told me the following:

"If you just wander around like that you'll be soldier-hunted."

At that time, the U.S. military had begun bombing North Vietnam, and rumors were flying that young men were being recruited to be soldiers in the South Vietnamese insurgency. I had kept my distance from the student movements in Japan, and spent my time playing carefree, so I was a bit out of touch with international affairs.

The woman was three or four years older than me. She was well educated and had a somewhat enigmatic charm about her. She kindly looked after me like an older sister. She also taught me about politics, religion and love - worlds that I knew nothing about. Her younger brother was a hardcore fighter in the leftist movement, she said.

People grow through travel. My own wanderings greatly expanded my insight into society and the times.

Back to blog