Looking for the Lost: Memoirs of a Vanishing Japan

[15 October 2009]

By Michael Antman

A Hole-in-the-Wall Land
One of the most memorable moments of my life was nonetheless trivial, distinctly embarrassing, and a striking example of how intrusively clueless I can be.

When I was single, I toured around Japan while between jobs, and early in my trip hooked up with a couple of fellow Americans—a former college basketball player and multi-millionaire heir, and his girlfriend, an IBM salesperson. He was about 6’5”; she was 6’1”, ponytailed, and looked like a beach volleyball player. I’m 6’3”. 

In just the past generation, the Japanese have pretty much caught up with Westerners in terms of height, but 22 years ago, people of our size were still a novelty, and the three of us were mobbed on a couple of occasions—I have some photographs of the millionaire’s girlfriend and me in a parking lot at Mt. Fuji surrounded by high-school girls clamoring for our autographs merely because of our foreignness and our parents’ foresight in deeding us tall genes.

cover art

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: The Firsthand Experiences of a British Woman in Outback Japan in 1878

Isabella L. Bird

(The Book Depository; US: Feb 2008)

We were even more out of place in Takayama, a mountain town that managed to escape the Allied air raids in the Second World War and otherwise has preserved many of its venerable structures, including numerous craft shops, tea shops, and restaurants that had been built for people who were at least a foot shorter than the three of us. So we were having a fine time ducking awkwardly in and out of the noren (those colorful, vertically split curtains bearing beautifully brushstroked kanji) in front of shops, admiring the region’s glossy traditional Hida Shunkei lacquerware, eating grilled river fish and slurping soba and ramen, and exploring small museums and painstakingly restored historic sites.

While his girlfriend was off shopping somewhere else, the former basketball player and I stooped through the doorway of one small museum, and nodded at the caretaker, who was sitting in a chair near the entrance holding an unlit pipe. He nodded stiffly back. We looked around to see if there was an entrance fee, and not seeing any signs, began to idly examine some of the Hida Shunkei and other artifacts on the shelves.

After a moment, I noted to my irritation that some slovenly visitor had crumpled a cellophane candy wrapper and left it one of the lacquerware bowls on display. A moment later, my friend pointed out another objet d’art with a small heap of ashes at the bottom. We looked at each other for a moment, and then at a jumble of old magazines on the floor, and then in unison we looked over at the caretaker, who was still seated stiffly, with his body halfway turned around in our direction, examining us with a frozen smile on his face and with his hand gripped tightly on the bowl of his pipe.

I forget which one of us said it first: “Oh, sh**! This isn’t a museum! We’re in this guy’s house!

We backed out of there saying our sumimasens, and that was that. But years later I read an apposite passage by the poet and novelist Brad Leithauser in his book of essays, Penchants and Places, about his own experiences in Japan, and in particular the way in which the streets of that country (unlike, he says, the “slack” and “echoing” streets of Rome and London) seems to hold a surprise around every corner, albeit usually not as a consequence of breaking and entering:

It’s the great goal of travel, it seems to me: not the destination but the calculated inducement of that avid, inquisitive, slightly jittery intimation that marvelous things are close at hand and profound consequences may hinge on the route you select. This feeling was often with me when my wife and I first moved to Japan, in the summer of 1980, and persisted through our three years in Kyoto. Time and again its streets contrarily tugged at me. I’d reach an intersection and sense that something beautiful or illuminating or piercingly odd was on display just round the corner; I was always about to miss something I very much didn’t want to miss. It was a feeling potent enough to convert my daily bicycle commute from home to office—some two or three miles—into an exhilarating, exhausting series of impulsive veerings and wistful second-guesses.

My own aforementioned encounter was idiotic rather than “beautiful or illuminating”, or even “piercingly odd”, which is probably why he is Brad Leithauser and I am not, but he and I are in accord about the special nature of Japan. It’s true that first-time visitors to the country are often surprised to discover how covered in concrete and superficially unwelcoming to tourists it is—a legacy of both the Second World War and thoughtless and indiscriminate post-war urban planning. Even Kyoto, that irreplaceable cultural treasure that Leithauser admires, is at first glance a noisy and noisome urban congeries of Toyota-choked streets and Lego-like industrial structures.

As another writer, Alan Booth, puts it, “(b)ombs and fires and earthquakes and storms and the separate attentions of 510,000 busy construction workers (means that)... (w)hen you view Kyoto from any point of vantage, such as the elevated platform where the bullet train deposits you, its ugliness can make you weep. Its tangled, utility-cabled skyline is indistinguishable from that of any other Japanese city of comparable size, and every bit as jolting.”

But perversely perhaps, this makes Kyoto’s justly famed gardens and temples that much more pleasurable when you slip into one of the cool recesses that afford access to these cultural and religious treasures.  As Booth goes on to say, “Kyoto is ‘beautiful’ because within it there are beautiful things; subtle, sometimes tiny details that resist the cacophony around them and may require a lifetime to unearth.”

But more to Leithauser’s point and my own, even for those who stick to the choked streets themselves instead of searching out the temples and gardens, there is a quality of constant surprise in Japan’s cities and small towns, if one peers just a little bit past the cables and concrete, that is far more prevalent than in the more tourist-friendly, and perhaps “obvious” destinations of Europe.  With its narrow streets and dark and hidden infoldings, there’s a distinctly feminine, mysterious, and inexplicably magnetic aspect to the country that exists in few other places I have seen.

Part of Japan’s quirkiness is attributable to the fact that is the world capital, I think, of hole-in-the-wall joints, mom-and-pop shops selling oddments and obscurities, and disreputable drinking establishments. A lot of offbeat encounters in Japan can be explained by the broad acceptance of drinking and public drunkenness—in America, it would be very unusual to see a group of businessmen (not frat boys, businessmen) staggering drunkenly down the street at midnight, but in Japan it’s not only common, it’s expected.

Also, in a rather subtle way, the strangeness and surprise of Japan is enhanced by the small size of the country. In any given city, there’s an awful lot packed into a few small miles, and it’s easy to encounter, as Leithauser describes, an astonishing range of interesting and bizarre objects and behaviors in an hour’s walk or within the range of a bike ride.

Lastly, whether they are drunk or sober, Japan’s people are at once welcoming and friendly, and yet incredibly prone to either cause foreigners to act in foolish ways, or to act, themselves, in foolish ways in front of foreigners. Regarding the latter, I’ll mention, as a counter-balance to my first story, a brief incident that occurred several years after my visit to Takayama, when I was newly married, and living in a small town called Toyokawa.

It happened that an elderly man raced onto the rickety commuter train I was riding on just as the doors were closing, in so much of a hurry that he was still chewing on his last bite of breakfast. He sat down next to me and immediately engaged me in conversation using his rudimentary English. When I responded in my even-more-primitive Japanese, he was so astonished that I could speak it at all that he burst out laughing and in the process expelled a good-sized splat of mostly masticated rice onto my pants leg. He looked at it—a spreading little lagoon of spittle and white flecks—with the same sort of frozen expression as that “caretaker” in Takayama, and it was clear he was thinking about the possibility of either taking out a handkerchief and wiping off my leg, or just opening a window and jumping out of the trundling train.

But instead, he nodded briefly, said his own sumimasen, and in an agony of embarrassment scurried away to the opposite end of the car, where he stared fixedly out of the window for the remainder of the ride—and, I would guess, for the next day or two after that. It was, all in all, a good choice on his part—it took a couple of minutes for me to clean off my knee, and I cannot imagine how we both would have felt if he had attempted to do it for me.

Unfortunately, I cannot guarantee that connoisseurs of quirky encounters will not be disappointed if they decide to visit Japan. I haven’t been back there in a number of years, and I’m a little bit nervous about doing so, in part because I’m afraid that the country’s strangeness may be fading, just as so many of our world’s indigenous idiosyncracies are slowly giving up the ghost. 

This dubious feeling was exacerbated by my reading of two excellent memoirs about Japan, widely separated in time, that tell a little tale about the country’s progress for better and for worse.  Extrapolating from the more-recent one, I have the sinking feeling that the country is headed in the direction of a homogeneous urban and suburban blandness.

A Famished Madman

A Famished Madman

Part of Japan’s quirkiness is attributable to the fact that is the world capital, I think, of hole-in-the-wall joints, mom-and-pop shops selling oddments and obscurities, and disreputable drinking establishments.

The earlier memoir, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: The Firsthand Experiences of a British Woman in Outback Japan in 1878, was written in an epistolary form by a well-known travel writer of her day, Isabella Bird, and is deservedly a minor classic. As she notes in her preface, her “route was altogether off the beaten track, and had never been traversed in its entirety by any European.”

The Meiji-era Japan that Bird describes isn’t just unsuited for casual tourists, it’s a poor and pitiful place, certainly as seen through the eyes of a British woman of that era, but probably in absolute terms, as well. Of course, her own prejudices are typical of the time: “The first thing that impressed me on landing,” she writes in one of her letters to her sister back home, “was that there were no loafers, and that all the small, ugly, kindly-looking, shriveled, bandy-legged, round-shouldered, concave-chested, poor-looking beings in the streets had some affairs of their own to mind.”

A bit later she notes that “the fishy and vegetable abominations known as ‘Japanese food’ can only be swallowed and digested by a few, and that after long practice.”

But even when one adjusts for her prejudices (our contemporary prejudices, it should be noted, are just as prevalent but tend more in the direction of a studiously insincere abnegation of our own culture in favor of others) it is still possible to conclude semi-objectively that the Japan of that time was not a salubrious or prosperous place to live.

Truly this is a new Japan to me, of which no books have given me any idea, and it is not fairyland,”  she writes to her sister. The room she sleeps in one night “was dark, dirty, vile, noisy, and poisoned by sewage odours, as rooms unfortunately are very apt to be… when I drew aside the shoji I was disconcerted by the painful sight which presented itself, for the people were pressing one upon another, fathers and mothers holding naked children covered with skin-disease, or with scald-head, or ringworm, daughters leading mothers nearly blind, men exhibiting painful sores, children blinking with eyes infested by flies and nearly closed with ophthalmia; and all, sick and well, in truly ‘vile rainment,’ lamentably dirty and swarming with vermin…

And her earlier reference to the “abomination” known as Japanese food seems more believable and less subjective when one remembers the widespread poverty of that time—the typical Japanese person back then wasn’t much more likely to be enjoying a sushi and tempura dinner than Westerners of the time were—and as one encounters more of her vivid and particular descriptions: “(There were) six large brown dishes with food for sale—salt shellfish, in a black liquid, dried trout impaled on sticks, sea slugs in soy, a paste made of pounded roots, and green cakes made of the slimy river confervae, pressed and dried—all ill-favoured and unsavoury viands.”

But Bird is no Japanophobe. Her vivid language captures the unusual moist and weathered beauty of the country in addition to its deficiencies, as she explores its remotest corners and byways (not difficult to do, because, except for a few major cities, to a Westerner of the time, the entire country consisted of byways):

Usu is a dream of beauty and peace. There is not much difference between the height of high and low water on this coast, and the lake-like illusion would have been perfect had it not been that the rocks were tinged with gold for a foot or so above the sea by a delicate species of fucus. In the exquisite inlet where I spent the night, trees and trailers drooped into the water and were mirrored in it, their green, heavy shadows lying sharp against the sunset gold and pink of the rest of the bay; log canoes, with planks laced upon their gunwales to heighten them, were drawn upon a tiny beach of golden sand, and in the shadiest cove, moored to a tree, an antique and much-carved junk was ‘floating double.’ Wooded, rocky knolls, with Aino huts, the vermillion peaks of the volcano of Usu-taki redder than ever in the sinking sun, a few Ainos mending their nets, a few more spreading edible seaweed out to dry, a single canoe breaking the golden mirror of the cove by its noiseless motion, a few Aino loungers, with their ‘mild-eyed, melancholy’ faces and quiet ways suiting the quiet evening scene, the unearthly sweetness of a temple bell - this was all, and yet it was the loveliest picture I have seen in Japan.

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The Roads to Sata: A 2000 Mile Walk through Japan

Alan Booth

(Kodansha; US: Aug 1997)

More than 100 years later, another famous travel writer, Alan Booth (the author of the passages about Kyoto above), in his books The Roads to Sata and Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan, had to make a special effort to find the country’s byways. The Roads to Sata, which I haven’t read, is an account of Booth’s 2000-mile walk along the country’s back roads, and Looking for the Lost, which I have, is a memoir of an immense and mostly rain-soaked journey on foot through the mountains and villages of northern Japan.

The Japan that Booth, who died in 1993, encounters in Looking for the Lost is one that is even more utterly transformed than, in the same period, the United States, in part because of the damage wrought by the Second World War, but also because of what he calls “the Japanese passion for pulling things down and putting them up again, an activity which some observers have suggested reflects a Buddhist acknowledgment of the impermanence of the material world and others have thought a lunatic waste.”

Booth would probably have favored the “lunatic waste” explanation. In one representative passage, he writes that “the skeletons of two more buildings under construction bore witness that, within about a fortnight, the holy mountain would vanish altogether behind walls made out of aluminum sheets painted to look like planks.”

Earlier, he notes of one depressing town that “I greatly prefer slow ruination to the sudden kind contrived by local authorities… the notion that scenery requires human interference if it is to appeal to human sensibilities was one I pondered ...I found myself much irked by this notion that has obviously found favor among the cement makers and development committees… (b)ut it received a sharper rebuke than any argument of mine could have supplied when I trudged through the little hamlet of Utetsu and, with an accuracy honed since the Tertiary period, a crow shat on my head.”

cover art

Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan

Alan Booth

(Kodansha; US: May 1996)

Booth’s peregrinations in Looking for the Lost are inspired in part by a similar journey by a famed wastrel and writer named Osamu Dazai, whom Booth did not much care for, and is fueled largely by ice-cold bottles of Japanese beer, which Booth clearly liked a great deal—the moments in this book when he stops at some lonely country cafe or dusty store to quaff a bottle or three of Sapporo are far too numerous to count. He claims, though, that “my hobbling in and out of liquor shops, especially ones that boast draft beer machines and refrigerated glasses, is done not for epicurean reasons but solely in the interests of social and historical research,” confirming that the only dry thing about Booth was his sense of humor.

The country’s stellar beverages aside, Booth, like Bird and Leithauser, also loves Japan itself in all of its quirky particularity, reminiscing at one point about his travels:

I have seen the nebuta lanterns paraded through the summer streets behind their massive drums, been out in a salmon boat on the autumn sea off Ajigasawa, watched the Emburi dancers stamping about in the February ice at dawn on Choja Hill, accumulated forty-six L.P. records of Tsugaru folk songs and shamisen music, suffered diarrhea from eating raw deer meat, clapped my hands to the gods at Takayama Inari Shrine and Iwaki Shrine and at other shrines without names, and been told at Osorezan by one of the spirit mediums that I was born a foreigner in this life because of misdeeds committed in a former one.

Reading these two memoirs of travels in Japan, separated by more than a century, one is struck predominantly by the advances that the country has made, and how necessary it was to make them.  With the obvious and rather large exception of its period of Imperial insanity, Japan’s movement from a poor and unhealthy land to an incredibly prosperous and healthy one has been the right way to go. One just worries, as Booth clearly did, about the possibility that in this development, Japan has gone too far, and lost too much of what makes it special. Even as Booth walks thousands of miles along back roads, in the seams between the endless golf courses and over-built cities, he still is continually “shat on” by reminders of the charm and mystery of a past Japan that is now lost, untraceable, and irretrievable.

Near the end of my first trip to Japan, my friends deserted me because the millionaire suspected that his girlfriend and I were beginning to get too close, a suspicion that troubled me at the time but that I acknowledge was borne out a couple of months later back in America.

So in my last few days in Kyoto, I kicked around disconsolately, waiting for the arrival of the date on my return ticket. It wasn’t only impatience that had me focused on my return. Because of some problem with my American Express card and a badly managed cash budget, I was forced to eat like an (Elizabeth) Bird.  In fact, in my last day and a half in Kyoto, I consumed almost nothing at all, needing to save my last yen for a ride to the airport. I did have a nearly unusable Diners Club card, of all things, in my wallet, and I can remember walking down the dark streets of some out-of-the-way Kyoto neighborhood after midnight, searching for some place where I could buy something or other edible with it.

I passed one shop in which I spied a pretty young woman hunched over a sewing machine and wondered who she was and why she was working so late. There was a sweets shop, silent and closed for the night, and a beautiful stationery store, illuminated by a single light bulb, and several bars with raucous and distant laughter emanating from within. It was about the loneliest I had ever felt.

Then, in the distance, I saw a glowing yellow sign that said, miraculously, “Diners Club”. I hurried down the street to the tiny restaurant just as the owner was locking the front door, but I brandished my credit card like the famished madman I was, and he let me in and cooked for me a full tempura dinner that was impossibly fragrant and lacy and light, and yet consisting of so many pieces and side dishes that I couldn’t imagine eating half of it.

It was one of the best meals of my life, and it made me realize that the deep-fried objects most restaurants outside of Japan serve as “tempura” are merely leaden imitations. I had a couple of beers and then, though I was stuffed, I ordered a second complete dinner because it was too delicious not too. At some point while I was eating meal number two, a few neighborhood residents arrived to watch the “crazy gaijin,” and they bought me a few more beers to encourage me to eat a third round, which I wisely declined. I talked and drank with the locals at the cramped little counter until nearly sunrise, and, as Booth says in regard to a similar encounter, “(t)hey regarded this as the lark of their lives.”

What connects each of my three trivial encounters, and dozens of others I had while in Japan, is that I remember them vividly, and the reason I remember them vividly is because they were the product of mistakes, imperfections, and misunderstandings that allowed me to stumble into something I otherwise would never have encountered. In other places in North America and overseas, I have encountered some beautiful sights, but when I have not stumbled, or when there was no possible way to stumble because the places were too familiar or overly controlled or glossy, I have much more difficulty remembering what I saw.  And, it goes without saying, my visits to malls and shopping centers and the like hold hardly any memories for me whatsoever.

I wonder if, 22 years down a long and twisted road, that tiny tempura restaurant still exists, and if that sense of delighted surprise exists to the same degree for a visitor to Japan today, or whether one has to look even harder today than ever for the seams between the swaths of concrete and conformity.

As Bird’s account of a desperately poor and diseased populace reminds us, there is a reason for development, and it is not easily dismissed just because one cherishes the kind of quirky oddities that it often erases.  But striking just the right balance by obliterating the contagion and not the charm is never an easy accomplishment, and, as Booth’s memoir emphasizes in its every page, tipping too far in the direction of safety and sameness delivers only boredom.  Of course, boredom isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it is my firm belief that people everywhere die of it every day.

Michael Antman is a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing. He is the author of the novel Cherry Whip (ENC Press, 2004), and recently completed a new novel, Everything Solid Has a Shadow. His website, where most of his writing is collected, is at Michael Antman Author.com.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/112295-looking-for-the-lost-memoirs-of-a-vanishing-japan/