Looking for the Lost: Memoirs of a Vanishing Japan

Photo (partial) found on Kyoto

With its narrow streets and dark and hidden infoldings, there’s a distinctly feminine, mysterious, and inexplicably magnetic aspect to Japan that exists in few other places in the world.

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.

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Author: Isabella L. Bird

Publisher: The Book Depository

Publication date: 2008-02

Length: 292 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $22.99

Image: 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.

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