I lived in Yokohama, Japan, for one year, right after I graduated from Washington University (with a degree in French!) Hey, teaching English in Japan was the first job I got, so I went! It was a phenomenal experience---difficult, exhilarating, frustrating, mysterious, exhausting, all at once. I am so glad I was there before the advent of the smartphone and even email! You're really tested on your wits, and I am so glad I had the very good fortune to have experienced being alone in a country where I couldn't even read the lettering for a good solid year.
Below is some writing inspired by Japan (I went back in 2011). This novel is still in the works!
One-Thousand Views of Wonder (Or, Dreams of God and Paper) ---the beginnings of a novel...
Enoshima shunbo (Spring in Enoshima. 1797)
Water is wonder in motion.
But it is so wild it won’t let itself be drawn.
A slight man in a forest-green kimono stares out into the sea. He stands on the beach of Shichirigahama, close to Enoshima Island, just south of Edo.
He stamps his feet into the sand, gripping the ground tightly with his open-toed sandals, for the wind seems to wish to lift him away.
And he doesn’t want that. He wants simply to study the sea, to marvel at the flowing veracity of waves, at their inexpressible ferocity and thundering grace.
I need to ride the tides. I need to learn the restless patience of water.
Sudden chatter interrupts his reflection. He turns, looks farther down the beach, in the direction of sandbanks baked metallic sage, streaked with inky earth.
To his left, Fuji-san reaches for the sky.
That is some comfort—even if I never know water well enough to draw her, I will always have Fuji-san.
Two women stroll along the beach, one in an ivory kimono flushed with soft flowers of gray, the other finely wrapped in cloth colored blood-red, liquid black. They stop to chat with a young girl carrying a baby on her back. A small child huddles at her side.
The women’s porter, bearing two golden baskets of goods—perhaps offerings for the shrine of Benten, the river-goddess of love, wealth, and snakes– stops, turns to watch his mistress’ conversation.
Off to the left, the sea swirls in primordial madness.
I have to attempt this. I have to capture the enigma of untamed water.
If not, I will lose the dream, that is reality.
Kyoto shimmers in springtime, a holy hallucination of gods.
A short, elderly man pushes a small cart alongside a tree-lined canal in Kyoto. He passes students, shopkeepers, even three curled-up cats colored chestnut and cream.
Shrines shine brightly, their graceful torii—simple gateways seemingly crafted from elegant brushstrokes—beckoning passerby to leave their earthly cares behind, and enter a higher realm.
The man is not interested in any holy places, at least not right now. He’s currently in hunt of a decidedly more earthly prey.
Ah. There. Finally.
A Western tourist—perhaps European, but most probably American. The man stops the brown-haired, slightly plump woman, and asks,
“Would you like to see? Paintings of Ginkakujin. Nanzen-ji. Kiyomizu. I am famous in Kyoto. Look—newspaper article on me.”
The woman smiles at this old Japanese man, with the sweet smile. She looks at his miniature paintings, comments, “These are very good.”
“Thank you,” replies the man, pointing to the newspaper article.
The tourist glances at the article. It’s a Kyoto newspaper—at least, she thinks so, and there is definitely a picture of this man, with his painting. But the article is in Japanese. She cannot read it.
She says, “Thank you for showing me your article.” And continues on her path.
“No thank you?” asks the man, smiling. “Bye-bye.” He keeps walking. He will meet another tourist soon. This is Kyoto, after all.
He keeps walking, until he arrives at an origami shop. Normally, he waves to the owner—a middle-aged, non-descript woman–but she is not here this week. A sign says the shop will reopen in the following week.
Suddenly, he stops.
Something is happening, he thinks. He looks around him. Do the bare branches of late winter quiver? Has he imagined it, or have birds suddenly taken shelter in the sky?
He reaches in his pocket, takes out an antique mirror, peers inside, as if seeking its answer.
The mirror reflects only a festival of washed golden light.
But he is not deceived.
He whispers one word to himself.
The gods lie hidden, in the sculpted hills of Higashiyama.
Unlike the ghosts.
A middle-aged nondescript woman stands in front of a locked origami shop. She looks up and down the Tetsugaku no Michi—the Philosopher’s Path.
She speaks softly, so softly not even her own shadow can hear her: Is that them? It must be.
I see them so clearly—okasan, with her neatly-trimmed white hair, white cotton sweaters, silver necklace. Always dressed so neatly in clean, pale shades.
And otosan. The white shirt, black trousers. Primary colors for a man whose primary focus in life was living off of the sea, in order to raise a family upon the land
his skin kindled from the heat of the earth; his blood cooled by the strength of the sea.
She brushes hair off her face. She used to love the wind, but finds it terrifying now.
She speaks to herself once more: There—I know that’s them. They race ahead of me, along the canal.
But why race? Okasan, Otosan, it’s me, your only daughter…
She sees her parents flying along the path as fast as life, stopping briefly in shrines to see the resplendent Kannon, the peaceful Amida Buddha. And they keep racing,
why don’t they stop for me? Okasan, Otosan, why do you leave me?
Do you not hear me?
The woman starts walking, faster and faster, upon the path. She race after them like light. They soon arrive at Nanzen-ji, the ancient temple of cypress and gold, housing the Buddha.
Nanzen-ji, built tens of thousands of days ago, in gratitude to a monk for banishing a ghost…
They don’t go inside the temple, however; they climb up a hill, above a ridge, where they spy a graveyard—
and somehow, water from the canal below rises up like a sea-dragon, submerging the temple, disintegrating the gravestones not into dust but into flecks of furious foam…
and in a single breath of the Buddha, the sea sweeps her parents away.
The woman stops running, catches her breath.
She looks up—
The sea slammed into her city, of Rikuzentakata. She was visiting her parents—
The sea swept them away. No—that is too graceful. The sea swallowed them. She had gone for a bicycle ride. Like she did every morning. A cool spring morning—the earth was breathing green into being. This woman as unnoticeable as a blade of grass was born in spring; that’s why her mother named her Midori, the flowering color of green.
Suddenly, a loudspeaker, “Leave. Run.”
She turned back home,
but her world had liquefied.
She is 47. Not a young girl.
But she still feels orphaned.
She holds her head in her hands, and thinks:
This monster of water flows within me.
She sees them all over Kyoto.
Not just her parents.
Sometimes she walks alongside the canal outside the origami shop, and spies a figure, clothed yet lit with spirit, fly into Ginkaku-jin. The temple built by a prince who intended to plate it with silver, yet died before he had the chance.
Inside Ginkaku-jin Kannon waits, the gentle bodhisattva of compassion. She imagines the figure slips inside the doors to the inner altar, knees trembling, phantom sweat showering upon the floor, as he asks,
Am I really dead?
No one else seems to see them, and she doesn’t understand why. At first she never imagined they were spirits, it was only when she saw one fly—
up a hill into the shrine of Honen-in. She couldn’t believe her eyes, at the way the evanescent, manifest, lifted like laughter off the ground—
and so she followed a woman, in a checkered shirt and jeans, fly into the burgeoning green of Honen, navigate her way through the deserted complex,
and fall at the feet of Amidha Buddha. Amida, who would take her to the Pure Land…
She approached the deathly devotee, wanting to ask her if she’d seen her parents, but the spirit flew away upon her arrival, just as a bird on a road flies away upon a car’s approach.
And she knew then, without doubt, that she could see the thousands who had died in the tsunami. She sees them all over Kyoto, falling at the feet of God before they depart—
She thinks: Why? Why do I see them?
And whispers: When I see thousands of dying souls, I wish I could leap off the earth and leave myself.