18. Just When I Stop Looking

I have long believed that the best way to find something is to stop looking for it. This aphorism, if you could call it one, applied not only to lost keys, but to missing people, as well.

And so, after the close call at the oppai pabu, I tried to put you out of my mind. Whenever you returned to my thoughts, I would dig my fingernail into the tender part just above my thumbnail until your image receded.[1] It might sound to you like a severe thing to do, but it was a technique I had learned years before to help rid my mind from negative thoughts, doubts, and fears, and it worked like a charm.

But then three months later, the unexpected happened.

One Sunday evening in November, the 16th to be precise, I was riding Kyōto’s Karasuma Line from Dōshisha University[2] back to Kyōto Station to catch the Shinkansen home.[3]

I’m not sure where you boarded the train—probably Karasuma Oike—but I noticed you as the train was pulling out of Shijō Station. A loud sneeze by a foreign tourist distracted me from the notes of the speech I had given earlier that day. Looking up, I saw you standing next to the exit, earbuds in your ears, staring vacantly out the darkened window.

Your hair had been cut above the shoulders and was now jet black. After watching you for over a year, play with your long hair, it took me by surprise to see your hair in such a severe, subdued style like that. But then, you had been with your company for only half a year; you probably had little choice in the matter. The style suited you, nevertheless. No matter what you did with your hair or what you wore, you always looked beautiful.

“Next stop, Gojō Station,” came the announcement.

Now or never, I thought.

For a moment I hesitated, Kana. Would you be happy to see me? Or would you be repulsed? Was that night at the farmhouse something to be cherished a year on, or something to be ashamed of?

I stood up, walked over to the exit and stood near you. When the train arrived at the station and the doors opened, you glanced to your right and saw me.

Oh, Sensei . . .”

“Kana.”

“How long have you been standing there?”

“Just a few seconds. I was sitting over there.”

As if in chorus we asked each other in Hakata-ben what we were doing here, in Kyōto of all places.[4]

We laughed at first, then explained in the little time that remained what had brought both of us to Kyōto. In your case, you had been transferred in October to fill in for a woman in the local office who had become pregnant and was now on maternity leave. It was any guess how long you would end up being in the city.

“How do you like it?”

You scrunched up your nose.

“Oh?”

“It’s not that I don’t like it. I do. There’s so much to see in and around the city. It’s just . . .” You looked around to see if anyone was listening and in a hushed tone continued: “The people tend to be a bit . . . gloomy.”

“This ain’t Hakata. That’s for sure.”[5]

You laughed.

“Kana, I would love nothing more than to talk to you, but . . . I have to run and catch the nine-ten Sinkansen back to Hakata.”

“Hakata.” The way you said it made the town sound like distant Shangri-La. “I wish I could come with you.”

It was so tempting to just say fuck it, but the next train would have gotten me home almost an hour later with no guarantee of a seat. I didn’t want to risk having to stand all the way back to Fukuoka.

Sensei, are you on Line?”

Line? Um, no.”

“No? How ‘bout Instagram?”

“No. I am on Facebook, though.”

The look in your face suggested that you weren’t on it. What was it about Facebook that turned so many young people off of it? Probably because it was populated with old farts like myself.

Then I remembered my business card from HIP.

“You can text me at my cellphone number here.”

You looked down at the card and with a quizzical look said: “Hippu?”

Hakata Ishin Purojekuto.”

“I see. But why on earth hippu?”

Hippu is what the Japanese sometimes call the “fanny”. A more common word for the buttocks is o-shiri.

“Our other name for the project was ‘The Old School Hakata Initiative to Restore Inheritance.’”

“Excuse me?”

“O. S. H. I. R. I.”

“O-S . . . ?”

“O. S. H. I. R. I., as in o-shiri.

And you laughed and laughed as if you hadn’t laughed for a dear long time. The hand with which you were covering you mouth came down, rested on my shoulder, and, as if to confirm that I was really there, gave it a slight squeeze that sent my heart racing.

Just then, the train pulled into Kyōto Station, yanking me back into reality.

“Are you getting off here?” I asked.

“Actually, no, but . . .”

“I see,” I said, stepping off the train and onto the platform. “Kana?”

Sensei?”

My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would explode. “I made a mistake that night and I’ve regretted it ever since.”

“A mistake?”

“I should have . . .” People were jostling to get onto the train, but I couldn’t have cared less. “I should have boarded that flight and taken off.”

“Flight?”

A chime announced that the doors of the train would soon be closing.

“I should have kissed you that night.”

Sensei, you’re in luck.”

“How’s that?”

“The flight has been delayed.”

And with that, the doors closed. I remained on the platform, frozen, watching the train disappear into the darkness of the tunnel.



[1] Paulo Coelho fans will recognize this technique from the author’s autobiographical The Pilgrimage.

[2] Founded in 1875, Dōshisha University is one of Japan’s oldest private colleges. The school’s attractive campus, which features a number of Meiji Period structures many of which have been designated as Important Cultural Properties in Japan, is located just north of Kyōto Gosho (京都御所), the Kyōto Imperial Palace.

[3] The Shinkansen (新幹線), also known as “bullet train”, is Japan’s network of high-speed railway lines. The trip from Kyōto to Hakata (Fukuoka) takes about three hours, give or take ten minutes depending on how many stops the train makes.

[4]  “I doubt most Anglophones appreciate how dramatically regional dialects can vary. Mind you, it’s not just a matter of accents, which betray a speaker’s origin like ‘shibboleth’ did in Biblical times, marking my Dad as having hailed from Dublin, my mother from Cork. No, I’m talking about huge variations from region to region in grammar, phrasing, and vocabulary that make the sundry dialects sound as if they are distinct languages in their own right.

“It was frustrating enough when I first began studying Japanese to discover that the phrases in my textbook that I had gone to the trouble of memorizing were seldom used in situ

“Listen: A simple question like ‘What are you doing?’ ought to be straight- forward, right? Well, my good-for-nothing textbook taught me to utter the following mouthful: ‘Anata-wa nani-o shite-imasuka?’ Had I ever managed to get that doosie to roll properly off my tongue, my curiosity might have been duly answered. The trouble is, it’d be as natural as jogging on the beach in clunky ski boots. Your average Tarō, after all, usually rattles off a curt ‘Nani shiteru no?’ or something close to it.

“When I figured this out, I wasted little time taking my Sensei aside and telling her to please, please, please throw politeness out the window and start teaching me real, living, breathing Nihongo rather than the embalmed and entombed Japanese she had been inflicting on me. I don’t care what the old Japan hands say; a little confrontation can go a long way.

“With time and encouragement, my very square Sensei mended her stubbornly proper ways, but, even then, she took great pains to warn against using casual Japanese too lightly. ‘You must never cause offence by saying something inappropriate,’ she’d instruct sternly as if her very reputation were at stake. I’d remind Sensei to let her hair down because this wasn’t the Edo Period anymore. A samurai wasn’t going to lop off my head because I had dis’d him.

“No sooner had I got phrases like ‘Nani shiteru no?’ under my belt than I moved to neighboring Fukuoka and slammed up against an unexpected brick wall: the local dialect known as Hakata-ben. Suddenly, it was as if everyone around me were speaking in tongues. If a Fukuokan wanted to know what I was doing, he didn’t ask, ‘Nani shiteru no?’ He said, ‘Nan shiyoh to?’ or ‘Namba shiyotto?’ or even ‘Nan shon?’

“In a matter of six months, I’d gone from ‘Anata-wa nani-o shite-imasuka?’ to ‘Nan shiyō to?’ Let me tell you, Italian and Portuguese couldn’t be more different from each other.”  Excerpt from A Woman’s Nails.

[5] As one might be expected from a country of with different climates and terrains like Japan, there are regional differences, not only in how people speak—the dialects mentioned above—but also in the character of the people living there. The Japanese call this kenminsei (県民性), or “the character of the people of a prefecture”.

Go barhopping across the country, as I—hic!—often do, and you will quickly notice the difference. People in Tōkyō are surprisingly friendly, much more so than the people of Fukuoka. But in Fukuoka, people tend to be more animated, louder. At a bar in Fukuoka, there will be a lot of cross-communication among strangers. The laughter will be much more full-throated.

In Nagoya, I have found, people tend to be quieter, speaking in hushed tones to those next to them. There is little intermingling with strangers. Kyōto, too, is withdrawn and subdued, almost dark, like this—very different from the drunken roar, punctuated by bursts of laughter, in neighboring extrovert haven Ōsaka.

15. HAKATA RESTORATION PROJECT

The new school year started in April, and for the first time in, well, forever, my heart just wasn’t into my work.

It should have been.

See, for a number of years I had been trying to convince the city and prefecture of Fukuoka to put more effort into preserving what little remained of the buildings and houses which dated back to the prewar years. Just when I was at the point of giving up, I got a letter from the mayor’s office, requesting my participation in a conference on beautification and urban planning.

Finally, I thought.

Not wanting to blow the opportunity, I spent the next several weeks with my seminar students putting together some concrete proposals on how to not merely “beautify” the city—what does that mean, really? One guy’s idea of beauty is another one’s eyesore—but add value back into properties that had lost it through poor planning, urban flight, and stupid neglect. Knowing the city would only move once it realized there was actually money to be made by preserving buildings, we set out to prove that our proposals would be a boon for the city’s bush-league tourism industry.

Our main proposal was to first restore the sandō[1] approach to Kushida Shrine and Hakata-dōri, the avenue which passes before the shrine, to their original machiya style. The city had already done it on a very limited scale with a museum called the Hakata Machiya Furusato-kan. Under our plan, the city would expand upon that, restoring the machiya that remained, building new machiya style buildings on existing parking lots in the area, and encouraging the local building and business owners to remodel their facades to better fit in with the original mood and style of the neighborhood. Finally, any new construction in the area would have to conform to new strict design guidelines, something most Japanese cities sorely lack.

My chief concern was that the city would take up the proposal, build a token number of prefab-like structures in the “machiya-style”, and then, content with what it had done, let it all fall to ruin. So, to not only make the area look like Hakata once did, but also feel like the old Hakata, we proposed that the city should invite all the traditional artisans and craftsmen—the Hakata doll makers, the Hakata textile makers, the magemono craftsmen, the blacksmiths, makers of o-hajiki, and so on—to come and open ateliers in the newly renovated area. Until now, they—that is, the few artisans who continued to ply their trades—were scattered throughout the city, pining away in shabby little workshops that were usually overlooked by passersby. And because so many of the traditional arts were not being taken over by the younger generation—because the crafts had been customarily carried on by family members, and the sons and daughters of craftsmen today preferred to become salarymen and OLs—we also proposed the creation of a vocational school on the grounds of the old Reisen Elementary School, which had closed over ten years before, to train and license takumi, or master craftsmen, and women—namely, something along the line of what Germany has done so successfully with its Meister program. The school would act as a community college and life-long learning center that would foster not only these traditional arts as hobbies, but also offer conversation classes in the local dialect, customs and history, and provide a place for children to learn traditional games, known as mukashi asobi, and so on.

So much of Japan, I had long lamented was beginning to look, sound, and feel like “Anywhere, Japan”. Here was a chance to demonstrate to the rest of country, and the world, that Hakata wasn’t just another city, but a unique brand, a place to be proud of, a place that more and more people would want to visit or live in.

As expected, there were loud, influential voices advancing the harebrained idea to reconstruct Fukuoka Castle. Why harebrained? Well, for one, no one really knew for sure what the old castle looked like—there were no drawings or photos left of it—and, two, the cost involved in building what would end up being another concrete “monsterment” would be too large. Three, once built the city would invariably welsh on its promise to provide adequate funds to maintain it. And, four, it was doubtful that many people would actually go out of their way to visit the castle beyond the first year of initial curiosity. Kumamoto Castle, considered one of Japan’s Three Great Castles,[2] received one and a half million visitors a year. Nothing to sneeze at, but, by comparison, Kokura Castle in neighboring Kitakyūshū had less than 20,000 visitors a year. Time and time again, city officials all over Japan were learning that even if you did build it, no one would come.

No, here was an attempt to build at a modest cost something that would attract not only tourists from all over, but residents alike. And revitalizing those two streets would only be the beginning. Once the idea caught on, then it would breathe new life not just into the area, but into the arts, and in the culture of Hakata, as well. It was a no-brainer. Well, to me at least it was. The challenge, though, lay in convincing the city’s grandees.

And so, with my students’ help, we put together a well-researched, well-designed presentation, and gave it all in Hakata-ben.

To my surprise, the idea was not only taken up unanimously, but I was hired on as a modestly paid consultant to the project that would encompass much of the Reisen-machi neighborhood,[3] and initially run for ten years.

I should have been ecstatic, but in reality, I was overcome by a rare feeling of melancholy. At the party, celebrating our proposal’s success, I looked at my seminar students, who had all done a fantastic job—I was proud of them, every one of them—but I still wished you were with us, sitting across from me, our feet touching under the table.


 

[1] Sandō (参道) is a road leading up to a shrine or temple, the point of origin of which is usually marked by a torii (鳥居, lit. “bird abode”) in the case of a Shintō shrine and sanmon (山門, lit. “mountain gate”) in the case of a Buddhist temple. Tōkyō’s famous Omotesandō literally means “the front approach” to Meiji-jingū (shrine).

[2] The Three Great Castles in Japan (三名城, Sanmeijō, lit. “Three Famous Castles”) are, according to some, Nagoya Castle, Ōsaka Castle or Himeji Castle, and Kumamoto Castle. At one time, there may have been as many as 5,000 castles in Japan. Today, however, there are about one hundred, only twelve of which are considered originals. Himeji is one of them.

[3] The Reisen-machi neighborhood (冷泉町, also pron. “Reizen”) of Hakata is a block .062 square kilometers, or 15.3 acres in size, which is bisected the sandō approach to Kushida Shrine. Today it is home to a number of small, minor temples and several hotels and inns.

14. Reversible Destiny

During the spring break, I took my family to Tōkyō for a week, staying at the Reversible Destiny Lofts, a concept apartment building in Mitaka.[1]

While the main reason for going was to provide my sons with a unique living experience, something I have tried to do with them every year. We also took time each day doing the usual touristy things, such as visiting Tōkyō Disneyland, the Ueno Zoo, the newly renovated Tōkyō Station, and the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka.[2]

No matter where I went, though, I found myself looking for you. In the rush-hour hordes at Shinjuku Station, among the weekend shoppers in the warrens of Shibuya and Harajuku, in the lines snaking outside of Disneyland attractions, at the art museums of Roppongi, among the midday bustle of Marunouchi and Midtown . . . I scoured the city for you.

The thing was, I had stopped trusting fate long ago. Never once had it reunited me with that first Japanese love of mine, Mié, even though the two of us lived for decades in what was, and still is, for all intents and purposes a relatively small town.[3]

Yet, no matter how hard I looked I could find neither hide nor hair of you anywhere. Each evening I would return to the Reversible Destiny Lofts, defeated and convinced that destiny could not be reversed no matter how determined I was to nudge it along.


[1] The Reversible Destiny Lofts, built by architects and artists Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins in 2005, is a concept apartment building featuring two- and three-room circular apartments, with a kitchen in the center and brightly painted cubical and spherical rooms on the circumference. The floors are uneven and bumpy, treacherously so. There are hooks and poles throughout allowing residents to “play” with the apartment by hanging hammocks or bars from them. While not the most comfortable of places to stay, it is certainly interesting.

[2] The Ghibli Museum in Mitaka is highly recommended for fans of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

[3] For more on this, read A Woman’s Nails or A Woman’s Hand.


10. The Second Night

When I woke the following morning, I found you in the kitchen brewing a pot of coffee.

“How did you sleep?” I asked.

“Like a baby. Thank you for . . .”

“Don’t mention it.”

“It’s really nice here,” you said, placing a hot mug of coffee before me. “Do you like it with sugar and milk?”

“With milk and sugar is exactly how I like it.”

“Me, too.”

“Thank you.”

“So, do you often bring students here?”

“Often? No.”

“That’s a shame.”

“But I try to do this weekend camp every autumn.”

“I wish you had brought us here earlier.”

“Oh?”

“It’s so peaceful in the morning.”

“It is,” I said, taking a sip of the coffee. Hmm, not bad.

“A place like this, you can really forget your troubles.”

“Troubles? You’ve got troubles?”

“Who doesn’t in this day and age?”

“True. So, what’s eating you the most?”

“Job-hunting.”[1]

“Oh?”

“The company I was hoping to work for never called me back for a final interview . . .”

“Sorry to hear . . .”

“It’s okay. I had offers at two other companies and now I can’t decide which one to take.”

“Perhaps I can help.”

“Okay, Sensei. What would you do then if you were offered a job with a smaller design-related company here in Hakata or a major general construction company in Tōkyō?”

“I guess it would depend on the nature of the work, the possibilities for the future, the people I was going to work with . . .”

“Exactly, but . . .”

“But what? What’s holding you back from either?”

“Well, one is too big and the other is too small.”

“And the company you were hoping to work at was . . .”

“Just right.”

“Ah, Goldilocks.”

“Excuse me? Gorudy-what?”

“Goldilocks.” And so, I related to you the fairy tale of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.

“Just right,” you said again with a sigh.

“What are the drawbacks, then, of either company?”

“The size of the local company is a real turnoff. I have sempai[2] working for smaller companies and they never seem to have any time off. They like what they do, of course, but they normally don’t finish work until ten, eleven at night. My father died from karōshi.[3] The last thing I want to do is work myself to death, too. I want to have a life outside of my job; you know, that work-life balance people are talking about.”

“I hear you. And the larger company?”

“The work would probably be less interesting, but the benefits would be better. The chances for promotion and travel are better, too. And, if I didn’t like it, I could always quit and work for a smaller company. It’s more difficult the other way around.”

“True. So, what’s stopping you?”

“Tōkyō.”

“Tōkyō?”

“I’d have to live in Tōkyō.”

“Tōkyō’s fun! Why wouldn’t you want to live there?”

“I’ve lived my whole life here in Fukuoka. This is all I know. I mean, what would you do?”

I put my coffee mug down. “You’re asking someone who left his hometown to move almost halfway around the world and never once looked back. Tōkyō’s only an hour and a half away by plane. It’s not like you’d be living on the moon.”

And with that, the others, still muddled from last night’s binge, started to drag themselves out of the bedrooms into the kitchen.

After breakfast, we spent the morning doing odd repairs, such as repapering the shōji doors, chopping wood—something which none of you had ever done before—and cleaning out the kura storehouse,[4] which I was going to convert into a shosai, or private library. Later in the day, a sakan shokunin, or a plaster craftsman, came in to begin work on the kura. He showed us how to scrape the top layer of plaster down to the shitanuri, or inner layer of clay, first with gennō hammers and then with a scraping bar.

By the time we had finished three hours later, we were all covered in two hundred-year-old dust and straw. Squeezing into back of the plasterer’s minivan, we drove to a nearby supā-sentō bathhouse[5] to clean up and have dinner. Then, it was back to the old farmhouse to finish off the bottles of imo jōchū and nihonshu we had opened the night before.

Like the previous night, you and I were the last two up. And, once again, you came to where I was sitting on the engawa and asked me if I would read to you. I could tell, though, a bedtime story that was not really what you wanted from me.

As I read, you rolled over toward me and rested your head on my thigh, facing upward. I put the book down and slowly, timidly placed my arm across your chest, my hand on your shoulder.

I remember feeling unsure of myself, eager and yet terrified of what might happen.

“Last July . . .” you began.

“Yeah?”

“Last July, when we went to Kitsuki and got caught in the rain and took shelter under the eaves of that old samurai house . . .” And, pausing, you took my hand and placed in on your breast. “I wanted you to kiss me.”

I could feel that you were not wearing a bra; your breast was firm, the nipple hard under my ring finger.

I tried to speak, but my throat was too dry. The words tumbled out: “I, um, wanted to, but that . . . that damn official. What timing! If only . . .”

And you held my hand tightly against your breast and raised your chin as if to invite me to finish my words with action. I leant down to kiss you, but as I did the image of my wife crying and my sons’ faces twisted in pain flashed for a second through my mind, and I hesitated.

Sensei?”

My hand relaxed.

“What’s the matter, Sensei?”

“Everything,” I sighed.

“But . . . I love you.”

But so does my wife, so do my children . . .

I removed my hand, reluctantly I should confess, from your breast, and straightened up.

“I can’t . . . As much as I want to . . . I can’t . . . I shouldn’t.

“Don’t you like me?”

“I do. More than you know it, I do. I have liked you and wanted you ever since you first came to my office last year.”

“Then why stop now?”

“You must believe me when I tell you that stopping is the hardest thing for me to do.”

And then I lied. I told you I hesitated for your sake when in fact it was fear that was holding me back. Mind you, not the fear that my wife would find out. Rather, the fear that the full force of karma would come crashing down on me and rob me of everything—my content, my happiness, my success, my family . . .

Sensei?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you a man of your word?”

“I like to think that I am.”

“Then promise me one thing.”

“Promise you what?”

“I’m probably going to take that job in Tōkyō, after all, meaning that come late March, I will have to move away from here. I may return every now and again for the holidays, but . . .” Your words trailing off, you pushed yourself up off of the floor, then knelt before me. “If we ever happen to meet, say, in Tōkyō, or here,  or even in Kanazawa . . . What I mean to say is, if fate deems it right for us to be together, kiss me then. Promise me that.”

What did I have to lose?

“I promise,” I said.

And with that, you stood up, and, never once looking back towards me to give me a second chance I would have surely taken, disappeared into your room. The sound of the fusuma closing behind you resonated like regret.


 

[1] Much of the fourth year of a college student’s life in Japan is occupied with job-hunting. In 2015, there was an effort to shorten the job-hunting season by having it start in the spring, or the first semester of the last year of college, and finish by late summer, but many companies had difficulty making hiring decisions in a timely manner. In 2016, the government relented and permitted companies to start the multi-stage hiring process a few months earlier.

              In 2014, the old system was still in place, whereby third year students like Kana would begin investigating companies near the end of the second (autumn) semester, have interviews the following spring, in the first semester of their fourth and final year, and receive job offers as early as July or as late as autumn.

[2] Sempai (先輩) is an upperclassman or someone senior in age who acts as a mentor. This mentor system can be seen in all levels of education, sports, business, and other organizations. Even children in kindergarten use the term sempai when referring to children older or cleverer than themselves.

[3] Karōshi (過労死, literally, “excess”, ka + “labor”, + “death”, shi) is death caused by overwork or job-related exhaustion.

[4] Kura (倉or蔵) is a traditional Japanese storehouse usually built with a wooden frame and thick fire-proof walls made of bamboo lathing and clay.

[5] A sentō is a public bath, typically located in an older residential area. A supā-sentō or “super sentō” is a much larger facility offering a variety of spas, baths, Jacuzzis, saunas, and so on. Where the smaller sentō are something of a dying breed, the supā-sentō have been growing in popularity.


The first installment/chapter of Tears can be found here.

This and other works are, or will be, available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.

9. At the farmhouse

Once a year, usually in early autumn when the weather tends to be cool and dry, I invite my seminar students to a two-hundred-plus-year-old farmhouse I own in the countryside just west of Fukuoka city.

Despite the grave reservations of my wife, I went ahead and purchased the house which had been in shambles after years of neglect. I knew it had potential, though.

“It’s a fixer-upper,” I insisted, using a word that could not be translated into Japanese. If the typical house in Japan lost all its value after only fifteen years or so, a house that was over two-hundred years would surely be a money pit.

Sitting on twenty-five hundred tsubo (坪) or about two acres of land,[1] the farmhouse was built in a traditional style with a hardened earthen floor called doma (土間) at the entrance, an internal veranda, or hiroshiki (広敷), covered with thick planks of hardwood flooring, and a hearth called an irori (囲炉裏) in the center of the room. There were exposed beams of sturdy, good-quality timber throughout; the lumber alone made purchasing the house a no-brainer to me.

The purpose of those weekend camps was to, one, reinforce what I had been trying to instill in the students—namely, the notion that old didn’t have to mean uncomfortable or inconvenient; two, demonstrate how modern architecture and convenience could be tastefully incorporated into traditional design; and, three, introduce the students to traditional modes of carpentry and home maintenance.

One year, for instance, I invited a craftsman to show the students how to make clay walls. (I had to bring the craftsman back in half a year later to redo the wall the students had made because the quality was so poor, but the kids had fun all the same.) Another year, we helped thatch the roof of a neighboring farmhouse. As far as I know, the roof does not leak. I could be wrong, though.

After several years of renovation projects, the old house had become a source of pride, and had been written up by several magazines and papers. Even my wife came to see the sense in my having bought it and now enjoyed taking the boys out one weekend every month to let them run around and get their “yayas” out.

In the summer months, our boys collect insects and frogs, climb trees in a nearby forest, and help the neighbors plant rice. In the autumn, they return to help harvest the rice, and to pick the fruits and vegetables grown by some farmers to whom I leased the arable land for free in order to keep the farmland in use.

 

My seminar class and I arrived at the farmhouse on a Friday evening. After everyone had settled into their rooms, we came together in the kitchen and prepared dinner: a nabé hot pot made of thin slices of pork, kimchi, hakusai (napa cabbage), and tōfu that was flavored with miso, ground sesame, ginger, kochujang paste, chives, chicken bouillon, and nihonshu or saké.[2]

We drank imo jōchū,[3] nihonshu, and beer as we cooked, drank as we ate, drank as we cleaned up, and continued drinking late into the evening. One by one students retired to their rooms, but you remained, tidying up after the others had had passed out or gone to bed. When you finished putting the last of the dishes into the dishwasher, you came to where I sat cross-legged on the engawa, reading.[4]

“Do you read to your children?” you asked, sitting down next to me.

“I do. Or at least I try to every day. Why?”

“My father never read to me.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“He never had the time.”

“No time? It doesn’t take much . . .”

“He always came home late from work, long after I’d gone to bed. And on the weekends, he slept all day. Come to think of it, the only memories I have of my father are of him sleeping.”

“Surely, you talk to him from time to . . .”

“He’s dead.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“It’s okay. It’s not as if there was anything to miss.”

There was a blunt frankness to the way you spoke that I always admired—so different from the typical young Japanese woman—but this water ran a little too cold.

“How old were you when he passed away?”

“Ten? Eleven? I don’t remember exactly, but what I do remember was seeing him in the casket, a halo of flowers around his head, and thinking how at peace he looked, like he was in the deepest, most comfortable sleep. He died from overwork, they say. The company paid some compensation to my mother, but it was really only a token amount . . . I don’t really want to talk about it. Read to me. Read to me, Sensei.”

So, I read to you. Do you remember what I read? You probably don’t. I read to you from the English translation of Endō Shūsaku’s Chinmoku (Silence).

And as I read, you fell asleep. I put the book down and looked at you, the way the shadows from a paper lantern played on your features. I wanted to kiss you, but I didn’t dare.

Instead, I picked you up, as I often do with my own children, and carried you inside, laying you down on the sofa and placed a kaké-buton quilt over you, a pillow under your head.[5]

And as I turned the light off, you murmured in your sleep, “O-yasumi, Tōchan.”[6]


[1] One tsubo (坪) is equivalent to 3.306 square meters or 3.954 square yards. One acre equals 1,224.1 tsubo. Before metric was adopted in 1924, the Japanese used a traditional system of measurement called Shakkan-hō (尺貫法) which was Chinese in origin. It was officially adopted in Japan in 701. Today Shakkan-hō is still used in real estate and farming.

One tsubo is equal to the area covered by two standard tatami mats, laid side by side. The area covered by a single tatami mat is called one (畳), and measures 1.653 square meters or 1.979 square yards. Rooms in Japanese homes are measured in . A standard six- room will have the same area as that of a traditional Japanese-style room covered with six tatami mats.

Keep in mind that the size of tatami mats can vary from region to region. In Kyōto, where tatami are larger and measure 0.96m by 1.91m, they are referred to as Kyōma (京間) tatami. Tatami in the Nagoya region, which measure 0.91m by 1.82m, are called ainoma (合の間, lit., “in-between”) tatami. It is one of these ai-no-ma tatami that equals one (畳), and measures 1.653m2. Two ai-no-ma tatami, side by side, equal one tsubo (坪). And, in the Kantō region, Edoma (江戸間) or Kantōma (関東間) tatami are smaller, measuring 0.88 m by 1.76 m. Got that? There may be a test later.

[2] In Japanese, the word saké (酒) can refer to any alcoholic drink. If you order “saké” in Kagoshima, for example, you will be served imo jōchū (shōchū made from sweet potatoes); in Okinawa you will be served awamori (a clear liquor made by distilling long-grained rice from Thailand). Nihonshu (日本酒, lit. “Japanese liquor”) is the rice wine most Westerners are familiar with.

[3] Imo jōchū (芋焼酎) is a distilled beverage primarily from Kagoshima prefecture (Satsuma) that is made from sweet potatoes (which are known outside of Kagoshima as satsuma imo). There are many different kinds of shōchū produced in Japan, the chief ingredient of which—be that barely (mugi), rice (komé), buckwheat (soba), brown sugar (kokutō) or even chestnuts, sesame seeds, and so on—depends on the region in which it is made.

[4] An engawa (縁側) is the wooden strip of flooring just outside the windows and wooden storm shutters of a traditional Japanese home. It is protected from rain and snow by the overhanging hisashi (庇) or eaves.

[5] A shiki-buton (敷き布団) is the thick cotton mattress that is laid out on the tatami floor and on which you sleep. The duvet-like quilt that covers you is called a kaké-buton (掛け布団).

[6]O-yasumi, Tō-chan” (おやすみ、父ちゃん) means “Good night, Daddy”.


The first installment/chapter of Tears can be found here.

This and other works are, or will be, available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.

6. Agéman

Things couldn’t have been going better for me when the new school year started in April of 2013.[1]

Ever since I got married, that is remarried in 2004, everything from my professional life to my family life had been on the up and up. It was as if I had hit a trajectory sweet spot that had kept me orbiting in the thermosphere.

Listen: when my Eiko and I were dating, she used to assert that she was my agéman, and that if I were to marry her, my luck would only get better and better.

Agéman[2] is show business jargon in the Kansai[3] region and refers to a woman who brings good fortune to the man who sleeps with her. Now, I’m not the superstitious type, but judging by the way things developed after Eiko and I married, it was not difficult to be persuaded that she was indeed my agéman. More importantly, I started to convince myself that my luck would change for the worse if ever I were to sleep with a sagéman, namely, a woman the sex with whom precipitated a reversal of fortune.

And, no, don’t get me wrong here: I am not thinking about you.

 

That spring, you may remember, I was involved in a number of encouraging research projects. I had also recently secured a big increase in funds that was going to allow me to bring more people on board and expand the scope of that research. My class load and committee duties were lighter than usual. But, best of all, the students in my seminar, you included, seemed like a fun bunch. (Let me tell you, Kana, nothing makes a year pass more slowly than when you’ve got a seminar full of wet blankets.)

One of our projects during the year was what I called “Rural Revival”, a word none of the students, except you, were able to pronounce.

“Travel to Europe . . .,” I began my lecture. “Have any of you been? You have? Where?”

“Paris,” one student said.

“And you?” I asked a young man.

“Rondon.”

“Rondon?”

Hai, Rondon.”

“Repeat after me: L-L-L-London.”

“R-R-R-Rondon.”

“Never mind. So, you’ve been to London. Anywhere else?”

“Ribapooru.”

Sigh.

“So, have any of you been to the countryside in Europe?”

As expected, none had. It was at this point that I began to show a short video that included clips from one of my favorite travel programs, NHK’s Sekai Fureai Machi Aruki.[4] First, were scenes from Castle Combe, a small village of about three hundred people that has some beautifully maintained stone houses dating back centuries.

“Fifteenth century, everyone. What does that coincide with in Japan’s history? Anyone . . . ? Anyone . . . ? Anyone . . . No one? It coincides with Japan’s Warring States Period.[5] These houses are older than the Nishi and Higashi Honganji temples in downtown Kyōto. Think about that for a moment.”

I paused the video and asked the students to note how well-preserved the buildings and houses were.

“Also, note the lack of billboards, the lack of structures that stand out and spoil the view . . . Were this Japan, there would be signs everywhere. Old shops would be shuttered up, the houses, if not abandoned, would be covered with plastic siding, there would be rusting billboards advertising Oronamin C . . .”[6]

The students laughed.

“Except for the road running through town, there isn’t anything that looks out of place. ‘But it’s so old,’ you might say. Yes! And that’s where the value comes from. You couldn’t build something like this today. Now, if you were to go inside and you’d find that these houses have all the modern conveniences . . . For the most part. They probably don’t have washlets, but, well, you can’t have everything, can you?”

More laughter.

“But, they are comfortable. They are warm in the winter and cool in the summer, all without having ugly air conditioning units outside and tubes running along the side. You don’t see any telephone wires or electric cables, either. Do these people live by whale oil and candlelight? Of course not! Again, the cables and wires are all buried so as to not spoil the view. Keep these things in mind. Today, this small village has tourists by the thousands on weekends. People who want to walk its streets, sleep at its inns, drink tea at its tea houses, beer at its pubs . . .”

In the next clip, I showed Collonges-la-Rouge, a small medieval village, also of about four hundred people, located in south central France, that was chosen as one of the most beautiful villages in France.

“The buildings of this town are built entirely of red sandstone, hence the name which means ‘The Red Commune’. Some of the structures are six hundred years old, yet, when properly renovated, can sell for over fifty million yen.”[7]

One student whistled.

“That’s four or five times more expensive that what you would have to pay for a used home built a mere twenty years ago in, say, Yufuin.[8] And, unlike a house in Yufuin, which is for all intents and purposes worthless,[9] the house in Collonges-la-Rouge will keep its value. Better yet, the value will continue to increase over time.”

Next, I presented some photos from the American city of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“In nineteen twelve. Think about that: nineteen twelve! Before the Second World War! Before the First World War! The municipal government worried that Santa Fe was doomed to look like ‘Anywhere, USA’—one more generic city among hundreds and thousands of humdrum cities in America. So, they put in place a building code, such that buildings had to be constructed with certain elements: rough, exposed beams called vigas—these here, here, and here—rain spouts called canales; and earth-tone stucco walls, or adobe. The city leaders had amazing vision and foresight one hundred years ago. A hundred years! In nineteen fifty-seven, the city passed another rule, an ordinance, requiring new and rebuilt homes to have the Pueblo or Spanish Territorial style. Even motels and hamburger joints are built in the local style. Thanks to that, the city thrives today as a center for tourism and art. Had the city’s leaders let Santa Fe continue down the same old path of ‘development and modernization’, why, the name Santa Fe wouldn’t inspire us the way it does today.”

Moving on, I showed you all a video I had made from a recent trip to McMinnville, Oregon.

“McMinnville, like many villages here in Japan, was small and sleepy farming town. The population was about ten thousand in nineteen-seventy. There was a central ‘downtown’ area with the usual mom-and-pop shops, diners, and so on. It wasn’t the kind of place that people visited, because there really wasn’t anything to do there. Growing up in Oregon myself, McMinnville was little more than a name on the weather map to me. But then something happened to transform the area.

“In the nineteen seventies, winemakers from the Napa Valley in California started migrating to Oregon, attracted by cheap, abundantly available, and fertile farm land. In nineteen-seventy, there were five commercial wineries. Today, there are over three hundred, and McMinnville is the de facto capital of that industry. At about thirty-three thousand people, the population is still small, but it is growing at a steady clip. The town, as you can see from the video, is vibrant. The shops are not shuttered. Imagine that! New money is coming in and renovating old buildings like this one, The Hotel Oregon, which is now owned a local micro-brewing giant. People travel from all over the state and all over the U.S. to McMinnville to eat and drink and drink and drink and drink . . .”

The classroom burst out in laughter.

“Now, the reason I am showing you this is to make a simple point: if fat, lazy, and stupid gaijin[10] are able to do this, what’s stopping the Japanese? Why are small towns here so lifeless? Why have so many of them given up? And of those which haven’t, why do they continue to cling to silly notions that if only we were to build some grand monument—what I like to call ‘Monsterments’—people will want to come to our town?”

It was at this point that I explained what I wanted to you all to do.

We would be focusing on three towns in Kyūshū, towns that had potential but were frittering that potential away either through inaction or ineffective policies. It would be the seminar’s assignment to come up with proposals for marketing, industry, town renovation, product design, and so on. The best proposals would be developed later in teams and then presented to the towns pro bono. Whether they took them up or not depended on how much foresight they had. Experience taught me that they often had none.

“The first town on our hit list is Kitsuki, Ōita. Have any of you been there?”

None of you had.

“Have any of you heard of the place?”

A few hands, including yours, were raised unenthusiastically.

“Well, never fear, you will be getting to know the town very, very well over the next few months. I want you to block off Sunday, May twelfth. Tell your boss at your part-time job, your friends and family that you will be busy that day. Kitsuki is two and a half hours away by train. We will be leaving bright and early in the morning—and, don’t worry, I will be providing your tickets—your grade will suffer if you cancel less than twenty-four hours before our departure. Seriously. No groaning. I don’t want to hear any baloney like ‘I’ve got a headache . . .’ I’m on to you guys.”

You laughed and our eyes met and something sparked deep within me.

“Trust me, this is going to be a lot of fun. We will be making the trip three times between now and the end of the summer break. I want all of you to go at least two times. Got that? Two times.”

And then I assigned all of you your homework: find out what you could about the cities of Kitsuki, Ōita prefecture, Yamé, Fukuoka prefecture, and Ureshino, Saga prefecture.

 

[1] Japan is unique in that its academic year begins in April. Countries in the southern Hemisphere generally start their school years in or around January; in the north, around September. Incidentally, some 70% of the world follows the September to early summer pattern. In Taiwan and China, the school year begins in September; in Korea, from March 2; and in Thailand, in May. The Japanese school year is based upon the fiscal year (April to March), which was adopted from accounting practices in the U.K., Canada, Denmark, India, and so on.

[2] Agéman (上げまん) is show business jargon and refers to a woman who will bring good fortune to a man if he has sex with her. Agé means to raise up and man (Pronounce it like a Jamaican, mahn.) is a diminutive of manko which is Japanese slang for the female genitalia. A woman who brings bad luck to the man with whom she has sex is known as a sagéman (下げまん). The male equivalent of agéman is agéchin with chin (sounds like “cheen”) meaning penis.

              A comic satire film titled “Agéman” (English title: Tales of a Golden Geisha) was released in 1990. Directed by the satirist Itami Jūzō, it tells the story of a “geisha” who brings luck to the men with whom she sleeps. For many Japanese, this was their first introduction to the word agéman.

[3] Kansai (関西) refers to the southern-central region of Japan comprised of Mie, Nara, Wakayama, Kyōto, Ōsaka, Hyōgo, and Shiga prefectures. Kansai, and particularly Ōsaka, is famous for, among other things, its comedians and entertainers.

[4] Sekai Fureai Machi Aruki (世界ふれあい街歩き), also known as “Somewhere Street” on NHK World is an excellent travel program offering a “close-up look at cities worldwide, as seen by a walking tourist. Viewers visit places off the beaten path, meet ordinary people, and enjoy a travel experience that’s only possible on foot.” It’s must-see TV. And that’s coming from someone who hardly ever watches television.

[5] The Warring States Period, or Sengoku Jidai (戦国時代), is a period of Japanese history marked by political intrigue and constant military conflict. It lasted from about 1467 to 1603, or the start of the Edō Period.

[6] Oronamin C Drink (オロナミンCドリンク, Oronamin Shī Dorinku) is a carbonated beverage produced by Otsuka Chemical Holdings. Its main ingredient is vitamin C. In the Japanese countryside, it is not unusual to find dilapidated houses with old billboards advertising the drink nailed to their walls.

[7] Fifty million yen equates to about 444,000 euro or $480,000.

[8] Yufuin, part of Yufu City in Ōita prefecture, is a small town, famous for its natural hot spring spas.

[9] Houses in Japan are said to lose their value fifteen years after construction. This is one reason why homes are torn down and rebuilt rather than renovated. For more on this, read “Obstacles to Affluence: Thoughts on Japanese Housing”.

[10] Gaijin (外人, lit. “outside person”) is, some would argue, a derogatory term for non-Japanese residents and visitors in Japan. Some foreigners living in Japan even claim that gaijin is the equivalent of the n-word. I disagree. Gaijin is short for gaikokujin (lit. outside country person), a word which was said to be first used by Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901), an author, educator, and translator, who founded Japan’s oldest institute of higher education, Keio University. As a translator, it was probably Fukuzawa who introduced and popularized the term gaikokujin in early Meiji Period (1868-1912), a word which was directly translated from the English “foreigner”, which originated from Latin via Old French and meant “outside + person”. For more on this, consult the Nihon Kokugo Daijiten (日本国語大辞典) published by Shogakukan.