THE FOLLOWING YEAR they went to Japan.
In the night they landed at Kansai Airport, then took a train to Shin-Osaka. In the morning, after an early breakfast, they took the fast train to Okayama and then changed for an omnibus to Matsuyama. In Matsuyama, in front of the station, they took a taxi to the hotel where they had booked a western-style room. They thought of walking, but it was raining lightly and he felt that it was not worth their while hauling their big suitcase in the rain, even though the hotel didn’t seem far on the map. The hotel was not far from the station but further than they expected, and the cab fare came to almost a thousand yen. During the ride he looked at the map of the city and recognised which avenue they were turning into and the park where the Ehime Museum of Art was hidden. He pointed out to his wife the upper roof of the castle, Matsuyama-Jo, barely visible in the trees and mist on top of the hill, behind the park. They turned off into another avenue –where the hotel was, he told his wife – and left the park and castle behind them.
Their room was very small. He lifted the suitcase onto the bed and they emptied its contents into the wardrobe and onto the bathroom’s faux-marble bench. What they didn’t put away in the wardrobe or bathroom they put on the desk: books he had brought with him and recent issues of the New Yorker he had not had the time to read when, in the evenings, he researched their Japan holiday.
His wife had said that perhaps he was taking too many books: he would not read them all. He had responded that he read a lot on holidays. Not that much, she had said.
He had decided to read during the trip The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata. He had started the novel at home, just before leaving. This was perfect – they would spend a few days in Kyoto, where the story takes place, and in Tokyo they would stay in the district of Asakusa, where Kawabata lived in the 1920s and early 1930s.
With The Old Capital he had brought the Everyman’s Library hardback edition of The Makioka Sisters by Junichirō Tanizaki and a paperback copy of Kokoro by Sōseki Natsume. He was also planning to find a good bookshop in Kyoto, or later in Tokyo, to buy Japanese novels translated into English and bring them home. At home he could only find English translations of the novels he had already read – mostly of Ōe, Mishima and Endō – and the bestselling novels of Haruki Murakami, to whom he preferred the previous generation of Japanese writers.
His wife had said as he was packing the books in the suitcase that, as he had just started it, he would probably read The Old Capital, mostly in the evenings before going to sleep or on the train, but their tourist activities would not allow him enough time to read the other books. He was a slow reader, she had added.
IN THE LIGHT rain, under transparent umbrellas, they walked down the avenue to the Ehime Museum of Art, which, on the map, was opposite the Athletic Ground. But the Athletic Ground was now a muddy, flat construction site with bulldozers coming and going seemingly without purpose.
They stored their umbrellas in the umbrella lockers and bought a ticket to all current exhibitions, permanent and temporary.
The works of the main, temporary exhibition were by Seison Maeda: paintings on silk, canvas, wood, paper; a few ink drawings accompanied them. They were of dogs, ducks, cormorants, grey mullet, carp, peonies in a blue round vase, peach blossoms in a white and red vase, peaches in a flowery bowl, cherry trees in bloom. They were of a young or old man or woman in kimono (holding a musical instrument, kneeling in front of a bottle of sake, in front of a jewellery box), men or women in groups (male medical students about to dissect the body of a dead woman, samurais hiding in a cave or sailing to battle on a bamboo barge, naked women bathing, women elegantly dressed visiting an exhibition and holding their thin rectangular purses in front of their stomach or under their right arm), a Buddhist man and a Christian woman who appear to look at each other. They were of villages and village scenes with minuscule people, forests, mountains, a bridge, a temple, the celebration of the completion of the main hall of the Enryaku-Ji temple on Mount Hiei. One ink drawing was of Seison himself.
The silk paintings, among all the works, moved him most. To his eyes the paintings had a radiant quality, a clarity and a shine, if you like, as if they were seen through a pair of miraculous glasses that had cured myopia or cataracts, revealing to those who had apparently perfect vision that they had not in fact had perfect vision until now. The silk seemed to capture the ambient light, depriving its surroundings of it, and consume the pigments of the colours while intensifying them, like a star consuming and producing energy at the same time.
Such was his excitement that he had walked briskly, almost hurrying from one picture to the next. He was now at the end of the exhibition, at the entrance to the souvenir shop. He traced his steps back to the room where his wife was standing in front of a watercolour, reading the sign affixed to its lower right-hand corner. The painting was of a white cat on a yellow carpet.
‘You’re fast!’ she said. ‘Will you remember any of these pain-tings?’
The truth was he probably would not, not in detail. Now that the light outside filtering into the rooms through the roof windows had changed to a warm, enveloping spring light, he was drawn to look again at the paintings he had seen in the earlier wan light. He told his wife he wished to look again at the Maeda pictures. She exclaimed without articulating a word.
‘I’ll meet you at the souvenir shop,’ he said.
AFTER THE MUSEUM they took the old German tram to Dōgo Onsen, the famous public baths. There they were offered three options: bath, bath and tea in the common tearoom, and bath and tea in a private tearoom. They chose the third option but there was no private room available to take their tea after bathing, so they took option two, where they would have tea in the common room.
This was his first time in a public bath. By the large, steaming bath he washed himself quickly at one of the showers, sitting on a wooden stool so low that his legs had to fold, as if he were squatting rather than sitting.
The water in the stone bath was much hotter than he would have it in his bath at home. He slowly entered the water and sat like the other naked men, facing the large copper tap from which water was incessantly running. All the men seemed to be looking in front of them, at the tap or the marble wall. No one talked. He looked at the other bathers. Most were Japanese; only he and another were Caucasian. But no one seemed to look around at the others, so he too started to stare at the tap. Men came and went. All, whether they were coming or leaving, had showers. You had, it seemed, to have a shower before entering the bath and after leaving it. Most men did not stay long in the bath. By the time he decided to leave to join his wife in the tearoom, many men had come and gone.
WHEN HE RETURNED to the common tearoom dressed in one of the onsen’s yukatas, his wife was in conversation with a western couple, so he took the stairs up to the private tearooms.
Up the stairs and at the end of the corridor of the third floor a sliding door was open. He walked down the corridor and entered the small, quiet corner room.
The room had windows the whole length of two perpendicular walls, which to him felt unusual. It looked onto a narrow lane on one side and onto the square where you could admire the old wooden façade of the onsen, with its main entrance, on the other side.
Once again he became sensitive to the spring afternoon light, and to its contrib-ution to the room’s serene atmosphere. The light was now fading but projected through the windows luminous geometrical forms onto the inside walls, forms whose angles perceptibly became sharper as he stood there peacefully looking around the room.
On the walls black-and-white photographs showed the same elegant man alone or in a crowd, or sitting in a rickshaw. An old woman wearing the onsen staff kimono came into the room and surprised him, but before she could say anything he asked her in English who the gentleman in the photos was. It was Sōseki Natsume, she said, who often came to the baths and had tea in the very room where they were standing. Sōseki Natsume’s taste for baths, she explained, had been given to a foolish character called Botchan in Sōseki Natsume’s novel of the same name. And he should return to the common tearoom at once. Which he did.
The western couple had gone and his wife, sitting in the same position on the tatami, was sipping tea, looking out onto the street.
‘Where were you?’ she asked when he kneeled next to her.
‘In Sōseki’s room. Upstairs,’ he said.
He picked up a small cup and poured tea from the teapot into it. He recognised the strong fragrance of smoked tea. They drank in silence.
IN KYOTO THEY began with the art museums. They rode the bi-cycles they rented at the ryokan to the National Museum of Modern Art.
Again, in the museum, he was ahead of his wife. He moved from room to room hastily until he found himself in front of a painting by Hirota Tatsu called In a Pensive Mood.
The young woman in a pensive mood was not particularly pretty. Her short hair was thin, her face very round, with a small nose and mouth and long, narrow eyes. But she had youth.
She was undressing, it occurred to him. Her red obi was tangled in her black kimono, which was patterned with full purple iris flowers. She held her kimono before her pubis and legs, in a pause. Her stripping was suspended so she could leisurely admire her breasts – for she was topless – breasts as large and round as her face, and perhaps avoid looking at the lower part of her body. Yes, she was looking at herself in a mirror– which the viewer does not see – admiring, he thought, what she regarded to be the most aesthetically pleasing part of her body. The old painter had painted a young woman – a geisha? – inspired, excited by her youthful breasts.
He could not get his eyes off her chest. He was content to remain standing in front of the picture, as if it had brought him the assurance that no other in the museum would tell him anything he didn’t know already, as if it had fully satisfied some curiosity...
He had never been sexually aroused by a work of art, at least not that he could recall. This picture captivated him, and he looked at it shamelessly. His mind started to elaborate a single, simple erotic scenario based on her breasts and her behind, which he imagined to be plump.
On the way out they stopped at the museum’s souvenir shop, where he bought a postcard of the painting and a book of pictures of selected paintings from the museum, which included In a Pensive Mood. Later, back in their room, when looking closely at the painting and the two-line biography of the painter in the book, he saw that yes, the painter had been old – eighty-four years old – when In a Pensive Mood had been painted. Yet he was astonished to discover that the painter had been a woman.
THE WAVE OF tourists at Kinkaku-Ji almost carried them inside the temple grounds. They could only move their legs, and move forward. He kept his right hand on their camera. He looked up when the crowd stopped and he and his wife were no longer advancing. He saw – by getting on tiptoes, craning his neck as high as he could and then looking beyond the tourists – a pond, and then, looking up again, floating on the water a wooden building covered with gold.
For some reason he had forgotten that the Golden Temple was in Kyoto; he had not thought about it when he and his wife decided on the itinerary. They had merely listed names of the main Kyoto temples from the guidebooks without reading the paragraph on each one. His mind had made no connection between these names and the Golden Temple. So it was a shock to be standing there in front of the pavilion of Mishima’s novel.
A friend, he remembered, had given him a new English translation of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion for his nineteenth birthday. He and his friend lived in different cities and wrote to each other several times a week. She had written a note in the book and for many nights after the book had arrived in the letterbox he could not sleep until early in the morning, and had wondered whether he should respond to the note with a frank admission of his sentiments for his friend or send her a book he admired, to thank her.
In the note she had called him her ‘incestuous brother’. They could not have been incestuous because their relationship had not attained a sexual dimension.
What does ‘incestuous brother’ mean in relation to us? he kept asking himself during the sleepless nights. Does it mean that to her I am a brother and should not contemplate physical engagement with her? Am I incestuous because I desire her sexually? But how does she know for sure I desire her? I guess she knows, he thought, though he desired her some days and others not. Or are they both being incestuous in their intermittent desire? And wouldn’t it be wise not to be incestuous, to preserve the bond that normally joins sister and brother?
But then, at the temple, with the anguish of these sleepless nights coming back, it occurred to him that perhaps she had meant for them to become incestuous. It was their fate, if you like, for them to be as close as brother and sister could be, and to sleep together.
He had thanked her for the book in his next letter. At that time, he had no money to buy a book for her and post it. He had not brought up the note.
THEY DIDN’T BECOME lovers. They were never in the mood at the same time.
They had kissed in the rain once. In the summer. A fair had been set up in the town’s square for a week. A storm surprised them on their walk back from the fair to her mother’s house. Against a tree they kissed in the warm rain, and then, still all wet, under a bus shelter. They had kissed and licked the warm rain off each other’s faces. The warm rain, he had thought later, had done something to them. When they were back at her mother’s place his timidity and insecurities, caused by his sexual inexperience, got the better of him and he went straight to bed, alone. He remembered that his friend was disappointed but she seemed to understand why he had run away. After that summer, when they were seventeen, they wrote to each other frequently and visited each other about once a year.
They learned about each other and each other’s lives in the letters. Sometimes they sent tapes with music they wanted the other to hear, and when they had earned a little money from their holiday jobs they sent paperbacks.
They both frequented libraries. In their letters they often said: I have read such or such book, and I wish I could send it to you. They often talked about the books they had read.
They were very attentive to what the other would say or mean. They made great efforts to write in such a way that the other would reveal something of herself or himself in the next letter. I wonder what you would make of this? one would write about an event, something seen in the street. Tell me something, tell me when you have read it what the book did to you? the other would demand. Such a letter accompanied the new translation of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The letter did not say: Tell me what you make of the note I wrote in the book.
HIS WIFE TOOK several pictures of the pavilion and of him in front of it. He took a picture of his wife in front of the pavilion. The photo showed the pond and on it the pavilion, as if the three-storey building was made of paper and could float, and it showed his wife’s bust. They asked another tourist to take a picture of both of them in front of the pavilion.
They then walked up the hill, behind the pavilion. He kept turning back to look at the brilliant edifice. Would he ever see it again?
They reached another, smaller pond where on a small island stood a small stone tower that resembled a pagoda in the way it had several levels, like miniature storeys, and at each level a sculpted skirt roof. It was hard to say how tall the stone was because it was far away, but it could not have been taller than him. It was on this path, by the pond with the stone tower, that the narrator of the novel meets his friend Tsurukawa. It was clear that this is where the scene occurred. He told his wife who, half interested, said, ‘Yes?’
She had not read the novel. ‘It’s a great novel,’ he said, and told her the story culminating in the burning of the temple – on the very grounds of which they stood. ‘It is a novel about beauty.’
Upon saying these words he stopped walking. He looked around, dazed, gripped by a sudden thought. When did I cease preoccupying myself with beautiful things? Why have I neglected for so long finding – seeking, rather – beauty? Now, here, beauty was everywhere he turned to; every single thing – the old gates of the temples, the transient blossoms of the cherry tree, but also of the magnolia and lime trees, the meticulousness in the arrangement of the rock gardens, the simplicity of the tea utensils, the faces of the tourists and the Japanese women, the light and colours in silk paintings, the memory of his friend...every single thing, whether it belonged to the realm of the artificial, natural or cognitive, now moved him. Every single thing also pointed at the shameful condition he found himself in: for many years now, he had been impervious to beauty.
His wife was walking up the path trodden by the multitude of tourists. He started walking again, slowly, as if what had stopped him in his tracks had been a stitch in his side. He thought of clearing his mind – but his mind was clear. He increased the speed and length of his stride. He focused on his wife’s back, on catching up with her. By the time he reached her he could walk at a good pace again.
He and his friend had often talked about beauty. Of the essence of things. She would write about her lovers, how old or young they were, and how, whether they were married university professors or a delivery man in a furniture shop, they made her curious and offered stimulating conversations. Most were good lovers. But none of them knew her. No one, not even the university professor with whom the affair lasted over a year, could possibly know her, save her friend – him – him and her mother. She would often write to him about her mother.
The young acolyte in Mishima’s book thought the shadow of the temple more beautiful than the temple itself. The memory of his and his friend’s feelings towards each other was more beautiful than the feelings themselves. Though until now, the beauty in the memory of the feelings or the feelings themselves had not been evident. He was not nostalgic; until now, he had seen these feelings as a puzzle he had abandoned long ago.
These feelings, he thought today, were beautiful not because they contained love or passion or were complex and changed shape like shadows but because they were temporary, to be lost, left to their memories.
He remembered how he would write to his friend about small things he would see now and then, in the streets and so on, things that would only last a moment then disappear, in pure loss. ‘Pure loss’ was what he called the transient and where he saw beauty. Not knowing then that their relationship was also transient, in the end a pure loss, and that its beauty would reveal itself thirty years later in Kyoto.
Beauty had somehow abandoned his everyday life. Back home, beauty would disappear again, or perhaps what was not in front of him, what was not immediate, was going to be beautiful: Japan, the gardens and the temples, the memory of the kiss in the rain, the many letters received and written, receiving the book and reading the note inscribed inside, being ‘the incestuous brother’.
HE COULD NOT tell his wife. He didn’t know where to start. It was too complicated. He felt lazy and felt that he was not good at speaking about his feelings, especially to his wife. At dinner, in a small restaurant where they were sitting on the floor, he said: ‘Kyoto is beautiful, isn’t it?’
She smiled. ‘Yes.’
On the white wall in the box where they sat, behind his wife a scene depicting geishas skiing had been painted in great detail and the light of a projector framed the painting in a bluish circle.
They managed to order a beef dish – gyoniku, he had said to the waitress – and dishes randomly pointed at in the menu. And some tea and cold sake.
‘We should travel more,’ his wife said. She meant travelling abroad.
He agreed. Perhaps it would be good for him to travel abroad alone, without his wife. But the days when he could do such things were long gone, he thought.
The dishes arrived one by one. Despite not knowing what they had chosen, they had ordered well. The beef slices were thin and fine and melted in their mouths. They ate some perfectly grilled eggplant and steamed fish.
THE YOUNG ACOLYTE in Mishima’s book burns the temple down because he cannot suffer the beauty of its timelessness.
His friend broke their friendship when he invited her, during one of her visits to the capital, to stay with him and the young woman he was now living with. He had also told his friend that he was considering proposing to the young woman.
His friend had made the trip, but when he had picked her up at the train station she refused to go to the apartment he was sharing with the young woman.
‘Where do you want to go, then?’ he had asked.
‘I don’t know, but not to her place,’ she had answered.
‘What do you mean, not to her place? It is also my place and there is nowhere else to go.’
‘I’ll stay at a hotel.’
She checked in to a cheap hotel she knew on the other side of town. It was not going to be convenient for them to meet and it had irritated him. He had invited a few friends from university and the young woman to dine together that night, to meet his friend. They met at a brasserie and no one ate, everyone drank. He had noticed how his friend, standing among the group of his university friends, was looking at him. Her eyes were pleading. They were saying, Let’s go away, you and I, let’s leave this place, your friends and your fiancée. But then he had not been in the mood, the same way she had not been in the mood to sleep with him a few months before when he had visited her. He grew annoyed. She saw it.
Later in the evening she fainted. One of his university friends caught her before she fell to the floor. He thought she had faked a malaise to escape the place and the group and his fiancée. A friend said that it was hot and they had eaten nothing and drunk too much. But he got angry and said to her, when she could feel her legs again, ‘Why don’t you go back to your hotel?’ And she left.
At his fiancée’s place he could not sleep. He called the hotel several times. He remembered that it had been late when his friend left for her hotel and that there had been no public transport to take her there. He kept ringing her room until, early in the morning, she picked up.
‘Where have you been?’ he asked. She hung up.
He called again. She picked up and said, ‘I don’t want anything to do with you.’ That was the end of their friendship.
He wrote to her several times but she didn’t respond. He called her mother’s place once, several years after the friendship had broken up, and her mother said that she had moved to Ireland. He had obtained a telephone number from her. The mother had said that she would be pleased to hear from him, so one evening when he was rather drunk he called her in Ireland. She did sound pleased to hear from him. She told him that she was happy, although she gave no details. She only said that she was teaching French literature and that she had done a doctorate on Marguerite Duras.
After the phone call he wrote her a long letter, telling her what had happened between the young woman and him, why they hadn’t got married, and how he had consequently been depressed. He talked about the other young women he had met since and how he was occupying his days. His letter didn’t rekindle their friendship, as he had hoped; it had in fact the opposite effect. In response she had written:
I had completely taken you out of my life, and believe me, it was not difficult. I had forgotten everything. I don’t look back, that’s how I am. I didn’t suffer from your depression, which closely resembles an attempt to win back the attention of those who have given up on you.
I didn’t answer your letters six years ago because I didn’t see any purpose in doing so, and I didn’t have the desire to.
I have no respect for you. Your letter in the form of a diary reminds me of a you I knew, egocentric and pedantic, whom I have no desire to meet again. Your stories do not interest me.
I do not want to be one of your memories. So, it’s simple, forget me.
The letter to him was the burning of the temple. She had forgotten everything. If indeed she had succeeded in forgetting their friendship, it amounted to the destruction of something timeless and beautiful.
HIS WIFE HAD been right: he was slowly reading The Old Capital. After his bath and before dinner, while his wife was writing postcards or dozing off, lying down on the tatami. (He had decided not to read in the bath.)
The young woman in the novel, Chieko, became his guide to Kyoto. So far, she had taken him, and his wife, to the Nishiki Market, the Botanical Garden and the Nishijin neighbourhood. The Nishijin of today didn’t appear too different from the Nishijin of the 1960s, where a family from the novel owns a shop. The small shops lining the streets of Nishijin still belonged to weavers, and kimono and obi makers.
Each time he opened the book Chieko’s face changed, depending on the young Japanese women he would see in the streets before returning to the ryokan in the afternoon.
Tonight the young woman was at the Gion Festival and he said to his wife, who was sitting at the low table, legs crossed and writing a postcard: ‘Tomorrow we’ll go to Higashiyama.’
She said: ‘Yes, it was on our list of things to do.’
The day after they went to Higashiyama and had a terrible row.
SHE HAD WANTED to go on bicycles, which they did, though he thought walking would be more practical. He had argued that the narrow and cobblestoned streets of Ninen-Zaka and Sannen-Zaka could not be travelled up and down on bikes. The guidebook said it was a walking tour, not a bicycle one, he had pointed out. She had said, ‘We’ll see.’
He grew frustrated as they cycled up the hill leading to the Kiyomizu temple. The hill was very steep, and he had to get off his bike and push it. As a protest, he stopped at the cemetery on the side of the narrow deserted street, while his wife continued riding her bike up the hill. From the cemetery, halfway up the hill, he enjoyed a clear view of the business district and the glass train station, down below.
He finally reached the top of the hill and the gate of the temple, with its large three-storey pagoda. Behind his wife, who had been waiting for him, hundreds of tourists were roaming the temple grounds, mostly in groups headed by guides with a small flag on their caps.
He said: ‘Where do you propose we park our bikes?’ He was sweaty and out of breath.
‘Over there,’ she said, pointing at a magnolia tree near a small gate to the temple.
‘I’m sure it’s not allowed.’
She did not respond and went ahead. They parked the bikes under the tree.
They visited Kiyomizu without saying a word. Their camera was hanging around his neck but he took no picture. She did not ask for the camera.
They cycled down the hill to Sannen-Zaka on a street busy with tourists walking up to Kiyomizu. As he had predicted, it was not an easy thing to ride on the cobblestones and through the crowd of tourists on foot. He got off his bike and pushed. So did she, a little further on.
They were now pushing their bikes onto alleyways boarded by small, ancient one– or two-storey houses, some with skirt-roofs. Some were teahouses, where they did not stop although they had planned to.
They arrived at the Maruyama-Kōen, and under a very old cherry tree where they had stopped he reproached his wife for being too bossy. They always had to do things, he said, the way she thought they had to be done. They had taken the bicycles, he continued, which was clearly a bad idea, and now they were burdened with them because she had not listened – she never did listen – to him. They had to take the bicycles because she decided to take them. Why couldn’t she, once in a while, go along with how he thought things should be done?
He saw she was getting angry, which made him think that once more she was not listening to what he was telling her. Had she been listening to him, she would have recognised that, yes, they almost always did things the way she wanted them done, and that rarely did they do things the way he suggested. In fact, he had practically stopped giving his opinion on how things could be done and mostly was happy to go along with her initiatives. Except today.
In a loud and angry voice she disagreed with what he had said, about her being bossy. He exaggerated. But to him, her position was not tenable – the bikes were a perfect example! After some time arguing she walked away, pushing her bike. Riding a bike in the park was forbidden and, in truth, impractical.
The film director Yasujirō Ozu sometimes shows his characters’ emotions in images of still life. In Late Springa daughter asks her father a question. The father does not respond. During the silence Ozu shows a vase. When we see the daughter again, after a few moments, she is crying, and most viewers, because of the stillness and simplicity of the vase they have just seen, are overwhelmed by the daughter’s emotions. How would Ozu show his current emotions? Perhaps by showing his bicycle resting against the trunk of the old tree, and then him gazing blankly at the flowers and tourists in the park.
THEY MET AGAIN at the ryokan at the end of the afternoon. She was asleep on the mattress. He silently changed into his yukata and went down to the baths in the basement. The following day, although the anger had subsided, they did not talk much. It was as if they were tired and had no energy to make conversation. They stayed in the neighbourhood and visited a couple of small commercial art galleries and a teahouse. They slept most of the afternoon. He took his ritual bath at about four-thirty, then they went out for an early dinner. The following morning they left Kyoto without having visited the northern mountains of Kitayama and their temples.
‘NARA WAS THE capital in the eighth century,’ he said. ‘Kyoto was the capital between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries.’ He was now reading from the guidebook: ‘...until the imperial restoration in 1868, when government functions were transferred to Edo. Edo then changed its name to Tokyo – meaning Capital of the East.’
‘Yes,’ she said, uninterested.
‘I wonder which city will be capital after Tokyo. Asuka was capital four times.’
‘It will not be in our lifetime,’ he continued. ‘One rarely sees a country change capital during a lifetime. Burma, though, changed capital recently. To a place with an unpronounceable name in the middle of nowhere. The Great City of the Sun, they called it!’
‘Capitals are not designated like cities hosting Olympic games,’ she said, laughing a little.
He stopped talking and looked ahead as they walked towards the immense gate of the Tōdai-Ji temple.
AT ABOUT FOUR in the afternoon, tired of having walked the whole day but not wanting yet to go back to the ryokan, they sat on a bench by a pond facing the pagoda of the Kofuku-Ji temple.
His wife told him that since they had arrived in Japan a week ago she had been constipated, and that even though she felt fine she was getting worried. He suggested they look for a pharmacy.
They crisscrossed the lanes of the neighbourhood until they stumbled upon a small shop that resembled a pharmacy. They walked in. They had found a word for constipation in the phrasebook. ‘Bempi,’ she said to a little old man who was watching a small TV placed on the counter, and she pointed at her stomach. He did not understand, so she showed the Japanese text for the word in the phrasebook – but the writing was too small, and despite having adjusted his reading glasses on his nose the old man could not read it. She looked at her husband, helpless. ‘Bempi,’ he repeated. She followed suit: ‘Yes, bempi!’ Then both of them said ‘bempi’ in unison, several times, she pointing at her stomach, looking at the old man for a reaction.
At some point, without expressing that he had suddenly understood what they were looking for, the old chemist went to the shelves behind his counter and picked up a small box, which he presented to the wife. The drawing with fluorescent colours of the digestive system on the front of the box gave her no doubt that the medicine was intended to help digestion. She turned the box and saw in minuscule font and in the roman alphabet a list of chemicals. She said to her husband that she preferred something herbal, that this was full of chemicals she had never heard of.
‘Couldn’t drinking more tea, or more of a type of tea, help you?’ he asked her.
‘Yes, perhaps,’ she said.
She gave the box back to the chemist and they both thanked him in English.
Once in their room, she ordered some ginger tea and he changed into a yukata to go to the baths down in the basement.
In the morning they took their breakfast in the ryokan’s small dining hall. A few Caucasian tourists were whispering over their miso soup, rolled omelettes and broiled fish, sitting cross-legged, or on their knees, or on their buttocks, legs folded on one side, on pillows on the tatami. Mid-breakfast, his wife took the room key off the table and excused herself.
Some places had stone baths, others wooden baths. The places with less character had tiled baths, like small, shallow swimming pools, in the basement. He took daily baths when they came back from their day out visiting gardens, temples, museums, quaint neighbourhoods, markets.
Time in the tiled baths in a steamy room lit with neon tubes brought him peace. Even when the baths were already busy with shrivelled old men who became shy when he appeared and placed a small towel on their private parts.
Bathing was not such an easy thing. In every bath the water was so hot that he would take his foot out only a few seconds after having dipped it in the water. His foot and the part of the lower leg that had been in the water would be pink, as if he were wearing a pink sock. Then he would lift the other leg over the side of the bath, enter it and sit on the submerged bench, holding his breath until his body told him the burning sensation was now bearable. The water would bubble here and there, where hot spring water would rush into the bath or would run, like in the Dōgo Onsen baths, from a tap or pipe on a wall.
No one ever spoke to him in the baths, and that suited him. He thought Japanese men perceptive, as they didn’t talk to him when he didn’t desire being talked to.
THE MORNING WAS sunny and he was looking forward to the long day ahead. He was particularly looking forward to the Kabuki theatre in the evening. They took the metro from Asakusa to Otemachi, in Central Tokyo, where they would visit the imperial gardens and a couple of museums. They would also walk around looking out for interesting monuments and buildings, or smaller museums and galleries. He would look out for good bookshops where he could purchase English translations of Japanese literature.
Mid-morning they went to the National Museum of Modern Art. It was earlier than they had planned but the imperial gardens were closed that day.
The statue of a naked woman on the third floor was the second work of art to arouse him. The statue was life-size. It was on a pedestal so the woman was taller than he was; her mouth was level with his forehead. He could not tell whether she was Japanese.
He looked around for his wife. He wanted to tell her something about the statue and ask her whether she thought the woman was Japanese or not. But his wife was not in the room. He was alone in the room.
He heard steps on the wooden floor in the adjacent room and the sound of a voice on a walkie-talkie. Briskly he leapt onto the pedestal. He was now behind the woman. He pressed his body against hers. She was not cold; she was firm, but with his clothes between his skin and her bronze she didn’t feel cold. He moved his hands over her face and breasts and down her hips. He stepped off the pedestal and with his right hand pushed his erect penis hard against his lower stomach once or twice. He then moved to a corner of the room. There stood another sculpture, of a squirrel lying on its side.
At the Kabuki theatre they rented headsets that would play some commentary in English and translation of songs and dialogues. The Japanese audience also wore headsets. The plays were to be performed in an old Japanese that the current generation could not entirely understand, the English commentary told him.
He was amused when he read in the program that the female roles in Kabuki were played by men. Somehow he also felt disappointed.
The first play started with a tall, bulky samurai taking the stage after walking past the audience on the ground floor of the theatre, and roaring vengeful promises.
When the young woman sitting on the other side of the woman who was sitting next to him stood up at the interval, he thought her very short. He thought he was twice as tall as she was. He also thought her a great beauty. Since they were standing near each other, stretching their legs and arms and neck, he asked her in English whether she needed the headset’s translation in modern Japanese to understand the dialogue and songs. In very good English she answered – smiling a seductive smile, he thought – that, yes, she needed the translation to understand. The Japanese of the plays was old and funny, she said, and although she understood some of it she could not concentrate hard enough to make sense of all of it. Her grandparents perhaps would understand. Perhaps not. She asked him and his wife, who was now standing beside him, if it was their first time in Japan. Once they had answered she introduced herself as Aska.
THE HEADSET COMMENTARY said that the third act of the third play, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, was because of its poetry considered one of the most beautiful passages in Japanese literature. The third act told the journey of the young sauce and oil merchant Tokubei and the geisha Ohatsu to the world of spirits, and it was lengthy and its beauty not so obvious to him. Although he appreciated that beautiful literature could come out of the predicament the two lovers found themselves in, they were taking an awfully long time to die.
The play was narrated by a group of musicians at the side of the stage whose singing he found comical and strange, but not beautiful. The singing reminded him of cats’ meows. The music, however, did not bother him. The two actors in the third act, the suicide act, moved in slow motion in the Sonezaki forest, as if floating in the ether of death even though they were not yet dead. Their initial admirable rashness was now tempered, he felt, by their slow motion and self-pitying diatribes. Ohatsu would muse at how they were both in their unlucky year: his twenty-fifth and her nineteenth. Tokubei would express his concern about the lovers looking ugly in death, and suggest they fasten their bodies to the twin-trunked tree nearby – in order to die ‘immaculately’, the commentary said.
In the end, by a palm tree to which Tokubei tied Ohatsu, the blade of the young merchant’s dagger reached his lover’s throat before he pressed it in his own.
AFTER THE PLAY they stayed a while at their seats and gave their impressions of Kabuki to Aska. She agreed with all they had to say. Perhaps they already had plans, she continued, but she would be delighted if they could join her and a few friends to sing songs at a place in Shinjuku the following evening. He and his wife tried to remember what they had planned for the following evening, but could not. They said they would do what they had planned another time, and accepted the invitation.
The following day his wife did not feel too well. Her stomach was playing up again and she said she would not go out in the evening, so he went to meet Aska and her friends alone. After his bath he changed from his corduroys and checked shirt to a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt.
IN HIS EARLY thirties he had read Tanizaki. He had started with the essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’, because it had been mentioned in a magazine article and the title had intrigued him. He had been happy during his Tanizaki period: he had met his wife; he had read almost everything he could find in the English except Tanizaki’s translations in modern Japanese of The Tale of Genji. He remembered the books very well. He had felt sorry for the men in Tanizaki’s stories – the young husband in A Fool’s Love, the middle-aged husband in The Key and the old diarist of Diary of a Mad Old Man, whose sexuality was pathetic.
He had sensed in The Key and Diary that the sensual desires inhabiting the middle-aged husband and the old man – you could call these desires ‘demons’ insofar as they were lecherous and untameable – were those that had inhabited Tanizaki himself. Tanizaki was a middle-aged man when he wrote The Key and an old one when he wrote Diary.
During his readings of the novels he had understood these demons intellectually; he had recognised them from middle-aged and old men around him, but could not place them in the context of his own sexuality. He could not relate to them. How could a man satisfy a sensual desire with the sight of a woman’s bare ankle or the sucking of one of her toes?
Tonight he wanted to touch Aska’s skin. At first the skin of her hand would have been enough, probably. But this urge had grown and had now taken over him. And, like the old man in Diary who wanted to touch his daughter-in-law’s foot, he now wanted to put Aska’s foot, whichever one, in his hands and slowly run his fingers along its sole and top, rub it, later perhaps suck her big toe.
I am an ageing fool, he thought. The desire for this young Japanese woman, who was singing and sometimes locking eyes with him and with the others, would not be tempered that evening and would not leave him for months after he’d returned home. She would stand up in the tiny room and dance a little and display strange dance moves of the moment while she or others sung. He wanted this room to belong to a brothel and Aska to a pimp he could pay to touch her foot and place his hands on her perfect hips and flat stomach, which sloped down to her pubis in aesthetic perfection.
He wanted the liberty to do as he pleased with such beauty. He felt his ageing had deprived him of this liberty he had, in truth, never profited from when he was young. The liberty to seduce, to play with sexuality, to be lecherous. He could not behave as his desire dictated or he would end up at a police station. Perhaps he could devise a strategy to touch Aska’s skin, but to his complacent mind the problem was too intricate. What was now an obsession with her did not allow him to think, to calculate.
He was helpless and pathetic, as he had been when a teenager. But now he had passed the midpoint of his life and he was convinced he would live the rest of it sexually helpless and pathetic, like Tanizaki’s men.
He stayed until all were gone. Aska had been the first to leave and he stayed with her friends, who sang while he slowly drank beer. She had not touched him when she left; she had waved goodbye and smiled. ‘I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in Japan,’ she had said across the small room. He had smiled back.
When he got back to the ryokan he went down to the basement for a late bath. There he fell asleep for a while. He had fallen asleep while pondering the practicality of going out again and finding a beautiful prostitute or going to watch a pornographic movie in the theatre he had spotted two blocks away. Although the violence of his desire for Aska had subsided, her face and small body, her thin waist and perfectly round hips, were still before him. Her jeans had covered her hips but her stomach on occasion had been exposed, depending on her dance move or sitting position. He had seen her bellybutton when she stood. It had looked to him as if it were the first button to kiss and undo before those of her jeans’ fly. He had wanted to rub his face against her pubis: through the jeans, then later against the hair and skin.
His skin was very red when he got out of the bath. He dried himself slowly – he had almost no energy left. Back in the bedroom he softly slipped beside his wife under the duvet of the futon, which he then pushed away because he was too hot.
AT BUS STOPS and in the metro’s corridors in Asakusa he saw Kawabata’s face on posters. ‘That is Kawabata!’ he said to his wife. They could not understand what the posters were about. But the face, which he had seen on the same photo in a small format on the back of The Old Capital and other Kawabata books he owned, was now as big as a tatami and he could distinguish the lines marking Kawabata’s skin. The photo was of Kawabata as an old man. His hair was like a white mane.
Why Kawabata’s face was placarded on bus stops and in metro stations and corridors, he didn’t know. The old man’s face, in black and white, was from another time. It was anachronistic in its tranquillity and stillness. Desolate, it seemed to him, in profound solitude.
He thought of the haiku he had just read in the anthology of Japanese poetry he’d bought in a good Central Tokyo bookshop:
Lonely now –
Standing amidst the blossoms
Is a cypress tree.
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