The Magical Fruit
It is snowing in Tokyo and, though there is the promise of a view of Fuji-san from my window, now the weather seems to have precluded such extravagance.
I didn’t sleep a wink on the plane. That and the three-hour bus ride to the hoteru had me cracked out for the first couple of days. Now, a bit more sober, I remember, or maybe just suspect, that there is no reality-based way to take in this city anyhow. Roads weave in and out of tunnels like a Möbius nightmare. The cars and trucks: a child’s paradise in primary colors, color-coded, in fact—a secret language of order and discipline. I never once see girls leaving school in anything but uniforms. Plaid skirts with knee-highs, plaid skirts with boots, peacoats over white blouses walk past hentai stores whose windows reflect them in obscene positions.
The internal coherence of this country, the consistency of color and shape, the order and attention to detail leave me speechless save for Yiddish. I am stripped of any way to identify myself but in contrast: schlep, schlemiel. Here I feel always messy.
I find myself at the Tokyo stop of the JR subway—the largest one—a sea of faces. If this was any place else, my wallet would have been gone by now. It does not occur to me here to wear my wallet in my elastic calf band, the one I use for overnight trains through shady places.
Game of the day: Tokyo Spy. I pick a guy with the coolest shades and follow. Three transfers and one hour later I am on the other side of Tokyo, a little bit lost, and not entertained. I should orient myself, buy some bread, and head to Ueno Park to feed the ducks. They catch the crumbs in midair, more entertaining than the uncool guy with the accidentally cool shades.
Tokyo vending machines sell everything except for buns. Buns have thus acquired a mystique for me that other delectables have not. To get a bun you must ask for one. Ichi kudasai, or if you are brave, ni. A bun is a bridge between the parts of a day, an interaction between people, an agreement between dough and bean. A bun is a perfect vessel. If clouds had opinions, a bun is what a cloud would have a crush on. Still, I save my extensive Japanese vocabulary and get a Snickers bar and green tea at the entrance to Ueno.
Ueno Park is a place that most cats can only imagine as they purr themselves to sleep. A feline Shangri-la, Ueno is a mythical land with so many ducks and sparrows that no cat could ever go hungry. This one spotty fellow is a lucky puss, and you could swear the little bugger knows it, the way he struts around, the way he gallops and lets the aviary scatter noisily around him like he can afford to be seen.
I still have not seen Fuji. There is only a vague outline in the distance, something incongruently large for such a small country, large and round like a bun.
Tokyo has the coolest music stores in the world. I easily waste half a day there listening to Japanese rap by bands with names like Trashtalk, Soul’d Out, Streetlife, Zeebra, Radwimps, Taki 183, Soulhead. “Get up on your feet, one two three, that’s right! Gotta keep you right karada wo nagareru atsui mono wa nanika.” I stifle the giggles but my feet are tapping. I find that I am tempted to buy something and have an all Japanese rap party.
At the Sensoji temple the buns are plentiful. I no longer doubt (or dare hope) that the contents are anything but red bean paste. Although I find this seemingly insatiable appetite for bean paste baffling, I wish I could share the affinity. To love what others love is such a warm and fuzzy feeling. Can a whole country be delusional? I think about the extent to which the Japanese go to conserve resources and time and conclude instead that it must be my dull Eastern European palate that betrays me. My taste comes from a land of potatoes and mushrooms.
I saw a Shoji Ueda exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. The sensibility I am used to, a profoundly Western one, often refers to what is outside the frame if not by the presence of the reference then at least by its very absence. Ueda doesn’t seem to refer to anything outside the frame at all. Even when figures are cut off, it is simply as if nothing more exists. Outside the frame is the edge of the world. In this way Ueda pins down the senses, encapsulates them in the world depicted in the photo. It is self-contained in a really exciting way. Inspired by Ueda’s framing, I resolve to take a Zen picture of a bun before I leave Japan.
Game of the day: Red Bean Paste. Objective: find the one pastry in Japan that does not contain red bean paste. In the process, of course, I overeat that nasty stuff and can barely keep it down. How do you say red bean paste in Japanese? How do you say no fucking red bean paste please? I don’t really want anything anymore, except to bomb the bean plantations. I don’t think I am turning Japanese.
Next day: what do you know? I am craving red bean paste. Fuck.
Tokyo at night is a monster. No point trying to follow the street signs. Here I find it impossible to carry out any plans with any sort of conviction. Here I can only wander. Ginza and Shibuya are lit up top to bottom. I am wiped out from a day of walking so I sink into a lounge chair with some whiskey and watch people braver than I bustle around below in the lights. In this lounge all you hear is business talk: merger this and leadership roles that and money, money, money. That’s how I begin to find the sumo wrestling on TV so interesting. They are pretty quick, those guys … considering their weight, I mean. Why do all men in suits have the same laugh? And where on earth did the Caucasian sumo wrestlers come from? I resolve that come sore feet or xenophobia, I am definitely going out tomorrow.
I go to Harajuku and walk up and down Takeshita street with a camera in one hand and a chocolate, banana, and whipped cream crepe in the other. I haven’t seen a bun all day. In Harajuku it is Halloween every day. The favorite look for teenybopper girls seems to be a kind of deranged Little Bo Peep. The kids here appear suspended in their coolness, frozen in poses, teasing gravity with their hair. They approach random passersby with questions and run back to their friends to giggle and strike an even cooler pose.
In Kamakura I saw the 13th-century Amitabha Buddha—a face I have been looking at in some form or another for years. For such a very big Buddha, some 13 meters tall, he is very hard to spot. He sits in a labyrinth of streets, the tallest structure for miles around and yet strangely inconspicuous from most angles. The approach to his garden from the street is deceiving. One minute he’s invisible and the next there in front of you he floats, a pale sea green against a pale blue sky. The next minute he is gone. It is only if you mistrust your sense of sight and follow signs that barely make sense do you find yourself suddenly in his quiet presence. And the silence of his round face is such that it neutralizes all color and sound around it. It does not beckon and it does not repulse. The backs of his fingers touching with thumbs aligned makes a cradle of his arms and whispers almost imperceptibly that should you crawl up into them, you could sleep there for a thousand years beneath the snow. There was a time when I would spend hours in the Japanese art room at the Art Institute thinking about how great it would be to find the peace I saw in that face.
But standing in front of that face now I no longer saw peace. I saw the end of all life: annihilation. Is that the beginning of Buddhism or the end?
I suspect that it takes a lot of patience to really come to know anything about Japan. It is a place that is not apologetic for its superficialities and thus it has a tendency to appear as a world of images and sounds randomly strung together. As I see the young people front and pose I wonder if they have ever seen Red Beard or Sanjuro, if they have been to see the Amitabha Buddha, if they have contemplated the ontological significance of their red bean paste buns. It occurs to me that maybe they don’t have to. To me, these things are the texts that explain their culture. But they are writing their own text and the freedom that they have is restricted only by their own taste and conscience.
On my last day in Japan, Fuji-san looms almost too close to my window when I awake. Like so much of Japan, it too is suspended in midair, defying gravity, reason, perception, mocking the sky’s claim on altitude. And like the bun, and like Japan, Fuji defies expectations: a civilization built up to the sky on a floating rock where no civilization could be built.
Copyright 2006, Alice Haisman
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