Life in Tokyo can only be interesting and challenging if you make an effort to see it from a different point of view.
Whenever someone writes about the beginnings of an earthquake the story inevitably starts off with that lull before the event. Usually the story takes a humorous twist, because the experience only lasts a moment and then fades into a memory, and when the adrenaline drains away and the heart stops thumping, you’re left with this void that laughter does a good job of filling.[1. Japan Quake Map, A time-lapse map of the series of earthquakes just before and after the Great Sendai Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Author: Paul Nicholls, from Christchurch Earthquake Map, of The University of Canterbury, New Zealand.]
The Great Sendai Earthquake of March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m., in northeastern Japan, started the same way. Seven days ago I sat at the living room table, working away at my blog design, atypically outside of my studio, lounging back against the sofa, sipping Prince of Wales tea from a mug. My partner lay fast asleep on the floor in her room, still exhausted from a hard day working at the hospital the day before. The sun shone through the window from a cloudless blue sky, gray starlings twittered and chortled in the branches of a young gingko tree, and the street stood quiet, the elementary school children still not out, a day like any other.
When the first tremor came it felt almost gentle, a soft bumping against the floor that made the hanging potus plant sway in the window sill. It was followed by an impatient shudder that rattled the window glass and spoons in the sink. Then all of a sudden this titanic shrug shoved against the floor and walls and knocked my mug off the table. For a moment it subsided, a breathless moment, then it rammed into the building again and bucked, shaking, the way a dog shakes a mouse in it’s teeth. The movement generated an almost inaudible, faraway rumble, the same sound you hear when you press your fist flat against your ear and clench your fist hard, growing steadily louder and more indistinct.
I was already up, first unconsciously grabbing my insulin kit, then dashing to my partner’s room, shaking her awake. But she was a deep sleeper and just moaned, throwing her arm over her eyes. “Get up! Get up! Get up!” I insisted, still not quite scared yet, still having no idea. I pulled her by her arm and she reluctantly woke, mumbling, “It’s only an earthquake. Stop getting so excited.” But the earth kept heaving and the walls creaked and groaned and the window glass of her room skittered against the frame. “It’s big!” I said, louder. “Come on, get up!” She moaned again. A huge fist slammed into the floor, forcing it to buckle under me and I almost toppled over, caught myself. She was still slow, so, shouting now, I wrenched her to her feet and pulled her through the living room into the corridor. My partner walked to the bathroom door while I threw open the front door, and stopped it with the old, chewed up plastic door wedge. I glanced out at the sunny day outside, everything telling me to get out and fly the coop and get away from this pile of rock, but I stopped myself. To the bathroom. The bathroom. The bathroom. Where had I heard that it was safe there? Right. The bathroom. We stood in the doorframe as the walls seesawed back and forth on either side of us, dust spilling from small fissures that split along the corners of the wall, and my thoughts seemed to flutter in the darkness, without direction, frantic flashes of old lessons repeated over and over like a litany… don’t go outside… falling masonry… bathroom tight frame safe… why didn’t I buy those helmets?… I should have finished putting that emergency backpack together… oh no! My cameras!… but nothing coherent that could think my way out of whatever this huge thing was.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God…
A siren punctuated the air, howling over the city. Down the hallway another alarm, an insistent electric beeping, echoed down the hallways.
I kept glancing at the ceiling, wondering when it would crash down on us and crush our skulls. Outside I heard the sharp crack and then heavy thud of a concrete wall falling down. A woman in a neighboring apartment kept bawling over and over, “Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa!” (No! No! No! No! No!) in a high-pitched, keening voice. A baby’s thin wail started up in the apartment above us.
In Japanese mythology a gigantic catfish is said to reside beneath the islands. Whenever it rolls or turns it takes the island with it, a muscular shifting of bones. The catfish had started wildly awake, shuddered under the inhabitants, and broken the old sleep with violent fits. Only after the mud had clouded the depths and cloaked the catfish in darkness, did the catfish begin to settle down. The swaying began to die down, but not completely, just enough to get our wits together and think what to do. My partner got her coat and bag and some food ready, while I gathered, as quickly as I could, two packs with lightweight backpacking equipment.
One look into the living room convinced me that I wouldn’t be able to look for anything precious, even if I wanted to. All the dishes in the kitchen cabinets had slid out and crashed to the floor. The wine bottles lay smashed and bleeding amidst the dishes. The kitchen counter that I had built had shifted two meters toward the center of the living room. In my studio, the entire bookshelf system had collapsed into a huge mess, books scattered over everything, the shelves buried under boxes, the guitar broken in half, and no way to get in. I’d have to stick only to what we absolutely needed, if I could find it.
For the first time since I took a passionate interest in learning how to go backpacking and mountain climbing with an exceptionally low weight pack, I felt grateful for the hours and hours, over the years, poring over gear lists and putting together and using in the mountains, combinations of gear necessary for surviving outdoors in all kinds of conditions. WIthout even really thinking consciously, I stuffed two packs with what we needed, including a shelter, water filter, wood burning stove, special clothes, sleeping bags, headlamps, gloves, etc. I knew we’d be okay outside, even in the snow or heavy rain. My partner impatiently stood by the door, keeping back her thoughts that I was wasting time and looked ridiculous with my geeky obsession. Within five minutes I was ready and followed my partner out the front door, into the afternoon.
Trees still registered the ongoing shaking, like metronomes ticking down the heartbeats.
To be continued…
There really are no words that can comfort or explain why when a loved one dies. The death comes as expected or not, but in its wake we enter a room or a place that the departed called their own and find ourselves at a loss. A great, silent loss that no matter how hard we try to rebuild the blocks defies our comprehension. And so we turn to words to try to give it structure and provide a beginning and an end to what we shared. A story.
Georgio Casellato Lamberti (or “Lan” for short) was a Shi Tzu dog, that my partner M. had befriended 17 years earlier at a pet shop here in Tokyo. He had white, chestnut brown, and black hair and a face that immediately reminded me of an Ewok, with great, liquid eyes and a black nose and lips that never smiled. I first met him nine years ago shortly after M. and I became friends. He was a humorless dog, constantly snuffling and snorting and completely without interest in other dogs during his walks. His interest in walks remained limited, at least by the time I met him, to doing his bodily functions and that was it. As soon as the chore was done he yanked on the leash to go home. It was for this reason that, for a breed of dog that normally weighs about 4 kg, Lan weighed about 7 kg and waddled more than walked. I only saw him run one time in all the time I knew him.
He never barked. Violence and temper tantrums were alien to him. He was a lover and not a fighter, though even the allure of the female persuasion never seemed to cross his mind. One time when M. and I were shouting at one another he walked over to us, stood there looking up until we noticed him, and then reached out a paw to touch M.’s leg, silently pleading for us to make peace. M. and I broke down laughing, partly out of love for him, partly out of sheer embarrassment.
As he grew older he took more and more to sleeping. He was plagued with ailments and pain, from a weak heart, bad skin allergies that left his skin constantly red and itching (until I suggested using baby shampoo and the allergies went away), cancer of the liver, anemia. Four years ago he started going deaf and blind. When we moved here to this apartment last year his hind legs were giving out and the new environment terrified him. For three weeks he cried constantly while bumping around the unfamiliar corners and walls. I’d never heard him wail before and the worry about the landlord finding out about having a dog in a place where no pets were allowed made that first month stressful and uncertain. There were times when I got so fed up with his whining and doing his mess all over the apartment floors that I wished he were dead.
Sometime around the middle of July his legs got worse and he had a hard time standing up. He was still alert and full of his doggy appetite, never getting enough to eat. Without his eyesight and hearing he took to scanning the room with his nose and every time we made dinner the waft of cooking food would shake him from his stupor and prompt him to find his way to his feet. When no food was forthcoming he’d let out a huge snort and plonk back down onto his pillow and fall asleep. M. and I constantly teased him for his lack of contribution to the household upkeep.
When we returned from Canada at the end of August, after leaving him at the vet for a week suddenly Lan took a turn for the worse. His legs gave out completely and he was no longer able to walk. He took to sleeping with his spine curled in toward the left and he’d struggle in pain or dizziness when we turned him over onto his left side facing right. The doctor didn’t know what it was. M. spent every spare moment nursing him, getting up at 4:00 in the morning to quietly and patiently hand feed him, wash him, talk to him. He lost weight, lots of it, so that the pudgy, waddling gentleman of indifference slowly wasted away to nothing but skin and bones. Even then he had the energy to crawl across the living room floor and attempt to reach the potty spot at the end of the entrance hall, even though he had long since been enclosed in his fenced-in pen. He’d hold in his bowels until we got home late in the evening, unwilling to relinquish that last source of dignity that had defined his world since he was a baby.
M. was beginning to reach her limits around the middle of December. She was exhausted and emotionally just hanging on. Sometimes it seemed as if Lan would hang by a thread for the rest of eternity, breathing and shitting and eating and sleeping. He was a tough little monster, and wasn’t going to go out without a fight. Then around the middle of January he began to fade. He stopped eating for days then would wake up with a voracious appetite, then stop eating again. His breathing grew labored, raspy. When we reached into his triple layer of blankets and hot water bottle his feet felt cold and often he made no reaction, giving us a fright. M. had to take him to the vet several times to change his food since he refused to eat his usual fare and more and more would only take the best choices in canine dining. I guess he intended to die a gourmand, none of that fiber-filled, grainy cereal that he’d been eating day in and day out for so many years!
At the end of January he started wheezing terribly. We knew then it was the end. One night, after two days of refusing to drink anything we took him to the vet in an emergency in order to rehydrate him. The doctor gave him an intravenous saline injection, but suggested that it might be time to let him go. His gums were a deathly white from anemia and he was so thin the doctor had a difficult time finding a suitable spot to insert the needle. Lan vomited up nearly everything that he attempted to eat, but after the saline shot he quieted down and slept all night without making a sound.
The next morning M. had to get up early to go to work. I had work, too, but remained home until the very last minute just to make sure Lan was alone as little as possible. He began to wheeze badly again and vomited bile and blood. I sat with my hand on his side until it was time to go and he had managed to fall asleep again. I hurried through everything at work so as to make it back home in time, just in case Lan was ready to let go. The silly and innocuous questions of a lot of the lazier and more immature students unprepared for upcoming tests made the waiting interminable. Their taking time and their lives for granted made me want to shout at them to start living and not waste the precious gift they had. Meanwhile Lan was struggling to breathe back home.
When my last class ended I rushed home as fast as I could. It was about 1:00. I reached to door at about 2:00 and unlocking the door and kicking off the shoes and dropping my coat and bag on the floor I ran to Lan’s side and kneeled down beside him. I held my breath and peered hard at him, hoping I’d see the slow rise and fall of his shoulder as he slept. It seemed like time stopped. There was no movement. I knew he was gone. I squatted down beside the pen and placed my hand on his head. Still warm. He had died only a little while earlier, but had died alone. That was the last thing that M. had wanted. That he would die alone.
I went numb for a long while, not knowing what to do or what to feel. All I knew was that I needed to let M. know what happened, but that I didn’t want her to break down in the middle of the street or at work. I contemplated what had to be done about the body, and thought about going to see the vet, but even though I was much less attached to Lan than M. was, I found that I couldn’t move and that I still didn’t want to see Lan’s body moved. So I went about cleaning his pen and neatly folding the blankets and sheet so that Lan looked clean and comfortable. Then I searched online for pet crematoriums and information on what needed to be done with dead pets in Japan. I got no where not being able to read the level of Japanese necessary, so I gave up and just sat beside Lan, stroking him.
At around five M. sent me an email asking how I was and then how Lan was. I wrote back briefly, in Japanese, “You should come home.”
She replied, “Is Lan okay?”
I answered, “Just come home.”
I went out to buy some dinner for M. and me, then some flowers for Lan, and while I was waiting for the take out food to be fixed at the store I got another email from M. telling me she was near the station. I stopped by another store for some candles for Lan and met M. at the station.
We said nothing, just walked hand in hand back toward our apartment. While we walked M. silently began to weep and I held her as close as I could.
M. being M. she was up at the crack of dawn the following morning. She spoke little, but was full of energy and purpose. When we had eaten breakfast she discussed with me what we ought to do about Lan, so we looked up information about nearby crematoriums and found a temple where there was a long tradition of cremating and keeping the graves of pets. M. made a number of phone calls and then we gently prepared Lan, wrapping him in his favorite blankets and placing his body in a big Boston bag so we could carry it in the taxi to the temple.
Looking back now I’m surprised by how beautiful and cheerful that day, two weeks ago, was. M. and I managed to joke about Lan’s bad humor and constant royal demands. Between laughter and fits of sobbing we brought Lan’s body to the temple and were ushered into a small reception room where Lan’s body was placed in a basket.
The funeral director was a woman about our age dressed in fashionable black slacks and jacket and speaking with a deferent and quiet voice. She explained what would take place and what we should do. We were led to the back of the temple were a building with a smoke stack stood among some huge gingko trees and asked if it was all right to burn the body with the blankets. Then we were led back to a traditional, tatami mat waiting room where we sat talking and drinking green tea. An hour later the funeral director returned. “The bones are ready to be viewed,” she said.
I really can’t express what it felt like when we were taken back to the crematory and we stood waiting as the door to the retort was opened. What slid out was a black tray of bleached bones and the shock of the transition from Lan to those bones almost made my knees buckle under me. M. broke down crying. The cremator was obviously familiar with such reactions and stepped forward to show us the second vertebra of Lan’s spine, which in Japanese is called the “Nodobotoke” bone ‘Throat Boddhisatva”), because it resembles a Buddha with his hands out. M. managed a smile as she peered closely at the bone. “Ah, that’s why the bone is called, ‘Nodobotoke’,” she said. The cremator gently placed the bone on the tray and handed us each a pair of bamboo chopsticks. My hands were shaking as I joined in the Japanese tradition of “Kotsuage”, placing, with chopsticks, the bones into the urn that we would bring home.
We then made our way to the pet temple proper, where rows and rows of pet graves lined the hall. Many of the graves were open with small offerings of the pets’ favorite foods lining the boxes. I stood at the end of the hall watching M. make her lonely way to the alter and regretted the anger I had shown during the last few months over her hanging on to Lan. Maybe for the first time in our relationship I clearly understood how devoted M. was to Lan and, strangely, in those circumstances, to me. She beckoned me to kneel beside her and together we lit a stick of incense and prayed for Lan.
Two weeks later it snowed. I was sitting at my desk working on test correction when I glanced out of the window and saw snow drifting down in the dark. I called M. and together we stood by the window watching it come down.
“Lan would hate this!” M. said.
“He definitely liked his comforts,” I added.
“I’m sure right now he’s lying somewhere with his face pressed right up against an infrared heater,” observed M.
“I always wondered how he did that without burning his hair off or melting his eyeballs,” I continued. “Maybe he was made of asbestos.”
We took a walk in the snow and laughed at the stray snow bombs that the telephone wires dumped on us. The streets were empty and silent as most people slept, oblivious to the silent change the city was going through. M. and I snapped photos of one another, both of us smiling.
Each time we return home Lan is waiting there in his corner. M. lights a candle and a stick of incense and cheerfully waves good morning. Sometimes it all hits home and she breaks down weeping, but she always looks up and smiles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m just happy that Lan lived a life in which he was loved.”
A different tack, back in the city, into the heart of gods and fate.
I’m not sure how I would feel with all those strangers and tourists taking pictures of my wedding…
Dusk fell and the gate guard began industriously shooing us out.
No matter how many times I turn up at them, many shrines have a way of instilling great peace.
It has been a month since I moved to Tokyo and settled into this neighborhood. The new apartment, big, bright, with space to stretch and sit alone if I want while sharing it with my partner M., offers the possibilities of moving on with my life and finding some satisfaction with what I want to do and with social interaction with people. The neighborhood itself is green and tranquil, with a strong sense of community that I hope I can eventually tap into. Right outside the apartment there are entirely too many people passing by and right across the street we discovered a metal cutting factory that we hadn’t realize was there, but if we can set up this place with all the plants and artwork and simplicity that we’ve both been seeking to make a big part of our lives, and also invite people over for dinner parties and gatherings, then maybe those drawbacks can be offset by the pluses. I may actually grow to like a place for a change, in spite of being in Tokyo.
It’s taking some getting used to living with a sick 17 year-old Shi Tzu dog named Lan (from Georgio Casellato Lamberti… as M. named him… a big name for a small dog, who has never barked, let alone sing!) who is also blind and deaf, and has difficulty using his hind legs. He has adopted the habit of crapping all over the apartment, wherever his presence has not yet been felt, his attempt at creative expression in new and untried ways. Other than that he just sleeps and eats and nothing else is very important in his life anymore. I personally don’t care much for getting up in the middle of the night and stepping in his contribution to prosperity, so he and I are taking our time forgiving one another’s shortcomings.
In my whole life I had never taken so long to get over someone who hurt me as with Y. Even now, four months later, I occasionally wake up from bad dreams of her or feel my face wet from crying in my sleep. I found out some things recently that altered my point of view of the entire period I spent with her and my respect for her. And for the first time in my life I never again want to see or hear from someone that I loved. Perhaps she is too blind to realize how she affects those she gets into relationships with, but I realize now, viscerally, why her former husbands hate her now and never want to talk with her again. How sad and wasteful. I have never thrown away photographs or letters or items given to me by those I was with, but I guess there is a first time for everything.
Half my belongings are still in boxes, but slowly I am finding places to put things and to start cleaning up and making the place look a little nicer. I’ve taken quite a few walks in the neighborhood, some alone, some with M., and we are both getting to know what the place has to offer. Today I dropped by a small café called Genro, whose owner has actively championed the use of traditional coppicing techniques that this area was once known for. Voicing an interest in putting in some coppiced trees on my balcony and getting involved with community traditions in the neighborhood, the waiter in the coffee shop called the owner, who came the store and sat with me for an hour to talk about both coppicing techniques and ways to get started and about nature education. He invited me to join in community events and get more involved with this new place I am living in. He also kept repeating how happy he was to meet me and that he hoped to get together more often.
Sounds like a good beginning!
I haven’t been writing in the blog lately and so almost forgot that today is the sixth anniversary of Laughing Knees. For those of you who keep up with me on Facebook, you know what has been happening since my last post, but for those who don’t let me just say that the smoke is finally clearing and I’ve made some huge changes in my life. I’m moving to Tokyo to work for a year at my university’s Tokyo campus, I’ve gotten a nice apartment in a nice area of western Tokyo (for those who know, it is in Suginami-ku, north of Kichijoji and Nishi-Ogikubo), and, a totally unexpected, last-minute decision last week (after two and a half months of fruitless seeking an apartment for myself) to move in with a friend who has really been there for me since February. There was a while there when I thought I had completely lost myself and would never make it back, but with slow steps, taking each day at a time, I’ve come back to myself and can get through the days without breaking down, even lots of laughter now. I never knew just how far you can fall if you truly open up your heart to someone. And I never knew, too, that until now I had never really opened myself to anyone.
But it’s Spring and all the possibilities ring through the air! Let’s see what this coming year brings and what I can make of it. WIth a little effort, I think I might just come away feeling that everything was for the best.
I’ve been really busy for the last few weeks and so haven’t had time to update my blog, but I thought I’d post this link because it leads to one small practical way that we can do something about the environment. I was watching a documentary on the TV Asahi program “Spaceship Earth” about cleaning up the Ara River in northern Tokyo, when they highlighted a domestic water purification solution that is very easy and cheap to make. It is a mixture of natto (fermented soy beans), yoghurt, dry yeast, sugar (white or brown), and tap water, called Ehime AI-2. It works much like the microorganisms in our stomachs and can be used in toilets, bathrooms, kitchen sinks, and compost containers to break down the harmful bacteria that pollute water.
I’ve always wondered why letting the water run in our homes is such a terrible environmental no-no if all it does is allow unpolluted water to flow back into the world outside. Of course the use of pumps and dams uses lots of electricity and oil, lots of chemicals are dissolved into the reservoirs, and our bills go up, but other than that untouched water is probably better for the environment, not worse. I think the rivers and lakes could do very well without all our fecal matter making a debut in their volumes.
Anyway, on top of looking for a way to keep a small compost bucket on my balcony I want to do what I can to clean the water that leaves my home, too. Take a look and see if maybe it’s something you might want to do, too.
I’ll try to get my next installment of photos up soon!
For six months my next door neighbor, a land baron who gives little thought to the quality of the community, selling off the farmland he inherited to make a fortune, has been building ticky-tacky housing lots in the tract of land outside my window. One of the reasons I took this place was for the unimpeded view of the rice paddies that extends all the way to the horizon. Now half the rice paddies are gone, replaced with newly graded streets and aerating mounds of new housing lots.
I think the land gods have got it in for me…
For the last three nights, wanting to test my tarps and tents for my upcoming trip to the Alps, I crept out onto the soft soil, alone in the darkness, and set up the shelters. For this short time the land was mine. The wind blew, the shelters luffed in the gusts, and the sky opened above me without a roof to break the expanse. Orion watched with approval.
Then, in defiance of the distant lights of houses and apartments, I unzipped my fly and urinated in a full arc. There, unto thee I water the world!
Now I can go home and hold in my heart: to pee where no one has peed before!
Image taken of the Earth by Voyager, 5.76 billion kilometers away, in 1991, at the suggestion of Carl Sagan. Credits: NASA, 1991. I’ve retouched the photo to take out the original light reflections from the Voyager camera. That tiny white dot a little off center to the right is Earth. You may want to clean your computer screen of any other dust particles. That is where dinosaurs scuttled, continents jittered, Jesus claimed he was the son of a god, the Buddha found a truth, Julius Ceasar claimed victory over the whole world, Mick Jagger sang “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, a growing, vibrating spot of microbial beings threatened to overwhelm the dot, two tiny projectiles plinked against two folicles of concrete and it was claimed to be a changing point in the history of the dot, and a curiously unaware leader of the microbial beings squeaked out to the dot, “We have prevailed!”
I couldn’t sleep. Swinging my legs over the side of the bed I stumbled in the darkness out into the hallway and blearily made my way to the toilet. Cricket song rang through the open bathroom window and seemed to float on the chilly night air that poured in through the screen. Somewhere another sleepless soul, a jungle crow, cawed irritably among the treetops. I flushed the toilet and for a few moments the rushing water drowned out all other sounds and the closeness of the apartment made it seem as if the world ended at the walls around me. When the gurgling of the water cut off, suddenly the darkness opened around me again and the walls seemed to disappear. The clock ticked in the kitchen along to the hum of the refrigerator. LED lights from the microwave oven, the telephone, and the sleeping computer floated in the dimness, like distant city lights. A wraith of a moth softly batted at the kitchen window and then whirred away.
I heard myself whisper in the dark. “What are you afraid of?”
I broke open the refrigerator door, light streaming out like the Mother Ship, and ran my eye over the milk carton and carton of apple juice. Nothing I wanted, so I closed the door and stood a moment letting my eyes readjust. I picked out a glass from the drying rack and ran the faucet in the kitchen sink, filling the glass. More by feel than sight, I sipped from the rim, and felt the cool liquid run down my throat. A little spilled over onto my chin and the chill made me jump. The taste of chlorine and iron.
“Shouldn’t have to pay for this,” I whispered.
I tiptoed back to the bedroom door and looked in on my wife sleeping. The covers were partly thrown back and one knee was lifted. Her face, her closed eyes and slack lips, reflected the grey light from the window, all still. I leaned over the bed and as softly as I could, drew the blanket back around her. She stirred, the rhythm of her breathing momentarily paused, until it resumed again.
Last photo of the Earth taken from the surface of the moon, Apollo 17, 1972. I was twelve years old in Japan, Israel was at war with Egypt, my best friend Steven Radolinsky was about to return to the States, the human population had just reached three billion a year or two before. Credits: NASA, 1972
My fingers found my fleece jacket on the floor at the foot of the bed. I slipped it on and headed back out to the hallway, to the entrance way. Crouching down, I laced on my beat up sandals. They felt cold and the straps stiff when I pulled the tab. I unlatched the front door and pushed it open. Cool air rushed in, like a curious dog sniffing out the confines. The door closed with a heavy thud, which raised the hairs on my neck; the sound was so isolate and abrupt in the pre-dawn stillness. The soles of my sandals crunched on the gravel and I glided beneath the dark beards of unpruned Japanese maples and Japonica, the tips of leaves brushing the top of my head and shoulders. When I came out to the street the street light was blinking and a lone hawkmoth whizzed around the light, seeking a center that only it could see. Beyond the sphere of light neighborhood houses stood along the sides of the street, somber and dozing, and I passed, peering left and right, expecting any moment for someone in a window to shift position. A lone cat slid across my path, pausing only a moment to glance at me, before blending into the shadows.
I made my way to the nearby park, where open space, dewey grass, and the sky cut out of the frame of Tokyo let me stretch out a little and look up. All above hung a black curtain spilled with salt, with needles on end, with the powder of silver from a broken mirror, the fabric so thin and delicate that the skin of heaven shone through. I lay back in the wet grass, legs and arms spread out, my back soaking up the chilly damp, and breathed in and out. A satellite charged across the emptiness chasing a bear and a swan, hunted in turn by a soldier. I closed my eyes and heard the crickets again, millions of them, all in chorus, singing to the sky.
“What if this is not here tomorrow?” I murmured. “Who will remember me, in this moment?”
Sombrero Galaxy M104, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credits: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STSci/ AURA) Hubble Space Telescope ACSâ€¢STSciâ€¢PRC03-28
Much as I love immersing myself in the beauty of mountains and the peace that I find there, my recent refusal to write about things that make me angry or that I find unnecessarily ugly or unfair is tantamount to sticking my head in the sand. It’s not all pretty pictures, as you all know.
This morning I woke at dawn to go for a long walk, this time without my camera, just to be out there to look and see. I had slept well and in the dim enclosure of my apartment I moved about humming to myself. When I finally did open the front door and step outside, the air was brisk, with a sky flush with clouds. All the rooftops and trees rang out with the calls and songs of brown-eared bulbuls, jungle crows, great tits, tree sparrows (Passer montanus… not the Western hemisphere species), and hordes of flocking grey starlings. It should have been a tranquil and invigorating morning, but right on the street outside my apartment my crest fell.
A man walking his cocker spaniel waited as the dog did his number on the sidewalk, and then the man just walked off, without glancing at me, leaving the number to do its fly-ridden thing. It being a morning of serenity and tolerance I decided to shrug that off and continue walking. Two minutes later another man stepped, this time with three dachshunds, out of his newly built, meticulously manicured house and walled garden, into the gravel driveway belonging to the kindergarten next door, and waited as all three dogs did their numbers. When they were done, the man turned his heel and reentered his fastidious house, again, leaving the mess on the ground for bombardier beetles and maggots. Well, I told myself, this isn’t my home, and he seemed like a reasonable man, so let’s not assume anything here. So on I trundled, still in the mood for humming.
I rounded the next corner and came face-to-face with yet another housing development in the vicinity of my apartment… the seventeenth so far in my five years here… this time taking over a small park that must have been part of this area since I was born. Now, Chofu, my town, supposedly has a law which requires 20 percent of the land area to be reserved for trees and parks or small farms and nurseries. One of the reasons I moved here was to make sure that I had a least some semblance of greenery around me while in Tokyo. However, the big housing corporations like Daiwa House and Sekisui Homes and Mitsubishi Development must have made some under-the-table deals with city officials and bypassed the laws. Every single one of the green areas around my home, now that the little park had been taken, had disappeared during the five years I’ve been here, to be replaced by exceedingly cramped mockeries of American “little boxes on the hill top” “all made out of ticky tacky”, some with barely a meter of space between the walls of the houses. Everything was beginning to look exactly the same with none of the older expressions of individual creativity and the signs of various states of growth and dilapidation that traditional Japanese neighborhoods always carried with an air of dignity and pleasure.
I saw yet another man (always men… I’ve rarely seen a Japanese woman not carefully pick up after her dog) allowing his pomeranian to proliferate the various species of dung beetles that tumble about those odoriferous miniature landscapes, this time going out of his way to part some streetside azaleas, stepping into and trampling the branches, and setting the dog inside that space like a flower pot. He, too, after glancing guiltily about, walked away as if he were the only man in the world committing such misdemeanors.
As tends to happen when my eyes focus on certain subjects, my mind went into overdrive and saw all the ugliness repeated over and over again, the hideous housing developments, the pooing dogs, the litter-choked river, the signs shooing skateboarders and bicyclists away from the public parks, someone’s dirty panties by the side of the river path, a small, hidden slope seething with discarded refrigerators, bicycles, bookshelves, and stained mattresses, tendrils of plastic cordage suspended from trees, a flock of oily and filthy pigeons, many with club feet or deformed beaks, piles upon piles upon piles of garbage-filled plastic bags waiting to be picked up, the first bomber plane of the day roaring by toward the American air base in the west, the sickly-sweet odor of sewage and detergent flowing from a storm drain into the river, the carp and turtles poking about in the toxic mud of the ankle deep river water, and a horizon choked with rooftop after rooftop after rooftop after rooftop after rooftop…
I started clenching my fists in anger and felt my chest constrict, so that it was hard to breathe properly. I saw a man walk nonchalantly down to the river’s edge and, since it was dawn and few people were about, zip down his pants and send his urine arching into the water, and that did it for me. I couldn’t enjoy this walk. So I turned and headed back home.
Along the way I happened upon yet another man standing as his dog, this time a huge samoyed, did its contribution to the pinworm empire, right on the walkway of some student apartments. I almost walked past this man, too, but was boiling over with indignation, so I stopped, turned around and asked him point-blank, “Excuse me, are you intending to just leave everything there, right in front of that person’s home, in the walkway?”
He scowled and turned bright red. “No,” he replied.
“Ah, then you intend to pick up after the dog with your bare hands?”
He, of course, couldn’t reply to that, but he did anyway, “No.”
“What if I decided to do the same thing right in front of your house?” I asked.
“I probably wouldn’t like it,” he answered. I felt like I was talking to a naughty teenager.
“Please think about it then,” I said, and with that I turned and continued on home. I felt prickly and off balance, and scolded myself all the way to my door.
When back in the apartment I let out a great sigh, made myself some tea. Tea in hand I ventured to my computer and turned it on. Opened my e-mail. And found this news
“Tibetan Nun Shot by Chinese Soldiers at Nangpo Pass In the Himalaya”
Body of a Tibetan nun shot by Chinese soldiers at Nangpo Pass in the Himalaya.