Monday, February 07, 2005


Home had been a large gray, rambling wooden house that rattled pleasantly during earthquakes. Built in the Western style in the heart of Tokyo, it wasn't far from the road along which the 47 ronin had carried the head of Kira on that winter morning in 1702. When I'd moved there in the early 1970s on my first trip to Japan the house was already old, somehow miraculously having survived the 1923 earthquake and the Tokyo firebombing maelstroms. I lived there on and off for five years, leaving it for the last time in 1977 and moving on.

Now again on another leg of that long journey the traveler's life becomes, at the tail end of a trip north I was getting off the train at the old station on an evening nearly 30 years later, just to walk the old streets and see if the house was still there.

At the station itself, I couldn't recognize a thing but the name. Back then practically a third-world train station, it now had an Irish Pub, a Bucks coffee shop, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant...

It would be getting dark soon; I had to move on.

Out on the street I couldn't find the way home. Used to be a small alleyway right there... Canyons of mirrored glass now rose over streets that had once been person-level byways lined with small shops tended by their owners, who lived in the back and who knew you for walking by every day, stopping in now and then to buy and chat. Blundering around the new expensively flashing corners I came upon a narrow canyon that looked like it might have been the way I used to go, but I still couldn't recognize a thing; there was nothing left but the narrowness. As I walked, now and then I paused and closed my eyes to see if I could still see what had been here, a street that meant something to me, to replace what I did not want to behold, the violation done to what had been secretly mine, to the open simplicity of a past that no one wanted anymore...

What used to be here? I could close my eyes, see it as it used to be and know the way; then I'd open them and be lost again. I should have come another time, I thought - when I had more daylight, was less tired, more eager, less vulnerable to these feelings - I’d been hiking since dawn; these moments deserved more than this, more than I could bring to bear from the past of a single aging life... But those moments were mine; if they were to flow this far and perhaps beyond, they had to flow through me: no one else could do this. You have to take the past as you find it. How correctly we remember doesn't seem to matter all that much, only that we remember, or at least that we try...

And each step brought me nearer...

For millennia now Heraclitus has been telling us, and more recently Thomas Wolfe, among others, that we can't go home again, yet still we try; return is the child of departure. But I wasn't trying to step into the same river twice, or to go home again. I was simply trying to go back to where once I had lived — where I had spent some of the highlight years of my life — simply to see what had become of the place where it had all happened. It had seemed like just an idea, only a couple of hours at the tag end of another of my travels.

But even when we step into that always different river of the same name, or go again to what is no longer home, there are hidden currents that can carry us away, different streets and other rooms habited with familiar spirits, that beckon yet...

Right about here, I remember there used to be an old madwoman who every evening at about dusk leaned out of the upper windows and screamed her madness into the street, then closed the windows and went about her life. She and the house were gone now. And I don't remember what used to be over there, but it wasn't a parking lot. This corner was where one afternoon I’d been wearing an indigo kendo jacket as a fashion item right here on the street and an old man, shocked by the concept, had walked into that telephone pole.

As to the house, built of thin, unpainted wood it had looked like it would take only about ten minutes to burn to ash. Surely it was gone by now: another 30 years! There were the steps into the temple; it was closed! But no, only because the stone walk was being reconstructed. I went around, up the side road, the way we used to go when things were tipsy. I reached the priest’s parking lot — and there, as it had always been, stood the house, grayer and more fragile than I'd remembered.

Built in several stages, the house had early on had a number of additions, it was two storied, the portion I'd lived in had a very small kitchen with a bath beyond, two large rooms upstairs, downstairs the same, with a large sunporch and sunroom, all looking out on the piece de resistance, the garden and its pond, backed by a small forested slope leading up to the road that was home to a few small oil-rich embassies.

The house had originally been the residence of the temple priest, whose forebears had been quite progressive. I was told when I first moved in that Sun Yat-sen had lived in the house during his time in Tokyo, though I could not confirm this. The new priest, son of the former priest, had built a new modern house in another corner of the grounds and lived there with his family, renting the old house out, primarily to foreigners. Japanese wouldn't live there, it was said, because the temple cemetery was right out front.

The house had also engaged one of the earliest telephones in Tokyo: the number on the big old clanky chunk-a-chunk iron thing ended with 0084. Other separate apartments in the large old place at the time were home to a ronin law student, a radical young designer couple and an ever-changing stream of foreigners.

As I stood there watching now, looking at the house in the way I'd never really done while I lived there, I saw all those I'd known back then come visiting, come walking down these very stones along that path to that doorway 30 years ago, and right here in the rain... all those people I had never seen again, so many there were, what has become of them all, I wondered, standing in time's river...

No matter what you think you know, to bring together the real and the remembered is to mingle tears and ashes. For what is remembered is not real, and cannot be brought before you. Only when you have traveled long enough to have a distant past do you feel the desire to return, see where it happened, see how it was, but of course it is all gone now, the ratios have changed, what happened has changed, what was is no longer, and so it is that you come to stand on the very spot in the wisdom of your new confusion and let the loss wash over you.

As I stood there looking I went back, far back along the river that led to that moment, where I saw my past as the parting of a veil: so many times over so many years I and my loves and friends of those days and nights had walked this path, turned this corner, entered these doors, gazed out those old windows upon our long futures, and I have never seen those loves and friends again; yet so brief it had seemed our partings would be!

How trifling tomorrow appears to those who have so many of them, so many tomorrows to spare for other things, knowing nothing as yet of long times gone, or of the vast abyss time holds in each tick; there were too many final partings in this place. Such roads of life are not easy or joyous to retrace, and when you do you find that they are for other feet than yours now, the paths you knew are no longer there, they have gone to where old roads go, to the inner valleys of the heart, where eternity resides...

And if we can't go back, then what are memories for?

As in your dreams everything you dream is you, so in your memories everything you remember is you. When in the real world you return to a place of memory, it is like looking into a mirror and seeing no one there. In the past, you are invisible. All that remains is you now, looking: what you have found is the one you have become.

[Originally published in slightly different form in Kyoto Journal #56]

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