Tuesday, March 15, 2011

the houses tottered, and were tumbled

When I was in Japan I lived and worked a short train ride away from the coast, and sometimes on my days off I would travel east to the Pacific where I would walk along one of those beaches that are now underwater or else covered in debris, and if photographs are to be believed then two of the places I remember, one where I read Candide* on a rock on a breakwater, have managed to acquire vast, seething, and seductive offshore whirlpools; they are Charybdis, they drink down ships. I do not think that this part of the coastline, although it is good for shipping, has ever been internationally famous for anything until now, and I wanted to give out some picture of it as it was before this happened, because it was small and calm and modest and now it is not.

So this is how it was at this time of year: a greyish sky, milky-coloured, the sea a lint-blue calm and furry savannah, the two colours lying alongside one another in bars, one on top, one below, individual but related, as in a Rothko painting, sometimes melting together, sometimes distinguished, cool but not cold, everything mild in fact, not noisy, but quiet, a slight wind, and nothing in a hurry, not even the waves or the clouds; the town behind the beach all small houses, with small streets and a few people out, going into a small shop with their bags. It's a summer town off-season (is this memory taking place near Oarai?) with that beachside atmosphere of commerce waiting until the tourists come back with the heat, a sort of pausing desertedness and isolation, as if everyone who matters has stepped out like Lawrence Oates from his Antarctic shelter, and the rest of us are waiting for him to get back, but we know he'll make it and we're not worried. It's not a hostile or resentful isolation, and perhaps the town is not even that kind of town, but it has that kind of atmosphere. The children are still in school.

A little way inland the houses are larger, they become suburbs in the Japanese style, pale walls and still air, tiny gardens or none, architecture in straight vertical lines, not like the more relaxed and elderly houses right by the beach, brown and wooden. All of the footpaths are narrow. There is a railway station where you can buy the usual drinks in vending machines, beer, coffee, Pocari Sweat, and so on, and read the usual advertisements for phone companies and English schools. There is a line painted on the side of the platform, and when the train pulls up the doors will open exactly in alignment with this line. If the train is late then you assume a salaryman has gone bankrupt and thrown himself onto the tracks; you reflect that if you were going to commit suicide in this way then at least you'd hie off south and hold up the Yamanote Line. There is a certain familiarity in this cynicism; you feel you belong with all the other cynics, who are behind you buying the canned coffee.

Now if you go out into the countryside you will see rice fields, neat and brilliant green, and rows of firs and other tidy dark trees, with copses here and there, birds, herons, and tiny villages and occasional graveyards, rows of grey Jizō statues, some of them quite old, with the divine one's features worn to bumps and the cloth bibs around his necks blown to tatters. In the underworld on the bank of the Sanzu River he is letting the dead children crawl into his sleeves to protect them from demons.

If you want to go to a more populated area you will come to Mito City, the capital of Ibaraki Prefecture. People in Mito will apologise to you because their city is not as exciting as Tokyo, which is hours to the south-west. "Mito is boring." But Mito has a contemporary art museum, Art Tower Mito, the tower itself twisted like a DNA spiral, and it has other cultural centres; it has department stores and shrines, temples, historic buildings; and people come from out of town every year in late February to walk through Kairakuen Park while the plum trees are in blossom. The petals fall and the wind blows them out of the park and among the buildings where they form a pink mash in the gutters, and the breezes in the traffic intersections turn them into willy-willies.

You walk over a bridge, a turtle swims past, and if it is late on Friday afternoon then the salarymen will be coming home arm in arm, tipsy at the end of the week; the sun gets rosier as it goes down until it is the colour of a strawberry, then the sky is dark, the DVD store down the road is renting porn and Studio Ghibli films, a woman wearing high boots is walking a Pomeranian, the attendant behind the counter in the 7-11 is calling, "Irasshaimase," to a customer, the customer picks up the boxed plastic figure of a yokai, one of a series, thinking that he will add it to his collection, and there is a light moment of joyful song cut short when a lone salaryman walking past in sober suit takes out a mobile phone decorated with luminous danglers, and puts it to his ear -- "Moshi moshi."

* Which contains an earthquake. "Scarcely had they ceased to lament the loss of their benefactor and set foot in the city, when they perceived that the earth trembled under their feet, and the sea, swelling and foaming in the harbor, was dashing in pieces the vessels that were riding at anchor. Large sheets of flames and cinders covered the streets and public places; the houses tottered, and were tumbled topsy-turvy even to their foundations, which were themselves destroyed …" Translated by William Fleming.


  1. Thanks. There were a hundred other things that I wrote down and then threw out: a brief history of the Mito Clan, the museum above the Naka River with its old-fashioned dioramas in glass cases (cross section of a pond, cross section of a rice field, etc, dead stick insects on pins and the backdrop painted in), more vending machines, the Hundred Yen Store, the place where they served hanito (the name a naturalised contraction of honey-toast), the fresh seafood in the supermarkets, the toy rabbits dressed as strawberries -- I keep wondering what's happened to it all.

  2. Beautifully captured. We have plans (still, but who knows) to go to Japan this May, The Sendai area was on our route as we've been to Aomori and Hokkaido, to Niigata and Sado, to Tokyo and places south, to Kanazawa and places west BUT we have not been to northeast Honshu.

    How long did you live there? Anyhow, we watch, wait and wonder about our trip (which if it goes ahead will focus on the south where there are many places for us yet to explore).

  3. I'm glad you posted. I saw your blog and I was going to ask where you were going but I couldn't think of a way to phrase it. I was there for a year. I left for family reasons, and I've regretted it ever since. If I had half a brain I'd still be there today (and probably lining up in the streets with everybody else, working out on my fingers when the next blackout was going to hit).

    My good wishes for your trip, wherever it goes. Speaking of the north (Aomori, etc), I've been watching CNN on and off here, and when I switched it on last night I saw one of their headline reporters shuddering with cold in Japan -- obviously Japan, judging from the buildings around him -- but where? Snow was sailing down on his unhatted head. Finally they told us. They'd sent the poor bastard to Akita.