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From the Night
The plane dropped below the clouds and with darkness
approaching I had my first look at Japan. It was flat
and with all its lights looked like central New Jersey.
We were flying over crisscrossed roadways. Matsui-san,
my soon to be ex-wife, had insisted that Japan was
nothing but mountains. My dear friend and patron,
Seki-san, who was financing the experience, was
disappointed there was no fly-by of Mount Fuji. During
my three-week stay in Japan, I would never see Fuji-san
because of the weather, except once its vague outline in
a dense cloud.
Darkness arrived. We took the bus to Tokyo, a cab to
Shinjuku. Matsui-san was waiting for us at the appointed
intersection, apologetic for not meeting us at the
First we went to her parentsí house to pick up extra
bedding. It was awkward. This was the first time I met
Matsui-sanís parents, and I was carrying the divorce
papers in my luggage for Matsui-san to sign.
Matsui-san lived in a modern apartment building where
hallways could be sectioned off by steel doors to
contain fires. In Japan, Matsui-san told me, the
buildings had fire doors that tenants could swing into
place, compartmentalizing the buildings and containing a
fire. Everywhere firefighting equipment stood at the
ready. All homes, apartments, and hotel rooms had
flashlights mounted on the wall that, when removed,
would automatically turn on. During my three weeks in
Japan, though, I never once heard the sirens of fire
Matsui-sanís apartment was small, like a rabbit hutch
she would say. This is the way most Edokko lived, she
explained. Unlike a New Yorkerís apartment, this one
came without a stove, refrigerator, or heat, although
there was hot water. The tenant was expected to
fill the provided places with the appropriate
appliances. The next morning, I woke under heavy
blankets, my bed a futon on the tatami floor, and I was
listening to unfamiliar birdsong. It was the birdsong
that first made me feel I was somewhere strange.
Matsui-san had insisted there were no more old
traditional style homes in Tokyo. However, there it was,
her uncleís house, which was adjacent to the house she
grew up in. The garden that separated the two homes was
a tangle of pines, plum trees, cherry trees, and stone
lanterns. Matsui-sanís bedroom while growing up had a
view of that garden and on its far side the long veranda
under the tiled roof of her uncleís home. It was once
her grandfatherís house. Was this a splinter from
Tokyoís past? That wooden city was burned away during
the Second World War.
The Matsui family had been wealthy farmers and
Matsui-sanís grandfather a leader to other farmers. They
surrendered much of their wealth in order to be granted
the title of samurai. It was an inopportune time, for
this was during the reign of the last Tokugawa
shogunate, when the samurai class fell from power. The
family kept their swords until the Second World War.
Then the military was hurting for metal and the
government asked the people to donate. No one had swords
anymore, Matsui-san told me.
Matsui-sanís grandfather was still a very wealthy man.
He so admired the beauty of a particular
restaurant-house, he purchased it and had the structure
moved to Tokyo. This was the house next door, now
belonging to Matsui-sanís maternal uncle, married to
Seki-sanís sister. I was invited to visit.
From the street you couldnít see the house. It was
concealed behind a high wall. Matsui-sanís aunt greeted
me at the door, dressed in a thick sweater over which
she wore a heavy vest. The house was not heated. I was
given a tour of the ground floor, shown the cabinet that
held the family shrine. Two rooms at the center of the
house were where the general living took place. The
outer walls were shoji, a wall of wood lattice work and
translucent paper. The wall that divided the two rooms
was a fusuma, which is made of decorated but opaque
paper on panels. The fusuma, as with the shoji panels,
are never affixed, but could slide along wooden tracks.
There was little furniture, the most prominent piece
being a cabinet to hold the apparatus for the tea
ceremony. There were works of art, a scroll painting,
statuettes, and handcrafts, all kept to a minimum. What
most impressed me were two sets of samurai swords.
Matsui-sanís uncle collected them. In fact, the Matsuiís
next door neighbor was a dealer in antique swords.
Matsui-san grew up next door never realizing this.
The wall that faced the garden was once shoji, but the
paper panels had been replaced with blown glass. This
afforded an excellent view of the traditional garden. On
the far side, the Matsui residence rose above the trees.
The uncle showed me how, in bad weather, they could
reach into a narrow slit and pull out panel after panel
of solid wood and push them along a track, each panel
pushing the next. This was the amado; it formed a wall
parallel to the shoji, providing protection.
My spirit came to rest in that room. A low table at its
center had a blanket of sorts that ran along the tableís
edge. It was a kotatsu, a pit that the table covered, in
the bottom of which was a heating unit. Around such
tables families sat with as much of their anatomy as
possible tucked under the blanket, and through cold
evenings the social necessity of staying warm made
family bonds stronger. As I sat at the kotatsu I could
see the Japanese garden, into which rain was drizzling.
Matsui-sanís aunt brought out a beautiful tray. It held
her auntís hand-painted placemat and chopsticks wrapped
in paper with the same design. She brought us tea and a
treat, ohagi, which is a sweet ball of rice covered in a
fine red bean paste.
So on that first day in Tokyo, I saw the interior of a
typical modern Japanese apartment and a typical
old-fashioned Japanese house. But a proper investigation
of Tokyo had to wait. On my second day in Japan,
Matsui-san and Seki-san whisked me off to Kyoto and
Nara, pausing at Hamamatsu during our return trip. Next,
I would accompany Seki-san and her sisters on a visit to
their fatherís grave in Matsuzaki. Another day,
Matsui-san would take me to her parentsí summer home in
Karuizawa, which I have already written about in a
previous essay. Then Seki-san had to return to her
position at the Japanese Embassy in New York; Matsui-san
had to return to her job in Tokyo. For the remainder of
my visit, I was left on my own during the day to wander
the cityís streets. Happiness!
Uniforms were prevalent in Japan. Seki-san liked them.
She said it helped to inform her quickly, to know whom
she could approach with a particular question. For me it
was a bit upsetting. I got nervous when I saw groups of
young students made to look alike, with their matching
haircuts and in dark blue uniforms. It felt demeaning to
see individuality erased. One morning I walked into the
Isetan department store as it was opening, the clerks
standing rigidly at their assigned stations and facing
the front doors in order to bow in unison to the first
arriving customers. I found it embarrassing that they
should humble themselves in order to serve me.
Tokyoís temples, shrines, parks, and museums were often
crowded, but I was fortunate that during most of my
vacation it rained. In Manhattan, after we had separated
and before she returned to Japan, Matsui-san had
presented me with a divorce gift, a Burberry trench
coat. I wore it throughout my Japanese journey.
In Tokyo there is a disregard for architectural
compatibility. Streets radiated out from the Emperorís
compound in crooked lines. Other streets formed wider
and wider rings around the Emperorís palace at the webís
center. Smaller streets, which were the majority,
embroidered the remaining space giving the map of Tokyo
the impression of a web woven by a drunken spider. This
being a very, very old city, property was never divvied
out in an organized manner, but grew in awkward shapes
with the many tiny lots having different owners. When
new buildings went up, they had to fit irregular shaped
lots, filling the spaces above them to the maximum. Most
everything was new. This was a city bombed to
smithereens during the war. It was a city
susceptible to earthquakes, that sits precariously close
to a volcano. My ex-wife once told me an old saying
among the Edokko, ďIt is bad luck to wake in the morning
with yesterdayís money in your pocket.Ē Perhaps this
reflected the uncertainty about tomorrows.
The outside of many buildings were plain, several
looking unfinished with the ends of stressed cables
sticking out of the concrete, as though a marble faÁade
had fallen off. The Japanese put their attention into
interiors. Matsui-san had always warned me Tokyo was
ugly. She also said never to look at the back of a
flower arrangement. Still, there were the gardens.
In Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, I stood in the middle
of an arcing bridge, leaned against the railing and
clapped my hand to attract the giant koi, who thought I
was calling them to feed. It was spring, and the cherry
trees were in bloom.
Not far from Matsui-sanís home, I discovered the Meiji
Memorial Picture Gallery, long halls of immense
paintings depicting historical moments in the life of
Emperor Meiji, including his first haircut. Some were in
Japanese style, others in Western style. The place was
deserted when I was there. One painting was damaged by
an apparent leak in the ceiling. I hope the artworks and
great marbled halls have been refurbished and restored
since my visit thirty years ago.
For the best sushi, we went one afternoon to Tsukiji
Market where fish freshly offloaded from the boats were
sold. Under long roofs were numerous stands and bins,
the fish displayed. Matsui-san taught me to examine the
sharp glare of their eyes to confirm freshness. Deep in
the heart of this market was an undecorated counter with
stools. Here the fishermen gathered to eat. The
experience was rough, raw, and delicious.
For barbecued pork ribs, Matsui-san took me, on an
evening, to a tiny bar in the Ginza. This notorious
gaijin made a spectacle of himself by his efficiency in
stripping the bones of every molecule of meat. So
impressed were the suited businessmen who packed the
bar, they ordered another round of ribs for me and
gathered closer to watch and cheer. I should have been
ashamed, but they seemed good-natured, and the ribs were
Another night we sat at a sake bar. Behind the bar was a
mural map of Japan with tiny bulbs the bartender could
light to show you where your sake originated.
In Tokyo, Matsui-san and I went to see bunraku and
kabuki. It must be said, the Tokyo audience was very
different from the Manhattan theater goer. I remember
when kabuki came to the Metropolitan Opera House. A
Japanese fan stood up to hail the greatness of his
favorite actor and the audience was aghast, the poor
fellow shushed and made to sit down. But such behavior
was the norm in Japan, where the audience ate bento
lunches and conversed among themselves as if they were
in an open-air cafť on a busy street. They all knew the
story and waited for their favorite parts before
devoting their full attention, and then they loudly
praised a good performance.
I walked for miles through Tokyo, allowing myself to get
lost, then finding my way back to Matsui-sanís
apartment. On one of my last days wandering the city, I
accidentally came upon Nihonbashi, ďthe Bridge of
JapanĒ. This was the beginning of the famous Tokaido
Road and the first in a series of woodcut prints by
Hiroshige. The discovery was bittersweet. The bridge was
no longer made of wood and was lost in the shadow of a
My generous and soon to be ex-wife was gracious enough
to sign the divorce papers even while she was allowing
me to stay in her apartment and taking me on tours of
the city and country. I praise her still and continue to
be glad we have remained friends.
After many drenchings in Tokyo, my Burberry lost its
water resistance. It was never very good after that and
I havenít worn it in a long time, yet it still hangs,
hallowed with memories, in my closet.
To read some poems
that Bruce wrote while in Japan, click here:
a distant temple
Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly
about the events and concerns of his life. If you've
any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to
hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's earlier series of
Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from