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From the Night Factory

49. Tokyo Spring 1983

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 airport.

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 engines.

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 excellent.

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 highway.

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. 

Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.