by David A. Hewitt
Thursday, May 23 - Friday, May 24, 2019
Five years since my last Japan visit to see my in-laws; nearly twenty years since I lived there. I’m returning as co-leader of a ten-day study abroad program for community college students. It is the first year of the Reiwa era. At the time of the last Imperial succession, to Heisei, I was a first-year college student myself, crazy in love with my just-beginning studies of Japanese language, culture, and martial arts.
Our journey takes the long way to Tokyo via Hong Kong, a novel route for me. According to the flight-tracking map on the seat back, we fly due north from Baltimore over Canada until there’s no north left, then south through Russian airspace, passing over Lake Baikal. Regrettably, I see none of this, squeezed as I am into a middle seat in coach for this fifteen-hour journey; and what’s more, as a group leader I’m even abstaining from the glass of wine or whiskey that might smooth out those hours.
Late-spring night journey--
Flying, high as high can be,
over the North Pole
Long overnight flight:
No window, can’t read in this light;
to float free—I write.
* * *
Our home base for a week in Tokyo is a hotel in Asakusa, walking distance from Sensōji Temple. Busy day follows busy day, co-coordinating a group of twenty through subway on-loadings and off-loadings, tours, museums, culture culture culture. Foods, sights, experiences, all familiar to me from my long-ago eight years in Japan, but seen anew and afresh through the eyes of students taking their first tentative, yet enthusiastic steps abroad.
Checking in with them during breakfast, weathering the record-breaking May heat wave, talking down those who grow agitated, and managing their health exigencies, both physical and mental… I’m reminded of why I chose not to become a parent, but also feel twinges of what I’ve missed in so choosing.
Tuesday, May 28
A free day. Students are going their separate ways, mostly in small clusters. Some are intent on summiting the looming Sky Tree, others on exploring Asakusa’s countless stalls and shops, still others on venturing over to Akihabara for the vast selection of all things anime-related. I offer to steer this last group in the right direction, and we make our way to the subway and board a train. When I was about their age and new to Japan, the allure of Tokyo, this most scintillating and inexhaustible of metropolises, was not lost on me; nor was the allure of boisterous nights with newfound friends, both expat and Japanese. But beneath and behind it all for me was the deep pull of classical martial arts, of Zen and Shintō, of tradition and ritual and, at the core of all these, the gravity of abiding silence. I fret, as is the right of the middle-aged, about “kids these days,” in whose minds anime is the alpha and omega of Japanese culture . . .
Young college students
on sacred pilgrimage to
After navigating the labyrinthine Akihabara station, I point them in the right general direction(s). Tempting as it is to wander and lose myself in the bustle, neon, and noise, the longing to put words to paper is stronger. I find a quietish café with a 2nd-floor counter table overlooking a plaza.
The day before, our group chanced upon Asakusa’s Bentendō temple, on whose grounds is a polished stone memorializing Matsuo Bashō’s verse:
Clouds of spring blossoms--
Is that bell-toll from Ueno,
Drawing inspiration from the master himself, I plunge pencil-first into a blank notebook page, tinkering with a humble late-spring verse of my own, in homage to the students’ consumerist zeal:
Minds clouded with goods--
Jingle that cash in Akiba,
Friday, May 31
Tomorrow night will be a final group dinner, but tonight, at last, a wide-open evening! I venture out into the humid dark for some solitude. I’ve walked the gravel-and-paving-stone grounds of Asakusa’s iconic temple numerous times, but never before at night.
Seeking kindred souls
in their fierce wood-carved faces--
The temple’s silence
soothes and stills my sloshing mind--
night at Sensōji
Asakusa, so packed with humanity in the daytime, is surprisingly quiet tonight. Wandering the well-lit, narrow streets, I find a ramen shop that’s nearly deserted. Near my first apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo—more than a quarter-century ago—just outside the station was a cozy ramen shop consisting of a counter bar and three tables. Hopeless at cooking and hungry for good food, language practice, and company, I’d become a regular there, usually ordering ramen with pork slices, gyōza, and a large bottle of Kirin Lager. Tomorrow, we’ll have a last group tour and a farewell dinner, then back on an airplane, back to the States, back to college work and yard work and . . . life.
It’s not my old haunt, but this shop’s atmosphere strikes all the right, resonant chords. After ordering I make only perfunctory small talk with the master; more than anything I simply want to immerse myself in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes.
Memories of youthful years
in Japan simmer, bubble up--
eating gyōza alone.