I walked thrice up and down the street to locate the memorial to William Adams, shipwrecked Englishman who taught the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu gunnery, geography, and mathematics, and whose life inspired James Clavell to write the bestseller Shogun (1975). The stone is crammed in less than five feet between two shops. The neighborhood went by his Japanese name once, as Aijin-cho. Devotees of bestsellers have rated Shogun four and half at Amazon, with three-hundred and eleven reviews. I stood there so long, a man waiting in a car nearby walked over to read in Japanese what I read in English. The memorial is two streets from Nihonbashi, the bridge Ieyasu built, over which sweeps a massive highway that keeps Nihonbashi in perpetual shadow of the now. But I marveled that it has lived four centuries: the richest and the most powerful lived both sides of it then; the Bank of Japan resides there now.
Basho lived in Fukagawa in Tokyo. Consider his popular haiku: an ancient pond/a frog jumps in/the splash of water. In Fukagawa’s Kiyosumi Gardens, the seventeen syllables that make this verse are carved into stone. Basho’s house is a short walk from there, and before it, on a height by the river Sumida, Basho (in bronze) is serene on a pedestal. Down by his right hand there is a tiny pond fed through a bamboo sieve. While I was there, a man with a Mamiya sought an essence in the pond that evokes the haiku. He worked on, crouched, swaying from knee to knee, even as I left. From the statue it is ten minutes on the river-promenade to the Basho Museum which has nothing in English, but many frogs: in stone as paperweight; statuettes safe behind glass; on scrolls; and suggested in a painting in which Basho looks back to the waters. I bought a gilt bookmark: a flat strip with a blue tie: in its fretwork a frog has leapt and will meet the water in a moment.
In the sumo neighborhood of Ryogoku I came upon Lord Kira’s memorial. Kira is a villain in Japanese history, in kabuki and bunraku, and the movies: forty-seven ronin-samurai killed him to avenge the seppuku-suicide of their master Lord Asano which Kira had provoked. They say you don’t know Japan if you don’t know this story; the classic movie on it is Yamamoto Kejiro’s Chushinguro (1939), in which the leader of the ronins is played by Okochi Kenjiro, a star in his time. Okochi’s house in Kyoto is preserved, and the walk to it is memorable. Start at Tenryu-ji temple, walk through a much-photographed bamboo grove, and go up to Okochi’s house. It is in the heights of the Arashimaya, and the deck before the house contemplates Kyoto in the far basin. I lost my way after the bamboo grove. Coming by train, having walked up a gentle slope, I wasn’t aware I was going so high. I was at a steep fall and at an eagle-dive depth far below there were two boats in the middle of a river flanked by wood huts—a scene out of a Kurosawa period-movie! Later, in Okochi’s house, I was restored by green tea that they serve all visitors, with bows and courtesies.
To one arrived from Tokyo, Kyoto is like Mysore for the Bangalorean. It begs walking. At the hotel my window opened toward the Nijojo Castle where, in 1868, the last Shogun proclaimed to his daimyo-nobles his decision to hand Japan back to the emperor. Even while enjoying such castles, and shrines, and walks such as the philosopher’s walk in East Kyoto, there was the warm rush in the chest to go see the geisha in Gion. One afternoon, as I strolled in Ninenzaka and Sanneizaka two maiko came up the stairway-street, and were promptly mobbed by Japanese and Western tourists, and masses of schoolchildren. The ladies obliged, halted everywhere for pictures, standing on cobblestones, young, gracious, smiling without showing teeth, more cute than sexy, attractive to all ages and to both sexes. I worried if the afternoon sun will make them sweat and ruin the chalk-white paint on their face.
Back in Tokyo, in Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku there were many lights besides red, and before some establishments there was no red at all. The boys before the host clubs (hair in high mops, like in comic-books) and the girls from the hostess clubs stood outside to tout, but they are routed by the pachinco-game-parlors. I went into one and promptly beat it back. The din! I stayed on the streets and told myself it is okay, that Kurosawa walked in Shinjuku the evening he heard of his father’s death, and that another time, he and his sound director went around this amusement district with a recorder and wide-eyes to capture its air for Ikiru (1952). In Shinjuku-Kinokuniya I bought two Murakami books. In his memoirs on running, Murakami says he shut down his successful bar when he was thirty-four and came to this very bookstore to buy a good pen, to begin a writing career.
This feature is published on Outlook India …