by Elaine Terranova
Instruction, what I sought. Not from the beginning as would require study, reading, deep thought, the string of something you follow until it’s exhausted, but no, only scatter shot. Knowing by looking around corners. Stepping like a spy along the emperor’s Hall of Nightingales. Steps even barefoot he can hear as he sleeps.
armed guards assemble
in the dark antechamber…
a lost kitten’s tread
And after the cancer was cut out of my breast, after treatment, equally intrusive, this I wanted, to be far, far away.
Shin meaning new, Shinjuku. The grid of high buildings. The American hotel with its Japanese breakfasts. Windows where light breaks. Where I watch the subway riders at evening spew out from underground like erupting lava.
To think, all these people live here, here, where I’d never have seen them if I hadn’t come.
leaving the airport
Tokyo Road traffic jam—
at my back, Fuji
On the bus that has transported me, traffic never lessening, I study the white lace antimacassars which protect the passenger seats. For cleanliness, as well, the driver wears white gloves. As do taxi drivers, I will learn, and even operators of department store elevators, the latter, pretty young women, whose beanies and Brownie-style uniforms are a smiting red.
And I find myself twenty-one hours later than the east coast of America. I’m only three hours off, plus a day, which is lost forever.
In Tokyo, I will venture onto the subway platforms where guards shoehorn you in at rush hour. Each ku or neighborhood has its own pattern of tones that rings when you arrive, a lovely reception, like a programmed wind chime.
I will stop at Harajuku, the “in” neighborhood. Clothing verging on the pornographic, cut-out nipples and crotches. Omotesando, wide Parisian boulevard, that intoxicating name. Takeshita-dori, smoky alley leading to a flea market. I wander off to a nearby garden.
to walk beside the full moon,
fenced-in jasmine’s scent
Another day’s outing. Fantastic kimonos hang in glass cases in Oeno Park museum, robin’s egg or raspberry, embroidered with birds and flowers. Grand, not a size for women. Later I’ll see like ones in the kabuki worn by players of mighty men, under their angry, cross-eyed stares. Kabuki players, it is said, act with the pupils of their eyes.
On the tour I take, Mayumi is our guide: My (pointing to herself), you (pointing to her charges), me (back to herself). She can give statistics on how many Japanese have western-style toilets. Facts: how Japanese wives control the family finances, how much allowance they allot to their businessmen husbands to drink and entertain themselves each month.
Our bus takes us to a shrine.
in my photo
the stillness of stone lanterns—
passersby in mid-step
I watch. I see what to do. First, purify yourself with holy water: Using the long-handled wooden spoon, cleanse left hand, right hand, pour water in left palm to rinse the mouth. Gather around the incense burner, which is like a black, cast iron head on the ground. Bend, waft fumes, which are pleasant if a bit overwhelming, from its orifices toward the part of your body which needs divine aid. I draw them to my chest and cough, cough out my natural breath as I breathe in sweet smoke.
a sip of holy water…
lost in the smoke of incense
After, you can take a paper fortune—you’re allowed to throw it back and try again—or leave a paper prayer.
All around, unfamiliar trees that bear the familiar odor of camphor.
Instruction now on how to enter the wooden pavilion: First, take off shoes. Don’t step with them onto the clean wooden platform or people will come with a mop immediately to wipe away your footprint. Approach. Bow twice. Clap hands to get the attention of the kami (god of the river, mountain, agricultural crop) who protects the premises. Make your request: Health, once more, health. Again bow twice, back away.
At a temple you don’t have to clap because the image or statue is already visible. It awaits you. You needn’t attract its attention as in a shrine to call it out.
Shrines on streets, in parks, on temple grounds. Cedar trees are good for building them.
off a busy street
red cloth strung along a line—
clothes for the kami
The tour bus next day takes us to Nikko Toshu-go, the Shogun’s shrine, a five-story pagoda. Each Chinese tower on the second level, presided over by a guardian figure. The one on the left is saying ah, indicating birth. The one on the right, mmm or om, for death. Ah and om, which stand as well for the drum of birth and the bell of death and for the first and last letters of the sacred Sanskrit alphabet. The Hall of 36 Poets nearby is protected by mythical beasts, the tapir who eats nightmares and Ran, a phoenix-like bird with a lifespan of 360 years.
The Tokagawa Shogun’s crest is upside down because perfection will attract evil spirits.
Nikko morning mist
and you can barely make out
bright-eyed snow monkeys
On a ferry to Hakone, Myumi tells us Lake Ashi is very deep. The bodies of the drowned never rise to the surface because of water pressure and the impenetrable hard mud.
Is it here that in a temple garden, a pine has taken on the shape of a treasure ship? It began as bonsai, which can last for centuries, but then was planted so it found feet in the earth and will die sooner.
Elsewhere, under clear-weather clouds, we enter gardens where even the dirt is swept.
poor flowering pear
shivers in a lacy shawl…
fool of the false spring
So many sights. So many vehicles transporting us. Wooden houses, paper windows. Loose, fluid. All of it could collapse and be gone in the morning, beds, doors, walls. I come from more solid housings and furnishings. They wait to receive me, firm and in place even if it is a matter of doubt—will I sit or stand, might I change my mind?
But sometime I must return home. Folded within myself, the knowledge that I have come from my life, desiring new sky and moss, new mountain water to gaze at. Her waist smaller than mine has ever been, the pretty ocarina player in the park repeating over and over with great optimism Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini, who could heal me, or the vague smoke of the incense burner I wafted over my breast. A paper prayer I left. A paper fortune I took away.