Photo: Laird Hunt.

An Afternoon in Osaka

Blurring reality and fiction in Japan’s second-largest city.


“It always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world.”
— Svetlana Alexievich

My afternoon in Osaka begins in the morning on the bullet train down from Koriyama where I am reading translations of stories by Tomoka Shibasaki. They’re all good, these stories, but I am particularly taken by one called “Background Music,” translated by Ted Goosen. In the story, the narrator and her brother are driving together on an island in the middle of Japan’s Inland Sea. Their father has died and the brother wants to fish and as they look for good spots they are listening to an iPod playlist of American music, including John Lee Hooker, Eminem, Rihanna, Beck and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s a beautiful day in the story and a beautiful day out the windows of the bullet train and though I don’t know all the songs that are being referred to by the narrator, I start to hear bits and pieces of music, little sonic hallucinations that don’t stop when the story ends.




I am traveling with my translator, Motoyuki “Moto” Shibata, and his wife Hitomi, who years ago spotted an error in a list of dates in my second novel, Indiana, Indiana, which suggested that a character was born the year after her mother died. When we arrive, we check in to the Hotel Granvia Osaka then walk down warm streets, alongside orderly traffic, and across the Yodo river to the shining high-rise offices of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and publisher. There we meet up with the novelist Yoko Ogawa, whom Moto, a longtime professor of American Literature at Tokyo University, is going to interview about her favorite international fiction, including works by Emily Brontë, Boris Vian, Paul Auster and Richard Brautigan. We also see Tomoka Shibasaki, whose stories are swirling around in my head. The plan is that Tomoka, an Osaka native, is going to take Hitomi and me for a walk in the city before our evening event while Moto conducts his interview. As we leave the building and get into a cab I think about Red Hot Chili Peppers and Muddy Waters because of Tomoka’s story, but what I hear without quite exactly hearing them are flashes of “I Am Stretched on Your Grave,” “Feel So Different,” and “Black Boys on Mopeds” by Sinead O’Connor, songs I listened to on cassette tape when I lived in Japan in the fall of 1991, when I wasn’t listening to 10,000 Maniacs (I had a lot of books but not much music). I don’t say anything about any of this to Tomoka, who seems uncannily like the narrator of “Background Music”, which is to say calm, capable and understatedly ready for anything; I have only just met her.




Tomoka’s grandparents are interred at Isshinji temple. I don’t know this when we arrive and go in under a modern glass, concrete and steel archway guarded by huge bronze guardians and into the open-air complex where people burn incense and offer prayers for the dead. We light incense sticks and place them in holders and inhale and think our thoughts and Tomoka tells us that the three, large Buddhas we can see behind glass in a corner of the complex are made of the pressed remains of hundreds of thousands of local citizens. Her grandparents are among them. Each Buddha represents approximately 10 years of remains, meaning that Tomoka’s grandparents are not in the same Buddha.

I didn’t think about David Bowie while we are standing there or about Prince, because neither of them had died yet, but I do find myself now wondering whether or not being buried like this in a Buddha would have been good for them. Buried of course isn’t the word, but I think the answer is yes. Their music makes me think that, yeah, this would do the job very nicely indeed for them, and for all of us for that matter. So now — even though, I stress, I wasn’t thinking about them on that afternoon in Osaka — as we leave the temple, stopping as we do at an alcove where hundreds of wooden wish-inscribed rice scoops are hung after being purchased to help people stop drinking, and set off down a curving street, where we can see the Tsūtenkaku, Osaka Tower, gleaming in the distance, I am getting little hits of “Major Tom” and of “1999.”




Even if we were in a story together, I’m not sure I would tell Tomoka about the songs in my head. It’s nice to imagine I would do so, maybe at some key juncture, but what she is saying now, as we walk along the curving street, about the battle of Tennoji, between the forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which was fought in Osaka in 1615, with devastating results for the residents of Osaka, is much more interesting. We’ve just left one temple and are heading to another, but the modern city is all around us, so this tale of siege and battle, which happened long ago right around where we are walking has a ghostly quality — made all the more pronounced by how improbable it seems on this bright lovely day  — and it is easy to imagine as we pass a little statue of a squirrel that the car horns and bird song we can hear are lightly glazed with screams and clashing swords and the beating of soon-to-be-broken drums.








These sounds and the ghosts of sounds and even the bursts of music in my head are swept aside when we arrive at the second temple, a much larger complex, and walk upstream through a river of happy, talking, cell-phone checking, mask-wearing uniformed high-school girls, who have just been let out of school. And though our visit to Tennoji is most pleasant, and includes sightings of slow-swimming turtles, floating gingko leaves, charming anti-cat devices, and the figure eight each of us walks for good luck through the Kaya no Wa-kuguri, — “the going-through act of the sedge ring” — part of me has temporarily switched direction and allegiance and is walking ghost-like off through the city with the students, through busy and quiet streets, looking with them at the bright displays of the stores they pass, smelling gusts of fragrant steam coming out of the okonomiyaki and soba shops, listening as best I can to the music they select for themselves on their phones, which makes me think, because I can barely hear what they have chosen, and they are all listening to different things, of these lines from Tomoka’s story, which appears in the latest issue of Monkey Business:

It’s funny how music works: it’s invisible and weightless, yet when it plays matter seems to scatter around us. Grains, waves, lumps of sound appear and disappear. Like bubbles in a glass of carbonated water.

There are dozens of students in the group I’ve been swept off with, and they all of course end up in different places, so I’ve been divided many times over and there isn’t much left of me when I find myself again an hour or so later with Tomoka and Hitomi, standing outside what they tell me is the birthplace of Yasunari Kawabata.




I read Kawabata — who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, and who wrote extraordinary works like Palm-of-the-Hand Stories and The Sound of the Mountain — with great devotion when I was in my 20s, going so far as to name one of my earliest works after his great novel, Snow Country. I think about this when we cross the street and pass through the gates of the Tenman-Gū, a Shinto shrine hemmed in hard on all sides by high buildings, where students like the ones I just accompanied — or rather imagined I did; I know that — and Tomoka herself some years ago, offer up prayers for success on University entrance examinations. There is a window on one end of the shrine where for a couple hundred yen you pull a number out of a box then receive your fortune on a slip of paper. Tomoka gets hers and is pleased enough with it, says it’s better than the last one she got. I get mine and am told by Tomoka and Hitomi that it says things are pretty good for me right now but are going to get considerably better, which doesn’t seem possible but of course I’m happy to take it.




A little later, as we start to head back to the Asahi Shinbum offices, where we will rejoin Moto and spend some time with the brilliant, incredibly elegant Yoko Ogawa, and the editor of the Japanese edition of Kind One, we snack on steaming potato croquettes at a popular stall in the Tenjinbashisuji, a kilometers-long covered shopping street, where my eye lights on a display, possibly temporary, of inexpensive articles that have been lost on trains. And it’s almost certainly not the case that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are playing out of a nearby speaker while we stand there a moment and crunch and consider the lost but probably not forgotten scarves and umbrellas before continuing on. Or that David Bowie is crooning off in the distance. Or that Sinead O’Connor is big voicing her hit cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares to You.” But it’s not impossible either. At our event that evening, in a large, handsome room that looks out over the sprawling lights of Osaka, I tell Tomoka that I had the impression, many times over the course of the afternoon, that I had entered into one of her stories. She says without missing a beat that this was absolutely her intention. Beside me, Moto shifts in his chair and someone out in the audience clears her throat and I hear, soft but distinct, a little burst of Aretha Franklin. Tomoka’s eyes are quietly gleaming and she has a small smile on her face as if to say, and we’re not through.


Photos by the author.