Traveling north from Tokyo to Kumagaya, I’m sure I’ve fallen asleep because I think I’m hearing whales, big ones, calling out to each other across the deep. I open my eyes and the whales are still there, singing from the connection between the train cars. It’s just elaborate squeaking, I think, but still I stand a moment, eliciting not a glance from my fellow passengers, and go over closer to listen. I hear it again — lower then higher, a strange aquatic keening — long enough to determine that it’s not coming from the connection between the cars, but then it stops abruptly and I return to my seat. I don’t shut my eyes this time; instead I reopen my copy of the Japan Times, one of two I’ve brought with me, and return to my reading. In today’s paper there are articles on the Chinese love of high-end Spanish ham; the “ghost” ships “full of” bones and corpses washing up on Japan’s coast. In the paper I bought last week, there are quick hits on a five-year-old girl who has passed a written test to become a ghost expert; two escaped emus that have now been caught; and an exorcist paid millions of Yen who has been arrested for telling parents to take their diabetic son — who died as a result of the advice — off insulin because he had the “God of Death” in his stomach.
It feels right to be reading the Japan Times on my way up through Saitama Prefecture to the city I taught English in for a year after college: I often did this after a day or night spent in Tokyo. I don’t remember if I paid as much attention to these small stories in those days — what the French would call faits divers — but they feel very much aligned with my memories of that time, which was rich in encounters with the striking and the seemingly inexplicable. In a country where physical space is at a premium, borders tend to be clear and objects and experiences exquisitely delineated. This hasn’t changed. From the mysterious, now-stopped singing of the train, to the easy precision of movement of the men and women working the rice fields we pass, to the gorgeously appointed woman in green sitting ramrod straight across from me, to the dapper brilliance of the red tie of the otherwise disheveled business man sleeping with his mouth loudly open next to her, Japan seems soaked in particularity. Not to mention strangeness: when I leave Kumagaya station the first thing I encounter is a statue of a huge rugby ball with what looks to be a triumphant little boy standing on top of it.
Kumagaya has been named one of the host cities for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but I don’t know this when I walk out of the station and look across the parking lot and square toward the building where I used to teach. I only know that I have been expecting the phantoms of my past experience to immediately set to choking me, and what I have instead is this big metal rugby ball, backed by a small lot full of black taxi cabs, colorful low rise buildings, red, white and blue buses and a couple of trees. Lying near this Studio Ghibli-esque monument to sport, in the gutter, is a little collocation of plastic and metal that looks like it could be used, in the right hands, to work a spell or build a robot or start a flying machine.
It’s perfect: both puncturing and confirming the moment of return. Perfect too — because Japan, whose attachment to tradition is legendary, is also one of the world’s great self-reinventers, and also because I’ve been expecting this kind of thing — is that while the building where I taught English five days a week for 12 months is still there, it is no longer a branch of my language school, Aeon, home to “Heartful” English. Aeon’s blue banners have been replaced by the turquoise one’s of Eiburu (or Able), a real estate agency that specializes in apartment management.
The last time I walked up these steps was in the early summer of 1991. I was 23. The year before, I had received my B.A. from Indiana University. Later that fall, after a summer spent driving around the U.S. with money in my pocket from my year in Japan, I would start an MFA at the Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The stories I used to get into the program were written in Kumagaya, at my desk in the offices above and in a little company-leased apartment nearby. I take a curving street that runs parallel to the station hoping to get a quick bowl of soba from my favorite after-work spot but it is boarded up. The ramped, bicycle-friendly steps over the tracks I climbed daily are still there though, and I head for my old apartment in a neighborhood of traditional houses, corner stores and parking lots.
After more trouble than I would like — exacerbated by the disappearance of the Circle K convenience store where I would stop on my way to and from work to pick up cans of tea or simple bento boxes — I find the place where the little building used to stand. Rather than having been repurposed it is gone completely, and I take a panoramic video, remarking in a half-whisper on the remaining landmarks, which include a parking lot and a house with a tree-filled garden. It’s disappointing to find the building erased, but I warm quickly to the Heraclitan themes of goneness that come to mind (the omnipresent, highly functional pay phones at the station and elsewhere that allowed me to make easy international calls are nowhere to be seen either) and find myself selfishly starting to hope that other things will have vanished too.
When I lived here, I read a story by the great Angela Carter called “A Souvenir of Japan,” which evoked young men who were dedicated connoisseurs of remorse, regret and boredom. I think of this story as I stop filming, and of the young man who would sometimes come to my apartment to take me driving around in the countryside. He belonged to a family that had hosted my cousin on a student exchange during the 1980s. He liked to drive his father’s car at night when the streets and roads had emptied out. Sometimes he did this in the company of a friend, a fellow university student, who joined us one night. They were both very nice. Clearly, they liked each other and me. Even if mostly they sat in the car without speaking. They were just as silent when we stopped at a Denny’s. They must have spoken to order and responded to my comments about the ubiquity of such late-night establishments but that was about it. Their contentment in the midst of these proceedings seemed absolute. “It’s boring. I like it,” I remember my chauffeur saying. Or something like that. When I was with them I viewed my fate otherwise — they talked, when they talked, about how they would soon be taking up lifelong positions as junior then middle managers — but I got it and sat as quietly as they did and felt content and watched the dark countryside roll by.
I am thinking of rolling along in that car 25 years ago — of being in company with agreeable young men who are delightedly bored and getting oddly pleasant drips of regret for something that I don’t quite have a name for — when I turn a corner and stumble across the actual building where I lived, which is not gone at all. I take another little video and make comments about myself and feel embarrassed and also again a little disappointed, because the other narrative was making me remember things I hadn’t thought of in a very long time. Still, I climb the steps and take a picture of the metal door I used to live behind. The place where I first read Angela Carter and Haruki Murakami and Yasunari Kawabata. Where I wrote a good deal of bad poetry and my first-published story.
It’s getting warm and I have been told that Kumagaya is now considered the hottest place in Japan, so even though it’s early December I walk quickly and stick to the shade as I leave behind my old not-gone and apparently not even much-changed apartment building and continue the walk I have imagined for myself. I walk by the place where I used to make phone calls to my grandmother in Indiana and where I once left my wallet sitting open all night with a large part of my salary in it only to return the next day and find it untouched, but the phone, of course, is no longer there.
In a little park I used to jog through, I am reassured to see that the workers I remember taking public naps a quarter century ago are still at it, or that their successors are, and that the cherry trees are still standing along the elevated pathway I would continue my runs along, sometimes stopping to read cheery things like Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s The Odyssey. The middle-aged writer I have become is pleased by the image of this young man running past cherry trees with a book in his hand. In fact, it is tempting to just end with that image, to let him keep running with his book, into a modified Heraclitean weave of things that will stay and others that will go, into the future I can so imperfectly see laid about before him, but as I turn to head back to the station I come across a group of sleeping pigs.
The pigs, like the other playground equipment around them that is completely familiar to me, have clearly been there for a long time, but I have no memory of them. Certainly on my walk today my eyes have lit on many unremembered things that would have been more than passingly familiar before, but this feels different: these are things I should have remembered but don’t, things I have dropped down some deep well inside myself. Later in the evening, back in Tokyo, I am going to give a reading — with the novelist Hideo Furukawa, my host last week in Koriyama, who often writes about animals, curious ones — from one of the many novels I have written in which pigs figure prominently. Pigs reoccur so often in my work that it has become a kind of running joke with some of my friends. Indeed, just about the first comment made by the poet, Anne Waldman, upon reading a draft of one of my current projects, was “There are the damn pigs again!” I am manifestly drawn to and repelled by these ones, which I must have run past many times, and as I leave them (not to mention the nearby workers) to carry on with their long slumbers, I look back over my shoulder more than once, for it seems quite possible to me that they are the unhatched eggs of some fairy story, one I long ago internalized, that hasn’t found its ending yet but at any moment might.
One could easily imagine that the jaunty sight, some few hundred yards later, of a classic, pink and white, Volkswagen van might help me get over my feelings of unease, but the van has the same gently curving shape and bright colors as the pigs and is parked next to the place I thought I would find my favorite pasta restaurant but haven’t, so I take a quick picture and keep moving. It is this van, with its aspects both aquatic and feline, that comes to mind when a little later I am back on the train and listening again for the mysterious keening. I don’t hear it, but I do imagine that van and those pigs singing to each other. If only I could understand what they said.
Photos by Laird Hunt.