Monday, May 27, 2013

Off the Road

On 19 April, I flew to Tokyo from San Francisco, launching what proved to be more than a month of travel punctuated with stopovers in Berkeley and San Francisco. Flying to Los Angeles on 21 May for a four-day trip to the fourth city in my extended itinerary, I started to miss certain aspects of here:


The view west from my bedroom window, which takes in a bit of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the coastal range extending north past Mount Tam: I never tire of it. I look out at it when wake up and just before I go to bed. My mind often climbs those hills and remembers Stinson Beach and points south.

The barn, as I call the shed in the backyard that houses many of my books, one of my two writing desks, a pair of Corbu sofas that my oldest son gave me, and decades of memories, some set down in the diaries I've kept since student days. Most of the physical evidence of my life as an editor and writer is there, too. 

The pace of ordinary life is difficult to recapture or reinstate on the road. I make an effort to work in real conversations while traveling, by which I mean those that occur open-endedly, as opposed to the purposeful transactions that, no less valuable in their specific way, make one kind of record but not another. My mind is peculiarly holographic in capturing conversations of both kinds, but the business-related ones, like work itself, accrue through repetition. They create knowledge, perhaps, rather than memories in a deeper sense. Sometimes the colleagues become friends and the subsequent conversations shift the frame. 

Elsewhere, I've described my odd relationship with time. This was much in evidence in Tokyo, where my associative memory came in handy in resuming long-interrupted friendships (like that with Minoru Takeyama, below). The best of these reflect a mutuality in that respect. The river is never the same, Heraclitus said, yet it's helpful to start "where we left off," even if there are now two young children in the room or a new dog and a new house.

It happens here, too. Urban life rations our interactions, and then there's my own solitary nature, "alone with others," as Stephen Batchelor put it. This is held against me, from time to time, but then a doorway opens up and we remember who we are, whatever our circumstances in other quarters. Urban life is both simple and complicated, as Mick Jagger might put it. We live as tradition dictates, for the most part, yet also with the fact that life is always pulling us in other directions for which the precedents are thin. Thin as ice, some might say, but perhaps also like the screens that the court women of Sei Shonagon's era (the 1100s) set out to divide space into time just long enough to unfold a bit. 

I won't speak of tsunamis here - my mind is on rivers one can cross by foot.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


4 May 2013

Daikanyama street scene.

To Tokyo and back. Ten days there was my longest stay since May 1989, my first visit. (I was briefly in the Kobe harbor as a three-year-old, quarantined with the measles.) My view of Tokyo is time-lapse or episodic, so I don't pretend to be an expert, but perhaps I qualify as an interested observer.

Tokyo felt more inwardly focused this time. Attending a big developer reception for a project whose opening I witnessed 10 years before, I was struck by the preponderance of middle-aged and older Japanese men in black suits - and the absence of foreigners and business women. At the party when the project first opened, its halls were filled with a global melange - locally-inflected, of course, but much more international in feeling, and with business and professional women in sizable numbers. I heard that the second reception, which I skipped, drew a more diverse crowd. The hotel where I stayed, in Roppongi, also had its share of foreigners, but they seemed less in evidence than I remembered from previous visits (in 2002, 2005, and 2007). 

The departure of international firms from Tokyo is odd given Tokyo's obvious urbanity. It remains the Asian hub of higher education - more leading universities per square hectare than anywhere, along with numerous others; wonderful, walkable districts like Daikanyama and Todoroki; a linked transit system that can get you practically anywhere in the metropolis; two airports, one close to the central city; and numerous transit-served urban centers that place office towers in close proximity to a range of amenities. On paper, it should be competitive - and a revival of Japan's economy would surely help. 

In reality, Tokyo was harder to navigate this time than it was six or ten years ago. Small conveniences, like Western-friendly maps in the subway telling the fares, are often missing, even in relatively big stations like Ebisu (where I saw a handwritten sign, "Roppongi 160," a response probably to hundreds of inquiries from perplexed foreigners trying to reach that popular business destination). Meeting with a team that develops an annual ranking of global cities, I said that even in the Bay Area I've personally benefited from Google Maps' transit directions and the Clipper card that lets me move seamlessly from train to tram. (If only they'd throw cabs in!). Augmented reality might take this further, overlaying what we see with the information we need to make sense of it. If San Francisco is easier now for me, a near-native, think what a difference it would make for Tokyo! Absent that software, Tokyo is less seamless than it used to be, which - along with the earthquake, tsunami, and reactor triple-whammy - may account for Singapore's rise as the new Hong Kong, making Tokyo's claim to be East Asia's leading international city ring hollow. Given a more seamless Tokyo with a less insular, patriarchal mindset, it could be a whole new ballgame. 

Shoji Hamada's studio complex in Mashiko.

Into the country
Last Saturday, following my friend Joni Waka's advice to "make hay while the sun shines," I went with him to visit a master potter at his house/studio in the countryside northeast of Tokyo. Masayuki Miyajima is in the lineage of "national treasure" Shoji Hamada, whose studio compound in Machiko we also visited. His own teacher - who worked directly with Hamada - is or was also a national treasure. Miyajima, who's married to an American potter who lives and teaches in Ohio part of the year, is lately interested in Persian motifs. I bought a bowl from him in this style. One difference between Japan and here is that a master potter in Japan can make a living - the art is valued. That makes sense given pottery's long cultural importance in Japan.

The area in which Miyajima lives is a river valley, the hillsides of which are about the same height as those that define the much-wider Napa Valley in California. It's a river valley, but the river has been dammed, pushed to one side in order to make room for and irrigate rice fields. This is a farming area, the farmhouses and their buildings organized as compounds with single main gates. Unlike here, the area is still farmed - you don't see the second homes of rich folks from the city. They have their own retreats, Joni told me.

Peter Koch's edition of Parmenides, with illustrations by Richard Wagener.

A cure for jet lag
The day after I flew back, my daughter and I went to the studio of Peter Koch, master printer and publisher of fine-art books, which in his case is as much a literary and historical exercise as pure artistry, although that's also involved. Offering us white wine and making himself a martini, Peter brought out copies of Herakleites, translated by Guy Davenport, and Parmenides, translated by Robert Bringhurst. He showed us the latter book's gorgeous woodcut illustrations by Richard Wagener and read us several of the poet-translators' versions of the fragments. Peter and my daughter have in common that they both graduated in philosophy. He charmed us both by saying, "I went to graduate school in philosophy for two weeks - long enough to realize they took it seriously." Between the fragments and the wine, my jet lag mostly dissipated, although - having slept until noon that morning - I spent a restless night digesting what I'd heard and imbibed.