You are a man on a train on a journey from Hell to Heaven but nowhere around you can you see the tracks, the carriage, the other passengers or the window, let alone the view from the window.
There is no awareness in you of the linear progression that your life follows.
So you pick up a novel and read of another man on another train and yet on the same journey and you realize then that you are a traveler too. You awaken.
This is the effect that a novel; a good novel, has on me.”
“When I tell her I love her she says love is a strong slow steady thing that forms after many years but I’ve never known a love like that. For me love has always been a swooping bird that descends as if out of nowhere and pitches me suddenly into that strange mixture of wonder, trust, desire, longing, joy, terror………
Sometimes it takes three days. Sometimes it takes three minutes. But usually it takes three seconds.
‘That’s not love’, she says. ‘It’s infatuation!’
But I still feel it. It’s a condition of the heart. It’s all very well to say that it wasn’t love after the storm has passed, but that’s like saying you weren’t sick after you’re cured, you weren’t hungry after you’ve eaten, you weren’t tired after you’ve slept; you didn’t love her after she’s left!
When you’ve got it, you’ve got it and you know it. To deny it is just protecting yourself.
And then there’s that curious effect being in love has on you; the way it changes the whole way you feel about life itself. When you are in love you marvel at every fluttering bird’s wing, the shape of the clouds, the tiniest flower, the moss growing obscurely, luxuriantly on the steps to your house. God’s world is perfect in its most minute details.
But when you are not in love or worse still you love but it is not returned, then the world passes you by and you are oblivious to the small miracles at every turn. You do not notice the sky, the secret messages written in unknown languages on the backs of leaves and the inhalation and exhalation of your own breath.”
Ken Saville stopped writing and leaned back in his chair. He looked at what he had written in his notebook then, having reread it, raised his eyes to the room around him or rather before him, for the coffee shop where he was sitting was a long narrow place more like a corridor than a room. It was dark too.
He was sitting up the back and as he gazed through the gloom at the sunlight shining on the street outside, he began to remember………
The plane flew into Osaka at the end of winter. He was nervous at immigration, as always, worrying that they would not let him in. He was entering on a tourist visa.
He intended to work but if he told them this then he would be refused entry. The system required that he pretend to be a tourist when he entered then he could find a job and sign a contract. With that contract in hand he would then leave the country and apply for a work visa from outside, on the basis of the job he then had, and finally a couple of months later he would be allowed to enter with the status that he had originally sought. It was a terrific waste of time but it was the only way. He had done it before.
It was already March but winter still lingered and the air outside the airport was bracing. Happily the bus came after a few minutes and he stowed his bag underneath then sank into the warmth of his seat as the bus carried him down the Meishin Expressway to Kyoto.
When he got to Kyoto Station, Ken humped his bag through the tunnel to the north end of the station then took another bus up Kawaramachi-dori and got off just before the Marutamachi corner. He found Uno House in the alley where he had remembered it.
He had stayed there when he first came to Japan seven years ago and he reflected now on what he had heard about how one’s cells were all replaced after a seven-year period, except brain cells. If it were true, then here he was, escaped from Australia again with a fresh body and ready for another stint in this city of temples and foreigners and mist.
If it were true. But it was not, he decided. He was not a new person. He was the same old Ken Saville, only now he was just a little older and a little more tired.
He spent the first few days visiting old haunts and sitting in those coffee shops and bars that he had frequented during his last stay in the old capitol. Many of the people he knew were still in town and he would read the papers by day looking for a job and studying the news, and then at night he would go out to the Pig and Whistle and lean on the bar, waiting for his old friends to turn up. Some had left. Some had left and come back. Some had married. Some had separated or divorced. Slowly he caught up on what had happened in the two and a half years that he had been away.
He was not keeping a diary at this stage. After he had left Indo-China and wandered back to Australia, his desire to record what was going on around him had waned and he had soon become submerged in the trivial day-to-day search for survival. Now that he was back in the city he loved so much, there was enough of interest going on around him that he felt moved to scribble things down in a notebook but he was not sure where to begin something longer like a diary or a story. He felt himself to be drifting and he struggled to anchor himself to something because he had been drifting for a long time and it had ceased to be pleasant.
On a Monday several days after he arrived, he walked up the river to Demachiyanagi and caught the Eizan line through Moto-Tanaka past the abattoir at Chayama and Ichijoji then on to Shugakuin at the north east end of the city. There was a cafe called Speak Easy, which had been a major hangout in the old days and he remembered the cheap well-cooked bacon and eggs, the free coffee refills and English newspapers and the chance of an interesting conversation with some passing foreigner.
Monday was the day when English teaching jobs were advertised in the Japan Times and April was the month when new terms and new contracts started. He was in the right place at the right time.
He flipped through the classifieds while he ate but most of the jobs were in Tokyo. There was hardly anything in the Kansai area and what was there was teaching little kids.
Ken wanted to teach English conversation to adults. The thought of going through the alphabet “A is for apple, B is for banana, C is for cat” every day with little kids struck him as more like baby-sitting than teaching English. But there was nothing else. That was it then. He would have to wait a whole week for the next paper, hoping that there would be something for him in that one.
Resignedly he closed the paper and gazed out the window. A stocky looking American entered. Ken knew him from before but had forgotten his name. They nodded to each other.
“You were here before weren’t you?” said the American, sliding onto the bench at the table next to Ken.
“Yeah” said Ken. “I’ve been out for a couple of years. I just got back a few days ago. I’m looking for work. Do you know of anything?”
“Not off hand, but I’ll let you know if I hear of anything. Have you got a number?”
Ken wrote the number of Uno House on a napkin and gave it to the American. His name was Matthew and he was a sociology student. They had had many long and interesting chats last time Ken was in Kyoto.
Matthew was studying the love marriage in Japanese society. It was becoming more and more prevalent. Arranged marriage was down to about twenty-five per cent. He had been doing an undergraduate degree at Kyoto University but now he was finished.
“What are you doing now?” said Ken. “Working?”
“No, well, I got this scholarship. Now I’m doing a masters’. What about you?Â Where have you been the last couple of years?”
Ken told him the story of how he had left Japan for a stint in India but when he finished his time in Varanasi and applied for a new visa at the Japanese Embassy in Bangkok, they had told him that he had to go back to Australia to get the visa. The fact that most of his money was in a bank account in Japan had not swayed them. He had yelled in frustration through the inch thick security glass but it didn’t change anything. It was the rule. Australians had to get visas in Australia.
It would have taken too long and cost too much to go back to Australia. He would never have gotten to Japan in time for the start of the teaching season, so Ken had gone over to Cambodia on the advice of a Dutchman, he met, called Herman, who had said that Phnom Penh was an interesting place and it was possible to pick up work teaching English there.
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He had spent about three months in Cambodia and started writing a novel there but got robbed a couple of times and nearly shot once so he decided to go back to Australia, get his Japan visa stamped in his passport, and then make his way back to Kyoto to settle in again.
He had left a little early, in January, so he could spend a bit more time in Cambodia working on the novel and also jump across to Vietnam and have a look at what was going on there, but in Saigon he got robbed again. This time he had lost his passport and the manuscript of his novel and all the papers that proved he was a qualified teacher of English as a foreign language.
He limped back to Australia again, worked in a language school there for a while then got a new Japan visa and he had finally arrived back in Kyoto after a two and a half year absence just a few days ago.
“How long did you plan to be out of Japan when you left?” said Matthew.
“Just two months” grinned Ken. He was starting to see the funny side of it now that he was back here at last.
The American grinned too. He was a likeable character who could talk about abstract intellectual topics but he was not incapable of having a laugh. Ken passed the whole afternoon talking to him about love and marriage and the difference between the two.
Matthew maintained that in the west there was a lot of confusion because marriage was supposed to start as a romantic emotional bond but it pretty soon turned out to be a practical economic relationship. The Japanese had no illusions about that, but they were developing them.
Ken listened intently to everything the American said and when he was finished the conversation turned to sex and love. By the time Matthew left, Ken was so busy remembering that this was why he had come back to Kyoto; to be able to hang around in coffee shops and talk about this kind of stuff all day to whoever turned up, that he had completely forgotten that he was supposed to be finding a job.
Outside the sky was a deep blue and despite the cool wind, he decided to walk all the way back along the Takano river instead of taking the train.Â The conversation with Matthew had put him in such a good frame of mind that he completely forgot to worry.
As he wandered down the river he told himself that there was nothing he could do until next week when the paper came out anyway. He listened to the sound of the water and squinted at the bare cherry trees that lined the riverbank, looking for telltale signs of new buds but there was nothing.
It was still cold and by the time he got to Demachiyanagi, the wind was biting ran into the Kamogawa and continued walking south in the direction of Marutamachi.
There were little waterfalls a metre or so high all the way down the river and he stopped to listen to their roar and watch birds fishing. At one of them, a couple of flagstones had come loose and the swirling waters formed a pattern like a halo on the concrete pad that they fell onto. He stopped and watched the pattern for a long time. It was made of moving water and the fact that it moved yet maintained its shape seemed somehow miraculous and mystical. It reminded him of Basavana’s poem.:
When it grew late and the cold was almost too much for him, he finally wandered down to Marutamachi Bridge where the big old post office that had been converted into a restaurant overlooked the river. This was the sign to climb up out of the riverbank and follow Marutamachi Dori west to the little street where Uno House was nestled in across from an old Shinto shrine.
The gaijin house was just a couple of minutes’ walk in from the river. It was a rambling old Japanese family home, which had been converted into a crash pad for travelers
There were corridors, annexes and a tiny interior garden, which would have been beautiful once but some slabs of wood and plumbing equipment had been stored there next to and on top of the rocks and moss and ferns and the stone lantern. It had lost that quaint aura of ancient perfection, thought Ken. It was as if the garbage of modernity had been thrust suddenly onto the serenity of ancient times and left there. It was still there. Even the garbage had aged and gone out of date now. There was a beauty in that, but not an original beauty. It was not pristine.
Ken stayed in the dormitory because it was cheap. It was a large tatami room, which had once been two rooms but the fusuma had been removed. The built in cupboards were full of futons, which, when laid out left no room to walk. The dormitory was only for sleeping. It was not possible to do anything else there. There was simply no space.
The other travelers were a mixed group of tourists, students and even a couple of wanderers like Ken. He had bought two large cardboard cartons of sake and umeshu from the cheap liquor store at the top of Ponto-cho and he sat now among them in the kitchen drinking heated liquor and chatting.
From the way he heated his alcohol in a tokori and sipped it from one of the tiny earthen teacups he had found under the sink, it was obvious that this was not his first time in Japan. He exuded an air of comfort and confidence in this atmosphere, which was to the other travellers new and strange and mysterious.
But Ken was not aloof. He engaged the others in talk and allowed them to engage him. He was friendly and warm to all and the alcohol had cost so little and there was so much of it in the 2.25 litre cartons that he freely offered it to whoever was interested in trying it.
A New Zealander had been working as a caddy on a golf course. An Australian was traveling around. Two Americans were looking for work. There was also an Asian woman who looked Japanese but when he asked her where she was from, Ken found that she was half Korean and half German. Her name was Hilde. She had come to live in nearby Osaka as part of her university course. She had the smooth skin and gentle face of a child and she questioned Ken, trying to find out what it was that he loved about this place.
She lived in nearby Osaka, a huge pulsing city of concrete and neon with crowds and subways. Kyoto was older and smaller and surrounded by mountains, and the long wooden townhouses, though mostly torn down by now, were still in evidence here and there to show what the old capital had once been like.
Ken stared into his cup and struggled to find words, in his growing drunkenness, to express the subtle and inexpressible things, which drew him to this ancient and gentle place. The fact that there were built-in empty areas to highlight scrolls and flower-vases in houses always cramped for space. The fact that things were always put away after use, even the bed, to make room for what had to be done next, so rooms were always empty and never cluttered. The cult of pottery and tea and flowers. The history of Buddhism. The fascinating history of the country itself. The mysterious and ambiguous language. The impenetrable poetry. The flowing robes. The hollow bamboo flutes. The straw mat floors and ceramic charcoal heaters. The words for concepts that he could not even get his head around let alone believe that somebody had coined a word for them.
He enumerated such things one after another but the young woman’s enthusiasm for learning and the very nature of the conversation seemed to prohibit the possibility of Ken getting his meaning across. He was too emotional about it. He wanted too much to live here and had wanted it for so long and been prevented from doing so by circumstances beyond his control. He could feel the drink making him talk too much and feel too much.
“Perhaps she does understand,” he thought. “But what does it matter anyway? What does it matter if another person understands me or not?” he found himself thinking angrily as if in defence against the first thought.
He looked at her again and knew she understood his passion at least. He realised suddenly how lonely he was, and he had the desire to kiss her and stare into her eyes and talk to her all night, run his fingers across her soft skin and through the short bristles of her hair, and lie awake and listen to the story of how her parents had come to meet and put her in this world not knowing if she belonged to the east or the west, and tell her that she belonged to both and neither, for we do not really come from this world. It is not our true home. Our true home is another place.
He drew back, aware that he was paying too much attention to the woman. He remembered that he had just met her. He looked around the room at the other people cooking, reading guidebooks and talking about other things. He tried to return to the feeling of solitude he had had within the crowd; open to all but not revealing his totality to any one person.
A tall young man entered. His hair was wet from the shower. He nodded to Hilde. She introduced him as Andreas. It was immediately obvious that this was Hilde’s boyfriend. She told Andreas how interesting Ken was but the passion had somehow dissipated now. He had had a lot to drink and cloaked in loneliness he was ready for his bath.
Andreas tried to talk to him and find out what it was that Hilde had found so interesting but his questions were so matter of fact and mechanical and his manner so scientific. He aroused no passion in Ken.
“I have to go the sento,” he said.
“What is the sento?” said the German immediately, eager to find out as much as he could about this exotic oriental place in the short time he was here.
Ken explained that in Japan many houses still did not have baths so there were public baths in every neighbourhood. It was one of the most charming customs he had ever encountered; to immerse oneself in hot water in the same tub as all the other men in the neighbourhood at the end of the day. The feeling of brotherhood was overpowering.
“Where is it?” the German wanted to know.
Ken explained that it was just in the next alley. Andreas wanted to come but he had just had a shower and he and Hilde were going to cook so he wanted to take “a rain-check”.
Ken walked outside. It had started to rain. He chose a cheap plastic umbrella from the assortment in the bucket by the door and walked slowly through the Shinto shrine that separated the two alleys. He paused under the eaves of the noh stage. He had forgotten to rave to Hilde about Japanese theatre. Noh and kabuki and butoh.
He smiled to himself; smiled at himself. And Andreas was not so bad. He was just a big serious German studying economics and Japanese and trying to get ahead in the world like everybody else who was born to his condition. He was just trying to swim and keep his head above water. He was no different from Ken or anybody else.
There were a couple of tattooed men in the bath-house. One of them was young and strong and proud. He towelled himself vigorously and Ken surreptitiously admired the magnificent dragon and the samurai, which were locked in combat on the man’s back and torso.
An older man, obviously the boss arrived and the other yakuza acted deferential towards him. He had a son with him, a fat spoilt boy who ran about the bathroom splashing water on the other men, young and old alike, oblivious of the fact that it was only his father’s status that allowed him to act so freely.
Ken stayed in the water a long time then sat on the tiled floor and stretched his back and arms for a while before entering the bath again. The room cleared out so there were only Ken and the Yakuza king and his fat son.
Ken remembered his own son and again a wave of loneliness and emptiness rushed over him. The tattooed man was scrubbing the fat boy now. Ken thought about what it meant to be a fat boy and endure the jibes of others at school. He thought about what it meant to be an outcast.
Once he had known a yakuza man who ran a club where his girlfriend worked as a hostess. One day the man had taken Ken into the bathroom and lifted his shirt and proudly shown him the tattoos, which marked him as a gangster.
The girlfriend, an Israeli who Ken had lived with for two years, had later told him that the boss’s relatives were all butchers. They were big fat meat-eaters descended from the burakumin feudal class, which was still discriminated against in marriage and employment. What else could this man be? He was not allowed to be anything. There were limits to what a man could become. He had entered the organisation but he was still a man. He still had a heart. He still loved his son.
As he thought about this the sight of the man soaping his son brought tears to Ken’s eyes. He lowered himself deeper into the hot water and allowed the emotion to wash over him. He thought about his own life and let all the events wash over him. He drifted helpless and empty in a bath of hot water and tears.
“Who am I to judge or hate another person?” he thought. He remembered all the times he had hated and all the people he had judged and all the things he had tried to do and all the failures he had known. He felt ashamed of himself and sorry for himself and then grateful that he was still alive in this great empty universe. Musing like this alternately ecstatic and in despair he floated for a long time, even after the tattooed man had left and when he emerged from the water his skin was pink and puffy.
By the time he got back to the guest-house he had sobered up. He dropped his bath things in the dormitory and slipped out again, not wanting anyone to tag along this time. He stopped at the convenience store on Teramachi then walked south looking in the windows of the shops on that street. A couple of office girls were going home late, their heels clattering on the stone pavement.
When he got to Sanjo he turned east and walked across the river, pausing on the bridge to gaze up at Mt Hiei towering over the city. It was shrouded in mist but he could make out a light from the temple up there, or maybe a radio antennae.
When he entered the Pig there were only a few customers but Ken knew them all. They were leaning on the bar chatting to the barman and each other and passing time.
One of them, an Englishman known as Gilgamesh, had been on pretty good terms with Ken on his last visit to Kyoto. They had talked about literature and women and Gilgamesh’s name in fact stemmed from the fact that he had acted the role of Gilgamesh in a play that Ken had written. It was an adaption of the Babylonian “Epic of Gilgamesh” and Gilgamesh had played the title role in a farcical performance by the riverside, and been called “Gilgamesh” ever after.
He was an easy-going northerner who liked to drink and talk about life and what it was all about. When he saw Ken, he said “Ken Saville! What a surprise! When did you get back?” in his booming voice.
Ken shrugged and ordered a beer. “A few days ago” he said. They exchanged a few words and then the stream of conversation was interrupted by another old acquaintance, who wanted to know where Ken Saville had been.
It went on like this for a while and then suddenly Gilgamesh said “Hey, if you’re looking for work, I know somebody who can help you!” He pulled out a pen and scratched a number onto a napkin on the bar. “Here, call this number now!” he said.
Ken walked down to the other end of the bar and called the number from the little phone box there. The guy’s name was Steven Crowley and he was an Australian from Sydney.
“Gidday” said Ken. “My name’s Ken Saville. I’m a mate of Gilgamesh and he just gave me your number and said you might know where I would be able to find some work.”
“Yep. Yep” said the other guy. “Write this down!” He started dictating directions to an Italian restaurant in Gion.
“Hang on”, said Ken. I want a job. I need to know salary, if its kids or adults and if they’ll sponsor me.”
“Yeah yeah” said Crowley, “but you should meet these people. They will be able to help you.”
“Who are they?”
“Never mind that. Just come to the restaurant tomorrow at seven thirty and everything will be ok. I’ll introduce you to some people and you’ll be able to get a job.”
“All right” said Ken, “well, thanks a lot.”
The other guy had already hung up.
“Strange” thought Ken, but he needed a job. It could be good and Gilgamesh was reliable. He ordered himself another beer and thought no more of it.
A few more people were starting to filter in as it grew later. Ken installed himself at the end of the bar nearest the dartboard, where he could see the door and talk to anyone who came by for a drink. He did not like to sit down and get caught in a conversation with whoever was at the table and find himself unable to leave if it grew dull. At the bar he was able to talk to all comers and apart from the fact that it was useful to know everybody, his penchant for leaning on a bar had a long history. It went back to his youth.
Having grown up in a country town where the limits of geography and social class were such that everybody met everybody else sooner or later anyway, he preferred to be at that place where one was more likely to meet them sooner. He held onto this conviction that the pub was a crossroads and standing at its bar was like standing at the main intersection of life. Even after he had travelled and lived in other parts of the world, in Europe, Asia and America, he refused to accept that the social and geographical mechanism which caused people to meet was far more complex than being at the pub at the right time. To the charge that some people never went to the pub, he would reply that sooner or later they did.
To Ken, the pub was a kind of Temple of Everyman where all people regardless of race, gender and social class could rub shoulders. The beer they drank was like altar wine and the bar they leaned on was the confessional box. Men talked to God in this room. Their tongues loosened by the drink they would divulge secrets to people they had just met, secrets that they would never tell to some-one they had known all their lives, because in the aura of the pub, somewhere in the essence of what it was, there was something holy. Men come together under a roof to drink and swap stories.
Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? These simple questions on the surface of it were in fact the deepest enquiries that one man could make of another man.
This egalitarian dream of the pub as a kind of church, where all men (even women) could exchange truths went to the heart of Ken’s personality. His belief in this idea had helped inspire him to leave the parochial community he grew up in and journey out in search of other men in other pubs with deeper truths. Somewhere out there, he believed, there were answers to all his questions and if he was to find them, he was certain to find them not on a mountain nor in a university but in a pub.
There were a lot of Americans who could not see past the pub as a place to meet women. Ken abhorred this view and saw it as typical of the mercenary bent of mainstream American cultural life, which he despised for its crass and empty materialism. They were moneylenders in his temple.
On his third pint, he ruminated on these thoughts as he gazed benevolently at the people around him. Beer did not make him violent. It made him a sympathetic listener. He could not understand how some of the gentlest souls one might hope to meet could transform into arrogant psychopaths with enough alcohol in them. Violence remained a mystery to Ken Saville. For him there was only brotherhood.
As closing time came around there were half a dozen drinkers still talking. Monday was usually quiet but a couple of Ken’s older friends were around that night and in the mood to carry on. Gilgamesh had gone home but Keiko, Kanako and Kanae were still around.
Ken called them the three “K”s and his name also began with “K”. They joked that this was why they naturally fit together but of course it was far deeper than that.
The three women were all great-hearted shining intellects. They wrote poetry, read classics, knew history and obscure etymologies and had travelled overseas. They had a thirst for knowledge of foreign cultures but also maintained an interest in the decay of their own.
They were three of a group of seven or ten single women in their thirties and forties who came to the Pig to play darts and chat with their friends and occasionally held lavish dinner parties that went on until dawn. They all spoke English to varying degrees as well so Ken’s still halting use of Japanese did not prohibit communication, though he was aware that the topic of conversation would change and less would be said when they talked to him. He wished he could engage them more fluently and talk to them on the levels that they moved on but there were still thousands of words with subtle nuances he had to learn to be able to participate in a conversation of this type.
Owen the big tall frenetic Canadian with the loudest voice in town was also there. And two middle-aged Japanese men, Kimura and
Nonaka, with whom Ken had a nodding acquaintance.
When the Pig closed, the seven of them spilled out onto Sanjo, and walked across the river in three groups, Ken in the lead and explaining to Owen the importance of standing at the crossroads and not becoming complacent and sinking into a lifestyle, where one only ever met one’s friends and never encountered anyone new and ceased to grow:
“Wherever I am in the world, its always been important to me to have a place like the Pig which is my local where I know I can run into mates but also where I can meet new people. Tramps, gypsies, drifters, travellers; I want to meet new people and people passing through and not become complacent.”
Owen, who had lived in Kyoto for the last ten years, had he been as sensitive as Ken, might have taken this as a veiled attack on the fact that he, Owen, had led such a sedentary life this last decade, while Ken had wandered through Asia, Europe and America seeking out stories and writing them down. But his basic character was more confident and stable than this and he knew how self-involved and passionate his friend could be.
“Don’t you think, though,” he said, “that in being open to all kinds of people, you will sooner or later come to harm. I mean the world is a wonderful and exhilarating place. You’ve certainly experienced that. But it’s also frightening and terrible and there are people out there who will take advantage of your open-ness. Are you not wary of that…I mean I agree with you in principle. It’s important to be growing and not become complacent, and in some ways, I feel I have become so over the last few years, but is that not a natural thing?”
“No, Owen, no!” protested Ken.
At this point Keiko interrupted them to ask where they wanted to go. They had reached Kiyamachi and were standing beside the little canal. The late night bars, which would be open on a Monday night were in the alleys off Kiyamachi, but they had to decide whether to go north or south.
Keiko suggested that they go to Backgammon but Ken protested that it was too loud to talk there.
“I just thought that you used to go there a long time ago”, said Keiko. “And maybe because you used to go there before, you want to go there again?”
“No” said Ken, “It’s too noisy to talk. I want to talk to everybody.” He wanted to put his arms around her and embrace her for deferring to him and remembering the tiny little hole in the wall that he used to drink in so many years ago, but even in his drunken-ness he was too shy to do this.
Nonaka suggested that they go to Sama-Sama. It was a new place, which Ken had not been to before. Owen said it was very mellow and Ken would probably like it so he agreed to go.
They walked south along the canal. The buds on the cherry trees were here visible but not about to open. On the other side of the canal some hostesses still wearing long coats as protection against the chill Spring air were standing in the street trying to attract customers for their bars, but on a Monday night not many people were about.
Sama-sama was upstairs on the north side of an alley three or four south of Sanjo. It was run by an Indonesian man, who had been in Kyoto for many years. Patrons sat at several low tables on cushions on the floor. There was a food menu, bottled beer and candles in alcoves in the walls. It was suitably mellow.
Ken wanted to continue his conversation about open-ness and complacency with Owen but he found himself sitting between Nonaka and Kanae, and Owen was at the other end of the table already deep in debate about some other subject with Keiko.
They ordered beers. The prices were a little higher than usual which bothered Ken. Although he wandered wherever inspiration took him on the globe, he tended to maintain very regular financial habits with limitations on what he would spend money on and how much he would spend per meal. These rules enabled him to travel for a long time. If he had not kept them, he would not have been able to spend so much time on the road. Tonight however he was in no mood to quibble about a couple of hundred yen.
He poured his beer into a glass and drank. Conversation with Kanae was a little strained. She had written to him while he was away and sent him a copy of a book of poetry which she had published, but it was in kanji so he had not been able to read it and he had written to her only once.
They had been lovers for a brief period before he left but though he found her elegant and admired her knowledge of literary and artistic things, there was some vital element, which had been missing in their relationship.
She was the first Japanese woman, who he had ever slept with and the love-making had been pleasing. There was no doubt that he desired her. Yet, he could not bring himself to love her. He had tried but he felt as if he were throwing spirits on a pile of wet wood and still it would not ignite. There was no spark; no passion.
Such feelings of admiration and friendship coupled with desire but in the absence of passion seemed strange to him. He had not known this type of relationship before and it seemed somehow unnatural and repulsive. Consequently he had avoided her and been cold and rude to her in an attempt to drive her away but then at other times his desire had got the better of him and he had slept with her on drunken nights, when the mood took him. This gave her the resolve she needed to continue her efforts to subdue him and make him her regular man.
He wanted to talk to her about poetry and the meanings of words and the mysterious ideas they represented but knew it would lead to feelings of tenderness and companionship and this in turn would lead to love-making, but then he would have to drive her away again because he knew he could not stay with her and be faithful to her. Nothing burned there for him. Nothing kept him. He could find no peace in her house, and he did not know why.
“You published your book”, he said lamely.
“Yes” she said. “In Autumn, I will publish another one.”
“Ken wa mae ni Kyoto ni sunde ita ?” interrupted Nonaka. The others had formed pairs to talk and he found himself alone.
Ken answered in Japanese that he had lived in Kyoto before and Nonaka wanted to know if he had come back to screw more Japanese girls. He was offended. He could not outright deny that he had come back because of the women because it was true that the elemental beauty they exuded was an incredibly attractive force, which drew him into the secrets of the culture. Yet he could not be accused of mindlessly laying an endless succession of them and leaving a string of broken hearts behind him. The truth was he was looking for love and had not been able to find it.
He answered in a small voice that he was interested in Japanese culture but this had no effect on Nonaka. The traditional world of tea and straw and clay and silk was a mystery to him and one that he was not much interested in penetrating. He was more interested in cars, television and anecdotes about unusual foreign habits.
Ken could not understand how a group of women as charming as Keiko’s crowd could have such vulgar male friends. It was true that Nonaka had a raw honest quality to him. His was the kind of face that became the face of a friend after just a few meetings,
but it was the naked humanity in his face that drew people to him. His conversation lacked all subtlety.
This was exactly what Ken wanted to avoid. When friends became friends more for the fact that that they were near than for some inherent quality in them, then all relationships degenerated into relationships of convenience and all standards melted away.
Evolution and growth became impossible. It was so horribly decadent that to live in such conditions, it would be difficult to find a reason to continue. Everything would be reduced to a hideous nepotism where ideals and dreams ceased to exist.
Some part of Ken wanted to yell at Nonaka that he was a fool, an ignoramus. He wanted to shout that the man had no business being here tonight.
But he still remembered his ego-less reverie in the bathtub earlier that evening when he had resolved not to judge or condemn others. To do so had seemed so clearly wrong in that moment and yet now, just a few hours later, he was again finding fault with his fellow creatures. This knowledge of his own inconsistency irked him and he noticed that he felt frustrated. It had probably started when he had been cut short in his attempt to explain something to Owen earlier when they were outside on Kiyamachi. Now he found himself seated on the wrong side of the table, embarrassed by the presence of Kanae and appalled by the remarks of Nonaka. Owen, with whom he most wanted to talk, was still deep in conversation with Keiko. Kimura was talking to Kanako who was listening intently. There was no escape.
Ken went silent and took deep draughts of his beer. Some instinct seemed to tell Nonaka that he had said the wrong thing because he asked Ken about his family in Australia now using the more polite “masu” form when he spoke. He was trying to mend the rift that he sensed he had caused between them.
The conversation turned now to siblings and what they did for a living and whether Nonaka was an only child. The earlier revelry had completely vanished now and the mood grew flatter and flatter.
Ken was happy when at the end of the first beer, Owen said he had to work early the next morning and he was going to make his way home.
Outside in the street Kanako and Keiko walked east, Nonaka and Kimura went south and Owen hurried off east but ahead of the others, anxious to get a taxi and get home to sleep.
Ken found himself suddenly alone with Kanae in the neon-lit alley. She lived west and he lived north-west. Their route was shared at least for the first part.
Earlier he had been a little embarrassed by her but now Ken suddenly realised that but for her the night was over. He was half-drunk and not in a good frame of mind. He needed to talk things through.
“Do you want to have another drink?” he said.
She nodded. They walked south a little to where he remembered there was a little convenience store that sold beer after hours until 3am or so. When they got there it was closed. Perhaps it had gone out of business. His frustration increased.
They stood under the leafless branches of a spreading cherry tree as it arched its way over the street and the canal like the ribs of an umbrella whose fabric had been stolen by Winter. On the little footbridge they leaned on the rail and peered at the water. It was still running. Its sound, mild and soothing, drifted up to them.
“How do you know Nonaka?” said Ken.
“From the Pig and Whistle” said Kanae.
“How did you meet him?”
“He plays darts. He comes often. He is divorced. His life is very hard. He is frustrated. Often he only drinks and he does not speak all night. Then suddenly he stands up and cries out. Everybody worries about him.”
She put it so simply in her short staccato monotone sentences. All of Ken’s earlier rancour for the man suddenly melted away.
Kanae moved close to him. She was leaning on him now. He put his arms around her. She fell into his embrace.
“Three years” he said, feeling a little ridiculous. In his pitiful life three years still seemed a long time yet now it seemed only yesterday that he had stood in the same spot and embraced her by the canal. And that was three years ago. It was more.
Kanae nestled into his arms. He could not see her face.
“I want another drink”, he said.
Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t want to go to a bar. It’s too expensive and I don’t have enough money. The convenience store is closed….”
“I have beer in my apartment” she said.
He was silent for a moment, knowing that if he returned to her place, they would probably sleep together.
“Do you want to come back to my apartment?” she said after a moment, when he said nothing.
He waited another moment. She looked at him. He dropped his arms to her waist.
“I don’t want a relationship”, he said.
“I know” she said, faint curves of amusement causing the corners of her mouth to turn up a little as if she had heard this from him and perhaps others, how many times?
“If we.â€¦.” He did not want to sound presumptuous. “If we go back to your place, we will probably sleep together.”
She was silent for a moment then nodded wordlessly. They had done it too many times before for her to be coy and pretend it would not happen. In Ken’s memory he had never entered her apartment late at night and then left again without staying the night in her bed. At least she admitted it. He liked this about her.
“I don’t want a relationship,” he repeated.
“You always say. Why do you always say?” she said, her tone a little irritated.
He opened the flood-gate now. “Because it’s what I want. I like you. I like spending time with you and I like having sex with you but I don’t want to marry you or be your boyfriend. It doesn’t feel right. I want to be free. I don’t want to have sex and then you think it’s the start of a relationship. That’s not what I want. I want to be alone.”
She swayed for a moment and shifted her weight, leaning now more on the railing than on him.
“How can she lean on me?” he thought. “I am always running away. Always hiding.”
“You don’t want to have sex?” she said.
“I do want to have sex with you. I like sex with you but it’s not the beginning of something else. We shouldn’t do it.” He turned away in disgust at himself and the situation, put both his hands on the railing of the bridge and looked at the water.
There was a long silence and then Kanae said “Ken…”. She turned his body towards her.
It surprised him. He always expected her to be weak and defer to everybody else but suddenly in moments of privacy she would show a will and confidence that a casual acquaintance from the Pig would not know she had.
“Ken, now you are tired and you have stress. Now I am tired and I have stress. You do not want a relationship. You say many times. I know that. Our body is tired. We can sleep together. We will get power. It is not bad thing. It is good thing.”
“Our body is tired”, he thought to himself. He did not bother to correct her. “Our bodies are tired” was less appropriate than “our body is tired”. They were already together. He just refused to admit it. Why did he always deny what was in front of his eyes in this sphere of his life, he wondered. He was not a Catholic or a puritan. He had not had a repressive anti-sexual upbringing. Why couldn’t he sleep with her, even though they were not in a relationship and their coupling would not lead to relationship? Why?
He put his arms around her again. “Let’s go to your place and have a beer,” he said.
The following morning he awoke to find himself naked with Kanae’s body, also naked, pressed against his chest and her long black hair strewn loosely on the pillow. She moved in her sleep as he adjusted his position to a more comfortable one. Then he lay there blinking in the early light of dawn.
The sound of a bird came and he remembered that there was a tree outside Kanae’s window. It stretched up from a neighbouring yard where an old timber and tile house had been dwarfed by soul-less streamlined apartment buildings with unit baths and no cracks.
It was the only tree in the area and its uppermost branches almost reached Kanae’s fifth floor balcony. The little birds took refuge here in their constant flight from the marauding hawks, which circled high overhead looking for prey.
The ancient German tribes worshipped trees and if a man cut one in a sacred grove, his punishment was to have his stomach opened and his entrails pulled out and nailed to the tree he had damaged. Then he was walked around the trunk for all the kilometres it took to wrap his entire guts around the object of his indiscretion.
The ancient Japanese worshipped trees too. Some of the modern ones still did. There were gods everywhere.
Were there gods in this apartment building? Ken wondered. Were they here now, ethereal and patient, gentle and forgiving?
In the peaceful emptiness brought on by the recent love-making and the absolution of alcohol, he felt that there were gods very close to him, whispering that everything would be ok and that they would take care of him. The universe seemed to be wrapping its arms around him as he lay there.
When he left Kanae’s building it was almost nine o’clock but the city was still half-asleep. Many shops did not open until ten or ten-thirty so Ken observed those early morning sights, which in another country might have greeted one at six or seven in the morning.
As the downtown area stirred itself and sleepily rubbed its eyes, an old man wheeled a trolley with huge plastic bags filled with crushed aluminium cans on it. He was reaping the harvest of last night’s street drinking.
The last of the drinkers, two girls in short dresses with dyed hair and garish make-up, hobbled in their boots towards some destination which was disagreeable to one of them. The less plump of the two had a dapper looking youth with dyed hair and a three-button suit in tow. The other woman was complaining and walking on ahead but her companions, drunk on each other’s company, could not be persuaded to share her distemper.
The sight of some early Spring weeds growing in a vacant allotment behind a wire fence and the warmth of the morning set Ken’s mind into a reverie of reflection on the nature of life’s changing seasons. The blissful disposition he had enjoyed since waking had not dissipated. Another bout of intercourse, which he had not bothered to continue until orgasm because Kanae had to get up and get ready for work and also because it was his third one and there was not much seed remaining, had left him feeling vigorous and cheerful. He could literally feel the spring in his step as he walked towards the river, intent on hearing its gushing voice and washing his face and hands in its cold water.
Each person he passed seemed brimful with some pathos that Ken was supposed to pick up on. They had been especially put there to add to his mood, it seemed, and mingle his joy with the despair and passion they felt because their journey was still incomplete. But they would be joyful one day too. It was only a matter of time.
As he traversed the alleys that lay between Kanae’s place and Kawaramachi his own life seemed laid out before him like a map that could be easily read. He could see all the novels he had written and all the women he had loved and lived with and at that moment it seemed entirely fitting that none of these books had achieved success and none of these relationships had endured, so he was still a penniless lonely wanderer as he stood in the mid-point of his life. Everything was exactly as it was supposed to be. The important thing about the women he had loved was not that he had not been able to stay with one of them. The point was that while he had been with each one of them, he had learned what he was supposed to learn and passed on what he was supposed to pass on and here he was now still alive and searching for the next question, the next mystery, the next gateway. Likewise the books. As he ran his thoughts over the plots and characters that had absorbed him in each one and remembered the passion with which he had dived into each theme and penned each conversation and each description, it seemed to him totally irrelevant that no-one had read them and they had never been published and never would be published. Even the fact that he was himself no longer interested in the things he had written about did not matter. It was all so much water under the bridge. The important point was not the books themselves. The manuscripts, the ink, the paper it was written on and even the ideas behind them were all past. He had lived through them and they represented stages in his growth but he had lived them now and grown through them and it was pointless to remember them or try to hang onto them or worse still wear them like medals. They were dead.
What mattered now was today; the story he was living here and now and the tomorrow that would grow out of this day. Here he was walking through he streets of the city he loved most in the world naked but for his clothes. His body was not important. His soul was. And it was uncluttered, empty and free. He owned almost nothing. He was unemployed and his savings running low but he felt an immense optimism and enthusiasm for his next adventure as he wondered what it would be and from this point of emptiness he felt himself exuding a wonderful benevolence and gratitude which flowed out of his soul into the world around him.
When he crossed Kawaramachi, he continued east and found himself on the alley where the little fox shrine with the broken plastic Buddha was. It had housed the invisible deity which had listened to the prayers and fears of the people of this business quarter for centuries and though he was not a merchant and had no inkling of ambition in that direction whatsoever, it seemed to Ken, in this wonderful frame of mind, no accident that he should stumble upon a holy place at this moment.
He opened the little orange gate and entered the shrine yard. The damaged black Buddha was not plastic but styro-foam and was still there with a vase of wilted flowers and a cup of water beside it. The stone fox with something in its mouth grinned at him blandly, timelessly as if it knew that he had snuck in here to pray silently to the god of this crumbling materialistic atheistic world.
At the end of the stone path was the wooden box with its ornate roof. This was where the god lived, but there was no image inside. Only empty space and at the front of the space a rope with a bell on it to ring and get the deity’s attention.
Ken glanced around behind him. No-one was looking. Feet together, head bowed, he pulled the rope, jangled the tinny-sounding bell and clapped his hands together then lowered his head and closed his eyes.
He was praying now. He had not prayed before. In a world of hypocrites and liars who prostrated themselves and called out at temples and churches to Gods that did not exist, he was ashamed. In a world where the real angels were behind the soft loving eyes of strangers in the street, strangers at the bar and frightened waitresses in busy cafes: behind the understanding eyes of timely strangers who had helped him through life at moments, when he was about to fall and behind the laughter of children which reminded him of the joy and wonder behind it all; in this world he was embarrassed. The very act of clasping one’s hands together and lowering one’s chin, closing one’s eyes, seemed an act of hypocrisy. The very thought of it made him feel shy. He envied the Japanese who could do it so unselfconsciously anytime they came upon a shrine.
Standing now in the pious pose, he did not know what to pray for, what to hope for. He did not want to ask for anything for it would cheapen the moment; put a value on it and de-sanctify it. The thought of tossing a coin into the offering box and praying for a job or a new girlfriend or a place to live, a visa or any such accoutrement of this world seemed unbearably shoddy. The thought of wishing for world peace or an end to starvation seemed somehow remote and even none of his business for it might be a part of some divine plan that some people fight and starve before they knew peace. It had not always seemed to him so, but it seemed now, that it might be so.
He realised, not without embarrassment, that he did not know how to pray. When this realisation had sunk in, he lowered his hands, letting them fall by his sides and opened his eyes and stared straight ahead. He mumbled “arigato gozaimashita” out of a vague feeling of gratitude for the morning and the mood and the moment. Had he said it in English, it would have been too corny.
Then he left the shrine and wandered over to the river but did not wash in it. He merely sat on the flagstones for a long time and listened to the sound of the rushing water.
Back at the gaijin house Andreas made a comment about getting lucky and not coming home last night. For Ken finding love or not finding it was too serious a business to boast of light-heartedly in a boyish way. He brushed off the German’s attempts at male camaraderie and went into the dormitory where he unrolled a futon and spread it out in the darkened room. Then he slept for several hours and woke from a series of long and involved dreams feeling as if he’d been talking for hours to people who he’d known for a long time.
In the early evening Ken showered, dressed and walked downtown. The weather was considerably warmer than on the previous day so he wore only a light jacket. He was feeling enthusiastic about the meeting with Steven Crowley and walked quickly.
Arriving at Shijo Kawaramachi a little early he stopped at a liquor store on Kiyamachi and bought a beer then walked over to the river and stood on the bridge drinking out of the bottle and looking up at Mt Hiei.
It was all so simple, he thought. One chance meeting and he was home. All he had to do was be in the right place at the right time once and everything would work out. The job would lead to the visa then he could move out of Uno House, get his own place, maybe an old Japanese style house with tatami mats and sliding doors and an alcove for flower arrangements, maybe even a garden. At last he would be able to settle down. He just had to be in the right place at the right time once to make the connection. Just once.
The river flowed under him. The mountain towered over him. Things were going to work out.
When the beer was gone he crossed Shijo Bridge and entered Gion the entertainment quarter. It was still early and there were no geishas or hostesses in the streets. He passed the little bar where he had had his first regular job two nights a week when he first came to Japan.
He found the alley where the Italian restaurant was supposed to be located and wandered down to the end of it but did not notice the restaurant. Halfway along he had seen two foreigners standing in an arcade but though he had looked directly at them, they had not met his eye.
He walked back the way he had come and this time he found the restaurant’s name marked on a neon sign high up on the third floor. It was called Marco’s and it was right above the spot where the two foreigners were standing. Still they would not meet his eye.
Ken shrugged and walked past them, then made his way up the stairs to Marco’s. It was still too early and there were no customers in the place. A waitress beckoned him to enter but he said he would come back later. The place looked expensive.
Downstairs, Ken guessed, the two other foreigners were waiting for the thing that Ken was waiting for. Were they competition? Was that why they were so cold and unfriendly? Was this some kind of hiring convention?
It was twenty-five past seven. There was no point going anywhere else. Ken walked down the stairs and approached the two.
“It looks like you guys are waiting for the same thing as me”, he said.
One of them turned. The other looked away. It suddenly occurred to Ken that they had not even spoken to each other, though they had been standing outside the same building for more than several minutes.
They were both westerners. One, it turned out, was American and the other one was from England. They were the only two white men in a deserted alley in a city full of Japanese people but had found no pretext to strike up a conversation.
Ken asked the nearer one, the English one, where he was from and what he did and how long he had been in Japan, getting the answers but no elaboration nor any queries in reply. He was from southern England and worked for a computer company and had been in Japan two years.
Just then Crowley arrived, a big pock-marked man with a noticeable Australian accent and a string of people in tow.
“Come on, you blokes” he called to them.
“Steven Crowley?” said Ken.
“You must be Ken Saville. Good to meet yer, mate. I see yer met Bill and Doug.” Douglas was the American’s name and the Englishman was named William.
“Doug’s a yank,” said Crowley, “but he’s ok. And Bill’s a bloody pom, but he’s ok too. What part of Australia are yer from?”
Ken said that he came from Brisbane.
“I’m from Sydney meself” said Crowley and with that he marched up the stairs and everyone followed.
When they got into the restaurant Crowley helped the waitress to seat everybody putting Ken in a corner with a staid looking Japanese who looked to be in her late thirties and an older Japanese man in a jacket and tie. People continued to pour into the restaurant until there were about thirty of them in the room. While Crowley herded the others about Ken tried to make conversation with the two Japanese. The woman, it turned out, was a doctor and the man was a dentist. They were both quite uptight and not very forthcoming with information, personal or otherwise. After a few minutes of trying to lure them into an exchange of stories or opinions, Ken allowed their own awkwardness and embarrassment to rub off on him. He sat there in silence drinking his water and wishing it was beer.
Crowley sat down for a moment and told Ken that he used to be a cabaret singer in Tokyo and had been in Japan for decades, was married to a Japanese and had a couple of kids. The menu came around and everybody ordered something. All the dishes were about double the price Ken was used to paying for a meal.
“You said you could help me get a job,” said Ken, when Crowley stopped talking for a moment.
“The one you want to meet is Masako.”
“Does she run a language school or something?”
“Hang on”, said Crowley, and he was gone.
Ken was beginning to get irritated. He didn’t know who any of these people were or why such an odd assortment of characters should be together. And why was Crowley stalling for time? What was the big deal about just telling him if there was a job and what the details were? Why all the stalling?
Crowley kept moving around the room. It seemed that this was some sort of association and Crowley was the co-ordinator but what was the purpose of it all? The next time he sat down next to Ken, Ken said: “Who are all these people?”
“Oh just a bunch of people who like to get together now and again for a drink and a meal and a good time…Did you have a yarn to Jiro and Masami?” he said, indicating the doctor and the dentist.
Ken nodded that he had and the other two nodded that that they too had had “had a yarn” though this mere exchange of names and “where do you lives” could not by any tick of the clock be called “a yarn.” It was absurd.
“Steven” said Ken, “I don’t mean to be rude but I’m looking for a job. This restaurant is a little bit out of my price range and I have no idea why all these people are here.”
“Its not that bad is it?” said Crowley.
Ken continued: “I just came to ask you if you know of a job that’s available and what the salary is and whether they’ll sponsor me…”
“Well, you’re a bit cocky for some-one who’s coming here with his hat in his hand, ” said Crowley.
“What do you mean?” said Ken in disbelief.
“I said you’re a bit cocky for somebody who’s coming here with his hat in his hand.”
“I’m not coming to anyone with my hat in my hand” said Ken. He didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t have a hat and though he had read the expression in dialogue in old novels, he had never actually heard it in real life before. Crowley looked huge and evil and menacing and Ken felt how ridiculous and horrible the whole situation was.
He stood up and edged past Crowley and the others without saying anything more.
“Are you leaving?” said Crowley
“Yes,” said Ken. There seemed no point in doing anything else.
Outside the air in the street was refreshing and cool after the tedious conversation and oppressive manner of Crowley. Hostesses in high heels had started to appear and there were touts in the doorways clapping their hands together and clicking their fingers.
Still not quite understanding nor believing what had taken place in the restaurant, Ken wandered over to the other side of the river and bought another beer then went and sat down by the water to drink it.
With the Spring coming on there were street performers arriving in town and a few of them stayed in Uno House. The first cherry blossoms opened in the south-west and then the flowers spread north and east with the warm weather, ascending all the way up to Hokkaido. The musicians, fire jugglers, belly dancers and other assorted acrobats, clowns and buskers followed the wave of pink north and east performing at all the cherry viewing festivals in the archipelago. Some of them lived in Europe or the US or other parts of Asia and only came to Kyoto for this festival. Over seven or ten days, if the rain held off and it was a long one, some of them made enough cash to last a large part of the rest of the year.
Some had been coming for years and Ken knew them by sight if not by name. This year there was a solid little Prussian called Udo among them. Ken had not seen him before. He was an acrobat and had learned his trade in a circus. Now he worked alone and juggled fire and knives and did the fire dance.
Ken got talking to him one night in the kitchen. They talked about how Germany had changed since unification. Udo was descended from Prussian aristocrats and had a sentimental attachment to an age when wealth was not crass.
“Everything is so cheap now,” he said. People have money but they have no class; they are not people of refinement or quality.”
He spoke of a class of people who were not simply aristocrats by virtue of wealth. They were aristocrats by virtue of quality and refinement.
Ken dismissed it at first as another anti-democratic European pre-occupation with birth and heredity but Udo insisted that there was more to it.
“I am a communist, remember,” he said. “I am not simply longing for the days when I was born into a more privileged situation. I have always supported communism the ideal. I do not believe in privilege by birth, but there was a time in history when a class of people was refined and cultured, as well as of noble birth and having money. This is something the Americans can not understand.”
To Ken Saville all reference to class was absurd. Man was born by luck into a situation he did not make. It was not fair to categorise a person by virtue of birthplace or family lineage. Any attempt to do so was going against the deepest and most ingrained things that Ken thought of as part of his character. This democratic strain in the Australian character, he liked, though dared not voice it lest the conversation turned into one of those vulgar contests of nationalism where each individual extols the virtues of his own tribe. Yet, somehow he did not feel that this would happen with Udo. The man was so gentle and wise and seemed far above such chest-thumping. He was just trying to get a difficult and unpopular point across; the idea that there are classes of men; classes and qualities inherent in men’s souls.
Ken searched the little German’s character for some sign of inferiority that he was over-compensating for or some stupidity that he had until now concealed, but neither was present. Udo was not longing for a forgotten age where he would be greater than he was in this one. Nor was he espousing some simplistic theory of hierarchies to justify his own superiority. He was merely being sentimental in a way that was new to Ken; sentimental in a way that the Australian could not easily understand. When people of the old world begin to discuss continuity and heritage the new worlders are excluded and it is not a fair argument because they are excluded by the very terms of the argument. But Udo was not excluding Ken. He was including him in an ancient and beautiful secret of uncorrupted and incorruptible souls.
The conversation did not last very long. There was a constant and tedious stream of interruptions and asides in the kitchen, which made the possibility of following a thread this subtle to the profound and hidden waters where it might lead, a virtual impossibility. Udo too, was aware of the needs of those around him to be superficial, to feel that they belonged, to get to the water. He knew he had touched Ken and shown him something of the depth of existence; reminded him of realms beyond the mere physical and mental; pointed to a place where such distinctions became words without significations; where words were more like walls than doorways. But he also knew that the two of them could not go back there and tarry there longer than they had. The needs of the world required that Ken struggle to survive and find a job where he juggled words, while Udo in the park juggled fire and knives in a world, which though different from Ken’s, still touched Ken’s and shared with it shapes and colours and ideas.
As Ken lay in bed that night he reflected on the words of the little Prussian acrobat. The idea that there were different classes of men was not an easy one for him to assimilate. Ken’s blind loyalty was to the ideal espoused in Henry Lawson’s poem, “The Stranger’s Friend”. He had a copy of it pasted onto the first page of an old diary and had read it many times.
It seemed now unfashionable and obscure. The slang of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was no longer popular linguistic currency and references to blacks, chinamen, women and Christians in Lawson’s work dated it horribly to that nasty narrow period in Australian history when an army of beleaguered white men was struggling to overcome the bush. But Ken Saville had been raised on legends of men in the bush and the ideal of all men being equal regardless of whether they were newcomers or not was one that he clung to fervently. It was true that the egalitarian ideal had not been practised perfectly but that did not detract from the ideal itself. To be able to treat all men equally was still a goal worth emulating.
But Udo said not all men were equal. Some were greater. And Crowley, though an Australian raised on the same mythology as Ken, was a living denial of the egalitarian ideal.Â He had tried to lord it over Ken because Ken was new in town and did not know the ropes (or so Crowley thought).
In the fat man’s behaviour Ken found all that was petty and despicable about human nature. Crowley seemed so small and disgusting. The depth of rancour that Ken felt for the man was almost enough to make him physically ill.
It was many years since Ken had seriously thought of physical violence as a method of conflict resolution. Even as a child it had not been other than an emotional outlet. To resort to violence was not to settle the matter at hand. It was merely changing the subject.
Now, as he imagined Crowley’s huge pock-marked Dickensian image looming in front of him in the restaurant again, gloating “I’ve been here longer than you. Bow to me! You’ve come here cap in hand. I’ve been here longer than you! Bow to me!” he felt an intense anger in the pit of his stomach and a desire to do the man harm. But what could he do? By his own admission, violence was just changing the subject, yet how could he attack this attitude? What was he supposed to do, love this despicable creature who preyed on newcomers to boost his own self-importance? Was he supposed to forgive him? How was he to do it?
A superficial view of Udo’s thoughts on class would put Crowley in a class of inferior creatures and Ken could put himself in another class of men who were not struggling to subdue the world, but were trying rather to discern meaning in it, to extract some wisdom from it and to put more love and understanding into it. Yet the very act of making this distinction seemed to Ken to put him in the same class as Crowley. It was too easy.
He wanted desperately to distance himself intellectually, emotionally and spiritually from the man but through hatred he was not able to do it. And it was too simplistic to just call himself a more advanced soul.
For several hours he lay awake nursing the hurt that Crowley had done him and the strange sentiments that Udo had imparted, trying to allow the two experiences to exist in a universe that was not ugly. In the kitchen he could hear noise and he got up to see who it was.
It was the Japanese Korean alcoholic, Bak, who everybody avoided. He was openly desperate about his loneliness and the hatred he had experienced in his life. He talked incessantly and repeated himself and when a conversation was ending he begged the person he was talking to not to leave because he could not stand to be alone. To the young backpackers, such openly expressed despair was shameful and ugly. They could not bear to see it and they whispered and laughed about it behind Bak’s back.
Ken was civil to the man. The poor creature had suffered terribly and was an emotional wreck. The simple act of exchanging a few lines of conversation as if nothing was out of the ordinary brought tears of gratitude. Bak clutched Ken’s hands and openly wept. “You are my only friend. You are my best friend. You are my only friend”, he said over and over again.
“What did you do tonight?” said Ken. “Where were you born? Do you speak Korean? Teach me a few words of Korean. How long are you going to stay here?”
This brief exchange stretched out over no more than fifteen or twenty minutes. It profited Ken because he learned to mouth a couple of words in another tongue and it also took his mind off Crowley’s pettiness and the unpleasant tendency he noticed in himself to want to put men in classes as if they were not all brothers and sisters equal and alike.
For Bak the simple act of kindness Ken had shown by holding his hand and listening and not pulling away was enough to allow him to fall asleep without dwelling on the possibility that every soul on earth despised him. He had a friend or at least someone who did not find him too repulsive to touch.
In this way the days passed. Fruitless searching for work was punctuated by passionate conversations and unselfconscious drunken-ness. Mornings were a lazy amble through the papers looking at the want ads and in the afternoons Ken began to write notes for the novel he had been working on these two years past. The manuscript had been lost when his bag was stolen in Vietnam but the ideas were still alive and working on his consciousness and at times the characters would appear to him and he would see life through their eyes.
Ostensibly the story was about two fleas on a dog’s arse arguing about whether or not the dog existed. The vulgarity of the metaphor did not repel him. Rather did it attract him. He had always been attracted by the vulgar and the taboo, he reasoned, because he had a desire to get to the heart of things and find the truth and then shout it at everybody he met or write it down and print endless copies and give one to everybody.
Yet people did not want to hear the truth. They did not want to know about it. Their reluctance to talk in the vocabulary of procreation or decay was to Ken a metaphor for their refusal to face the inevitabilities of life. And naturally enough. If life is nasty brutish and short then why dwell on the more embarrassing aspects of it?
One end of one’s body emits faeces and urine. People are slaves to carnal desires and if one were not, no human life would be produced. We are all conceived in lust.
Yet to Ken these unpleasant facts were only seemingly unpleasant. Even in the most atheistic periods of his life he maintained a deep and desperate intuition that at the bottom of the pit beneath the dark and unpleasant doorway of fears and taboos there was a truth all-consuming and revelatory. So beautiful and glorious was this truth that even a glimpse of it would instantly catapult even the most desperate and fearful wretch into hitherto unknown regions of bliss. So it was worth it to bare the obscenity and wretchedness of life and hold it up for public scrutiny so that the divine spark could be unmasked of its seeming profanity and unveiled in all its glory.
Thus in the crude metaphor of two philosophical insects inhabiting an animal’s anus, Ken hoped to reveal the profoundest and most ennobling of truths; there is a divine but secret pattern in the universe.
The anecdote about the two fleas was merely a joke told in passing by one character to another but it contained in its symbolism the most profound and terrifying and liberating things that Ken had thus far learned in his own short journey on the road of life.
One flea insisted that there was no dog because neither of them had ever seen a dog. The other flea insisted for reasons that Ken was trying to articulate that there had to be a dog.
To live in a world where the sacred is concealed in the profane; to live in a world where all that is profane is in fact cradled in divine hands? Or to face the fact that nothing is sacred and the universe is profane; if this is true we must face it and cease to lie about it and see life for what it is. But in doing this, in valuing honesty over the beautiful lie even in an infernal carnal world with no hope of salvation whatever; to do this is to awaken a divine spark in a place where God did not previously exist. The quest by its very nature seemed to promise a fruitful conclusion and yet just two or three years previous the opposite had seemed true. The very opposite. It had seemed inconceivable that God was anything more than a childish wish but now even a childish wish seemed to be an echo of some hidden divinity.
These were the thoughts and themes, which occupied Ken Saville now as he hunched himself over the table and scribbled things in his notebook, his free hand still unconsciously concealing, what he wrote in obedience to an old habit, that he had had drilled into him at school at exam time.
Spring was coming on strong now. The weather was much warmer and the buds pink and full on the trees were straining, ready to explode. People eyed them expectantly and it seemed that they would at any moment burst into flower.
With this dizziness in the air and each evening a festival of beer and philosophy, Ken faced the uncertainty of his situation with resignation. His novel came to him now in patchy visions, thick and verbatim, which he would transcribe in a flurry of activity, or on other days, he would sit and drink coffee and simply gaze at an empty page then scratch an idea or draw a map of the plot in the shape of a spiral, with its climax at the centre.
He went along to the bank one day and found that he still had a fair bit of money left. There was enough to pay for a month if he was careful how he did it and still get a plane out of there if he wasn’t able to find a job and had to make a run for another country when the money got low enough to worry.
The absorption of his story coming on thick and fast and the beer and conversation he found himself falling easily into were enough to take him away from that terrible self-consciousness from which he sometimes suffered. He did not worry overly about what was out of his control and each day his spirit seemed stronger and happier as if the valley he loved was seeping slowly back into his aura and strengthening him body and soul for what lay ahead.
Whatever it was that lay ahead, it did not seem to be work. The end of the month came around and he had nothing to hope for but Monday. Not even a “maybe”; just a fervent desire to see the job he needed leaping up at him from the pages of the next Japan Times Employment Section. Life seemed fragile and precarious because it was. He did not know how much longer he had.
Up in Kita-ku at the end of every month there was a kind of open mike cabaret gig run by a Tasmanian called Ken Rodgers. Ken Saville shared name, nationality and literary persuasion with the Tasmanian but Ken Rodgers had been in town a lot longer and was older and more settled. He was married with a son.
The two Kens wrote occasional e-mails to each other and when he was in Kyoto, Ken Saville never missed a Connection as the gig was called. The Kyoto Connection.
Culture like language is in its narrowest sense a despicable disguise which individuals use to conceal their own mediocrity and hide from those who ask them if they have an individuality. In a broader sense it is a voice singing in the tune that it has learned, expressing something eternal in a temporal way. Broader yet is when the voice of culture goes beyond one tribe and recognises its own inspiration in the voice of another tribe and seeing this mirror and hearing this echo, transcends itself to produce something new.
The Kyoto Connection was a place where this happened. Musical and literary forms and traditions from all over the world were brought to the city by people who had come to study various aspects of Japanese culture. They met and mingled and married their arts with others so strange original songs, dances and performances came out of the little theatre where Ken Rodgers organised the show. It was a fusion of world culture.
In the several years he had been attending the monthly performances Ken Saville had seen a bewildering array of instruments, dance styles and story-telling from all the continents.
For him it was the best thing in town. It epitomised the things that made him want to live in Kyoto. One Saturday night a month was Connection night and on this night the avante-garde and original was celebrated. The weird girls turned into Cindarellas and the staid and boring gaijin who had come to Japan for the money sat in the back row like ugly sisters staring in amazement and wonder and realising that there were other voices and other things. On some nights. The show varied month to month. Sometimes it was just self-obsessed poetry and American folk-songs on guitar.
On those nights Ken liked to sit outside on the steps and talk to other members of the audience. The audience was as interesting as the show. It was full of diverse and creative people from all over the world.
Ken had told Hilde and Andreas about the Kyoto Connection and this being their last week-end in Kyoto they wanted him to have a drink with them and take them up there. Ken’s standing as the longest-serving gaijin in all the people at the gaijin house had given him a kind of “uncle” status and everybody asked him where to catch buses, what to see and what certain things meant.
This slowly settling state of affairs was soon to come to an end however as an old friend in the western part of town had invited him to house-mind while he went back to America for a while. Ken was moving out over the weekend and by the end of the week everybody would be gone and Uno House would be populated by a different crew with no memory nor knowledge of the previous.
It was agreed that Ken would meet Hilde and Andreas at Uno House for drinks around 6:30 on Saturday evening then they would go to the baths and afterwards up to Kyoto Connection. The following day Hilde would return to Osaka and Andreas would fly to Germany so they had decided to spend the last day of their holiday visiting the Big Buddha and the deer-park in Nara.
It was a hectic day and at 7:30 they had still not arrived. Ken had bought a large carton of ume-shu to share with them before their bath but when they did not arrive he drank most of it with an Irishman who lived in Tokyo. The Irishman was over-nighting in Kyoto on a hitching trip from Hiroshima. He had been visiting a girl and was going back to Tokyo where he had to start work on the Monday morning. His personality being a pleasant mixture of humility, affability and enthusiasm, Ken spent a happy hour with him chatting about the mystery and the pull of Japan and the trials and tribulations of the road.
When the Germans turned up they were hot and bothered and stressed out by the lateness of the hour. Hilde liked to plan ahead and when things did not turn out as expected she grew impatient and moody. Ken could see her taking this out on Andreas and it lowered his estimation of her character.
In the bath Andreas confided that this was their last week-end together. Their relationship had begun in Germany and he had come to Japan to see her but it had not worked out and after this trip was over he doubted that they would contact each other again.
When Ken heard this he felt sad. He had denied his attraction to Hilde because she was with Andreas and now Andreas did not want her. And even Ken did not want her now because he saw her as wilful and moody. How whimsical he was. How whimsical everything was.
Thinking about this now he realised that it was a long time since he had been in love. Certainly he was attracted to any number of women in the street every day, but how long had it been since he had forgotten himself and been entranced in another creature? He ran his thoughts back over the years and could remember desire. Sometimes he called love “desire”, but there had been a purity to it, which was somehow gone now. It had become a need that had to be satisfied and he wished that it was again a magical beautiful thing where he could lose himself in the wonder of another creature.
After the bath they had another drink and then began to plan their journey up to the Connection. By now there was a group of people who wanted to come. Ken had been given a bicycle by one of his friends and said he was going to ride up to save money. He told the others how to get there and they climbed into taxis.
It was a thirty or forty minute ride up to the theatre. Ken pedalled north and west through the narrow streets that branched anarchically between and alongside the large grid pattern of major avenues, which carried most of Kyoto’s traffic. The small streets were quiet, empty and peaceful. A man stood alone practising his golf swing. A woman talked to a neighbour in front of a row of flower-pots. Some houses were still made of wood.
By keeping east of Horikawa-dori and south of Kitayama he made it through the maze of alleys to the intersection of those two avenues. Then he pedalled up to Ueno Kaido where Teatro Marron was situated on a corner in a back street.
It was the first time he had seen Ken Rodgers since he got back to town and they embraced and chatted for a while between acts. There was a harpist and a piano player and then somebody read some poetry and a Scottish guy played the bagpipes. Two Japanese guys played Indian drums and shamisen and a blues guitarist finished the show off.
Ken Saville had run into a score of friends at the performance and drank canned beer steadily all night so he was in good cheer when the audience was turned out into the street. He told the others he would meet them in a bar downtown then he climbed on his bike and began his long ride in the other direction.
Uno House was on the way downtown so he called in to see who was about. Udo was sitting in the kitchen talking to two English guys. They drank the rest of the sake together then went down to a big subterranean discotheque with the odd name of “Bar, isn’t it?”
The place was full of young girls in short dresses and make-up. Ken leaned on the bar and talked to Udo and the English guys, getting drunker and more enamoured of the beautiful women all around. The two English kept asking him “lonely planet tourist” type questions and “what do you think of Japan?” questions and he started to get bored with them. He was tired of being the tour-guide-uncle, always being friendly to everybody, never chasing women, always treating women like men, always being the overseer and angel hovering distant and removed. He wanted to dive into the river of life and emerge wet and dripping with passion and experience instead of constantly guiding others to the water and watching them swim.
As this realisation dawned on him he grew more and more moody and impatient and reflected on how he always held himself back and never went after what he wanted. By now he was getting positively irritated with the two English, who would not talk to each other or anybody else but rather clung to him like disoriented pensioners clutching the guide’s red umbrella as he led them through Dante’s inferno of leaning towers, colosseums, canals and plazas full of pickpockets.
He moved away towards the centre of the bar, ordered another beer and drank deep as if it was the secret liquid that would transport him out of there and into another form or situation more to his liking. He could feel Udo sitting on the bar to his left, quiet, pensive and aware that something was going on. Then he turned and looked at the sea of faces and bodies in front of him, the dance floor in the distance, the tables, the Hundertwasser decor, the groups of people talking.
Then he saw her and it was as if he had fallen into a dream. Tall strong, flat-faced, handsome, refined, a Japanese woman was standing in front of him holding a drink, standing alone. She looked to her left and looked to her right but she did not look at him.
Side-on her face was angular and closed as if it had weathered the cold steppe winds of a thousand years in Mongolia. Front-on it was all exquisite lines; her eyes, her jaw, her neck, her chin were drawn like curves by a calligraphy master and her hair was perfunctorily but perfectly pulled up into a casual twist of ebony flax clutching the top of her head by means of a tortise-shell clasp.
He ran his eyes down her strong neck, saw it disappear into her shoulders and arms like a cradle, her breasts like the casement of a terrific fire and her hips and legs supporting her magnificent torso.
Ken was transfixed, his back on the bar, his palms nailed to the wood, his heart weeping blood, his eyes wide as he stared at her and swam into her. She transformed her shape several times in front of him as she turned her head and the lines of her face moved deliriously. She was a Heian courtesan, a Cambodian appsara, a Maori princess, a Balinese diva. The rest of the room became clouds and she was standing on them looking to left and right but still not looking at him, yet standing right in front of him just three metres away and moving slowly closer in the swirling mist of cloud-like people that formed the background of Ken’s vision.
Ken was alone at the bar now, in the centre of the room. Udo and the English were far away. The woman seemed to be alone. There were just the two of them drifting now like two formless masses in the sky, slowly approaching each other, merging, marrying like rain-clouds.
For a moment Ken pulled himself back afraid of rejection or worse still afraid of another blindingly beautiful woman and a banal conversation. When he so desired a woman that he had pains in his stomach yet her intellect was so uninteresting that he wanted to walk away from her, he began to hate his desire and hate himself. He felt like a prisoner trapped in a spider’s web, unable to deny what he wanted yet unable to find what he wanted either. It was maddening.
But this time the attraction was too strong and the woman drifted towards him like an asteroid falling to earth; like a hawk plummeting towards a tree.
He mumbled something like: “Can you speak English?” and she instantly put her ear to his mouth, whispering in his own ear “What did you say?”
“You’re so beautiful,” he mumbled.
She smiled. “Thank you”, she said.
He had wanted to say it for so long, perhaps all his life. He wanted simply as a man to say to a woman: “You’re so beautiful” but something misogynist in his upbringing or perhaps that the intellectual in him despised the here and now, or just some bile that the Devil had put in his soul; something had always prevented him from saying it. He did not know where this strange hatred and fear came from, but he felt it now rinsing out of him, evaporating into the air and the clouds around him as he fell into the mystery of this beautiful creature before him.
“What’s your name?” he breathed and for a moment he was able to peer into her large oval eyes, dark and beckoning, full and moist. He felt he was swimming in her eyes and did not want her to take them off him.
“Aiko” she said. “My name is Aiko”.
Aiko. He ran the word over in his mind. Ai means love. Ko means child. Love child. Child of Love. Loving child. Ai. I. I am a child.
These permutations having passed he gave his own name which doubled as a Japanese name too. Ken and Aiko. Aiko and Ken. It had a ring to it.
“You look like a Maori princess”, he said. He had never sweet-talked a girl before. He always talked around it, talked about ideas and who he was and what he’d done, asked what she read and did and dreamed of. He had never allowed himself to focus so blatantly on the here and now. He’d never simply and honestly looked at the beauty of a woman.
Now as he talked to her the conversation was unbelievably banal; full of “where did you..?”s and “what did you…?”s and “do you like…?”s. There was nothing in it to make it memorable or noteworthy as a conversation in itself. But the words were not important because he was whispering in her ear and as she moved she pressed against him and her ear touched his nose and his lips and he smelled her hair. It was almost as if she was falling into his arms yet if he tried to touch her or embrace her, she drew away. She simply stood there and floated in and out of his grasp as if following the steps in a strange dance; a dance thousands of years old or more; a dance which had been going on around him all his life but he had never noticed it until now because he had been too blind.
One of the English guys came over to ask something or say something but Ken was dancing now and could not be distracted from the girl. She too seemed happy to ignore the rest of the clouds and dance around the sky with this, her own personal storm and so they circled each other bumping and touching accidentally on purpose until the lights came on and surly New Zealanders started bellowing to everybody to get out.
“Where are you going?” said Ken.
“I have to meet my friends”, she said.
“Can I come?” he said.
“Not tonight. I really want to see you more but I came out with my friends and I have to talk to them and spend time with them.”
Ken took her phone number and watched her disappear out the door and up the staircase to the street above. So many came down those stairs in hope and left hours later in drunken despair but Ken walked up to street level now like Dante ascending from the Inferno. Nothing could wipe the grin off his face. The gang from Uno House were in the street and some other people he knew from casual beers at the Pig drifted with him eastwards to the strains of “I’ve just met this really nice girl.”
It was after three and most of the other little bars in town were closed or closing. The unofficial drinking circuit led them all in the direction of a little upper storey place on the east side of Kiyamachi. It was called Rokuhan: “six and a half” and it was the last place to go when everything else was finished. It stayed open until half past six.
Slowly but inevitably all the crowd from Bar Isn’t it? wandered across the canal and into the little arcade near Sanjo then up in the elevator to the fourth floor where a press of die-hard Saturday night revellers was growing by the minute. Swept up by the crowd, babbling about his new love, Ken floated into the little bar, bought a beer and leaned on the wall while the pack stood and swayed to the music. Standing room only and everybody was everybody else’s partner.
He could see Aiko across the room talking to a couple of girls and when he caught her eye, she slowly moved toward him and fell into his embrace again. This time he tried to kiss her and hold her more tightly but she drew away and looked hurt.
“What’s wrong?” he said. “Why are you upset? I really like you. What’s wrong?”
“I am very shy and I just met you. You are too fast.”
“But it’s natural. It’s beautiful. We’re supposed to be together. It feels right. Am I imagining this? Can you feel it?”
“Yes I can feel it too.”
“Then follow your feeling.”
“I want to follow my feeling but I don’t have the confidence. I have been hurt very badly and it’s not easy for me to trust another person now.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I don’t want to tell you. I just met you. I am shy. Can I trust you?”
“Yes, you can trust me. I know it sounds stupid but although we just met, it seems like we were supposed to meet. Already I feel like I am falling in love with you. I keep saying to myself: ‘Is this a dream? Are you going to wake up in a moment?’ But it’s not a dream. It’s a beautiful reality. This was meant to happen. This was supposed to happen. It feels so good. It feels so right. We move so well together. We’re supposed to be together. Can’t you feel it?”
“Yes, I can feel it too, but how can you say you are falling in love with me if you only just met me. You don’t know me. If you really knew me, you would get sick of me and find me boring. You wouldn’t like me anymore if you knew what I was really like.”
“That’s not true.”
“How do you know?”
Ken paused. “You’re right. I don’t know. But you don’t know either. You think I would get sick of you but I say I wouldn’t get sick of you, but neither of us really know.”
“I guess you’re right” she said.
“Listen, Aiko, this is all just crazy abstract imaginings. Can’t you hear the music all around us? Can’t you feel the music in our bodies? We are the music. We are supposed to be together. That’s true. That’s here and now. That’s real. You can feel it. I can feel it. It’s natural. It’s wrong not to follow that feeling and be true to it.”
“Hold me,” she said.
“Talk to me” he whispered. “Tell me who it was that broke your sad and beautiful heart.”
“Not now she said. “Hold me and dance with me.”
He tried to kiss her.
“Don’t kiss me”, she said.
“It’s too soon. I’m not ready.”
He was still holding her and whispering into her ear, trying to persuade her to stay with him when the sun came up illuminating the bar. Her friends came over together to tell her they were leaving and glanced knowingly at him.
“They will be my friends too”, he thought to himself.
Then she was gone for the second time that night and Ken was sitting on the bar talking to the last drunks who couldn’t be bothered going anywhere else. When Roku-han finally closed and kicked them out, they wandered over to one of the American-style hamburger outlets on Kawaramachi and had a breakfast set then Ken stumbled north to Uno House and rolled out a futon. He had intended to check out but he was too tired and he slept until just before mid-day, waking in time to get up and pay.
The receptionist was an anal kind of guy who got really upset if you didn’t pay for another night by checkout time. The kitchen walls were covered in posters with rules governing what you were allowed to do and what was forbidden.
After he paid his bill Ken lay down on the futon and tried to get back to sleep but he was too excited. He could still smell her hair and see her huge dark eyes. He felt that he had fallen into her eyes and he was swimming across them. He stopped moving his arms and let his body slip under the water. Slowly he sank, gazing up at the disappearing sunlight far above him as he descended into her womb.
Just as he was drifting off to sleep Andreas came in. He had had a fight with Hilde and she had gone back to Osaka alone.
“There’s a phone call for you”, he said.
It was Solomon Barber, Ken’s friend in Arashiyama. They had had a loose arrangement to meet later that day but Sol had to go into Osaka and attend some kind of reunion party with his girlfriend so he had to cancel. Ken said that he would call the following day and arrange to meet then.
“It’s cutting it a bit fine because we are taking the plane on Tuesday morning but it’ll have to be tomorrow then.”
There had been some kind of misunderstanding. Ken had intended to move to Sol’s and stay a couple of days before Sol went to the U.S. but it seemed Sol wanted to spend that time alone with his girl so Ken would not check out of Uno House until Tuesday morning. When they had made the new arrangement Ken was just about to hang up when Sol said that it was snowing in the mountains. Hiei-zan was covered in white. It would be much nicer up in the mountains than in the grime of Osaka. Ken said he would go outside and look.
Andreas wanted to come too. They teamed up with Bak and a Kiwi traveller on a working holiday visa and the four of them walked across to Marutamachi and caught the Keihan to Demachiyanagi then changed to the Eizan.
The train ran on an old narrow gauge line up into the mountains to the village of Kurama. From Demachiyanagi it wound north-east past the burakumin housing complex to Moto Tanaka and then the abattoir with its stench and squeals of pigs about to die at Chayama. From there it was pretty much due north through a more bourgeois area after Ichijoji and up to Shugakuin.
There was a new style of carriage with seats facing the windows and they could see the hills of Higashiyama with nascent buds and Mt Hiei shrouded in a delicate blanket of white as the train proceeded up the valley. After rounding Hiei-zan the track began to go up over roads and a river and the stations were elevated above the little clusters of houses, which formed villages along the water-course.
They passed Seika University and a timber yard and patches of cedar and bamboo forest began to replace the roads and buildings, which had dominated lower down.
The New Zealander, a quiet sympathetic type sat to one side of Ken as they ascended. His name was Robert and there was a purity; a democratic simplicity to him that Ken found appealing.
The lines of an old poem flashed through his mind:
Kiwi lad with a sheep for a Dad
and the earth his only mother
Heart that’s true ‘neath a sky that’s blue
and all men are his brothers.
As they climbed into the mountains of bamboo and timber each of them seemed to open a little more to the wonder of the prospect all around them. Bark the desperate Korean was musing on some happy time in his childhood when his father had taken him into the mountains.
With each clack of the rails as the train ascended the slope, Andreas felt further from Hilde and the confusion of the river on the plain and the sprawling concrete mass of Osaka beyond, spreading as far as the sea and even putting jetties and bridges out into the water. He was above it all now. Above and beyond as the first drifts of snow appeared in gullies and on spreading boughs of bamboo and cedar and pine.
“This is what I came to see. This is what I came to Japan for” he whispered to Ken as they climbed higher into the breast of nature. The Kiwi said nothing but his eyes mirrored the same sentiments as the others.
The city was growing inexorably, inevitably up the valley and sinking its steel and cement feet into the earth, eating the trees, swallowing the mountains. There was no stopping it. No man could stop it. Only earthquake or typhoon or landslide; only time and thunder could stop it. Only Heaven.
But they had passed a point where its reign was absolute now. The last soul-less geometric monoliths and construction sites of foolish projects; the last poisoned buildings and tarmacs and rubbish pits were below them. They were approaching a region closer to Heaven where a truce had been declared between civilisation and nature and man lived in harmony with earth in a vista of rice fields and forests and running water. Children frolicked in a paradise of glittering vegetables and lay on the forest floor, felt the beat of the heart of the earth, the breath of the trees, the milk of the breasts of God running into them.
For Ken all this beauty on this special day was coming on top of the glory of the night before and the tiny scrap of paper he clutched in his pocket with Aiko’s phone number on it was a sutra written on dragon silk revealing a secret doorway into his next life. He was so happy that the joy poured out of him like sake running down the sides of a tiny wooden vessel which couldn’t hold any more, yet the barman kept pouring and pouring and pouring.
When they got off the train the first snowflakes stared to fall. From the station the road continued higher to Paradise and they walked but their legs seemed not to carry them. Rather were they merely floating like magnets attracted to their iron source and their legs just went through the motions of perambulation, the soles of their shoes kissing the path with each footfall as their ascent continued.
The snow grew heavier as they went up the steps at the entrance to the temple off to the left of the main road. Ken could not help but whisper: “Arigato Gozaimashita” in gratitude and humility with each exhalation of miraculous breath.
“Life” he murmered. “Life Life Life”. And he mumbled it over and over again as if the word were the secret mantra; the very air that supported him. “Arigato Gozaimashita. Life Life Life. Arigato Gozaimashita. Life Life Life. Arigato Gozaimashita. Life Life Life… Life Life Life.”