[from A Certain Distance, 6]

More and more now when I look in the mirror I see my father’s face. It seems the resemblance increases as I grow older. The first time I noticed this it came as a shock. Resemblance is one thing, but it was as if a different person, something wholly other, was staring back at me from the reflection.

Starting a few years back I began to feel the need to retrace my steps, to go back to the places I inhabited during earlier times of my life in hopes perhaps of reliving those times, or if not, at least to reflect on my life and who I am, who I’ve become. And I was curious what some parts of town looked like now in the 1960s compared to what they were long ago.

Recently I found myself walking along the Meguro River not far from the area where I lived for a short time in the mid-1920s. It was January and the winter cold was accentuated by the gray stillness and the barren branches of the cherry trees lining the river’s banks, now covered in concrete to prevent flooding. At some points the concrete retaining wall was so imposing it produced the feeling of a prison, some kind of limiting authority from which the viewer instinctively recoils, and added to the depressing atmosphere of the overcast day. Only the shape of a stairway installed for maintenance removed some of the drabness from the image, drawing a diagonal line along the concrete face like one of those Escher prints which create a sort of optical illusion.

It was getting darker as I approached Nakameguro where I roomed for a short time after leaving university. Why here I don’t know. It was across town from Asakusa and Ginza which were the real happening neighborhoods in those days and where most of my friends hung out. Perhaps it was simply because something had become available and it was cheap. It was a cramped room in a decrepit building. The ceiling sagged and mildew grew in the corners, especially in the entry. There was of course no private bath or kitchenette – refrigerators would become common only some years later in the 1930s. All it provided was a few aging tatami mats on which to sleep. The nice thing about it was it had a window that looked out onto a small interior garden where ivy and nasturtiums grew and an unidentifiable tree, possibly myrtle. The public bath and the train station were a ten-minute walk away. The narrow street adjacent to the station was lined with nagaya – flimsy wooden tenements which housed the working class and poor. The very sight of these fire traps made one think of illness, the slow wasting away of tuberculosis. Further along were the shops selling daily necessities, and restaurants serving grilled chicken or fish. There were a few bars located under the tracks on the other side of the station and on a street corner was the post office. Not much here to elicit feelings of nostalgia one might think, but in fact, this was the site of my sexual awakening. In a way it’s a funny story. You see, I was seduced by the postwoman, who delivered to me something I had never experienced before.

 

 

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[from A Certain Distance, 5]

I remember when I was a boy of maybe five or six, my father would take me to the candy store. There were candies of all sizes and shapes in colorful wrappings. You could get a piece of rakugan sugar candy for 1 sen. And there were toys too. Miniature cars and locomotives; wooden dolls and other figurines. At another shop they sold traditional Japanese sweets like daifuku – sweet bean paste wrapped in pounded rice. This was a real treat. The rice paste was smooth and silky, and pleasantly chewy.

Even as a high school student I would often drop by the candy store for old time’s sake. By that time I was studying for the college entrance exam, though by then I had doubts about making it into medical school. I remember walking home in the twilight of early evening, the eerie rust-red glow of the wooden buildings in the fading light, and the sound of my wooden sandals on the road. I remember the feeling of anxiety I would often have for no particular reason, the sense of being absolutely alone.

It was 1918 and Japan had become industrialized almost overnight. The world war had left Europe deeply damaged, but Japan had become wealthy from all the new business opportunities. A major migration was taking place from the country to the city where there were jobs in the factories and offices.

I’ve never felt all that nostalgic about my childhood or the place where I grew up. I was always more nostalgic for times I had never experienced, for places I had never been. Soon, I too would be headed for Tokyo.

 

 

 

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