Takashi Atoda in Tokyo

by Rob Keast

A reader visits the setting of a short story, not only because it is there but because he is there.

Some points to consider before we begin…

One: Takashi Atoda is the most important Japanese author of the twentieth century.

Two: Atoda’s “Floating Lanterns” is a short story of global importance.

Three: Senzoku Pond is the most culturally significant body of water on mainland Japan.

True? None of it. Atoda is well-known in Japan, but nobody is placing him alongside Mishima and Kawabata in the pantheon, and “Floating Lanterns” is not even Atoda’s best story. As for Senzoku, it is just another pond in just another city park, deserving little more attention than a shopping mall retention pool. Only the pond’s immediate neighbors in southern Tokyo have even heard of it. Hardly, then, a rival to the Imperial Palace moat, which lies several miles to the northeast.

My wife and I live in Tokyo, teaching English and occupying a one-room apartment in the capital’s southern-most ward. We are readers, so back in Michigan when we had packed our suitcases and backpacks, we reserved space for a few dozen books among the skirts, blouses, rolled underwear, slacks, and other elements of a tie-mandatory/skirt-mandatory workplace. Thus far in Tokyo my book list has been an unsystematic mix of Western classics (Ulysses, Anna Karenina), popular fiction that the expat community is passing around (John Irving, Bridget Jones), books on Japan (How to Look at Japanese Art), and, every once in a while, a (translated) work of Japanese fiction. Atoda’s book The Square Persimmon and Other Stories falls into this last category. My wife purchased it on a previous stay in Japan; she doesn’t recall why.

I finally opened the book last summer, reading it on my twenty-five minute commute to and from central Tokyo, and during my four o’clock lunch hours, which I take in a windowless classroom large enough for five desks and a teacher (as long as the teacher stands). My branch of a nationwide English school rents the third and fourth floors of a gaunt, nine-story office building that is, beneath the smog treatment, solid pink concrete. “Look for the Pepto-Bismol colored building,” we teachers instruct friends who are meeting us after work for the first time.

Atoda apparently cranks out story collections by the dozen. Yet, not until he reached the age of 55 did anyone translate him into English. A scholar named Millicent M. Horton selected eleven stories from Atoda’s forty-some collections, translated them, and published the collection as The Square Persimmon and Other Stories in 1991. “Floating Lanterns” is the second-to-last story in the book. It begins:

On the last day in June, Taizo Tsuse was moved from a municipal hospital in the middle of Tokyo to N Hospital, a private clinic, in Ota ward. Ota ward? We live in Ota ward! In fact, we live in the Kamata neighborhood, which is the heart of Ota ward — home to the ward offices and Ota”s largest train station. I have an Ota Library borrower’s card. Not that Ota ward is famous. To begin with, it is neither or nor within the Yamanote Line. Yamanote trains run in an elevated, twenty-mile circle that, with one exception, either connects or encloses every worthwhile district, station, and icon in the city. The zoo and museums? On the Yamanote. The Imperial Palace? Within. Shibuya, hub of youth culture? On the Yamanote Line. Meiji Shrine? Within. Tokyo Tower? Within. Roppongi, epicenter of expat and GI nightlife? Within. The Tokyo Dome, home of the Yomiuri Giants? Within. Dirty pink tower known as “The Goto Building,” place of my employment? On the Yamanote Line. (The one exception is Asakusa, an old neighborhood built around Senso-ji, the city”s most famous Buddhist temple. Asakusa is three subway stops removed from the Yamanote Line.)

Our neighborhood, in truth, deserves no fame. Much of Ota ward is conventionally old-fashioned and a little downtrodden. Its best-known feature is Haneda, Tokyo’s number-two airport (after Narita). Yet, Ota can’t even be remarkable for its lack of remarkability, the way New York’s Staten Island can. Over half of Tokyo”s twenty-three wards lie outside the Yamanote Line, all equally overlooked by Frommer’s and Lonely Planet. All overlooked by Tokyoites themselves.

In “Floating Lanterns” (set in Ota ward!), an elderly man named Taizo Tsuse dwells on his long-ago marriage from a bed in a nursing home that happens to be near Senzoku Pond. He remembers this pond from decades before, when he was a newlywed and lived in the neighborhood, and he marvels that chance would again bring him so near Senzoku. Taizo Tsuse had a young wife then, and the two of them had strolled around the pond one summer night during the Festival of the Dead and had watched people float candle-lit lanterns that carried offerings to their ancestors. A few years later, Taizo lost his wife and young son in a car accident. For the next forty years Taizo dreamed of them — he on one side of Senzoku Pond and his wife and son beckoning him from the other, always at night with the lanterns floating between them. No matter how Taizo ran, he could not reach them. On the night of his death, Taizo has the same dream. This time he reaches his wife and son on the opposite bank. As the family is reunited on the shore, in the nursing home a doctor pronounces Taizo dead.

I had never heard of Senzoku Pond. Perhaps Atoda had invented it. For months I entertained the idea of visiting Senzoku Pond — walking to it, even — assuming I could confirm its existence. Finally, a few weeks ago, I paged through the “Ota Living Guide,” a booklet (in English) that lists the ward’s offices, hours, garbage policies, libraries, and swimming pools. (The Ota Living Guide also includes the headings “Typhoons” and “If an Earthquake Occurs.” Michigander that I am, these dangers strike me as good-time exotic rather than life-threatening. What, anyway, to do with this advice: “Stay calm. Listen for announcements over the radio, television and public address systems. Ignore rumors.”)

I found Senzoku listed among the ward’s parks. Nearest train station: Senzoku Pond Station. How had I missed it? Because Senzoku Pond Station, though only a fifteen-minute ride away from us, is on a short, rickety train line I had never used, despite its proximity to our apartment. The Ikegami is a train line’s equivalent of a dirt road. (It is wrong to assume that all of Japan’s trains are as sleek as the famed bullet train.)

This morning, after living almost a year in Ota ward, Susan and I boarded the Ikegami Line for the first time. Eight quick stops to Senzoku Pond Station. (I’m inclined to call the small wooden facility a train shelter rather than a train station.) A four-lane highway ran between the station and the pond. We crossed on a concrete pedestrian bridge, and from that vantage I noticed two car dealerships.

Senzoku Pond is perhaps 150 yards long and 100 yards wide, but its shape is not a perfect oval. We noticed swaths of reeds and several small bays and pockets, as if Senzoku were a complicated puzzle piece that could be snapped together with other ponds in Tokyo. The water was brown and still, and even on this cold February morning we smelled its faint stagnancy. Surveying the far side, Susan and I noticed a steeply arched, bright red bridge that led to a small temple. Nearer to us, three pre-schoolers played follow-the-leader on a grid of wooden platforms that criss-crossed above a shallow water garden. Weaving about at right angles, they jumped clumsily with arms extended, as if attempting flight. They wore jackets with hoods and shouted cartoon animal noises — koo, koo, kah!

At first glance from the water’s edge I doubted we had enough time this morning to walk around the pond. Taizo Tsuse had spent decades worth of dreams trying to complete this walk. How could I expect to circle Senzoku on a Friday before work? (Susan and I both taught from noon until nine o’clock.) Yet we began to stroll, and soon enough we reached the opposite bank, near the red bridge. We crossed onto the temple grounds. Patches of hard beige dirt, stone paths, and two small buildings of dark, weathered wood. Splinters galore. A middle-aged woman and her runty dog were visiting the temple. Both the woman and the animal wore bright sweaters made brighter by the winter sun.

The woman approached. “Dozo,” she said to us, handing Susan a cellophane packet and gesturing toward the pond, where a few ducks congregated. The dry balls of duck food were the same beige as the dirt around us.

“Arigatou,” we replied, nodding our heads. “Arigatou gozaimasu.”

Susan tore open the clear plastic, and we each fingered a sandy pebble of food. When I tossed mine between two ducks, a coat of greasy dust lingered on the prints of my thumb and forefinger.

Nothing else happened at the pond this morning. Susan took my picture on the red bridge, with the pond in the background. Then I took hers. We noticed no sightseeing buses, passed no fellow Takashi Atoda pilgrims, located no “Square Persimmon Bed & Breakfast” or “Floating Lanterns Fudge Shoppe.”

“Floating Lanterns” and Senzoku Pond are, respectively, an inconsequential short story and an inconsequential body of water. Taken together, though, the book and the place, they seem to mean … something. They have their position among our experiences in Japan.

Travelers appreciate the interplay of book and site. Each year how many of Thoreau’s readers visit Walden? What number of Wordsworth’s devotees lodge at a bed and breakfast in the Lake District? Dublin offers Joyce tours, and Yorkshire promotes the Bronte sisters. But Senzoku Pond? Takashi Atoda?

We visited the pond this morning for two reasons: because it is nearby, in our home ward, and because it is in a book. Understanding our loyalty to Ota ward is easy enough. Being uprooted for a year, or even a few nights, wears on the spirit, and so we tell ourselves, and others, that Ota is our home. I don’t tell people that we are staying in Ota; I say that we live there. We pay rent, know our dry cleaner, buy our English-language newspaper once a week from the same vendor, and navigate the nearest grocery’s aisles with familiarity. Yet, if Senzoku Pond had been outside of Ota, but still nearby, possibly in Meguro ward or Shinagawa ward, I still would have sought it out.

A book’s two covers work on me the way the Yamanote tracks influence Tokyo’s travel writers: the covers sanctify. All places and names that fall within them are made holy. The better the book, the greater the sanctifying power, but our visit to Senzoku Pond shows that any front and back cover can make holy any place.

In Thoreau’s instance, in Joyce’s, and in the case of other great writers connected to a place, tourists” reverence is for the authors themselves. But what about Atoda? Usually I can’t even remember if his first name is Takeshi or Takashi. I don’t know what Atoda looks like, and I am not pressing Millicent M. Horton for a second volume of translated stories. Susan and I rode the Ikegami train to Senzoku Pond station this morning because we love books. As objects, I guess, and as an idea.

And, I confess, as a source of identity. We book lovers depend on our reading habit not only for information, inspiration, wisdom, and so on, but also for a sense of self. Is this vain? Yes, but humans are vain, and self-proclaimed book lovers are no more guilty of vanity than other enthusiasts. Devotees of baseball, for example, must go to Cooperstown, New York, home of the sport’s hall of fame. Yes, baseball fans go for the exhibits and the history, the jerseys and balls and mitts and spikes and caps, but they go too because going matters to their identity as baseball fans. One goes to the hall of fame in Cooperstown, or to all of the American League parks in a single summer, because being a baseball lover demands it.

Maybe a trip to Walden would impress oneself and others, and maybe one would feel closer to the sport of baseball after eating a hot dog in each of the leagues’ venues, but Senzoku will impress no one. Still, we went and we have the photos to prove it. An author had bothered to notice the pond, so we felt compelled to see what Atoda had seen.

Good authors are nothing if not perceptive, and so we readers go to sites where perception took place with the hope of improving our own abilities. Even when the site is an unfamous pond mentioned by an unfamous author.

Rob Keast has been a journalist in Michigan and Illinois. He has returned from Tokyo and lives near Detroit with his wife and daughter. Rob teaches high school English.

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