Inside & Out of the Japanese Sea

It was early morning, and I was sound asleep, when our house in Okayama began to sway and creak to a song stronger than the wind. My girlfriend, visiting from off the mainland slept in the other room. A tatami spilled out for her next to couch and coffee table, in the small room where I sometimes taught a few women English Conversation, was a snug fit even for her petite, yet amply curvy frame with long red hair swirling around the pillow like the mane of a kabuki dancer.

At first, it seemed like a dream of being rocked in a cradle, but this cradle was the earth and the house swayed back and forth. As I awoke, and, as the reality of this material world and its unpredictability dawned on me, I jumped up, and ran to the other room to wake my friend. Waking her just in time, the framed photo on top of the book shelf fell right where her head would have been, but not on her.

We stood. Both in pajamas—soft and flannel comfort clothes—there was an instant when we both knew each others thought. Should we stay or run outside. I took her by her hand and brought her to the room where I had slept. One with no bookshelves. My husband’s futon was still laid out, but he had left for work already.

The rocking stopped. Not so bad, “I thought.” You get so used to earthquakes in Japan.

When I lived in Tokyo, where I met my husband, the earth rumbled almost weekly, if not daily. We lived in an old house, and when the first I experienced (around 5.5) hit, I was trying on clothes that my father sent me from his store in the States. I had actually been sliding a white dress over my head. My soon to be husband, had run back from work to see if I was Okay. It was before cell phones. While we were getting ready to move to Shikoku, we had no phone in the one room apartment we temporarily lived in this frail old wooden house owned by one of his friend’s parents.

For me a foreigner, the house was antique, and going down the block to the bath houses romantic. Even though the male and female side were separate, everyone stared at me. Still I loved being up to my neck in the steaming hot water. Later, when I found out most new Japanese houses were built to last only about fifteen or twenty years, I realized what a dump most Japanese people would have thought the house was, but, for me, it was like being embedded in antiquity—reminding me of the old houses friends and I used to expose the bricks on. If one knew anything about costs of land in Tokyo (where land was sold not by acres, but by the size of tatami mats), they realized, even so, the spot was worth a pretty penny.

That morning in Okayama (my husband and I had moved for his work to the other side of the Seto Bridge—the longest extension bridge in the world), my friend brushed her teeth, and I made coffee, while we still remained in a state of innocence, thinking that we had a lazy morning ahead of us. My neighbor, who I worked with running English classes in her store and in my home, came across the way with her children running to the house to see if we were alright just as a phone call came from my husband asking me how we were and telling me to turn on the T.V.. Suddenly, I was uneasy.  Mesmerized by what we saw, we sat together drinking coffee.

Within minutes, Michiko went to see if her mother was alright. Her Mom lived in a really old house, but one that said money and had a beautiful garden. The children stayed with me and excitedly brought us outside to see the long split in the concrete sidewalk—peeping their heads to look inside it like they were waiting for something to crawl out. Some people down the block had no water and had woken to the cracking of pipes. We lived about two hours away from the epicenter, and that was the morning of the Kobe earthquake.

The magnitude did not sink in for weeks. Friends renting a house in Kobe escaped from everything uncontrollably moving closer and closer and faster and faster to the edge of shelves till all the ceramics and pictures fell like something tumbling from a cliff. Of all people, it had been someone who had come to Japan trying to get over being agrophopic. Another friend who had lived in Japan for so long that, if you ignored her blonde hair, you would have thought she was Japanese, had her house permanently raised about two inches leaving cracks in the foundation. Pillars holding up super highways succumbed to the Herculean forces, revealing garbage which had weakened the stability of the huge concrete pillars. One wondered, who would be blamed for this disaster on top of disaster created by someone’s reckless stupidity in order to spare a few yen, which caused the defects now blatantly exposed to the world and an already shocked population? In Japan, exposure was wielded with shame and levels of taking responsibility whether you really were responsible or not.

The U.S., offering help, was initially not accepted.. Japan was not wanting to lose face, but the fault line had been where no one expected. The earthquake had pounded up and down shifting the plates in a way also unexpected–like a sledgehammer in the hands of some Greek God becoming enraged.

Earthquakes that rocked the underground plates side to side were the expected norm. Bonsai, flower arrangement, gardens were all cultivated by the nips and tucks of Japanese hands, but this day nature had its way, and eventually, Japan took the help. How many how and why stories went unanswered then. How helpless I had felt, being a foreigner there with not enough language skills, humbled me. There was so little that I could do to help anyone.

One day, while riding my bicycle on a narrow path between rice fields months later the same year, I got this image of a huge disaster. I knew it was something in the future. War, earthquake, power plant or atom bomb, I could not discern it, but I knew it was coming. I knew there was more, and it stayed with me like the shadow of a nightmare.

Divorced and having returned to America, it was sixteen years later, and again mother nature took no pity on her small island cradled in her shores. 8.9. My buried nightmare arose like a monster with many heads. 8.9. You have no idea what this means unless you have lived it. Even 5, when it happened, could sway the weaker houses into stirring as if they were haunted by ancestral ghosts. 8.9 and a tsunami 37 feet high at 500 miles an hour made Ukiyoe’s print blocks of waves look tame. 8.9 and already there had been 66 aftershocks around 5.5. One on Sunday in Japan was 6.5. Was God going to break Japan’s back in half? I imagined people holding their breath, afraid to breath and even from the center of the United States, looking at that distant shore, I again felt helpless, and the discussion of 8.9 or 9.0 what difference did it make.

I had to ask where was God in this, but I did not know who to ask for what be worth this happening? I came to ask inside myself once more about what we create with what we believe, and then the plant exploded. Exploded in the face of some who still remembered Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and I wondered if my prayers made any difference in the wake of something so powerful, deadly and filled with pain and suffering. Even Buddha, leaving the palace, did not face this.

I cried. Truthfully, I don’t know how, but I had felt it coming to such an apex of unconscious knowingness that, it seemed as logical as a see saw going up and down, when I was a child. For almost six months, I felt I had to visit Japan one more time—watch the cherry blossom petals fall on philosopher’s path near Kinkakuji—the Silver Temple. It had only been a few weeks before when I made a move to try to do so, but my ex said he could not see me, and I could not stay with him. I was stunned into the wordless reality—white in the head ‘mashiroi’. Things I valued were still there and had sat with some silent security in my heart’s knowing they waited for me to rescue them.

My ex was with his girlfriend for years—four maybe five now, but still they had not married or moved in together. I did not believe that they would, ever. It was just a hunch, a lingering veil of excuses—’iwake’. He could have told her I needed my books for school and wanted to do some photography or that she should see me like a sister or that, he wanted to see how I was or a million other things, even that I wanted to go to his parents graves. After all, if he and her really had confidence in each other, what would be the problem? Again, the world did not seem like a good fit for me.

He told me he didn’t want complications. Living in a time-honored worship of simplicity, nature was revered and crucified at the hands of wired branches of trees, trimmed roots of Bonsai miniatures and the prescise geometrics of flower arrangement. All which nurtured the often written about enigma of Japanese things. Alway wanting simple things, but even complicating how a tree grew, and when one got down to it, things were never simple in Japan.

Now, there would be complications unending, and what I had said in my letter sitting in the hands of my ex must seem like prophecy for I had said to him that he already had complications and that is reality. It seemed the higher road—acceptance over simplicity to escape difficulties. I had heard this type of thinking so many times before. Perhaps, it was the divide that had always been between us. It seemed every moment this desire to avoid complications had raised its head, the complications were already there looming in the background in one form or another.  This Japanese love of simplicity was a mixed metaphor, and the ocean had risen up on one of our journeys, as well.

We were at the mercy mercy of the sea, while we were in a park where you walked between boulders by the sea. There had been one complication after another, on our way to the fishing island at the corner of Shikoku where my ex grew up. We were visiting friends that were like family, maybe better. The old man of the house must have been close to 80 and had a face like leather with lines weathered by the ocean, which moved with the weather of his soul and eyes that looked right inside you. One did not need a lot of words around someone like that. Being at sea when a storm hit hard and fast leaving him little time to pull in the nets and escaping with two of his fingers, as the waves beat against his boat was only one of his stories.

Rogue waves they call them. Sitting on a mini boulder planted well in the ground—a small boulder among many in the park we always stopped at half way to their home–from the road we were unseen. One did not even see the path down and around and back up through the boulders that went all the way out to sea. All you saw was a field of grass till one started ones descent, which we did. Sitting there, as my husband started to light a cigarette, a double wave rose up from no where and ran towards us. We could only duck into the blackness that broke behind us. So swift were the waves that came upon us that, there was no place or time to run. My puppy on a leash, only because he had recently been sick, survived. One of the complications had saved his chubby puppy body.

My ex, me and Happy survived, but now we were all in different places, and I think back to then and the scent of the ocean, my ripped pants, both of us staring out at sea not believing what had happened; my husband throwing away the drenched cigarettes walked with me to the car—both of us soaking wet with eyes following us for an instant. People could not help but look at us, wondering what had happened? They probably thought some stupid ‘gaijin’ (foreigner—literally outsider) had decided to try and swim where they were not supposed to.

Soooo, so quick it had been. Why did the ocean not take us? Hunched over as we were, maybe the ocean mistook us for boulders or the boulders held us. Now, twenty years later (sixteen since Kobe), the timing of my letter, what I had said after his refusal and 8.9 on the Richter Scale, I am sure he is thinking about me and remembering those days. I miss Japan. I miss the scent of the ocean. I miss the scent of things unspoken in a cup of tea.

©Roseroberta 2011

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