A Quarterly Journal of Contemporary English Language Haibun
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June 2005, vol 1 no 1

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David Gershator, USA

To Nikko and Beyond

Northwest of the Tokyo urban sprawl there are still some stretches of rice paddies. The scenery is a welcome relief from the city and I was admiring it as I sat on a crowded train to Nikko. The guidebook said Nikko means sunlight. I was hoping we’d get some. The young Japanese guy sitting opposite me caught my eye, he smiled and said, ‘I very happy.’ That was an unexpected sort of announcement. ‘Why are you happy?’ I asked, pleased to know that he knew some English. ‘I marry Nikko. Tomorrow by Rabbi.’ ‘Rabbi?’ I asked bewildered, but who knows? ‘Is the bride Jewish?’ ‘Wait wait’ he said, quickly leafing through a handy pocket dictionary. ‘Marry by priest. Buddha priest! Tomorrow.’ I congratulated him and wished I could help him celebrate. My girlfriend threw me a look. I wasn’t asking for an invitation. I’m innocent. I don’t even know if Japanese invite outsiders to such a ceremony. Between his English and my Japanese we could hardly communicate. She noticed that everybody on the train was equipped with umbrellas. Are we on the rain train? Judging by the umbrellas the odds are against us. ‘We’re gonna get soaked like frogs in a paddy,’ she said. For some reason the train slowed to a crawl. I didn’t mind. The deserted rice paddies intrigued me. Low lying mists rose from them in the near distance. I remembered a haiku by a poet whose name escapes me:

vast summer
the frogs we can’t hear
the frogs we can hear

She liked the lines. I never claimed they were my own. There’s something about serene rice paddies that makes one long to get off the train and go back in time, back among the fields reflecting the trances of ageless summer. Elysian fields of illusion! What if it rains? The train climbed away from the fields onto higher ground.

at the Nikko station
a dragonfly makes a pass
at my companion

We followed the crowd. A few drops fell and the threatening sky seemed to be held off momentarily by an instant crowd of umbrellas. We managed to rent a black umbrella at a kiosk from a toothless crone who was doing a land office business. I was eager to see the fabled cryptomeria. There’s absolutely nothing hidden or crypto about these huge soaring cedars at the Toshugu shrine.

On the asphalt road to the Toshugu shrine, the ornate mausoleum of 17th century Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, I followed in the footsteps of a middle aged Japanese gentleman who did not carry an umbrella. He was directly in front of me, climbing up the rise, looking at his feet, when a yellow bus came hurtling down. I didn’t know how to say ‘Watch out!’ in Japanese. The bus’ side view mirror missed the man’s head by a fraction of an inch. He’ll never know how close he came to being whacked. I learned how it feels to be tongue tied, mute and dumbstruck in the face of a looming disaster. Talk about the limits of language! I’ve played the scene over in my mind many times. If I had yelled 'WATCH OUT' in English or Japanese, he might have turned his head in the wrong direction and been struck dead. Hey! In a split second it’s over. Fortunately nothing happened...nothing and everything:

open mouthed
I gag
on no language

After the bus incident I headed into the gravel of the shrine and the dark skies opened up with a dramatic downpour. Trying to get to the carved monkeys--the original hear-see-speak-no-evil guys--cost me a good soaking. Who is the monkey? The rented black umbrella didn’t stand a chance against wind driven rain.

My companion said she had to get back to Tokyo for her English tutoring job. In spite of the weather I wanted to head north of Nikko to Lake Chuzenji and the Kegon Falls and maybe see a bit of the Japanese Alps. I couldn’t tempt her to forget Tokyo. She had an appointment at 4 PM, tutoring a wealthy Japanese film maker/photographer who kept propositioning her with offers of fantasy weekends in fabulous ryokans. I wasn’t too happy about this, but we had an understanding. We were companions of the road. We met in a Tokyo foreign language, i.e. English, bookstore and were instant buddies. Americans in Tokyo. Fellow Californians. Pure chemistry or pure karma. We clicked, but I was short term and she was long term...at least a year. Maybe I should’ve gone back with her. We embraced near the famous vermilion Sacred Bridge and kissed goodbye. It felt corny, too ripe, too rich. A peak moment. A Hollywood moment. Some background music please:

on tongue
no place
for words

She was hedging her bets. She was a player like me. We were practically each other’s alter egos. She felt we were ‘obviously married in a previous life.’ I don’t remember my previous life. I have trouble remembering this one. A few months later after I got back to California I sent her a song about ‘a moonlighting lady and a no good man/just good for the night/just good for picking up cues/connecting with the Tokyo blues.’ I’m still waiting for a response. Yes, she went back to Tokyo and it poured again on cue. No pathetic fallacy here. It was on again off again downpour time. She probably made the right choice.

black umbrellas
dark skies
no illumination in lightning

Getting on the near empty bus to go to Chuzenji and the Kegon Falls twenty miles northwest of Nikko we passed a poor hut. I couldn’t tell exactly what its function was, but out in the garden there was a solitary sunflower standing up to mountain mist, rain and fog:

which way to turn?
the sunflower
in the fog

I had a moment of fellow feeling for this plant beneath dark skies. But my goal was not to stand alone in the rain with a sunflower and search for the sun. My goal was to get to the lake country and the famed waterfall. It looked like water was going to fall everywhere so I limited my quest to the waterfall. I won’t complain about the constant yakking of the automatic tape recorded guide commenting about every stretch of the road. It must have been interesting but it was of no interest to the audience of mostly empty seats and one gaijin who couldn’t understand diddly. The bus driver himself finally turned it off when a group of groundskeepers and hotel workers got on. The bus ride up to Chuzenji included forty eight twists and turns and hairpin curves. My stomach wasn’t ready for it. What a relief to get out into the cool mountain air! Expecting nature in the raw, I found the raw concrete of a cement structure overlooking the falls. The building contained an elevator going down to the observation deck and a floor devoted to noisy video games. Oh well, modern Japan. It’s summer and it’s raining and on the viewing terrace I hear the deafening roar of the waterfalls crashing down over 300 feet. What can I say in praise of such water...

heavy rains
the falls overwhelming
the video games

If I had to choose between the living waterfalls and the color woodcut of Keisa Eisen done back in the 1830’s, it would be a tough choice between nature and art on a sunny day. On a rainy day I’d have to choose the woodcut art--so powerful in its silence--no overwhelming roar, no game machines, no pings, no dings, no bonks, no elevators, no kitsch. Just a print of the ravine and the falls in reddish brown, blues and whites--water plunging down in patterns so strong, so unique, so Old Japan.

It must have been an off day at the Falls which are usually crowded with sightseers and newlyweds, even in umbrella weather. Few people, no honeymooners, but plenty of cool mist and rain:

Kegon Falls
not even a pair of dragonflies
on their honeymoon

The Nikko story could end here with no honeymooners and no dragonflies or it could go on. I wonder if me and my Nikko lady are nothing but figments of a fiction writer’s overheated imagination. Maybe my lady love is here in California settled down with two kids and a computer. She could be the loyal wife of my previous existence, as she once claimed. I can almost hear her now, offering comments on whatever haiku this Basho wannabe chooses to show her.

old frog
the pond swallows it
without a sound

She’s always ready with constructive criticism and always ready to criticize my take on anything to do with a trip to Nikko and beyond. Could be...but it wasn’t meant to be. Call it Karma, call it fate, call it what you will. I’m still trying to find a place for words:

Kegon Falls
letting go
of water


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