Japan Stories - FISH LIKE HIM
This is a true story but I've changed most
names and it didn't happen on that fictitious island or on that date. We
were right below Mount Fuji. -
July 1, 1989 - KURAI-ISHIJIMA
I sat writing a poem in my crude kanji with a brush. Outside the window were rows of tea plants in a field edged by bamboo, chestnuts and cedars. In the distance and down slopes was an especially beautiful view of the Inland Sea, islands floating in calm water and disappearing into fog banks that obscured the industrial periphery. Kelly was visiting for the summer and he and I were spending a couple of days at the besso, country estate, of one of my more outlandish Tokyo friends, a designer named Omotegami-san who stood behind me exclaiming things like, "Bold! Exquisite! Honest!"
Omotegami is dramatic and eccentric, in constant search for the unusual. His hair was shoulder length pulled into a pony tail. He wore blue jeans, a batik shirt from Bali and a gold post earring. He had shown me a number of quite interesting establishments he'd designed in Tokyo - some of the 200 he'd done. He had me play some songs I'd written on the guitar to his artist friends who'd gathered there. Then I had to explain each song in Japanese. A hash pipe was passed around, one of the only times I saw illegal drugs in Japan. I'd rather not be around it because if I got caught they'd kick me out and my friends could get in big trouble because generally no one there knows the difference between cannabis and heroin.
"We will feature you in my nightclub," Omotegami said.
"Oh I don't perform," I said, "I just write and play for fun."
"You will have a shaved head and wear a monk's samue and straw sandals. "
"Oh - no, I wouldn't like that," I answered unnoticed, "and I wouldn't do it in monk's clothes for sure."
"Everyone will come to see him," he said to his half dozen friends who went "Ah" and "eh" while nodding and looking at me smiling. They were dressed casually and the men all had long hair like Omotegami and Kelly.
I shook my head and pointed at myself. "Not me."
Kelly leaned back in his chair and laughed at my predicament.
"The singing American monk," Omotegami said with satisfaction. "Your first song will be about bringing enlightenment back to Japan from America!" His friends were clapping. "And then a song telling the story of the ten ox-herding pictures." The guy can't stop directing.
"I never write or sing about Zen," I said, "But I did write a poem about a fish."
Omotegami turned to me suddenly. "A poem about a fish?"
"Yes, I just wrote it an hour ago. It's in Japanese." And that's how I came to be sitting at the table writing it out.
"So noble and straightforward!" said Omotegami at a new stroke of the brush.
The poor fish. Kelly and I had met it just the day before.
Kelly and I stood in the wet heat in front of the ferry building on Kurai-ishijima, a resort island near Maruyama known for its beaches and black rocks for which it gets its name - Dark Rock Island. We had two people to look up there. Kelly was fifteen and was in Japan for his second summer.
"I counted that I know over forty new words already," he said as we walked across the only busy street on the island. "I still have my notes from last year." Soon Kelly was getting help in his language study from a couple of enthusiastic young ladies in a coffee shop upstairs and across the street from the ferry landing. They were teaching him new words and phrases and they were laughing and applauding him when he tried out what he'd learned.
It was fascinating to see grown women, cute and wholesome, fussing over my son. I'd never seen that before. They were probably in the eighteen to twenty range but he looked as old as they did. He'd grown so tall and was handsome with long dirty blond hair in a pony tail and torn blue jeans.
I looked out over the street scene below, people were pouring onto the ferry, going back to the mainland of Honshu.
A van pulled up and eight men got out. They were dressed in bright yellow waist-length hipari, head bands and armbands which sported kanji, and they wore snappy white gloves. The men spread themselves three feet apart along the metal railing and faced the exiting crowd. The men in yellow started bowing deeply and calling out fervently. It looked like they were pleading for their lives. They were loudly beseeching the crowd of people to please, please be good to them and vote for Kuratomi! Ah, electioneering. I could hear them through the shut window, imploring and thanking people with a sincerity that was hard to fathom.
Kelly said farewell to his eager instructors and we went downstairs carrying our backpacks. Across the street the campaigners were still going at it 110%. "Please! Please! Thank you! Thank you!"
"Rad," said Kelly. "Catch the white gloves."
A translator friend in Tokyo knew a lady who lived on Kurai-ishijima and owned a factory on a nearby island. He arranged for us to stay in her company dorm which was not in use at the time. Two elderly ladies ran the dorm and for two days they took care of us like grandmothers, preparing our futon to sleep on, drawing our baths, making us tea and snacks and being lots of fun to talk to. They said that Yanase-san would return to her home next door that evening and could see us after dinner.
On the wall downstairs by the dining table was a picture of a beach stuffed with people on the sand and in the water. I asked the ladies where that was and they said it was about two hundred meters away. It was only eleven in the morning. Kelly and I decided to go to the beach. The ladies tried to stop us, saying that the swimming season didn't begin until the following week. I pointed out that it was a perfect day to go to the beach and to swim. It was already hot and the sky was clear.
"It's dangerous now," one lady said. "There may be jellyfish." I said that their swimming season didn't apply to hen-na gaijin, weird foreigners. They laughed at that, gave up and waved to us as we walked off in our swimming trunks. The water was a little dirty like around LA but it was okay, the beach was too. A dead fish lay washed up on the sand not far from where we stood. We surveyed the coastline up and down, hands on foreheads to shade our eyes, and could count maybe a dozen people.
Yanase sat up with us that night in her guest room and talked. Kelly got bored because he couldn't understand us and fell asleep on the zabuton while she and I rubbed each other's feet, an unconventional scene to be sure. But she was not conventional. She was an outspoken feminist who detested the male chauvinism of Japanese society. "It has not been long since we women were no better than slaves," she said. But she spoke with nothing but praise for her husband, a man thirty-five years her senior who had died five years before.
"I had decided never to marry, such was my resolve not to become the property of one of the spoiled mamma's boys they call "men" in this country. They marry only to replace their lost mother and to continue being served like royalty. Then I met my husband to be. He was the shacho, the president of the company I worked for. He was a man with strong character who treated all of his employees with deep respect and kindness. After the war when his company almost went bankrupt, he never laid off a single worker. He took no money from the company and lived off his savings. I was a young secretary then. I would have suffered greatly without him. When things were going better he asked me if I would marry him and promised not to use me as a servant.
"It was he who taught me to respect myself. I continued working with the company and by the time he died I was the president. He was the greatest man I ever met. He caught that fish." She pointed to a framed image of a large fish above a doorway, black on faded paper.
"That's a painting of a fish he caught?" I asked.
"Not a painting. When we catch a big fish, a prize fish, we roll it in sumi (black ink) and then press the imprint on paper. Later we eat the fish."
"Oh, before cameras were popular we used to stuff them," I said admiring the ink impression. "This is more aesthetically pleasing."
The following day our hostess generously showed us around the island. A friend of hers named Ken-san drove while New Age space music played from his car's tape deck - lots of long drawn out notes implying vastness and wisdom - not my choice, but it was peaceful. On the dash, Ken had a picture of Sri Chinmoy, a smiling guru who jogs, lifts weights and lives, I believe, on the East Coast of the States.
[visit temple with bamboo garden]
We all went to lunch at a fancy restaurant where we sat around an interior black marble pond that was stocked with fish. Kelly pointed out that it also had sharks, a stingray and eels.
"Definitely not recommended for swimming," he said.
At one end of the pond a chef in a white hat operated, wielding his chopping knife. Yanase ordered each of us a large compartmentalized lacquer tray with many delicacies and tasty tidbits. On the side were rice and miso soup. Kelly and I watched the fish in the pond. They were all of a good size - up to two feet long.
While we admired the fish an order of tempura arrived for each of us. Kelly and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. "I can do it."
"I still got room," I said
"You like the fish?" Yanase asked Kelly.
"Yeah, they're beautiful. You see that one there," he said pointing to a fat silver one. "He keeps swimming up here and looking at me."
"You've only been in Japan a week and you've made a friend, Kelly. Very good," I said.
Suddenly the silver fish was in the air, twisting about in a net. Yanase had pointed it out to the chef.
"No!" said Kelly, quickly realizing the fish's fate. "I'm full! Really."
But Yanase would not hear of it. "We can share," she said generously. I looked up at the chef who was already swiftly chopping away at Kelly's newfound friend.
"Well, we've been eating fish all week, Kelly. This one is just a little more personal," I said to console him.
Yanase had been telling us about Shingon Kyo, the sect of Buddhism founded by the great saint Kukai in the eighth century. She said that it was called the "esoteric sect" and was often compared to Rama-kyo (Lama religion - Tibetan Buddhism).
A plate was put before us. It was a whole fish - the whole fish.
Kelly turned away.
Yanase seemed pleased. She was going all out for us. The fish had been sliced into many fine strips and yet left in its original form with the head sticking up. She picked up a piece of its raw flesh with her hashi, dipped it in a dish of mixed shoyu and wasabi, the green spicy-hot horseradish paste. She reach over with the hashi and, with a smile, placed it in my mouth. It melted there.
"Dad ..." said Kelly
"It is very delicious," I said.
"Ikezukuri is the greatest delicacy of all sushi," she said.
She offered some to Kelly who indicated no thanks, and then to Ken who reminded her he was a vegetarian.
"Just you and me," she said, taking another piece.
"Dad..." Kelly said again.
"Just a second. Ikezukuri. Ah, I understand, I said turning to Kelly. "Ike is pond. Tsukuru is to make, or in this case, to raise. Ikezukuri in combination. It's fish that was raised in a pond." I took a piece and dipped it. "Go on and try it. It's good."
"I'm full," he said with a distant look in his eye.
"Not pond," said Yanase leaning over and chewing while she talked. She'd understood my interpretation.
"No. Similar kanji but different right side." She pulled out a pen and drew the character on a piece of paper that one of the prior tidbits had been wrapped in. "Tsukuru here means to prepare or to cut. And ike is from "ikeru."
"Ikeru," I said. "Ikeru - to live. Ike - living."
"Yes," she said, "To slice the living fish." She laughed and hit it on the head with her hashi and its head writhed back and forth.
"Ohhhh," I said looking and realizing for the first time that it was alive. It gulped for air. I turned to Kelly.
"I was trying to tell you," he said. "I can't believe how unconscious you are. It's been throwing its head back and forth right in front of you."
"Have you ever been to a Shingon service," said Yanase.
"Uh, no, I uh..." Something about the color of the fish, the pink and white and the grey inner skin where once were silver scales. All in pieces, and the moving head - it was such raw, pure suffering. And its eye was on me.
Yanase went on. "It is different from Zen. Very old and beautiful. In Shingon a person has the three functions of body, speech and mind, each of which hides secrets that lead to the attainment of buddhahood." She absently tapped the twitching head with her hashi.
Kelly got up. "I gotta go the bathroom, Dad." He walked off.
She took a bite. I had no appetite but sighed and took a bite. She kept talking about Shingon. Kelly didn't come back for thirty minutes.
"Why did you give the poem away?" Omotegami asked me with irritation. His wife was serving us coffee and toast on the deck of his vacation home on the opposite side of Kurai-ishijima from the beach we had swum at three days prior. I'd given the calligraphed poem I had written about the fish to one of his friends. Omotegami had been going on about wanting to build a tennis court with a bamboo fence and a woven seaweed net when he suddenly injected this comment.
"He asked for it. I didn't think it was so important."
"It was a unique work of art created in a perfect moment. Will you do me another one?"
"Certainly," I obliged.
He asked his wife who was cooking breakfast and minding their two-year-old to get his brush, sumi and handmade paper.
I don't remember the lines to the poem. It just told what happened and ended by saying that thanks to me this poor creature is gasping for oxygen in hell, and I say "gochiso sama." (thanks for the treat)
I was halfway through writing it when Omotegami walked behind me and looked over my shoulder at my handiwork.
"No! No!" he yelled, "Write like you did last night! Simple, rough, direct! This is clumsy! This isn't right!" The magic was gone.
The fish had its revenge.
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