&: Diary (1)
(January 1st, 2019) I made a reservation a few nights ago, just after Christmas, at the Pullman in Tamachi and requested a room with a view of the tracks so that while I worked I could watch the green Keihin-Tohoku Line trains race the green Yamanote Line trains. At night, I took the train to Asakusa to meet and friend and then came back and walked around Shibaura for a while, going over the neat bridges that connect the artificial islands. I don't know what Shibaura looked like before, but these days, it's uniform blocks of off-white apartment blocks, massive public housing projects too expensive and coveted to look like my own danchi in Shitaya (or similar projects in Nishi-Kasai or Hashiba or out in the suburbs), Lotteria, a few chain izakaya, Chinese massage places, a few office towers, second-floor cram schools, and a koban. The commuters from Tamachi station disappear into the apartment blocks. Shinagawa or Gotanda, just down the line, are the places to get a drink or pay for some company, and Shibuya and Shinjuku are close enough to get a taxi home even after last train. This is what all of the central wards are going to look like in a decade: central retail and office development surrounded by uniform apartment blocks, office towers with restaurants at the bottom, and a few businesses hanging on at the periphery.
(January 3rd, 2019) I took a walk in the afternoon, cutting through an alley behind my danchi through our neighborhood of fresh little condos and crumbling mid-Showa buildings where mostly elderly residents hang on in single room manshon, and out through Uguisudani. The cheap hotels that run along Showa Dori are making their way into Uguisudani, too, with love hotels on the margins of the red light district rebranding as hostels and guest houses, so that there are now tourists—red-faced Americans in cargo shorts, as well as Indonesian girls in headscarves, on that day—walking through the dense quarter of hourly stay spots that serve the deriheru that stock for convenient delivery women and girls in the cheap apartments around Negishi. I always feel uncomfortable walking through without any business in the love hotels, especially before the evening commuter rush. I wondered what the tourists made of the place or how many of the details they could pick up—did they catch the men nervously, chastely saying goodbye at the north exit of the station to women whose mouths they just came in? I don't know. I stood in front of the cigarette machines outside the Smile Pharmacy (offering tax-free sales to tourists, too, shifting from selling the essentials of a red light district, perhaps) and I watched a bike cop come through and flush the Chinese streetwalkers out of the south side of the love hotel block, and followed them north. They were conspicuous in their inconspicuousness, nearly identical long grey parkas and big leather purses, the kind of middle-aged women that wouldn't look out of place on any block in the city. I cut back out into a more respectable part of the city and slipped into Nippori, the first place I ever saw in Tokyo, coming that day three years ago off a train from Narita. I thought about walking all the way out to Ikebukuro. I used to take that walk—same distance, similar territory, at least—every now and then, when the last Yamanote stopped at Ikebukuro and I'd have to walk out to Oku Station. But the trains were still running and I knew there wasn't much I hadn't seen between the two stations, so I took the Yamanote.
Ikebukuro is a place I've been through many times but I've never lived close enough to spend much time there, like Nippori or Uguisudani or Ueno, or even Roppongi. Its reputation as a sleazy shithole popular with commuters out to the suburbs seems to be accurate. Apart from that, it's worth mentioning that Ikebukuro Station has become one of the centers of the Chinese community in Tokyo. In a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books' China Channel, I wrote: Chinese residents and sojourners have made Ikebukuro a new Chinatown. If you want to eat suancaiyu or maoxuewang, you can find it there; if you want to buy an unlocked phone with multiple SIM slots and do it in Minnan dialect, there’s a shop in Ikebukuro; in a city that seems to encourage racist landlords to fuck with you, you can find a rental company in Ikebukuro that will find you a place in no time; and when see what the rent is going to be, there are legit (and less-legit) employment agencies that will have you working the same day. But like Uguisudani, you can miss what's really going on, unless you know what's going on. The shop selling maoxuewang is probably only advertising it on Wechat, and the phone shop is on the third floor of a nondescript building with a pharmacy and a massage joint below it; the Wenshengtang Chinese Bookstore that I wrote about is almost impossible to find even staring at Google Maps directions; there are Chinese grocery stores and restaurants on the north side of the station but you're more likely to get a sudden whiff of cumin and chili or pickled cabbage than you are to notice the storefronts.
(January 8th) We spent the past few days at the Shangri-La. It's only a ten minute drive from Shitaya but it feels like it's in another city. Our room looked out over Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace. We put on vintage luxury pulled from musty Asakusa thrift stores—European fashion brands bought up in the baburu jidai and perhaps sold on by filial sons and daughters come to move their parents from shitamachi to suburbs—and went out to walk in Ginza and spend our money unwisely (for Asumi, hand-painted Comme des Garçons shoes and a bottle of perfume, and, for me, forty dollar hamburgers). The truth is that like everywhere in Tokyo, it lives off tourist dollars, and most of it feels like any metropolitan collection of malls and department stores, but there's something left of the old Ginza (not pre-war Ginza, exactly, or even Ginza of the baburu jidai—just "imaginary Ginza," I guess: department stores and writers and trams and Shiseido models, scenes from Shimazu Yasujiro films, maybe Ozu, café culture, literati... all those signifiers mixed up together) on the backstreets, the shops that are off the radar of Mainland shoppers, the ancient kissaten, whatever cafés have hung on and haven't been replaced by Doutours or Starbucks, the tiny restaurants... We ate at one of the Michelin-starred tempura spots that hang on to basement real estate in Ginza, sitting at the counter with couples drinking Chablis—that felt like Ginza, at least. A middle-aged man drunk off imo shochu, there with a slightly younger date (a woman from his office, I thought), presented with a deep fried umeboshi hiding a nugget of chestnut: "What's in there?" The chef calls back: "You can eat it." "Is it an egg yolk?" "Eat it and you'll see." He orders another glass of shochu. The tail of the shrimp follows the head, placed on a slab of slate covered in a sheet of thick paper. I've never tasted any shrimp that sweet. The meal ends with iced coffee served in a ceramic bowl. We walked back through Nihonbashi and Yaesu, no salarymen on a Sunday night.
The next morning, I started planning another trip to Beijing. Another goddamn trip to Beijing. Five years ago, I would have loved the chance to spend even a few days in Beijing, but it's become a hassle. We sat on the bed plotting out the days required and I booked a flight on Air China and a stay at the Kerry in the CBD. The thought of clearing customs and making the trek into the city... It fills me with dread. There's nothing I want in Beijing, anymore.
I spent the rest of the final morning at Shangri-La watching the trains sliding into Tokyo Station, the Chuo racing the Yamanote north, the long aquamarine nose of the Tohoku Shinkansen sticking out from under an awning...
(January 10th) I made breakfast for Asumi and walked through Uguisudani to the Calligraphy Museum in Negishi. Although I've walked by it many times, I'd never been inside. There was an exhibition called Ou Gishi Shodo no Zanei, with Northern Wei and Jin Dynasty rubbings, many of them made in the 19th century at stelae and inscriptions from the Longmen Grottoes. The museum had the feel of any municipal institution in the country. I followed around the space a girl with inky black hair, wrapped in a parka, mouth and nose hidden behind a surgical mask. She studied each rubbing for so long that I couldn't help but wonder what she saw in them. To me, they looked like stenciled graffiti you'd find on a concrete wall, advertising plumbing services or counterfeit documents.
In the main building of the museum, I expected to see Japanese calligraphy but found instead rooms full of Chinese antiquities, Northern Wei, Sui and Tang stone carvings, including a seated Amitabha cut out of a grotto in Shanxi; there were bronze bells from the Zhou and jade from Lolang; hollow bricks from Western Han tombs and inscriptions carved in stone for patrons of a pagoda. It's hard not to think of how those objects must have been brought to Tokyo. Plenty of those blank faces and missing limbs at the Longmen Grottoes arrived in Japan in the '30s and '40s. Tens of thousands of books, artifacts and other objects were looted from Chinese museums. I pictured the stone blocks being uncrated at Yokohama, being examined by the art historians that went to Henan and Shandong and Shanxi at the turn of the 20th century to make the rubbings in the Ou Gishi Shodo no Zanei exhibition. It was the Japanese that helped discover the place, after all, guys like Okakura Kakuzo ("The first foreign explorer to visit Longmen was the Japanese scholar Kakuzo Okakura, who was later to head the Asian department of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Okakura stumbled upon the site half by accident in 1893, took some photographs, and returned home to Japan to lecture with his lantern slides of the Binyang (Pin-yang) cave's central grotto"), Tadashi Sekino, Seigai Omura. (I wish I knew more about Ernest Fenollosa and Okakura, so that I could put together some thoughts here, the place that these examples of Chinese art had in shaping Okakura's ultranationalist vision of a unitary Asia and his conception of Oriental art history, and this museum's collection is a legacy of thinkers like Okakura but I'm going to move on.)
I have this really intense memory of going to the Longmen Grottoes for the first time. It would have been 2006, as part of a—I didn't see this at the time—very early attempt to salvage our young relationship. We took a train out to Henan. It was a familiar place to her, I guess, since she had family in Henan, on her father's side, I think from around south of Zhengzhou. She used to spend summers out there. So, we went to Luoyang first, if I'm remembering this right, and stayed at a Seven Days Inn, took a bus out to White Horse Temple one day, then Longmen the next day. It feels like I'm recounting a movie or something but I remember being deeply moved by it, the view of the grottoes, looking down the Yi River. It was tied up with my feelings for her, and I couldn't help but see her face in the carvings, Vairocana lips and long, long Guanyin eyes.... I was in love and impressionable. It felt somehow like I was connecting with her on some deeper level, going out on a boat on the Yellow River or whatever. At this point, I'm not even sure how much of that I really felt and how much was just fantasy cooked up later. Also, part of it was that the entire place, the culture, it was all a mystery to me, still. Like, going to the White Horse Temple, I had no idea about anything, the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism and turtle dragons or even the Cultural Revolution. So but, goddamn Longmen, it made an impression. And just—it's surreal to see a chunk of it set in a climate-controlled room in a blank institutional room in a neighborhood of love hotels and chain izakaya in East Tokyo—like, is the real thing still there? It feels like coming across it in a post-apocalyptic situation, like the last artifacts of a dead civilization. I mean, it's still there—the statues and the stone and the inscriptions, most of them—so, it's weird to be confronted by a piece of it carved out of the real thing.
I could probably write something formal about the exhibition and the museum. I could set the museum, start with shitty love hotels, coming upon the museum like Okakura came upon the Longmen Grottoes, lay out a brief history of Japanese collecting rubbings of inscriptions, talk about the disorienting feeling of coming upon the stone statues cut out of their original locations? I'm not sure there's anything there and I don't know enough about the history, probably. There's probably more to say about the Japanese conception of Chinese art history or Japanese esthetic nationalism or whatever than about the objects in the museum.