My research in Japan has been more amorphous than my research in Seattle and Hawaii, where my days were scheduled into tight timelines of meetings and archives appointments. Which is not to say that my time here is freewheeling by any stretch of the imagination. On the contrary, my trip to Japan is charted by the geography and trajectory of my book. My days here are organized by research.
It’s just that the nature of this research is different. In Japan I visit temples, shrines, Taisho buildings, specific houses and villages that appear in the book, the few remaining pre-war Tokyo neighborhoods. And even as I make careful notes on architectural detail and landscape and historic references, I understand that my research here also encompasses a more nebulous set of impressions and observations and thoughts.
Here I am tracing a vanished landscape.
One of the great challenges of writing this book set in Japan and Hawaii and a few other places during the second World War, is that so little survives of that landscape. Places are paved over, torn down, bombed out, rebuilt. And in some ways this confers both a freedom of imagination and the obligation that comes with it. We can know these places only through invention, through the access fiction alone can give us to our past.
For the section of the book that’s set in Japan, I am gathering the intangible. I am looking for a felt sense, an imaginative access point. For all the small cues and sensations that later become the fuel and spark and sustenance of creative work.
I do not know yet what they will be or how they will enter my work. Only that they will arrive as I remain present in these places, and that I will trust in the unforeseen ways they might infiltrate and populate my book. So much of artistic process is this gathering, this blind trust. Allowing ourselves to float suspended and see what connects.
I arrived at Sugimotodera Temple just after four o’clock, after a long afternoon of being lost. My map was stretched to fit the dimensions of the page on which it was printed, and so northbound streets slanted west, and the map’s roman alphabet transcriptions of road names meant nothing next to the Japanese street signs. I was actually aiming for Hokokuji (not, as it turns out from subsequent days’ explorations, too far away), but I came upon Sugimotodera first and stopped, transfixed by that light.
I was lucky the monk let me in; it was late in the day for Japanese temples. Most close around four or four-thirty. But I’d been walking such an awfully long time by that point, and I suppose it showed.
By the time I arrived, the temple had emptied of anyone who’d visited earlier in the day, and I was here in this space by myself. Striking, how quiet and bright it was on the hillside after the busy grey streets. How the air cleansed. I stayed until the border of my welcome, drinking in this yellow light, these white banners, which in my foreign eyes turn to pattern and shape. It is so liberating to be freed of text.
The stairs here are cobbled and worn by footsteps. They slant and waver, tilt into themselves and tumble together.
The wooden temple glows in the afternoon light, the warm boards coppered and golden. Under dense roof thatching, it stands on its slender stilts, this steady scaffolding.
As I get ready to leave for Japan, I think a lot about these women.
In the 1970s my mother traveled alone to Japan on her annual leave from Pan Am. This photo is from shortly after her return: my mother (on the left) and my aunts. These strong, ambitious, adventurous women who are part of the tapestry of people I love and on whose support I stand.
Between stops on this research trip, I planned a few days in Portland, Oregon. My extended family is from Portland, and I used to visit every few years. Growing up, I always believed I’d wind up living in Oregon. Still for me, there is a sense of coming home when I go to the Pacific Northwest. My body relaxes into belonging.
On this visit, I stayed at my great-aunt and uncle’s house on the hillside. I love this house — its energy and views and the way it admits daylight. I wish I reserved the word love for places like this one.
I’ve learned on this research trip how important these few days of reflection can be. For the most part, my research has been conducted on this trip at a pretty relentless pace. In between Seattle and Japan, these few days in my great-uncle’s study overlooking the trees gave me an opportunity to gather my thoughts, to process information and impressions.
It felt right to do so in this space that belonged to my great-aunt and uncle, who had their own connections to both Japan and Seattle. In the sunlit quiet of their living room, I looked through their 1930s jazz records, poured tea from their Japanese teapot. It felt good to be connected with them across time through these shared spaces.