by Megan Marshall
Most mornings I walk for nearly an hour in my neighborhood of two-family houses in a Boston suburb, following a set route, an extension of the daily walks I used to take with my aging golden retriever, Rudy, gone three years last spring: up several blocks to the playing field with its soccer pitch and twin Little League diamonds, then a wide loop around a dozen more blocks, across a busy road and up the hill to circle the town reservoir before turning back home. Without my beloved partner, Scott, gone more than a year now, I walk to ward off chronic back pain and to escape the first-floor apartment where I’m otherwise confined under COVID-19 restrictions in a dizzying aloneness, extreme bereavement.
I nod and wave to other masked walkers, joggers, and cyclists, none of whom I know. I did not raise my children in this neighborhood. Flowering dogwoods, lilac hedges, and star magnolias embellished the late New England spring. In summer I watched for new blooms, peonies and irises giving way to roses and lilies, in the several well-tended gardens along my route; most homeowners here content themselves with squares of lawn and a bit of shrubbery, an azalea or rhododendron.
When was it I began to see in my mind’s eye, as I traced my accustomed path, the narrow streets, low wooden and stucco houses and storefronts of Nishifukunokawa-chō, the Kyoto neighborhood where I’d lived for three autumn months almost three years ago? Some autonomic response triggered by my pacing feet and the nodding strangers must have flashed glimpses of the fruit seller, organic grocer (from whom I could buy a single fresh egg the day it was laid), fishmonger, public bath, and bento box restaurant I passed on the main street leading to or from the university campus where I was posted that semester, then the barber pole signaling my turn into a network of domestic alleyways (no lawns, plenty of potted succulents), past the sandlot playground of the elementary school, to my door—a sliding wooden panel in a centuries-old single-story timber structure that I released by punching a series of numbers on a keypad.
I arrived in Kyoto in late August 2017, knowing almost nothing about the city or the country of which it had once been the capital. I was the guest of a professor of American literature at Kyoto University, and my qualifications for the fellowship I’d earned had nothing to do with Japan. My duties were simply to deliver several lectures on the New England transcendentalist women who were the subjects of my first two biographies, attend an occasional graduate seminar, and advise the few graduate students in American literature whose spoken English was strong enough to enable conversation. (The Japanese educational system provides little opportunity for study abroad in the humanities.) Otherwise I was at liberty to work on my own project, an as yet hazily imagined book on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels and their heroines, in my drab but capacious office down the hall from the graduate students’ shared work space, or wherever I chose, as long as I stamped in on the logbook at department headquarters each day with the orange hanko seal presented to me ceremonially by my host, Professor Naoyuki Mizuno, a Henry James specialist. Hence my repeated walks to and from campus.
Over lunch in the weeks before I left, a friend back in Boston, a retired professor of Asian art, had pressed two volumes on me—The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, in Arthur Waley’s translations—and sketched for me the general outlines of the Heian period, AD 794–1185, when the Fujiwara dynasty cultivated a refined aesthetic that supported these first great works of Japanese literature, both written by women of the court. (High-status men of the time clung to the stilted idioms derivative of the Chinese characters, kanji, used in formal Japanese writing, leaving women to develop a vernacular style using the newer phonetic kana.) But I hadn’t packed the books in my suitcase. I hadn’t packed any books in my suitcase or even my carry-on bag. I’d recently injured my back while piling up boxes of research materials from past writing projects to put into storage and was worried about re-injury on the long flight.
Without anything to read as the plane bumped and heaved itself into open airspace, I rehearsed in my mind the two poems I knew by heart—Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” memorized in fifth grade when I thought I wanted to be a poet, and “One Art,” the famous villanelle on “the art of losing” by Elizabeth Bishop, my one-time professor whose biography I’d just finished writing in a book that also recounted my failure to follow through on that early ambition. Never mind the long-ago failure. I was on my way to a residence in a foreign land, the sort of adventure I’d always longed for and that Elizabeth Bishop, an ardent traveler, would surely have approved. And to a period of radical isolation I could not have known would prepare me for now.
It would be inaccurate to say I’d come to Kyoto University for the fall semester. I was leaving my American college for the fall semester. Offered the chance to spend three months on KU’s campus, I’d requested September through November; my partner liked to vacation in the fall and could leave work to join me for ten days in October. Politeness, I suppose, had prevented Professor Mizuno from informing me that the university would be closed during the entire first month of my stay. Japanese semesters run April through August, October through February, with a full month off for cherry blossom festivals in March. Classes wouldn’t start until October 5, I learned that first day, and none of the professors or graduate students I’d corresponded with in advance lived in Kyoto. They all commuted on Japan’s excellent rapid transit system from distant suburbs or other cities in the Kansai region, which encompassed Osaka, Nara (another former national capital), and several smaller municipalities. I was on my own in this foreign city, where I couldn’t even make out street signs, let alone the packaging on products I might want to buy in the local convenience store. Which carton was milk? Which container held plain yogurt?
Professor Mizuno, a mustached man of about my height and exactly my age, he informed me, having handled the many documents necessary for my appointment as visiting professor, stayed to give me a tour of the campus, showing off its central plaza with clock tower and massive iconic camphor tree, the latter as old as the dilapidated warren of dark wooden dormitory buildings he pointed out, erected in 1897 at the university’s founding. These were the last original structures on campus, recently condemned by KU authorities as unsafe, but still occupied by a band of student holdouts whose protest signs dotted the campus, undecipherable by me.
Professor Mizuno bought me a ream of printer paper and a handful of pens at the campus store and, when we ended the tour at his cluttered office, where books in English and Japanese stood two-deep on the shelves lining the room, offered reassurance about the specter of nuclear war that had suddenly intruded on our lives. On the morning of August 29, as my Japan Airlines flight winged its way toward Tokyo, North Korea had lobbed a test ICBM in a 1700-mile arc passing over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Throughout Japan, citizens were ordered to shelter in place until the missile was observed to splash down in an empty stretch of the Pacific.
I had nothing to worry about in Kyoto, Professor Mizuno told me. If North Korea were to bomb Japan, the targets would surely be the American military installations in Tokyo or Okinawa, he said. This was consolation? As for the tantruming tyrants deciding our fates, Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, then just seven months into his first year in office—“Crazy,” he judged them, and shrugged his shoulders. What could anyone do?
Professor Mizuno’s fatalism may have been cultural, but it was also learned. Some weeks later, when we met again over pizza in a sleek trattoria near campus (Italian cuisine is popular in Japan), he told me about his Uncle Susumu, pilot of a shinyo, the naval equivalent of a kamikaze plane, whose life had been spared by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On receiving his assignment to the shinyo fleet, Susumu Mizuno had considered himself dead; but the war ended before the scheduled date of his suicide mission. My KU host grew up hearing his uncle refer to the natural span of years he was in the end permitted to live as his “afterlife.”
That night, stretched out on the futon I’d unfurled on tatami in my tiny habitation, I fell asleep reciting the poems I’d practiced on the flight, conjuring Frost’s icy resolve, Bishop’s charm against loneliness, in the formless humid darkness. I still had no books. My iPhone ran on a Japanese data plan whose midnight alarms a few days later, when the first of three equinoctial typhoons swept through Kyoto, spoke in a foreign tongue and delivered text messages in enigmatic characters. What dangers I’d been warned of, I never knew.
KU’s student a capella groups and baseball team were in residence on campus, rehearsing American pop songs in outdoor corridors, snapping fingers and breaking into dance moves, taking batting practice on the dusty field that occupied one large corner of the south campus where my office and a handful of classroom buildings stood, along with a small undergraduate library, open but empty of patrons, and the squatter-filled dorms. Chickens pecked in the weeds outside a coop near the dorms, behind several rows of empty bicycle racks. I saw few adults.
An American friend’s Japanese aunt kindly took the shinkansen in from Nagoya, about an hour’s ride, treated me to a kaiseki lunch (half the price of a similar multi-course dinner; I quickly learned to make lunch my main meal), and introduced me to the subway. But after that first trip I rarely went back underground. Unable to make out words on signs or informational placards at train stations, museums, temples, shrines, or restaurants, I was experiencing a species of blindness—the written cues that might have allowed me to make sense of my environment were illegible—which heightened my desire to see.
I fetched copies of Hawthorne’s four novels from the undergraduate library, itself no easy task: books were shelved on the British system, by date of acquisition within an author’s oeuvre, rather than alphabetically by title. I forced myself to spend an hour or so each day reading in my office or a coffee shop, or over my ample lunch. But the visual occlusion I suffered seemed to extend to English words too. I didn’t want to read, could no longer summon the concentration that had kept me at my desk or in the archives as I researched and wrote three biographies in as many decades.
I walked for miles up the road bordering the Kamo River to a home goods store in search of a spare pillow for Scott’s October visit, astonished by the ribbon of wild water cutting through the city. Egrets and gray herons stalked its shallows, fishermen in waders cast their rods. Hurtling in its broad course, churning up white water as it passed over rocky beds, the Kamo was nothing like the placid Charles back home, or the majestic Thames, Seine, or Tiber I’d seen on European travels. I was still more astonished to discover the chains of broad stepping-stones, blocks of concrete cast in the shapes of turtles and fish, spanning the river at regular intervals, inviting pedestrians to cross without resorting to heavily trafficked bridges. I watched intrepid adults with packages and briefcases in their hands and schoolchildren in uniforms and caps bearing hefty backpacks leap from stone to stone, judging for themselves whether passage was safe. When I saw how high the water rose the day after that first typhoon, submerging the stepping-stones in a roaring torrent, I guessed that had been the message on my cell phone: stay away from riverbanks.
I walked to temples and house museums with elaborate gardens, but rarely ventured indoors. One of Kyoto’s prime tourist sites, a full-scale replica of the Heian Palace where Genji had once intrigued and Sei Shōnagon wrote in her pillow book, was just a few blocks from my tiny house. (Many palaces and temples I visited, ancient as they appeared, had been painstakingly and repeatedly reconstructed over the centuries after fires partially or fully consumed their wooden frames.) I’m sure my art historian friend would have taken the Heian Palace tour, but I wasn’t interested and the guides were nowhere in evidence the day I first wandered onto the grounds. Another typhoon was forecast. No tour buses lined the street in front of the palace’s extravagant gates, the vast interior courtyard was nearly empty of people. Thrilling clouds filled the sky over the orange-timbered great hall. The wind picked up, blowing the strips of white cloth representing wishes tied to the branches of two small trees growing near the hall’s entrance in fascinating whorls. I realized, to my surprise, I felt safe, knowing I was just a few minutes’ walk from home. I left and walked there, stopping to buy a flashlight at the convenience store in case of a power outage that never came.
Far into September, still lacking companionship, I looked up the ex-girlfriend of a lifelong friend of mine, an Indian architect with a talent for amicable breakups. He had former girlfriends all over the globe, it sometimes seemed, all of them brilliant, offbeat, and friendly to him still. This one was an American who’d moved to Japan thirty years ago and stayed there, marrying and raising a family in a village outside Kyoto, training as a Noh player and eventually joining a professional troupe, a rarity for a woman, let alone a non-Japanese. We met only once for coffee, but our conversation shaped the remainder of my stay in Kyoto.
Earlier that summer, at a conference celebrating the bicentennial of Henry David Thoreau’s birth, I’d learned of a Japanese hermit who, like Thoreau, had withdrawn to a handmade cabin in the woods and written about his experience. In the azure-ceilinged Masonic hall in Concord, Massachusetts, an audience of latter-day transcendentalists had listened as a Japanese scholar spoke of “the Thoreau of Japan” and showed us slides of a thatch-roofed dwelling, a replica like that of Thoreau’s cabin by the parking lot at nearby Walden Pond. Despite my upcoming trip, I hadn’t thought to ask more questions then. Now I did. Who was this hermit? Where was the replica of the hut—might it be near enough to visit?
That’s how I first heard—or learned—the name Kamo-no-Chōmei and his book’s title Hojoki, “The Ten-Foot Square Hut.” The book was a classic; all Japanese students read it. Kamo-no-Chōmei, a disgruntled nobleman of the Fujiwara court, had renounced the world in Heian Kyoto, more than six hundred years before Thoreau took to the woods of Concord. The replica of his hut could be found on the grounds of a Shinto shrine not far from our coffeehouse and the KU campus, on a promontory formed by the convergence of the Takano and Kamo Rivers, the latter providing the author’s family name. Hojoki had been “well translated” into English, my informant told me, and I went back to the library—this time, the mammoth modern one on north campus, near the clock tower and camphor tree.
The book I came away with was slight—mercifully no Walden, with its ponderous opening chapter, “Economy.” Hojoki begins with a brief preamble, an invocation of the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, setting the stage for Chōmei’s choice to leave society and settle alone in the woods, a way of life he would not, like Thoreau, give up after little more than two years. The translators Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins had rendered Chōmei’s words in verse—
The flowing river
and yet the water
upon the pools,
never lingering long.
So it is with man
and all his dwelling places
here on earth.*
Eventually I found three more English translations of Hojoki, all in prose. I was glad to see that in two of them, the pesky “man/his” was translated inclusively: “So, too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world,” in Anthony Chambers’s rendition. But Chōmei had been a court poet in the years before his retreat to a mountainside in exurban Hino, well to the south of Kyoto in Heian times. The line breaks and short stanzas I first read seemed a judicious choice, suited to my diminished attention span. I set aside linguistic qualms and used my visiting professor’s library privileges to keep the Moriguchi-Jenkins translation close at hand in the coming months.
I liked the way Chōmei raised questions, delicately and with poignance, that his unknowing spiritual descendant Thoreau answered centuries later with vehemence—
And so the question,
where should we live?
Where to find
a place to rest a while?
And how bring
even short-lived peace
to our hearts?
Chōmei’s Hojoki really was poetry; Thoreau’s Walden, with its justly famous second chapter, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” was argument. When Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond in July 1845, he had only recently discovered Buddhism, by way of a translation of “The Lotus Sutra” done by his transcendentalist colleague Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, working from the French of Eugène Burnouf, published in the Dial under his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s editorship—the first English translation of any Buddhist text. Thoreau had to plead his case for the simple life, for solitude as boon and balm, to the unconverted Americans of a go-ahead era when cities glittered in the popular imagination.
Buddhism was in the air Chōmei breathed. Even if few practiced as extremely as he or the other rustic ascetics of his time, Chōmei addressed knowing readers with the confidence he would be understood, his choice accepted, even lauded. He could cajole, enchant; he need not exhort. Without exciting curiosity or malicious jibes, he could make a remote cabin his home.
If your mind is not at peace
what use are riches?
The grandest hall
will never satisfy.
I love my lonely dwelling,
this one-room hut.
School started and Yuri Nagira, the graduate student assigned as my guide, arrived. Yuri’s specialty was Black American writers, her dissertation on the novels of Gloria Naylor. She knew little more than I did about Kamo-no-Chōmei, and had never seen the replica of his hut. We took a taxi to the Shimogamo shrine, one of Kyoto’s seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and wandered through its grounds, along a narrow brook shaded by towering broadleaf trees, some of them hundreds of years old. The trees impressed Yuri, a commuting student from Osaka, more than the shrine’s formal gates and historic halls of worship. There were no trees like these in Osaka, she said. All had been burned or blasted in the war.
Yuri interpreted for me the curious scene at the entrance to the lesser Kawai shrine at Shimogamo’s southernmost edge, where we’d been told to look for Chōmei’s hut within a high-fenced enclosure housing an altar to the Shinto goddess Tamayorihime. Bevies of laughing teenaged girls were lined up to purchase what looked like Ping-Pong paddles, after which they clustered at tables supplied with plastic bins of colored pencils, sketching on the plywood ovals. Tamayorihime was said to be extraordinarily beautiful, Yuri explained. The girls were using the pencils to apply cosmetic colors to stylized features—eyes, mouth, cheeks—printed on one side of the paddles, cut in the shape of hand mirrors, then flipping them over to write wishes for beauty, both internal and external, on the back. I looked beyond the shrine’s gates and saw that its interior walls were lined with racks holding these paddles, hundreds, maybe thousands of smiling made-up faces bearing their owners’ hopes. No one besides Yuri and me had come to the Kawai shrine to honor Kamo-no-Chōmei, a man who had turned away from women and likely saw few faces, beautiful or otherwise, through his last eight years, 1208–1216, lived out on the Hino mountainside.
The replica, which, unlike Thoreau’s parking lot shack at Walden, one could not enter, appeared a bit larger and of a more ingenious design than the Concord hermit’s. The dark wooden structure, with walls made of four equal-sized panels anchored with hinges to bamboo poles at each corner, was meant to be easily portable. Should Chōmei wish to relocate, all he need do was cart the panels and poles to a new site, lay another foundation of planks on the ground, attach the walls, and top it off with a gently peaked roof. His hut, perhaps more tent than cabin, was indeed one harmonious square, filling most of the Kawai shrine’s small interior courtyard.
The thatching I’d remembered from the slide lecture in Concord was not on the roof, but comprised a low fence that appeared to be made of upended brushwood brooms, perhaps shielding the building from anticipated Hojoki fans, or the potent vanity of female adolescents. Chō-mei made no mention of a fence in his book, but he listed his home’s contents, as Thoreau had his bed, desk, and famous three chairs—“one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Chōmei’s bed was a heap of dried bracken on the floor. To his walls he affixed a shelf for musical instruments, another for sacred texts and musical scores, an altar for devotional offerings, an image of the Buddha shielded by a screen, a scroll bearing the words of the Lotus Sutra. Chōmei’s quarters offered no provision for society or even friendship.
Perhaps it had been a mistake to situate the replica on the grounds of the bustling Shimogamo shrine, where Chōmei’s father had once held high rank, a position the son expected to inherit but was denied for political reasons, contributing to his decision to leave the Heian court. This would have been like placing the replica of Thoreau’s cabin alongside Concord’s First Parish Church, from which the transcendentalist had defiantly resigned as a young parishioner, or on Boston Common, or, considering the Kawai shrine’s chief foot traffic, outside the Sephora Shop on Newbury Street.
Yuri and I took photos of each other in front of the compact structure with our iPhones as young women streamed past us to deposit their mirror images on the racks. I knew I would return. And I did several days later, after discovering a frightening welt on my right ear that itched and burned and turned from red to bluish-purple overnight. I paid 800 yen for a wooden paddle, sketched two delicate ears along with a ruby mouth and cobalt eyes, inscribed my wish—that the unsightly lump, the result, perhaps, of a spider bite received while sleeping on the futon in my ground-floor dwelling, would disappear—and placed my likeness on the rack nearest Kamo-no-Chōmei’s ten-foot-square hut. One spirit or another would surely come to my assistance.
Scott’s visit in October was another plan resulting from a calendrical misunderstanding on my part. I’d heard about Kyoto’s spectacular autumns, the fall colors more striking even than those of the sugar maples, birches, and oaks I marveled over each year at home, and we scheduled Scott’s trip to Japan accordingly. Fall is fall in the Northern Hemisphere, I’d assumed, only to learn that Kyoto’s leaves turn much later than New England’s, in a glorious red-and-orange revelation at mid-November. But we luxuriated in Kyoto’s off-season, dining in top restaurants without reservations, checking into a rustic ryokan for one night on a whim, touring landmark temples and still-green gardens without waiting in line.
Although Scott had been hospitalized for a bout of congestive heart failure four years earlier, an aftereffect of chemotherapy for lymphoma nearly a decade before, it was my back injury we worried about—choosing chairs rather than tatami seating at meals, carrying little with us on our treks around the city. I didn’t yet know that congestive heart failure does not come in bouts. It’s an incurable condition, a gradual failing of the heart Scott accommodated to, taking pills to ease the burden on the weakening organ as it pumped vital fluids through his body, and keeping the most dire facts of his case from me. The average patient dies within five years of onset. Scott would make it to six.
We rode the subway and then a train to Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward to take in one of the city’s most popular sights—the Fushimi Inari shrine, reached by a winding uphill path passing beneath thousands of vermilion gates, the distinctive Shinto torii. As we approached the steepest section of trail, my back began to ache, Scott’s breathing became labored, and we reversed direction, disappointed and hot. October was still summertime in Kyoto. Recovering in a tea house near the train station, I studied my map and noticed that Hōkai-ji, the Buddhist temple at the base of Kamo-no-Chōmei’s mountainside, was nearby, but we had no energy to venture farther.
On one of his last days in Japan, while I attended a graduate seminar, Scott took the shinkansen to Hiroshima, a private pilgrimage to the site of the devastated city his grandfather had viewed through binoculars as a forty-four-year-old chief pharmacist’s mate from the deck of a US Navy destroyer offshore in late summer 1945, inhaling the still-noxious air. The bomb saved the life of Professor Mizuno’s Uncle Susumu, but it cost Scott’s grandfather his, along with the lives of so many hundreds of thousands at the time of the blast and after. Scott remembered his grandfather from childhood as a frail man confined to his bed, dying slowly of leukemia, gone at sixty-two, Scott’s age on this visit.
“To understand the world of today,” Chōmei wrote in Hojoki, “hold it up to the world of long ago.” The poet had retreated from court life not only because of adverse political machinations—the “prelude to civil chaos,” he wrote of the waning years of the Heian dynasty—but in a kind of despairing awe after witnessing a series of natural disasters that impressed upon him the truth of life’s mutability. He catalogued them vividly—whirlwinds, floods, all-consuming fires—the last of which were often ignited by careless human hands and always exacerbated by the city’s combustible man-made dwellings, both extravagant and humble. Chōmei’s lines on the fiercest of these conflagrations could almost have served as an exhibition placard at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum:
The wind blew wildly—
this way! that way!—
and the fire spread,
like an unfolding fan [ … ].
Some suffocated by smoke
fell upon the ground.
Some swallowed by flames
died at once.
Some scarcely able
to save themselves,
lost all their worldly goods.
reduced to ash!
There had been no more North Korean missile flyovers since mid-September, but in early November, the third and most intense of that autumn’s typhoons struck Kyoto, uprooting a venerable pine on the south campus, the shaggy cousin to the manicured camphor by the north campus clock tower. The hundred-foot pine had dominated a courtyard near the squatters’ dorms, and when I passed by on the way to my office, I often found signs advertising concerts or dance parties hand-painted on large plywood panels leaning against the tree’s broad base. The typhoon’s winds blew through late on a Saturday night, but mercifully the pine went down when no one was around, crushing the corner of a shelter for the bike racks, now nearly always crammed, but otherwise doing no harm.
The toppled pine lay in state for several days, the immense bulb of earth encasing its roots, now shockingly exposed to light and air, adding another ten feet to its length. Students gathered in small clusters, hugging each other and crying, or simply standing in silence, paying respect. Then the grounds crew arrived with chain saws to slice the massive trunk and limbs, some as large as individual trees, into sections and cart them away. I plucked a pine cone from one of the boughs, planning to bring it home as a souvenir of my days at KU, which were dwindling in number, and placed it on a paper plate left from a grad student gathering on the conference table in my office. A week later I arrived to find its scales had exploded across the table top. The temperature outdoors had dropped at last, and the building’s heat had come on, drying my memento mori, which proceeded to declare its living purpose: the dispersion of seeds.
The typhoon had also taken down many of the towering stalks in the world-famous bamboo grove in Arashiyama, a section of Kyoto too far to the west for me to reach on foot. A new friend, Masako Takeda, Japan’s foremost Emily Dickinson scholar, took me there by a series of bus and train connections to tour a half-dozen temples and their gardens. The leaves were beginning to turn and the crowds were picking up, but Masako, nearly as shy as the poet whose works she translated, knew how to evade them. We arrived at Tenryu-ji, another World Heritage Site, just as the gates opened on a Sunday, rapidly paced its paths and hallways, stopping to admire the celebrated reflecting pond, took our vegan lunch before we were hungry, then exited to the bamboo grove in noon shade rather than wait, as the tourists surely would, for the sun to sink and irradiate the enormous fronds, providing the classic view.
Masako led me, instead, down a deserted country lane, past open fields to Rakushisha, “the Hut of Fallen Persimmons,” home of the seventeenth-century poet Mukai Kyorai, a disciple of the Haiku master Bashō. This small house, twice the size of Chōmei’s hut, with a series of interlocking rooms and a densely thatched roof straight out of a Bruegel landscape, was also a replica. But it had been constructed by one of Kyorai’s own students centuries ago, and the persimmon tree we sat beneath in a well-kept garden was said to be the same from which Bashō, on his three known visits to his pupil, had partaken of fruit. The glistening orbs hung heavy above us. November’s glory had arrived.
It was not hard to persuade Masako to guide me to Hōkai-ji temple in Fushimi Ward on a balmy day in late November, in search of the original site of Kamo-no-Chōmei’s hut. Unlike Professor Mizuno and his graduate students, Masako Takeda was not so smitten with American literature that she had neglected her own country’s aesthetic culture. Required by law to retire from teaching at sixty-five, she was newly released into a life of leisure, and had added master classes in tea ceremony and the art of mixing scents to her scholarly work and the seminars on Dickinson she offered to neighbors at her home in Osaka. She had time for the trip to Hino, and she shared my curiosity.
Another series of train rides brought us to a hilly suburb, eerily vacant in this season of high tourism. On a recent evening I’d stood in line for over an hour in the icy darkness with Yuri, my grad student guide, and her thirteen-year-old daughter, waiting to enter the grounds of Eikando and walk its crowded paths to witness a “light-up”—the temple’s allées of red-and-orange maples all aglow, underlit by the artificial fire of electric lamps. Now Masako and I were the only visitors to Hōkai-ji as the midafternoon sun began to drop behind the western mountains of Arashiyama, its slanted rays illuminating the yellow-leaved shrubbery lining the walkways and casting into shadow the temple’s small cluster of wooden buildings. We peeked into one and gaped at a wall covered with what appeared to be a multitude of infants’ bibs mildewing in the dank air. At the unmanned information booth, we found a laminated fact sheet explaining that Hōkai-ji’s guardian spirits were thought to aid nursing mothers. Supplicants could purchase bibs and pin them to the wall, helping to support the temple’s upkeep while making visible their prayers for easy, bountiful lactation.
Masako phoned the number written on the fact sheet and summoned the temple’s presiding monk, dressed in work clothes and high rubber boots, who nodded at her inquiries about Chōmei’s reclusion. He directed us to the first in a series of signposts that led us up the mountainside, past stucco townhouses that gave way to terraced fields, a fenced-in community tennis court, and finally a dusty lot at the base of a heavily wooded ravine. At the far end a sort of outdoor umbrella stand stocked with slender tree limbs—homemade walking sticks offered to Chōmei’s pilgrims by a local senior citizens’ hiking club—marked the trail head, the start of a narrow path that inclined steeply upward, overhung by trees still bearing green-and-yellow leaves.
During my months in Kyoto, I’d grown accustomed to the city’s meticulously landscaped gardens, domesticated Edens that showed off individual trees or symmetrically planted groves to best advantage, allowing them space to expand and visitors room to admire. Here was raw nature, trees growing so close upon one another they were nearly indistinguishable. Vines in high branches connected their hosts in a muddled biota whose population I could not begin to name or number. Chōmei had called these spindle trees. As we ascended, the stream Chōmei relied on for water grew ever more distant in the crook of the ravine below. Trees pressed in, narrowing the trail, and we walked in single file. Sunlight filtered down the ravine, reminding us it was day, but our path lay in what must have been perpetual shadow, and the temperature fell.
At last we reached a ledge marked by an engraved granite slab and a ceramic vase with a bouquet of fresh roses left by a previous visitor. Nature crowded and almost choked us here, but Chōmei had somehow cleared this scarcely level patch of earth, settled his movable hut upon it, and achieved the solitude he sought. “The valley is thick with trees,” he wrote in Hojoki, “but I have a view / of the Western heavens, / focus for meditation.”
On his rough mountainside, Chōmei did not forget humankind or the devastations he’d witnessed. Indeed, he devoted some of his time to writing about them. But here there was little distinction between life within and life without. The rhythms of nature replaced those of court life and offered psychic shelter from remembered cataclysm.
Each season had its character. In winter, the snow settled “like human sin” only to melt “in atonement.” Spring brought wisteria, blooming “like a holy purple cloud,” summer the chattering cuckoos.
the voices of evening cicadas
fill the ear.
They seem to grieve
this husk of a world.
On Thanksgiving I took a leisurely kaiseki lunch at a favorite restaurant with Keiko Beppu, a retired professor of modern poetry who, in the 1990s, had become one of Japan’s first female college presidents and the first woman president of the American Literature Society of Japan. She explained her impressive career, telling me that as a young woman her husband had divorced her when she’d been unable to bear children. The rejection had inspired in her a fierce desire to make something of her life; aside from her notable presidencies and long list of publications, she was the beloved mentor to many of the female scholars I met during my stay.
Scott emailed that evening: a bad cold had kept him away from our family Thanksgiving dinner. He was coughing too much to phone, but he was sure he’d be well again soon. It was just a cold. Our landlady sent word, too. Scott’s cough alarmed her. When was I coming home?
In a matter of days I would fly to Boston. I had found Kamo-no-Chōmei’s place of retreat. And I’d reached the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fourth novel, The Marble Faun, a “romance” of three expatriate artists in Rome, culminating in a tragic death. Hawthorne had written the novel during his own residence in Italy, a country whose opulent palazzi, lush gardens, and gilded sanctuaries must have enthralled an untraveled American of the 1850s just as Japan bewitched me now. Hawthorne would never complete another book, although he didn’t know it then. “This sunny, shadowy, breezy, wandering life,” his narrator muses, in which the artist “seeks for beauty as his treasure, and gathers for his winter’s honey what is but a passing fragrance to all other men, is worth living for, come afterwards what may.”
During the seventeen months of Scott’s dying, of which there were several when we could still pretend this was not the end, I added poems to my memorized store: Marianne Moore’s “What Are Years?”—“He / sees deep and is glad, who / accedes to mortality”; Dylan Thomas’s “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”; and Robert Lowell’s “Obit”—“After loving you so much, can I forget / you for eternity, and have no other choice?”
When Scott was gone, my days were filled first with the business of his death; then with lunches, dinners, concerts, and movies with friends; precious afternoons and evenings with my daughters, their spouses and children. It was only when COVID-19 arrived, depriving me of those cherished comforts as the anniversary of Scott’s death approached—even the probate court closed down—that my daily solitary pacing in my neighborhood brought me back to Kyoto and Hojoki.
I had not remembered that after the whirlwinds, floods, and fires—
[ … ] on top of all
a great plague broke out,
stood the world upon its head.
In Kyoto, forty thousand died in two months’ time. The food supply to the city was cut off, bringing famine and with it “so many other sights / to break the heart.” Bodies lay in the streets; babies cried, attempting to suckle at their dead mothers’ breasts. Chōmei observed of “Loving couples”—
the one whose love was deeper
always died first.
They held back,
gave the meager food
to their dearest.
I was not sick or hungry, but I lost friends to the virus; others contracted the illness and were slow to recover. I could not see my daughters. As my thinking became disordered in the shocking blur of hours, days, and weeks, I asked myself—was I still here because Scott had loved me most? Our circumstances were not the same as those of Chōmei’s starving lovers, but Scott had selflessly given me a kind of food: a period of solitude in which to learn how to feed myself, although my time in Japan left him alone for three of his last twenty months in this world.
“I’m not worried about you,” Scott told me one day over a dinner stalled by his vanished appetite. Desperate with worry for him, and foolishly proud of managing our lives and his care, I hadn’t known what he meant or why he said it. But I had that now as well, his belief in me, come what may. And yes, maybe his excess love: the surplus I would need to live on without him, until I too fronted the truth of life’s mutability—
Great houses fade away,
to be replaced by lesser ones.
Thus too those
who live in them [ … ].
They are born into dusk
and die as the day dawns,
like that foam
upon the water.
*From Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World, text by Kamo-no-Chōmei, translation by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins (Stone Bridge Press, 1996).
A version of this essay will appear in Now Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau, edited by Andrew Blauner (Princeton University Press, 2021).
Published on September 21, 2021
First published in Harvard Review 57.
First published in Harvard Review 57.