The search for Mr Yamamoto, a man I was imagining
I travelled to the city of Tokyo on assignment. My goal was to meet Mr Yamamoto, a man I was imagining.
My novel takes place in a seaside town, you see, and my hero is a simple fisherman. I had decided that my villain, Mr Yamamoto, would be the greatest fisherman that ever lived, a hunter of the sea. So it was research that led me to Tokyo and the Tsukiji Fish Market, the greatest, they say, in all the world.
And so I winged my way across the planet.
It did not matter that Tsukiji had been shut down, its teeming alleys closed to trade and its merchants moved to the modern Toyosu facility. It did not matter because the spirit of Tsukiji must remain.
I moved into my hostel, a place that was cheap and the motif was books. In two floors of one of the concrete towers of Ikebukero, pine shelving had been thrown up to create a barracks draped with literature. We slept in pine cubicles, travellers from the world over, and our dreams mingled with the books around, ebbing and flowing.
I woke at 11 and went yawning into the street, shuffling after knowledge. With a 7–11 coffee (the cheapest in the city and about the same quality as Starbucks, in my opinion) I discovered that Tokyo is bigger than your map.
My goal was Toyosu Market, the obvious first port of call in the hunt for Mr Yamamoto.
‘You think I live in a market?’ I heard whispered as I took my place in the heaving of the underground. I turned, looking for the speaker, and saw nothing but unknown eyes.
The voice laughed softly. ‘I do not live in a market. I live in your heart.’
I wandered Toyosu Market’s sterile halls, a blip in the slow tourist throng. Far below was the trade floor, separated from me by glass. Down there was the life and the death of the world’s sea creatures, down there was Mr Yamamoto’s bread and butter.
My plans were down there, shattered. I had read of a market that would infect the senses with the smell and flapping of fish. In the new market I could not taste the teeming, I was not allowed to feel.
I plunged into the afternoon rush hour where 8 million had descended on the metro. The meter gates rang like church bells as capped conductors appeared above the crowds and orchestrated the symphony.
I sat drinking coffee, my heart and lungs seized by the spectacle. In the Tsunami of rush hour there was perfect order and peace, every soul accounted for. The world was hung, suspended in a web I knew not of.
I felt the growing idea of Mr Yamamoto passing over the crowd. He was speaking to me and teaching me. He said:
‘No man is evil and no man is good. For all there is only circumstance, rising up out of the old soil.’
The trains took me in and I rode them throughout the darkness. An hour away I fell from their steel and walked the streets of Yokohama suburb utterly lost beneath orange street lights, and utterly found.
I saw a plastic ape climbing its way to the moon. ‘Why are you so angry?’ I asked. The ape answered, ‘because I failed once, and I have not forgiven myself.’
In a basement bar I discovered a trio of men playing instruments of freedom. They were in Mr Yamamoto’s thrall, I knew it, wandering halls of ignorance in riffs that shook the walls.
I dashed to the front of the crowd and flung my shirt away and danced, as He took hold of the Frenchman and bad him beat his forehead on the ground.
The polite Japanese grinned.
It was 4am when back at my hostel two girls returned from wherever, talking, maybe a little drunk. I heard them clamber into their wooden boxes and giggle, and slowly fall asleep. Mr Yamamoto lay with me, entwined in my pine box with me, and whispered that if I kept looking I would find him, that all the journey required was intent.
And so I scoured the city.
Inside the Samurai Museum of Shinjuku I believed that I saw him, in the movements of the student of the sword and when the young girl wiped the walls with grace and attention.
I watched that girl, I drank her movements and I was transported. At the very feet of God I sat, who would not look at me.
I left Shinjuku on that rainy morning, travelling east, and by the time I reached Chiyoda the sun had returned. My goal was to search the holy places. For in order to reach hell, I had decided, I had to know heaven.
At Yasukuni Shrine I discovered Yūshūkan Musuem, a place for the veneration of the dead.
Here was the litany of world war 11, here was Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I groped for meaning. In the flame that engulfed those islands I imagined Mr Yamamoto’s birth, his loss of love as his family evaporated.
I remembered the tale of a unit of Japanese in the swamps of Borneo. Cut off from their command they had to cross the great marshes. One by one they were taken by crocodiles, until only he emerged from the swamp.
I heard his cries, his grunts in that wet place, as slowly, what was once pure began to twist. The pain of his loss branded him, he would never be the same. It was there, I decided, that he was born.
‘What is honour, but the knowing of your pact with eternity?’ I scribbled this while gazing at the bullet holes in the uniform of a soldier directly above his heart. ‘What is honour, but the acceptance, of your own eternity?’
Signs warned me not to take pictures, that the clothing of the fallen were sacred, their letters and their last thoughts. Quietly I took the picture. It was too good to pass up.
Outside, in the garden of Yasukuni I wandered. I saw a golden Khoi, fat with the food of the emperor’s rich ecosystem, laying heavy on the bottom of the pond. All was clear and crystal around that beautiful animal until it convulsed, its great tail flicking through the water and sediment clouding up to cover it, leaving me in darkness.
How can I tell you of the beauty of Tokyo? How can I tell you properly of my wandering? I must delineate my beliefs, I must show you the structures within which I dwell.
I believe in the mystery.
I learned of Shinto in Tokyo, a philosophy of the balance of all things, the importance of all things, the necessity of the light lying close with the dark. I saw them, men and women of the city, taking solitary prayer at shrines nestled at the feet of skyscrapers a millenia old.
Quietly, they made their thanks, a prayer to nothing but the truth. And their clapping rang out.
‘What is love, without fear?’ He had asked me once. I wandered the great city, wondering at my own lost love.
My goal was to discover the source of evil. How would I define the success of my efforts? At what point would I be able to say that the shape of Mr Yamamoto had been found, and therefore, in relief, the shape of my hero?
There is no answer, only the following of a silver thread as it leads through the swampland, twisting between the buried forms of crocs, and up, across the world’s mountain peaks.
We must journey, until the end has been reached.
I made my way to Ryogoku Station. Here I sought out the training grounds of the great warriors, desperate for a glimpse of their wisdom.
The Takasago Sumo Stable stood empty, the temple deserted but for the electricty that crackled in the air. Here was a place of struggle, a workroom dedicated to the moulding of the soul. A presentiment drew my eyes to the floor, and there I found his message, carved, no doubt, when he was just a boy.
‘Do what is necessary to go within,’ read the crude lettering.
I staggered out of the dojo, subsumed by the pulling of eternity, and was arrested by one final sight. The shoes of the absent warriors lay in their neat piles, testament to ferocious lives, swallowed by time.
‘What do you want from me?’ I begged him, begging as much for the sound of his voice as for an answer. But the great skyscrapers were silent, as I made my lonely way home.
“I remember the way he cut that animal, the gentleness of his hand as he sliced, and the awe in his eyes as he gazed on the heart,” I wrote in my notebook, ensconsed in my cubicle.
“’For my collection,’ he had said, the beat of that great engine fading. And then, amongst the salt spray of the open ocean, amongst that wild cold, the body of the grey beast was slipped overboard, and it plunged dead to the deep, and all that was left was a red slick upon the frozen deck.”
Why did he do it?
‘For my collection,’ he had said to me, a hand upon my shoulder and the thrumming of that great heart blazing in his eyes. ‘It is for my collection alone.’
His pact was with God. His loss was with God. His longing, was with God.
Tokyo hummed with the solitude of 17 million, her people spirited to homes I knew not of. In a movie theatre 29 lonely men watched the early evening show, and just one woman.
I sat in the theatre, washed by the images washing the screen. A vision coalesced in that colour, an image that suddenly I knew to be true.
The end will be found in the beginning. The beginning, is also the end.
‘I must go to Tsukiji,’ I said as myself and 29 lonely men and one woman left the theatre, as spotless as when we had arrived.
In the dawn I wandered the remains of that legendary market, where a smattering still leverage the name. There was nothing there but the memory of what must once have been — 400 years of tradition, 400 years of receiving the world’s great souls of the deep, and paring them from the bone.
I ate their flesh, sitting alone in an empty restaurant. I tasted the wild sea, and it was not what I wanted. He was not in the memory served on my plate.
I left the old market, wandering down Chome Street, the world turned to ash in my eyes. I had come to this magnificent place, and I was filled with despair. My locomotion slowed, and soon I was at a standstill, with no more inspiration in me. I had seen many of the city’s secret places, the gutters and hidden nooks where a man might breed a life, and I felt I was further from my goal than when I took my very first step.
To discover a story is indeed a long task.
I turned to my right, thinking at least I will find coffee, forget this tale, and sink into acceptance of my despair. Perhaps I would take the train to Kyoto, perhaps it was a shrine in the mountains in which I would find enlightenment, or in the steam of a country onzen. I took pause.
Ahead of me towered a giant face, made up in white, a grinning mask. Its expression was ferocious, a mask of intent. I went towards it, like a moth to flame. The colours of that advertisement were the brightest in the world.
I entered that historical and elegant place, with its red carpeted floor and walls, and its people of Tokyo dressed in their best to view the miracle. As yet, I knew not the miracle, but in the hallways of the great Kabukiza Theatre I could feel their expectancy. There was an electricity in the air, a hum.
I took my seat high up in the gallery, looking down upon the stage. It was wide, and empty. Slowly, the auditorium filled until every seat was taken. Next to me an older lady sat, her purse clutched on her knees. The lights dimmed and I beheld the following scene.
On a freezing night and in the midst of a blizzard, men and women took their place on the stage. On a freezing night and in the midst of a blizzard, scenery was presented on the stage. On that night and in the midst of that falling blizzard, a man turned his heart to heaven, at the coming of death, and the willows dipped their limbs in icy sorrow. And above them, as the cries of his heart rose, between the falling flakes, a man sang in a voice that pulled from all of us a power not our own, a stringed instrument shuddering in his hands.
The willows bent under their weight of snow and ice. The actor bent under the weight of mystery. I bent under the weight of mystery, I bent under the weight of the miracle.
The curtain sighed to a close.
Very quietly and carefully I dropped my head to my hands, and cried.
‘Why did you cry?’
I thrilled to the return of his voice.
‘Why did you cry?’
‘It was perfect,’ I whispered back, my voice silent between my fingers. The lady to my right looked on, the drawn curtain reverberating on her face. ‘They disappeared, and I saw the best of them.’
He took my hand and pulled me through the halls of the hallowed theatre (his fingers were soft in mine), out into the street, and across it. There was the Tsukiji Honganji Temple. Inside, I found a baby was being consecrated.
Again I heard the knell of the heavens, the chant upward. It was a sound of worship, a calling to the great void.
Again, I sobbed, my head lowered to my hands. I did not want to disturb them. Again I felt the body of that animal convulse as death took it, again I saw the light diminishing in its eye.
‘Why do you cry?’ He whispered.
‘Because I can see.’
‘What can you see?’
For more #honesttravelwriting, follow @honestjoestravels on Instagram.