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Made of Wood

11 April 2010

I’ve always felt a strange sort of exhilaration reading others’ descriptions of places I have lived or traveled. It’s something akin to meeting a friend with whom I had experienced something, and allowing their own recollections and observations to illuminate my own.

Today, I cracked the cover of Alan Booth’s Looking for the Lost. Booth was a Brit who passed through vast swaths of this country on foot, and to my surprise, his last journey prior to his death in 1993 took him through Tsugaru, the plains region at the north tip of Honshu.  Booth did this by retracing the steps of Osamu Dazai, a native of the region who would later become something of a celebrity for Tsugaru-ites.  Here is what he wrote of my village:

“A timeworn and tranquil town” is how Dazai describes Kizukuri, and I warmed to its single main street as soon as I started clomping along it.  Its most obvious distinguishing feature is that the narrot pavements along one side of it are roofed and walled, turning them into extensions of the shops, so that pedestrians stroll down cozy little corridors just wide enough for two to walk abreast, protected from snow and wind and traffic, but exposed as Dazai observed, “to the minor inconvenience of being stared at by the people working in the shops”…

Across the road stood the police station, a large ferroconcrete structure which in Dazai’s time had been made of wood.  “Of course, it’s a wonderful building”, he had mused, perusing a sign that said “Kizukuri [Made of Wood] Police Station, and then “smiled wryly” at his “mistake”.  That was his joke about the town’s name.  Afterwards, he visited the pharmaceutical wholesalers where his father had been born, drank sake with the merry cousin called Mr. M who told him that Kizukuri’s rice production was the highest in Japan because “we break our backs,” and then, back unborken, departed for the western coast.  I, too, departed for the western coast, down roads that ran between apple orchards where the powdery blossoms were being pinched off the boughs, a cruelty I could not imagine being inflicted on the cherries.

…When a Japanese person tells you that Kyoto, the former capital, is a “beautiful” city, he does not mean that, if you climbed Mount Hiei and looked down at its roofs, you would be struck by a sense that the whole was magically greater than the sum of its parts.  When you view Kyoto from any point of vantage, such as the elevated platofrm where the bullet train deposits you, its ugliness can make you weep.  It’s tangled, utility-cabled skyline is indistinguishable from that of any other Japanese city of comparable size, and every bit as jolting.  The attractions of Japanese cities–if they have attractions–lie in what they contain, not in the prospect they present.  Kyoto is “beautiful” because within it there are beautiful things; subtle, sometimes tiny details that resist the cacophony around them and may require a lifetime to unearth.

But that was not why I liked the towns of the Tsugaru plain.  I liked them not for any postcard picturesqueness nor for the discovering in them of small resistant details.  What I liked was the workaday imperviousness to anything resembling a philosophy of charm (which is not the same thing as an imperviousness to charm itself…). Sometimes these inland towns contained resistant details–an old stone house or something smaller; a sushi-shop curtain made of pale, plaited cords–though even these could scarcely be called charming.  But they gave you a sense of being in a place that was built to be lived in, not just passed through ; that had formed an alliance with its residents in a way that the towns of the coast had not…

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