Welcome to Japan

Entry begun at Celestine Hotel, Tokyo, Sunday, June 28, 6:08 am

In Moby-Dick in 1851 Ishmael imagines that if “double-bolted Japan” ever opens up to the West, sailors on whale ships will have been largely responsible.  A few years later, the Open Door policy initiated by the visit of Commodore Matthew Perry’s war ships was negotiated with the help of John Manjiro, a castaway Japanese sailor who had been rescued by an American whale ship in 1841 and taken to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, across the river from New Bedford, where Manjiro learned English well enough to be a translator in the Open Door negotiations upon his return to Japan.

John Manjiro was very much present at the 10th International Society Conference that opened at Keio University in Tokyo on Thursday, July 25.  After Peter Martin, the paper-cut artist from New Bedford who was the featured artist at the conference, filled a room with works inspired by Moby-Dick, he unveiled a brand-new tribute to Manjiro that no one had ever seen.  Entitled Trust and inspired the chapter on “The Line” in Moby-Dick, Martin’s newest work imagines Manjiro’s sandals threading through the metaphorical whale lines that had threatened every step of his transpacific adventures.

peter talks of manjiro

Peter Martin presenting Trust, based on the life of John Manjiro

More than 130 presenters from twelve countries and four continents had registered for four days of paper-reading sessions that will formally conclude today, followed by a day trip to Kamakura and Yokosuka tomorrow.  I woke up a little early this morning, and this has been the first chance, once the conference began, to write a few words in my blog.  I am in my room on the 16th floor of the Celestine Hotel, only a few blocks from the Mita campus of Keio University.  We were warned in advance that late June was the rainy season in Japan, but this week we have had only one day with heavy rain.  Here is a view of the “rising sun horizon” from my hotel window on my first morning in Tokyo.

My first sunrise from 16th floor of Celestine Hotel

My first sunrise from 16th floor of Celestine Hotel

I had a good trip from northern Kentucky on Monday, flying direct to Seattle with a short layover before boarding my direct flight to Narita airport outside Tokyo.  The Boeing 777 was comfortable, even in the economy section, and the in-cabin service was excellent.  The video monitor and entertainment options on the seat back in front of me were much more advanced than on my last transpacific flight twenty one years ago, and I imagine the flying time was somewhat shorter, too (though I feel that the exact number of hours hardly matter when there are so many of them).  Since I will have to have to submit a well-edited version of my Dickinson and Moby-Dick blog to the Dickinson Electronic Archive by August 1, I brought a printout of half of the blog with me on the plane to proofread. With an aisle seat, my open binder fit comfortably on my food tray without bothering the person to my left.  I enjoyed the editing as we flew through the day and into the night, the bright cabin lights finally dimming after the dinner service was completely over.  I slept intermittently over the ocean, but I was awake for a very refreshing middle-of-the night ice-cream sandwich the attendants distributed at midnight Seattle time.

Size of open binder to proofread on food tray

Size of open binder to proofread on food tray

At some indeterminate time, Seattle midnight turned into Tokyo daylight.  By the time we landed at Narita it was 2:35 on Tuesday afternoon, Tokyo time.  A very convenient Limosine Airport Bus offered a direct connection to the Celestine Hotel.  The ticket-taker bowed deeply to the bus when it arrived at the curb and again as we departed for the 90-minute ride to the hotel.  Halfway into the city, the accumulated impact of the travel fully hit me, and I drifted in and out of consciousness after we left the highway and began threading the manmade canyons of the city.  The hotel itself was everything you could wish.  Gleaming, spacious, elegant lobby.  Very attentive staff to receive you.  A well-furnished room with a commanding view of the city and just enough room to feel comfortable.  And a fourteenth-floor inset roof-top tea-house with a lounge complete with wi-fi, business station, and coffee and tea served inside or out on the patio.

Celestine’s 14th floor tea-house patio seen from 16th floor elevator landing

Celestine’s 14th floor tea-house patio seen from 16th floor elevator landing

Wyn Kelly and her daughter Britt arrived at the hotel about an hour after I did.  We had planned to meet at the hotel, but when we did, we were all too tired to go out on the town.  (We would be doing that the next evening thanks to the generosity of Mikayo (Mika) Sakuma, with whom Wyn and I had driven to Logan Airport from the Moby-Dick Marathon in New Bedford back in January.)  For this first evening in town, I looked for somewhere comfortable to eat in the neighborhood and got advice from a college student I passed on the street.  He kindly reversed his direction and walked me several blocks to his favorite noodle house, where I had a wonderful combination of tempura and noodles for 520 yen, about 5 US dollars.

Zojoji ginko from 1634

Zojoji ginko tree from 1634

On Wednesday, June 24, I kept the sightseeing local so I could be fresh when Wyn and Britt and I had our evening with Mika.  I woke up early and visited the Zojoji Temple, only a few blocks from the hotel.  We are in the Shiba area very near Tokyo Bay and in the 1630s Zojoji was the temple of the Tokugawa Shogunate.  Its design is ornate and intricate, and specially twisted, think rope over the entrance (which I am told is the shiminawa, providing protection to holy places in Japan).  The trees near the temple and throughout the adjacent park were individually identified with labels, and one tree near the temple had an engraved plaque declaring it a national historical monument.  One of the oldest Ginko trees in Japan, it is thought to have been planted in 1634 and has survived all of the vicissitudes in the neighborhood since, including the American fire-bombing during World War II that incinerated much of this section of the city.

Zojoji Temple  

Zojoji Temple

One of the hand-sewn silk Kabuki curtains

One of the hand-sewn silk Kabuki curtains

The planting of that ginko tree in 1634 tied in well with our night out on the town with Mika—because she took us to the Kabuki theater in the Ginza district where we saw Usuyuki-hime Tale, a one-hour play from 1632 involving a blacksmith, his daughter, and her suitor.  Beth Schultz, who had just arrived at the hotel after visiting dear friends in Okinawa, met us in the hotel lobby.  Before the play, Mika took the four of us to one of the amazing department stores in the Ginza neighborhood.  Then we arrived at the newly renovated theater, which was striking inside and out.  Many of the audience members were eating dinner in their seats, and Mika explained that many of the true Kabuki fans make a whole day of it.  The one-hour drama we saw was extraordinary for its physical, visual, auditory, and psychological drama, even for someone like me who did not understand a single word.  This performance of the story ended with a beautifully choreographed and acrobatic sword battle, which Mika suggested was a very modern riff on this very ancient play.

Exterior of Kabuki Theater at Night.

Exterior of Kabuki Theater at night.

After the play, Mika took us to a nearby sushi restaurant, one floor below street level.  On the street, thanks to the convenience of cell phones, were joined by five Melvillians whose planes had landed only a few hours earlier, yet had managed check in at the hotel in time to meet us here for dinner.  Chris and Jan Sten had flown over from Washington DC, John and Ginny Bryant from New York City, and Tony McGowan from West Point.  All nine of us fit comfortably around one table in a room of our own, with plenty of leg space under the table.  This was my first all-out sushi meal in Japan and it was extraordinary, buoyed along by excited conversation and the plum wine that Beth had recommended for us all.  I am glad I was sitting next to her, for she has resided in Japan often since her first visit in 1958, and was therefore able to guide me through the various options in a wonderful way.  The evening was the perfect introduction to Japan and appetizer for the conference, and we were all extremely grateful to Mika for having arranged it.

Melvillian crew at Ginza sushi table

Melvillian crew at Ginza sushi table

 

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