Entry continued at Celestine Hotel, June 29
On Monday, June 29, the academic business of the conference was followed by a day trip to Yokosuka, the site of a museum devoted to the landing of Commodore Perry’s “black ships” in 1853, and to Kamakura, home of the Daibutsu Buddha since 1252 AD. Perry’s successful penetration into “double-bolted” Japan is ancient history to most Americans, but it must feel very recent to many Japanese since it caused such a severe deflection in the culture of this land as it had evolved over centuries and even millennia before. The Japanese monument to Commodore Perry was erected in 1901 and is the site of an annual festival. The adjacent Matthew Perry museum has a fine diorama of the arrival of the “black ships” in 1853 along with some beautifully drawn watercolors in which Japanese artists documented the event.
The bus ride from Yokosuka to Kamakura circled two beautiful bays on a very sunny day. As I looked out from Kamakura Bay it was exciting to think the the Pacific Coast of the Olympic Peninsula in my home state of Washington was over on the other side of the water.
On my trip to the Olympic Peninsula with painter Kevin Muente and his wife Tammy in July 2008, we were all very conscious of Japan being on the other side of the water when we looked west.
It was on that trip to the Olympic Peninsula that I learned about the “orphan tsunami” that had flooded towns along the Japanese coast in 1700 without any known source. Only in the twenty-first century had Japanese historians and American seismologists jointly traced that mysterious tsunami to an underwater earthquake off the Olympic Peninsula coast that had simultaneously left soil samples of fractured coast line on the American side and archival records of coastal floods on the Japanese side. Jointly published in Tokyo and Seattle in 2005, the book entitled The Orphan Tsunami of 1700 gives more literal support than I ever expected to find of the image in Moby-Dick of the Pacific Ocean as “the tide-beating heart of earth” (“The Pacific”).
One wonders what the Kamakura Buddha would think of all that has transpired along these oceanic shores since his 30 separate bronze parts were fitted together around 1252 (as years are counted on western calendars).
You can’t begin to imagine when standing before this imposing figure how its separate parts had been molded in bronze and fused together more than 750 years ago. I got some clarification on the latter question after stooping through a low door and up a narrow stairway into the hollow core of the sculpture. Here you see not only the inner seams of this seamless structure but a plaque explaining how the various pieces were very intentionally designed to fit together, not through some pre-industrial welding process, but through a kind of jigsaw puzzle of interlocking pieces.
Of course we all wanted our photos taken before this imposing shape.
In contrast to the imposing majesty of the Kamakura Buddha is the magical plenitude of the bamboo forest in the Hokoku-ji Temple on the other side of the city. Approached through a blaze hydrangias along an ocean of raked sand with grass islands, you ascend into a world of tall, slender, smooth bamboo trunks as wide and as deep as you can see. The barkless, polished wood catches the light with a kind of subdued, communal glow throughout compact, expansive forest. A dark little circle here and there in the soil denotes the site of a tree no longer there, answered in the cycle of life by the slimmer, younger trees among the stand. Walking slowly through this grove is the closest I have ever felt to the world of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.
In the bus and at our various stops, this excursion was an excellent way to make new friends or spend quality time with those we had seen only briefly during the rush of the conference. When the bus left us back at the Celestine, it was time for farewells, as most of us on the two busses would be going our separate ways early in the morning. I was very happy that I was able to get a parting photo with Beth and three of our Japanese hosts, giving new meaning, for me, to the closing lines of one of my favorite Dickinson poems: “Parting is all we know of heaven, / And all we need of hell” (J 1712). For those of us of a certain age, this parting was particularly poignant because we cannot be certain we will ever be able to visit this wonderful country again.
It is impossible to write about the pleasures of this year’s Tokyo Conference without thinking of several who could not make it. All of us who had been at the original International Melville Conference in Volos, Greece, in 1997, were thinking often of its two co-directors, Sandy Marovitz, who has retired from Kent State University in Ohio, and Thanasis Christodoulou, who remains active in Volos. And we were all very sorry to hear that Leyli Jamali from Islamic Azad University in Iran, was unable to be in Tokyo to read her paper on “Melville’s White Whale in the Persian Gulf.”
I was especially sorry that the late Toshio Yagi, a translator of Moby-Dick who was also a brilliant literary critic, could only be with us in spirit. I had always hoped to meet him in person when the international Melville conference finally made its way to Japan. His essay “Moby-Dick as a Mosaic” in the 1993 collection Melville and Melville Studies in Japan had given me the key to structuring my book on Stella’s Moby-Dick series. He and I had enjoyed a wonderful correspondence but I had always looked forward to meeting him in person. He was for me the first among our “sleeping-partner” shipmates for this particular conference. I had not known that he was a printmaker in addition to being a translator and a literary critic, so it had been an entire surprise when he had sent the artist’s proof of one of his prints as a gift, an act of pure generosity I was never able to repay.