Entry begun on bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo, Friday, July 3, 8:40 am (July 2, 7:40 pm, Cincinnati time)
Our return from Kamakura to Tokyo marked the official end of the 10th International Melville Conference. The next morning a group of eight American Melvillians took bullet trains to Kyoto for a three-night stay before returning to Tokyo, flying on to Korea, or flying home. Seven of us were in one car of the Hikari Super Express to Kyoto, my six companions seated as compactly as whalers in a whale boat.
We had been advised to reserve a seat on the “Fuji” side of of the car if possible, and this paid off in an unforgettable way. I did not have any official business involving Melville or Dickinson in Kyoto, other than to think about how either author would have been fascinated by the city, its people, and its temples, so this leaves me free to structure this entry loosely after one of my favorite Dickinson poems, “My River runs to Thee” (J 162).
As the bullet train brought us into Kyoto, the Kamo river looked quite dry, its riverbed capable of holding much more water than what we saw. We had been warned again and again that this was the rainy season along the Tokyo-Kyoto coast, but we had been blessed so far with sunny or overcast weather, only one of our days in Tokyo having heavy rain. Our first afternoon in Kyoto was similarly dry, and we made the most of it after checking into the Kinoe Ryokan on Higishimagata Street in the Gion district.
The 100 bus took us up and out of the city to Ginkakuji Temple and its Silver Pavilion. These are tucked in against the surrounding hills much as is the Berkeley campus of the University of California against the hills of Claremont Canyon. Every Kyoto temple has its distinctive features. This one has a highly distinctive riff on the traditional rock garden—one part raked in alternating bands like a football field, another shaped into a conical flat-topped mountain. What I liked most during our visit was the trail taking us up and across the surrounding hillside. Near the temple were gardeners tending to the faded azaleas. We then came to a green glade of shaded evergreen and moss, one stream of water dropping into the dark pond seeming like a gift from the gods. Dickinson’s poetic river passes through “spotted nooks” on its way to the sea, and this is one spotted nook I am sure she would have savored. As we got up into the rockier part of the hillside, I was amazed to see the beauty and scope of the drainage channels along the way, through which we occasionally heard the sound of water below or around us, one open channel sending a pretty strong gush down toward the network of ponds. I loved the way the Silver Pavilion was nestled into the whole expansive valley when seen from the hillside path..
The next day we got all the rain we had been missing. Mercifully, Ginny Bryant had already set up a day-long bus excursion for us. Once we got to the pick-up up place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, we were in the hands of Japanese tour guides and bus drivers who got us to the Nijo Castle, the Golden Pavilion, and the Imperial Palace in the morning. After lunch in Kyoto, we rode up in the mountains to the ancient capital of Nara, more ancient than Kamakura. Just as our Tokyo hotel had birdsong piped into the elevators, so did the Crowne Plaza Hotel have quite a sophisticated and elaborate waterfall installed right outside its picture window.
Of the morning tours, Nijo Castle was my favorite. Because we were on a tour, we were able to see nearly the full length of the Ninomaru Palace in which the shogun and his retinue had held court in a parade of waiting rooms decorated with paintings on gold leaf over paper of exquisite breadth and power, many of them newly restored copies so as to preserve the fragile and faded originals. Here I came to understand the dramatic, cultural, and political function of pictorial art I had considered only in aesthetic terms when reproduced in books or exhibited in museums (including those Masterworks from Japan I had recently seen in Cincinnati). The masterworks in Japan have an entirely different meaning in their original spatial and social context. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside this remarkable palace.
As we walked along from one room to another, our tour guide explained that the sound of the floor as we walked had been engineered to aproximate the sound of a nightingale. Finally we got to the shogun’s personal reception room, where he met with acceptable petitioners much in the manner of the island prince Donjalolo in the chapter of Melville’s Mardi called “The Center of many Circumferences.” Beyond that was the shogun’s personal inner sanctum, where only women were allowed in his presence. Beyond the room for women, a further room was set off for the shogun himself. This dynamic made me think, somehow, of Dickinson’s poem “Mine—by the Right of the White Election! / Mine by the Royal Seal! . . . Mine—long as Ages steal!” (J 528).
I had seen the Golden Pavilion in 1994 during my half-day in Kyoto, but that did not prepare me for the absolute beauty of is color and proportions this morning, seemingly gleaming even more beautifully in the rain. Kyoto’s Imperial Palace, where the first emperor of modern Japan had been crowned within a decade of the arrival of Commodore Perry, juxtaposed a rather ornate style of mid-nineteenth-century temple architecture against the simpler, neo-classical Chinese style, painted bright orange, the contrast a foretaste of a wildly eclectic, yet disciplined, approach to architecture that was to blossom much more boldly in Japan in the twentieth century. As we were leaving the Imperial Palace, I was glad the tour guide recommended that we take a look at a wooden bridge that could be seen beautifully reflecting in the water. I looked, and was not disappointed. The Keyakibashi Bridge in the Oikeniwa Garden is another of those “spotted nooks” that Dickinson would have been sure to savor.
The grounds of the Todai-ji Temple in Nara are full of deer nipping at you as you get off the bus. But it is the Nara Buddha, dwarfing its successor in Kamakura, which leaves an unforgettable impression even before you see it. It is housed in what is said to be the largest wooden structure in the world, rebuilt several times over the centuries, an amazing example of elegant design uncompromised by gargantuan proportions.
I had read in some guidebook that the Kamakura Buddha is considered by many to be superior to this one in beauty, though smaller in size, but I believe its Nara ancestor concedes nothing in either beauty or power. Comissioned by Emperor Shomu in 743 A.D, this Buddha was completed twenty years later. The Nara Buddha holds one hand out to the viewer, fingers straight up from the palm, to get the viewer’s physical attention. The other hand opens directly out the viewer as if in absolution, a combination that engages the viewer as Ishmael does the reader when he begins his story with the words, “Call me Ishmael.” The Kamakura Buddha speaks to us too, but through his own self-contained spirit spreading throughout his whole domain, seemingly not so attentive to what, or who, is before his very eyes.
Our entranced communion with Japan’s rich spiritual history continued with our visit to Kyoto’s Sanjusangen-do Temple on Thursday morning, our last full day in town. We could not believe the profusion of the thousand and one statues of the Buddhist diety Kannun, sculpted in Japanese cypress and painted in gold. Begun in the 12th century, the were completed, like the Kamakura Buddha, in the mid-13th century. As we were walking along this endless procession of divine figures, one of our members compared the effect to walking through Chartes Cathedral in France, also created by successive generations of craftsmen in the 12th and 13th centuries. Whereas the temple housing the Nara Buddha is reputed to be the largest wooden building in the world, the this one is reputed to be the longest, and certainly we did have that feeling as that thick wooded grove of queenly figures about ten deep just went on and on in their attentive, golden wholeness, protected by a series of powerful, mostly male, guardian figures. No photos were allowed in this temple space, either. The warning sign had the clear message about a camera: “We will seize it when using it.” I was curious if anyone would test this warning, but saw no one try.
We had heard that dinner down by the river in Kyoto was a fine way to end a visit to the city, so on our last night we walked from one crowded outdoor restaurant after another until we found Mon Ami. This weekend was the first of the summer season, so the riverside restaurants were jam-packed even though this was a Thursday night. The residents of Kyoto seem to be full of good energy and good humor; this evening there seemed to be a higher proportion of young couples in love than I had previously seen. Tonight was apparently the first full moon of summer, and the river was much replenished by the rain. We did not see the full moon by the time we left the restaurant, but we were entirely satisfied in every other way.
We had arrived at the restaurant at dusk, after attending a lovely medley of traditional Japanese song, dance, and drama at Gion Corner. By the time our food came we could not see the river any more. Instead we heard its rapids, slightly upstream from where we were sitting, sounding its own endless variation on “Say—Sea—Take Me!” (in the words of Dickinson’s “My River runs to thee”). This sound was the perfect accompaniment to the thoughts that some of us were already bending toward the next day’s transpacific flight to loved ones at home. After returning home, I read that Kabuki theatrical tradition originated on this stretch of the Kamo River, alongside Gion, during the Tokugawa Shogunate around 1607.
Melville, of course, was as strongly drawn to the sea as Dickinson. Ishmael declares in the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick that “if they knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean as me,” one reason for this being that “meditation and water are wedded for ever.” On the morning of July 3, our bullet train crossed stream after stream as Wyn and Britt and I returned to Tokyo Station and then took the Narita Express to the airport. It was so wonderful to have Britt with us on this trip; the only other time I had met her was when a similar party of Melvillians attended the Washington DC premiere of Heggie and Sheer’s Moby-Dick opera back in February. We took a three-way selfie before we separated for our flights from separate terminals, but I prefer my photo of the two of them together.
The next water I saw was “a thousand leagues of blue” of the Pacific Ocean as Ishmael imagines it in “The Pacific” chapter. This is the chapter in which he describes this ocean as the “tide-beating heart of earth” whose “same waves wash the moles of the new-built California towns . . . and lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of Asian lands.” My one transpacific glimpse of the Pacific came as we flew over the ocean in the middle of the night. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, the night through which we were flying had turned into day. The end of July 3 in Tokyo was becoming the beginning of July 3 in Cincinnati. When I walked down the aisle and looked out through a little window by the wing, I saw my last “rising sun horizon” of the trip, over the seemingly endless expanse of the sea.
While I was at the Melville Conference in Tokyo I was happy to meet three scholars who are each thinking of Melville and Dickinson together. One is planning to write a book that will link Melville’s Clarel with Dickinson. Another is contemplating an essay that will juxtapose the “slanted cross” in Melville’s Clarel with Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (J 1129). A third had discussed Melvillle’s approach to the American landscape through insights borrowed from the Dickinson scholar Susan Howe. It is admittedly difficult to know what either Melville or Dickinson would have thought of Tokyo or Kyoto today. However, during my three days in Kyoto, coming up on a Zen or Buddhist temple wherever I turned in this very modern city, I kept thinking of Dickinson’s own Zen-like identification with nature and her Buddha-like awareness of the cycles of life in the immediate vicinity of her familial home in Amherst. As for Melville, this sentence from the “Time and Temples” chapter of Mardi shows a more spatially expansive consciousness of our spiritual oneness: “Thus deeper and deeper into Time’s endless tunnel, does the winged soul, like a night hawk, wend her wild way; and finds eternities before and behind; and her last limit is her everlasting beginning.”
I feel that the tourist map of central Kyoto, bisected by the Kamo River with temples and shrines rising up on either side, is an apt analogue for the spiritual journey of each of these American writers, each open to those shocks of recognition and tremors of resonance that can so suddenly visit the walking, waking body when alert to an onrush of the moment, a revelation from the past, or an intimation of a richer life to come.