The life of a man is like a ball in the river, the Buddhist texts state—no matter what our will wants or desires, we are swept along by an invisible current that finally delivers us to the limitless expanse of the black sea. This image rather appeals to me. It suggests there are times when we float lightly along life’s surface, bobbing from one languid, long pool to another. But then, when we least expect it, we turn a river bend and find ourselves plummeting over a thundering waterfall into the churning abyss below. This I have experienced. And more.
Hard as it is for me to believe, my journey downriver started six decades ago, when I was born with little fuss in the village of Katsurao, high in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. My parents’ inn was just eight kilometers from the nine-hundred-year-old Head Temple of the Headwater Sect of Mahayana Buddhism. When I came into this world, the fifteen thousand villagers of this simple trading post on the lower slopes of Mount Nagata still clung to the rocky banks of the Kappa-gawa before it dropped two thousand meters in a series of small waterfalls to the rice plains in the flatlands far below.
The upper reaches of my village consisted of three commercial blocks that ended in a pedestrian shopping plaza, a small bus depot, and a handful of low-rise apartment buildings that also housed a medical clinic built in the 1950s. Simple wooden houses stood in the narrow lanes of the old town down by the river. Flat-topped workshops housed a sheet-metal worker, a wood-carver, and a fish-smoker who plied their wares to villagers.
The town straddled both sides of the roaring Kappa-gawa, its inhabitants connected by two stone bridges. Every day our neighbor, bowlegged Mrs. Saito, left her money in a box at the Mujinhanbai, a produce stall run on the honor system, and I have fond recollections of her staggering through the town’s narrow alleys with her turnips and cabbages, tottering like a windup toy back across the lower cobblestone bridge.
There was something supernal about this stone and wood village in the crags of Japan’s mountains. At night, a silky film of dew was laid across every roof tile, bridge, and bush of the village, and when the first shafts of mountain light pierced the thin air, the town smoldered and smoked with rising dew-steam, making it appear as if we were half of this world and half of the next.
My family’s inn was called Home of the Lotus and catered to the Headwater Sect pilgrims who came to our mountain outpost to visit the Head Temple. My great-grandfather built the ryokan in the 1800s, and it was packed in among the other village houses standing tight at the edge of the rock face that fell dramatically to the river’s Town Pool below. The main house was connected by a short covered walkway to a series of additional guest rooms and bathhouses added to the family property in the 1920s. Wherever you were in the inn, night and day, you could hear the river praying.
I was the second of four children, born behind Senior Brother Daiki, and ahead of younger brother Yuji, and baby sister Atsuko. The family’s private rooms were in the back of the main house and of modest proportion. We had three small rooms upstairs, in the attic eaves, and two larger rooms on the ground floor separated by sliding fusuma rice-paper panels. Both floors of private rooms were connected by a steep wooden staircase worn smooth by over one hundred years of my family’s passing feet. Our Oda family altar was downstairs, and in time the Toshiba television set was installed upstairs. Behind the fusuma panels were boxes carefully storing our family’s history—Grandfather’s uniform in the Imperial Army, Great-Grandmother’s wedding kimono.
My mother, Okaa-san, was the rock of our mountain existence. When I think of her now, I recall one hard winter night when a blinding snowstorm and howling winds blew furiously across the mountain cliffs. We were warm and safe inside the inn. I was painting at the kotatsu, a table heated from underneath and covered in a futon. The room smelled of ink and wet wool and pickled radishes. My mother was kneeling on the tatami mat across the room as tiny Atsuko suckled inside the loosened folds of her robes. The old-fashioned kerosene heater in the corner burned bright, its yellow heat casting a luminous glow across Mother’s face.
Okaa-san was a devout follower of the Headwater Sect and she had a little transistor radio in the corner softly tuned to Shomyo, sutras set to melodies and sung by Buddhist monks. Her skin was smooth and creamy as rice, and her eyes above her pinkish cheekbones were soft with relief, as if the baby’s suckling and the monks’ incantations were transporting her to some heavenly place far from this difficult world. When I moved my brush across the paper, Mother’s eyelids suddenly fluttered open and she came back to the reality of the inn. She remembered I was there and smiled.
I treasure this memory. And yet I also remember, so clearly, that Okaa-san was profoundly exhausted by the long hours of inn work, the clamoring of her children, and the fragility of her husband. She had a fiery temper and a sharp tongue that on occasion got the better of her, and she obsessively nurtured a long list of prejudices and grievances, most notably a profound contempt for the foreigners we called gaijin. Buried deep in the worldview she passed on to her children—unfathomable, considering the nature of the family business—was a particularly visceral disgust for Americans, those bumbling barbarians who had somehow defeated Japan. She would rail about how they had ruined our beloved ancient culture, about the evils of their modern technology and the way they introduced twentieth-century consumerism. The few Americans who did make it to our mountain inn seemed to only confirm her worst impressions. “They smell bad,” she insisted. “Like horse farts.”
I can still remember the morning she called my name while I was playing in the small garden that was sandwiched between the ryokan and the rocky cliff bank of the Kappa-gawa. I was about nine years old at the time. The golden-ray lilies were in bloom and the Asian rosy finches were fluttering their wings and splashing about the carved birdbath. My mother called again, more urgently, and I put down my stick, dutifully making my way to the fusuma door panel that connected the guest rooms to the main house.
Leaving my sandals at the entrance, I slipped inside and walked the waxed and darkened corridor just as a white-haired couple wearing the house yukata robes emerged from their guest room. It was Mr. and Mrs. Nakamura, pilgrims from Kyoto, who came every year for prayer and ritual cleansing. They recognized me as the son of the innkeepers and greeted me courteously before separating at the end of the hall. Mr. Nakamura went right to the wood-paneled hot baths for men, his wife to the women’s bath quarters to the left.
“Okaa-san. I am here.”
Mother and nakai-san, our cleaning help from the village, were inside a guest room facing the river, rolling up the futon, dusting the tatami, and airing out the room. “Where have you been?” she snapped. “I’m hoarse from calling your name. Go get the Nakamuras’ breakfast tray.”
As I turned to fetch the tray, an American couple—tourists, not pilgrims—came strolling leisurely back from the baths. They laughed loudly as they made their way down the hall. The woman was blond and young and very beautiful, while the man was middle-aged and had hair the color of silver mink. For a moment the couple stood at the entrance of their room, where my mother was still bustling about, and cautiously peered in. “Hey,” the man said in a friendly way, trying to determine if they were permitted to come inside.
We were all staring at his feet.
He wore the bright green toilet slippers.
Inside the house.
Everyone knew you never brought the filthy toilet slippers inside. I will never forget the look on Mother’s face as she hissed in our local dialect, “Big bags of rotten garbage! We should hurl them down the mountainside!”
My parents were typical of the generation born in World War II: always working, always harried, always mono-focused on rebuilding the family fortune. My image of them is with their backs bent in two: father bowing repeatedly to the guests, bent over his workbench as he rewired a floor lamp, bent over the roof as he repaired broken tiles. Mother, in her blue-and-white kitchen smock, a kerchief wrapped around her head, bent as she fed wood into the fire that cooked the bamboo baskets of mochi rice cakes, bent over the garden as she raked the gravel paths. By the time my older brother had reached adolescence he, too, began to assume the family posture, hunched over as he carried heavy luggage back and forth down the ryokan’s corridors.
So perhaps it is no wonder that Okaa-san was angry. Despite all the hard work, my parents never had enough to get ahead, the upkeep of the 150-year-old inn constantly draining them of their funds and life force. But at least I always knew where I stood with Mother, no matter how cross she was. In contrast, my father, Otou-san, was as remote and mysterious as the surrounding mountains—and almost as impossible to read. You never knew what weather was blowing up in those peaks.
I was a very young boy when I first realized my father was different, an understanding that came in a torrid October downpour. Daiki, my older brother, was beside me as we stood silent and shoulder to shoulder in the frame of the kitchen door. Otou-san was in the courtyard, feverishly cutting down the orange persimmons that had been hung to dry from strings tied to the eaves in the back of the inn. Left in the torrential rain, the persimmons would quickly spoil and rot. Turnips were on a slow boil in the kitchen behind us, and the air my brother and I breathed in the door threshold was half from within and half from without, an acrid smell of leaf rot mingling with the vapors of the bitter roots.
The rain fell and fell and fell, hitting the ground in heavy clumps as if a mountain god above had just upended a cistern. Water rushed like a swollen river over the courtyard’s cobblestone, streaming in heavy rivulets down Father’s reddened face as he gathered the persimmons in his arms. The way the rain ran down his face made it look like he was crying. When his arms were full of the orange fruit, he turned to dash back to the kitchen and off-load the persimmons. His soggy slippers snagged the edge of a courtyard stone and he stumbled. Otou-san managed to regain his footing, but the half dozen persimmons flew out of his arms, scattering and rolling through the dirty rain puddles.
Daiki and I watched Father as he stared at the lost fruit. His face went blank, his eyes two flat, black, and vacant discs. It appeared to me that whatever spirit kept him alive had just washed out of him, was in the gutter river and fast disappearing down the drain. For an unnaturally long time he took the rain’s pounding, his head bowed, just staring at the fallen fruit.
When Mother finally came upon us she scolded my father, making such a racket he finally snapped out of his trance and allowed himself to be brought inside to dry off. But before my mother arrived, the three of us stood still for a long time, until I finally felt my older brother, Onii-san, take my hand.
He took my hand. And held it tight.