A trip to Sankeien in Yokohama — a memory

S1001 Boat Pond

Saturday, April 20. 6:30 a.m.: The temperature felt cool as I threw aside the futon cover. I climbed out of bed and opened the curtains. Outside gray skies covered Yokohama. Hardly a promising day for a walk in the city. But I was determined to get outdoors and do something totally at variance to my self-imposed work schedule.

During the week, my mornings after washing the breakfast dishes start off with a review of the InDesign layout I finished the day before. I am working on creating an Apple app of A Christmas Carol — the video production I had labored over for nearly two years editing.  Creating the app was the only alternative opened to me if I hoped to monetize the product. A painstaking job, I assure you. But one that gives me a sense of achievement. With each facet of the InDesign software I master, I feel as if I had reached the summit of Mt. Everest.

I take a two hour lunch break. Then I pack my briefcase with the prison diaries of Terrell Henry Greene. I generally pore through them in the reading room of the Yokohama Archives of History near Osanbashi Pier. The room is quiet and often I have the place to myself.

Terrell spent nearly two years in the Japanese penal system. The crime — overstaying his tourist visa 90 day permission by eight years. His diary entries are filled with self-analysis, description of prison guards and inmates, and stories from his early life as a boy growing up in a Catholic orphanage. I am taking notes which I will have to collate before I undertake the serious task of writing his story.

On Friday I substituted for a teacher at the Asahi Culture Center and taught two of her morning classes. On a note attached to her folder, she wrote: “The students’ ability level is pre-elementary. Some are even false starters.” She neglected to add that the students were in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Contemporaries of mine. I started off the class by introducing myself and then asking them questions about themselves.

“I’m 80 years old and when I woke up this morning I had to cook my own breakfast. Two boiled eggs.” The octogenarian student sat up front to my left in the narrow classroom.

“Why did you have to cook?”

“My wife left early to play golf.” He smiled. The lenses of his glasses magnified his mischievous brown eyes.

I turned to the woman sitting opposite him to my right. She was also in her 80s and a little deaf. Her friend, a younger woman in her early 70s repeated my questions in an amplified voice.

“My husband died two months ago,” she said, her eyes moistening. “I live with my daughter and her family. She cooks the meals.”

As she spoke, a memory flashed through my mind. Years ago I was sitting with friends in a restaurant when I heard a woman’s voice call out. “Borromeo-sensei!” I turned and saw a former university student of mine making her way to my table. “Aiko-san!”

A young man dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie followed her.

In a breezy style, Aiko introduced the young man. “This is Takeshi. We’re getting married next month. He works for a bank and we’ll be posted in Hong Kong. Isn’t that exciting?”

I had to smile. Already she was using the pronoun ‘we’ to describe their lives as a married couple. She had a future to look forward to. The 80 year old widow sitting in the classroom at the culture center had only memories to look back on.

I realized my function in the class was to provide a diversion in the lives of the students. They came to enjoy the companionship of classmates and to have something to talk about with family members and friends. None of them, I’m sure, came to improve their English to the extent of conversing fluently with native English speakers. For those two 90-minute sessions, I gave them simple English conversational exercises that allowed them to respond with confidence.

10:31 a.m.: At Yokohama Station, I boarded the express bus bound for Sankeien Garden. In all the years of living in Yokohama, I had never visited this famous landmark. http://www.sankeien.or.jp/history/. A quick look at the guide pages on the Internet gave me a token understanding of the garden’s history. Designed and built by a successful silk merchant who went by the name of Sankei Hara, the garden was opened to the public in 1906. It became a popular gathering place for both the elite and the common citizen to meet for conversations over cups of tea, or for walks along the garden paths.

Though interesting, the garden’s history was not what motivated me to visit there. Rather I wanted to go somewhere to clear away the debris left over in my mind after five days devoted to job-related tasks. Already on the thirty minute bus ride to the garden I began feeling relaxed.

11:15: Walking through the entrance of the garden was like stepping through a thin membrane separating the present from the past. The scene of the boat in the main pond in the outer garden reminded me of the picture postcards from the Meiji Period in the Yokohama Archives of History. I blinked in disbelief. Even the people in the park seemed to have stepped out of the pages of history.

The image shattered when I heard the sound of someone kicking a soccer ball. The ball flew in front of me and rolled along the road between the main pond and the lotus pond. Two young French boys, ages I guessed to be 9 and 7, ran after the ball. Their mother cried out admonishments in the French language. Not knowing French I surmised she was telling the boys to watch out where they kicked the soccer ball. The two brothers smiled sheepishly at me. Then within an instant they darted to the main pond where they knelt for a closer examination of the carp.

The fish surfaced perhaps in the expectation of receiving a serving of bread crumbs. The boys obviously had other intentions. The older brother leaned over as if to grasp one of the larger carp. This time older sister, seeing what he was up to,  delivered the admonishments. The boys paid marginal attention to older sister. Instead, they scampered off along the same path Rabindranath Tagore must have walked during his two month stay in Japan in 1916. The recipient of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature had been the guest of Sankei Hara.

I followed the path past the water lily pond and entered the Sankei Memorial. The displays and photos reflected an earlier, less manic lifestyle. People took time to enjoy the tea ceremony in the garden’s calming atmosphere. One photo from the Shofukaku Observatory showed the scenic unobstructed view of Tokyo Bay.  A contrast to what I actually viewed nearly a century later from the same observatory.

S1010 House Between11:45 a.m.: I climbed up the walking trail to the Kinmokutsu Tea House in the inner garden. On the way up, I encountered the French family again. The father was explaining to his wife the architectural design of the tea house. I deduced this explanation by observing his gesturing over the lines of the roof and his constant referral to the open guidebook in his hand.

As I headed back down the trail, I saw the older son. He had climbed over the fence and started scaling the rocks leading up to where his father was giving his tour guide lecture. He was straddled almost at a 90 degree angle between a rock and a bamboo tree trunk.

“Oh, Lord!” I thought. “The kid is defying gravity.”

I sighed with relief when he returned to a perpendicular state on top of the rock. My nerves wouldn’t allow me to observe his progress upward. I hastened down the trail.

12:05 p.m.: I walked in the direction of the Three Story Pagoda of Old Tomyoji and approached one of the tea serving stations. Here in the old days visitors sat and enjoyed tea under the canopy.  A photograph inside the canopy showed Sankei Hara surrounded by the literati of the Taisho Period among whom was Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 1927).  Akutagawa, impressed by the garden’s natural beauty, composed a haiku in which he focused attention on the garden’s tranquility.

Suddenly, my attention was distracted by the sounds of scuffling. A short distance from the tea station, I saw the two brothers fighting for control of a cloth sack. Inside was the soccer ball. The older brother was getting the best of his younger, shorter sibling. The mother came running down the path shouting out warnings. Older sister pulled the fighting brothers apart.

As the youngest of three brothers, I could imagine what the mother was saying in French. “Stop picking on your little brother! Let him hold the sack.”

The moment the older brother let go of the sack, his little brother, snug in the protective arms of his sister, flashed a smile of victory.

“Wait till I get you alone,” the older brother no doubt threatened.  Or was I putting the words of my older brothers into his mouth?

I continued on my way, leaving the stormy scene behind me.

12:36 p.m.: I reached the Three Story Pagoda of Old Tomyoji. I am amazed whenever I see old structures build centuries ago. How they can survive the heat of the sun, the dampness after a downpour, or the gnawing of termites still puzzles me. Of course, as a cultural monument, the pagoda undergoes periodic repair. I made a note to buy a guidebook before my next visit to the garden.S1015 Three Story Pagoda

1:05 p.m.: At the former Yanoharake House, I took several shots of the firewood outside. The firewood brought back memories of me as a six-year old boy. My parents owned and managed the Trimmer Hill Boarding House in Pacific Grove http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM7HEP_Trimmer_Hill_Pacific_Grove_CA. In the living room, there was a large fireplace. One day while my family and the boarders were in the dining room, I  was fascinated by the flames from the burning log. The rich red colors of the flames under the log looked good enough to eat. Curious, I wondered what fire felt like. I decided to experiment and stuck a dinner napkin into the flames. The flames shot up the napkin and enveloped my hand. I let go of the napkin and screamed.

S1022 Wood StackWhy the firewood piled in neat stacks outside the Yanoharake House should cause me to recall that particular memory is a mystery. One thing for certain, I never again held a napkin over burning logs.

1:44 p.m.: I headed back toward the main entrance. Rain started falling as I walked over the Yatsuhashi Bridge. I sought shelter under the roof of a wisteria trellis near the main pond. The sound of rain drops splashing against the pond produced a soothing effect inside me. Reluctantly, I walked to the main entrance. Before I stepped through the gate, I turned for one last look at the boat in the pond.

In a soft voice, I said, “I’ll be back.”

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