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2005-03-25 8:01 p.m.

the woman who talks to fish OR the same deep water as you

For all my cynical stoicism, I do seem to have an extraordinarily strong romantic streak.

any kind of love
or at least my kind of love
must be an imaginary love to start with
i guess that can explain
the rain, waiting, walking games
schubert broke my brain to start with

There were several very beautiful (beautiful to me, anyway) women on the tour. One was a Scottish girl who I never actually talked to. Another was a nikkeijin from Hawaii who I did spend some time with, who is very cool, and who lives in Fukuoka Prefecture. We got on well, I think, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we might hang out sometime.

But this entry isn’t about them. It’s about the woman who speaks to fish.

I first saw her on the first day of the tour, Thursday. My first thought was that she looked like an Asian Julia Stiles. As you can imagine, I was captivated from the start.

you are the latest contender
you are the one to remember
you are a villain who sends a
line of dark fantastic passion

We exchanged a few brief words that day, but didn’t really talk.

The next day, Friday, one of the first things we did was take a boat trip down the Hozukawa River. And, as one of the last people to get on the boat, who should sit down next to me but her. I tried to talk to her a bit, but she seemed aloof and uninterested in talking to me.

i wanted to be with you alone
and talk about the weather
but traditions i can trace against the child in your face
don’t escape my attention

When I asked her how she was enjoying the tour, however, she said that so far she hadn’t enjoyed it much because she didn’t speak much English and all the JETs who had come along seemed to prefer speaking full speed English to each other over attempting to communicate with her. That was when I began to suspect that she was not, in fact, as aloof and uninterested as she seemed but was probably… like me. I tend to be quiet and guarded, without smiling too much, especially when people first meet me. Thus people tend to think that I dislike them or am uninterested in them, when usually that is far from the truth. Was she the same way? I decided it was worth investigating further. I told her that I spoke Japanese alright, and if she didn’t mind I’d be happy to spend some time with her and talk to her. If I recall, she shrugged and nodded.

so if you’re lonely
you know i’m here waiting for you
i’m just a cross-hair
i’m just a shot away from you

In the afternoon we wandered around Arashiyama, visiting the Tenryuji and eating udon. That was when the little group we spent most of our time with first coalesced, really. I stayed close to her, but not too close, and not all the time. I talked to her, but I made sure to talk to plenty of other people, as well.

She had majored in art and history (art history?) in college, specializing in Western art. Her favorite was Italian Renaissance. She was born in Fukushima Prefecture and had gone to school in Chiba. She’d been living in Kyoto for about a year but didn’t have a job just then and hadn’t really managed to make any friends there. Her plan was to live in Kyoto for two years, then spend two years in Hiroshima, and then two years in Fukuoka. She had never left Japan and apparently had little interest in doing so, despite her college studies. In her spare time she liked to write letters to friends and read, mostly poetry but sometimes novels, as well. At some point something she said spurred me to ask her if she thought I was strange. She said no, but that there is a perception in Japan that foreigners are very loud, brash, and outspoken, but that I didn’t seem to be like that.

i know that you will surrender
i want this fantastic passion
we will have fantastic passion

We also visited the Ryoanji and Kinkakuji that day, if I recall. That evening we went different ways. I’m not quite sure what she did, but I went with a group of JETs to get falafel and from there we went to the Hana Toro Festival. It was lovely. In particular, Kiyomizudera at night was spectacularly ethereal and atmospheric. Honestly, during that time apart I think I was trying to purge myself of my extraordinary interest in her.

but something in me yearns to win
such a cold and lonesome heroine

The next day, Saturday, we visited the Inari Shrine, which is another spectacular Kyoto temple complex that happens to be very close to where she lives. It mostly consists of various winding mountain paths passing through innumerable saffron torii gates. It’s a magical place.

She was very camera shy, always vehemently insisting that it would be a waste of film to take her picture, but I did manage to get a picture of the two of us together there. She taught me the proper way to pray at a Shinto shrine, which I had observed many times but had never been formally instructed in. She also casually told me her age, which actually came as quite a shock to me. She looked, dressed, and acted much, much younger than she actually was. And she was much, much older than I.

But after thinking about it briefly, I realized it didn’t matter. Grace is grace, charm is charm, and beauty is beauty, no matter how long it’s been around. I only had a few days with her, anyway, so I figured there was no reason not to spend it basking in her glow and enjoying the poignant beauty of that transient bliss.

i know i won’t be leaving here
with you

From there we went to the sake brewery, and then made a visit to a Shingon Buddhist temple. As it turns out, Shingon is her hereditary sect. This temple was devoted to Benten, the goddess of creativity and the arts, as well as the only female member of the Seven Luck Gods. Artists, writers, musicians, and researchers frequently come to the shrine to pray for inspiration. I bought one of their charm amulets, which depicts a cowrie shell as a symbol of feminine virility and supposedly blesses its bearer with inspiration, creativity, and success. (You can see a picture of it here if you scroll down.) Interestingly, the word for cowrie shell in Japanese translates directly as “treasure shell.”

Much of our time together was spent in silence. I wanted to ask more about her life history, about how such a lovely woman came to be her age, unmarried, unemployed, and seemingly drifting, yet still seemingly comfortable enough financially. But I decided not to intrude and instead let her remain mysterious. Every time she saw a dog or a cat, she was right there, silently talking to it. Even if she was in a moving vehicle when she saw it, she would wave to it or just lean over and touch her fingers to the glass. I can’t help but love a woman who loves animals like that.

come out of things unsaid
shoot an apple off my head
a trouble that can't be named
a tiger's waiting to be tamed

On the train to Osaka, another girl on the tour started talking to her and complimenting her on her sense of style, telling her that she seemed much less fake and affected than most Japanese women. She vehemently denied the compliment, insisting it was probably just that most Japanese women, unlike her, are very thin. While it is typical for Japanese people to meet compliments with denials, I found her responses to be a little stronger than the norm. I never really saw much of her body, as it was fairly cold and she just doesn’t dress that way, but I was able to determine that she possesses hips, thighs, and breasts- all things I am very fond of, as well as things that many Japanese women do not possess to any great degree.

We took another boat tour in Osaka, and after checking into the hotel we hit the streets of the Dotonburi area with our little group for the last official night of the tour.

At one point she turned to me and asked, “Can I ask you a strange question?”

I said that she could.

“Do people think you’re hard to approach? That you’re aloof and difficult to know?”

I said that they did.

“People think that about me, too. People like them,” she said, pointing to the other people in our group, walking ahead of us, “are very nice, but you and I are kindred spirits, and so we stick together.”

And that was when I realized that something had changed, and that my fascination with her was, at least in some small degree, reciprocated. Perhaps it was the fact that I obviously didn’t care about her age, or perhaps it was something else, but she seemed to have decided to let me in.

From then on she was much more talkative as we walked through the city streets. It was around then she finally started speaking to me in the informal style, as well. We ate okonomiyaki at Chibo and everyone rode together on the funky ferris wheel in the middle of downtown Osaka. We talked of American movies and television she had enjoyed when she was younger, like Goonies, Full House, and The Wonder Years. We went to karaoke, and while she refused to sing, claiming she was tone deaf, she said she was very taken with my singing, though she admitted that she found my rendition of “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols a little obnoxious.

so i will walk without care
beat my snare
look like a man who means business
flow through the veins of town
always frown
me and my mistress the princess

all for the sake of a foolish love

We headed back to the hotel around one in the morning. There were no official tour activities scheduled for the next day, and we were free to spend it how we wished. We made vague plans to visit the Osaka Aquarium the next day before my boat left that evening, and then we retired. Her room was directly below mine.

The next day we set out after breakfast. Of the people in our little group, only one was free to come along that day, the girl who investigated shibui for me. Somehow I don’t think either of us minded in the least that she came along. I hope she didn’t feel like a third wheel; both of us talked to her at least as much as we talked to each other. She’s a wonderful girl, and in any case it didn’t seem that I and the object of my affection were really meant to be together anyway, so what did it matter?

After a brief visit to the Namba Parks mall, we made our way to the Osaka Aquarium. It was wonderful, but very crowded when we first got there. The people at the information desk said we had come at the busiest time of day and that it was much clearer at five or six in the evening. We spent a few hours there, got our hands stamped, and then went for lunch. We had gyoza. We went back in the evening and it was indeed much clearer. Not long after we went back the second time, the other girl had to leave, most likely to take care of business related to obtaining post-graduate employment. From then on it was just us two in the rapidly emptying dark of the aquarium.

The dim halls, the peacefully swimming fish encircling us, and the knowledge of our imminent separation all contributed to create a very strange atmosphere, putting both of us in a very pensive mood. She looked so sad sometimes, watching the fish swim. She told me she was talking to them, like she had been talking to the dogs and cats we had encountered earlier in the weekend. Sometimes she would look at me, and I felt she was talking to me without words, talking to me like she talked to the fish.

i will try not to breathe
this decision is mine- i have lived a full life
and these are the eyes
that i want you to remember

i will try not to worry you
i have seen things that you will never see
leave it to memory, me
i shudder to breathe

i want you to remember

Occasionally she would come up to me, make a brief statement, and then lapse back into silence. Some things she said:

“Somehow, being here makes me want to cry.”

“Everyone is enthralled by the jellyfish, more so than the ‘normal’ fish, but are the normal fish really any less amazing, just because they are more familiar?”

“In high school I wrote poetry obsessively, but then for some reason I stopped. I haven’t written anything since, but today I feel inspired to write again.”

She gave me her thoughts on big-fish-eat-the-little-ones scenarios and how they play out with schooling fish and in artificial environments such as aquariums, though I must confess I didn’t quite understand the particulars. She also told me that she talks to plants like she talks to fish and animals.

She apologized profusely for these statements, saying that many people get annoyed with her for saying weird things. Thus it seemed that not only was she quiet and aloof like me, but she was quiet and aloof for the same reasons. I told her that I sympathized very much and that she shouldn’t be afraid to say such things to me.

In fact I was intensely grateful for every word that came out of her mouth, and each time she told me her thoughts I felt as if I was receiving a special secret treasure.

Again that day she was insistent that I not take her picture, especially not her by herself. But eventually she relented and allowed me to capture her as she watched the sardines swimming in their endless circles. I took one picture with the flash and one without. I still haven’t finished that particular roll and thus haven’t seen how they came out, but I fear that since that camera doesn’t do so well in low light that they may not come out so well.

It doesn’t matter, though. I will remember that day at the aquarium for the rest of my life, and above all that vision of her, her with that look in her eyes, talking to the fish, is burned permanently into my brain.

blue light falls upon your perfect skin
falls and you draw back again
falls and this is how i fell
and i cannot forget

i cannot forget

She also took a few interesting pictures of me in the dark of the aquarium with her digital camera. At first glance the shots looked almost black, but if you looked closely you could just make out my features, like a dead spirit hovering in the gloom. She didn’t like those pictures, though, and I think she deleted them.

Before long it was time to go, as my ship was leaving. She indicated that she wanted to see me off, but would not accompany me unless I made it undeniably clear that I wanted her to come, as she absolutely did not want to be a bother to me. She is so very much like me.

We talked of keeping in touch, and I told her that I communicate much better and much more completely through writing than through spoken words. She seemed surprised and said she was exactly the same way. I repeated one of my favorite quotes, by Anais Nin: “When I write, I say everything; if I talk, I say nothing.” She enthusiastically agreed. She also seemed vaguely annoyed that I was planning to leave Japan in eighteen months.

Some of the last words she said to me, on the train to the ferry terminal:

“Do all foreigners… Oh, nevermind…”

I told her that if she had a thought she didn’t want to tell me, that was fine, but once she had started to say it she was obligated to finish it.

“Well, it’s just that it might sound racist.”

I told her to go ahead and say it.

“Well, I was going to say… Do all foreigners have eyes as beautiful as yours?”

She accompanied me to the dock, where my grand ship was waiting to take me away. How very cinematic.

Even though I knew she was a person who disliked being touched, seemingly even more than the average Japanese person, I asked her if I could have a hug. She consented, but told me she had never done it before. She was very stiff, and merely reached up a hand to pat one of my arms as I enclosed her, briefly. In fact it was a terrible hug, and I let her know that she would need to practice. Then I left, walking across the dock towards the ship.

I quickly turned back to wave at her. She waved back. I proceeded a bit further on, then stopped and turned again. She was still there, waving. When I reached the stairs up to the ship’s deck, I turned once again. She was gone.

this is the way i wanted it to be with you
this is the way i knew that it would be with you

Since then we’ve been messaging through our cell phones. She told me that she hadn’t enjoyed the first day of the tour at all and was nervous about how the rest of it would go, but that I had changed all that. She told me that after she got home she spent two and a half hours writing out the thoughts she had at the aquarium. She told me that she wrote the poem she had in mind but that she’s too embarrassed to let me read it. She told me that she doesn’t have an email address besides the one on her cell phone, so it seems that we will end up corresponding through handwritten letters sent through the mail.

what a beautiful face
i have found in this place
that is circling all round the sun
what a beautiful dream
that could flash on a screen
in a blink of an eye and be gone from me
soft and sweet
let me hold it close and keep it here with me

what a beautiful face
i have found in this place
that is circling all round the sun
when we meet on a cloud
i’ll be laughing out loud
i’ll be laughing about everyone i can see
i can’t believe
how strange it is to be anything at all

“Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can’t earn, and can’t keep, and often don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy.” –Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

this vision not unlike a shooting star i have embraced,