Japan: Prose of Departure

for Donald Richie


Paul phones to say goodbye. He’s back in New York two days early, but we are tied to our trip—departure this evening—and he, for his part, doesn’t ask us over. (Can a single week have changed him? Surely not.) Our dear one sounded strong, unconcerned, above all glad to have left the Clinic. Famous and vast and complex as an ocean liner, it catered chiefly to elderly couples from the Plains. Whether both were ill, or just the husband or the wife, they’d chosen not to be separated. They slept (as did Paul) at the nearby hotel, then spent their waking hours together in lounges, the magazine unread, or strolling hand in hand the gleaming, scentless corridors from one test to the next. Paul, though, was by himself, was perhaps not even “sailing.” Waiting to hear over his own system the stern voice calling Visitors ashore! he would have begun to feel that—aside from the far too young and noncomittal crew—bona fide passengers only were expected to circulate there, all in the same boat, their common dread kept under wraps, yet each of them visibly

at Sea. Yes, yes, these
old folks grown unpresuming,
almost Japanese,

had embarked too soon
—Bon voyage! Write!—upon their
final honeymoon.


Our section of town is Roppongi, where thirty years ago I dined in W’s gloomy wooden farmhouse. The lanes and gardens of his neighborhood have given way to glitzy skyscrapers like this hotel—all crystal and brass, a piano and life-size ceramic Saint Bernard in the carpeted lobby. It is late when the revolving door whisks us forth, later yet when our two lengthening shadows leave the noodle shop to wander before bed through the Aoyama cemetery. Mishima is buried down one of its paths bordered by cherry trees in full, amazing bloom. Underneath, sitting on the ground—no, on outspread plastic or paper, shoes left in pairs alongside these instant “rooms”—a few ghostly parties are still eating and drinking, lit by small flames. One group has a transistor, another makes its own music, clapping hands and singing. Their lantern faces glow in the half-dark’s black-beamed, blossom-tented

dusk within the night.
The high street lamp through snowy
branches burns moon-bright.


Narrow streets, lined with pots: wistaria, clematis, bamboo. (Can that be syringa—with red blossoms?) Shrines begin. A shopkeeper says good day. Three flights up in the one ugly building for blocks around, Donald welcomes us to his bit of our planet. Two midget rooms, utilitarian alcoves, no trace of clutter. What he has is what you see, and it includes the resolve to get rid of things already absorbed. Books, records. His lovers he keeps, but as friends—friends take up no space. He now paints at night. Some canvases big as get-well cards occupy a wall. Before we leave he will give the nicest of these to Peter.

What are we seeing? Homages to…

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