“Clouds are like cotton candy,” Obasan says. “I could reach up and grab a piece.”At this, she pretends to pluck a cloud out of the wide summer sky and drop it into her mouth.
We’re in the beach chairs in the backyard, afternoon heat washing over us. After a pause, Obasan continues, “My grandfather, he was a fisherman. And he used the clouds to tell what kind of fish he would catch that day.”
I point up at a grey mass that’s about to block the sun and ask, “What does that cloud say?”
Obasan says, “That one’s too big. Too dark. But sometimes, he would look up at a cloud, and it would be a big sardine day…”
The superiority of Japanese convenience stores—conbini—is no longer a secret to the world. Although most residents of Japan consider these corner stores an unremarkable albeit essential element of daily life, the rapid spread of Japanese soft power in the last decade has elevated conbini from a matter of insider knowledge to a must-see attraction featured in travel guides. Prior to Japan’s strict COVID-19 travel restrictions, tourists would flock to Tokyo’s conbini to bask in the novelty of a 7-Eleven that boasts fresh salmon onigiri and matchapurin instead of slurpees and $1 coffee.
Shinjuku Golden Gai came to my attention during the pandemic months in Tokyo. On those quiet stay-at-home evenings, I watched the Japanese TV series “Midnight Diner” on Netflix, and the Diner’s location was set in Golden Gai, a tiny nightlife quarter that was once an illegal prostitution district in Shinjuku, a town in Tokyo, after World War II. Each self-contained half-hour episode of the show revolved around a customer who always ordered the same food at the hole-in-the-wall Diner run by “Master,” a mysterious middle-aged man with a scarred face. The Diner’s regulars, crammed at the U-shaped counter, ranged from corporate employees and detectives to strippers and gangsters. At the end of the day, these customers walked through the alleyways where electric signs of bars and restaurants jutted into the air, opened the Diner’s sliding door and said, “Master, my usual, please.” The show brought these characters a little closer to me through the foods they ordered. Octopus-shaped red weenies, bite-sized fried chicken, ground meat cutlets served with macaroni salad and finely-sliced cabbage—conventional home-style dishes I ate while growing up.
I was settling down for a quiet afternoon at my usual café when the waitress asked me if I’d like to try their new marmalade. “It’s made from special wild oranges from Ehime,ˮ she explained. They were planning on officially introducing it onto the menu next month, but wanted to have some regulars test it out first.
“I’d love to try some,ˮ I said. In a few minutes she brought over a pot with my tea, as well as the plate, loaded with carefully sliced squares of milk bread and two small ceramic tubs, one with a creamy whipped butter, the other holding a delicate orange jam.
I have enclosed this letter in another sent to Mr. Lama Chobuden1 of Darjeeling, India, and expect by now it has been forwarded along from him to Japan. While I am not without my concerns as to whether or not you will indeed receive the letter, if by some chance it were not to make the passage, I am given solace only by the fact that you are not in any particular anticipation of a letter. That being said, if you are to receive this letter, I am certain that you will find yourself taking some amusement in my fate. First, I am living in Tibet. Second, I have become a Chinese person. Third, I share a wife with three other husbands.
Each day during my week in Yokohama I played a game with Yoshida and Tanaka. They were responsible for the cleanliness of rooms on at least the 14th floor of a towering, fan-shaped, waterfront hotel. I was there for a geotechnical engineering conference.
Jennifer Cody Epstein’s The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a sprawling novel, traversing the era of World War II from 1935 to the air-attack of mainland Japan in 1945, with an epilogue set in the early sixties. The time frame of the story is large, as are many of its scenes, such as Tokyo being firebombed or in the cockpit of a B-25 during Doolittle’s raid. This is a generous novel with heart. Epstein uses the simple device of a ring with a green stone to pull together the lives of characters from two sides of the Pacific Ocean, but the ring symbolizes a hope for a broader reconciliation. Though the two main combatants in the war for the Pacific have been allies for many decades, neither the U.S. or Japan have ever fully accounted for the devastation they wrought on each other: the U.S. decisions to firebomb and, ultimately, to drop atomic bombs on the civilian population of Japan and force its capitulation, as well as Japan’s choice to attack Pearl Harbor and commit war crimes in the Philippines and Manchuria.
Jennifer Epstein’s new novel The Gods of Heavenly Punishment (See Review) follows her acclaimed 2008 debut, The Painter From Shanghai. Epstein, a former journalist, is also adjunct professor of writing at Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn. We met when our children were in kindergarten together at PS 29. We began this conversation over borscht and pelmeni in a neighborhood restaurant February 21 and continued via email.
Jennifer Cody Epstein On Asia, WWII, and Her New Novel
Shuji Kawashima stood at the door of his Tokyo flower shop, bowing at a three-quarter angle with sharp, reflexive motions to a female customer who returned the gesture. She backed out into the street, clutching a sheaf of flowers wrapped in heavy cellophane. Kawashima reentered the shop, edged his way past a workbench, and ducked behind an impromptu counter. Peering out from behind a row of tall vases topped with multi-colored roses, he reached for a wine bottle and began pouring drinks.