By CLEO QIAN
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’d pulled a sheaf of papers and a notebook from my bag and spread them out on the table. The waitress politely asked if I was very busy today. Though I was a regular here and had talked with her briefly a few times, I had never gotten her name. She must have been in her early twenties, though with the girlish fashion trends nowadays it was hard to tell; with the puffed sleeves and frilled apron of her uniform, and the bright pink blush applied liberally to the tops of her cheeks, she could easily have passed for younger.
I explained I was doing a literature review for a new journal on some contemporary female poetry. “To be honest,” I said, “it’s not something I know much about.”
“Can I ask whose poetry you’re writing about?”
“There’s apparently a popular book out now by Madoka Oyama.ˮ
“Oyama-san’s book! Yes, I’ve read it.ˮ
“Oh, really?ˮ Surprised, I looked at her more closely. “Do you read a lot of poetry?ˮ
“No, not usually. But her poetry is really easy to read, isn’t it? I saw the book on display at Tsutaya, so I just flipped through it one day, and I was surprised.ˮ
Suddenly she seemed to recall that her manager was probably waiting to admonish her, though the café was otherwise empty. She stopped talking and resumed her polite distance. “I hope that your work goes well. Please enjoy the food.ˮ
I hadn’t heard Madoka Oyama was so popular that she would be an easy reference for today’s youth. Opening my file folder with more interest, I took out the first printout. One critic placed Oyama in a context of female poetry dating back to the Nihongi, the Heian period, and the end of Edo. Scanning the article, I buttered a piece of bread and added a thin layer of jam.
Oyama’s image of the mirror in “Brushing My Hair While Waiting for a Messageˮ explicitly recalls a poem from the Edo-period collection Tachibana no Ha, the critic expounded. Tachibana no Ha! The name sounded familiar. I drummed my memory but couldn’t think where I had heard it before. Absentmindedly, I bit again into the slice of toast in my hand. Tachibana no Ha… the name evoked something much sharper than a passing mention.
But this flavor! The milk bread was soft and wonderfully thick. Paired with the creamy, barely sweet butter, the slight tartness of the marmalade was unexpected, bursting into my mouth with unconstrained freshness and open air.
When I was younger—in fact, probably around the same age as the café waitress—I went to a woodblock print exhibit at a gallery in Roppongi, sponsored by the now-defunct Ukiyo-e Society of Japan.
In those days, I had been restless and ambitious and full of energy. I still retain those qualities now, over fifteen years later, in a lesser quantity, but a more focused direction. Back then, however, I used all my energy up, and then some, bouncing around from interest to interest, determined or delusional that I could do it all. I had few friends; I’d moved to the city after graduating from college, and lived alone in a tiny studio apartment in a backstreet of Takadanobaba. I took free English classes and dabbled in photography and criticism, scrounging together enough freelance gigs to barely get by. I supplemented this unstable lifestyle with a part-time gig at a bakery, working the cash register. It was half a decade after the bubble economy burst, and many people were in the same boat.
I went to the exhibit to write a review for a cheap city paper. They paid me 2,500 yen and promised it would bring exposure. At least the ticket was free for me, as a member of the press.
The gallery was a small space, just two long rooms with the prints hung all around on the walls and mounted on various cases in the middle of the floor. There was a dark, curtained hallway between the two rooms, where a short documentary with interviews of historians and archivists from the Ukiyo-e Society was playing.
I had intended to just zip around the gallery and make a few meaningful notes on a small but varied selection of salient items, to make the critique seem broader and deeper. The print that caught my eye was not even one of the main attractions highlighted in the gallery’s pamphlet.
It was hung on the wall near the curtained hallway. It measured about three hands tall. The image was of an elegant woman holding a fan demurely up to her face. Her expression, as she looked at something unseen to the side of the viewer, was mischievous, excited. She had thin fingers screwed over the edge of the fan right near her mouth, which, almost completely covered by the fan, looked as though it was about to whisper a secret. Her abundant mass of black hair was arranged in a bun on the top of her head.
I was not trained in art theory, or really an art critic at all, and I did not have the vocabulary to say why the print was good, or arresting. In all honesty I probably can’t even say I immediately thought the picture was good. In my meaningless meander around the gallery, I happened to stop at the print on my way to see the documentary, that’s all. And as I continued to loiter there, a little unwilling to part the curtain and enter the screening room, more and more details of the image revealed themselves to me.
The wayward nature of her bun, for instance: it was precarious, tilted, with an attitude of wildness barely cultivated, matched by the floral pattern bordering the picture. I couldn’t tell at first what the tangled black silhouettes of leaves and branches were. Then I saw the distinct shape of an orange outlined in the nest of leaves, and there, on the left, another orange. The fan, the woman’s kimono lining, her hairpiece, all matched in their vibrant reddish-orange hue.
The print’s name was Fuda of Gion. The plaque said that it dated to sometime in the 1850s. The print was part of a series entitled Mirror of Women of Learning and Gentility, which had a number of notable collaborators, said the plaque; however, the artist for this picture was unknown. And when I examined the image, there was no signature.
Yet who was the subject, the woman? As I stood there puzzling over the image, a voice next to me suddenly broke in.
“Fuda of Gion,” it was saying in a lecturing tone, “owned a popular teahouse near Gion Shrine during the Edo period. She was known as a patroness of culture and often hosted poets and artists.”
A blond man was speaking to a slighter, black-haired man next to him. The blond man was tall and slender, wearing a linen button-down shirt. The sleeves were rolled up just past his elbows, the skin of his arms tanned. His hair was the color of the lightest burn on white toast. His Japanese was impeccable, with the barest trace of an accent I couldn’t place.
“So now she is included as one of these ladies of ‘learning and gentility,’” the Japanese man said.
“This picture matches with the others in date and style and subject,” the blond man said. “Fuda of Gion was mentioned in several tanka from the time. Her teahouse was a destination for scholars and poets and priests. She also wrote poetry herself. She published a volume called Tachibana no Ha. You see that floral pattern in the background? In English, they translated it to Wild Orange Leaves, though the tachibana is actually native to Japan; it’s not quite the same as oranges abroad.”
“Of course, of course,” the Japanese man nodded vigorously. “You’re quite the expert, Koningu-san. But you said no one has any guesses as to who painted it?”
So that was his name. It was probably German, or Dutch.
“No.” The suggestion of a smile was in the blond man’s voice. “So that’s the mystery. Of course, the tiny academic world that this painting is involved in is rife with speculations and intrigue.”
“Very romantic,” his Japanese companion laughed.
I’d listened to the conversation with interest, and only when the two men began to walk away did I notice the blond man look back at me and wink. I realized I’d been nearly staring at them, my head turned in their direction the entire time.
Who was that foreigner? After leaving the screening room, I looked around the gallery hoping to see him again, but there was no trace of him.
He had sounded like a professor or someone associated with the museum. On the subway home, I opened the pamphlet from the museum and read the list of names on the final page. And there it was, on the last page of the pamphlet: Nicolaas Koning. He was one of the members of the Ukiyo-e Society of Japan, which had its own compact little row of names at the bottom of the page. But there was not much more information than that—just a website address.
When I got home, I first checked my mail and found an electric bill. It was winter, and I had been running an old heater from the recycle shop, which apparently used far more energy than its tiny circle of warmth would seem to warrant. The bill was twice as high as usual.
Tossing the bill aside, I dialed up my Internet connection and looked up the Ukiyo-e Society. There was a page introducing the foundation’s staff, neatly and alphabetically listed with a tiny headshot next to each name. It was a diverse set of Japanese and foreign faces, and many looked to be rich expats of the type that hung around the Tokyo American Club. Nicolaas Koning’s picture showed him dressed in a navy blue shirt. He had a narrow face, unlined but mature. He looked directly at the camera and had eyes like blue garnets. I thought of his rolled-up shirtsleeves and sandy gold forearms. He made me think of red steppes and deserts, of hot, dry air and cities I’d never seen. He was a collections specialist.
I wrote my article quickly, finishing half before my bakery shift. It was not a brilliant article—more of a summary than anything—but I did include this tidbit:
Though not a headline piece, one of the most interesting contributions of the Ukiyo-e Society of Japan to the exhibition is the Fuda of Gion print. Part of a series titled Mirror of Women of Learning and Gentility, the secretive figure in the illustration is no less mysterious than its origin story, for this is the only image in the gallery whose artist is anonymous. A source at the museum stated there is much speculation as to the nature of the relationship between the painter and the subject.
It was hardly quality journalism. There was no way for me to verify that what Koning said was true, but it helped fill up my word count.
My boyfriend was the one who had shown me Saki’s bakery. Taku was an alumnus of my university, six years older than me, and he had a steady job as a newspaper photographer. He was the second boyfriend I had ever had. The first one, in high school, I’d dated for two weeks.
He’d found Saki’s bakery when out on assignment. It was a big, whitewashed building a seven-minute walk from Yoyogi Station. It had no seats, but shelves and shelves of bread trays. Six days a week, Saki and her husband woke up at 5:00 a.m. to bake the croissants, puff almond pastries dusted with confectioner’s sugar, beignets, hot dog buns, spinach-and-cheese buns, sweet and sticky walnut and pecan rolls, sliced loaves of French bread and fluffy Hokkaido milk bread, and more. There were small boxes of shortbread, flavored with chocolate or black tea or cinnamon, and dense little cakes filled with jam, two of which fit into your palm; there was a display case with strawberry shortcake and chocolate mousse cake and green tea chiffon cake. It was the sort of bakery whose rich and yeasty scent floated out over the streets for a square block around, and had been loved and guarded by the locals for seven years.
Taku took me here on our third date, and because I didn’t live so far away, I began coming often in the mornings, leaving my tiny and unwelcoming apartment to get a bun and coffee and sit at a bench outside, people-watching, or to stock up on a week’s worth of bread. It was best to arrive at nine in the morning, after the commuters were mostly gone but when trays of fresh-baked pastries were still being brought out, and I could get one freshly wrapped and warm from the oven. When one of Saki’s part-timers quit, she offered me the job.
On that day, I was late heading out to the bakery. In my hurry I dropped my mug of tea, which shattered on the floor. I had to sweep it up and dispose of the shards before heading out of the apartment. I left the apartment feeling rushed and frazzled, got on the train and got off at Yoyogi, and hustled down the shopping arcade in a bad mood. It was almost 4:00 p.m.
Then I saw Taku waiting at the door to the bakery and stopped short. Like the other salarymen one saw on the train every day, he was dressed in a shabby, poorly fitting suit. He was clenching a white bakery bag, his worn satchel with his camera equipment inside slung over his shoulder.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
“I come to this bakery sometimes. I was the one who showed it to you. Can’t I come to the bakery?”
“You can do what you want, I guess.”
“Why haven’t you been answering my calls?” he said unhappily. “It’s been five days.”
“Did you come here to ask that? How did you get off work so early?”
“I was worried—I thought—I don’t know,” he broke off.
“I have to go in now. Saki-san is expecting me. I’m almost late.”
“Wait. I don’t understand why you’re angry. We were out shopping, and then—”
“Taku, I don’t want to talk about this now! I have to go.”
“What about after the bakery closes? Will you meet me then? Let’s go to dinner. Where do you want to go?”
“I’m busy. I have an article to write,” I snapped. He pursed his mouth and looked anxious and put-upon.
Then I felt bad. “Alright, look: I can’t come today, but tomorrow I’ll meet you at that ramen place by your office for dinner. Okay?”
His face instantly lifted. “Nozomi—ˮ
“I’m going in now.” I pushed past him and opened the door into the bakery. I was five minutes late. In the back room I put down my things, tied my hair up, tied on my apron, and washed my hands. Saki was waiting expectantly behind the counter when I got to the till.
“I’m sorry—” I began.
“So, Nozomi-chan, what was that?” she asked archly. “Trouble in paradise? You’re fighting with your boyfriend?”
“Did he come in here and ask you about me?”
“I’m not close with Takumi-san,” my boss said. “He did come and ask when you were coming in, though. He’s been waiting outside for half an hour.”
A few days ago, I had gotten angry at Taku when he’d made an offhand comment about the clothes I wore. We’d walked past a store with A-line dresses in the window, printed with patterns of birds or fruit or flowers. “Those are pretty,” he’d said. “You almost dress like a boy.” He was referring to the loose T-shirts I wore over turtlenecks, the flannels, the straight-fit jeans, my grey sneakers. “Why don’t you like wearing things a girl should wear?” I’d blown up at him and stalked off.
I told this to Saki, who shook her head and clucked.
“I don’t agree with Takumi-san, necessarily,” she said. “You should do what you want. But I wonder where, Nozomi-chan, you get that independent streak from?”
“You’re one to talk,” I reminded her. She’d started the bakery all by herself.
“Even I got married in the end,” Saki said seriously. Her mouth was twisted in genuine concern as she looked at me. But I refused to talk about it any further.
On the way home, a display in a small store window caught my eye. It was a beautiful set of sake cups, dark brown with a slight edge of gold around the rim. I tried the door, but the store was already closed. I dropped my eyes down and saw a large, royal blue cup on the lower shelf.
Thinking of my broken mug at home, I kneeled to look at the cup in more detail. It was simple, sturdy, rough, and elegant, perfect for hot tea and coffee. I imagined the life I could live with this kind of mug, how it would beautify the cheap, factory-made desk I used to eat and work at, how much I would enjoy pouring a hot drink into it in the mornings and sipping from it as I read, turning the pages of my English textbook.
The price tag next to it, I saw, read 3,500 yen. 3,500 yen for a mug! And what good would it be, I thought bitterly, to have one beautiful thing when everything else I owned was secondhand or broken-down?
I felt bad for my earlier, contemptuous thoughts of Taku. He was at least working hard and had a stable life. I, too, was working hard, but I was living day to day, unsure of what the next day would bring, and for what? What was there to look forward to? What did I want?
That night I had a dream.
I was kneeling on a purple cushion on a soft tatami floor. The sleeve of my kimono was dark blue, with an angular white pattern. Behind me I could feel a warm, gentle light.
I raised my head. The room around me was clean and polished, paneled with oak and scattered with low wooden tables. Beautifully decorated cushions were placed neatly along each table. Ambient oil lamps placed in discreet alcoves gave the room a soft, nearly unearthly sense of calm. I noticed that I, too, felt a great sense of serenity as I sat there, my breathing easy, my heart uncoiled—when had I last felt so at ease?
The room was filled with a gentle and low hum of conversation. There was a teacup in front of me, and a plate with a small assortment of powdered sweets, almost all gone.
“Fuda-san, the new Ichiyusai prints are magnificent,” a polite voice across from me said. “Have you seen the latest?”
I brushed my sleeve across my face to bring myself to my senses. “Show me.” My voice was slightly deep, smooth.
The man across the table showed me a print. The picture was of an elegant young woman in a white and orange robe, caressing a cat. Her figure was long and elegant. The lines were sharp and dark, the colors vivid and youthful.
I recognized the girl. “Well,” I murmured, “her family must have paid a fortune for this.”
“They’re looking for a husband for her,” the polite man murmured. “There could be no finer advertisement than an Ichiyusai portrait.”
“There is also more than one fine artist in Kyoto.” Behind me I heard a stirring, and turned to see a young man in an unkempt robe with a scrap of paper on his knee. How had he gotten in? Had he always been here? Still, I spoke to him respectfully, and as I spoke it seemed to be the most natural thing in the world for him to be there. “Honored sir, allow me to introduce this artist,” I gestured toward the robed man. “He’s asked to do some sketches of the girls working here.”
A girl knelt next to me then and whispered, “The marmalade has just arrived.”
“Marmalade?” I asked.
“The orange marmalade. Do you want to serve it with the tea?”
“Yes, that would be perfect,” I found myself saying. “Tell the kitchen to serve it with the wafer cakes this evening.”
The girl rose. “I’ll bring more pastries out for you and your guest.”
“Thank you, Akiko-chan,” I said warmly.
“She’s a lovely girl,” the man sitting across from me said.
“You are too kind.” I turned back to him and lifted the small kettle from its resting place in an iron cradle over a small candle. While I refilled his teacup I asked, “So, you are going up to Edo?”
“We are going to speak to the shogunate,” the man murmured. “They cannot deny the foreigners are playing us for fools. The whole country is in disarray after Perry’s black ships.”
“You are reckless.” I raised my own teacup to my lips. “And I’ll see you no more, I suppose.”
“You know what it will mean when I go to Edo. But no man can know his future.
“I should be asking this man to draw your picture, Fuda,” he murmured, indicating the artist still sitting quietly behind me. “So I can remember you by it.”
I raised my hand to touch the hair piled luxuriantly above my head. “And are you saying I am so easily forgotten?” I asked archly, even though my throat was tight. I loved this man, of course. And he was going to fight the shogunate; no doubt the country would soon break into war. The peace of the room was tightening into a noose.
But I kept my voice light. “You should be asking yourself if I will remember you.”
The man began to laugh. He leaned across the table to touch his fingers to my sleeve, but before he quite reached, just as I looked into his eyes, suddenly frank and garnet blue, I woke up.
“Saki-san,” I said at the bakery the next morning, “have you ever dated a foreigner before?”
It was half an hour before the store was to open. I had kept my heater off all night and had woken up stiff and cold and unwilling to get out of my fetal position in bed, and, more to the point, unwilling to leave the dream: the soft light, the oil in the lamps, the vivid colors, the painting, the tragic love…. It was one of the great narrative inventions of my life, an epic historical romance I would never have expected from myself. Now I was sipping hot coffee in the warm, yeasty kitchen, waiting for Saki to pull out a sheet of fresh pastries so I could wrap them up and line them up on a display tray.
“Mmm….” Saki slid a sheet from the oven and placed it on a cooling rack, then stripped off her flour-dusted plastic gloves. She thought back. “I don’t think so.”
“You’ve dated so many men it takes you that long to think of that answer?”
“What are you saying, kid?” she said drily. “I’m married, aren’t I?”
“Hayashi-san better watch out,” I teased. Saki rolled her eyes and took a pair of tongs and a tray from behind the register. She started placing the pastries she’d just baked in careful rows on the tray.
“Why do you ask? There’s someone you got your eye on?”
“Oh—no, I was just wondering.” Embarrassed, I quickly finished my task and took the tray out to put on display. Not to be fooled, she called after me, “Look at you, all embarrassed! Who is he?”
“It’s just a man I saw at the art gallery,” I said. “I don’t even know who he is!” Which was true. I knew nothing about the blond man except that he was a handsome and intelligent foreigner; I knew I would probably never see him again. Besides, he would never be interested in me. In comparison to him, I was unworldly, just another young Japanese girl, in appearance and intelligence likely no different from any girl on the subway. I was certainly no Fuda of Gion.
“Art gallery?” Saki clasped a melodramatic hand to her breast. “So romantic, Nozomi-chan…”
“You can shut up now,” I said.
Ignoring me, she mused, “He must have had one of those high noses. I wonder what it’s like to kiss someone with that kind of nose.”
“It’s probably like kissing anyone else.”
“Don’t you think it’d get in the way?” Saki giggled. A beat while that sunk in. Then I let out a hopeless snort.
The previous day’s topic wasn’t forgotten, however. After the morning rush, while there were no customers in the shop, Saki asked me, “Are you seeing Takumi-san tonight?”
I untied, and retied, my apron. “We’re meeting after he finishes work.”
She tilted her head, looking at me with her comfortable, practical face. “I know you’re mad at him,” she said, “but maybe you should give him a break. He’s mature; he has a stable job. He’s good to you. It’s hard to find men like that.”
“Maybe it doesn’t seem that way now,” she said energetically, “but trust me; when you get older, you’ll see his value!”
She’d pulled the youth card. I set my mouth. Carrying on, she said, “Besides, he has such an interesting job, doesn’t he? He’s a photographer. He’s artistic.”
“That’s true, but…” I searched for the word I wanted. “He’s so—he’s so—passive!”
“What’s the problem, Nozomi-chan?” Saki asked. “Takumi-san is a nice man, isn’t he?”
“Is that all that matters?”
“What else would matter?”
I sighed and tried to rein my temper in. I didn’t want to argue with Saki, who had been so good to me while I was alone in Tokyo. She wasn’t the one I really had an issue with.
“I just feel like,” I began, “things should be different. Japan should be different. There are so many men like Taku out there. They don’t have a vision for the future. At least, what they want, it’s just another future that’s a repeat of the past.”
I didn’t realize I had this store of words in me. But as soon as I finished speaking, I knew what was bothering me. Over a hundred years ago, the revolutionaries of the Meiji Restoration had passionately envisioned building a stronger nation. Now people like Taku only trudged diligently to their jobs every day, wanting nothing besides what their parents had had—the corporate paycheck, the steady family. Really the fight we had had was because he’d been hinting he wanted to get married soon.
I sensed I had lost Saki. She looked at me, a little bemused. I dreaded hearing her say again, “Nozomi-chan, you’re so young.”
She didn’t say that. Instead she said, “But then who do you think sees something else?”
All of a sudden, I deflated. I rubbed my eyes. Saki put her gloves back on.
“Well,” she said a while later, handing me another hot coffee, “you can’t help but want what you want, too.” She smiled. “Maybe you’ll marry someone not Japanese.”
When I entered the ramen shop, Taku was already waiting for me. I couldn’t help but mentally criticize his boring, round, wire glasses, his generic dark hair, his thin and weak-willed face.
When we had first started dating, I had been so excited. His thin face seemed, to me, insightful and intelligent; I was magnetized by the thought of what he must see, with his photographer’s eyes, through those same glasses he wore now. I thought we would have such a thrilling relationship, that he would show me so much. We had been dating for nine months, so why had I never felt like I had truly fallen in love?
I sat down, and Taku smiled nervously. Suddenly I felt a wave of sympathy, even motherliness, toward him. I reached out and put my hand on his.
“Are you less angry now, Nozomi-chan?” he asked timidly, and my sympathy vanished and I tiredly thought it’d be less trouble to jump in front of a train. I didn’t know where the violence of that thought had come from. I brought my hand away.
“Do you want to order beer?” I asked, opening the menu.
We were pretty quiet through the meal, and I could sense Taku’s anxiety. Still, I didn’t break up with him then. Remembering what Saki said, I convinced myself I would give it another try, enumerating to myself his many good qualities. After all, he was kind and he was smart. Unlike some of the boyfriends acquaintances of mine had, Taku was responsible. He kept a clean apartment. He cooked well. When I had stomachaches, he made me hot tea and rubbed my feet.
There was a part of me that was tired of my restlessness, of seeking and wanting and looking. And there was another part of me that watched my tired self in a challenging way, like looking at a reflection in a mirror, to see how much more I would take and whether there would be a point when I would give in to mundanity, succumb to the things that Taku wanted. But the watching part of me would also be bored soon, looking beyond my narrow-framed days, envisioning a time in the future when I would look back and think these days were faded and a little wistful.
The article I wrote came out the following week. In a decision I’d been making without overtly thinking about it—because I was still childish, and full of fantasy, and probably lonelier than I’d admit to myself—I took the city paper and decided to go back to the exhibit. I forgot I had to pay for a ticket this second time around. I craned my neck around the lobby, trying to see if there was any trace of toast-colored hair.
I couldn’t see anyone in the gallery, but I paid the thousand yen anyway and went in. This time I took my time, carefully studying each of the prints hung around the wall, noting their colors, the way the artists’ signatures differed, reading the little plaques. Fuda of Gion smiled secretively from behind her fan from her place on the wall.
At the gift shop, which I’d skipped on my previous visit, I flicked through a book about the end of the Edo period and the Meiji Restoration. Next to it was a larger, more colorful volume with more ukiyo-e, with far more pictures than were shown in the gallery. Scanning through the pages for the print of Fuda of Gion, I was embarrassed to see a few pages dedicated to the erotic shunga prints. Decadence precedes the decline of empire. But artistically, I couldn’t say that they were any lesser in quality than the delicate pictures on the other pages.
Then a soft, familiar voice from my side said, “Excuse me.”
My heart jumped into my mouth. I slammed the book shut. So there was such a thing as love, as romantic fate…. I spun around.
The voice belonged to the Japanese man who had been with Koning.
He must have mistaken the disappointment on my face for annoyance, for the man bowed slightly and said, “I’m very sorry—I didn’t mean to disturb you. But, Miss, you came here a few days ago, didn’t you?”
“Yes—yes, I did,” I said, recovering myself. Hastily I took a business card, which I’d cheaply made up and printed myself, from my purse. “Nozomi Yosano. It’s nice to meet you.”
He bowed and presented me with a business card of his own. It was of much finer quality, with a graceful design, the text on it as sharp as though razor-cut. The name on it was YUKI MACHIDA.
“I’m one of the sponsors of this gallery,” he said gently. “Were you so interested in this exhibit that you came twice?”
“I’m a writer,” I garbled. “Actually, I was writing—I wrote—an article about this exhibit.” I brandished, a little ridiculously, the magazine I had clenched in my hand, then flushed and hid it behind my back.
“Well, then,” Machida smiled, “we are in your debt.”
We talked a little longer, and then, not because he was particularly impressed or trying to curry favor with me, I think, for he had never heard of the tiny city paper I was writing for, Machida gave me the book of ukiyo-e prints as a gift. I tried to protest, but he overrode me. For a few weeks afterward, I would flip through the ukiyo-e book, in which, actually, Fuda of Gion never appeared. I imagined calling up Machida-san at the number on his business card and asking him if he could put me in touch with Koning. Like I said, I was far more childish then than I’d admit to myself, or let anyone see.
Burnt out on my wayward and patched-together life, I eventually went back to school, this time to study history in the graduate program at Sophia University. I challenged myself by taking the classes in English. I didn’t stay in Japan. In time I would move to America—to New Mexico, Chicago, and finally New York, where two years stretched into four, then six.
Once my twenties were behind me, I found my way into a different sort of life than what Taku, my parents, or Saki had—one that was family-less and peripatetic, in which some of my best connections happened over poetry and marmalade. I traveled; I made documentaries; I dated foreign men. I felt, on occasion, still lonely. But there was one thing I never figured out. One day, flipping through the book Machida had given me, I was startled to see a picture I had seen before only in a dream. It was of a young woman in a bright orange and white robe, with a cat wrapped around her neck. Signed by an artist named Ichiyusai.
In 1853, the American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Edo Bay (Edo being the former name for Tokyo) with his squadron of “Black Ships,” forcing Japan to end its more than two hundred years of isolationism during the Edo period under the feudal military government of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1867). Faced with the threat represented by foreign colonial powers, an ideological battle erupted between Japanese nationalists, in favor of restoring power to the Japanese imperial family to strengthen Japan, and the pro-shogunate faction. During the Meiji Restoration, the nationalists successfully stripped the shogunate of governing power and returned it to the imperial family, bringing an end to the Edo period and ushering in the Meiji Era.
Cleo Qian is a writer based in New York.