Love and Poetry in Japan
By Helena Wahlstrom
Getting Oriented, a novel about Japan by Wally Wood is a novel about Phil, an American man who struggles with the painful memory of his wife as he becomes a first-time tour guide in Japan. During the trip, entitled “Japan Old & New,” readers get acquainted with a diverse cast of characters as Wood takes them on a journey through some of Japan’s most interesting sights and landmarks. Even the yakuza make an appearance.
The story touches on the eternal themes of love, loss, death and religion, with detailed depictions of Japanese places and customs that are bound to please any Japanophile. Wood’s passion for Japan shines through in his lovingly crafted passages about the country’s ways: like the protagonist, Wood, too, has acted as a tour guide in Japan and professes himself a lifelong lover of the country.
Here and there among the scenes of passion and drama, Wood drops a translated Japanese poem. These beautiful, tranquil poems serve up a bit of Japan’s enticing history and culture in tiny portions. Getting Oriented, a novel about Japan is ideal for those who love Japan as much as the author does. They will find many interesting moments participating in Phil’s guided tour of this fascinating land.
Excerpt from the book: Touring the Temple
Right outside the shrine precincts, Phil found a shady spot, gathered everyone around, and gave his lecture. “The Toshogu shrine is dedicated primarily to the founded of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu…”
He sketched the shrine’s history, told them anecdotes about its construction, and led them into the grounds. He pointed out the stable for the Shogun’s white stallion with its carved frieze of the original “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkeys, monkeys being the guardian spirits of horses. He took them into the Honji-do hall with the painted dragon on the ceiling. He had them clap their hands directly under the dragon’s head, which set up a kind of echo that seemed to be a cry from the dragon itself.
He led them inside the shrine and pointed out the carving of the Sleeping Cat, said to be so realistic the shrine had never been troubled by mice.
herb said, “So where’s the tomb?” Phil pointed to the mountain behind the shrine buildings. “We came this far. Let’s go see it. Which way?”
Apparently no one, not even Audrey, wanted to be left behind, so Phil led them up the almost 200 stone steps through the cedar forest to the tomb, a relatively modest stone surrounded by a shoulder-high fence. “It’s not that impressive, said Julia. “I expected something more.”
“They spent the budget on the buildings,” said Louise.
“My feet are killing me,” said Sharleen. She looked as if she were on the verge of collapse and sat heavily on a bench outside the enclosure. Jesse took a bottle of water from his backpack and Sharleen found pills in her bag.
“Are you going to be all right?” Phil thought she might be having some kind of attack.
“Just give me a minute.” The others watched anxiously until Sharleen seemed to rally. She leaned heavily on Jesse as they started back down the steps. If she fell, she’d take Jesse with her, so Phil stepped in to offer his arm as well. Sharleen smelled of Japanese shampoo and sweat.
When they finally returned to the Takiguchi Ryokan, Sharleen, limping badly, collapsed like a bag of sand on the raised entrance floor. She kicked off her sneakers and massaged her foot. “Let me see that,” she said as Jesse began to put the shoes away in a pigeonhole. She examined it, held it up, and exclaimed, “These aren’t mine. These are six-and-a-halfs.” Sharleen looked around at the feet crowding into the vestibule. ”Those look like mine.” She pointed at Audrey’s feet. The white sneakers appeared identical.
For a moment, Audrey looked nonplussed. “Let me see one,” Sharleen demanded. Audrey had already taken one off and handed it over. “Look! See! This is a seven,” said Sharleen. She held it up.
“You took that poor old lady’s shoes?” said Louise.
Audrey looked at her feet. “They seemed loose.” As the rest of the group watched, she took off the other and handed it to Sharleen. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“Come on, old girl. Let’s go take a bath.” Jesse helped Sharleen to her feet and into the inn’s slippers. “That’ll help.”
Sharleen, leaning heavily on Jesse, limped down the hall.
“Look what you did to her. She can barely walk,” said Julia.
“I’m really sorry. It was a mistake. Can’t I make a mistake?” said Audrey.
Phil was seated on a low plastic stool, scrubbing himself in the men’s bath, when Jesse pushed the frosted glass door open. “How’s Sharleen?”
“Not good.” Jesse sat on a stool and ran water into an aqua plastic basin. “Not so good.”
“Sorry to hear it. Wish I’d known about the shoes.” But who’d have imagined a shoe swap? Something else Gloria’s tour notes didn’t cover.
“Naw, that’s not a big thing. Just one more pain, and the good lord knows she’s got enough pills for pain.” Jesse dumped the water over his head and ran another basin full.
Phil pushed over a giant pump bottle of shampoo. “She’s going to be all right?”
Jesse pumped a palmful of iridescent pink lotion and began working it into his stiff gray hair before he answered, his voice deep and resonant against the tiles. “No. No sir, she’s not.” He massaged his scalp for a minute. With a resigned air, he said, “She got diagnosed with cancer six months ago or so.” His fingers worked up a white foam. “They didn’t give her a year.”
He adjusted the spray on the handheld shower and began rinsing away suds.
Phil felt as if Jesse had punched him in the chest. He said to Jesse, “Charleen’s dying?” Then, to himself: You are so stupid! What a stupid thing to say!
An elderly Japanese man came into the bath, nodded to the Americans, and found a stool on the other side of the room. Beyond the plate glass window that was one wall, the inn’s lights illuminated a tiny, exquisite garden.
Phil had prepared a brief morning talk, and announced that the Takiguchi van would take them up the Iroha Slope to Lake Chuzenji and the Kegon Falls.
“I-ro-ha” is like A-B-C in English. As I’ve said, written Japanese uses three kinds of characters, kanji, which are originally Chinese; hiragana and katakana, which are phonetic—one character, one sound.
During the Heian Era, between 794 and 1185, that well-known poet Anonymous created a poem using forty-eight hiragana characters once. The poem begins Iro ha, and a rough translation goes—“ He recited from memory:
Though flowers are now in fragrant full bloom,
they will soon be gone.
Not a single thing in the world is eternal…
I will cross mountains of vicissitudes today
and never more entertain frivolous dreams,
keeping myself in sobriety.
Only when Phil looked up at the attentive faces around the breakfast tables did it occur to him that not everyone would find the poem as touching as he found it when he first read it years ago. Reading the Iroha poem to this group in the Takiguchi dining room was very different from copying it out at his desk at home. This morning, the lines were pregnant with meanings he’d missed in Katonah…
“Anyway, the road we’ll be driving is called the Iroha Slope because there’s so many switchbacks to the top.” Audrey looked puzzled. “Each turn gets a name, like Turn A, Turn B, Turn C. Only, since this is Japan, they use i…ro…ha… We’ll meet in the lobby ready to leave on the van at eight-thirty. Questions?”
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