His full name was Mr Harutsuna Matsumoto, but I called him ‘Sensei’. Not ‘Mr’ or ‘Sir’, just ‘Sensei’.
He was my Japanese teacher in high school. He wasn’t my homeroom teacher, and Japanese class didn’t interest me much, so I didn’t really remember him. Since graduation, I hadn’t seen him for quite a while.
Several years ago, we sat beside each other at a crowded bar near the train station, and after that, our paths would cross every now and then. That night, he was sitting at the counter, his back so straight it was almost concave.
Taking my seat at the counter, I ordered, ‘Tuna with fermented soybeans, fried lotus root and salted shallots’ while the old man next to me requested, ‘Salted shallots, lotus root fries and tuna with fermented soybeans’ almost simultaneously. When I glanced over, I saw he was staring right back at me. I thought to myself, Why do I know his face . . . ? Sensei spoke.
‘Excuse me, are you Tsukiko Omachi?’
Stunned, I nodded in response.
‘I’ve spotted you here sometimes,’ Sensei said.
‘Is that right?’ I answered vaguely, still looking at him. His white hair was carefully smoothed back, and he was wearing a starched white shirt with a gray vest. On the counter in front of him, there was a bottle of sake, a plate with a strip of dried whale meat and a bowl that had a bit of mozuku seaweed left in it. I wondered who this old man was who shared the same taste as me, and an image of him standing at a teacher’s podium floated through my mind.
Sensei had always held an eraser in his hand when writing on the blackboard. He would write something in chalk, like the first line of The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon: ‘In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful.’ And then, not five minutes later, he would erase it. Even when he turned to lecture to his students, he would still hold on to the eraser, as if it was attached to his sinewy left hand.
‘It’s unusual to see a woman alone in a place like this,’ Sensei said as he delicately poured vinegared miso over the last morsel of dried whale and brought it to his lips with his chopsticks.
‘Yes,’ I replied, pouring beer into my glass. I had identified him as one of my high school teachers, but I still couldn’t recall his name. As I drained my glass, part of me marvelled that he could remember the name of a particular student and part of me was puzzled.
‘Didn’t you wear your hair in braids during high school?’
‘I recognized you as soon as I saw you here.’
‘Did you recently turn thirty-eight this year?’
‘I’m still only thirty-seven.’
‘I’m sorry, I beg your pardon.’
‘Not at all.’
‘I looked you up in the register and the yearbook, just to be sure.’
‘You look just the same, you know.’
‘You look just as well, Sensei.’ I called him ‘Sensei’ to hide the fact that I didn’t know his name. He has been ‘Sensei’ ever since.
That evening we drank five bottles of sake between us. Sensei paid the bill. The next time we saw each other at the bar and drank together, I treated him. The third time, and every time thereafter, we got separate checks and paid for ourselves. That’s how it went. We both seemed to be the type of person who liked to stop in every so often at the local bar. Our food preferences weren’t the only things we shared; we had a similar rhythm, or temperament. Despite the more than thirty-year difference in our ages, I felt much more familiar with him than with friends my own age.
I went to Sensei’s house several times. Every so often we would leave our usual bar to drink at a second place, and then we would go our separate ways home. But if we got as far as a third or fourth bar, we inevitably ended up having the final drink at Sensei’s house.
‘I live nearby, why don’t you come over?’ Sensei said the first time he invited me to his home, and I felt a twinge of reticence. I had heard that his wife had passed away. The idea of spending time at a widower’s home was slightly off-putting, but once I’ve started drinking, not much can stop me, so I went along.
It was more cluttered than I had imagined. I had thought his place would be immaculate, but there were things piled up in every dark corner. Just off the hall, a carpeted room with an old sofa was absolutely silent and gave no hint of the books and writing paper and newspapers strewn about the adjacent tatami room.
Sensei pulled out the low dining table and took a large bottle of sake from amongst the things in one corner of the room. He filled two different-sized tea cups to the brim.
‘Please have a drink,’ Sensei said before he headed off to the kitchen. The tatami room gave on to a garden. Only one of the rain shutters was open. Through the glass door I could see the vague shape of tree branches. Since they were not in bloom, I couldn’t tell what kind of trees they were. I’ve never known much about plants.
‘What kind of trees are those in the garden?’ I asked Sensei as he carried in a tray with flakes of salmon and Kaki no Tane rice crackers.
‘They’re all cherry trees,’ he answered. ‘My wife loved them.’
‘They must be beautiful in the spring.’
‘They are crawling with insects, in the fall there are dead leaves all over the place, and in winter the bare branches are bleak and dreary,’ Sensei said without any particular distaste.
‘The moon is out tonight.’ A hazy half moon hung high in the sky.
Sensei took one of the rice crackers and tilted his tea cup as he refilled it with sake. ‘My wife was the kind of person who didn’t think things through.’
‘She just loved the things she loved, and hated the things she hated.’
‘These Kaki no Tane are from Niigata. They’re good and spicy.’
The piquant burn of the crackers really did go quite well with sake. I sat there silently for a while, eating them with my fingers. Something fluttered in a treetop outside. It must have been a bird. I heard a faint chirping and the sound of the leaves on the branches rustling for a moment, and then it was quiet again.
‘Are there birds’ nests?’ I asked, but there was no answer. I turned around, and Sensei was gazing at a newspaper. Not today’s paper, but one that he had randomly taken from the piles strewn about. He was intently reading a page from the foreign news service that had a photograph of a woman in a bathing suit. He seemed to have forgotten that I was there.
‘Sensei,’ I called, but still there was no response. He was completely absorbed.
‘Sensei,’ I said again in a loud voice. Sensei looked up.
‘Would you like to read the newspaper, Tsukiko?’ he asked me abruptly.
Without waiting for me to reply, Sensei laid the open paper on the tatami, slid open the fusuma, and went into the next room. He came back carrying several things he had taken from an old bureau. They were small pieces of pottery. Sensei made a few trips back and forth between this and the next room.
‘Yes, here they are.’ Sensei crinkled the corners of his eyes, carefully lining up the ceramics on the tatami. They each had a handle, a lid and a spout. ‘Look at them!’
‘I see.’ But what were they? I stared at them, thinking to myself that I had seen something like these before. They were all roughly made. Were they teapots? But they were so small.
‘These are railway teapots,’ Sensei said.
‘From trips I took. I bought box lunches at the station or on the train that came with these teapots. Now, the teapots are plastic, but they used to sell them with ceramic railway teapots like these.’
There were more than a dozen railway teapots lined up. Some were amber-coloured, some were pale blue or white. They were all different shapes. This one had a large spout, that one a big handle, this pot had a tiny lid, that pot was fat and round.
‘This one is from the year I started university, when I was traveling around Shinshu. Here is one from when I went to Nara with a colleague during summer vacation – I got off the train at one point to get lunch in the station for both of us, and the train departed just as I was about to get back on! That one was bought in Odawara on my honeymoon – my wife carried it for the whole trip, wrapped in newspaper and stuffed amongst the clothes in her suitcase, so that it wouldn’t break,’ Sensei explained, pointing to each of the railway teapots lined up in a row.
I could only nod and murmur a response to each story.
‘I hear there are people who collect these kinds of things.’
‘Is that why you still have them?’
‘Of course not! I would never engage in such crazy whims!’
Crinkling his eyes again, Sensei went on to say, ‘I was simply showing you some things that I’ve had for a very long time. I just can’t seem to throw anything away.’ Sensei walked to the room next door, and this time came back with several small plastic bags.
‘See here . . .’ he said as he untied the knot at the opening of one of the plastic bags. He took out handful after handful of old batteries. Each of them had written on the side things like, ‘electric shaver’, ‘wall clock’, ‘radio’, or ‘flashlight’, in black magic marker. He held up a size C battery.
‘This is from the year of the Ise Bay typhoon. The typhoon hit Tokyo much harder than expected, and that summer I used up the batteries in my flashlight.’
He went on: ‘The first cassette recorder I ever bought required eight C batteries, which it ate right through. I would listen to Beethoven’s symphonies over and over again, and I used up the batteries in just a few days! Of course, I couldn’t keep all eight batteries, so I decided to save just one, which I picked out from the bunch with my eyes closed.
‘I feel pity for these batteries that worked so hard for my benefit, and I can’t throw them away. It seems a shame to get rid of them the moment they die, after they have illuminated my lights, signalled my sounds, and run my motors.
‘Don’t you think so, Tsukiko?’ Sensei asked, peering at me.
I wondered how to answer, as I murmured acknowledgment for the umpteenth time that evening. I touched one of the dozens of batteries of all sizes with the tip of my finger. It was rusty and damp. This one had ‘Casio calculator’ written on it.
‘The moon has really sunken low,’ Sensei said, craning his neck. The moon had emerged from the haze and was glowing clearly.
‘I bet the tea from the railway teapots tasted good,’ I said softly.
‘Shall we have some tea now?’ Sensei said, suddenly reaching out his hand. Rummaging around where the large sake bottle had been, he pulled out a tea canister. Nonchalantly, he put some tea leaves into the amber railway teapot, then took the lid off of an old thermos that was beside the table and poured some hot water.
‘A student gave me this thermos. It’s an old American model, but the boiled water I put in there yesterday is still hot. That’s pretty impressive.’
Sensei poured tea into the cups out of which we had been drinking sake and then rubbed the thermos as if it were a precious item. There must have been a little sake left in my cup, because the tea had an odd taste. All of a sudden I felt the effects of the alcohol, and I became thoroughly pleased by what I saw around me.
‘Sensei, may I take a look around?’ Without waiting for Sensei to answer, I delved into the universe of things strewn about the tatami room. There was scrap paper. An old Zippo lighter. A rusted-over pocket mirror. There were three large black leather bags, each with well-worn creases. They were all exactly the same. There were floral shears. A stationery desk. And a black plastic box that had calibrations on it and a needle.
‘What is this?’ I asked, picking up the black calibrated box.
‘Let me see . . . Oh, that. It’s a tester.’
‘For what?’ I asked, as Sensei gently took the black box from my hand and rummaged amongst some things. Once he located a black and a red cord, he attached each of them to the tester. Both cords had terminals on the ends.
‘Go like this,’ Sensei said, putting the red cord’s terminal on one end and the black cord’s terminal on the other end of the battery that said ‘electric shaver’.
‘See, Tsukiko, look at that!’ Since both his hands were full, Sensei gestured with his chin at the battery tester’s calibrations. The needle was just barely vibrating. He moved the terminals away from the battery and the needle went still, and when he touched them again, it quivered.
‘There’s still a charge left, isn’t there?’ Sensei said softly. ‘It’s not enough power to run a motor, but there’s still a bit of life in it.’
Sensei measured each of the many batteries with the tester. Most of them didn’t register on the meter when he touched the terminals, but every so often the needle would move. Each time it did, he would utter a little ‘Oh!’
‘The slightest sign of life,’ I said, and Sensei gave a vague nod.
‘But they will all die out eventually,’ he said languidly, in a faraway voice.
‘They’ll live out their time inside the dresser.’
‘I suppose you’re right.’
We sat there for a moment, staring silently at the moon, until Sensei finally said cheerfully, ‘Shall we have another drink?’ He poured sake into our cups. ‘Oops, there was still some tea left.’
‘Sake cut with tea, right?’ I said.
‘But sake doesn’t need to be cut with anything.’
‘It’s quite all right, Sensei.’
I murmured, ‘Quite all right, quite all right,’ and drank the sake in one gulp. Sensei was sipping his. The moon shone brightly on.
Suddenly, in a clear, resonant voice, Sensei recited,
Light filters white across the river
through the willows.
From Ono on the other bank
‘What is that, some kind of sutra?’ I asked.
Sensei was indignant. ‘Tsukiko, you never paid attention in Japanese class, did you?’ he said.
‘You didn’t teach us that,’ I replied.
‘That was Seihaku Irako, you see,’ Sensei answered, in a lecturing tone.
‘I’ve never heard of Seihaku Irako,’ I said as I took it upon myself to refill my own teacup with sake.
‘It’s unusual for a woman to pour her own sake,’ Sensei chided me.
‘Oh, Sensei, you’re just old!’ I retorted.
‘Yes, I’m old, and hairy now too!’ he mumbled as he too filled his own teacup to the brim.
Then he continued with the poem,
From Ono on the other bank
a flute makes its faint way through the mist,
touching the traveller’s heart.
His eyes were closed, as if he too was listening attentively to his recitation. I gazed vacantly at the different batteries. They were silent and still in the pale light. The moon was once again enveloped in haze.
Extracted from the novel The Briefcase, published by Counterpoint.
Excerpts from ‘Wandering’ by Seihaku Irako, translated by William Elliott and Katsumasa Nishihara, are reprinted with permission from The Singing Heart: An Anthology of Japanese Poems, 1900-1960
Photograph courtesy of Nick Bramhall