When we left the hotel it was raining, a light, fine rain, as can sometimes happen in Tokyo in October. I said that where we were going was not far – we would only need to get to the station, the same one that we had arrived at yesterday, and then catch two trains and walk a little down some small streets until we got to the museum. I got out my umbrella and opened it, and pulled up the zipper of my coat. It was early morning and the street was filled with people, most walking away from the station, rather then towards it as we were. All the while, my mother stayed close to me, as if she felt that the flow of the crowd was a current, and that if we were separated, we would not be able to make our way back to each other, but continue to drift further and further apart. The rain was gentle, and consistent. It left a fine layer of water on the ground, which was not asphalt, but a series of small, square tiles, if you cared enough to notice.
We had arrived the night before. My plane landed an hour before my mother’s and I waited for her at the airport. I was too tired to read but collected my bags and bought us two tickets for one of the express trains, as well as a bottle of water and some cash from the ATM. I wondered if I should buy more – some tea perhaps, or something to eat, but I did not know how she would be feeling when she landed. When she came out of the gates, I recognised her immediately, even from a distance, somehow by the way she held herself or the way she walked, without being able to clearly see her face. Up close, I noticed that she continued to dress with care: a brown shirt with pearl buttons, tailored pants and small items of jade. It had always been that way. Her clothes were not expensive, but were chosen with attention to the cut and fit, the subtle combination of textures. She looked like a well-dressed woman in a movie from maybe twenty or thirty years ago, both dated and elegant. I saw too that she had with her a large suitcase, the same one I remembered from our childhood. She’d kept it on top of the cupboard in her room, where it had loomed over us, mostly unused, only brought down for the few trips she’d made back to Hong Kong, like for when her father died, and then her brother. There was hardly a mark on it, and even now, it seemed almost new.
Earlier in the year, I had asked her to come with me on a trip to Japan. We did not live in the same city anymore, and had never really been away together as adults, but I was beginning to feel that it was important, for reasons I could not yet name. At first, she had been reluctant, but I had pushed, and eventually she had agreed, not in so many words, but by protesting slightly less, or hesitating over the phone when I asked her, and by those acts alone, I knew that she was finally signalling that she would come. I had chosen Japan because I had been there before, and although my mother had not, I thought she might be more at ease exploring another part of Asia. And perhaps I felt that this would put us on equal footing in some way, to both be made strangers. I had decided on autumn, because it had always been our favourite season. The gardens and parks would be at their most beautiful then; the late season, everything almost gone. I had not anticipated that it might still be a time for typhoons. Already, the weather reports had contained several warnings, and it had been raining steadily since our arrival.
At the station, I gave my mother her metro card and we passed through the turnstiles. Inside, I searched for the train line and platform that we needed, trying to match the name and colours to what I had marked on the map the night before. Eventually, I found the right connection. On the platform, the ground had been marked to indicate where you could line up to board. We took our place obediently and the train arrived within minutes. There was a single spare seat close to the door, and I indicated that she should sit, while I stood next to her and watched as the stations passed us by. The city was grey and concrete, dull in the rain and not entirely unfamiliar. I recognised the form of everything – buildings, overpasses, train crossings – but in their details, their materials, they were all slightly different, and it was these small but significant changes that continued to absorb me. After about twenty minutes, we switched to a smaller line and a less crowded train, and this time I was able to sit next to her, watching as the height of the buildings grew lower and lower, until we were in the suburbs, and they became homes, with white walls and flat roofs and compact cars parked in the driveways. It struck me that the last time I had been here, I was with Laurie, and thinking on and off about my mother. And now, I was here with her, thinking on and off about him, about how we had rushed around the city from morning to long after dark, seeing everything, taking in everything. During that trip, it was like we were children again, mad and excitable, endlessly talking, endlessly laughing, always hungry for more. I remembered thinking that I had wanted to share some of this with my mother, even if just a small amount. It was after that journey that I had begun learning Japanese, as if subconsciously planning for this one.
Our exit this time was on a quiet street in a leafy neighbourhood. Many of the houses were built right up to the road, but people had placed small planters in what little space there was, with peonies or bonsais. We too had had a bonsai when I was growing up, in a white square pot with tiny feet. I don’t think my mother would have bought one, so it must have been a gift that we kept and tended for a very long time. For some reason, I remembered disliking it as a child. Perhaps because I thought it looked unnatural, or lonely, this very detailed, tiny tree, almost like an illustration, growing alone when it looked as if it should have been in a forest.
As we walked, we passed by a building with a wall of translucent glass bricks, and another whose surface was the colour of mushrooms. Ahead of us, a woman was sweeping some leaves up from the street and putting them in a bag. We spoke for a while about my mother’s new flat, which I had not yet seen. She had recently left our childhood home and moved to a small building in the outer suburbs, which was nearer to where my sister lived, and closer to her grandchildren. I asked her if she liked it there, if there were the right shops so that she could buy the food she liked, if her friends were near. She said that the birds in the morning were very loud. She had thought at first they were children screaming and had gone outside to try and listen better, to check if everything was okay. Then she had realised that the sound was birds, but when she looked for them in the trees, she had not seen them. Out there, there were big blocks of land, freeways. You could walk and walk and not see anyone, despite all the houses around you.
I noticed that there was a park coming up ahead and checked the map on my phone. I said to my mother that we should go through it, the distance to the museum would be about the same. Somewhere along the way, it had stopped raining and we lowered our umbrellas. Inside, the park was vast, with a dark canopy and winding paths. It was the way I had imagined parks to be in my childhood, wooded and dim and wet, a world within a world. We passed an empty playground, with a metal slide with blue metal edges, whose surface still held big, fat drops of rain. A series of small streams wound their way through the trees and crossed and separated and crossed one another again. Flat stones broke the water, like tiny gorges or mountains, and here and there were small, narrow bridges, the kind you often saw in postcards or travel shots of the East.
Before leaving, I had bought a new camera, a Nikon. Though digital, it had three small dials and a glass viewfinder, as well as a short lens that you could turn with your fingers to adjust the aperture. It reminded me of the camera my uncle had used to take family photos during their youth in Hong Kong. My mother still had some of these images. I’d looked at them often as a child, listening to the stories that went with them, fascinated by the spots of colour that sometimes caught there, like a drop of oil in water, burning a bright hole in the surface. To me the photographs seemed to have an old-world elegance about them, with my mother and uncle posed almost like a traditional husband and wife, she seated and he standing behind her shoulder, their hair set in a certain way, wearing a patterned dress or pressed white shirt, with the streets and skies of Hong Kong looking sultry and wet behind them. After a while, I forgot completely about these photos, and only discovered them again years later when my sister and I were cleaning everything out of my mother’s flat, in a shoebox filled with yellow envelopes and small albums.
I took out the camera now, adjusted the exposure, and fell back with my eye to the viewfinder. My mother, sensing the change in the distance between us, turned and saw what I was doing. Immediately, she assumed a stock pose: feet together, back straight, hands clasped. Is this all right, she asked me, or should I stand over there, nearer to that tree? Actually, I had wanted to catch something different, to see her face as it was during ordinary time, when she was alone with her thoughts, but I said it looked good and took the photo anyway. She asked if she should take one of me, but I said no, that we had better move on.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I had spent many hours searching various places – shrines, wooded parks, galleries, the few old houses left after the war – thinking all the while of what she might like to see. I had saved a large file on my laptop with addresses, descriptions and opening times, adding and subtracting many things, worrying over the correct balance, wanting to make the most of our time here. The museum had been recommended by a friend. It was part of a large pre-war house that had been built by a famous sculptor. I had read a lot about the house online, and was looking forward to seeing it. I checked my phone again and said that if we turned here, we’d soon get to the street where the museum was located. As we walked, I explained to my mother a little of what to expect, being careful not to give away too much detail, to leave things to be discovered.
On the way, we passed by the gates of a school where children were having their morning break. They wore small coloured hats to show perhaps their age or grade, and were playing loudly and freely. The school grounds were clean and the play equipment bright, and several teachers stood around, watching them calmly. I thought, and wondered if my mother thought too, of the Catholic school she had enrolled us in, not exactly for the quality of the education, but because of the plaid wool skirts and blue bibles and experiences such as these, all the things she had been taught to think of and want for herself. After a few years there, both my sister and I won scholarships and stayed on till the end of high school, eventually graduating and going on to university: my sister to study medicine, and I, English literature.
At the museum entrance, there was a stand where you could clip your umbrella, presumably so that you would not track water through the old house. I took my mother’s, shook it out a little, and put both of ours next to each other, pocketing the little keys so we could retrieve them later. Inside, past the sliding doors, there was a designated space for you to remove your shoes, with two wooden stools, and baskets full of brown slippers. While I struggled with my boots, my mother, I noticed, slipped off hers as if she’d been living in Japan all her life, and put them in a neat pair side by side, with the toes facing out towards the street, because that was the way she would later exit. Underneath she wore white socks, the soles of which were pristine, like newly fallen snow. Growing up, we too had removed our shoes at the threshold of our door. I still remembered the shock of going over to a friend’s house after school one day and being allowed to run around the garden barefoot. Her mother had turned on the sprinklers and at first the ground had hurt, but then had become soft and wet, the grass actually warm from the sun.
I put on a pair of slippers and went up to the ticket counter to pay. The woman there took my notes and handed back some coins for change, as well as two tickets and two pamphlets printed on beautiful white paper. She explained that there were two exhibitions on: some works from China and the Korean peninsula downstairs, and fabric and textiles from a famous artist upstairs. I thanked her and took the pamphlets, and turned around to relay this excitedly to my mother, thinking of her careful dress and how she had always perfectly repaired and adjusted all of our clothing when we were young. I suggested that we go around the exhibits separately, so that we could take as much time as we wanted, or not, with certain works. But, I said, we would always be aware of each other and never too far away. I was worried that she would still want to be close to me, given her earlier fear at the station, but she seemed calmed by the space and its easy confines, and dutifully went into the next room with the pamphlet open in her hands as if she were about to read it.
The museum was spread across two levels. It was cool and quiet, with uneven wooden floors and large dark beams, and you could still see the old house that the building had once been. The stairs were low and small, because people had once been low and small, and they creaked and were bowed in the middle where they had been shined smooth by many thousands of feet. Through the windows came a soft, milky light, like that through a paper screen. I chose a room at random, folding the pamphlet in half and putting it in my coat pocket. I wanted, somehow, to come to the works naively, to know little about their origin or provenance, to see them only as they were. Various pots and vases were displayed in glass cabinets, with handwritten cards that listed the era in which they were made, and a few other characters that I could not read. Each was somehow roughly formed but spirited. In their irregular shapes, both delicate and thick, it was possible to see that each had been made by hand, and had then been glazed and painted, also by hand, so that once, something as simple as a bowl from which you ate, or a vessel from which you drank, had been undifferentiated from art. I moved from room to room, taking a photo of a blue plate, the colour of agate, on which white flowers, probably lotuses, were painted, and another of a mud-brown bowl, whose inside was the colour of eggshells. For a while, I had been aware of my mother behind me, pausing where I paused, or moving quickly along when I did. But soon, I lost sight of her. I waited briefly in the last room on the ground floor to see if she might reappear, and then headed upstairs. On the way, I noticed that there was a room where a screen had been pushed back, and which overlooked a peaceful garden with stones and maple trees, the leaves of which were turning red.
The fabrics were hanging in a long room, such that you could look at all of them at once or each on its own. Some were small but some were so large that their tails draped and ran over the floor like frozen water and it was impossible to imagine them being worn or hanging in any room but this one. Their patterns were at once primitive and graceful, and as beautiful as the garments in a folktale. Looking at the translucency of the overlapping dyes reminded me of looking upwards through a canopy of leaves. They reminded me of the seasons and, in their bare, visible threads, of something lovely and honest that had now been forgotten, a thing we could only look at but no longer live. I felt at the same time mesmerised by their beauty and saddened at this vague thought. I walked across the pieces many times and waited in the room for my mother. When she did not appear I went and explored the rest of the house alone and, in the end, found her waiting for me outside, sitting on the stone bench next to the stand where I had clipped our umbrellas.
I asked her if she had seen the fabrics and she said that she had seen a little of them, but had become tired, so was waiting for me here.
I wanted for some reason to speak more about the room, and what I had felt in it, that strange keenness. Wasn’t it incredible, I wanted to say, that once there were people who were able to look at the world – leaves, trees, rivers, grass – and see its patterns, and, even more incredible, that they were able to find the essence of those patterns, and put them to cloth? But I found I could not. Instead I said that one of the rooms on the top floor, which looked down into the garden and across into the trees, had been designed for contemplation. You could slide open the window and sit at the narrow desk and watch the stones or the trees or the sky. Maybe it’s good, I said, to stop sometimes and reflect upon the things that have happened, maybe thinking about sadness can actually end up making you happy.
That night, we went to a restaurant, in a tiny little street near the railway line. I took us by a route along the canal, which I thought might be nice at that time of evening. The buildings around us were dark and the trees dark and quiet. Plants grew on the steep walls of the canal, trailing downwards, and the water gave a shaking, delicate impression of the world above. Along the street, the restaurants and cafes had turned on only low, dim lights, like lanterns. Though we were in the middle of the city, it was like being in a village. This was one of the experiences I liked most about Japan, and, like so many things, it was halfway between a cliché and the truth. It’s beautiful, I said, and my mother smiled but it was impossible to tell if she agreed.
The restaurant was on the top floor of a two-storey building, and the stairs were so steep and narrow, going up them was almost like climbing a ladder. We were shown to a seat at a wooden counter, next to a narrow window overlooking the street, where, I noticed, it had again begun to rain. Because my mother did not eat living things, we ordered carefully. I read what I could from the menu, but needed her help more often than not with characters I did not understand or had forgotten, and together we managed to find the right dishes. I could sense that she was relieved, finally, to be able to offer some help. My mother looked out the window and said that it was raining again. I looked too, as if noticing for the first time, and said that yes it was. She said that even though it was October, she was not cold, that the climate here seemed milder, a light jacket was all she needed. She asked if it would rain tomorrow and I said I was not sure, but then I got out my phone to check and said that tomorrow looked clear, though I’d have to check again once we got back to the hotel. She said that she had felt strange the week before and had been worried that she would be ill for the trip, but she had rested and eaten well, and now she felt fine, and not even that tired. I asked her what she had thought of today, and she said that it had been very nice. Then she reached for her bag and took out a small book. She explained that she had found it at a store near her home, and that it described the nature of your character based on the day of your birth. She flipped to the right month and read out mine.
People born on your birthday, she said, are idealistic in their youth. In order to be truly free, they need to realise the impossibility of their dreams, and thus be humbled, and only then will they be happy. They like peace, order and beautiful things, but they can live entirely in their own heads.
She read out her own sign, and then the one for my sister, who she said was loyal and a hard worker, but was also quick to anger, and could hold a grudge for a very long time. Then she read out the part that told you who was most compatible with whom, comparing first of all each of her children to each other, and then each of them to herself.
I thought that some of it was true and some of it was not, but the real truth was how such things allowed someone to talk about you, or what you had done or why you did it, in a way that unravelled your character into distinct traits. It made you seem readable to them, or to yourself, which could feel like a revelation. But who’s to say how anyone would act on a given day, not to mention the secret places of the soul, where all manner of things could exist? I wanted to talk more about this, if only to chase the thought further, to pin it down for myself, but I knew too that she needed, and wanted, to believe in such things: that my sister was generous and happiest in the company of others, that I should be careful with money in the month of May, so I said nothing.
The food arrived on two trays, with a bowl of white rice near the centre, and various smaller plates of vegetables and garnishes either side, from which you could pick and choose many different flavours and textures. My mother commented a little on each one, seeming pleased with our combined effort. The way she used her chopsticks to move things from one plate to another, holding them with her fingers so that the ends never crossed, had always looked so elegant to me. I held my chopsticks the wrong way, jabbing and crossing them, and whenever I tried to emulate her style, I could not, and always ended up dropping things.
While we ate, I asked her again if there was anything in particular she wanted to see while we were here, any special garden or temple or landmark. She waved her hand in the air and said anything would do. She said that she had looked at a travel guide before coming here, but had decided not to buy it. Though on the cover, there was a photo of some bright red gates. I said that those were in Kyoto, and that if she was interested we could see them, as we would be finishing our trip there.
I finished eating first and put my chopsticks across the rim of my bowl and waited. Outside, the train tracks were dark and silent, splitting the road like a river. Men and women were cycling home, steering with one hand and holding up clear umbrellas with the other. Occasionally, someone would stop to buy something at the convenience store on the opposite side of the street, the windows of which were brightly lit and piled with brands whose colourful packaging I was beginning to recognise. I thought about how vaguely familiar this scene was to me, especially with the smells of the restaurant around me, but strangely so, because it was not my childhood, but my mother’s childhood that I was thinking of, and from another country at that. And yet there was something about the subtropical feel, the smell of the steam and the tea and the rain. It reminded me of her photographs, or the television dramas we had watched together when I was still young. Or it was like the sweets she used to buy for me, which no doubt were the sweets her mother used to buy for her. It was strange at once to be so familiar and yet so separated. I wondered how I could feel so at home in a place that was not mine.
My mother pushed her bowl away and apologised, saying that she was unable to finish her food. I said it was fine and scooped the rest of her rice into mine, though I was not hungry. At the bottom of our bowls, which were ceramic, there was a small circle where the glaze had pooled and dried. It looked like liquid, like a blue pond, but when you tilted the bowl to the side, it never moved.
I had chosen a hotel in one of the city’s busiest districts, with the station on one side and a view of a famous park on the other. At the time, I had been thinking not only of convenience, but of comfort, even luxury. Though now I wasn’t so sure about my choice. The hotel was like any other, somehow always transitory, with the same heavy furniture that you would find in hotels all around the world. In this way, it was meant to provide comfort only because nothing should stand out or threaten. The corridors looked so similar I kept on turning the wrong way to get to our room, disorientated. While my mother had a shower, I sat on one of the twin beds and called my sister. There was a large window at one end of the room with a wide, cold ledge and heavy silked curtains, as well as a thinner, inner layer of gauze for when you wanted to see, or partially see, the shimmering outside. I pulled both of these back while I spoke on the phone, looking out to the red pilot lights that gleamed at the top of the skyscrapers, and a tall structure that I thought might be Tokyo Tower.
My sister picked up and we said hello and I asked her for her news. She said that her daughter had been wearing the same dress for three days straight. She took it off only to bathe, but then even slept in it. She said that before our mother had left for Japan, she had been looking after the children one morning at a department store while my sister ran some errands. There, her daughter had insisted on buying the dress, and when our mother had expressed reluctance, had thrown her first ever public tantrum. Panicking, our mother had relented and paid. The dress, my sister said, was both ugly and expensive, but her daughter had seen something in it, something that connected to a feeling deep inside her, that she was not yet old enough to express. It was also too short, and my sister had had to sew on a layer of leftover lace around the hem, even though she knew her daughter would grow out of that too very quickly. Now, both her children were playing out in the garden, and each day, the dress, which was a pale wheat colour, became dirtier and dirtier.
My sister too had been prone to deep rages as a child. I mentioned this and she said yes, she remembered, though she had barely thought of this until her daughter’s own episode. I remembered her smashing a glass wand against the brick wall of our house once. The wand had been filled with glitter and water, so that the contents tumbled magically from one end to the other depending on how you tilted it. The object had been precious to us both and now neither of us could remember why she had broken it, only our devastation once the act had been done. I asked my sister if she could remember the source of her anger back then and she said no, not really. She said that over the years, her anger had faded, and now, oddly, she had a reputation for being calm and level-headed, especially at her work, where she was often praised for her competence. But, witnessing her daughter, it was like remembering the details of a dream she once had, that perhaps, at some point in her life, there had been things worth screaming and crying over, some deeper truth, or even horror, that everyone around you perpetually denied, such that it only made you angrier and angrier. Yet now, my sister could not harness that feeling, only the memory of it, or not even that, but something even more remote. All that was left for her to do, she said, was to allow her daughter to wear the same dress for days on end, to sew on a new hem, to make her something warm for dinner, to look on her in flawed understanding, and console in all the insufficient ways.
She asked how the trip was going, sounding tired. I knew she was also studying for her last round of medical exams, the ones that would help her specialise, and whose knowledge and technicality I could not even imagine. I said I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t quite tell if our mother was here because she wanted to be, or if it was something she was doing for my sake.
At dinner, my mother had asked about my own life. I had said that Laurie and I were wondering about whether or not to have children. My mother said that we should, that children were a good thing. At the time, I had agreed. But what I really wanted to say was that we talked about it often, while cooking dinner or walking to the shops or making coffee. We talked about every aspect over and over, each of us adding tiny life-like details, or going over hundreds of different possibilities, like physicists in endless conjecture. How hurtful would we be when we were both exhausted and sleep-deprived? How would we go for money? How would we stay fulfilled while at the same time caring so completely for another? We asked our friends, all of whom were frank and honest. Some of them said that it was possible to find a way through, especially as their children got older. Others said that all the weakest points of our relationship would be laid bare. Others, still, said that it was a euphoric experience, if only you surrendered yourself to it. And yet, really, these thoughtful offerings meant nothing, because it was impossible, ultimately, to compare one life to another, and we always ended up essentially in the same place where we had begun. I wondered if my mother had ever asked these questions, if she’d ever had the luxury of them. I had never particularly wanted children, but somehow I felt the possibility of it now, as lovely and elusive as a poem. Another part of me wondered if it was okay either way, not to know, not be sure. That I could let life happen to me in a sense, and that perhaps this was the deeper truth all along, that we controlled nothing and no one, though really I didn’t know that either.
Photograph © Oliver Driscoll