Essay Writing

Unforgettable People

Unforgettable People

Just beyond Futago, where the road from Tokyo crosses the Tama River, was an old post town called Mizonokuchi. Midway through the town, there was an inn, the Kameya.

Unforgettable People

It was the beginning of March. The sky was overcast and a strong

wind blew from the north. The town, always bleak, seemed more cold and desolate than usual. A blanket of snow remained from the day

before. From the southern edges of the unevenly thatched roofs, droplets of melting snow fell and were scattered by the wind. Even the muddy

water-filled sandal tracks seemed to shiver as the wind set tiny ripples in motion. The sun went down and soon most of the shops closed up for

the night. The town lay silent, huddled along the dark road. The inn, of course, was still open. A light shone brightly against the paper windows

of the Kameya. But inside nothing stirred. Few travelers had stopped to spend the night, it seemed. Now and then the tap of a heavy metal pipe bowl against a charcoal brazier broke the silence.

Without warning, the sliding door shot back and a rather large man eased himself across the threshold. Before the innkeeper could shake off his reverie and look up from the brazier, the man had taken three long

strides across the dirt-floored entranceway and stood full before him. The newcomer seemed somewhat less than thirty years of age. He wore a

European-style suit and cloth cap, but his thong sandals and gaiters exposed his bare feet. He carried an umbrella in his right hand and with his left he hugged a small satchel.

‘I want a room for the night.’

Still absorbed in examining his guest’s outfit, the innkeeper said nothing. Just then a handclap sounded from the back.

‘Take care of number six!’ the innkeeper bellowed. Then, still leaning against the brazier, he asked, ‘And you, sir, are . . ?’

The man’s shoulders stiffened and a scowl crossed his face. But then, smiling slightly, he answered, ‘I am…. from Tokyo.’

‘And you are on the way to …?’ ‘Hachioji.’ The traveler sat down on the raised wooden floor and began to untie

his gaiters. ‘This is an odd way to be going to Hachioji from Tokyo.’ The

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innkeeper looked at the man as though with newly aroused suspicions and seemed about to speak. Sensing this, the traveler broke the silence.

‘I live in Tokyo but today I’m on the way back from Kawasaki. I started out late and now it’s dark already. Let me have some hot water, please.’

‘Bring some hot water right away,’ the innkeeper shouted. ‘It must

have been cold on the road today. Hachioji is still pretty cold.’ His comments were friendly enough, but his manner evidenced little warmth. He was about sixty years old. He wore a heavily-quilted jacket over his

stout frame. It made his broad head jut out as though attached directly to his shoulders. His eyes, set into a wide, genial face, drooped at the

corners. There was something tough and inflexible about him, but he

impressed the traveler at once as a straightforward old fellow. The traveler washed his feet and was still wiping them when the

innkeeper shouted, ‘Show the gentleman to number seven!’ To the gentleman himself he had nothing more to say. Nor did he

glance at him again as he retired to his room. A black cat appeared from the kitchen, crept onto the master’s lap, and curled up. The old man seemed to be unaware of this. His eyes were shut tight. A moment later

his right hand edged towards the tobacco holder. Stubby fingers began to roll some tobacco into a little ball.

‘When number six is through with the tub take care of number seven!’ The cat was startled and leaped down. ‘Not you, stupid!’

The frightened cat disappeared into the kitchen. A large clock struck off eight slow gongs.

‘Grandma, Kichiza must be tired. Put the warmer in his bed and let him go to sleep, poor fellow.’ The old man himself sounded sleepy.

‘He’s in here,’ came the voice of an old woman from the kitchen. ‘But he’s still studying.’

‘He is? Go to bed now, Kichiz6. You can get up early tomorrow and do that. Put the warmer in his bed now, Grandma.’

‘Yes, right away.’ In the kitchen, the old-woman and a maid looked at each other and

tittered. There was a loud yawn out front. ‘He’s the tired one,’ the old woman muttered as she put some coals

into the sooty bedwarmer. She was a small woman, perhaps in her late fifties.

Out front the paper door rattled in the wind and a sprinkling of rain swept lightly past.

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‘Better close the shutters for the night,’ the old man shouted. Then he muttered to himself, ‘Rain again, damn it.’

Indeed, the wind had grown quite strong and it was beginning to rain. It was early spring, but a freezing cold wind, bearing rain and sleet, tore

across the broad Musashi Plain. All night long it raged over the dark little town of Mizonokuchi.

Midnight had come and gone but the lamp in room seven burned brightly. Everyone in the Kameya was asleep except the two guests who sat facing each other in the middle of the room. Outside, the storm raged on. The shutters rattled constantly.

‘If this keeps up you won’t be able to leave tomorrow,’ said the man

from room six. ‘I wouldn’t mind spending a day here. I’m in no special hurry.’ Both men were flushed, their noses bright red. Three freshly warmed

bottles of sake stood on the low table next to them, and sake still remained in their cups. They sat in comfortable positions on the mat floor, with the brazier between them as a warmer and ashtray. The visitor would puff on his cigarette now and then and reach out, baring his arm to the elbow, to shake off the ashes. They spoke without reserve, but it was clear the two had met that night. Perhaps something had led to a remark or two through the sliding door between their rooms. The man in number six, feeling lonely, would then have taken the first move, followed by an exchange of name cards. An order of sake, some frank conversation, and soon politeness had given way to the easy speech of friends.

‘Otsu Benjira’, read the card of the man in room seven. The other’s was inscribed, ‘Akiyama Matsunosuke’. No further information accom- panied either name.

Otsu was the man in the European-style suit who had arrived after sunset. His tall, thin frame and pale face were quite the opposite of his

companion’s appearance. Akiyama, in his mid-twenties, had a fleshy, reddish face. The amiable expression in his eyes made him appear to be

smiling constantly. Otsu was an unknown writer. Akiyama was a painter, also unknown. By some odd chance these two young men of similar inclination had come together in this rural inn.

‘We ought to get to bed, I think. There is no one left for us to tear apart.’

From art to literature to religion their conversation had ranged. Absorbed in their scathing criticism of the day’s noted artists and writers, they had not heard the clock strike eleven,

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‘It’s still early,’ said Akiyama, smiling. ‘You can’t leave tomorrow,

anyway. What does it matter if we stay up talking all night?’

‘What time is it?’ Otsu picked up his watch. ‘It’s past eleven!’ ‘We might as well stay up all night.’ Akiyama was unperturbed. Eyes

fixed on his sake cup, he added, ‘But if you’re sleepy, go ahead….’

‘No, not at all. I thought you were sleepy. I left Kawasaki late today. I walked less than ten miles so I feel fine.’

‘I’m not ready for bed either. But I thought I’d just borrow this if you were.’

Akiyama picked up what looked like a manuscript of some ten pages. On the cover was the title, ‘Unforgettable People’.

‘It’s no good,’ said Otsu. ‘It’s like the pencil sketches you artists do, nothing anyone else can appreciate.’ But he made no attempt to retrieve the document. Akiyama glanced at a few pages.

‘Sketches have their own special interest, I think. I’d like to read it.’ ‘Let me see it a minute, will you?’ Otsu took the sheets and leafed

through them. Both men were silent. Only then did they seem to take notice of the storm. Otsu listened, rapt, as he stared at his manuscript.

‘This is a writer’s sort of night, don’t you think?’ Akiyama said. Otsu, silent, seemed unaware that he had spoken. Akiyama could not tell whether Otsu was listening to the storm or reading his manuscript or whether, indeed, his thoughts had flown to someone far away. But he felt that Otsu’s expression, his eyes, were just what an artist looks for.

Otsu turned to Akiyama with the eyes of one who has just awakened from a dream. ‘Rather than have you read this,’ he said, ‘it would make more sense for me to talk about what I have written. Shall I do that? This is nothing more than an outline. You wouldn’t understand it.’

‘That would be even better-to hear all the details from you.’

Akiyama noticed that Otsu’s eyes were moist and gave off a strange gleam.

‘I will tell you all I can remember. If you find it dull, though, don’t hesitate to tell me. On the other hand I won’t hesitate to go on talking. It’s odd, but suddenly I feel that I would like to have you hear this.’

Akiyama added charcoal to the fire and placed the bottles of sake, cool by now, into the warmer.

‘ “The unforgettable man is not of necessity one whom we dare not forget.” Look, this is the first sentence I have written here.’ Otsu showed him the manuscript. ‘First let me explain what I mean by it. That way you can understand the overall theme. Actually, I am quite sure you understand it already.’

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‘No, never mind that. Just go ahead. I will listen as though I were an

ordinary reader. Pardon me if I lie down….’

With a cigarette between his lips, Akiyama stretched out on the floor. Resting his head on his right hand he looked at Otsu with the trace of a smile in his eyes.

‘We cannot simply refer to parents and children or to friends or to the

teachers and others to whom we are obligated, as unforgettable people. These are people “whom we dare not forget”. But then there are

others complete strangers–to whom we have made no pledge of love, to whom we are not duty bound. To forget them would imply neither

neglect of duty nor want of compassion. Yet these are the very ones whom we cannot forget. I would not say that for everyone there are such unforgettable people, but for me there certainly are. Perhaps for you, too.’

Akiyama simply nodded. ‘It was the middle of spring, I remember, when I was nineteen years

old. I had not been feeling well, and had decided to leave Tokyo, where I was at school, and go home for a rest. I took the regular Inland Sea

steamer from Osaka. There was no wind on that spring day, and the sea was calm. But all of this happened so long ago. I can remember nothing about the other passengers, or the captain, or the boy who served refreshments. No doubt there was some fellow-passenger kind enough to pour my tea, and others with whom I passed the time on deck, but none of this is left in my memory.

‘Because of the state of my health, I must surely have been depressed. I remember, at least, that I daydreamed about the future while I roamed

the deck, and thought of the fate of men in this life. I suppose this is the sort of thing all young men do at such times. I heard the pleasant sound of the ship’s hull cutting through the water, and watched the soft glow of the spring day melt into the sea’s oil-smooth, unrippled surface. As the ship advanced, one small island after another would rise out of the mist on either side of us, then disappear. The islands, each draped in a thick brocade of yellow flowers and green barley leaves, seemed to be floating deep within the surrounding mist. Before long the ship passed not fifteen hundred yards from the beach of a small island off to the right, and I stepped to the rail, gazing absentmindedly at the island. There seemed to be no fields or houses, only groves of small, low pine scattered over the hillside. It was low tide. The damp surface of the hushed and deserted beach glistened in the sun, and now and then a long streak perhaps the playing of little waves at the water’s edge-shone like a naked

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sword, then dissolved. From the faint call of a lark high in the air over the hill, one could tell that the island was inhabited. I remembered my father’s poem, “The soaring lark betrays a farm behind the island’s face,” and I thought there must certainly be houses on the other side. And as I watched I caught sight of a lone figure on the sunlit beach. I could tell it was a man, and not a woman or a child. He seemed to be picking things up repeatedly and putting them into a basket or pail. He would take two or three steps, squat down, and pick something up. I watched carefully as he wandered along the deserted little beach beneath the hill. As the ship drew further away, the man’s form became a black dot, and soon the beach, the hills, and the island all faded into the mist. Almost ten years have passed, and I have thought many times of this man at the edge of the island, the man whose face I never saw. He is one of those I cannot forget.

‘The next one I will tell you about I saw five years ago. I had spent New Year’s Day with my parents and set out the following day for Kyushu. I crossed the island, from Kumamoto to Oita, on foot.

‘I had promised to take my brother along. The two of us left Kumamoto early in the morning, prepared for our trek with sandals and gaiters- and high spirits. That day we walked as far as Tateno, arriving well before sunset. There we stayed the night. We left before sunrise and soon, as we had hoped, the white volcanic smoke of Mlount Aso was there in the distance to guide us. Trudging along the frosty ground, crossing bridges suspended among the rocks, losing our way now and then, we made the lower peaks of Aso by noon. It must have been one o’clock by the timne we reached the crater. The whole Kumamoto area is warm, of course, and

that day it was clear and windless. Even near the top of the mountain, 5,000 feet high and in mid-winter, we felt quite comfortable. Steam

poured out of the crater and drifted up to the highest peak, Takadake, where it froze, gleaming white. There was scarcely a patch of snow anywhere else on the mountain. Dead grass, faint white stirrings in the breeze. Sharp cliffs of earth burnt red and black, remnants of the vast ancient crater that once gaped fifteen miles across. I could never capture this on paper, the desolation. Only a painter could convey the scene, I think.

‘We climbed to the edge of the crater and for a while stood looking into the terrible pit and enjoying the panorama all around us. Up there, of course, the wind was unbearably cold. Soon we retreated to the little stand next to Aso Shrine, below the crater rim. Invigorated with a little tea and rice, we climbed again to the crater.

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‘The sun by that time was near the horizon, and the plains to the west were blanketed in a haze that caught its flaming red. The mist was the color of the charred cliff that formed the western edge of the old crater. The cone of Mount Kujui soared high above the flock of hills to the north. The plateau at its base, a carpet of withered grass that stretched for miles, caught the glow of the setting sun. The air there was so clear one might have seen a horseman at that great distance. The earth and sky seemed like a single vast enclosure. The ground shook beneath us and a thick column of white smoke shot straight up, angled off sharply, grazing Takadake, and dissolved into the distance. What could one call such a spectacle? Magnificent? Beautiful? Awesome? We stood, silent as stone figures. These are the moments when one cannot help but sense the vastness of the universe and the mystery of man’s existence.

‘What most enthralled us was the great basin that lay between distant Mount Kujua and Mount Aso where we stood. I had often heard that this was the remains of the world’s largest volcanic crater. Now with my

own eyes I could see how the plateau beneath Kujui dropped suddenly away to form the sheer cliff wall that continued for miles along the northern and western rim of the basin. Unlike the Nantai crater in

Nikka, which had changed into the beautiful, secluded Lake Chuizenji, this enormous crater had, through the ages, become a vast garden of grain. The villages, the forests and wheatfields in the basin now caught the slanting rays of the setting sun. Down there, too, was the little post town of Miyaji and the promise it held out to us of a night of restful,

untroubled sleep.

‘We thought for a while of sleeping that night on the mountain to see the glowing crater in the dark. But I was due in Oita. We started the descent to Miyaji. The downward slope was much gentler than the climb had been. We hurried along a path that snaked its way through the dry

grass of the foothills and ravines. As we neared the villages we passed more and more horses loaded down with bales of hay. All around us on the

paths leading down the mountain were men leading horses. Everything was bathed in the light of the setting sun. The air was filled with the tinkling of harness bells. To every horse was strapped a load of hay. Near as the foot of the mountain had appeared from above, we seemed

to be making no headway towards the villages. The sun was almost gone. We walked faster and faster, and finally broke into a run.

‘When we entered the nearest village the sun was down and the twilight was fading. The day’s end activity there was remarkable. The

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grownups were hurrying about, finishing up the day’s work. The children,

laughing and singing and crying, had gathered in the dark corners of the

fences, or beneath the eaves where they could see the kitchen fires. It was

the same here as in any country town at dusk, but I had never been so

struck with such a scene, having raced down from Aso’s desolation into

the midst of this humanity. We two dragged ourselves along, knowing how long the road was that lay before us in the dark, but feeling, too, a

sense of homecoming as we headed for our night’s lodging in Miyaji.

‘WVe had not gone far into the woods and fields beyond the village, when the twilight turned to dark. Our shadows stood out clearly on the ground. Behind us, the new moon had risen above a peak of Aso. Almost

benevolently it seemed to cast its clear, pale rays upon the villages in the

basin. Directly overhead, the volcanic smoke that in the daylight had risen in white billows shone silvery gray in the light of the moon. It

seemed to strike against the opaque blue-green sky, an awesome and

beautiful sight. We came to a short bridge-it was broader than it was long and, glad of the chance to rest our feet, leaned for a while against the rail, watching the changing shape of the smoke in the sky and half listening to the far-off voices of the village people. Just then the

sound of an empty cart came echoing from the woods through which we had passed a few moments before. It drew closer, resounding in the

stillness, until it seemed close enough to touch. ‘Soon we could hear drawing nearer, along with the rattle of the

empty cart, the clear, ringing tone of a teamster’s song. Still gazing at the stream of smoke, I listened for the song and waited half consciously for its singer to reach us.

‘A man appeared out of the darkness. He sang, drawing out each

note of the tune, “Miyaji’s a fine old place, under the mountain,” until he reached the bridge where we stood. I felt deeply moved by the tune

and the man’s sad yet stirring voice. A sturdy young man in his mid- twenties passed by, leading his horse, without so much as a glance in

our direction. I looked steadily at him as he walked along. With the moon at his back, even his profile was obscured. But I can see even now the

black silhouette of his powerful body. ‘I watched him until he disappeared into the darkness, then looked up

once again at the smoke of Mount Aso. The young man is one of those I cannot forget.

‘This next one I saw in Mitsugahama in Shikoku when I was waiting for a ship. It was the beginning of summer, I remember. I left the inn first thing in the morning, and when I heard that the ship would be arriv-

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ing in the afternoon, I decided to take a stroll along the beach and then through the town. Since Mitsugahama is not far from the city of Matsuyama in the interior, it is a thriving harbor town. The fish market, which operates in the morning, was especially crowded. The sky was bright and cloudless. The morning sun shone gloriously. Everything sparkled in its light. Colors seemed more vibrant and the bustling scene took on added gaiety. There was shouting and laughter, curses and cheers. Buyers and sellers, young and old, men and women, all hurried back and forth. All seemed absorbed and happy in their work. A line of food stalls waited for customers who would eat standing up. The food they offered hardly bears description. It was what you would expect for the sailors and drifters who ate there. Scattered all around the market area were seabream and flounder, eels and octopus. The harsh odor of raw fish stirred and shifted with each rush of the boisterous crowd.

‘I was a total stranger in the town. There was not a face in the crowd that I knew, not a bald spot that looked familiar. My anonymity in the midst of this scene aroused a strange emotion in me, and I felt as though I was seeing everything with a new clarity. Not caring where I went, I strolled along as part of the crowd and came to the end of a rather quiet street.

‘Suddenly I heard music. There, in front of a shop, an itinerant monk stood, playing a lute. He seemed to be in his mid-forties, a short, heavy man with a broad, square face. The expression on his face, the look in his eyes, matched perfectly the mournful sound of the lute. His low, heavy voice followed sluggishly behind the muffled wail of the strings. Not a person on the street took notice of the monk, and no one came out from any of the houses to listen. The morning sun shone. The world went about its business.

‘But I watched the monk and listened to his playing. The narrow yet busy street with its ramshackle houses had little in common with the monk and the lute, but somewhere, I could feel, there was a deep understanding between them. The lute’s sobbing tones drifted between the rows of houses on either side of the street, mingling with the bold cries of peddlers and the sound of hammering from somewhere nearby. And when I heard the music, flowing like a current of pure spring water through some muddy pond, I felt that every one of these people on the street with their gay, busy-looking faces was part of the tune. This monk, then, with his lute, is one of those I cannot forget.’

At this point Otsu broke off his narrative. He set the manuscript down

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gently. For a while he seemed lost in thought. Outside, the storm roared

on as before. Akiyama sat up.

‘And then … ?’ ‘I think I’ll make that the last one. It’s getting too late. There are so

many left-a miner in Hokkaido, a young fisherman I saw in China, a river boatman with a wen in Kyushu-I could talk until morning and not get to them all. But more important is why I can never forget them,

why they appear, again and again, as images in my mind. It is this that I want to make clear to you.

‘I am not a happy man. Always I am tortured by life’s great

questions and by my own overwhelming ambitions. ‘In the deepening hours of a night such as this, alone, staring into the

lamp, I feel the isolation in which men live, and I experience unbearable

sorrow. At these times my inflexible egoism seems to shatter, and the thought of others touches me deeply. I think of my friends and of days long past. But more than anything else, images of these people I have

described to you come streaming into my mind. No, I see not the people themselves. I see them as figures in the background of a much larger scene. They are part of their surroundings, part of a moment. I remember these people and from deep within me the thought wells up: How am I different from anyone else? Part of the life we share is from heaven, and part of it is from earth. All of us are returning hand in hand, along the same eternal track, to that infinite heaven. And when this realization comes to me, I find myself in tears, for there is then in

truth no Self, no Others. I am touched by memories of each and every one.

‘Only at these times do I feel such peace, such liberation, such sympathy towards all things. Only then do worldly thoughts of fame and the struggle for fortune disappear so utterly.

‘I want very much to write on this theme and express exactly what I have in mind. I believe that somewhere in this world there must be men

who feel as I do.’

Two years passed. Circumstances had brought Otsu to make his home in Tohoku. His

acquaintance with the man Akiyama, whom he had met at the inn in Mizonokuchi, had long since ended. The time of year was what it had been then in Mizonokuchi. It was a rainy night. Otsu sat alone at his desk, lost in thought. On the desk was the manuscript of ‘Unforgettable People’ that he had shown to Akiyama two years before. A new chapter

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had been added, ‘The Innkeeper of the Kameya’. There was no chapter called ‘Akiyama’.

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