A Year in a Japanese Teahouse

I landed in Tokyo on a chilly March morning in 1985, my head filled with thoughts of moon viewing and cherry blossoms, rock gardens and snow-covered temples.
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I landed in Tokyo on a chilly March morning in 1985, my head filled with thoughts of moon viewing and cherry blossoms, rock gardens and snow-covered temples. I'd come to teach English but was also in search of the true, unencumbered self, the chance to cast aside the unnecessary trappings of life and live my Thoreauvian moment. There was only one problem: except for the occasional shrine or kimono-clad woman, Tokyo seemed to be neon signs, fashionista girls, futuristic buildings, Elvis look-alikes rocking out in the park on a Sunday afternoon. Where, I wondered, was traditional Japan?

Some Westerners had found it. In the 1950s, poet Gary Snyder studied at a Kyoto temple and became a Buddhist; journalist Alan Booth walked the back roads of Japan from north to south, an epic 2000-mile journey chronicled in his 1985 book, The Roads to Sata. Perhaps I would have to leave Tokyo, retreat to a Kyoto temple or trek to a mountain hamlet deep in snow country.

But as it turned out, I discovered old Japan right in Tokyo. Not long after arriving, I found a small house in the northwest part of the city. It wasn't so much a house as a one-room wooden teahouse tucked behind the main residence. The family had remodeled it into a little place for the grandmother and after she died, they began renting it out.

The house was yo-joo-han or 4.5 tatami mats (about 75 square feet). A narrow weather-beaten veranda overlooked a garden with bamboo and clematis, roses and camellias, crows and cats and frogs. Inside there was a metal cold-water sink; a two-burner gas stove; a Western-style toilet in a space so small you had to leave the door open to make room for your knees; a black rotary phone; a fridge about one foot square; a wide closet divided horizontally for easy storage of the futon during the day and inconvenient storage of skirts and dresses. Because there was no bath or shower, I went around the corner every evening to the sento public bathhouse and had a soak with the neighborhood grandmothers.

Rustic and minuscule though the house was, I fell in love with it. The classic "room of one's own," it reminded me of the chambre de bonne maid's room I'd lived in while working in Paris as an au pair governess before college. But it was more luxurious: in the chambre de bonne -- a ninth-floor walkup with a gazing-over-the-rooftops, starving-artist's-garret charm -- there'd been a squat toilet down the hall, no phone, and no fridge.

My little Tokyo house was, as is traditional in Japanese architecture, fluid and open to the elements. I enjoyed the feeling that I was in harmony with nature, in sync with the universe rather than trying to shelter myself from it. In summer, I opened the sliding wooden doors to let the breezes flow through, along with the cooling tinkle of the fuurin glass wind chime. In winter, cold penetrating the uninsulated walls and only an old gas heater for warmth, I watched snow fall on the garden, blanket the green bamboo leaves and red camellia blossoms.

This proximity to the environment, together with the highly evocative Japanese words and expressions for weather and the seasons, transformed my view of the natural world. Rain, for example, took on intriguing new dimensions: there was shito-shito, a light, quiet rain (not to be confused with shobo-shobo, also a light, quiet rain, but in a somewhat negative sense); zaa-zaa, a torrential downpour; yuudachi, a cloudburst on a summer evening; saa-saa, hissing rain; and potsu-potsu, drops falling randomly, like when it's just starting to rain. For the seasons, there was aki no koe, the voice of autumn as heard, for example, in the wind through dry, fallen leaves; fuyugomori, winter seclusion; yokan, the cold that lingers in early spring; aoarashi or "blue storm," the blue-green of lush summer foliage in a strong breeze.

I began to explore Japanese literature and found that the haiku poems by 17th-century pilgrim-poet Matsuo Basho took on a special resonance when read in my little house, especially because of their relation to the seasons and because Basho had lived in a small hut in Edo (present-day Tokyo).

I could delight in this one on a star-scattered fall evening:

Nodding off on horseback,
I dream of distant moons and
threads of tea-fire smoke

-Translated by Sam Hamill

This one on a white winter morning:

Drooping, bent --
the world is upside down
snow on the bamboo

-Translated by Takafumi Saito and William R. Nelson

And this one on a fresh spring day:

At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water

-Translated by Sam Hamill

It wasn't all delicacy and loveliness, though, especially in the summer rainy season when giant cockroaches lumbered out of the closet like sumo wrestlers and mold grew on my shoes and bags. But even this had its poetic aspect:

Beard hairs sprouting
from a green-pale face
rainy season

-Translated by Liza Dalby

My year in the little teahouse was part of the inspiration for "Things You Dreamed of and Things You Didn't," a story of mine in the latest Big Bridge. It was a long time ago now that I lived in that house and much has changed in Tokyo and in my life, but those peaceful days of solitude and reflection have always stayed with me.

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