Japanese culture is based on a very poetic and minimalist methodology. The zen belief of letting go and detachment are highly regarded and desired within a person. This idea can be found in the periodic 20-year reconstruction of Ise-Jingu, a famous Shinto Shrine, or Japanese rock gardens that are re-raked on a daily basis. This idea of detachment is also applied to the ancient tradition of calligraphy known as “Shodo”. The permanence of sumi, or black ink, gives the artist only one chance to perfect the piece. I saw this diligence in my grandfather, an expert calligraphist, who practiced on a daily basis to perfect his art.
When I look at my grandfather’s carefully painted brushstrokes on the small scroll that is hanging on my wall, I can’t help but admire the pure simplicity and effortlessness of his writing. The more I look at it, I can’t help but imagine my grandfather sitting in his faded green woven chair with the lacquered wooden handles and the china blue futon pillow, brush in hand as it dances across the page. My name is delicately written in the upper right hand corner followed by a simple four-character proverb put evenly in the middle of the page. It says “An-shin ritsumei” or “The act of reaching a peaceful state of mind; enlightenment”. Although he gave this to me, the proverb is a perfect characterization of my grandfather and his loving personality. Seeing his timeless calligraphy transports me to Tokyo, a trip that I’ve taken for as long as I can remember.
It’s always dark when we arrive at Kokubunji train station. Suitcases clutched in one hand, empty water bottles and folded plane tickets in the other. If my brother’s and my distinct “happa” (half Japanese) look isn’t outward enough, our post-airplane outfits and disheveled hair just scream foreigner in the crowd of navy blue school uniforms and neatly pressed business suits. The fresh baked croissants from one of the station’s several bakeries spread their aroma through the crowd. We contemplate getting a taxi, but to my dismay; we end up walking. The air is hot and sticky despite the graying sky that quickly disappears into the night.
I pass by the glowing sign of my hair salon as the last customer is admirably fluffing her new blowout in the mirror. Through green fogged glass doors my hairstylist, Mizutasan, is sweeping the last bits of hair fallen on the floor. I half expect my reflection in the salon to still be my five-year old self with freshly cut bangs, a pale pink Atlantis shirt and my signature blue sparkly sneakers. I feel like waving, but I realize it’s already been one whole year. Maybe tomorrow.
I walk down my favourite street with the silhouette of maple leaves as my sky. The ringing cry of the cicadas fill the humid air around me, muffling the plastic wheels of my suitcase scratching the surface of the red tiled road. I always forget how loud they are. I see the worn traditional wood house to my right that’s surrounded by a farm of ripe cucumbers and juicy persimmons tugging at the ends of the tree branches. But I know that it’s really just a concrete apartment complex now. That that house was demolished a couple years ago. That all the seeds from the garden are silently lodged under the weight of the concrete foundation.
I approach the old rice shop that is just a whisper in the now charcoal sky, only illuminated by the glow of the brand new vending machine.
But the vending machine is rusted now, tattered with the remains of advertisements that adhered a little too strongly around the edges. I can almost hear the owner dragging his sandals on the store’s concrete floor as he pokes his head out the sliding doors and asks us how “‘Konechi--kato’ (Connecticut) is,” and “Is Mr. Jim coming to visit soon?”
Finally I’m within a few feet of my grandparent’s house. The white light is shining through the aged glass windows. I can’t make out much of the house but I don’t have to, to know the brown paint peeling up along the edges that touch the rough white concrete. The house is surrounded by a dusty persimmon colored brick wall. Humidity and anticipation drip down my face as I search for a tissue buried in my jacket pocket to dab it with.
The metal gate swings open easily and I ask my brother to hold my stuff as I yank open the red front door. The smell of fresh rice and dinner immediately dominates my senses, and I realize that in this moment, I am finally home. I kick off my shoes in haste, but then remember to line them up, toes facing the door. I quickly fix my brother’s shoes; he always forgets.
“I’m home,” it comes out meekly, barely a whisper.
“I’m home!” I say a little louder, just to tell myself that I am home.
And that’s the minute I hear the sliding paper door open from the right corner. The sound of his feet hastily slipping into his pale green woven slippers as he rushes to greet us. My grandpa is standing there, smiling in his white short sleeve button down shirt tucked into his gray pants. Smiling like I never left. Smiling like he would never leave.
“Alice and George!” his eyes light up behind his black framed glasses.
“Wow! Look how tall you are now, George,” he says smiling at me as he pats my head.
“I’m Alice! That’s George, Ojiichan,” I laugh in response. Nothing has changed.
“Oh silly old Ojiichan. Of course that’s you, Alice,” he chuckles and welcomes us in.
I pause because I know this is just in my head. The sliding doors have stopped opening for a couple years now. I don’t even look at them, but I don’t have to, to know they’re still there. Just unused.
I turn to the light pink plastic sink. The water always comes out with too much pressure as it splashes my shirt in tiny little speckles. The water’s cold so I quickly blot my hands with a fresh towel. When I turn around the sliding door is directly across me now.
I don’t walk in. I don’t want the memory to change. I want the glossy wood desk to stay glossy forever. The desk where he would show me how to properly hold a sumi brush, or how to get the ends of the character’s just right with a flick of the wrist. The desk he would practice calligraphy on. At six am sharp, both left and right hand. The smell of the room like old wood worn to the smoothest texture. The pale green softened Tatami mats I would glide my feet across. Scrolls of calligraphy lining his walls. And sitting above his display case of abundant hand carved Buddhist and Shinto trinkets, lie my fondest memories in a series of small metal drawers. It’s just paper. But it’s the paper that my grandpa always encouraged me to draw with and paint with and to create anything I imagined with. And anything I created, he would date and save. Somewhere in a wooden box with my name on it. One for George’s art and one for Alice’s art.
He never threw our art away. Even when summer’s passed by. Even when my bangs grew out. Even when my pink Atlantis shirt and blue sparkly sneakers ended up in the bottom of a drawer or a bag labeled Goodwill. Even when the old wooden house on my favourite street turned to concrete. And even when he passed away.
I’d like to think that he kept a part of us from our pasts. Just the way his calligraphy captured him in a certain time, at a certain place. His room, now a static world full of static things from long ago.
As a viewer, calligraphy stirs many emotions. It’s simple, it’s bare and void of embellishment or decorative elements, but it is a pure reflection of an individual in a specific moment. It captures a memory without the constraints of editing or the ability to revise.
When I trace my finger along the curved, angular, or swift lines of the jet black Shodo hanging by my bed I am checking my jacket pockets for all my belongings. I am standing with my blue sparkly sneakers behind the worn yellow caution line on the station platform. My grandpa is checking his little black analog wrist watch for the arrival of my train. It's six o’clock sharp. He should be diligently practicing his calligraphy right about now, but instead he’s waiting for me. I feel the outer corner of my eyes dampen. His wise and worn hands pat my shoulder. The train’s headlights pierce the black abyss of the train tunnel. I turn around and give my grampa a big hug without a sound because the words just don’t come out. See you next summer Ojiichan.