Saturday, September 7, 2013

Tokyo: The Land of Mark's Childhood

We started out our day yesterday the same as the day before: up around 4:00 a.m., get dressed, go down to the lobby to use the internet, work for a couple of hours, then head upstairs to change and go down for breakfast in the basement of the hotel.

By the way, this hotel probably has at most about 50 rooms, and we have nothing but good things to say about it – except the WiFi, and that may be because of where our room is located. The staff are extremely helpful and polite, the place is clean, and the decorating is tasteful, understated, superb - very natural and Zen-like.

After breakfast, we walk across the street to the park to sit on a bench and write in our journals. This morning, we sat very near our place behind an outdoor pavilion; there is a sort of waterfall created with pools around the pavilion, and it was very soothing and nice to sit there and listen to the running water.


Our first destination yesterday was Yasukuni Jinja Shrine. Mark remembered playing there as a child and knew it wasn’t far from where he lived when his family came back from furlough in the States in August 1961, just after his seventh birthday. The Koepkes would live there in the neighborhood of Chiyoda for the next four years.

Yasakuni is a controversial shrine. It is a memorial to Japan’s war dead, around 2.5 million souls who died in World War II and other wars, including 14 class-A war criminals who are enshrined there, such as General Tojo. Emperor Hirohito (who was the emperor during WWII and died in 1989) refused to visit the shrine after 1978, and now leaders of only conservative wings of Japan’s political parties visit the shrine. An interesting article about continuing controversy over the shrine on the occasion of the recent anniversary of Japan's surrender after World War II, is located here.

I frankly didn’t have a very good feeling when we were there. (Mark, of course, simply remembered the shrine and its grounds as someplace he played.) This is one of the reasons that I have chosen to render what pictures I took there in black and white, except for one – of the Koi in the pond behind the shrine.

Enveloped Lantern

Korean dog

Procession of Lanterns

Ritual cleansing

Lantern through timbers of main gate

Symphony of maple leaves

One who sees



Gnarled trunk of an aged cherry tree

Childhood Recovered

In the end, it was relatively simple to find Mark's old house. Mark had been Google-ing the address of his parents’ old home. He couldn’t find it, but did find the Lutheran Mission Center, which was only a couple of blocks from his old home. We walked out of the shrine grounds, down a street and it all started coming back to him.

The Koepke home was the brown house just above the word "Kudan." The sloping roof of the Nippon Budokan - built in 1963-64 in advance of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics - is visible in the top right-hand corner.

As we walked those streets, I thought of a quote by L.P. Hartley: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. I have had occasion to think recently about the past - my own past. Doing so has made me realize that things were not necessarily how I remember them, partly because memory is selective - especially when one hasn't been around the people and places that were involved in the creation of memories.

In Mark's case, it was interesting for me as an observer to see the chambers of Mark's memories being unlocked. Walking the streets of his old neighborhood, everything being different, yet - I imagine - scenes flashing into his mind of the way the streets looked 50 years ago ... trying to connect the dots.

The landscape was very different from what it was, and Mark couldn't be sure … until he saw the Lutheran Mission Center. That had remained the same. The bell tower where he used to wait for his dad was still there. We walked in the building, and the chapel was still the same as it had been when his mother coped with him and Tim, Sarah and Rebecca during church services. (Deb was always the angel … hmmm …. )

As I sat outside the Center with Mark and took pictures of him, I literally felt chills running up my spine. Goosebumps. It was so … mystical. That Mark would come back here at this point in his life when he is facing cancer. It felt like the completion of a karmic circle. Here, he lived his childhood. Here, he returned. The circle of life. It was a spiritual moment … for me, and I’m sure in a sense that was all his own, for Mark.

There are three stories in this photograph. First, the building on the right is approximately where the Koepke house was. Second, the mother and daughter on the left: as we were walking around the neighborhood and the shrine grounds that morning, we saw literally scores of mothers and daughters dressed almost identical to the way this mother and daughter are dressed - in some cases accompanied by a father in a suit. Third: the man on the right: as we walked toward him from the other direction, I saw that he was haunched down, picking weeds and grass out of the tiny cracks between the bricks with a pair of small salad tongs with tiny teeth on the ends.

The Imperial Gardens

After visiting Mark’s old stomping grounds, we walked the short distance to Kitanomaru Park, where we passed the Nippon Budokan, then made our way to the northern edge of the Imperial Gardens through the Tayasu Gate, built in 1635.

Stones in Gate House

Part of massive door structure

Cracks in and straps on timbers forming gate door

Looking out the Ote-Mon Gate, which serves as a passageway from 17th-century Edo to 21st-century Tokyo. 

We were frankly beat after touring the Imperial Gardens, so we took the subway back to our hotel, where we spent a quiet afternoon napping, writing and working on pictures - and napping. It was nice to have some down time. 

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