Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet

Tokyo, 3

Today you attend a lecture about the history of fires.

Until the 19th century Tokyo – or Edo as it was known then – was made mostly of wood and paper. The most common houses were framed in cedar or cypress, sometimes finished with clay, mud or plaster, with paper windows, paper sliding doors, paper paneling for walls. The mild climate made such light construction possible. But there is nothing so good for starting a fire as paper, and the city was famous for burning down on a regular basis, especially in winter when the warming braziers burned charcoal at all hours, and the stray embers multiplied. The saying went: Fires and fistfights are the flowers of Edo.

When entire neighborhoods burned, as they often did, many people died. Still, the sense of dislocation was less than what a Westerner might imagine. Edo was a city of renters, and their homes were largely what Wemmick (of Great Expectations) would have called portable property. For floors, they had reed straw tatami mats, futon for beds, folding shoji screens for walls. At the first lick of smoke, the city-dwellers would fold up floors, beds and walls and flee for safer ground. Then, once the ashes settled, they would return, rent another paper box, and put their home back together inside it. Their furnishings did not so much fill the space as create it. Until the Napoleonic law codes were adopted and translated, Japanese had no term for real estate.

So perhaps the saying about fires and flowers was not completely ironic. Japan loves its flowers, its paper, all things ephemeral that fold and unfold, that bloom for a week and wither. There is something wistful about this, living in a paper box, nothing more to home than what you can carry. We are all tenants of the lives we inhabit. What is it that makes us belong there?

When Westerners feel at home, we buy big, heavy things – houses, furniture, appliances – perhaps hoping that these will keep us in our lives, hold us down. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name, says Holly Golightly. But you are carrying more on your back now than what many people would have owned –

 

            Like an old turtle

                        the traveler stoops again

                                    to shoulder his pack

 

and it has not made you a home, or brought you any closer to one. You want a home, and you want not to need one.

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