The Japan I Carry With Me

A writer returns to a childhood spent in Japan, defined by an essential reverence for daily beauty and decorum.



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THE TENTH-CENTURY JAPANESE writer Sei Shōnagon captured the grandeur of summer nights in Japan when she wrote, “Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!” Shōnagon composed “The Pillow Book” — a journal-like collection of 185 lists, observations, and vignettes — while serving as a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court in Kyoto. This description of summer nights is part of her praise of the four seasons. Growing up in Kobe in the 1960s, I too experienced the unique beauty of each season, but summer was my favorite.

In my happiest childhood memories, it is always summer, and my mother and I are spending July and August, the hottest months, with her parents. From their large airy house, it was a short walk through the rice paddies to the river where I learned to swim: first the dog paddle, then the breaststroke, sidestroke, and freestyle. The stretch of the river designated for swimming changed from year to year because rainfall and erosion determined where the current was the slowest and the depth was appropriate for children to swim safely. The river was a living entity, as were the mountains that surrounded the rice-farming village where my ancestors had owned the vast green sea of paddies, though my grandfather was an elementary school principal and had retired shortly after I was born. On clear nights, he sat on the bench in the backyard and pointed out the stars and the constellations: the Milky Way, which was called Ama no Kawa (River of Heaven); the Big Dipper; the Swan; and the two stars — Altair and Vega — that came closest to each other in midsummer. On July 7, when the two stars, said to be separated lovers, were granted their annual reunion, we folded origami into colorful nets, wrote our wishes on strips of calligraphy paper, and hung them from bamboo branches.



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My grandfather taught me to navigate the night sky in search of stories. My grandmother, on the other hand, called my attention to the ground under our feet and the sustenance it provided: watermelons cooled in the well water and eaten in the yard during the hottest hour of the day; tomatoes picked off the vine (I was allowed to sit in the patch with a damp cloth and a salt shaker to eat as many as I liked); eggs, still warm, collected every morning from her hen house. Summer in the country was about nature’s beauty and abundance.

When we returned to the city in late August, the days were still stifling. Private residences didn’t have air-conditioning in every room back then. My mother and I often escaped our apartment and spent our afternoons in department stores in downtown Kobe. We’d browse countless displays of dresses, blouses, skirts, sweaters, and jackets, trying them on in the cool comfort of the fitting rooms. In the delicious chill of air-conditioning, we were inspired to purchase outfits for our fall and winter wardrobes. Inside those stores (and due to the demands of fashion merchandising that I didn’t fully understand yet), it was already the season of light frost and brisk winds. Clothes shopping was a mini time travel — skipping to the next season felt magical and hopeful. Every department store had a food section in the basement, so before taking the train home, my mother and I toured cuisines from around the country. My favorite booth was occupied by a master noodle maker who stood behind a floor-to-ceiling glass window, kneading, throwing, and pounding the huge disk of dough onto the wooden board. Flour floated around him like snow. Our trip through the world of food ended at a tea shop, with a piece of chiffon cake served on a pretty painted plate and lemon tea poured into a fluted cup with a matching saucer.


Although I did not read “The Pillow Book” until I was an adult living in the United States, my upbringing was based on the reverence for beauty that suffused its pages. Shōnagon didn’t make a distinction between nature and artifice. She was as delighted by beautiful clothes as by the perfect view of the moon or the red petals of the plum blossoms at their peak. She wrote, “To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.” On a hot summer day, when the paper fan she waved back and forth failed to produce a breath of cool air, she felt revived by a letter she received “on a sheet of fine, brilliantly red paper and attached to a Chinese pink in full bloom.” My mother could have sent her that missive, had they been contemporaries. She wrote to her parents every week about the flowers she grew in the small cutting garden under our balcony, the new dresses she had bought or sewed for herself and for me, the baking recipes she’d tried, and the anecdotes in which I often played the starring role. I composed my own notes to add to hers. Presentation was an important part of the message. We went to stationery stores to find letter paper, envelopes, and tiny decals of flowers and birds to decorate the back of the envelopes. Every few months, we stood in line at the post office to buy special-issue stamps depicting famous views of mountains and waterfalls, temples and shrines, moss gardens and flowering orchards. In the miniature landscapes, every detail looked vivid and accurate.

Because my mother died when I was 12, I was not able to talk about “The Pillow Book” with her. Her death is the reason I left Japan at 20 and never returned to live. My grandparents, too, are long gone, so I seldom visit anymore. One of my last trips was in the 1990s to meet my Japanese publisher in Tokyo, a city I had never traveled to while growing up. In its essence, though, Tokyo was a lot like Kobe: an amazing mixture of the old and the new. All around my hotel, in every direction, there were opportunities for world-class shopping and dining in myriad new buildings. One of my regrets from that trip is that I didn’t buy the perfect jacket I came across at a boutique. It was the classic light blue of the 1960s airline stewardesses (they were not called flight attendants then), and it fit me perfectly. I hesitated because I was running late for my appointment. I dashed out to grab a cab and tried to go back the next day. By then, I couldn’t remember where the boutique was. Unlike most American cities, Tokyo is not built on a grid. But the twisting roads that swallowed up the boutique also led me, on my morning run, to an old residential neighborhood where I discovered a roadside shrine with a statue on which someone had placed a knitted cap, a graveyard with vines and moss growing on weathered stone monuments, a dozen pots of flowering jasmine in front of a tiny house whose front door opened onto an alley. Shōnagon would have appreciated everything I saw on that trip. New or old, commercial or private, all of it was beautiful in its own way.

One of my earliest memories is of accompanying my mother to the market where each small purchase — a pair of apples, a loaf of bread, a head of lettuce — was wrapped in clean white paper, folded just so, like a gift. My mother put her money on a brass plate, and the grocer lifted the currency, counted out the change, and arranged the coins on the plate like an offering. Even a mundane transaction, conducted with care, could be elevated into a ritual of dignity. What I learned from growing up in Japan is the daily practice of beauty and decorum: dressing to suit the season and the occasion, whether I’m going to the university to teach my class; meeting friends at a private dinner party, fancy restaurant downtown, or favorite diner down the street; choosing the letter paper, the envelope, and the stamp for a thank-you note; preparing a simple dinner of salad and bread for myself. Because I’ve spent two-thirds of my life in the States, there are very few traits or beliefs that make me different from my American friends, but the fundamental trust in beauty, which I learned from my mother, is one of them. I was not trained to be suspicious of style and elegance, or to assume that nature is authentic and human creation is false. “Beauty is skin deep” is an utterly un-Japanese concept. The essence of Japan that I carry with me is a desire to find beauty everywhere and to be transformed every day by the discovery.


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Our Contributors

Kyoko Mori Writer

Kyoko Mori is the author of three nonfiction books (“The Dream of Water,” “Polite Lies,” and “Yarn”) and four novels (“Shizuko’s Daughter,” “One Bird,” “Stone Field, True Arrow,” and “Barn Cat”). Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, The American Scholar, Conjunctions, The Best American Essays, and other journals and anthologies. She lives in Washington, D.C. and teaches in George Mason University’s MFA program in creative writing and Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program.

Rafik Greiss Photographer

Rafik Greiss is an Irish-born Egyptian artist who is currently based in Paris. He graduated from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 2020. His work has been exhibited internationally at the Swiss Institute (New York City, 2023), the Louvre (Paris, France 2023), Spazio Amanita (Florence, Italy, 2022), and Balice Hertling (Paris, France, 2022), among others. His first solo exhibition was at Galerie Balice Hertling in 2021.


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