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Searching for Nirvana

JAPANESE CITIES ARE LIKE BENTO BOXES," says John McCreery, an anthropology professor who also writes ad copy for Japanese firms. "Each has a different mix." We're sitting on the sunny terrace of the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club, eating lamb sandwiches beside the bowling green and the cricket fields. Here, there are no bento—the box lunches you can pick up at any Japanese train station or department store, filled with a geometric grid of sushi and pickles and seaweed. The YCAC, founded in 1868 (when the first C stood for Cricket), is one of the few remnants of the expat enclave that once occupied the high ground over the flourishing port. "The last bastion of colonialism," murmurs an American journalist at the next table as his kids head for the swimming pool.

After lunch, McCreery takes me out along the Bluff, where the Yokohama historical society has arranged a scenic promenade past posh international schools and embassy residences, with occasional glimpses of the harbor below. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 toppled most of the original buildings here, and American bombs took care of the rest, but there are ghostly remains. The last surviving house from the Meiji era (1867—1912), a gingerbread Victorian with a dollhouse compactness, is now the charming Yamate Museum devoted to the port's history. Across the street is the Foreigners' Cemetery. When Commodore Perry came to Yokohama in 1853 on his historic mission to open Japan to Western trade, it was here—in the burial ground of an old Buddhist temple with a view of the sea—that he insisted on interring any crew members who died. Now the cemetery, with its most famous graves carefully identified in a scale model in the museum, is an uncanny record of the foreign presence in Yokohama. One finds the sailors and missionaries, the silk merchants and vagabonds who gave this city, now the second largest in Japan, some of its distinctive cosmopolitan character.

I HAVE COME TO JAPAN IN SEARCH OF GHOSTS— Meiji ghosts, to be specific. As part of a book I'm writing about cultural ties between Japan and New England circa 1900, I'm looking for traces of two earlier American travelers: the cold-eyed historian Henry Adams and the painter and stained-glass genius John La Farge. When they traveled to Japan together in 1886, both men were at a crisis point in their lives, groping for meaning and emotional release, and hoping to find it—like so many wanderers before and since—in the mystical East.

Adams, the Boston-born grandson and great-grandson of American presidents, was the most renowned of all American historians; his famous Education recently topped the Modern Library's list of the hundred best nonfiction books of the 20th century. The previous December, his wife, Clover, depressed by her father's death and complaining of not feeling "real," had drunk a lethal dose of the liquid she used to develop her ambitious photographs. La Farge, whose New York design firm had gone bankrupt, was entangled in a ruinous legal case against Louis Comfort Tiffany over the rights to opalescent stained glass. The two travelers arrived in Yokohama in early June of 1886 and spent four months visiting the famous sights of Japan—Mount Fuji, the shrines at Nikko—and searching, as they put it, for nirvana.

Much of the pleasure in following Adams and La Farge comes from their contrasting responses to Japan. Their correspondences capture the roller-coaster experience of travel itself—the spectacular meals and upset stomachs, the national treasures and the museums closed for restoration. In 1868, several years before the Impressionist vogue for Japanese prints, La Farge had written one of the first studies in English of Japanese art, and he was inclined to gush about all things Japanese. Looking out over Yokohama Bay, he marveled that the sea was "smooth like the brilliant blank paper of the prints… Far-off streaks of blue light, like finest washes of the brush, determined distances." Adams, on the other hand, was given to sarcasm and sly rejoinders: "Bad food, bad water, bad roads, bad conveyances, and bad fleas."

From Yokohama, Adams and La Farge made a day trip to Kamakura, the ancient coastal city a few miles south whose principal draw is a 37-foot bronze Buddha, cast in 1252. The cross-legged Buddha was originally housed in a huge temple of stone columns supporting a wooden roof, but these were carried away by a tidal wave in the 15th century, leaving the statue in direct contact with the elements. La Farge pronounced the Great Buddha (or Daibutsu) "the most successful colossal figure in the world." Adams, while respecting La Farge's judgment, looked askance at the "Dye-boots," noting "the mild contempt of his blessed little moustache." As I circle the colossus, trying it out from different angles against the lush green hillside, I'm inclined to agree with La Farge.

WITH 10 DAYS TO FOLLOW MY TRAVELERS, I HAVE TO WORK FAST. Back in Yokohama, I arm myself with an 1880 map of the city and my Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Japanof 1891, which warns that those wishing to see "the old order of things, should come quickly." I walk through two worlds at once, my ghostly Japan of a century ago and this modern metropolis. Climbing down one of the steep stone paths from the Bluff, I find myself in Motomachi, once the foreign community's main shopping street, now a mix of Starbucks and Tower Records alongside stylish shops offering samurai swords and handmade lace. I wander by the brackish canal that runs parallel to Motomachi, with gaily colored wooden riverboats moored below (as in a Japanese print), and a rattling expressway balanced on stilts above.

The corner where the canal runs into Yokohama Bay is the site of the old Yokohama Grand Hotel. Here all the distinguished foreign travelers stayed, including Adams and La Farge, whose rooms overlooked the water. Gazing at the quay, Adams thought Japan resembled a "toy-world, where all the picture books and tea-cups of childhood are animated with a clever imitation of life." Now, like some strange confirmation of Adams's fantasy, the mushroom-shaped Yokohama Doll Museum rises exactly where the Grand Hotel once stood. Two doll collectors, a pearl maven and the wife of a wealthy Yokohama businessman, pooled their riches here. Dolls from around the world are on the first floor, Japanese dolls on the second. Particularly astonishing is the display of everyday objects for the Hina dolls. Scrupulously made by Japan's master craftsmen during the Edo period (1603—1867) for the annual Hina Doll Festival, these minuscule wheelbarrows, baskets, and bowls were patterned after the contents of a samurai daughter's trousseau. Like Gulliver amid the Lilliputians, I peer into this universe of miniature chopsticks, two-inch-square go tables with movable pieces the size of fleas, and carefully woven baskets that might hold a single cherry.

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