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Searching for Nirvana

With the world abruptly restored to its normal dimensions, I make my way down the waterfront, now the lovely Yamashita Park, to the Yokohama Archives of History, housed in a rose-colored brick building from the thirties that once belonged to the British consul. The exhibits tell of Commodore Perry's dramatic unlocking of Japan, and of the silk trade and the beer industry—Kirin was first brewed in Yokohama during the 1880's. After a quick tour, and a fortifying dose of green tea in the courtyard's little teahouse, I bury myself in the basement archives. I sift through old photographs of the city and read back issues of the Japan Weekly Mail from the summer of 1886, when the big news was a growing cholera epidemic. In the list of "passengers arrived" for July 3, I find the following: "Per American steamer City of Sydney, from San Francisco … Messrs. Henry Adams … John La Farge in cabin … For Hong-Kong:—106 Chinese in steerage."

CASTING A PARTING GLANCE AT THE BLUE WATERS of the bay, I am ready to follow La Farge and Adams to Tokyo. In their day, the trip from Yokohama to the capital required a ride on a small-gauge train and then, through the narrow streets of Tokyo, on a jinrikisha—a human-powered carriage, often pulled by an exotically tattooed athlete. Well, no rickshaws for me, just the trains running every few minutes between Tokyo and Yokohama.

During my first days in Tokyo, I sometimes feel that I am on a time-traveling scavenger hunt, in which objects have been carefully placed for me to find without looking too hard. In a stationery store in Toranomon (or "Tiger's Gate"), I lose myself among the incredible array of pens and brushes and notebooks. The French philosopher Roland Barthes had marveled at a similar store in his 1970 book Empire of Signs, extolling the "papers of a thousand kinds, many of which hint, in their texture powdered with pale straws, with crushed stems, at their fibrous origin." My glance strays to a picture on the wall, but instead of some calligraphic offspring of paper and brush, it is a Western-style work with naïvely uneasy perspective and peculiar English-language signs, of a stationery store circa 1900 on the Yokohama street of Motomachi. The elderly proprietor explains that his father opened the shop to cater to foreigners' needs in imported books. I imagine Henry Adams stopping there to look for anything by, say, Alexandre Dumas—vacation reading he'd failed to find in San Francisco.

I have another Meiji moment in a tiny and supremely elegant restaurant on a back street in the Ginza (Tokyo's equivalent of midtown Manhattan), where crab croquettes and pork cutlets are like some butter-sealed time capsule of French cuisine. And no wonder. For, as the dapper owner in ruffled shirt tells me, his father trained with the great master chef Weil at the Yokohama Grand. Sometime in the twenties, he established the first truly French restaurant in Tokyo, a favorite refuge of filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, whose fiction explored the temptations of both the modern West and the ancient East.

During this century, stylish Tokyo has moved westward and uphill. In the narrow streets of the eastern neighborhoods of Ueno and Asakusa, artisans have their shops and a few geisha still ply their vanishing trade. Late one afternoon I find myself in Ueno for the annual Sanja Matsuri, one of the biggest of the Shinto festivals. The gilded divinities are carried on floats through the crowded streets in a Mardi Gras—like procession. I am sandwiched between two rival neighborhood factions, everyone in traditional pilgrim's garb. Men, stripped down to loincloths and covered with tattoos, pump up the crowd. It could be 1790 except for the armored police vehicle that keeps a watchful eye on the proceedings.

The next morning, near the multi-branched Ueno Station—a city in itself—I turn up the stone stairway that leads to Ueno Park, Tokyo's version of Central Park (in spirit if not in scale). There to greet me is the imposing yet endearing bronze statue of commander Saigo in summer kimono with his dog. Saigo is the Robert E. Lee of Japan, the reluctant rebel who fought on the wrong side in a samurai uprising of 1877. He is remembered while the victors are forgotten, though one of these, the army chief (and later prime minister) Yamagata, built Chinzan-so, a 100-year-old garden that is now the showpiece of the Tokyo Four Seasons Hotel. (In Japan, it seems, the arts of war and the arts of peace are closely allied.)

After dodging the pigeons of Ueno Park on my way to visit the Japanese wing of the Tokyo National Museum, I repair to Izu'ei, a famous eel restaurant with a view of the pond at one corner of the park. The centuries-old restaurant prides itself on its mountain-harvested charcoal, evidently the key to good grilled unagi (eel). I sit on the tatami floor and admire the shallow pond of Ueno (filled with flowering water lilies worthy of Monet) that John La Farge particularly loved and painted.

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