Searching for Nirvana

Searching for Nirvana

Frédéric LaGrange
Frédéric LaGrange
When American historian Henry Adams and the painter John La Farge arrived in Japan at the end of the 19thcentury, they were looking for a mystical East. They found it—along with bad roads, a cholera epidemic, and flea-infested beds.Here, Christopher Benfey retraces their steps and discovers that, though conditions for travelers are much improved,the Japan that first opened to the West still lies just beneath the country's modern surface

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.

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.

TWO OF MY FAVORITE MUSEUMS IN TOKYO, both privately owned, are at either end of Omotesando, the glorious "praying way" turned fashionable tree-lined avenue that leads to the Meiji Shrine (built to honor the emperor who opened Japan to the West). If you walk up Omotesando with the shrine to your back you quickly come to the Ota Memorial Museum of Art, devoted entirely to Japanese prints. It is jarring to leave the quiet bamboo-and-paper-screened rooms of the museum, decked with prints of the "floating world" of old Ueno, and reenter the clatter of Omotesando. After it crosses Aoyamadori, another great shopping street, Omotesando narrows abruptly and becomes even more stylish. Here you'll find the boutiques of such designers as Issey Miyake, and buildings that are as interesting as the clothes. The Collezione, designed by Tadao Ando, the current star of Japanese architecture, is a pleasantly disorienting maze of concentric circles and squares made of industrial concrete and glass.

And then, at the top of Omotesando, is the exquisitely calm Nezu Fine Art Museum, where you can find tearooms among carp-filled pools in the surrounding garden. (Kaichiro Nezu himself, the great collector, fell in love with the tea ceremony not in some remote Kyoto temple, but during a 1909 visit to the United States, when he was 50. Sometimes a journey to the West can take you even further into the East.) The Nezu does not shy away from an austere exhibit of, say, 45 tea bowls, but it also owns Ogata Korin's Irises at Yatsuhashi, one of the most popular of all Japanese paintings. If the extensive iris garden at the Meiji Shrine isn't in bloom, Korin's array is a ravishing substitute.

HENRY ADAMS COMPLAINED THAT "not even a tolerable hotel exists" in "beastly Tokyo." But as Japan gradually opened to the West, luxury accommodations for foreigners became part of the closely scripted itineraries of late-19th-century travelers. Baron Okura, one of the Rockefeller-like titans of modern Japan, built the Japanese pavilion at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, giving Chicago architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright their first inkling of authentic Japanese building design. A quarter of a century later Okura signed up Wright to build the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

Wright's Imperial is a striking example of the way in which Western fantasies of Japan, however bizarre, can produce wonderful architecture. Constructed of rough-hewn bricks of volcanic stone, the Imperial looked more like a Mayan temple than a Japanese one. Its massive walls weathered the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which struck on the very day it opened. The hotel moldered on its swampy site near the Emperor's Palace until 1968, when it was finally put out of its misery. Thankfully, the original lobby was saved and moved to the Museum Meiji-Mura outside Nagoya. And Wright's Imperial survives in the many imitations it inspired (including the present-day Hotel Okura, built in 1962), so that however little Wright owed to Japanese architecture, he has become part of its traditions.

A new Imperial Hotel now stands on the site of the old, and one evening I sit in its Old Imperial Bar nibbling on whitebait with Madalena Velasquez. Based in Tokyo, she has a master's degree in medieval art history from Yale and is an expert on Wright's Imperial. The Old Imperial Bar is a little memorial to Wright's genius and incorporates some of the original masonry and a piece of a mural from the lost hotel. Madalena questions the stereotype of the Japanese as inward-looking and xenophobic. "In fact, they're always looking for outside ideas," she contends, pointing to Wright's hotel as an example. "There's an East—West confluence even in the smallest things, such as hashi [the little rests for chopsticks]. The other day I saw a set based on a toreador theme." Carmen in Tokyo—it was something to contemplate as we walked out of the hotel and headed toward the Ginza.

LIKE THE PLAGUE IN THOMAS MANN'S Death in Venice, cholera chased Adams and La Farge from Tokyo and Yokohama up into the mountains. They spent most of the summer in Nikko, 90 miles north of Tokyo, so that's where I go next. Tokyo seems interminable as the train moves north, and the transition, as in Japanese landscape paintings, between flatland and mountains is abrupt. Just as my eyes are growing accustomed to the rice paddies dotted with egrets and stooping farmers wearing indigo-blue trousers, the mountains swoop upward in layers of evergreen and mist.

Still intact a hundred years ago, the old approach to Nikko was a 20-mile double file of giant cryptomeria trees, the redwoods of Japan. From the train window I can see the columns of trees, interrupted now and again by buildings and roads. From the little station in Nikko I walk through the village in drizzling rain to the Nikko Kanaya Hotel, a rustic century-old charmer that resembles the Adirondacks' 19th-century luxury camps.

The Kanaya stands on one side of the Sacred Bridge; on the other side all paths lead to the mountain shrines of Nikko. Built in the 17th century as memorials for the greatest of the Tokugawa warlords (readers of James Clavell's Shogun will know the story), these were the favorite pilgrimage spots of all 19th-century Western travelers in Japan. They never tired of repeating the well-worn saying: "Do not say kekko—'splendid'—until you have seen Nikko." The gaudily ornamented buildings are not to the taste of those inclined to Zen austerity—the arriviste shoguns were into conspicuous display—but the whole ensemble of mountain, shrine, trees, and waterfalls is overwhelming. Even Henry Adams's habitual cynicism was silenced in Nikko. "The place is so well worth seeing that in many ways nothing in Europe rivals it," he wrote to a friend.

I hope to solve the mystery of where Adams and La Farge stayed in Nikko. I ask Taro Kanaya, the great-grandson of a samurai who first invited Western travelers into his house in 1873, to join me over breakfast. An elegant man in an exquisitely understated suit, Kanaya has a Ph.D. in geology from Stanford and taught in American colleges before returning to Japan to run his family's hotel business. His delightful secretary, Miss Isobe, drives us up the hillside to the austere gem of a house, the perfect samurai's abode, where foreigners stayed before the Kanaya Hotel was built. The floors are of tatami and polished dark wood and the ceiling is low, to keep visiting samurai from raising their swords, I am told. As I gaze out on the garden and waterfall from the veranda, I suddenly realize that I know this view, from a La Farge watercolor. I carefully reread Adams's description of their Nikko house, and sure enough, we're standing in it.

Another surprise awaits me back at the Kanaya. The design of the Dacite Bar (as Kanaya the geologist named it) has exactly the same Mayan motifs as did Wright's Imperial. Could this have been a trial run for the Imperial, to see how the stone would look in interior settings?I leave convinced that it is, though scholars have yet to claim the work as Wright's.

I SPEND A COUPLE OF DAYS EXPLORING the shrines and stone paths of Nikko—my favorite is the sacred stable decorated with the three monkeys ("See No Evil" and his brothers). Then I zigzag up the mountain to the old spa town on the shores of Lake Chuzenji. On one hairpin turn I see wild monkeys disporting themselves in the shrubbery just as monkeys are supposed to—mother monkey holding baby, two males tussling, a granddaddy massaging his chest in the dappled sunlight. At sundown, it's easy to imagine the lake as Adams saw it, "buried among green mountains and untouched forests, as wild as any in the Sierras." Five minutes away I come upon the plunging 300-foot ribbon of water called Kegon Falls, its stray rivulets looking like the curling dragons on the Nikko shrines.

That night, sipping sake in the Dacite Bar, my head is still circling up the mountainside as I prepare for my return to Tokyo and the long flight home. My two travelers have led me into the mountains and into the past. Why not get a jump on jet lag and reset my watch now?—a hundred years forward.

The Facts
Unlike the checkerboard grid of Kyoto, Tokyo is a maze of spiraling, unnamed streets and spaghetti-like subway lines. Hotels can provide detailed directions, and Tokyoites are eager to help. You'll still get lost, but that's how you'll make some of your best discoveries. Yokohama and Nikko are not far from Tokyo. Yokohama is easily reached in less than an hour from major Tokyo stations, and, bearing little resemblance to its 19th-century self, can be toured in an afternoon. Nikko, on the other hand, has all the charm of rural Japan, and its numerous mountain shrines—not to mention the views—are as compelling today as they were for Adams and La Farge.

Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo 2-10-8 Sekiguchi Bunkyo-ku; 800/332-3442 or 81-3/3943-2222, fax 81-3/3943-2300; doubles from $463. The 100-year-old Chinzan-so Garden, surrounding the hotel, is one of the most beautiful in Tokyo, and a favorite spot for weddings. Water for the "Onsen" bath is piped in from the Izu Peninsula; you're encouraged not to towel off too vigorously, so as to preserve its moisturizing properties.

Hotel Okura Tokyo 2-10-4 Toranomon; 800/223-6800 or 81-3/3582-0111, fax 81-3/3582-3707; doubles from $371. If you can't afford the presidential suite, where John and Yoko always stayed, you might impress the bartender in the Bar Highlander by requesting their favorite table (in the far corner to the left as you enter). The Japanese wing has 11 traditional tatami rooms and a roof garden with cherry trees and a tea ceremony room. The tea mistress says 80 percent of the guests at the ceremony are Westerners. Don't miss the Okura Museum, which houses national treasures and a fine collection of Japanese paintings.

Nikko Kanaya Hotel 1300 Kami-Hatsuishi, Nikko; 81-288/540-001, fax 81-288/532-487; doubles from $371. Has a stunning dining room, with carved columns to die for. Order the trout Kanaya-style. Photographs on the walls show Charles Lindbergh, Helen Keller, and other luminaries relaxing in the mountain air.

Restaurants, Bars, and Cafés
Selan 2-1-19 Kita-Aoyama, Tokyo; 81-3/3478-2200; lunch for two $50. Continental food with an Asian accent.
Mikawaya 47-16 Ginza, Chou-ku; 81-3/3561-2006; lunch for two $80. French cuisine, Meiji-style.
Fujimama 6-3-2 Jingumae, Tokyo; 81-3/5485-2262; lunch for two $40. A hot spot off Omotesando, this casual restaurant housed in an old wooden building serves imaginatively conceived Asian fusion.
Rojak 6-3-14 Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo; 81-3/3409-6764; lunch for two $22. Another excellent fusion restaurant, also with elegant design. Just around the corner from the Nezu Fine Art Museum.
Perbacco 5-10-1 Jingu-Mae, Tokyo; 81-3/5466-4666. You'll hear plenty of Italian spoken—you could be in Rome—and the espresso is wonderful. So is the view of the ivy-covered Deco apartment buildings across the street, many of which now house hip boutiques.
Izu'ei 2-12-22 Ueno, Tokyo; 81-3/3831-0954; lunch for two $60. Even if you think you don't like eel, give it a try here, at the corner of Ueno Park. (For reliable, up-to-date, sophisticated advice on Tokyo restaurants, go to

Matsuya 3-6-1 Ginza, Tokyo; 81-3/3567-1211. The best of the department stores for traditional Japanese arts and crafts.
Indenya Uehara Yushichi 2-12-15 Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo; 81-3/3479-3200. A couple of blocks down Aoyamadori from the popular Japan Traditional Craft Center, this store sells only luxury items—handbags, billfolds, coin purses—made of tooled deerskin in a style reaching back four centuries.
Hanae Mori 3-6-1 Kita-Aoyama, Tokyo; 81-3/3423-1448. The boutique of one of Tokyo's most popular designers was built by the internationally renowned Kenzo Tange. In the basement, antiques dealers offer everything from samurai swords to flapper dresses.

Museums and Monuments
Nezu Fine Art Museum 6-5-1 Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo; 81-3/3400-2536. Special exhibitions and a stunning permanent collection, in exquisite surroundings.
Tokyo National Museum Ueno Park; 81-3/3822-1111. Dowdy but essential, the world's greatest collection of Japanese art.
Ota Memorial Museum of Art 1-10-10 Jingumae, Tokyo; 81-3/3403-0880. Only Japanese prints—but what prints!
Yokohama Doll Museum 18 Yamashita-cho, Yokohama; 81-45/671-9361. Japanese dolls and a good gift shop.

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