Edward Seidentsicker

Festival description from 1913

Kafū Nagai self portrait

I am continuing to read Edward Seidensticker’s Kafū the Scribbler: The Life and Writing of Nagai Kafū, 1879-1959 (Stanford University Press, 1965). Kafū’s writing elegantly chronicles the Tokyo seasons, festivals, street scenes, and the clash of old Edo Tokyo with modernizing forces. The passage below seems particularly relevant to my previous post about the Tsukishima omasturi, and demonstrates Kafū’s love for the Sumida River, remnants of Edo, and nostalgic sounds.

“We first waited for everyone to assemble at the Garden of the Hundred Flowers, then proceeded to the Yoaomatsu restaurant. The upstairs room to which we were shown was really too cheap and vulgar, and we asked if there might not be something better, perhaps in one of the outbuildings. It seemed, though, that all the rooms were fairly much the same, and we had to make the best of what we had. It being the night of “the late moon,” the third night after the full moon, we all set out in a boat for the Azuma Bridge. At night you cannot see the factories and bronze statues, and there is only the moon gently lighting the surface of the water, and, white in the mist beyond, the houses of Imado and Hashiba on the left. Ah, here it is, I thought, almost ready to weep– the Sumida! We put the geisha ashore at the Mimeguri Landing, and as the boat tied up at Hanakawado, the drums and flutes of a festival came across the water to us, as if opening a domestic tragedy on the Kabuki stage. And so we disbanded.” (p 66, from Tidings from Okubo)

Tokyo in summer

Kafu Nagai self-portrait 1932 Edward Seidensticker biography

“It is the summer that makes life in Tokyo most beautiful . . . Bamboo cages with singing insects, painted fans, mosquito nets, sweet-smelling reed blinds set into miniature landscapes- where else are there appurtenances of such delicacy? . . . Sometimes, walking along a canal of a summer evening, I have found myself drunk with a mood as of hearing a samisen somewhere- in a courtesan’s room, perhaps, in a scene from Mokuami’s ‘The Robbers.'”

Summer is in full force in Tokyo now, and I am turning to literary inspiration to better understand this complex metropolis. Viewed from above, Tokyo is an endless concrete slab with few visible elements of nature. Viewed from the street, the city pulses with human and plant life, and its residents react to the constraints of the built environment with creativity.

In exploring the layers of Tokyo, I am relying on two books written in English. A Enbutsu Sumiko, a Japanese woman educated at Smith College, wrote  “Discover Shitamachi” in 1984, and I have been using it as a guide to the Edo era survivors in the area near the Sumida River first settled by artisans and merchants in the 1600s. Enbutsu also wrote A Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo: 40 Walks for All Seasons in 2007, a wonderful book that suggests city walks organized by seasonal flowers.

More recently, I am reading noted Japanologist Edward Seidentsicker’s 1965 literary biography Kafū the Scribbler: The Life and Writing of Nagai Kafu, 1879-1959, from which the quote above about summer comes. Since I am still unable to read in Japanese, I rely on these historic works to better understand Tokyo’s strange mix of history and modernity. Seidensticker’s biography insists that his subject is “better and more important than any of his works” and that his work can only be understand in the context of his life, his city, and the Meiji tension between Edo and modernity.

Kafu Nagai 4 images Tokyo

Whether considering historic sites, ancient festivals and crafts, the ever-active wrecking ball, and latest popular culture, it is humbling to think that this tension between traditional and modern urbanity  has existed for over 100 years in Tokyo. I am looking forward to Seidentsticker’s chronicle of turn of the century Tokyo life, and visiting some of the same places myself to sense if there any echos still audible.