I remember that Wakasa, the main street of Tottori, was particularly crowded. On market days, you could stroll along it and be sure to meet an old acquaintance. The street had existed since the Middle Ages. It smelled of fish and ginger mixed together. Colorful balloon sellers always had my attention, but when we wandered down Wakasa, my mother would urge me to get home as soon as possible. I don’t know why this street is still so present in my mind today.
In Tottori, the sky was sparkling blue, even in autumn. Of course… It is likely that storms have swept the streets of Tottori. But my childhood memories have escaped the clouds. I only remember the sun, the balloon sellers and the annoyed look of my mother.
The Wakasa street that made such an impression on me begins at the city’s train station. An unassuming station, which I entered only once, the day I turned eighteen, and left, without looking back. The day I left the country where I was born into art.
And then, the street ends at the foot of Mount Kyûshô wrapped in scattered clouds. The medieval city stretches all around the mountain. You would think that highwaymen would come to offer you a cup of white tea! The trees were planted by the last mayor, I don’t know if any have grown since, but at the time they were only about my size. And I am not tall.
The city of my childhood is covered by dunes, which gives it a singular appearance. At that time, tourists had not yet realized that this beautiful city had many attractions. It seems to me that I have never crossed the eyes of a foreigner. But would I have remembered? I have only met strangers on one occasion. And that is what I would like to tell you about today.
My favorite place in the city was Tottori Castle. It had belonged to a noble family for hundreds of years. It is a castle built right into the mountain. The stone towers dipped their ochre eyes into the river below. I liked to walk through this place alone. I would come with a small notebook, and try to draw the shadowy shapes that passed in front of the sun. But the birds were too fast for me, and I only got meaningless scribbles.
Then as now, I have to use all my imagination to recreate the splendor of this building from the feudal era. There is not much left of Tottori Castle. Only a steel door, and spikes visible on all the other doors of the castle.
I liked to imagine the two hundred day siege that took place in 1581. I would read poems and dream that I had taken part in that event. Sometimes I would lie down by the river and fall asleep listening to the water splash. Sometimes I would dip my hand in the cool water and it seemed as if I could hear my mother calling me through the wood in front of the castle. But I know today that this is impossible. And that it was probably the remorse of having stayed outside that made me hear voices.
I must tell you, however, that my mother’s voice was not the only one I heard. The soldiers in the castle were talking to me. When I tried to draw the outside of the walls on my little notebook, they would comment on my pencil strokes. Their shadows moved on the walls. Some afternoons, when the wind had died down, I could hear their whispers in my neck. They encouraged me to draw. When I finished a sketch, they would exclaim in admiration. Would I have become a famous draftsman if the voices of the Tottori soldiers had not become audible to me? Nothing is less certain.
In the evening, I went home, notebook under my arm. I picked a bouquet of those white flowers that always grow on the edge of the streets and presented them to my mother’s angry face. She softened immediately. My family was rather poor, our meals were frugal. Despite my poor health, I seem to have rarely eaten meat. My father was a well-known tailor in the village. He would go from house to house, taking the measurements of the women. Then he would come home, with his eyeglass on his nose and a serious look on his face, and sit at his little desk in the dark. He would spend the next night making a blouse, a dress or a kimono out of blue cotton.
When I was born, my mother did not work. But despite his work, my father gradually went into debt over the years. Feeding my brothers and me was no easy task. One evening, by candlelight, I heard voices shouting. My mother was shaking like a sheet of paper thrown from a tower in Tottori Castle. She was white, and her slender fingers tapped on the dark blue futon set at an angle. A mosquito was bumping into the corners of the room. But my parents didn’t pay any attention to it. Suddenly, I saw my mother get up. She had her back to my father. She was facing me without seeing me. Then she turned around again, looked at my father’s face, whose jaw was trembling. And she nodded with a quick gesture of the chin.
From that night on, she left the house every morning at 5 o’clock. She had found a job in a pachinko room, a typical Japanese slot machine that looks like a pinball machine. My mother was a traditional woman. She dressed soberly to go to work, pinning up her hair with one of those shiny brooches that fascinated me so much. I thought she was like a dragonfly in a train station, lost in a world that was foreign to her. I never visited my mother in town at her place of work. I could only imagine that too. Nowadays, pachinko is very popular in Japan. It has withstood the financial bubble of the 1980s. Its turnover makes it the third largest tourist economy in my country. You can imagine! Already, during my childhood, most of our neighbors used to play it. At the end of the week or during their rare vacations. Do you know how it works? Players buy simple metal balls and insert them into the machine, which glows with light, thanks to the little bulbs. The player has almost no control over the trajectory of the balls, except for their speed. Pachinko is like life itself, pure chance. It doesn’t matter if you hurry to burn the steps of existence, the result will depend on your star.
As for me, fate knocked quickly on my door. I was a young boy, promised to a future as a tailor like my brothers. But I told you, one day, a foreign couple (the first and last I met in town) was walking on Wakasa. I was playing ball with a schoolmate on the main street of Tottori. The woman was swinging on her heels. I felt as if she was going to fall down with every step she took. She was carrying a dark umbrella on her arm with a purple tint. She had not put on a kimono, but a simple apricot dress. The bees were buzzing, it was summer, and I think it was the first time I fell in love with a figure. She was tall, slender, and the low clouds made a white belt around her.
My comrade was called home for lunch, and I stood there, admiring the unknown woman advancing on Wakasa. When the street turned, I followed her and her husband through Tottori. Then she stopped, adjusted her umbrella and sat down in front of one of the largest houses in town. Her husband had somehow disappeared from my sight. I took out my sketchbook and tried to sketch her face. The sun was burning my cheeks, which I had on fire. I was afraid of being spotted. But I remembered the encouragement of the soldiers in the castle and clenched my fists. I had to succeed in my bold undertaking. Otherwise the beautiful lady would fade from my memory.
I still have a drawing of her. If I remember this event, it is because when I finished my drawing, the unknown woman in the pale dress got up and walked towards me. I was stunned, still in shock at having been spotted. I staggered backwards. She said nothing, took the notebook from my hands, and stayed a moment contemplating the drawing I had made of her
— It’s very nice. You know, now that I think about it… I don’t have any portrait of my husband. Because… You saw him, the big man, there. Usually nobody sees him. Will you come to the house we live in and draw my husband?
I was amazed that she thought her husband, who was twice my size, would go unnoticed. I made an appointment for the late afternoon with her husband. I went to the house that their sister had left them for a week. I took off my shoes and put them on a small shelf. It was late and I hadn’t told my parents. I was afraid they wouldn’t let me go to this lady’s house to draw. Yes, I think now with hindsight, that if I had been honest with my mother, my drawing career might never have taken off.
The main room had eight large tatami mats made of good quality rice straw. And then, wooden floor surfaces, some decorations especially vases with sophisticated flowers whose names I did not know. On the walls hung calligraphies of haiku from the Edo period. The stranger, whose name was Atsuko, served me hot tea. I waited for it to cool down, when suddenly the sliding door behind me opened.
Her husband introduced himself, he was called Eki. I was frightened for a moment. Atsuko handed me a pastry, went to open the window. The moon was visible and made a strong light slide in the room. A shadow passed in front of the moon. I was getting colder and colder. Atsuka went to get me a shirt. Her husband sat in front of me. He was talking with his wife. It was hard for me to concentrate. I was frightened because his voice sounded familiar. And for good reason, it was the soldier’s voice that I heard every afternoon, yes, every day when I wandered around the walls of the abandoned Tottori Castle.
Could it be that Atsuko’s husband was a ghost? I took my sketchbook with a shiver, and with a thin smile, I did what I had been invited to do, without touching the tea or the pastries. When I had finished my drawing, he got up from his chair. The moon was shining more and more. Atsuko had disappeared from the room. Eki looked at my drawing and seemed satisfied. I blinked, and saw a thick smoke enveloping him. When I opened my eyes again, he was dressed in the traditional costume of the daimyo, the lords of feudal Japan. A large, dark blue kimono with a floral pattern attached by a thick, fringed black leather belt. He wore a black beveled hat. A long sword was tied behind his back.
I was speechless, amazed at his transformation. I think he thanked me for the drawing, taking it from my hands.
— My wife has no portrait of me, no one can see me. But you, who comes every day to my castle, have seen me by her side. Your drawing is beautiful. One should not waste such a talent, said the ghost.
The tea had gone cold, I was shaking with all my limbs. The sliding door opened, but Atsuko did not appear. Only an icy wind rushed into the room, making the red vase behind the ghost tremble.
Had I dreamed this meeting? After having this vision, I had fainted it seems. I woke up in a room, on a comfortable futon. When I got up, I was looking for Atsuko. My parents must have been worried sick. I opened the front door and rushed out.
— Don’t forget your notebook.
Atsuko’s husband had a voice as caressing as the summer wind. I snatched the notebook from him, and without thanking him, I ran away.