It’s in his DNA

This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Tokyo, June 1996. Satoru-san, wearing a chocolate blazer, cinnamon shirt, and hazel tie, is already at the Nishi-Azabu intersection though I arrive a few minutes before 6 p.m. Taxis barrel into the intersection, discharge passengers, and block the ramps that swoop down from the elevated expressway where traffic has come to a standstill. He greets me with a handshake and a nod amid a stream of pedestrians.

“I’m sorry I’m early,” he says. Is this a translation of something that makes sense in Japanese? Or is it one more aspect of the Japanese art of turning apologies into subtle accusations?

“No problem,” I say.

“My last appointment—” he waves up Roppongi-dōri. “It finished early.”

“You’re working a lot for a retired guy.”

“It makes my wife happy.”


“Today, I show you Aoyama Cemetery.” And he turns around and starts walking.

Unisex bicycles with wire baskets in front, some with baby seats in the rear—mamachari they’re called—clutter the narrow sidewalk that’s already encumbered by random utility poles and signposts, and by scooters here and there, and people thread through it all the best they can. I stay behind him, he stays behind the person in front of him, and we advance in single file until the congestion clears up. Near the cemetery, there’s hardly anyone.

When you enter the cemetery, the first thing you see on the left—and you see it first because it’s visually so discordant—is a colony of tents made of bright blue industrial tarps strung up between trees, graves, and utility poles. Barefoot guys with craggy faces squat on flattened-out cardboard boxes around a teakettle on a camping stove. Their shoes are lined up neatly on the dirt next to the cardboard.

Satoru-san doesn’t see the homeless guys. He peers up the street that runs through the cemetery. “I’m Buddhist,” he continues his narration. “But for daily things, I go to Shinto shrine.”

“What kind of daily things?”

“I thank the gods, for example, or I ask for good fortune, health, and other things.”

We turn into a weedy gravel path. He says he worked for five years in Nagoya as branch chief. “It was the only time in my career when people treated me with respect. I felt like a real boss.” With a sheepish grin, he combs his fingers through his hair. “They were the best years in my career.”

He stops at a grave. Maybe someone he knew. After a few moments, he moves on. The cemetery covers a gentle hill with surprising views of Tokyo between the trees. It has been raining off and on, and the trees are dripping on us.

“I came to Tokyo once a month for meetings and to visit my wife and two boys.”

“Didn’t they move with you?”

“It’s only two hours by Shinkansen, and we didn’t want to disrupt their schooling.” He mounts slippery mossy steps.

“My first New Year in Nagoya, I went to Ise Shrine on the other side of the bay. It’s one of the oldest, most important Shinto shrines. During the New Year holidays, which last three days, the shrine sells wooden plaques. It was the Year of the Dragon, so the plaques were decorated with a dragon. I bought one, but instead of writing my request on it and hanging it up at the shrine, I kept it as a souvenir.” Near the top of the hill, he stops. “Old Christian graves,” he says. Indeed: crosses, gaijin names, and inscriptions I can read. “I went to Ise Shrine every New Year’s while I was in Nagoya. During those years, I never had an accident and never got sick.”

“Because of the shrine visits?”

“I don’t think so. I was just careful.”

The setting sun breaches a hole in the clouds near the horizon behind distant high-rises, and the underside of the morose cloud cover catches fire—an astonishing sight.

“Did you know this would happen?” I ask.

“Not know.”

Moments later, the show is over, and we meander away from the Christian graves.

“The first New Year’s back in Tokyo, I didn’t go to Ise Shrine,” he goes on. “It was too far and troublesome. On day one, I felt fine. On day two, I felt fine. But the morning of day three, my gut was churning, and I felt miserable. So I took the Shinkansen to Nagoya and went to Ise Shrine. Immediately, I felt better. Now I go to Ise Shrine every New Year, usually with my wife, and a few times with the boys. I have a stack like this of wooden plaques.” He holds up his hands about a foot apart. “One for each year.”

“Why Ise Shrine? Can’t you go to a major shrine in Tokyo?”

“It’s in my DNA.”

This is an excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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