Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
There must be something to a person when his brain is preserved at Tōkyō University, his face is featured on Japanese currency for 10 years and he has a talking android modeled after him over 100 years after his death. As if that were not enough, the guy has not one, not two, but three museums that are dedicated only to him. One is even in England. Who is this person that you know absolutely nothing about (even though he is considered to be Japan’s greatest modern writer)? It is Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916), the person whose 155th birthday happens this February.
For me, he has god-like status. And it is the reason why in 1988, I decided to embark on a Sōseki pilgrimage. Back then not many would consider undertaking such a journey. Today, however, apparently, it’s a thing.
Gradually becoming more popular, literary tourism is part of what is known in Japan as “kontentsu tsurizumu” or “contents tourism.” This term describes travel that is motivated by popular culture including literature and film. Anime fans, for example, are visiting Tōkyō sites like the staircase from the anime movie “Your Name,” the Ghibli Museum, or even the Pokemon Café. Others embark on pilgrimages that are devoted to particular TV shows or manga.
Given that Japan has enjoyed a long and rich history in literature, there are also literary pilgrimages. A pilgrimage to visit the sights associated with the world’s first novelist, Murasaki Shikibu, who penned the “Tale of Genji” would certainly be worthwhile as would taking the same route as, a 17th-century haiku master, Matsuo Basho.
For this die-hard, Natsume Sōseki fan, however, it was the trail of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) author, that sparked my interest. Armed with what felt like just slightly over a million hours of reading, writing, studying, listening and thinking about all things Sōseki, I began my Söseki pilgrimage.
But First, Who is Sōseki?
Considered by many to be the greatest novelist of modern Japan, Natsume Sōseki was also a scholar of British Literature, an essayist, a literary critic and poet of haiku and kanshi (poetry written in traditional Chinese style).
Born Natsume Kinnosuke at the end of the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868), Sōseki lived through the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). During this time, Japanese society rapidly transformed from a traditional society to a more modern one. The essence of Sōseki’s many novels captures the spirit of the Meiji Era and exemplifies the inner struggle of a traditional individual caught in a tumultuous period. This distinguished novelist grew up at a time when Western culture and civilization inundated Japan. Along with other intellectuals of this period, Sōseki struggled with not only a society in flux but also with a crisis in self-identity. His novels express these feelings of crisis in himself and he projected them onto his characters to capture the turmoil of the time. Many of his novels such as the satirical “Botchan,” are required reading in many Japanese schools.
“No one has named me, but since it’s no use crying for the moon, I have resolved to remain for the rest of my life a nameless cat in the house of this teacher.” –Natsume Söseki, “I Am a Cat” translated by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson
Fresh out of graduate school years ago, I began my quest. Although the author lived in other places in Japan and England, he spent the majority of his life in Tōkyō. I set out to find one of his former residences where he started his writing career. At this home, the author penned his first novel, “I Am a Cat.” Supposedly this house was located in the Sendagi/Nezu area. He lived at the home for three years while teaching at the then Tökyö Imperial University.
Another Meiji author, Mori Ogai (1862-1922), who wrote the popular novel “Wild Geese,” also lived at the same residence previous to Sōseki. Following a hand-drawn map is definitely no comparison to Google Maps today, however, 1988 limited my resources. I eventually found the location where the house once stood, but, it had been moved. Had Mori Ogai led me on a wild goose chase? The original house had been moved to an outdoor museum near Nagoya called Meiji Mura.
Although disappointed, I looked around and reflected on his break-out novel which is based on a stray cat he found outside his home. The well-known work takes a satirical look at the upper-middle class of the Meiji Era from the standpoint of a cat. Through the cat’s eyes and thoughts, the author pokes fun at the intellectuals and newly rich of his time who adopted Westernization indiscriminately. I closed my eyes imagining I could hear the meows of a cat. Today only a stone monument and a cat remain to mark the location of the original residence.
“He stared at the surface of the pond. The reflection of many trees seemed to reach the bottom, and down deeper than the trees, the blue sky. No longer was he thinking of streetcars or Tōkyō, or Japan; a sense of something far off and remote had come to take their place.” – Natsume Söseki, “Sanshiro,” translated by Jay Rubin
On that same day, I headed to a pond in the same area. In his novel “Sanshiro,” a pond is often visited by the main character, with the same name as the title of the novel – Sanshiro. The pond is also where the main character meets his romantic interest. Most likely the author also visited what is today known as Sanshiro Pond. In 1615 the pond and its surroundings belonged to the Maeda clan, a daimyö family of the Kaga area. Today it is located on the grounds of Tōkyō University (Hongo campus) and was named after Sōseki’s coming-of-age novel. The quiet pond with koi gliding beneath its surface is a place to sit with one’s thoughts as company. I gazed at the brackish green water. Although the surroundings and the clamor of the city most definitely differed from the sounds and sights that Sōseki encountered, the effects on the soul are probably the same.
“The pen in my hand makes a faint scratching sound as it traces one character after another down the page. My heart is tranquil as I sit before my desk.” –Natsume Sōseki, “Kokoro,” translated by Edwin McClellen
Still determined to see that Sōseki/Ogai residence, I ventured to Inuyama, to see the Tökyö house that had been transplanted. Meiji Mura is located in near Nagoya, in Inuyama. The open-air museum park, which opened in 1965, is home to over 60 original structures from the Meiji Period including Frank Lloyd Wright’s entrance hall to the Tökyö Imperial Hotel.
On the grounds, one also finds other Meiji buildings such as St. Francis Xavier’s Cathedral from Kyōto, a telephone exchange from Sapporo, and even an original prison from Kanazawa. The developers of the park transported structures from around Japan to Meiji Mura. Most importantly for this writer, there is also the house where Sōseki penned the first of many masterpieces. As I peered into the traditional Japanese house, my eyes fell upon one of the few objects in the home, a small floor desk. I sat on a rock near the house and imagined him sitting on the tatami writing. For a moment, I felt that I had traversed back in time, and could hear furious writing on paper.
“This is the charm of Nature, that it can in an instant, discipline men’s hearts and minds, and removing all that is base, lead them into the pure, unsullied world of poetry.” –Natsume Sōseki, “Kusamakura,” translated by Alan Turney.
“Kusamakura” or “The Three-Cornered World,” a novel about an artist’s journey to a hot spring retreat is influenced by the author’s time in Oama Hot Springs located near Kumamoto. It is here that Söseki not only found inspiration for this novel but also wrote many haiku. During his four years in Kumamoto, the author lived in six different homes. As a professor of English and English literature, he taught at the Fifth High School and also got married in this city.
During my brief visit to Kumamoto in 1992, I continued on my Sōseki pilgrimage, this time visiting another one of his homes. I traveled to the Uchitsuboi residence which has become a small Sōseki museum. After explaining my interest in the author to the couple who ran the museum, I received a guided tour. This is the house where he first lived with his wife and their first daughter. The stone well where he had his daughter baptized still stood in the garden. I sat on the engawa, the wooden space at the entrance of the home, and looked over the garden as he probably did 92 years ago.
There are many more Sōseki sites in the Kumamoto area including a former residence in Suzenji Park and also the Memorial Museum of the Fifth Higher School where he taught. Travelers may also visit Toge no Chaya Park and take a hike along the Kusamakura hiking trail that inspired the setting for the first three chapters of the novel. Along the trail one encounters the ruins of a tea house alluded to in the novel and the annex of the Maeda Han house where the author once stayed. As one treads along the nature trail, it is easy to immerse oneself in the same essence of nature.
Hot springs not only played a role as a setting for his Kusamakura novel, but they are also places where the author retreated to convalesce from mental anguish or stomach problems that plagued him during his final years. In 1910 after finishing his novel “Mon – The Gate,” Sōseki suffered from stomach problems and thus traveled to Kikuya Ryokan in Shuzenji to recover.
At one point during his more than two-month stay, he suffered from a stomach hemorrhage which almost took his life. When this event happened, many of Sōseki’s followers descended upon Kikuya in support of the author. The mass of those concerned included writers, philosophers, former students and scientists; They were referred to as “Sōseki Sanyaku” or “Söseki’s Mountain Range.”
Although I only stood outside the two-story Japanese inn, I could imagine Sōseki’s Mountain standing outside hoping for his recovery. Today inside the Kikuya there is an exhibit in the Sōseki Lounge where one can learn about the author’s time at the inn. One may also stay in the Plum Room there, the same room where he stayed during his visit.
“This being the country, I figured, everything must be the opposite of what it was in Tōkyō. You’ve got to watch out in a place like this; for all I knew fire might suddenly turn to ice out here, or the rocks might suddenly turn into tofu.” –Natsume Sōseki, “Botchan,” translated by J. Cohn.
A Harley Davidson-loving Zen priest was my Sōseki guide in Matsuyama. I had traveled to Shikoku, interested in many historical events that occurred there: the battle between the Taira and Minamoto clans during the Heian Period, and the birth of renowned Meiji haiku poet, Masaoka Shiki.
Of course, my main intent for the journey was to see the town that provided the setting for the novel, “Botchan.” When I first got off the train in Matsuyama, I looked for my friend’s cousin, Yoshiaki Tanaka. He had agreed to be my Sōseki guide. The person I encountered was a most interesting Zen priest who loved Harley Davidson motorcycles and ran Shikidera, the Zen temple that was built in memory of Masaoka Shiki. Close friends since university days, it was Shiki who often counseled Söseki in haiku writing.
Tanaka-san led me to a waiting taxi and said we would meet for lunch later. He instructed the driver as to the Matsuyama and Dogo Onsen course he planned. It included a glimpse of the middle school where Sōseki taught, a Botchan dango shop, and the onsen where Sōseki frequented. The author relocated to Matsuyama in 1895 and taught English conversation and English literature at the Matsuyama Middle School for about a year.
It is his life in Matsuyama and interactions at the school that influenced the humorous and sarcastic “Botchan.” Due to the book’s popularity, many of Matsuyama’s attractions revolve around the novel. While some have significance to the author or novel, many are not necessarily associated with the novel. There is Botchan train, Botchan Stadium, Botchan clock.
“But then one day when I hurried down from the third floor to take the bath, hoping that I’d be lucky enough to enjoy a good swim, there was a big sign with the warning SWIMMING IN THE BATH IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED in bold black lettering.” –Natsume Sōseki, “Botchan” translated by J. Cohn
In the novel “Botchan,” the main character found the country town of Matsuyama to be not quite up to the standards of Tōkyō. The bath at Dogo Onsen on the outskirts of the city proved to be the exception. Both the character and Sōseki, himself, frequented the hot spring there. Dogo Onsen is one of the oldest onsen resorts in Japan, and its history stretches back some 3,000 years.
At the onsen, stands a three-story main wooden bathhouse that was constructed in 1894. One of the third-floor rooms is known as “Botchan no Ma” and it is dedicated to the author. The room now commemorates him with photographs and a bust. It is also probable that it is the same room as the quote above. Although I am certain that the bath has been repaired or renovated since 1894, the granite baths on the first floor seem to be untouched since the Meiji Era. I happened to go at a time when there was no one else partaking in its healing waters. The thought of swimming a stroke or two flashed across my mind. I immediately decided against it.
On a journey to discover Sōseki rather than the Wizard of Oz requires following a path of cats rather than one made of yellow bricks. The road from Waseda Station leading to the three-year-old Natsume Sōseki Museum located in Shinjuku features cat tiles to show the way. The museum, in the Waseda Minamicho area, is located at the original site of Sōseki Sanbo, the home where the author spent the last nine years of his life. It is here that he wrote many novels such as “Sanshiro,” “Mon (The Gate),” “Sorekara (And Then),” “Michikusa (Grass on the Wayside),” “Meian (Light and Darkness),” and his masterpiece “Kokoro (Hear).”
Besides having exhibits that chronicle the author’s life, the museum collects and stores materials relating to him, and also has a book café and a library. One of the highlights is a recreation of Sōseki’s study. “Mountains” is a useful description when it comes to Sōseki; the term not only described the number of devoted supporters who traveled to Shuzenji when he fell ill, it is an appropriate term for the number of books piled high in his study. In fact, I needed to use the panorama photo setting on my iPhone camera to capture them all. Outside the museum is a bust of the author as well as a memorial to the animal that launched his career, a cat.
When the current pandemic allows for safe travel again, I will continue my literary pilgrimage. There are many more places to explore including Yugihama Beach and Enkakuji Temple in Kamakura, Habutae Dango shop near Nippori Station in Tokyo, and Wakanoura in Wakayama. There is even his museum in Sussex, England.
Perhaps my final stop may be his final resting place at Zoshigaya Cemetery. Or, perhaps not. As for this fan, Sōseki is larger than life.