It happens every time I introduce students to the ill-fated 9th-century exile, Sugawara no Michizane. In the midst of describing the wrongs he incurred, his heart-broken ox, and the flying plum tree, I nearly burst out laughing. It’s not that I relish Michizane’s misery. Rather, I can’t help but be reminded of my own!
Mind you, I did not suffer on my journey to Dazaifu, the way Michizane did on his. In fact, the trip was rather charming, if you can get past my silly self-consciousness.
I have photographic proof, too.
There I am, posing in front of the shrine with Yukio Noguchi.
He, a head shorter than I, slouches comfortably, the wrinkle in his t-shirt makes it seem the silk-screened ship across the front is sailing.
I stand stiffly, one foot edging in front of the other in proper model pose.
We do not smile.
I had been told it was inappropriate to smile for Japanese photos. But truly, I did not feel like smiling. I did not feel much of anything except awkward.
I’d been in Fukuoka for less than a month.
I met Yukio Noguchi, the man in the photograph, Sunday when I attended church services with my parents.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” he asked in a voice barely above a whisper.
I didn’t know. I looked to my mother for help and saw her brighten.
“I would like to take you to Dazaifu,” he said.
I stared at him blankly. Dazaifu meant nothing to me.
“Have you been?” he seemed surprised by my lack of response.
“No,” I mumbled.
“That’ll be fun,” my mother responded quickly, poking me in the ribs as if to say, “be nice.”
“Dazaifu is an ancient government center,” Yukio continued. He talked so softly I had to lean down to hear him.
“There’s a shrine there. It’s famous.”
And so it was decided that I would meet him the next morning, and he would guide me to this place that was once an ancient center and had a shrine. I admit I was curious. And even though being with Yukio taxed my auditory powers, I was happy to get out of the house and see more of this country that had become my new home.
My parents had dragged me across the world to join them in Fukuoka. I was to enter an international program at Seinan Gakuin where my father worked. It was still a few weeks before the start of the program. The other American students weren’t in town yet. I was bored.
I didn’t know much about Yukio Noguchi. He was a theology student at the university and seemed very serious. When he spoke, he sounded as if he were delivering a life or death pronouncement. If, that is, you could hear him.
The boys I had grown up with in North Carolina were the opposite. They were loud and flirtatious and had only one thing on their mind. It wasn’t life or death.
I didn’t know why Yukio wanted to take me to Dazaifu.
Was it a date?
Did he want to practice English? Was he trying to impress my father, who was the new chancellor of Seinan?
I couldn’t find any of the cues I was used to.
I didn’t even know what to wear.
The women I met when my parents took me to other people’s houses for dinner, the women at the church, the women I saw on the bus, all dressed more carefully than women in North Carolina. For one thing, they always wore stockings.
And so, even though it was a warm August morning, I complied. I pulled on a pair of panty hose, selected a belted “India-print” dress, the most modest dress I had, and borrowed a pair of my mother’s shoes. They were low-heeled and easy to slip on and off. I’d learned enough after my month in Japan to know, I’d likely need to take off my shoes at some point.
The train Yukio and I took to Dazaifu had booth seating. He sat across from me. The seating was so narrow that my knees grazed his from time to time. The sense of intimacy made me uncomfortable.
I don’t remember what we talked about. I just recall that the volume of his speech was so low I had to lean forward each time he spoke and strain the catch his words. It didn’t help that he held his hand over his mouth practically the whole time.
Once in Dazaifu, the approach to the shrine was lined with shops selling trinkets and cakes and ices. I wanted to sample everything. I wanted to poke through the stores. But Yukio was on a mission, and so we forged ahead.
I was acutely aware of the way people stared at us. Or, at me. I felt like a gargantuan there in my mother’s shoes walking next to soft-spoken Yukio.
“Dazaifu is famous for plum trees.”
Yukio told me some bizarre story about a plum tree flying from Kyoto to Dazaifu out of love for the unfairly accused Michizane. As if that made any sense.
It was August. None of the trees was in bloom. None was flying, either. They were just trees.
It was hot.
We stepped into a museum, which was at least cool, and then spent an eternity looking at things I didn’t understand: ancient armor, ancient scrolls, ancient everything. At some point we found a diorama with tiny dolls enacting Michizane’s journey. As I loomed over the tiny figures, I couldn’t help but imagine myself a giant interloper hovering over an unfamiliar world.
On our way back to the station, we crossed through the shrine grounds again and a photographer grabbed hold of us. He had a Polaroid camera and for a modest price, he would memorialize our visit for all time.
“God, no!” I thought.
But Yukio ponied up the money.
I still have the Polaroid.
I almost lost it in the flood of July 26, 2022.
I managed to fish my old photo albums out of the fetid waters. Some photos disintegrated even so, but this one remained, reminding me of an August day in 1976 spent with a kind man who just wanted to share something of his home with a girl who was too awkward to think of anything but herself.
It is ironic, perhaps, that I now teach Japanese literature and occasionally tell students about the ill-fated Sugawara no Michizane. Over the years, I have visited Dazaifu any number of times. Each time I carry the image of that Polaroid in my mind’s eye. I remember Yukio Noguchi, the train ride, the diorama, and the whispered stories of flying plum trees.