Minato Sketches by Sharon White


Sometimes this city felt like the movie Blade Runner and sometimes it felt like a miracle. The streets near the harbor torn up with construction, the fishy smell of the pavement near the market. Men with swirling tattoos on their arms and legs shifted boxes into trucks. But some neighborhoods appeared as if they were dreams. Little wooden houses with pointed roofs, pots of flowers in the tiny alleys, flowered fabric for sale in shop windows. Old women bent over their cats, setting out food. 

She understood the geography of the city as a loop. She imagined the places she traveled to on the Yamanote Line as spokes out from the tracks. That’s what it felt like when she boarded the train and it sped past apartments with laundry drying on hangers or futons draped over railings, or the neon signs covering the sides of massive buildings, or electric signs flashing as the train passed clusters of pine trees with pointed tops or camellias in bloom on the edges of the tracks.

She liked thinking about the gardens she was visiting as a kind of land art with some of the same concerns as Smithson’s work. The land as sculpture. She had an idea for an essay, something that seemed to be building in her mind. Tentative. But still the words appearing one after the other.

The garden she’d gone to in the morning was in the courtyard of a sculptor’s house. The façade looked like a Bauhaus design painted black, but the actual house was traditional, built around a garden of the most beautiful stones from all over the country. A large smooth stone from the north, other stones covered in lichen from the forests set in the pond, filled again and again with the clearest water. 

Spouts of water bubbled out from carved stones. Koi, some 100 years old, swam back and forth as she watched the water flow. Awakening, the whole garden was an awakening and that’s what she wanted to do. Even though she was quite old and damaged in more ways than one.

In another garden she saw an iris field that was once a rice paddy to train the children of samurai families about the hardships of rice cultivation. Or at least that’s what she was told. Wasn’t it important for everyone to learn about the hardships of cultivation? Everyone around her on the trains or buses seemed to be only aware of things, the value of purchases folded neatly in their bags.


She went with him to a small mountain in the folded hills where the trees were almost 300 years old, escapees from the firebombing in the city during the last big war. They took the train out of the city and changed to a smaller train close to the mountain. The first train was packed with people going to work, hanging on the straps above her head. It was a surprise when the tightly packed houses disappeared so close to Tokyo. 

She could see small rice fields from the windows of the train. 

He told her about rice cultivation. About how in midsummer the farmers start fertilizing their plants. They feed the ears of rice sprouting in the stalks. 

She’d walked past shimmering rice fields with Motoko in the foothills. They saw people bent over the plants, their wide hats shading their faces. They were crouching close to the green shoots, she told Richard.

“That’s it,” he said, “hogoe. It’s difficult work, sweaty and tiring. You have to feel the rice stalks, see if they’re swelling. If the color is right. The farmers say the rice is like a pregnant woman due in autumn. They watch the lilies and hollyhocks to figure out if the time’s right. The more attention, the better the rice will taste. They consult the rice.”

“And the rice answers?” She asked.

“Sure,” he said.

Gardens flourished under clear plastic tarps. Trees in miniature orchards were full of ripening fruit.

She felt guilty her country had destroyed so much of the land around her. 

“But it’s renewed now, isn’t it?” Richard asked. 

“Different,” she said. The city was so densely built she couldn’t imagine breathing with so many people at once. But she did. Like being shut in a spacecraft hurtling through time.

“There’s an ancient Shinto shrine in Ise that’s been rebuilt hundreds of times,” he said. 

“Jim told me about it,” Gigi said.

“The librarian?”


He seemed surprised.

“We talk about gardens,” she said.

“You must have charmed him. He’s not usually very friendly.”

The path up the mountain started at the tram. Already there were people washing the mud off their boots at a spigot. A girl bought ice cream from a woman leaning out of a doorway. A class of kids wearing yellow caps gathered around the woman. They fished coins out of their pockets for the cones while their teacher chatted with the owner of the shop.

“Do you have kids?” she asked laughing at the group.

“Two,” Richard said. 

“Two for me. Two boys.”

“A girl and a boy. Grown up now.” 

He told her his daughter was coming to visit in August. She’d texted him the details the night before. He was relieved she wasn’t bringing her boyfriend, a new one who was a consultant at the same company. Someone who was hired to make things more efficient, more profitable. It always meant firing people. 

They started up the path. The forest was a replica of those Japanese screens she’d loved so much when she was studying art. Byobu. Some screens might have been part of a dowry with a secret message for a young woman about how to behave at court, she’d read. Gigi wondered if the forest had a secret message for her. Sweat covered her face.

Richard stepped aside for a line of men coming down the path. “Get it done,” they chanted, giving Gigi and Richard a thumbs up. They carried heavy packs and climbing ropes. 

He told Gigi he knew he didn’t appreciate his daughter enough and she felt this. She was smart and honest and very funny. He’d tried to talk her into moving to Japan but she was uneasy about living in Tokyo. Too many people and she didn’t want to move somewhere else where she couldn’t speak the language and everyone would think she was a foreigner, gaijin

She’d come to visit years ago. They’d been hiking in the mountains when they encountered a long string of older women with broad straw hats maneuvering the wooden boards across a wet patch of trail. He stopped to let them pass, his daughter waiting behind him. Arrigato, gaijin, one woman said. Her face was blank and the women around her seemed embarrassed, bowing as they passed him. No one had ever called him gaijin. Who knew, though, what had happened to her family during the war. His uncle could have killed her father.

When he told his daughter what the phrase meant she was insulted. Don’t worry, he told her, she’s just being honest. We are gaijin.

The path snaked up wooden steps and then into a cedar grove. She could hear water in a stream far below them. Flashes of light like the gold flecks on the trees in those paintings from so long ago hit her face now and then. 

Wild monkeys lived in the forests, he told her. That’s something that just blew her mind. Monkeys. Not just at the hot springs, but maybe in a tree just above her head.

Where the trail narrowed there was a tree with a thick rope wound around the bark. White paper folded like lightning bolts hung from the rope. 

“It’s a sacred space. The tree is holy,” Richard said.  

“And you believe that?” Gigi asked.

“Why not,” Richard said, “the kami resides in the tree.” 

“I’d like to believe that.”


She used to think the world’s largest city was the last place she wanted to be after her stroke. But that was it, wasn’t it? To be in a place where no one knew her and, even though the dean had spilled the beans to everyone, it seemed, she could almost forget about her accident. The accident in her brain. The fissures in her memory. 

She said, “The first few minutes I was in the hospital after my stroke there was a nurse, the sweetest nurse in the world. He told me I’d get back everything I’d lost. All those words hidden for now. 

You’ll be as good as new, he said, don’t worry, Gigi. He held my hand during the first night when my family was still finding out the news. My husband off at a conference in the coldest place in the world, my sons doing something or other. The nurse was my lifeline. He held my hand for hours, it seemed, until my older son arrived. Nice mess you’ve gotten yourself into, Mom, he said, but he looked so pale, as pale as I’d ever seen him and his hands were shaking as he smoothed my hair. You look pretty good, my younger son said, for someone they thought was dead. My husband arrived hours later. The light was coming through the blinds, and I wasn’t hooked up to machines anymore.” 

There was no wind. Everything was still except the water trickling in the shallow stream. Richard pulled his pack off and offered her an apple. She nodded. His hand brushed hers as she took the apple. 

“I suppose that was my sacred space.”

“You were lucky,” he said. 

“Very lucky.”

She felt relieved when he picked up his pack and tightened the straps. 

“We don’t want to miss the train,” he said, and then started down the path.


There were so many days those months, and then years, after her stroke when she didn’t know the answers to the questions her speech therapist asked. She felt stupid for the first time in her life. What was a cup used for? What sound does the bird make? How much is one plus one? Who ties your shoes? Who pours the juice? What time is night? 

On the way home from school she stopped at a florist wedged between a bakery and a girl’s school. The door was open and a man with a green apron stood at the counter. His place was full of small pots of tropical plants. He peered at her suspiciously.

Orchids with white blooms on long stems were crowded together in a box. There were hundreds of pots lining the sidewalk. Near the door were flats of tiny flowers with orange and pink blossoms and herbs just watered. She touched the petals with the tips of her fingers and smelled the herbs. The owner of the shop had taken her money and shrugged when she bought first one small plant and then another as the days went by. 

She was looking for a tree to be the focal point of the plants on her balcony. There was a tiny tree wedged in with taller plants near the street. It had a tag with a picture of the most beautiful flower, round deep purple petals and curly yellow anthers in the center. When she brought the plant inside the shop and handed it to the owner he shook his head and got her to understand he was warning her it wouldn’t bloom until autumn. By then she’d be back in her other life.

It all seemed so far away. Her husband popping the English muffins in the toaster. Her little dog shaking her toy up and down. The sound of planes and helicopters. A bowl of zinnias on the table. The phone ringing from far away. One of her sons texting her as she drank her coffee sitting on the stool pulled up to the counter. Did she want to go back to that life where she picked up her pills at Rite Aid and brought her clothes to the cleaners? 

She walked across the high bridge over the tracks, past the huddled evergreens and across the patio that led to the store where she bought peaches covered in netting. They were soft and large and she cradled them like babies. She rode the escalator down to the store and up to the patio. Where else could she find something like this? She was surprised the loneliness she felt was pleasant and not terrifying. 

Men were trimming the trees around the narrow apartment building. They looked like ninjas, she thought, with black scarves tied around their foreheads and huge electric saws held above the line of bushes. In no time at all they had a pile of branches at their feet. 

Is this your floor? A man wearing a cowboy hat asked her in English. Yes, she answered, and squeezed out of the tiny elevator with her small tree.


She saw the old man when she was running along the canal. It was too hot to run. She was afraid she’d have one of her flashing headaches, sparks flying across her eyes. He was walking slowly in the direction of the harbor to the place where you could see the bay as a wedge of water between the monorail and the highway. 

At first she thought he was a ghost, but she could see the damp marks of sweat on his jacket as she was pumping her legs against the rubber surface of the path. Heavy datura leaned over the track, poisonous, sweet. Someone had told her it was called devil’s snare. The white heron, her black legs tucked under her shining body, flew along the water. The ancient man was the only person she’d seen so far that morning. It was even too early for the salarymen holding their slim black briefcases against their thighs. And why was she thinking about her husband, how sometimes he couldn’t sleep when she finally could without being afraid that she’d end up in that dark silence, not that it was something she was afraid of when it happened. Not really. Was there something restful about it? She couldn’t really remember. A piece of punctuation in a life that had gone on like a very long paragraph with hardly any periods. That’s what it was like to have her boys. Their lives the only story that made any sense to her even though she was doing all sorts of things. 

The datura was damp with dew. The ancient man didn’t look at her at all as she passed him. And what if he was actually a ghost? It wouldn’t surprise her. 

The tall man who played a harmonica, or the other silent man brushing his trousers clean, or the one who was smoking when she saw him on the side of the path. She thought he was the one who fed the cats near the overpass. He stood by the walkway to his building, near the small bowls of food. They were alive to her, watching her as she ran past them. Sometimes there were men drinking cans of beer or the large man who watered the lilies each morning outside his apartment. The hose looked heavy and snaked around the bushes blooming with tiny purple flowers. 

Sometimes her husband accused her of pulling the covers off and he was cold, or snoring and it kept him awake, or tossing and turning. Here she could stay awake all night in the tiny apartment above the canal. The sour smell of the water flowing in from the bay and back out again.


In class Akio wound himself up like a chrysalis. Gigi was having problems with the slatted shades at the window. She couldn’t look at the shimmering blinds. It was so hot everywhere all of a sudden. Deep summer. The heat everyone had warned her about and, then, there it was. The floor of the classroom seemed to shift as she moved her wand on the screen and pointed out the blazing rooster in Chagall’s painting. 

“He wanted to be wild,” she said. “To stay wild, to be untamed.”

Akio was there and then he’d disappeared into his hoodie. Zipped up to his forehead. He was usually such a livewire with his spiky black hair and metallic blue nails. But some things were mysterious. He told her he wasn’t sleeping. He’d been coming late to class. She missed their talks before the rest of the class appeared.

Akio biked two hours back and forth to the university. He said he wanted to tell stories. His father thought he was wasting his time but his mother understood. He’d shown Gigi some of his work hung on the wall of the art room. Tucked away in a corner. Magical fish with bright wings like Chagall’s paintings but glittering with tatters of gold.

He told her he’d worked on a farm for a year raising melons. “I was working eight hours weeding and watering and giving love to the melons. I know now what kind of devotion it takes to grow crops. I love feeling the changing seasons even the cold rain in the winter.”

He felt like some people were born to meet. 


She was too fat to buy any pants in the city. Or at least that’s what it seemed like. Her mother used to remind her of how skinny she once was. That wasn’t really true, but here in the megalopolis, she was always plump. The biggest size was 6 in all the stores. Where did the women who wore normal sizes buy their clothes? 

She went into a Gap store and picked out several pairs of pants that looked like they’d fit. At the dressing room she kicked off her shoes and stepped into the slippers at the door. The sales clerk handed her the gauze covering for her face and she pulled it over her head. She tried one after the other on and the waists were still too small. It felt like a strange ritual to wear someone else’s slippers and cover her face with gauze. 

She hated even thinking about this stuff. Wasn’t she supposed to be soaking in the magic of east and west, new and old, the past and the present. The possibility of everything being blown to bits or split off into the sea. And why was she feeling sexy again? She was too old. She was married. She wasn’t supposed to want anyone else.

Akio told her that the rainy season, the end of May until mid-July, was the second hardest season for the people who lived in the city. Sometimes there were torrents of rain and no sun for days. In April, the time of cherry blossoms, people threw themselves in front of trains in large numbers. Now, too, he said, it was bad if you weren’t feeling so great about your life. 

“And how are you feeling?” She asked him.

“Not so good,” he said. “But I’m making do. I’ve started a blog about how to follow your heart. How to have self-respect. I’m learning how to follow my heart. My grandfather worked for more than forty years in Tokyo and then he moved back to the village where he grew up. He felt like he was caught in his life.”

“Is he happy now?”

“Yes, he plays chess with old friends and grows vegetables.”

A Shinkansen had travelled miles with the remains of a careworker caught in the nose. Pictures in the paper showed the bloody stain on the sleek metal. The man had parked his van near the tracks and jumped. 

This doesn’t happen between stations the spokesperson said. The driver should have stopped when he knew something strange had happened.

In her own country people had lots of guns and knives and pills. That was the easier way to go, she thought. But wasn’t it all difficult? Even when she could hardly speak, she had a fierce desire to be alive. To be here. The light coming through her pots of flowers on the tiny balcony, the ducks landing on the water below. The reflection of the sun on the towers surrounding her. 

Another of her students was struggling, she knew this. And there was really nothing she could do to help her. Julie had moved around from country to country. She had migraines, she didn’t seem able to turn her work in. She felt the pressure of being a woman every day. People told her she was pretty, she didn’t have to get a law degree. Why was she worrying about anything when she had such pretty legs?


She signed up for an Ikebana course a few days before it started. The instructor was a woman who was an Ikebana master. On the first day of class Gigi bought a kenzan and a pink plastic wrapping cover to bring her flowers home. She learned that flowers have a secret life of their own. Their faces have as much personality as a person’s. Branches and leaves can show their faces too. Her teacher, Risen, told her that her first arrangement was “alive.” She was concentrating hard, watching how Risen positioned each flower and branch in her low plastic bowl. 

It was bright in the classroom and the five other women all spoke Japanese, even Cherry from Malaysia. They stood at the long tables and listened as Risen explained how to give the flowers space. 

Three hundred years ago arrangements moved in three directions and symbolized heaven and earth and people, Risen said. The common people gained more power then and wanted to decorate their houses. Before that arrangements were only for the rich and powerful.

Their first arrangement would use three lines: main, additional and supplemental. Each line is active and shows the movement of the line. Soon Risen wasn’t using English at all and Gigi listened with her eyes. Or at least it seemed that way. She just had to watch Risen’s hands. The way she cut the stem of each flower and deftly placed it at the angle she wanted in the kenzan.

Her mother loved flowers and then she didn’t love anything. When Gigi was a little girl her mother had a long flower bed at the side of their house. A colonial house on a new street where there used to be farms. There was still a farmer who came around in a truck and sold vegetables when they first moved there and then he was gone. Her mother grew iris that still made Gigi’s heart ache when she thought of them, tall, very purple and sweet. There were red roses too. She could almost smell them here in the ancient country where the last roses were blooming along the canal in the European style gardens and the women with their wide brimmed hats and garden tools staked and pruned and watered.

Before Thanksgiving Gigi used to go with her mother to buy mums wholesale from a greenhouse at the derelict edge of their city. Her mother would buy boxes of gold and rust mums and then arrange them in a low bowl on the polished dining room table. 

It was funny how the idea that her mother didn’t like her at all grew in her heart as Gigi got older. As she sat by her hospital bed those last days Gigi really did feel like her mother had done her best. And what did it matter that her mother’s version of love wasn’t quite what Gigi would have liked. At least Gigi wasn’t happy she was dead. Relieved, perhaps, because her mother was so unhappy. Her mother told her she was thrilled when her mother had died suspiciously one night in her comfortable house on the street in another new development. The cotton bedspread pulled up to her chin, her nurse shaking pills from several bottles into the toilet in the bathroom.


Her neighborhood in Minato ward looked like Tomorrowland and it was. The monorail zipped above her head and the office towers leaned toward each other in boxy reflective columns. 

She walked faster along the canal and passed the very old man with his heavy satchel. He was dressed as he always was when she saw him, crisply ironed shirt and pleated pants, his dark hat pulled down across his brow. He had hardly any cheeks at all, his face just a memory of what it had once been. He was already a skeleton, but he looked ahead tapping his cane on the bricks. A crane flew overhead once she’d reached the end of the walkway and was under the tracks for the monorail. She could hear the bird coming, croaking loudly. A homeless man with long red hair passed her as she looped back under the bridge. His bike was heavy with plastic bags. He looked down at her and she looked away. Three ravens sat on the rail above the walkway and preened. Were all these visitations telling her about something she should watch out for? 

Even though her pillow was perfectly designed and very expensive sometimes she didn’t sleep at all. The trucks banged over the bridge to the harbor all night with a shattering thud. In the morning she’d walk to work in a kind of pleasant fog onto the red bridge, past the tall trees shimmering in the heat and the tracks and tracks of train lines onto the street where she waited politely with men and women dressed in beautifully tailored suits, past the shop where she bought pots of flowers, up the street with two pastry shops and a noodle bar and a Nissan dealership to the school. Before the school was the canal, dark, just a trickle of water flowing past her. 

When she had her stroke it was so dark, like falling into a dark hole and she only thought how frightening it would be to die, and then she thought of nothing at all, except her sons. She was sure she wasn’t dying if she wasn’t dead yet. It couldn’t have happened. There was her little dog, there was the telephone she held in her left hand. There was the clock and the window and the sun.

On her walk home from school the monster cicadas were singing. It was pleasant to be so far away from herself that she sometimes thought her name must be different from the name her husband called her. Gigi. 


Gigi looked the monkey straight in the eye, something she realized later she was not supposed to do. The monkey was sitting on a boulder above them on the trail. She was bending bamboo shoots with her hand, snapping them off and then putting them into her mouth. The monkey’s arm was long and furry and she bent her elbow and slipped shoot after shoot into her mouth. Every now and then she’d scratch her rump. Suddenly the monkey jumped and landed on Gigi’s shoulder screeching. One of her students, a squirrely kid who didn’t like to talk in class, took his backpack and swung it at the monkey who leapt up into the branches of a shaggy cedar. 

She knew it was a bad idea to take the class on a field trip to the monkey park, but it seemed like a way to get out of the classroom and bond. The semester was half over.

They’d talked about different architectural styles on the way. She pointed out a building that looked like something Le Corbusier would design next to a samurai’s house. The train was making her a little carsick and a couple who were speaking French kept talking about how they would soap each other up and then carefully wash each part they were going to suck and put into their mouths. She hoped her students didn’t understand French.

The monkey smelled like skunk and pieces of its fur stuck to her sweaty shoulder. Everything was damp. She felt dizzy and sat down on the steps cut into the edge of the trail. Suddenly she was seeing sparks and squiggles. 

“I don’t think she feels well,” the student who drank bottle after bottle of water in class said.

“I hope we’re not stuck here now,” another student said. She could see his feet, but not anything else. The sun came through the trees and then seemed to split up in waves. 

“You know she had a stroke,” Clara said.

“Shut up,” another student said and kicked her with his boot.

“I’ll be fine,” Gigi said. “I just have to rest for about fifteen minutes and then we can keep on going or turn around for ice cream.”

“Ice cream definitely. It’s unbelievably hot here,” Akio said.

Julie, who was often missing from class, put her hand on her shoulder and said, “You should drink more water.” 

She pulled the water bottle out of Gigi’s pack, unscrewed the top and gave her the plastic bottle. “You’re probably dehydrated. That’s what my doctors have told me about these kinds of headaches.” 

Her face was very close to Gigi’s and it steadied her. This thought that someone who struggled to make it to class at all was taking care of her. 


She was watching a Korean drama with English subtitles on television. This one set in Seoul, a city that seemed to have lots of murders and intrigue. Or at least that’s what the drama would have you believe. It was about a group of lawyers who got tangled up with a gangster. The beautiful woman, who was the youngest on the team, was the only one to die in the end when everything got much more dangerous. Gigi was sad this character had been killed off. She was devious but naïve at the same time. She didn’t really deserve to die, choked to death in a narrow alley. 

Gigi was taking care of a neighbor’s gerbil and that made her miss her little white dog even more. Her tiny white paws, the way she curled up completely sometimes. Her body like origami, folded into itself in a knot. The neighbor told her not to worry about the gerbil. He was a desert rat, after all. Didn’t need much water, hardly ever ate. What’s the animal’s name she texted. Terrance, he replied. It seemed to suit him, she thought. He looked like he wore a little white coat with a tan tie. Give the critter a piece of lettuce or carrot now and then and it will be fine, he texted and added the poop emoji.

Her neighbor had told her he was depressed. The lack of light sometimes in the summer made it worse. The rainy season and then the heat. He was going home to the UK for a few weeks. “Not much better, is it?” She asked him. And he laughed. 

“Not really,” he said, “but the change of scenery will do me a world of good.” He was depressed, he told her, until he started to take the pills he was on. And now he mostly avoided the darkness. The darkness of his life came before the pills and why shouldn’t he be happy? His daughter was skilled and beautiful, like a princess, his wife was a gem. Though he hardly got to see them with this job. He didn’t really like being an expat. It was easier to go back and forth. He could do some of the work in his house in the country. That’s where they lived most of the summer. And London was so dangerous now with a truck bomb, or fire, at least twice a month. All the terror against one group or another. The government there just as bad as her country and he pointed west. 

She’d figured out in the last few days that she’d fallen into the trap of thinking the ancient country with the beautiful cities and thousands of temples was a salvation of sorts for her. But all the same, she was not as lost as she’d been when she arrived. 

She’d gone on a field trip with her class to a place where a thousand dancers in matching yukata, white and black, shimmered at night with 1,000 toro lanterns on their heads. It was very dark and they danced together. Each one mimicking the next in the dance. She knew she would never see anything like this anywhere else and it made her happy she was here with her students who needed so much to be happy at this point in their lives. Her sons were pretty miserable at that age, too. 

But now she was here where the light of the lanterns was gold, shimmering on the heads of the women who were dancing. One student who had family living near the place said they’d been making paper lanterns in that city for thousands of years. Once when the emperor couldn’t get across the river hidden in the fog, the people who lived there lit his way with flaming torches.