I had just finished rubbing some Irish Flake and repacked the bowl of my trusty old Danish freehand when the waiter came to my table with my second cup of coffee. He noticed the ash and dottle in the ashtray and asked, "heizawa wa e desu ka?" (Is your ashtray okay for you now?). "It's fine", I said and gazed out of the cafe's window into the bright, crisp Tokyo morning. It was chilly out there but snug and warm in this charming little cafe near the Shinjuku district train station. I had spent the previous two hours walking from my son's school and thought it was high time for a coffee break - and of course - a pipe. And this particular pipe had been with me since the mid 1980's. There are no markings on it other than "Made in Denmark". I don't know who made it, I have always loved it - it's fine, graceful lines and prefect form. And now, it was warm and comfortable in my hand as I returned to my book for - a few more pages before I continued my walk.
As some of you fellow club members know, my family and I are moving to Tokyo. In fact, my wife Rie (who came to visit the club last July), and my seven-year-old son Sean have already moved there. We have an apartment in Tokyo, my wife is working and Sean is attending Japanese school. Only I remain in New York finishing up work. I was able to visit them this January however - and to also enjoy rambling through that wonderful city while they were busy at school and work.
The no-smoking craze has not hit Tokyo as hard as in NYC. You can still find places where one can relax with a bowl of tobacco - and one of these places was this fine cafe.
My Danish freehand is about as old as my relationship with Tokyo. I came to live here in 1987 and spent ten years working and exploring Japan and it's people. That day's walk was to take me back to the old parts of Tokyo; Nihonbashi, Ueno, Asakusa - the old parts of Edo.
Tokyo’s temps are similar to New York’s so I had geared myself up for a cold-weather walk; Polartec fleece hoodie, down vest , good pair of Keen walking shoes and my Osprey daypack – and of course – an extra pipe. This happened to be the New York Pipe Club’s 2008 club pipe. Actually, I wasn’t the only one in Japan with this pipe, my dear old friend and fellow club member Mr. Sato of Sapporo Japan also has one. I mailed him a club pipe back in August. He’s a 72-year-old retired high school teacher who is a dedicated pipe smoker and had attended a New York Pipe Club meeting during a trip to NYC back in 2004. I had not yet been able to contact him this trip to see what he thought about the pipe, but I had brought mine over to break it in.
And this I did, my first bowl (or actually half bowl) with my club pipe was later on that day in Ueno park. I found a park bench next to the great Shinobazu pond. I packed it also with some Irish Flake (I’m on this flake kick lately), fired it up and stretched out my tired legs. I had been walking now for another two hours since the café but it hardly seemed it. Tokyo is a wonderful town for walking. I had followed a large street east. This street had once been an ancient road where farmers carried their produce into Edo from the western farmlands. Of course, there’s no trace of those days. It was built up in the turn of the twentieth century, fire bombed into oblivion in the mid century, and resurected into a whole new existence by the end of that century. I walked past the northern walls of the imperial palace, passed the Japanese Self-Defense Forces Headquarters where the novelist Mishima committed ritual suicide in 1970. I walked past beautiful stores, beautiful girls, shops making tofu, men repairing tatami mats, a man with a modern rickashaw-like cart collecting cardboard for recycling next to a local bus stop with a GPS screen displaying arriving buses, an elderly lady in a kimono talking into a cell phone the size of a pencil. I even saw a Mercedes Benz bicycle ride past, (later, In the window of the Tokyo Institute of Technology book store I saw a two-wheel-drive bicycle.) I wandered through some other narrow back streets, ducked into a little shop and had a splendid lunch of ramen noodles, rice and gyoza.
I had arrived at Ueno park in the mid afternoon and as I enjoyed the winter sunshine reflecting off the pond and the view of the Shinto shrine nearby I felt the warm briar in my hand – this straight, squat bulldog with 6 panels – I’m not sure I would have picked this type of pipe on my own, but since it’s the club’s choice I’d give it a try. The pipe does have a good feel, I like the panels and it’s a good size for traveling. Well, it sure was smoking fine – so far, so good. As I was enjoying the moment I realized that I was near the location where Edward Seidensticker had died in 2007. He was a noted translator of Japanese books into English and had lived near this park for many years. In fact, he translated the book I had with me, a selection of Kawabata’s short stories. I wanted to read something that took place in this part of Tokyo.
Mr. Seidensticker also wrote a very good history of Tokyo, Low City, High City , and as I tapped the ash out of the pipe and inspected the first sign of carbon coating it’s bowl, I wondered if I could find a copy of that book – I then realized that I did, in fact, like this fledging pipe.
“Rage against the Machine” was blasting at ear-splitting volume from giant speakers as Rie, I and a couple of friends Jim and Mayumi drank Jim Beam and Asahi beers at the “Rolling Stone” rock & roll bar in Shinjuku. It was Saturday night, and like so many Saturday nights in the past we have decided to hang out at this tiny bar. Where else could you listen to Hendrix, James Brown or what ever you put down on the little request slips that you bring to the DJ. Our demure friend, 39-year-old Mayumi had requested Rage against the Machine’s Killing in the Name ‘cause she needed to blow off some steam from her work. (BTW, Mayumi is Mr. Sato’s daughter – small world). Rie and Mayumi were up and dancing to the pure noise - while Jim and I were sitting and sipping that whiskey. I took out my old freehand and packed with some of that Irish Flake – now where else could you listen to monumental rock at glacier-melting volumes while smoking your favorite tobacco?
Earlier that day, we had dropped off Sean at his friend’s house for a sleepover and had walked around exploring our new neighborhood. There was a charming old shop near the station where Rie had seen a poster in the window with some beautiful calligraphy. Rie had noticed an elderly man hunched over a heated kotasu table and wondered if his was writing these Chinese characters. He wasn’t and when he saw us he motioned us to come in. We stepped into what we then realized was his woodshop and sat down with him at his cozy table. Rie apologized for interrupting him but he just smiled and said he wanted to take a break anyway. He was sharpening his Japanese pull saw with a tiny file. It turned out he was Mr. Sasaki a master carpenter – he was 92-years-old. His shop was very old but it was a beautiful sight to see. Rie and Mr. Sasaki talked as I gazed around. Splendid handmade furniture was displayed about the shop. “I’m too old to make anything now but I keep my shop open for customers with any questions”, Mr. Sasaki said. He spent his days keeping his tools ready and I felt privileged when he showed them to me, an array of planes that were at least fifty-years-old but with their blades razor-sharp. His collection of chisels was astounding. He had replaced their handles many times but the steel edges were as good as when he bought them in 1932. He had replaced the handle on his hammer too – he had bought that too in 1932 – for 1 yen. I asked if I could smoke and without a second thought he got up and fetched me an ashtray. His crystal-clear eyes focused on my old freehand as I lit it up and I wanted to show it to him, but he was back engaged in a conversation with Rie about the neighborhood. He made tea for us and as Mr. Sasaki and Rie continued their talk I enjoyed my pipe and admired his tools and the remaining furniture pieces in his shop. “This one is made out of keyaki wood”, Mr. Sasaki said as he pointed out a beautiful dresser. “I made it in 1974. After keyaki dries it is never affected by humidity or temperture." The dovetails in the drawers were still tight - perfect. "There used to be many keyaki trees in this town." The street next to our apartment is named Keyaki Dori.
Ebisu town is near the center of Tokyo, and on my second Saturday evening I met a few old friends at our old hang out, the café “Come In”. It’s a place where we used to relax after work and in our case play Scrabble. So there I found myself once again musing over possible seven-letter words and puffing away on my Elliott Nachwalter Canadian. Mr. Ishimori played “VAW” which I think is in the Scrabble dictionary but I wouldn’t take the chance to challenge it anyway – he averages 400 points a game. I got up to refill my coffee and looked out the window. There was already an inch of snow on the street. Flakes were swirling past the neon light of the soba shops, bars and stores below as I tasted the sweetness of my bowl full of Virginia No.1 – it sure went well with a nice cup of coffee.
I had been smoking Virginia No. 1 earlier that day but with a different Canadian – my rusticated Larsen. It’s longer than the Nachwalter but less massive and light enough to smoke while my son and I flew a kite in the brisk, windy sky over Koganei Park. We all had bicycled up to this expansive park which is only ten minutes away from our apartment. The park was once a summer palace for the emperor and full of wooded lands and open spaces. Rie and Sean have been bicycling there since they moved nearby. They had become friends with a neighborhood kite flying club and a kindly old gentleman had given Sean a beautiful handmade Japanese kite. Rie was making tea with our little camp stove and chatting with some club members while I was with Sean tending to our high flying kite and my exquisitly smoking bowl. The kite was very high now and we noticed the approach of storm clouds off to the west. I zipped my hood up against the chill, puffed on my pipe as a deep sense of warm wellbeing swept over me.
Last Ramble for now
The snow had melted in the city by the last week of my vacation. “Let’s go for a hike up Mt. Takao”, Rie said. So, on my last Saturday, we packed a winter picnic and took the twenty-minute train ride to the foothills at the western edge of Tokyo. Mt. Takao is a popular place for Tokyoites looking for a day outdoors. It's a small mountain with a half a dozen trails to choose from for getting to the top. You can even take a cable car up and walk down, but we were determined to “summit” on foot. The trail we chose started off by winding through a deep cedar forest. We followed a stream and occasionally crossed it to visit ancient Buddhist shines nestled against moss-covered cliffs. We found a few shrines in tiny caves – stone alters dimly lit by a candle or two. The trail wound through a crevice that terminated with a slender waterfall plunging into a pool. “Monks meditate under that fall”, Rie said as we climbed higher. The trail steepened, narrowed and then got a little muddy from the snow melt. Sean was crawling under the great root systems of some cedars that had been exposed from the spring rains of hundreds of years. The trail got steeper still and soon we were peeling off jackets and hats. The trail turned into split-log steps for the last stretch and then finally we made it to the top. Normally, we would have been treated to a spectacular view of Mt. Fuji but low, snowy clouds were scudding over the peaks of the foothills towards us. We did have a great panorama of Tokyo spreading out to the east. And as Sean slid down a nearby snowy slope and Rie gently sang as she boiled some noodles on our camp stove, I bundled up for that oncoming brisk, fresh, embracing mountain air and snow - and rummaged around in my daypack – looking for my pipe.