Loss of Innocence      

by Edward Levinson 


crisp night                      

sharp crescent moon      

cuts heart                          


yaki kiriri, surudoi mikazuki, kokoro kiru


Fall 1979: My first season in Japan was nearing its end. Two months in the countryside around Kyoto had been nice, but through my intuition, meditations, and the help of coincidence, the big city of Tokyo was calling me. My meditation teacher was passing through Japan on his way to India and I naively volunteered to try and find a sponsor for his lecture.

Soon to be twenty-six years old, a real, young adult with some life experience, I found myself alone in the bustling Shibuya area of Tokyo as a cold mid-December evening approached. I had been in the city only a few days, but suddenly felt the need to get up high, away from the crowds. On the edge of the shopping district, I spotted a nondescript building and made my way to the roof. The clear pink winter sky offered a cropped view of Mount Fuji; fresh air and open space revived me. Deep breathing relieved some of the stress of being a vagabond in Tokyo.

Look Me in the Eye

For the third night in a row I had an early dinner at Tenmi, the brown rice restaurant made popular by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Again, the same cute dark-haired waitress seemed not to notice me. As a vagabond, I left things to fate. I had no planned place to stay. Either someone would offer to take me in for the night or I would find somewhere to doss down in my sleeping bag for free.

After dinner I went to a “theme” coffee shop I had heard about, a cozy place that specialized in playing recordings of classical music. I relaxed into the maroon-colored sofa-like chairs and ordered coffee. I was prepared to spend a few hours here “renting” space to justify the high price of the coffee. Land prices and rents were, and still are high; it was pre-Starbucks days. 

The place was intimate, like someone’s living room, with an Art Deco atmosphere. I pulled out my English-Japanese dictionary and pretended to study. In such a small place you needed some camouflage for observing people.

A buxom college student eyed me over her books. She was studying English and spotted her chance to get some free help. Hungry for someone to speak English with, I was noble enough to help her. Loneliness likes company. Man liked woman.

We joined tables and I looked at her lessons. Conversation soon turned to other things. 

“What’s in the backpack?” she asked looking at the dirty, blue thing beside my chair.

“An extra set of clothes, a bamboo flute, a jar of peanut butter, a small bowl, a sleeping bag, and a book of spiritual quotations.” I listed everything I had brought with me to Japan, omitting my peppermint soap and toothbrush.

“Where are you staying?” she asked hesitantly, eyeing my rough denim-clad appearance.

“Oh, here and there,” I avoided answering directly.

“Well, you helped me with my lessons, so I owe you something. You can stay at my apartment, but it’s in the suburbs and very small,” she said. 

Few vagabonds would have turned down an invitation like this. Though surprised, I had an open mind, and even if it was just a place to sleep, I was happy to accept.

We headed off on the Yamanote Line that looped around the city, the edge of the Tokyo I knew so far. We changed trains at Ikebukuro, one of the major junctions for leaving the inner city. Thirty minutes later we exited at a little station, walked through narrow streets, went up some rickety stairs, and down a grimy, outdoor hallway. She opened the flimsy door and said something in Japanese that I didn’t understand. While I was struggling to take off my shoes in the narrow front entrance, I heard a surprising sound.

A Japanese man’s voice was booming from inside the room. I wasn’t sure whether to enter or leave, but my shoes were off and I sensed an adventure. She led me into the six-mat tatami room (about nine square meters), and sat me down at the low kotatsu haeater table opposite a bearded older college student. I couldn’t tell if they were a couple or brother and sister. A half-empty bottle of sake sat by his side; he was in a strange laughing mood.   

“Let’s have a drink,” he slurred in English. 

When I said I didn’t drink much he became even more interested and the girl told him I was a vegetarian and into meditation. I pulled out my book of spiritual sayings, hoping to find some guidance for the rest of the night.

“I like philosophy, let me see your book,” he said. He spoke quite good English. Then he asked rapid-fire questions. 

“Are you a Christian? Do you believe in God? I don’t, I am a communist. Who is this man on the cover of the book? He looks like Christ to me.”  It was a picture of a guru.

“Do you believe everything in that book?” he challenged me.

“I believe everything I can understand. It is a simple message of how to live in balance and discover love, harmony, and beauty in life,” I replied, offering my interpretation of the book by the Indian teacher of mysticism. “It’s about the unity of life and human beings; it fits with the way I see the world.”

“How can you believe it? What about all the poor, all the suffering people in the world? Communism would be better.”

“I thought Buddhism teaches about suffering and compassion. Do you think communism offers something different?” 

He poured himself more sake. What I had been thinking about for a few days poured out of me. 

“It bothers me to see all the old and odd-looking people cleaning the stations and toilets here. It appears they are being treated like India’s untouchables, as lower-class citizens. And what about all the old ladies, the peddlers carrying those big heavy baskets on their backs? It hurts me to watch. I offer to help them up the stairs but they refuse.” Living on the streets and hanging around stations, my head was full of these images.

Whatever he tried to say next, in whatever language, would not come out. He nodded as if agreeing. Looking back years later, I would see “shōganai desu ne” (it can’t be helped) in his gesture. I asked for some sake and made him smile.

The girl started moving things around for sleeping, trying to make futons for two stretch to three. 

“I have my warm sleeping bag. It’s all I need. I’ll sleep in the kitchen alcove,” I told her. I wanted to get as far away as possible from my hosts’ sleeping spot. 

“You must sleep in this room on the tatami mats with us. It is the Japanese way,” she assured me.

Her bearded man was already under the covers. She dimmed the lights. I had no pajamas, so I slipped shyly out of my jeans and into my sleeping bag. The lights went out and I heard her undressing. She slipped into her futon, leaving him between us.

It was quiet for a few minutes. I tried to do some meditation lying down. My silent chanting had an echo. 

“Take her. She wants you,” he bellowed maniacally.

 “He’s drunk,” she insisted as she hit him. She hid under the covers. He began to snore.

My ego awakened. Did she really want me? Though I had imagined it, I didn’t know what I would do if the situation arose. Should I try to make conversation? Was she waiting? 

“Do you want me?” I whispered to myself. Her deep breathing answered my need. She was sound asleep. I cursed myself as a spiritual fool, and waited impatiently for morning so I could escape.

When I awoke, I went out on the stairway landing, and greeted the sun with breathing practices. That morning I needed to make a little extra effort at purification. Back inside I ate the breakfast bread she had bought the night before, drank instant coffee, washed the dishes, and made a little noise on purpose. They appeared to be still asleep, even though I was just a few footsteps from their futons – perhaps too embarrassed to get up. 

Living in such conditions, the girl seemed a bit homeless herself. Her mother probably never imagined her living like this, nor I am sure, could my middle-class mother conceive of her only son sleeping thus halfway around the world.

I wrote a thank-you note and left, walking towards the sun. I found the station and the train bound for Ikebukuro and my “home” on the Yamanote Line. The hot carriage made me sleepy. 

“Maybe I should just sleep outside tonight,” I chided myself. In previous travels I had done it many times, but never in a Japanese city.

And so, that night, I went to Ueno Park close to Ueno station, another big junction on the loop line.  It looked quiet enough for sleeping in. I squeezed into what looked like a safe place, a circle of azalea bushes offering privacy. Tucked into my sleeping bag, I meditated in the coolness, then fell into a deep warm sleep.

It was not to last. Soon I was being shaken and yelled at, in both Japanese and broken English. Flashlights burned into my face as the park patrol spat out warnings, gesturing for me to leave.

 “No sleep, can’t do! Dame! Dame!” It seemed rough to me, but now I imagine they did it in a polite Japanese way. I wondered what happened to all the other homeless people I had seen in the park with their sheets of cardboard for shelter.

I wandered back towards the station to escape the cold and around 1.00 a.m. went into a neon-lit, all-night coffee shop, filled with men in cheap wrinkled suits and attractive young women in skimpy dresses. They soon went to sleep, their heads slumping onto the tabletops.  “Are these people homeless?” I innocently asked the bored-looking waiter, who spoke some English. They certainly didn’t look homeless. 

“No, they missed the last train and are waiting here until the trains start up again in a few hours,” he explained. “You can sleep here if you want.”

Despite the caffeine, I eventually lay down in the booth and went to sleep. I was dreaming of the park escapade when someone shook me again. A different waiter was gently waking me and signaling I needed to leave. The other night owls had gone, replaced by the morning breakfast crowd. They had allowed the gaijin to sleep until seven. One more odd night’s experience of another culture.  

Yotsuya,Full Moon

(NOTE* A slightly longer version of this 1st person narrative essay appears in the book Whisper of the Land  Fine Line Press, 2014.  https://whisperoftheland.com/  )