Memories of old Honmoku

An expatriate revisits his Yokohama childhood haunts

by

This is a story of Honmoku Motomachi, my hometown in Yokohama, a neighborhood on the southwest coast of Tokyo Bay. Not too long ago, the land extended to tidal flatlands that were abundantly endowed with a wide variety of marine life and provided sustenance and a livelihood to generations of fishermen. Yokohama means “horizontal beach,” and it aptly described the area until industrial development took off there in the early 1960s.

During the Kamakura Era, Shogun Yoritomo’s warriors kept their horses on the pastures of Honmoku. According to local legend, an evil spirit took over many of the prized animals. During the Muromachi Period, an annual ceremony to purge these spirits was begun: Straw figures of horses were taken by Shinto priests in ceremonial boats and set adrift on the outgoing tide. If the symbolic horses floated back to shore, the area had to be purified with yet another ceremony, or misfortune might return. In later years, the ceremony was combined with a boat race after the straw horses were set adrift.

The cliffs of Honmoku were chiseled by pounding waves, and the pine trees above were shaped by salty winds from across the bay. “Yokohama-e,” a genre of woodblock prints featuring scenes of the burgeoning town soon after the establishment of the harbor, depict Juniten (Temple of the 12 Gods) and the scenic cliffs and beaches nearby with quaint splendor. Commodore Matthew Perry’s crew dubbed the site of the temple Mandarin Cliff, and made it a landmark for passage into the harbor. But Yokohama developed rapidly, as international commerce between Japan and the outside world flourished; more and more houses were built, and the city’s landscape changed almost beyond recognition. The present location of Chinatown and its environs, for instance, was once marshland.

A successful silk merchant named Tomitaro Hara built a mansion by the sea in Honmoku. He bought exquisite tea houses and other ancient structures in Kyoto and elsewhere and had them dismantled and rebuilt in his garden. Hara named his garden Sankeien, for it was blessed with three glens, one of which opened out to a small beach and a view of the bay.

Our family moved to Honmoku from Tokyo during World War II, a few years before Yokohama was devastated by American firebombing in 1945. Our house was built for a French family and boasted an L-shaped porch and a white picket fence that faced the sea and toppled with every typhoon. From the porch windows, we could see ships come and go — large luxury liners, tankers and cargo ships — which made us dream of distant lands.

We lived between Hirano’s boat-rental and a shack where two “matsuri bune” (festival boats used for Ouma Nagashi, the ceremony of the horses) were kept, in the middle of a neighborhood of fishermen. We were part of the wave of middle-class urbanites — newcomers who usurped the beachfront from the fishermen.

Although our immediate neighborhood escaped the fires, the aerial bombing in May 1945 was a harrowing experience that would become my earliest childhood memory. My mother carried me on her back, with my brother and sister in tow, and ran to the safety of the wide, open space of Tokyo Bay at ebb tide. From there we watched much of Yokohama burn. My brother remembers the incendiary bombs that fell in the shallows nearby and sank without exploding. Many people lost their lives and homes, but ours were spared. It was the second disaster to hit Yokohama this century, the Great Kanto Earthquake also having done much damage in 1923.

Fishermen’s haven

A beach that extended far out to sea when the tide flowed out of the bay was a sight that we children would dream about, yearn for, for the rest of our lives.

There were mounds of uncrushed seashells under the beached fishing boats, waiting for time to turn them into fine sand. We had to wear sandals to get beyond the shells to the sandy shore.

Fishermen ruled the neighborhood, strutting about in their loincloths and “hachimaki” (rolled cotton bands around their sunburned heads), showing off their elaborate tattoos of sea dragons and other fantastic creatures. They spoke a distinctive dialect common among fishermen of the bay and the Shonan beaches. This language is full of irony and exaggeration: For example, something tiny would be “dekkakahneh” or “How large it is!” Something large would be the opposite, “chitchakahneh.”

On New Year’s Day, the fishermen showered us children with coins and candy; they organized the Ouma Nagashi ceremony and the Bon Odori; and they collected funds for the local Shinto shrine. They blew conch shells to signal a big catch, foretold the coming of storms and the red tide and organized evacuations during a terrible typhoon. They also taught us how to spear fish, harvest seaweed for “nori” and trap crabs. If a sea turtle got tangled in their nets, they would offer sake and take it back to the deep water to set it free — all the while praying for a good catch.

“Asari,” “aoyagi” and “hamaguri” shellfish were plentiful. Sand dollars and sea cucumbers appeared everywhere at low tide. We learned to step on “karei” flatfish (usually accidentally, since they are well-camouflaged) and grab them with our bare hands. We would take out our boats and go spearfishing or cast fishing lines even in the cold months. In warm weather, fishermen and their wives would mend their large nets. Perhaps they could hear my grandmother playing her harp, the exotic music harmonizing with the sound of waves.

There were hills and caves to explore, dug during the war to hide ammunition and weapons and soldiers. On one hill, Hasseiden (Temple of the Eight Saints) is still standing, an octagonal structure that houses statues of Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Prince Shotoku, Nichiren, Kobo Daishi and Shinran. To me, it was a mysterious place indeed, with its strange-looking sculptures of people about whom I knew very little.

My kindergarten, down the hill from Hasseiden, also served as an orphanage (there were children in the neighborhood who had lost their parents during the war). Below the cliffs facing the bay, a woman and her child lived in a shallow cave. Their dignity was obvious even to us children. Did the woman look out to the sea right outside her austere home, wondering what had happened to her husband, sent off to fight in the Pacific?

We would cross another valley, climb a hill and go through the woods that led to Sankeien, the most famous Japanese garden in the city. From there we worked our way out to a clearing where the three-story pagoda stood high above the ocher cliffs and wind-blown pines. People would plunge to their deaths from up there, falling onto the rocks and water below. One young couple tied themselves together and jumped, an incident that became the talk of the town. The thought of these suicides used to give me the creeps as I dove under the rocks below in search of “ainame” (greenlings) to spear. Near the pagoda, we found wild “akebi” fruit, which we proudly took home. My brother and I used to go hunting with an air gun and slingshot in search of Korean pheasants and quail. We saw them, but never hit one.

All these idyllic memories date from the years before Japan switched gears and accelerated into high industrial mode, before the faceless bureaucrats and industrialists and planners carved up the green hills and took the sea away from us. Honmoku, Isogo and Oihama were convenient places to build docks and oil refineries, all part of an ambitious plan for Japan to become a world economic power. And, in fact, Yokohama rapidly became the second most populous metropolis in the country.

Modern Honmoku

This spring, when the plum blossoms were still in bloom, my brother and I returned to the old neighborhood, a few days after my arrival from Washington. Nostalgia had led us to undertake a search for familiar scenes from our childhood.

In 1960, when the Yokohama landfill project began, our family moved to Zushi, a seaside town. Soon after, I graduated from St. Joseph’s, an international school on the bluff in Yokohama, and went off to college in the United States. Then came a newspaper job, marriage, children and life in the Maryland suburbs near the U.S. capital.

Back in Washington, I had read an editorial in a Japanese newspaper about the tidal flats in Isahaya Bay in Nagasaki Prefecture, which is being drained in preparation for bulldozing and filling. It made me think of my old neighborhood in Honmoku, which faced a similar fate four decades ago. And I thought, When will those bureaucrats and industrialists realize the destructiveness of what they are doing? It took millennia for those coastlines and tidal flats to form, but human beings can demolish them in just a few years. And it is all the more ironic since nature worship is the heart and soul of Shinto, Japan’s native religion.

On a train from Narita, I passed Urayasu, the area just east of the Edo River that divides Chiba from Tokyo and is the setting of Shugoro Yamamoto’s story “Aobeka Monogatari.” This prolific, popular writer lived in Honmoku Motomachi, but the story was written before Yamamoto moved there, describing a neighborhood much like Honmoku’s. Urayasu’s vast, rich, bayside flatlands are now buried under concrete and unsightly factories, like so many other beaches around Tokyo Bay and along the coasts of Japan.

When I returned to my old neighborhood, I knew that the rows of pink, yellow and blue houses that had been built for U.S. soldiers and their dependents were long gone, along with the Bill Chickering movie theater and the small shopping center. In their place is Mycal Honmoku, a luxurious shopping mall and housing complex. Along the road where the streetcar used to clank past are rows of expensive houses and apartments. The Shinto temple that replaced Juniten stands on a hill behind the new row of shops.

The shack where the ceremonial boats were kept still stands, however, although the unused boats are collecting dust. Our house was demolished long ago; in its place now is an apartment building. The whole shoreline just beyond Yamashita Park and the old Bund has become an industrial area all the way to Kanazawa Hakkei and beyond. The destruction of an entire coastline along the western side of Tokyo Bay is complete. There are docks for loading cars and containers, concrete factories and oil refineries. And smokestacks rise right in front of beautiful Sankeien Gardens.

No more suicides leap from Sankeien’s cliffs, though. Who would want to plunge from the cliff-top onto a dirt strip by the side of a highway?

My childhood friend Makiko Saigo, who lived on the corner of Sankeien Gardens, is still here, although she has converted her rustic historic home into a wonderful Japanese restaurant named Rinkaen. The last time I was there, she greeted me in a mauve and brown striped kimono that harmonized with the flowering cherry blossoms nearby.

“Yokohama has changed, hasn’t it?” she said. “It certainly has,” I agreed, looking at those oil refinery smokestacks blighting the classic grace of Sankeien’s three-story pagoda.

Hasseiden, the Temple of the Eight Saints, still stands on its hill. The view of the sea from the temple is blocked by unsightly gray factories. But within the hushed precincts of the temple visitors can see photographs of old Honmoku, including a marvelous view of Negishi Beach by Felix Beato. There are also fishermen’s artifacts: a “beka” wooden boat (used for collecting seaweed), flags, spears and other fishing gear. It is a modest exhibit, although to those who remember old Honmoku, it is priceless.

But whatever happened to the fishermen of Honmoku?

Reunion with a fisherman

Who would have thought that beyond the oil refineries, concrete factories and shiploads of containers lies a harbor full of fishing boats? Twenty-two vessels, to be precise, just 3 km from where our family’s house used to stand and a few minutes by car from Yokohama’s new Bay Bridge. The harbor is located near the popular fishing pier, but it is well-hidden from the view of the public roads.

The suntanned captain of the Honmoku Maru, Tatsuji Suzuki, greeted us there on a warm, sunny day in March.

” ‘Shibaraku’ (It’s been a while),” Suzuki-san smiled. He wore a baseball cap, dark glasses and clothes no different from an American fisherman’s.

I responded that it was probably 40 years since we had last met. Suzuki had been our neighbor and my brother’s classmate at Honmoku Elementary School, and they had also spent some time together in the Hakone mountains during the war. We all called him “Tahchee” back then.

In 1963, over 250 local fishermen gathered to decide if there was a future for their traditional livelihood. The government offered them 2.5 billion yen, to be divided among them to compensate for the loss of the flatlands.

“At that time, the water was so polluted in Tokyo Bay, most of us decided to give up fishing,” Suzuki said.

Some squandered their money, living extravagantly until their money ran out; others became factory workers and taxi drivers. The smart ones built apartments and lived off the rent. But a few, like Suzuki, remained fishermen.

“The water is so clean here,” my brother said, pointing to the blue-green water in the harbor. “Remember the days when we used to jump off the stone walls at Juniten?”

My brother was referring to the temple that stood near here from 1192 until a few years after the war, when U.S. Occupation forces moved it so they could build housing for their families.

Suzuki started reminiscing too. “We had such small boats for fishing in the old days,” he recalled. “Even the matsuri bune are only six ‘shaku’ wide and five ‘cho’ long. . . . Look at the fishing boats now. They are much bigger and sturdier. I have a satellite radar and a gadget to measure depth. In the old days I calculated my location by guessing the distances from landmarks on the coast.”

Suzuki comes from many generations of fishermen. Now his son, who has followed in the family tradition, owns a boat in the same harbor. Using baglike nets, they trawl the bottom of Tokyo Bay between the Sumida River and Sarushima. According to Suzuki, trawling is most successful along the slopes where the deeper waters begin.

“Fishing isn’t bad these days,” he said. “We catch ‘kurodai,’ ‘anago,’ ‘mako-garei,’ ‘shako,’ ‘tachiuo.’ The cormorants steal our catch quite often. But what’s really irritating are the numerous jellyfish in the bay that get caught in our nets. You see, in the old days, when we had beaches, the jellyfish were washed ashore, where lots of them died. Now they just linger in the bay.

“We also find trash on the bottom of the bay that we take to shore. You see that dump over there?” Suzuki said, pointing to the other side of the harbor. “That’s where we take the trash that we pick up.”

The fishermen of Honmoku perform other crucial tasks, according to Suzuki. One is called “taibiki.” I thought he was talking about catching the prized “tai” (sea bream), but he was actually referring to something rather ghoulish.

“Some years ago, a tanker collided with another ship and spilled fuel into the bay,” he told us. “The crew escaped by diving into the water, only to get caught in a sea of fire. The coast guard called on us to look for bodies. We were the first ones there. I fished a badly burned body out of the water,” Suzuki said. (Tai, in Japanese, also means body.)

We continued our conversation in an unadorned harbor-side seafood restaurant, frequented by local workers. Suzuki grew animated as he talked about the great catches from the past:

“I’ll never forget the year that Apollo reached the moon. Just off Honmoku, a huge school of sardines came in. We had nets set up, and for some reason the fish decided to go right into them. There were so many of them we were afraid the nets would tear, so we had to call other fishermen from Chiba to help us with our catch. That was the year very few sardines were available, so we got a hefty profit from it,” Suzuki said with glee.

He was a fount of information about fish in the bay. For example, “hoshi-garei” (flatfish with star patterns) which were abundant in the past, are now rare; so are “ishi-garei” (stone flatfish), but the number of mako-garei (another type of flatfish) has increased significantly.

“Did you watch that program on television about the ‘maboroshi-no-sakana’ (phantom fish)?” he asked us. “What a load of nonsense! They said the ‘ginpo’ (a fish served as a tempura delicacy) is so rare! You know what, there are plenty in this area! Maybe it’s rare toward Tokyo, but we have them around here.”

I asked him about the ritual of Ouma Nagashi, when the symbolic horses are put to sea. “We still keep up the ritual,” Suzuki said. “But we no longer take the old ceremonial boats out to sea. Instead, we take the straw horses on our fishing boats and set them adrift in the bay. A few years ago, a straw horse drifted back right into our harbor. That was really weird.”

We had a hearty meal of sashimi and broiled fish. Before my brother and I left, Suzuki promised to take us on his boat sometime. “We leave at 5 a.m. and return at 3:30 p.m.,” he said. “Any sooner or later, we get fined.”

Meeting Suzuki again, we agreed as we drove away, had lifted our spirits. It was certainly reassuring to hear that the fishermen of Honmoku continue their trade and their centuries-old traditions. Perhaps, sometime in the distant future, a fisherman will be elected mayor of Yokohama and initiate a project to restore the beaches.

Back in Washington, I impulsively opened a book of Matthew Arnold’s poems and turned to the familiar lines of “Dover Beach”:

. . . Come to the window, sweet is the night-air! Only, from the long line of spray Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land, Listen! you hear the grating roar Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, At their return, up the high strand, Begin, and cease, and then again begin, With tremulous cadence slow, and bring The eternal note of sadness in . . .

Over the years I have seen and visited many beaches around the world, including Dover and Normandy, but still the beach of my childhood, the one that disappeared, haunts my memory. And wherever I happen to be, I can close my eyes and still hear the sound of the waves and return to the past.