Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Typhoon

 

 

Anticipation for what follows: that is what makes typhoons compelling. We sympathize with the farmers for their losses when the rain and wind sweep across the rice paddies and gouge out the sides of mountains—but still, throughout the endless days of summer, when the heat bears down on your shoulders and sweat is forever trickling down the small of your back, the hope of relief is always there, suppressed but latent. Even the children splashing about in the public pools, or the tanned young men kicking around a soccer ball on the beach under an unforgiving sun, invariably turn lethargic by the end of the day. They too look toward the sky with anticipation.

You feel it in the air first: the humidity rising markedly. Clouds race in from the south like an invading army, their speed unnerving. Black and roiling, they hold the mugginess like a vise against the earth. The pensive rain holds back momentarily before it begins to fall tentatively in fine sheets that veil the scene outside, much the way you see pines obscured in a Hasegawa screen painting. It is a deceptive mist that swirls under the umbrellas of people hurrying along the streets. Then, without warning, it turns into heavy beaded rain, drenching every building, tree and shrub, until the water rolls off them like sweat off the bodies of athletes wearied with exertion. The wind, petulant for being made to wait so long, strengthens again with renewed violence, until it drives the rain horizontally over the rooftops, creating transient drifts that scatter with each new gust.

The climatologists tell us that these masses of wind, rain and cloud are the offspring of air currents that collect in the northwest Pacific, building in force as they approach the Japanese archipelago. Earlier peoples had a simpler explanation: it was Susano-O working in league with the god of the sea that instigated it all. He swells in size, licking up moisture, careening and spinning as he advances. He casts his thunder, targeting in turn uninhabited islands of the Ogasawara archipelago or the whole of Honshu with equal ferocity. The god of the sea whips up the waves into frothy mountains of water; and, as they approach the coast, breakers five, six, even ten meters high explode vertically into the air as they slam into sea walls or spill over jetties. This was the kind of sea Ki no Tsurayuki in the Tosa Diary tells us he encountered as he made the hazardous journey from his home province to the Heian capital in the tenth century. He and his companions keep their costumes modest and offer the appropriate prayers so as to show their humility, but still the god is irate at their conviviality en route, treating them maliciously the way Poseidon did Odysseus.

I know better than to tempt the gods. Protected from the elements by the solid mass of concrete that is the apartment building, I watch the typhoon run its course from behind double-glazed windows. The wind strengthens. Virulent blasts of moisture-laden air, intermittent at first, but then with unrelenting force, sweep all before them: Styrofoam containers, whole branches of camphor trees, plastic bags, a disoriented pigeon or two, newspapers and fliers, a blanket that some housewife or student had failed to take in from their balcony. The zelkova and plane trees near the school sway in frantic homage to Susano-O, their upper branches bending over almost double. I get up to make some coffee in order to break the trance the storm has cast on me.

Sitting down again with my demitasse cup, I notice a spider caught in one of the miniature twisters that swirl in the corners of the balcony. It does somersaults across the concrete unit it finds its footing on an empty earthenware flowerpot, cowering down under the rim to wait out the storm. Mocking the spider’s struggles, the reckless swallows, not yet taking cover, careen on the air currents, letting the wind take them where it will. On the streets below, children make light of the dangers as their mothers escort them home from school. They can scarcely make headway against the wind, their umbrellas blown inside out or shredded to tatters by powerful gusts. Their mothers shout warnings audible even above the roar of the elements. After they pass, only the sound of the rain slashing at the walls and the incessant pounding of the wind remain.

I have The Tale of Genji open before me, and imagine his loneliness in exile on the deserted Suma coast in the middle of a similar storm. “The lightning and thunder,” writes Murasaki Shikibu, “seemed to announce the end of the world, and the rain beat its way into the ground; and Genji sat calmly reading a sutra.” So, trying to imitate him, I pass the time reading several chapters of Genji, looking up now and then to gauge the advance of the storm. After several hours, I at last build up the resolve to step out onto the balcony, sensing that the wind is abating. Leaning over the railing and feeling the elements against my face, I see great waves of clouds tracking northeast, breaking their crests on the horizon. They pass over the distant hills, continuing to dump opaque sheets of rain. Not a car passes on the streets below. But the periods of calm between the gusts of wind have lengthened, as though they needed more time to catch their breath.

In the sky above the city in the distance I can pick out three distinct layers of clouds. Low, ghostly billows brush the tops of the highest apartment buildings, reminding you of the smoke of war in a Kurosawa battle scene. Above them the glowering black piles of cumulus rise to storied heights. Where the sky has split open, distant wisps of cirrus already reflect the warm coral glow of a setting sun. There is no threat expressed there, only serenity. You know this serenity will dispel what is left of the storm, whose hulking form has already passed, perhaps, into Nagano, and is destined to exhaust its remaining virulence over a malleable sea to the north. As evening comes on, the upper branches of the zelkovas sway more gently, like pretty young dancers during the Bon festival. The sky reveals patches of exquisite turquoise rimmed in a glimmering white light whose source seems somehow more pure than that of the sun. Over to the southwest, the moon finally shows her face after three days of enforced seclusion. Bell crickets begin to raise a sweet, sad chorus for summer nearing its end, and over the last of the cicadas whose carcasses litter the streets.

A night of sleep that follows an abating storm is usually unbroken. The relief and release are welcome. When the first light penetrates my eyelids the next morning, I throw off the covers and rush to the window with anticipation. I have been waiting for this all along: it is not the storm but what trails in its wake that is exhilarating. The clock shows six as I raise the curtains. Every trace of cloud has dissipated. In the distance Fuji stands like a god, with a barely-discernible powdering of snow on its shoulders. The steel blue gradations of the Tama Hills can be seen with absolute precision; the very light poles that follow the curve of the highway seem, if possible, to have been more finely etched by the rain. The winds have ushered in cool, dry air, and all is bathed in that soft honey light that comes with the end of summer. Standing on the balcony facing that tremendous sky, I feel cleansed along with the earth.

 

 

 

Originally from Atlantic Canada, but a long-term resident of Japan, T. Wood holds an MA in Advanced Japanese Studies from the University of Sheffield. His writing draws on the traditional Japanese themes of the seasons, impermanence, and silence. Mr. Wood is currently working on a collection of essays, short stories, as well as a novel set in the Taisho period.