Something to Stem the Diminishing or My Journey to Takashima by Daniel Clausen

The universe is rolling back in on itself. Somehow, the universe, ambitious and apt to slip into speculative bubbles, had gone too far -- and then, realizing its mistake, had stopped, debated its condition and realized that it needed to go back. Now it was slowly creeping back into itself. Inch by inch, it was excruciating. There was nothing easy about this diminishing. The expansion part had been easy. But now the diminishing, the folding back in on itself part, would be a painful ordeal.

In the midst of all of this, I am certain of only one thing -- it is difficult to write a feeling. In fact, it’s the hardest thing to do. To turn a lump of sensations and happenings into a narrative whose coherence flips the world and exposes its underside is no easy thing to do at any age. In reality, things are never so clear as they appear at the end of a story, and the reality of that summer day in 2008, when I was 26, is that there is no story -- not yet --just that feeling. The feeling that the world was trying to become more manageable, and that horrible things were occurring in order to accomplish this.

A small island in Japan and I were/ are both part of the same story, but I doubt I have the narrative skill to tell you how.

By the time I made my way from my girlfriend’s house to the port building on Nagasaki Bay my back was already sticky with sweat. My T-shirt clung to my body from the fifteen minute bike ride. Even at 9 am in the morning the summer sun was hot enough to exhaust me. At 26, I was really a confused teenager, but I knew one thing: I was going to Takashima. In reality, even this much had yet to be decided, but since this has all happened before -- and in some ways is all happening still -- then perhaps it is enough to say that the mountain spirits of Nagasaki had already conspired to make it happen.

Who was I at that moment in time? It’s hard to say. The particulars come through clear enough, even if they don't automatically make sense. I was an ex-English teacher, still living in Japan, unemployed temporarily (that is another story). I was waiting for my life to catch up with me. That or my life had passed me by -- one of those two. I'm not sure if who I was had any bearing on why I was the one to find this place, Takashima. Perhaps it did.

I was doing two things with my days. I was working on a novel and preparing for my comprehensive exam for my online graduate degree. I was also doing a third thing. I was waiting for things to work out. My girlfriend was Japanese, my career prospects were in the US, and I was getting lost. On this day, protected from the hot summer sun, I was waiting in a port to go on an excursion to one of the islands just off the coast of Nagasaki.

This was a normal enough thing for me. The ship rides to the islands were fairly cheap, especially to Iojima. There are three islands close to Nagasaki by boat: Iojima, Takashima, and Gunkanjima. I had been to Iojima many times. The island is a resort island that caters to tourists and day-trippers like myself. Then there’s Gunkanjima, an abandoned mining town that one could only look at from distance by tour boat. Like the other islands, it had once been a site for coal-mining. But unlike the others, Gunkanjima is now uninhabited and inaccessible. I’d never been to Takashima. Whenever I talked to friends and students, none of them would ever really try to sell me on the merits of visiting the island. When all things were weighed evenly, it just never seemed worth the time and effort to go there. It was a bit more money for the boat ride and there was a lot less to do, or so I heard. (Some students did mention that there was good fishing off the island.) There was one incentive to go the island though, and that was that I had never been snorkeling there. That day I was feeling adventurous. I needed a change. I needed to be inspired.

I bought the boat ticket, grabbed some pamphlets about walking and cycling tours on the island, and then waited. The next boat wouldn’t be leaving the dock for at least another hour. The best case scenario was that I would go to the island and be inspired to move past some recent writer’s block I’d had with my novel. I was stuck on the third chapter of what I expected to be a six-chapter book. The middle of a story is always the toughest. The easiest thing for me is to get lost in the middle chapters and never find my way out. I would snorkel the reefs off Takashima, ride a rental bike around the island, and come back refreshed to work on my book. Everything would go beautifully. The day was filled with possibilities. Rational exuberance was taking over.

Subtle things let me know that day was different. At the port building, waiting for the boat that was to take me to Takashima, I found myself on the second floor instead of on the first. It was the first time I had ever been to the second floor of the port building. There I had a better view of Nagasaki harbor. I found a nice spot near the window. After I’d finished my bowl of ramen soup, I sat there and daydreamed about what it would be like to do this for the next few years: to bring a notebook, sit in the port building, look out into the bay, and just write. As I sat there by myself, the moment seemed unreal and hopelessly dreamlike. With each passing year, notions like this, that I could sit somewhere of my choosing and dream freely, were becoming both more realistic and hopeless at the same time. Realistic because I frequently found myself doing things (even on occasion dreaming freely), and hopeless because some vague “grown- up" future seemed to be bearing down on me.

Adulthood was troublesome. Truer words have never been written.

The fifty-minute boat ride to Takashima was only slightly longer than the thirty-minute journey to Iojima. Yet, the differences were very apparent the moment I stepped inside the Takashima port building. Subtle things were amiss. For one, there was a fish tank in the port building that was in miserable disarray. It was dirty--really dirty. (Things were never dirty in Japan). I could barely see the fish inside, which I assumed (hoped) were still alive. The cover for the bottom of the fish tank generator was off too, its wiring and machinery exposed as if someone meant to repair it but had just given up midway through. The lighting for the building was off somehow. All of the lights were working, but the port building seemed dimmer than it should have been. (When were such details never attended to in Japan?) Across from the entrance was a small bar/ shop that advertised beer and ramen, but there were no customers, and at around 10:30

in the morning there was no one there to watch the store.

My eyes told me the obvious: things were unruly! But my head couldn’t believe it.
As I started to walk the city, I recognized immediately that things were very different from Iojima, the resort island I often visited. The streets were empty. There was no elaborate hotel resort to greet me. Instead, I found a place with small houses that was nearly deserted.

Not everyplace was falling apart or in disarray. There seemed to be pockets of resistance. There was a brand new, almost gaudy, if small, athletic facility with a pool and spa not too far from the port building. My guess was that this was one last attempt by the city to keep the island from dying out. Just past it though was an apartment building that was falling apart. My first thought was that the building was condemned. From where I stood in the street I could see though that there were clothes hanging off two of the windows. Out of about thirty apartments only two seemed to be inhabited. The thought briefly crossed my mind that the two residents could be squatters. But for some reason the thought of squatters in Japan seemed too far fetched. I stared at the balconies for a long time. Finally someone came out onto one of them.

I had come to the island to refresh my senses, to give myself a new sense of purpose, and to overcome the onus of the middle--chapter three of my novel. I hated the middle. That was where things could all go wrong.

No one was on the beach when I arrived. I was by myself except for a small bulldozer that was abandoned for the moment. It was there to move the sand. My best guess was that the sand was brought from someplace else to the island in order to make the beach more tourist friendly. Soon the tourists would come, I guessed. Perhaps on a weekend the sons and daughters who lived on the mainland would come to visit their parents and other elders and bring boxed lunches. They would take turns going into the water and seeing how long they could hold their breath.

I left my backpack on the beach and hoped that nobody would steal it. I dove into the cool crisp water. The ocean was deeper, clearer than Iojima. It was also full of beautiful tropical fish of different colors. My favorite was the small fluorescent blue fish that hung out around the rocks. In the ocean by myself, with all the fish, I began to think how strange and lonely my journey had been that summer. Most of the friends I had worked with over the years in Nagasaki had recently left. Now some of my most magical moments were alone in the ocean. My dreams of snorkeling and working on my novel had made me the loneliest person in the world. It occurred to me that maybe there was something there -- that this should be part of my novel somehow. I thought about how this loneliness looked, smelled, tasted. There was purity to it. But that purity was not without its costs.

How many years could I spend like this, by myself, on weekdays, working on my novel, having adventures by myself? Could I squat in one of the abandoned apartments and live outside of time, outside of control? Could I live in an unruly Japan only I knew about? Could I live in chapter three for the rest of my life? I thought about these questions, and I looked at the fish. They sat there content, not doing anything, occasionally swimming in circles.

Yes, I would be on chapter three for the rest of my life, swimming in circles. Or I would not. There was no way to split the difference.

When I got out of the ocean there were two people eating lunch on the beach. Both of them looked like they were retired, but in the way that Japanese people often do, they also looked quite young. They looked like two friends catching up after a long time apart. One of them gave me a friendly smile and asked how the water was. I told him that it was cold but refreshing.

They both looked at me with a smile. It wasn't long before I began to ask nosy questions. I asked why the buildings looked abandoned. The chatty one with the smile explained to me that the younger people were moving away to the city. He said that it was a bit better at night because people were returning from work, but that even then the city looked empty.

The company of these two men is nice for a moment, but our conversation soon runs out. I thank them for chatting with me and then return to the ocean for some more snorkeling. I will see the two men when I leave the ocean, but we will have very little to talk about.

After I got out of the ocean and dried off a little, my next thought was that I needed to find a bike to rent. I found two men eating a bento (box lunch) by the side of the road. They were in their thirties and seemed like they were taking a break from something, but I had no idea what kind of work they did. They wore overalls and I thought they could have been construction workers of some kind. When I asked if there was a place where I could rent a bike, one of the two men stopped eating his bento and pointed me to a nearby bike shop. It was just a block back the way I came. I had missed it because it looked like it was out of business.

It was right across the street from one of the bright spots of the city, the big, newly constructed city building. It was this building and the athletic center that seemed to contrast starkly with what was going on. City politics, I thought. A city trying to save itself through public largesse. I didn’t really know anything about it. But I thought I knew. At least I knew the story in generic terms. I had seen it all over TV. The debate about small towns dying out, the struggle to keep them alive. And it always seemed to come down to the same thing: city politicians trying to persuade the government to spend money to save their town.

At first when I saw the bike shop I didn’t want to believe that this was it. The sign with its kanji was easy enough to read, but the store itself looked like it had been abandoned for some time. I wondered what to do next. Would I have to explore the island on foot?

An old ojisan (elderly Japanese person) saw me idling by the bike shop. “Oy, are you okay, young man? -- he said (in Japanese of course).

“I want to rent a bike," I said in reply.

The man looked at me and said to hold on. He took out his cell phone and called someone. A minute later, he turned to me and said, “Go ahead, leave the money with me and take the bike you want."

If it were any other place in Japan, I wouldn’t have doubted for a moment that the man really did know the bike shop attendant and that it was okay to take one of the bikes. But this wasn't anyplace else in Japan.

Still, the man seemed harmless enough, and a few of the bikes seemed like they were in good enough condition.

I gave him three hundred yen.

I took one of the rusted bikes on the rack, thanked the man, and was off.
The ride around the island was gorgeous. And I began to notice more of the same. Lonely roads, some houses that were well kept, some that were decaying. I found another apartment building with foliage creeping up the sides, weeds, but also elderly people living inside.

Where was I going? The sun was hot, just a little after midday, and I was going up a steep hill. I was looking for the hiking path that would take me up the mountain to the highest point of the island. I was sweating profusely again. I reached the path that was specified on the walking map, but not easily. It was weeded over and it took me a few minutes to figure out how I was going to get through, indeed whether it was possible to walk through. If I started, I knew I wouldn’t turn back. Even if the thing became an atrocious slog. But I was here. I had come this far, and I had already been drenched in my own sweat, seawater, and my own sweat again, so there it was.

As I climbed, for some reason I began to think about my dad. He’d passed away several months before. That, too, is another story. The stories just seemed to pile on, one after the other, and meanwhile chapter three, my life, my will to go on slowly festered, swam around in circles, and dared my crushed spirit to squat in a decrepit apartment for the next five years. Such sentiments in the middle of weeds! When I reached the top, I would write it all down. It seemed important.

When I did reach the top, I saw all of Takashima. The concrete lookout tower on top of the mountain put me in a position where I could see the entire island. I still have the pictures today.

Who was I? Could I be a novelist? Could I be a teacher? A squatter? For the moment, I was just a young man, twenty-six, standing on a mountain (more of a large hill really), on an island where order was slowly giving way to neglect. I thought of my dad and I wanted to cry.

I looked over the island. In the background was Gunkanjima (battleship island), a city that died a long time ago. There was Nagasaki City, Iojima, and me, an anonymous foreigner.

Nagasaki was made of magic, I thought. I still believe this. The novel I was working on was (is?) shaky to its foundation, insecure in its progression, but was at least wise enough to get that right. Even chapter three gets these essential things right. The sun was hot, but the breeze felt cool, inspiring. Can the breeze save the island?

There are stories here: the story of the provincial politician trying to save his town, the story of the old timer in the decrepit apartment, long estranged from his son. There is the story of the man who was supposed to be there to fix the fish tank but had to leave it with the cover open. The world is suddenly filled with stories.

The world is and has always been made of stories. They bump up against each other and create me out of words, some weird foreign kid without a job, perpetually carrying a duffle bag full of snorkel gear, suntan lotion, and bottle rockets. The summer of 2008 is still happening.

But there I am in the summer of 2008. I’m on the mountain top, thinking of my dad, who diminished like the city. I’m there, and here I am trying to write a feeling. There doesn’t seem to be a story here: a lost boy goes to an island off of Nagasaki. I am trying to write a feeling. Maybe the story goes something like this: we all get stuck in chapter three sometimes. We get stuck in the middle with no understanding of the end. It’s all feeling and details with no clear path.

The path is too weeded over and now that I’m at the summit, I have no way of knowing whether I can ever go down again.

And yet, it’s not quite right.

I do walk down the mountain, get back on the boat to the mainland and go to my apartment. I don’t spend the next year on the second floor of the Nagasaki port building eating ramen and writing my novel. Instead, I go back to Florida. I finish the novel while taking more graduate classes and learn a thing or two (but nothing about this dreaded adulthood I fear so much). My dad didn’t cease to exist. When he finished diminishing, he grew bigger, more real, and dominated everything else (that is another story).

What does that mean for Takashima? I’m sure it’s still there. I’m sure it still exists and will for a while to come. And making sure it exists is a serious task; because if it ever ceased to exist, its spirit would dominate everything.

From my room in Edgewater, Florida in the year of 2013, I do a web search on Takashima using key words typed in Japanese characters. On the Wikipedia page for Takashima it says that the population is 722 and that the island is 1.39 square kilometers. I find other things on Takashima that I seemed to have missed that day -- supposedly there was a museum on coal mining not too far from the port.

It’s the summer of 2008. I’m still 26 and confused. But though the path is weeded over, I find my way back down. I go to the little fitness center and use their pool. It’s impressive. When I’m done, the sun begins to set and I sit in the lounge area of the port building waiting for the ship to take me back to the mainland. I take out a book (the name of the book escapes me) and pass away my time. I forget about chapter three and my dead father for a while. In a half hour, I’ll be going back to the mainland.

I look at the fish tank in the middle of the lounge. It’s still dirty. The cover is still off the generator and wiring and machinery is still exposed. The bar/ shop is now manned by an older woman. Asahi beer is for sale. If I were sentimental, I would buy a beer and toast the day with her. But I’m not particularly sentimental, and as I recall, I didn’t drink much beer at that point in my life. Instead, I pull out a notebook and start writing these words down. It all amounts to the same thing. I’m not a politician, but there is something I can do to stem the diminishing. I was 26, confused, and alone on an island somewhere off the coast of Nagasaki. That was my story. It was enough. For now, it’s enough.

The universe can’t roll back on itself forever. At some point, the diminishing breaks to something that feels more natural and free. Somehow, I managed to get through that summer. Somehow, I managed to move away from Nagasaki and find something else to do. I still think about my father, but other things now seem more urgent. Somehow, I go on.

On the way back from the island, I forget about Takashima for a moment. Having been there, having experienced it and let it fade into memory, I know that it will go on existing. I look at Gunkanjima, the dead island off the coast. I don’t get it yet, but it dominates my existence in ways that I only begin to realize, even more so because people had stopped stepping onto its shores. It could not fight the diminishing the way I did, the way Takashima did. From far away, the story seems clear, but its obscure details dominate everything.


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